View Full Version : Designing a city of the dead

08-04-2016, 02:45 AM
So, I had this idea I thought was interesting.

The dead in this world aren't good about staying buried, so those that come back tend to pool around in one major city, a city ruled by and for them. The dead are tied to their bodies, running the gamut from suave vampire to rotted zombie in terms of intelligence and physical upkeep. Dead don't eat, don't sleep, don't tire, can physically regenerate to a degree, and on the whole are gloomy and no fun to be around. What would a medieval, low-magic metropolis filled with intelligent undead like this look like?

So far I envision a rather staid place bound heavily in tradition, the dead find meaning in shared rituals and ceremonies like nothing else, and everyone's been around a long time so things change slowly. Aesthetically it's going to look as Clark Ashton Smith as possible, also resembling a movie lot or amusement park in some ways (a constant sense of illusion and fakeness). Legal institutions exist, but on the whole the city is lawless with a rather active free market economy, several alpha dog undead sit on the top of the economy but everything underneath is a churn. There is a ruling priesthood, the Trivium (also looking into mental health issues), and a police force, the Lictors, but both rely more on tradition than any real mandate to keep order. An aristocracy exists as well, though everyone here is self-made and ties of kinship mean nothing.

The city doesn't trade (since there aren't any other cities to trade with), but actively scavenges for resources outside the city along with looking for (undead) slaves. This is how most dead get here, practically everyone is enslaved upon arrival. Being is slavery is horrible, but after some pretty nasty slave rebellions this has become one of the place where strong protections do exists, with both legal and ceremonial paths to one's freedom.

A big part of the city's economy is tied up in the mortuary economy, denied true rest the wealthy build fancy mausoleums for themselves to hibernate in, also funding divinity cults to ensure their memory. Taking apart and rebuilding the city is a constant obsession, it's unspeakably old and needs endless upkeep, but this also supplies work to an enormous population of proletariat dead. There's also a huge hospitality industry, inns and brothels and such, since the dead can't eat or copulate they're obsessed with pretending to do it. Past that, life in the city is pretty much anarchy, filled with hopeless, traumatized individuals who can't die. Parts of it are going to be perpetual warzones, with angry or insane undead trying to chop each other up into little pieces and no one able to do anything about it.

A lot of this comes from the White Wolf RPG Exalted, which I'm lifting from shamelessly. A lot of the rest comes from living in Los Angeles, down near where all the homeless tents are. This been a fun one to think about for me, so if anyone has any thoughts or ideas for my city of the dead, or if they would alternately have a different take, I'd love to hear it.

08-04-2016, 03:13 AM
Hmm... does this belong in the Brainstorming section? 'Cause it seems more like a Brainstorming thing...

It seems like an interesting idea (though I admit I skimmed bits), but it's just a setting. Story is what happens in that setting. That and the execution are the really important bits. Though if you're "lifting" this from an existing RPG, you're going to have some Issues if you want to use it for your own stuff, unless you do enough tweaking to obscure its origins.

Smiling Ted
08-04-2016, 05:30 AM
Well heck. Why bother designing a city of the dead when you can just spend a week in Van Nuys?

08-04-2016, 09:27 AM
If all the dead from everywhere gravitate to this place, and once there they NEVER leave, you're going to have some serious population pressure. Unless this is a way station to the great beyond, something akin to purgatory, where eventually the souls do get to move on.

Plus is it only intelligent beings who fill this place? Or do dogs and deer and squirrels?

08-04-2016, 10:00 AM
@Brightdreamer- Fair enough, there's a story too but so much of it meanders around the setting in my mind. I'd say I'm copying Exalted as much as it's copying real life mythology and putting it's own spin on it, there's enough tweaking and original stuff to it I don't feel that I'm copying.

@Smiling Ted- Try living between Downtown and Hollywood, all those tomb-like old buildings and wandering nightmare people, pretty strong image in my head what this looks like.

@Nossmf- That's a big problem, and a lot of what the story revolves around. Short answer, inter them in tombs beneath the city, some in a state of hibernation, some still awake. Or burn them, which has the problem of creating unquiet ghosts. And mammals don't do too well in the city. Lots of bugs and some reptiles, the only creature you're going to find are ooky ones.

08-06-2016, 11:24 AM

1) Is there a final death?
1a) Is final death feared, longed for or still sought even if it doesn't exist?
2) What do the dead want, individually and collectively?
2a) What are they - individually and collectively - willing to do to get it?
3) Why doesn't station in life/kinship ties matter?
3a) Is it because no-one remembers life, or because death is perceived as the Great Leveller, or...?
4) What do the living neighbours think?
5) Are there any living people in the city?
5a) What's their station/purpose/point?

This could make a really macabre tale where the vampires' bloodbanks get fed up and try to escape/invade/burn the city down around its rulers and send the lot of them to Final Death...

08-06-2016, 11:39 AM
Some neat ideas here but not sure what motivates the dead. How can they be enslaved if they're dead already, can't be killed, don't need food. How to motivate someone that needs nothing you have and fears nothing that ccxan happen to them.

Where are the living? The idea is reminding me a little of Riverworld.

I like, but there niggles in the premise that would trip me as reader.

08-07-2016, 07:37 AM
Thanks for the excellent questions, both!


1. It's hard to know or not. Not all people who die come back, and the ones that do are pretty much stuck in unlife forever. The closest thing to death is to entombment, going into a state of undead hibernation. There are ways to attain true death, but the conditions involved are so terrifying no one seeks them.
1a. A mix of all these things and more. Most dead sense some form of wrongness to their existence, but many still enjoy unlife and wouldn't want to let go of it. Those that don't settle for entombment.

2. Same thing any of us want. To thrive, to be loved and liked, to seek knowledge, to seek power. To get through the day. Ritual and ceremony are important to the culture, and most dead enjoy sociability and feeling they have a role in the society. Because insanity is a real threat, they want to stay as sane and well-adjusted as possible. They will go to great lengths to protect the cohesion of their society, understanding that letting it fail can lead to endless madness or worse.

3. Who you were in life just isn't important to the dead, most think of it as a big reset button. Part of this is just chauvinism, the city of the dead is older and much more advanced than any living civilization, and the dead are indoctrinated by the Trivium to think themselves better. The powers that be encourage this, if the dead in the city started organizing based on cultural and familial ties, the city's enforced monoculture would crumble and the people at the top would lose their grip rather quickly.

4. They stay away. Some contact inevitably exists between the two sides, but as little as possible as far as both sides are concerned. The city of the dead is quite a bit more advanced than everything around it, which ranges from Neolithic to late Bronze Age in level of advancement. The living stay as far from the dead as possible, but also must exist close enough their dead can find their way to the city.

5. At one point, the living were kept in the city as slaves. This ended very badly for everyone involved.


Little like Riverworld, not a comparison I'd snub my nose at. The issue of slavery in the city of the dead is something I'm working out, since it plays a big part in the story. I would argue that, while depriving a slave of their humans needs is the best way to subjugate them, there are still other, more insidious methods as well. The dead can still feel pain (or rather, 'the shadow of pain'), so just think about what that implies when it comes to torture. It's not pretty, but there are whole manuals written about ways you can torture an undead.

Putting that aside, slavery can twisted into a positive in this situation, the new dead come to the city nameless and confused, uncertain of their new condition and bordering on madness. By accepting the reality of slavery, they are given a home and clothing, they are comforted by the priesthood, and they are given a purpose. To lose this, and to be cast among crazed and feral dead, is by far a worse fate than slavery. Wouldn't it be better just to go along?

Finally, the best reason the dead accept slavery is because it might end some day. Slaves are not expected to stay slave forever, there are numerous routes one can go to freedom. You can buy your way free, or if your master is going to entomb themselves they'll be expected to free you. Also, many festivals demand magnates free their slaves as gifts to the city. So most people just suck it up and hope they'll get free one day, after all, they have a long time to wait for it.

08-07-2016, 08:52 AM
@Nossmf- That's a big problem, and a lot of what the story revolves around. Short answer, inter them in tombs beneath the city, some in a state of hibernation, some still awake. Or burn them, which has the problem of creating unquiet ghosts. And mammals don't do too well in the city. Lots of bugs and some reptiles, the only creature you're going to find are ooky ones.

My intention was not asking if live squirrels hang out, but rather if you have undead squirrels and dogs and deer and whatnot.

08-07-2016, 09:14 AM
Aha, my apologies. Tempting, but unfortunately no, undeath seems to be solely a human condition.

08-17-2016, 08:20 PM
I'm looking at this from the point of purpose and goals. I mean, individually, the dead come back to finish some task or to avenge their own death or to honor some oath or vow. If they were attracted to live in the same location one would think an overlying purpose or a group goal would take over like vanquishing the living or undead supremacy. So, I would think that the ruling class would have such a goal and be actively seeking it. As for what such a city looks like, I think it would be an abandoned ruined city left over from some ancient war or plague. I would make it such that the living shun the place because of the history and stories behind it. I believe that, for the most part, the living would actively avoid the place with the exception of magic seekers, treasure hunters, and hunters of the undead. It would make a good story line to have a living antagonist seeking an alliance with a city of the dead to bring down a mutual living foe. It sounds interesting. Best of luck.