Ruinous Ruins

Quite possibly what it’s all about

Ruins occupy iconic status in RPGs: exploring dungeons, looting tombs, delving into lost caverns. There’s a style of play called “Dungeon Crawling.” You may have even heard of a game called “Dungeons & Dragons.” Clearly, settings must needs ruins. So here’s a tool.


Now, granted I’m reinventing the wheel somewhat—there are several ruin-generating tools out there. The first such I encountered was Moldvay’s dungeon generation instructions in D&D Basic (1981). Though it didn’t include tables in the random tradition, the system was a step-by-step process to create a dungeon (read: ruin). It was designed to the get the GM thinking about why characters would explore the place, what the ruins were (or used to be), and who dwelt there.

Dungeon Ruins

Your basic ruin

In recent years, I discovered the Ready Ref Sheets from Judges Guild. The “Ravaged Ruins” section relies heavily on randomisation, focusing perhaps more on window dressing and environmental details than Moldvay, but nevertheless providing plenty of seeds to inspire the GM. And that’s really what you want from a random table: a helpful nudge in a good, creative direction.

Depending on one’s perspective, these are opposite ends of the same spectrum, but instead of settling on the middle ground, let’s take a few steps back and ponder: Whatever are “ruins”?

In short, a ruin is the future state of something that was once useful. By definition, ruins used to be functional, generally like something from an earlier instalment of this series: a settlement, a fortress, or a religious order. Through some ruination, that “something functional” was degraded, destroyed, or lost. In short, a ruin.

Roll once each for: Type (what the ruin used to be), Ruination (what caused the ruin), Interest (why characters might explore the place), and Majordomo (being the chief special big-bad who lives in the ruins). Roll two Minions for each Majordomo; these are monsters either in the employ of the big-bad or just hanging out to make the place more dangerous:

 1     Village    Sacked            Plunder           Fighter      Bandits
 2     Town       Plague            Artefact/Relic    Cleric       Humanoids
 3     City       Earthquake        Bounty Hunt       Thief        Imps
 4     Tower      Curse             Recovery**        Mage         Sub-men
 5     Keep       Flood             Rescue†           Demon        Constructs
 6     Castle     Angry God(s)      Recon/Intel       Humanoid     Lowlifes‡
 7     Tomb       Infestation       Portal/Gate       Dragon       Animals
 8     Temple     Evil Magic        Restoration       Alien        Hybrids
 9     Abbey      Tech gone Wrong   Rare Item         Roll x2      Undead
10     Chantry    Self-destruction  Search & Destroy  Roll x3      Weird things
*  Roll imploding d6 for number of “levels” or sections (above or below ground)
   Roll imploding d12 for number of “rooms” on each level
** Recover (d6: 1 heirloom; 2 noble person; 3 lost secrets; 4 remains;
   5 birth right; 6 ruin itself)
†  Rescue the PCs’ (d6: 1 mentor; 2 patron; 3 ally; 4 prisoner; 5 ward;
   6 nemesis)
‡  Creepy things (d6: 1 fungal; 2-4 insects/spiders; 5 worms; 6 plant)

Note the imploding die for the ruin’s size. Also, depending on the number of levels, you may want to roll for multiple Majordomos (just remember to roll twice for each Majordomo’s Minions).

Minocra Ruins

Using the table above, here’s what I came up with for Minocra’s four major ruins (my results are shown to show you what I was working with).

ruined city

Ruins of Sercus

Hex #0409: Ruined City of Sercus
(What I rolled: city ruined by infestation (11 levels); recover noble person; demon with hybrids and humanoids & alien with constructs and weird things)
Sercus was a sprawling port built by the first explorers to Minocra. Baseless tales report that a crimson vessel, not of the local seas, put in for repairs. Not long after, the city was crawling with a “Hoste of red-eyed Spidres, fashioned of polished silvre and brasse,” which apparently ravaged the population and left the city barren. The ruin is prudently avoided for fear that the seeds of its destruction lie fallow within, but one of the Padishah’s reckless sons supposedly entered Sercus in search of plunder—naturally, he’s not been heard of since and the Padishah would likely pay for his safe return.

Hex #0513: Ruined Tower of Auscus
(What I rolled: tower ruined by infestation (1 level); rescue PCs’ ally; dragon with constructs (x2))
This massive tower of tarnished metal stands squat on a rise overlooking the coast. There is no visible means of entry, though there are at least two hidden entrances in the cliff wall underneath (1/8 chance to find each day of active searching). Its builder is unknown, though it appeared—gleaming—shortly after the fall of Sercus (Hex #0409). Sages posit that clues to Sercus’ demise are hidden within, along with requisite tales of treasures and technology (for what else would a metal tower contain but the wondrous devices of an advanced intelligence?), and it is known that the inside is bigger than its outward appearance suggests.

Hex #0621: The Fallen Knights of Trengus
(What I rolled: chantry ruined by angry god (2 levels); restoration; demon with imps and animals)
Trengus was dedicated to Trengus, one of the eastern Spire Gods, who intended it as an outpost from which to launch forays in search of the Tholdir heretics (Hex #1117) . The chantry’s garrison never found their quarry, instead falling prey to a demon and his wicked minions. Whether the demon was sent by Tholdir’s Order, or perhaps summoned by Trengus’ servants who could not control it is unknown. What is known is that artefacts recovered by treasure-seeking scavengers hint at powerful restorative magicks somewhere within the complex, yet persistent efforts to scour the ruin have yielded naught.

Hex #1822: Ruined Tower of Grallus
(What I rolled: tower ruined by self-destruction (5 levels); recon/intel; cleric with hybrids and imps & fighter with plant lowlifes and animals)
Grallus was a flamboyant mage, judged by most to be careless of the rivals his arrogance fostered. One such rival was the sorcerer Kubu (Hex #1518), who somehow tricked Grallus into self-destruction. A survivor of Trengus, the priest Molibar, took up residence in the ruin, planning to deliver the punishment of his god upon the Tholdir heretics. Molibar still searches for Tholdir’s Order, summoning a loyal cadre of demonic servants and a nameless Saba bodyguard known only as “Flower.” The tower and grounds are warded by strange animal/imp hybrids and carnivorous plants.

Final Words

I have tread lightly on this entry, only because ruins are so iconic to fantasy RPGs—it’s easy to screw up by painting too much detail on a canvas that each GM must decorate to his tastes. Still, I think these results are workable—enough, I think to provide good direction for creating sandbox ruins.

As always, I ask: what’s missing and is it useful to you?

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  1. Greg MacKenzie
    August 2nd, 2012 at 15:22 | #1

    This has the feel of the JG tables to it. What is interesting, besides the table, is how randomization can be used as an inspirational source or as a creative process. I have an old JG table of pits somewhere lying about which has long been an old favorite. It would be interesting to see what you’d come up with if you’d create a Gameplay Decision Maker. Cause – Effect, Fate, in the form of a die roll, potentially offers some detachment.

    With regard to the above table you could add:
    Approximate values and types of treasures,
    Areas of influence, magical or other, whether the influence of the place expands to neighboring hexes with time, is it conquest, or does the influence attract creatures of certain alignment, yield more magic, less magic,
    If it attracts new villains swelling the ranks of the denizens, assign a die roll, number and type
    If new areas are changed or added to the ruin as time goes by etc, referring to new excavations, magical changes, different floor plans for certain areas below said ruin
    When evils are defeated how long does it take for new evils to rise there, do more powerful ones arrive to defy the players.

  2. August 5th, 2012 at 15:07 | #2

    @Greg MacKenzie : These are great adds to the mix. As I was working on this, the JG “Frontier Frots of Kelnore” was in the back of my mind.

    I think the points you raise form their own table…let me churn on that a bit. ;)

  3. Greg MacKenzie
    August 6th, 2012 at 15:29 | #3

    One table leads to another! Infinitely useful. Kelnore did influence my thinking a lot. :)

  4. Greg MacKenzie
    August 7th, 2012 at 10:58 | #4

    The more I think about how you’ve captured your creative process in tables the more impressed I become. Good stuff!

  5. PB
    August 7th, 2012 at 15:48 | #5

    You win 100 Awesome Points for even mentioning JG’s Ready Ref Sheets. I’m a latecomer to the hobby (started with 3e D&D in 2001), so I don’t understand all of its OD&D-inspired rules, but there is so much superb edition-neutral content in that book that I still consider it the best GM resource I’ve ever read.

    As for reinventing the wheel, absolutely not! There are never enough ruins generators, ever! This one is among the best I’ve seen–at once specific and vague, forcing you to come up with wild backstories for how the place came to be. I love it!

  6. August 9th, 2012 at 22:34 | #6

    @Greg MacKenzie : That’s definitely the idea. Admittedly, this is all sandbox type stuff, which I put somewhere in the middle of the campaign spectrum, with Railroad on one end and total player-driven on the other.

    In a proper sandbox, the GM provides opportunities for the PCs, but the PCs control which opportunities they investigate. The random element prevents the GM from railroading, and prevents the PCs from dictating the outcome. This approach lands you at some level of collaborative storytelling, which is where I like to run my games. YMMV.

  7. August 9th, 2012 at 22:37 | #7

    @PB : Glad to hear that this is useful to you. The Ready Ref Sheets are amazingly helpful, but can stand customisation on a setting-by-setting basis. This is my attempt.

    The random element is something I’ve come to trust. I tried modules, but players always went in other directions. I’ve tried free-form, but players still need direction. Random determination (for me) is the best of both worlds – I can limit parameters via the random inputs, but still let the players interact with the random results.

  8. September 10th, 2012 at 10:05 | #8

    Found this while poking around for your hex templates, and decided to give it a spin. You’ve just given me the focal point for a fledgling campaign!

    Type: Castle (14)
    Ruin: Angry God
    Intr: Plunder
    Domo: Fighter1, Demon, Fighter2
    Mook: Humanoids (F1), Animals (F1), Bandits (F2), Animals (F2), Worms (Dn), Weird* (Dn)

    Couldn’t be better if I’d hand picked the elements myself!

  1. August 13th, 2012 at 05:30 | #1