Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Ideating City Adventures, or 12 Ruinations of Pumpai

A Preamble

This post represents an intersection of a number of recent inspirations: For one, Patrick is blogging about Gormenghast, and Nate is sharing his incredible megadungeon lore, which have me thinking about the stories behind huge, beautiful, ruined, dreamy places. Second, I haven't run D&D in a while, and having started to miss it, I've been wanting to work on game material. So I've been thinking about Pumpai, a city I first started dreaming up in around 2014, and have fiddled with intermittently over the years. Some inspiration images:

Paul Delvaux, The Great Sirens (1947)

Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain II (1941)

lokorum (2020)

I'm not going to get into a bunch of detail about Pumpai now, because the point of this exercise is kind of not to do that. In the past I've struggled to flesh out Pumpai for play, so I went back to Joseph Manola's excellent posts about adapting his own city setting to something he can run at the table in his City of Spires game (parts 1, 2, and 3). I was particularly interested in his calls to condense and shrink the setting, as Pumpai has always existed in my mind as something vast and nebulous -- a vibe with infinite potential for specification and variation, rather than something actual and concrete you can put characters in. At the same time, it's important to me that Pumpai be a place that feels old, a place steeped in its history. So I wanted to do some work with it that would both develop it as a place for adventuring and help flesh out its past...

Building on Joseph's argument that the more ruined a setting, the better for adventure, I set myself the task of brainstorming some number of historical events in Pumpai, each of which would result in the establishment of a ruin to explore, a treasure to seek after, or a problem to engage with. As a secondary condition, I tried to make a point of naming things, in order to create more concrete points of reference I could flesh out later (eg. the battle of the Pumpanian fleet against the Autumn Armada, rather than just "a war").

Twelve Ruinations of Pumpai

 1. When the Pumpanian fleet fought off the Autumn Armada, an idol imprisoning the demigod Seething Lily sank to the bottom of the bay.

2. The influence of Seething Lily continually rouses the sunken dead. The Choir would compose a Song to keep them from overtaking the city, but its airs do not reach far beneath the waves, and the dead took to attacking ships.

3. When trade began diverting to Baracruj, the Western market and warehouses were abandoned.

4. When the ranks of the Choir shrank, the Choirmasters summoned devils to keep the Songs.

5. When crime began to rise, the Duchess converted the Green Museum into a prison. Some of its treasures were brought to the Island-Palace of Black Cypresses, some were sold to the Nin Bank, and some were placed under the protection of the Choir.

6. As devils corrupted the Choir, they siphoned away the power of the old weatherwarding songs, causing a permanent storm to form in the bay.

7. When the bay became impassable, the Customs House was sealed off.

8. When the East City was depopulated, the Coniglio crime family took it over.  

9. When the Arboretum in the East City was left to nature, it grew wild and overgrew the Monster Garden.

10. When the sunken dead broke into the lower Prison, the Duchess decreed that criminals would be exiled instead, leading many to move into the East City.

11. As the East City was consumed by criminality, the ghosts in the old tenements, row-houses and palaces turned bitter

12. As the culture and ceremony of the city dwindled, the coelacanths in the canals grew dull and stupid. They hid what treasures they could find in canal nooks and underwater oubliettes.

The gameable products of these are:


  • The West Market
  • The Palace of Black Cypresses
  • The Monster Garden
  • The Customs House
  • The Prison


  • The drowned idol of Seething Lily
  • The coelacanths' hoarded baubles
  • The Museums' riches


  • The sunken dead are restless
  • The city's sacred ceremonies are overseen by devils
  • The East city is teeming with criminals and Coniglio thugs, and its old buildings are full of ghosts
  • A permanent storm makes crossing the bay dangerous

Some Remarks

When I noticed I was approaching 12 events, I resolved, arbitrarily, that if I were to go over 12 I would have to hit 20. Incidentally, around 12 was when I started developing events in ways that seemed undesirable; I was increasingly trying to fit in events that would explain or connect others, but didn't produce ruins, treasures, or problems on their own terms. As such, I would have to expand, contrive, and contort them to fit my purposes, which yielded unsatisfying results both in terms of history and game material. This was a good a sign as any that this exercise had gone far enough.

Another thing I experimented with was keeping a fourth list of factions. While this was edifying from a worldbuilding standpoint, I got the sense that unlike ruins, treasures, and problems, they are not in themselves good gaming material except insofar as they relate to those more overtly adventurous elements. For instance, I spent a while trying to work in events that would clarify the political functions of the Nin family (a scion of which makes an appearance in this earlier post of mine), fleshing out the nature of the Duchess's power, and narrowing the influence of the devil while also trying to shoehorn them into the Prison. These are all aspects of the setting I like thinking about, but with the exception of that last one don't contribute much adventure material in the immediate way these do.

I'll indulge myself here by closing with a few questions I'm still interested in, but that don't have overtly gameable implications as yet. I'll figure out what to do with them another time:
  • Why does anyone still live in Pumpai?
  • What is the nature of the Duchess's power? What are her functions, and why does she matter?
  • What is life like in Pumpai, and who holds the levers of power?

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