Ruins of many kinds are a staple of stories whether for games or tales of high adventure. My question is about the design process behind such structures: should one start with a city or building and break it down or start with the ruin and justify the finished form afterwards?

In short, to maintain realism and continuity, should design drive story or vice versa when creating formerly inhabited landscapes?

Assume that the final audience will have no knowledge of the history of the location. They only see what has become of the site.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the clean up @Secespitus, I admit to looking at it and chucking it out as written knowing that someone would clean it up for me if they felt it necessary. $\endgroup$ – Ash Oct 30 '17 at 12:58
  • $\begingroup$ How old is the site? What are the building materials? Modern buildings can deteriorate in a remarkably short amount of time. Constructions of stone can last a remarkably long amount of time. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Oct 30 '17 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelRichardson Sorry but how exactly does the age of a specific site, whether the date of its construction or abandonment, factor into the general process around designing areas of past habitation? $\endgroup$ – Ash Oct 30 '17 at 14:46

Start with the people then the city then the ruins

Cities always arise from the culture and situation of the people who built it. Their priorities will be expressed in what buildings are where and what they look like. Modern skyscraper-filled cities emphasize maximal value per square foot. Hobbits for some reason really liked round doors to their homes. Bedouin prioritize mobility so they lived (still live?) in tents. Examples abound.

Starting with the city allows the author to build up a richer world (if they choose to). They can explore the culture of the people(s) who build the city and their history. From this city, one can design a reason to turn it into a ruin: famine, plague, flood, fire...whatever you like. However you choose to destroy the city will effect what your heroes will find there.

Story and Design evolve together

One could take a purist approach and do all the design first then write a story to match. This is valid. The other purist approach is to write the story (as much as one can without a scene) then build the ruins to match. This is also valid. In reality, it'll be a mix of both. Start with an idea for a story or an idea for ruins then start building. Maybe you'll find something in the ruins that drastically changes the story. Maybe the story will demand that the ruins are burned down in a massive fire because that fits the theme of the story better.

Either way, the story and the ruins are malleable to the needs of the other.

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    $\begingroup$ Ooh.. I quite like the idea of a ‘design first, story second’ challenge. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Oct 30 '17 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs I look forward to seeing whatever you may produce in response to that challenge. $\endgroup$ – Green Oct 30 '17 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs has anything come from your efforts at "design first, story second"? $\endgroup$ – Green Sep 25 '18 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ Not yet, but I have this week off. Time to get some random tables together and try design some ruins before writing up the stories of how they got that way! $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Sep 25 '18 at 14:37

It depends on how important the buildings are to what your audience is supposed to do with them

There is no need to create the whole city in every detail beforehand, you normally just need a rough idea where your family-friendly neighbourhoods should be or your shopping centers. Just make sure that if your audience should get the feeling of being in a normal city of our current time, just broken down, you wouldn't suddenly find a big farm in the middle of a city.

You should design important places. That mansion with the ghosts of the deceased - how much room is around that one? Is it lodged firmly between 21st century apartment blocks or is there a patch of land around it for the former residents?

That tower you erected in the middle of the pond in your park - why is it there? It sticks out because the design is unusual, so you should prepare a bit of background knowledge.

Other than these special characteristics and a general layout of where you place different regions you shouldn't spend too much time with the original city. It's destroyed after all and trying to unearth the secret of every families normal home is probably not what your audience is trying to achieve.

Step by step

  • draw a rough sketch of your cities outline or take a map of an existing city
  • make a few dots where you want special locations
  • flesh out the immediate vicinity of your special locations so that you know how to describe them and have information about why they look the way they look
  • the rest between those little circles should be filled with very rough regions like "shopping district" and "friendly neighbourhood" and "industry"
  • if your story, in whichever form, takes place on the streets and those parts are important you should draw lines between the dots and flesh out each line a bit

Adjust this depending on how much information you want your audience to be able to unearth

If you are making a game for example it can be very interesting to find things like diaries that explain the daily lifes of whoever wrote the diary. Depending on how many options you want to give your players (or any other audience) to uncover secrets of the past the more you should focus on building a city first and making it a ruin second.

But again you should focus on what you are trying to achieve. Describing general everyday life activity is enough for the rough regions and describing every detail is important and very useful for special locations.

But don't waste too much time on every single house. They probably look very similar, with a few differences regarding the color, most of which won't be visible if the city is in ruins. The size is probably roughly the same with small variations. You normally don't have extremely rich people with big mansions living next to poor fellows in the slums if that is not the focus of your story or a point that you want to emphasize.


Without going so far as building the entire city, I think you should at least sketch the functional layout of the city/landscape itself, and following that placing the ruins of the building in a logical way.

I mean, in a "normal" western city of the present time, would you find a nuclear power plant next to a XII century monastery and the stock exchange? Probably not. You would find industries concentrated in a neighborhood, residential areas in other locations and so on. Or, if your city was spread with small volume craftsmanship shops, in that case the layout will be consequent.


Are you building the world for a novel, a computer game, or perhaps a pen-and-paper RPG?

  • With a novel, you have the most control over the setting. If the character didn't think I will go to the bathroom to shake the pursuer and see if it has windows, then it does not matter if your fictional office building had an improbably high or improbably low number of bathrooms.
  • If you are writing a computer game, the players have some freedom to move about, but as the programmer you have control. The door does not open.
  • In a pen-and-paper RPG scenario, you have players questioning the GM in unexpected ways. You have to do the most work to keep things logical.

Even so, you have some freedom to fudge things. So my suggestion would be to go with a mixture of designing the ruins "as a stage" and designing the pre-ruin city and ruining it. If you need a tunnel through the ruins from A to B, put it there. If it wasn't a disused subway line, then it held utilities before a change in zoning laws, or telecommunications, or whatever.

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    $\begingroup$ My actual project is a physical build but I couldn't decide where to start the design phase and figured if I'm having that problem with the better part of twenty years worldbuilding under my belt other people probably have the same issue when they're building history too. $\endgroup$ – Ash Oct 30 '17 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash - if you can provide more details on your specific project, it'll greatly improve this question and its answers - right now posters have to cover all bases between novelizations, computer games, pen & paper RPGs etc. (and why no one yet touch miniature wargaming, videos and graphic novels escapes me ;) ). Different mediums work better with different techniques, and makes it difficult to provide a useful answer which isn't too long... $\endgroup$ – G0BLiN Oct 31 '17 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ @G0BLiN One what is this "too long" you speak of? Two I deliberately didn't ask about my specific project because different types of project may require different types of answer and I don't like to pen people in too much, this site is designed to cater to many different genres and mediums. $\endgroup$ – Ash Oct 31 '17 at 13:14

To make the world feel complex, I would--always--start with the previous culture and people that the city sprang up around, though you don't need to go in any true depth. A rough outline should be enough. Even if the audience is never told a single thing about the lost culture, how they lived and what they did will vastly influence everything from architecture to room design.

For instance, a people with wings may not bother with ground floor doors, but concentrate on balconies to land on, or entrances on roofs. Depending on wingspan, rooms may be large and sparsely decorated. Then again, a race that climbs like a monkey may favor ladders, grabbing protrusions or walls built specifically to climb to another room instead of stairs. Dwarves, hobbits, and other smaller beings may favor spaces that feel spacious to them but cramped to humans.

Also, what and how they eat--think Skyrim and it's open fire pits without even a chimney versus a Victorian kitchen. If they focus on meat then more slicing tools may be left behind, but if they focus on corns or grains there would probably be tools that grind and crush. While the audience may never know the people who lived there favored pasta, old pasta making tools scattered about (especially in a visual medium like comics or games) would be an interesting touch. Since all these things could easily be used by your characters as they roam the ruins, knowing what might be still hanging around would be important.

Decoration, too, is unique. The difference between Egyptian and Aztec hieroglyphics and chosen patterns and colors, for example. What deity is worshiped may also have a lot to do with decoration, and, of course, there are those all important worship spaces like the Japanese altar or the chapel found in castles and fortresses. Temples alone may not house religion, and religion often influences design schemes of both architecture and decoration.

I assume you already thought about class--the rich and poor having different design schemes--but families and clans may have them too. If your lost people would have had insignias, banners, or other markings of their importance, it might still be around in rotting tapestries or carved into stone. It might even be found in strange places, like wrought in metal over an inn door that they owned but employed others to run. Families and clans can consist of the poor as well as the rich, so different insignias might be found in surprising places.

Then there's just the architecture itself, which will be based on the people and their culture as much as the environment itself. For instance, do the keep grandma in the attic or in a wing or room of her own, or is the whole family liable to sleep in one room? Do parents and children share a bed? Do they marry multiple spouses and all the spouses bundle up in one huge bed? Do spouses sleep rigidly separate, with a special bed or altar for conjugal visits? Do they live completely separately, only meeting in a special garden? Are children banished to one part of the house or given free reign? Are they put to work as soon as they're old enough to perform simple tasks or schooled, or is the answer to that class-based? Do they bury their dead in graveyards or beneath the floorboards, or do they just burn them or give them to a river? Do they have statues everywhere, or do they have no realistic images because they're superstitious about evil spirits taking them over?

Environment is also key to design--think stilted houses in flood planes, rounded huts or buildings in areas of high winds, sloped roofs in places of heavy snow, and so on. You can also add interest by showing local elements in design--a certain type of black stone, or perhaps a lot of hard-fired red clay, etc. A sun worshiping race may have a city that radiates out in spokes from the center like rays of the sun, while one that grew bigger than the space it's crammed into (think Sedona or San Francisco for cities with space issues due to environment) may be cramped with narrow streets and buildings that go several stories tall.

The nifty thing about humans is we have some serious pattern recognition abilities. When you have consistency in your design of the city because you know what and how things were used in the past, it doesn't matter if whoever you are maneuvering through the ruins knows anything about them, if the walls have fallen down, or if only parts of structures and scattered items are left. They're going to recognize the same wrought iron wolf's head and wonder what it once meant, or the constant use of blues and greens in tapestries, or come to expect to find holes for storage in the kitchen of every poor man's house.

And because they can pick out those patterns, it'll feel so much more real and alive to them, and they'll be as curious and intrigued as your characters.

We don't need to know gross national profit or marriage customs or biggest exports or even the system of government (beyond really obvious leftovers like execution areas or jails). But a sketch of the culture-that-once-was will really enliven and add realism to your creation.

  • $\begingroup$ Okay this is useful in terms of designing an active habitation but seems to have missed the point somewhere along the line, by the end of the answer all I have is a lot of disconnected data points and a mild confusion. This may just be me and I'll read it again tomorrow but at this stage... um huh? $\endgroup$ – Ash Oct 31 '17 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I wasn't sure what you were doing with your ruins. I went with the assumption that the ruins were at least partially intact and your adventurers would spend some time there. To explain...think of building the history of the ruins as building bones in a skeleton. Everything has a function, and it's the structure the entire body is built on. What your characters and your audience sees will be completely dependent on the needs of the previous culture. Fleshing out the past will make your ruins feel more real, even if you never share the history behind them. $\endgroup$ – Firelocke Nov 1 '17 at 22:46

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