The Architect DM: Abandonment & Re-population

As a DM that runs a tabletop RPG, it is your right and privilege to strike towns, lands, and whole continents with whatever form of catastrophe or disaster that strikes your fancy. Whether it is a terrible plague, massive tidal wave, or vicious invading army that sweeps through the area and all but wipes out the native inhabitants it is up to you to determine what happens with that location once the initial catastrophe has passed. These events could have happened hundreds of years before the characters were born or they could be the climatic event that finishes off a chapter of your game and opens up a new one. No matter when it happens, it is up to you as the DM to figure out how these events will effect your game world and how the players will experience the event and the aftermath.

Ask and You Shall Receive

This post comes as a response to a comment by Michelle on my last post, World Building by Process, in which she asked what an area that has been depopulated and then resettled might look like. At first you might think this topic doesn’t have all that much to do with your specific game world, but the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realized it really does apply to a large percentage of fantasy settings because of one simple trope. The fantasy trope in question is Ruins, or to be even more specific Ruins and Dungeons that are just as likely to be abandoned and populated by monsters than by their original inhabitants. Almost every fantasy setting that I can think of includes some kind of far reaching kingdom that has since fallen into ruin and its lands have been repopulated in various ways.

Start With The Basics

Before you can start seriously putting your abandoned and repopulated world together, you first have to determine the basic characteristics of the world for what I’ll call the “Before” and the “After.” Before refers to the world/location/kingdom that was abandoned. Did the kingdom succumb to a horrible plague that wiped out all living creatures across the lands except for those that could escape uninfected? Was the entire continent wracked by wars and all of the nations crumbled in the conflicts? How much of the population survived, and did certain animals or people survive unharmed somehow? What state are the buildings and landscape in? If a plague is the cause then perhaps the buildings are only suffering from neglect and are still mostly standing, whereas a war might result in buildings being knocked down and burned in the conflict or aftermath as a part of the pillaging. Answering these basic questions can help you immensely in planning the world that I’m calling the After. For example, if a war occurred and many people died on the lands, perhaps they are infected and poisoned for a few years by the decay but after a time they become the most fertile lands around.

At the same time you should be thinking about the basic attributes of the world you want the party to experience. Are they entering these lands shortly after everything has been abandoned or has it been centuries and the land has changed in many ways? If you know the basic details of the After world you want to portray, you can then also develop the previous questions about the Before area to mesh with what you want the world to be like. If you want it to feel like a ghost town, then you should develop the catastrophe from the Before time so that it leaves buildings intact but wipes out all of the residents like the aforementioned plague. It’s not against the rules to design backwards in this respect, because the players will experience it backwards to begin with and you want it to make as much sense as possible. If you want something to be deliberately nonsensical, you can easily turn it into a mystery that needs to be solved about the area they are adventuring. A great start to a spooky adventure can have the players wondering, “Where did all the people go?”

A Second Chance to Survive

When you are repopulating an area, the are becomes interesting because there is a history build into it and the natural expectation is that history will repeat itself. Perhaps the land is inherently dangerous and the people who are settling here again are at risk just like the first inhabitants. If a region has extremely harsh winters, a settlement could easily be wiped out and a year or two later more people will arrive to resettle that area – will they survive the winter any better than the first group? This approach works very well with plague infested lands or natural enemies such as barbarians / natives / bordering nations. No matter what the danger, the location itself is being given a second chance and that makes it seem like and inherently important area.

The pattern that the new settlements take should be a direct result of the basics you’ve determined beforehand. If all of the structures are still mostly intact, then the new inhabitants are much more likely to build on the existing framework and perhaps make a few important improvements so that they might have a better chance of survival. The length of time between the Before and After is a key factor also, because if it has been a short amount of time you may still see some remnants of the prior civilization or foreign entities like looters and scavengers that feed on the destruction. If more time has passed than most likely looters and scavengers will be gone, and perhaps wildlife has moved back into the region or it has remained completely devoid of life for a specific reason (again, the plague comes to mind). If you set your game shortly after the society has been abandoned, perhaps you want to emphasize the struggle and downward slope of the Before time and have a steady stream of settlers attempting (and most likely failing) at repopulating the area year after year. This strikes me as a more distinctly “Wild West” style of game, but if that’s what you want to play then this style of world building might help you further emphasize the daily struggle for survival so that the players really feel it when the are in the game world.

Your Effort Should be Thin but Visible

This is a developing philosophy I have about World Building in general, but it applies especially to the development of the past of your game world – Spread your effort out but keep it where the players will experience it. To illustrate I’ll use the basic D&D game world I talked about earlier, the odds are your players will come across a set of ruins or a dungeon sooner or later that is a remnant of a past civilization. If you put all of your effort into the past, then the dungeon won’t feel old and abandoned and it may not make sense why monsters are there or there may be no reason for the original inhabitants to have left. If you put all of your effort on the present, which I would bet is how the majority of D&D dungeons and ruins are designed, then some players might be left wondering what this building or dungeon was created for and who created it, or why it even exists in the first place. However, if you spread your effort out and focus on a few key points about the ruins/dungeon, you can hopefully create a more rich and believable world that will increase immersion for everyone involved.

Some of the key questions I would answer are: Who built this? Why did they build it? Who lives there now? What did the location provide to the original owner that it also gives the new inhabitants? What is one important event that happened within or to the location? Much like many of the campaign/adventure planning techniques, once you’ve answered these questions you should be able to start tying several of the aspects together to create a brief but believable history of the location that also informs how it looks at present and what the players will find or experience while they’re there.

A Few Small Decisions Can Shape Your Entire World

When it comes to World Building as a whole process, the topics of abandonment and re-population discussed in this post can be some of the most crucial things to consider. Even the absence of them can influence how parts of your world feel, if a population is the first group to have ever settled on a land that can tell you a lot about their civilization. Perhaps they’re making mistakes that are hurting how they develop, but the mistakes have to be made before they can learn how to survive in that specific location. The area and its inhabitants might have a pioneering nature and consist of a lot more experimentation with types of settlements and buildings.

In much the same way you can use these concepts to drive the technological developments of the cultures in your game world. To use a real world example, the Romans invented/discovered Concrete (even the ability to mix it so that it could cure underwater) but this technology was lost for hundreds and hundreds of years before it was rediscovered. Imagine if one specific culture had stumbled upon some Roman ruins and rediscovered it earlier and what kinds of changes that would have caused in the history of our world. Perhaps the fantasy setting of your world is shaken to the core when one culture discovers the lost secrets of steam technology, or hell even electricity, in the ruins of a long lost civilization. Next week I’ll be talking more about technological developments and how they can be used in World Building.

This post and next week’s post are both inspired by reader’s comments, so if you have something specific you’d like to see discussed with regards to World Building or any aspect of location design for RPGs please let me know!

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.


  1. Very informative. Can’t wait for next week’s post.

    I particularly like the idea that a few small decisions can give you a strong direction for a specific aspect of your world. When I ran the first adventure in my homebrew world, one of the players chose to be a goliath, which was a brand new race at the time. He roleplayed so well that I decided to gear some of the plot points toward him, making the goliaths a widely enslaved race. These small decisions have made the goliaths grow into one of the central races of the setting, and it all stemmed from one player’s influence.

    Eventually it might be nice to see an article about how DMs can include their players in the worldbuilding through character history and choices during play. I always ask my players to make up one or two NPCs that their PC has a strong relationship with, just to give them more creative license over the game. I think it’s beneficial for everyone.

  2. These posts continue to rock. thank you very much. I am working on a setting that has been rocked hard by a comet. These are some very good tips for making that work.

  3. Another great post. I’ll confess that while I often have used the “abandoned city” trope, I rarely have thought about how the reason for the abandonement would affect its future development. I think one thing that might be worth mentioning is “Why do people keep coming back to the area that was previously abandoned/destroyed?” Usually, this will be because the area itself offers something important to the people, whether good farmland, gold mines, strategic locations, or a natural port, etc.

  4. DarkPlane: You’re just excited because next week’s post focuses on your question. 😛 The player input on world building is a great observation, and I’ll put that on my list of things to discuss very soon in the future, thanks!

    Shinobicow: Dave and I have been running joint campaigns in my game world shortly after a ton of strange comets rained down on the land. Should be a lot of fun, let us know how it goes!

    Gargs: That’s definitely a great question that should have been on my list, thanks!

  5. As always, excellent posts and ideas. They are very much appreciated.
    I’d like to bring up a topic related to this that I think a lot of people forget. Namely, that often the first “settlers” to an area that is being repopulated are the monsters themselves. Obviously they didn’t exist there before, and they now inhabit the ruins of a former civilization when the civilized races come back into the area. Often times they will have been pushed from a previous home due to violent conflicts amongst themselves, or even being pushed out of ancestral lands by the expansion of civilized races (the Dwarves can take the Lost Ancestral Homelands background, why not kobolds?). As a result we tend to see such monstrous groups living closer to each other than they might normally, often in a symbiotic relationship.
    I’m currently running a 4E campaign and using the Pathfinder Darkmoon Vale setting and adventures (obviously converted) for the first stretch. The setting is already a pioneer area, but still filled with history that has been forgotten. One of my players remarked that it seemed odd that so many creatures of different sorts would be living in such close proximity, which is what got me thinking about all of this.

  6. Agreed with previous commenters. Of all the great Critical Hits content, this is the segment I find myself reading every edition of.

  7. These articles are indeed great. It’s nice to see that the method I’ve developed isn’t too far off yours – it makes for satisfying work I think.

    How about mixing this theme with your previous buildings articles, to write something about how different structures and complexes fall apart over time?

  8. Interesting article as always.
    Weaving a bit of the history into a location is an element that I enjoy during story telling, whether that history comes small structural details, remnant art (statues, paintings, etc), text, found items, or other devices.
    Also as Darkplane mentioned, the player input can often become extremely compelling material for your game session. My players recently attached themselves to a religious artifact found in a small dungeon and have almost entirely abandoned the “original plot” to take the religious artifact back to the head temple of that religion.
    This gives me more chance to explore and play with the myths and history involved as I weave elements of the “original plot” into the current story.