I've been re-reading Salem's Lot, Stephen King's take on Dracula in a small New England town. It starts with two survivors on the run, who read about the ghost town that Salem's Lot has become. It is not the first town in American history to just dry up and blow away, and will probably not be the last, but it is the strangest ... The article goes on to reference the fictional town of Momson, Vermont, which also dried up and blew away back in 1923. I suspect King was drawing on the Bennington Triangle when he wrote that, particularly Glastenbury.
It got me thinking about ghost towns, and how useful they can be in fiction, and RPGs.
Ghost towns exist in every nation, in all parts of the world. More often than not they're unknown outside a relatively small area. To give you an example, I have on my shelf a coffee-table book about Abandoned New England - Its Hidden Ruins and Where To Find Them. I doubt anyone's gone looking for any of these places in years. The book was published in 1978 but more than thirty years have passed since then; what was a ruin in the 1970s is most likely a nondescript pile of rocks now. Point being that unless you own a book like this, or live in New England not far from one of these locations, you wouldn't have the slightest idea these places existed at all.
What is a ghost town, really? There are legal terms, of course; a town only exists as a town because it's been incorporated, and as such it can be unincorporated. In that sense the legalities aren't much different from the days when the Crown would issue a charter, or the Church establish a Cathedral. The forms have changed, but the basic principle remains the same: you can't call yourself anything unless you have the documents to prove it, and those documents can be nullified at any time by the powers that be.
However a ghost town is more than just a few forms. I think of it in these terms: first a town loses its ability, then its vitality, and shortly after that it becomes a ghost.
Its ability can be defined as the power, financial or legal, by which the incorporated entity serves its citizens. Once it loses that power, the town no longer serves its people. This can mean many things, some of which may not be immediately obvious. If a town can no longer provide or maintain drainage, the problem may not really be a problem until the first serious storm, at which point the town floods. That might not happen for years. On the other hand, if the town stops being able to collect and dispose of garbage, everyone knows all about it pretty quickly.
Its vitality is more nebulous, and refers to the interest its citizens take in the town's continued survival. Do they sit passively to one side, refusing to participate in town meetings, not bothering to support local initiatives? Do they volunteer when the town needs help? If there's a fire, do people show up to put it out? If someone goes missing, do they help search? If the answer to all these questions is negative, then the town lacks vitality and will most likely collapse at the first sign of trouble - say, when the garbage trucks stop showing up.
Without ability and vitality a town is dead - even if there are still some people living there. Many ghost towns have a scattering of people hanging on, like bats clinging to the exposed rafters of a burnt-out house. From a gaming perspective, having a few shell-shocked survivors dropping clues and adding atmosphere can be a very good thing.
Sometimes the event that causes a ghost town is immediate and devastating. Centralia, Pennsylvania is all but destroyed thanks to a coal fire that's been burning under the town since 1962. There are any number of small townships that went under thanks to fire or flood. Varosha in Cyprus was a functioning, thriving place until the Turks invaded, and since then it's lain derelict. Chernobyl in the Ukraine is probably the most famous example of a ghost town caused by a nuclear disaster. France's Red Zone is one of the most recent examples in the West of a populated area reduced to nothingness by war, though there are plenty of examples of this outside the West. We tend to think of war damage in terms of explosions and shrapnel, or of massacres like Oradour-sur-Glane that kill people but leave the town intact, but recent tests in the Red Zone showed dangerously high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, zinc - the soil is basically poisoned, as is the water and the animals who live there. The same will apply to modern battlefields, if not more so; they didn't have depleted uranium in 1914, after all.
However a town can also die slowly, often due to economic failure. We tend to think of the gold, copper and silver rush towns of the Old West and British Columbia when we think of economic failure, but really as a phenomenon it's all around us. Dying industries, the increasing use of automation, the transfer of factories from one state to another - as an economy shrinks, so do the townships that service that economy, until one day there's nothing left. Monotowns are particularly vulnerable to economic fluctuation, even in planned economies where the state has every incentive to keep the town afloat.
Sometimes a ghost town revives as a semblance of its former self. This most often happens when the town is revived as a tourist site or nature reserve, but it's difficult to really call a town a town if it no longer has an independent function. As a tourist site or reserve the former town loses all its impetus, becoming a parasite without any reason to develop further or to change in any way. In fact, change - and with it, growth - is the last thing these places can afford to indulge in.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Alexandria, in Egypt, was all but dead in the 1800s, boasting a mere 5,000 people when Napoleon took over. Yet under Muhammed Ali Egypt reinvented itself, and Alexandria grew; today it has over 4 million inhabitants.
Alexandria's example is particularly relevant to Keepers running a sword-and-sorcery or fantasy RPG. In fantasy campaigns cities are often portrayed either as fully functioning, or completely abandoned, but historically there is usually a long intermediary period when most of the city is abandoned, and yet it is still alive. There isn't a major city in Europe that hasn't endured shrinkage at some point in its career; London famously lost a third of its population during the Black Death, for example, and many cities lost closer to 60%. Imagine what that would have looked like: empty dwelling after empty dwelling, roads meant for heavy traffic now almost deserted, wild animals roaming the streets. And yet people still eke out a living there. The city still has ability, but has lost vitality. Dunwall in the Dishonored series is one of the few videogame examples of this kind of city: basically functional, but with the guts ripped out of it.
With all that in mind, let's talk gamification.
I think of ghost towns in small sandbox terms. There may or may not be a convenient central hub - a general store, an inn, a church - but the town's story is scattered roundabout, which means there will be different kinds of experiences to be had. Go one way, and find out what happened to the silver miners when the mine collapsed. Go another way, and find out what lurks in the old coach house. Go a third way, and see what's left of the miller's granaries. A fourth way to find out where the children who attended the schoolhouse ended up - and so on, and on.
It's a small sandbox because ultimately this is a small scale tragedy, in a game which can span continents or even dimensions. If your secret agents need to be in Istanbul next week, they can't spend a lot of time digging into the life story of a bar worker in Germany.
From a Keeper's perspective, I would take a series of notes either on index cards or on one of the many apps that mimic the index card format. None of this has to be very complex. A few lines per location is all that's needed. The key thing to bear in mind is all the minor stories that took place here need to be linked in some way to the major story.
So as an example, let's consider a ghost town in modern Eastern Europe, or a fictional non-Earth equivalent, abandoned after a massacre during a civil war or military incursion from a neighboring state.
The massacre is the major story. That's what robbed the town of its ability and vitality. All the town's leadership was rounded up and shot, and the few survivors of the massacre fled to neighboring towns and never returned.
All the minor stories reflect this and link back to it. The event was sudden, catastrophic and irreversible. There will be some battle damage wherever the characters look, but if it's an overwhelming event then there may not be a truly significant amount of property damage. This isn't like Guernica, where waves of bombers strike a sitting target again and again; this is more along the lines of the SS lining up villagers against a wall and executing them.
Let's further assume that the game mechanic includes something like Ars Magica's Regio system, or Ravenloft's Sinkholes of Terror, where reality can bend or change altogether depending on which level of reality you happen to be standing on at the time. So at its worst it can be a hellscape, and at its best a blasted and lonely place.
Therefore at its worst point - probably the town hall where the people were herded inside the building and murdered, or the mass grave where many of them ended up - the Keeper needs to do the most preparation. Two or three cards worth of notes at least, one of which is devoted exclusively to the supernatural entities certain to be found there. There will be several layers to the main hub, each more awful than the last.
However there are going to be other stories scattered about the town which are related to, but not part of, the main event. The farmhouse where a young mother was raped, her baby's brains beaten against a tree. The garage where frightened survivors hid. The fire station that was set aflame with the stationhouse dog still inside, soldiers standing around taking bets on how long it would survive. Each of these stories needs a brief description, one card's worth at least, which should include the location story, any debilitating effects - SAN or Stability loss - and perhaps a color point or two, like the red flowers that constantly bloom around the tree where the baby died, no matter what the weather. There may only be one or two layers to each of these minor points, just enough to hint at what happened here without going full Night on Bald Mountain.
If you, as Keeper, do that, then I'm willing to guarantee the players will remember this ghost town long after other, perhaps more action-packed, scenes. Horror isn't in the eye, but in the mind, Play with their minds, and who knows what you'll accomplish?