The characters in my D&D campaigns encounter old things all the time. My current games are set in a homebrew world in which an interplanar war 1000 years previous led to an arcane cataclysm almost five hundred years before present day. So as they explore the world they are commonly encountering ruins that are at least four to five hundred years old, sometimes twice that or more. But I don’t count any of that as ancient.
No, to me ancient describes items, locations, and sometimes even creatures that are so old, that existed so long ago, they are as incomprehensible to the characters as if they had come from that same time frame in the future. I don’t tend to put a hard number on that, but in our real world terms I’m thinking early bronze age or older. Numenera is a game which explores this particularly well, with characters handling technologies and magics which are potentially thousands, millions, even billions of years old.
The details around ancient things in your world will be specific to your campaign. But here are some things to think about when you want to present the truly ancient to your party:
Wear and Tear
Sure, people generally build things to last. But even those paragons of building long term, the dwarves, might struggle to build structures that will function perfectly after 10,000 years have passed. Especially if no one has been around for upkeep and repairs. So think about what time would do to a structure. Has water had time to erode the stonework, or rust the metal parts? Have there been storms or other violent weather? Earthquakes? Floods? Does water have the chance to seep in and then freeze and thaw; ice will crumble even the toughest stonework over time.
And consider that not everything has to have suffered the same level of wear. The stone facade of a structure might look fine, maybe a bit weathered. But all the metal bits inside, gate mechanisms, drawbridge chains, door hinges and latches, could all be corroded and falling apart. That would make exploring an ancient building dangerous enough, but consider what age would do to trap mechanisms. The rogue may do everything right in disarming a properly functioning trap, but what if the trap mechanism is rusted or pitted by age? Or the supports that would normally keep the pit from opening just aren’t up to the task any longer? All things to consider.
Devolve or Evolve?
If the ancient area being explored has been cut off from the rest of the world for all that time, what has happened to the creatures that lived there? Look at our own history. Human civilization, regardless of what part of the world you focus on, has changed dramatically in 10,000 years. But even our world has examples of cultures which have chosen not to develop alongside the rest of the world, but maintain their culture in isolation. So if there is an ancient sentient race living in your ancient structures, what are they like? Are they more or less advanced than the party? Are they a familiar species, but changed in some way to adapt to their isolated environment? Is their culture locked in tradition, or have they changed over time? What do they worship, or do they worship? This is an opportunity to present a unique culture and people to your players, and play with their expectations.
Similar questions could be asked about the animals and other creatures. Ten thousand years isn’t a huge amount of time for evolution to take a hand, but it certainly wouldn’t be idle; it didn’t take ten thousand years, after all, for us to get so many different breeds of dog. And that doesn’t even consider the effect magic would play in the evolution of a creature. Again, this is a chance to pull out all the stops and present your players with some truly unique monster encounters.
Time and Magic
Sure, when the wizard enchanted that sword or magic ring, they thought it would last forever. Well, forever is a long time and ten thousand years is a pretty big chunk of it. What sort of effect does time have on the magic in your campaign. Again, like with buildings and structures, the magic might be fine if someone is around to replenish it periodically. But with no one there, how long before it fades? And does it fade quietly and easily (boring!) or does that draining of arcane energy have an effect on the world around it? If you find magic items that are almost but not quite drained, can they be restored somehow? Or are the perfectly functional “mundane” magic items being found, actually partially drained artifacts that just need a little boost?
And since their state is sort of magical, let’s talk about the undead for a second. Obviously things like skeletons and zombies might not last the eons (or maybe they do, and the party is constantly under attack by undead dust swarms**)(**Yes, I’ll have the stats for that soon). But what about intelligent undead, trapped for eons? How are ghosts, wraiths, liches, even vampires going to react to the news that that much time has passed? Do they just not notice, or have they been driven mad (or madder) by this passage? A person can spend a day or two alone and get a little squirrelly, imagine what ten thousand years trapped alone in a tomb would be like.
Those are some questions to consider when trying to construct truly ancient encounters and locations in your game. As I said, there may be more things for you to think about based on the specifics of your campaign world. But these should get you started.
There is an excellent series, called Life After People, which examines our world and what would happen to it in the first thousand years if all humans on earth disappeared at the same time. Each episode looks at a different facet of human civilization and explores how that would break down in our absence. If you are interested in creating some realistic environments for your players, I highly recommend the series.
Have you created ancient locations in your game? Or encountered an ancient location your GM has prepared? Tell me about it in the comments or on Twitter.