If there's one surety in any D&D campaign, it's a surfeit of crumbling ruins, mysterious misplaced castles and towers, and vast, intricate, underground complexes. Those underground complexes are another issue unto themselves, but that's neither here nor there. My question today is: where the hell do all those ruins come from?
For the most part, these types of things are only haphazardly explained in most campaigns, or not at all. Which is fine since the real world is replete with abandoned and decaying structures the purposes of which are either long forgotten or not widely known. Hell, Eastern Europe is positively lousy with decrepit castles, monastaries, and stone structures. So it's not exactly a tremendous stretch to imagine a fantastic, medieval stasis type world positively busting with such things. After all, you know how wizards are: they must have some sort of fetish for non-Euclidian geometry in home decor . . .
But the problem for me is that the little Smeagol in me, in all of us really, starts to ask "where are they from?". Who built these places and why? Who was the original owner of the castle that the PC's evicted a tribe of goblins from? Why? Where'd he go? What came before this? I'm always, as a player, snuffling around looking for a root cause, an origin, a precurser, which drives my DM absolutely insane at times. "Sometimes a castle is just a castle" indeed.
It's not crucial to explain every single nuance of the world, and in fact doing so is detrimental in the long run, but a ref owes it to himself and his players to at least throw out a generic, overarching rational for the surplus of crumbling architecture. First off, it provides an easier way for the ref to fend off the overly curious players who look to make a bigger comotion out of relatively minor details. You have no damn clue why that particular castle is there, but if you can tell them something, anything, then they'll probably be satisfied on some level.
Second, and better, it provides a potential jumping off point for deeper explorations by the players. It leads those curious players deeper into the world even though it's only an illusion of depth and into that curious place where the players start helping the ref build the world around them. Tell them the tower is a guard post and the really good ones will start asking the next obvious question: a guard against what? Their speculations can lead to some pretty decent ideas that inspire new directions. Who the hell knew a great hobgoblin nation lay just on the other side of that winding valley path? Or that in the deepest pit of this place was a magicaly spawned portal into some insanity inducing realm responsible for some of the stranges things in the world. Hey, owlbears have to come from somewhere don't they?
For its part, the current region of Thylia being details (the northwestern region of the continent for those who actually care) was the site of a gradual invasion and assimilation by the distant Thelerite Imperium. A fleet of 4 ships made landfall on the western shore and promptly informed the local population (mostly cloistered dwarf communities who cared little for anything but their craft and semi-nomadic bands of humans) that they had been conquered and were expected to render unto the Imperium. The dwarves promptly ignored the invaders in typical dwarven fashion for, south of their home kingdom, they really didn't care a whit what some poncy Imperator had to say. The tribal humans found the whole thing terribly amusing and proceeded with business as usual, treating the Thelerites as a mild curiosity and occasional trading partner: their steel weapons were, after all, far superior to the copper and knapped flint still used by many. The Thelerites, satisfied that they had succeeded in claiming the land expanded ever eastward in waves, leaving in their wake long defensive lines of keeps, towers, and walls that the natives simply went around, under, or over as was convenient.
Around 350 years ago, however, the Imerium began to recede towards the coast again and before long, the carefully built civil structure that they had created was gone. Few, according to the dwarves, cared or even noticed the change.
More Little Treasures
11 months ago