Lost Cities

2020-03-24

This morning I started playing around with “Humblebird’s Lost Cities Generator”. Using two six-sided dice of different colors, one generates descriptive words or phrases in the following categories:

  1. Overview: What’s the viewer’s first impression?
  2. Architecture: What shapes and theme predominate?
  3. Gimmick: What makes the civilization unusual?
  4. Government: Who or what was in charge?
  5. Technology: How did their advanced techno-sorcery work?
  6. Ethos: What did they value most?
  7. Disappearance: Why is it “lost”?
  8. Prime Remnant: Why do people remember it today?

It’s geared mainly for fantasy role-playing games, with some distinct H. Rider Haggard / E. R. Burroughs vibes. With a few tweaks it could work for actual pulp settings, or as the author states for living if slightly fantastical cities. It’s a pretty good random idea generator at a decent price.

In the end I generated four cities – one more than I intended – which I describe below.

Lathos, the Floating City

  1. Overview: Planned & Orderly, Industrial
  2. Architecture: Angles, Water theme
  3. Gimmick: Carrier (mobile)
  4. Government: Inhuman citizens, Strifeless1
  5. Technology: Sound/music
  6. Ethos: Martial Prowess
  7. Disappearance: Inhuman Interference
  8. Prime Remnant: Knowledge

Legends tell of Lathos, The Floating City that plied the oceans of the Second Age. Songs say it was like a massive barge, square cornered, sharp-angled, with pools and canals insides its own walls. A flotilla of smaller ships trailed behind, all built in massive shipyards inside the Floating City. Its strange, half-fish denizens, seemingly with no leaders, could lure fish into their nets with their peculiar songs, or stir the ocean itself into fury with their trumpets. The Floating City conquered villages and towns along the Southern Coast, imposed their language and gods on them, took a tribute of grain and wine, then moved on. Nobody knows for sure what happened to them – assuming they existed – but one myth says the Lords of the Deep, who spawned the beings of Lathos, dragged them and their city back into the depths. Sages claim Lathos left humanity not only sea gods and the Elder Speech but the arts of writing, architecture, and shipbuilding.

The Crystal City

  1. Overview: Tranquil, Commercial
  2. Architecture: Supports (“shape”), Fire theme
  3. Gimmick: Strange Foundation
  4. Government: Inhuman Monarch
  5. Technology: Labor w/ Crystals
  6. Ethos: Piety
  7. Disappearance: Subjugated
  8. Prime Remnant: Derelict Architecture

According to ancient myth, the Mountain King raised the Crystal City in a day. Huge crystal shafts, glowing with unquenchable inner light, supported floors and walls of more common wood and masonry constructed by the King’s subhuman slaves, the Mole People. A crystal gem at the center of each Mole Person’s forehead kept them docile and obedient to simple verbal commands.

The Crystal City guarded a pass through the Black Mountains. Caravans between the Westlands and the Eastern Empire stopped there. Human artisans, merchants, shopkeepers, and ne’er-do-wells made it their home. Residents and visitors alike venerated the Mountain King as a living god; wealthier households kept an image of the King among their household gods, while the poor and transients stopped at roadside shrines.

When the Northern Horde swept in, the streets ran with blood. A city of artisans and shopkeepers put up little resistance, and the gem-bound Mole People resisted not at all. The Great Khan took the Mountain King hostage, and declared himself the new lord of the Crystal City. Over time merchants found other routes through the Black Mountains; the Westland kingdoms fell, and the Eastern Empire splintered. Fewer caravans arrived, and many residents left for more hospitable lands. When the Khan’s twelfth grandson, now regent of the city, slew the Mountain King in anger, the Mole People went mad and slew invader and citizen alike. Survivors of that massacre fled for their lives. Without constant labor the wood and stone structures fell apart. Only the glowing crystal shafts still stand.

The Stone City of Jaelren

  1. Overview: Bustling, Residential
  2. Architecture: Organic, Skeleton2 theme
  3. Gimmick: Impossible Geometry
  4. Government: Aristocracy
  5. Technology: Geomancy w/ Crystals Unusual Scale
  6. Ethos: Civic Engagement
  7. Disappearance: Became Inhuman
  8. Prime Remnant: Living Enclave
After rolling "Crystals" a second time -- a result that occurs in 1/4 of all rolls on the Technology table -- I switched to the other result that occurs 1/4 of the time, "Unusual Scale"

Jaelren is huge and alien: its walls are like the flanks of a gigantic beast, its surviving doorways like the cracks in hollow trees, and its windows stare back at the viewer like the eye sockets of a thousand-eyed monster. Most disturbing are the towers, massive crenelated platforms balanced impossibly on slender, twisting struts. It is a city seemingly made for star-born giants, not humans. Yet humans lived there, once.

The mystics who carved Jaelren from a solid rocky hill said the city already existed within; they needed merely to release it. Their descendants became Jaelren’s hereditary ruling class, the First Fathers. Within a monstrous hall overlooking the city the First Fathers debated endlessly about fine points of law and public policy, while the more numerous working class, technically not slaves, toiled on.

Many say Jaelren’s solid rock construction and bizarre architecture channeled energies from the earth that granted Jaelren prosperity and those born in Jaelren long lives. They also say it gave the children of Jaelren their strange appearance. They Jaelren grew taller and slenderer than folk from other towns. Those born in Jaelren had long fingers and elongated heads; their eyes were large and almond-shaped and colored a solid jet black. Aristocrats grew the tallest and most unnaturally thin; they were ageless but mostly childless. Many aristocrats took to wearing masks and all-concealing robes, even in the summer heat. Eventually they stopped appearing in public at all, and conveyed their edicts through functionaries who had also grown … strange.

In the seventh century of the city, its rulers expelled all residents who were not born in the city walls. Half of its native working class left with them. They settled in surrounding villages and towns. Descendents of Jaelren expatriates typically bear only traces of the “Jaelren look”. One large exclave in Kirzan keeps the language and culture alive, including a tradition of marrying only within their own kind.

By the eighth century of the city it had closed its gates to all outsiders. Farmers brought food and other necessities to its gates; heavily cloaked figures gave them gold and dragged the supplies inside. These deliveries grew less frequent, and by the ninth century they had stopped completely. Jaelren’s gates remain closed to this day. Its windows are dark, its towers unmanned, and no sound issues from its walls save the whispering of wind.

Pangchen

I rerolled a few times to get results I hadn't before, so the results aren't strictly random.
  1. Overview: Heterogeneous Districts, Residential
  2. Architecture: “Yonic”3, “Soul”4 theme
  3. Gimmick: Highly Automated
  4. Government: Bad monarchs w/ Oracular advisor
  5. Technology: Psionic
  6. Ethos: Knowledge
  7. Disappearance: Betrayed by technology
  8. Prime Remnant: Visual Art

When viewing the plateau of Pangchen from the nearby mountain peaks – the safest vantage point by far – one is struck by its wide thoroughfares, large freestanding “gates” marking vaguely defined boundaries, lack of outer or inner walls beyond the remains of small wooden huts, and large public gardens still tended by an unseen force. Tiles in abstract but complex geometric patterns decorate its empty public squares, or rather circles, for angles are likewise rare in Pangchen. Not counting the tiles or gates, the only other “art” in Pangchen are plinths with silver spheres, at least the height of a man, perfectly smooth, unmarred, and seemingly polished. The Temple stands near but not at the center of town, a dome on eight supports like inverted triangles. At sunrise and sunset one can see light shining through the openings, as if there were nothing inside.

The monks of Pangchen built the Temple by unknown means, in the middle of what was once an empty plateau. Originally they farmed their own food, wove their own clothes, and made what little they needed out of raw materials. As they lost themselves in contemplation of the Eternal Mind, however, they depended on an ever-growing throng of farmers and craftsmen for support. Some sought to join the monks; most wished to till land and ply their crafts away from the petty warlords of the lowlands.

Eventually the warlords discovered Pangchen, a new land to extort tribute from. When armies climbed the narrow mountain trails to Pangchen a mysterious force pushed them off, and dashed them on the rocks below. At last a clever warlord sent his soldiers up the trail in small groups, to blend in with the tradesmen and supplicants. On the night of the summer solstice they were to throw off their guises, capture the monks, loot the laymen, and kill any who resisted. As the soldiers threw off their guises and began their assault, the tulpas appeared: huge translucent shapes roughly in the form of a man that shimmered between existence and nonexistence, unkillable and irresistable. They picked up each soldier and cast him, screaming, off the edge of the plateau.

At first life resumed as it always did. Then laymen began to grumble. If the monks could call upon invisible servants, why did they need peasants to do their work for them? If the monks could see the attack coming, why could they not see storms and bad harvests? Did the monks care nothing for those who clothed and fed them? Many left. The remaining peasants sent a delegation to the Temple. The Abbot received them coldly, listened to their demands, then rebuked them and told them to go back to work. When one angry protester tried to lay hands on the Abbot, the tulpas appeared again; they seized the man and all who were with him and dashed them on the rocks below. Most fled Pangchen after that. Villagers near the base of the plateau discovered more bodies dashed on the rocks in the years and decades after, including many in monks’ robes. Some say the old Abbot was among them.

People from many leagues away copy the art of Pangchen: the complex patterns of tiles, the free-standing gates from nowhere to nowhere. the simple but baffling spheres. Some even climb the nearby mountains to see the city on a clear day. But nobody goes to Pangchen.

Commentary

(Warning: links to YouTube videos. Hope you have autoplay turned off.)

After watching a YouTube series on Angkor Wat, especially the last episode, the idea of “lost cities” seems ridiculous. The people who live next to them know where they are.

Likewise, except for Lathos these cities I imagined aren’t “lost”. The Crystal City is just in ruin. Jaelren and Pangchen are deserted, at least by anything remotely human.

Also, it’s hard to use every element rolled on the tables, especially when it doesn’t fit neatly with the rest. Often I found myself captivated by a few words or images: Lathos’s angular water-borne mobility, the Crystal City’s fiery “support” crystals, Jaelren’s impossible geometries and inhuman transformation, Pangchen’s open spaces and treacherous psionics. Other words like “residential”, “piety”, or “geomancy” have to remain implied.

Finally, the examples in the “Lost Cities Generator” are admirably short, maybe 50 words or so. The same captivating images that shut out over half the random result also starts spinning a story in my head, one that I have to tell: Lathos’s conquering sea empire (inspired by the Phoenecians and Myceneans), the Crystal City’s conquest and fall, the citizens of Jaelren’s eldritch metamorphosis and slow decline, or Pangchen’s death by psionic overreaction. (I was particularly intrigued by Pangchen’s monks literally not caring if their subjects lived or died and setting their psychically manifested army on them and each other at the slightest complaint. If the tulpas are still around – and they clearly are – who, if anyone, is holding their leash?)

Some might disagree, but the point of random tables seems not to obey the dice exactly but to use the random results as a springboard for creativity. In that respect the “Lost Cities Genrator” works very well.5 Would I use any of these cities in any RPG (or fiction) of mine? Probably not. But they do get my brain traveling different paths.


  1. i.e. no need for a government for whatever reason. ↩︎

  2. The notes on each table explain “Your city has a preferred structural building material, such as stone, brick, or wood.” Why that’s called “skeleton” is beyond me. ↩︎

  3. “Negative space and openings,” according to the notes. In the PG version, this entry is “Caverns”. ↩︎

  4. “The city contains an unusual amount of public art, whether an abundance or a conspicuous absence.” ↩︎

  5. The Technology table, and presumably the author, wants to add crystals or unusual scale to everything, which quickly gets tiresome. I’d recommend rolling the dice as if that part simply wasn’t there. ↩︎