What does a City of Adventure look like? The kind of place where your main characters could stage intrigues in the airy halls of the palace or get down and dirty in the wretched hives of scum and villainy on the outskirts? Where your merry band of player characters could plot their next caper or set up their base while they clear the hinterlands of monsters? Maybe it could look like this.
The city of Tulum is one of the best-preserved ancient Maya cities on the coast of Central America. It served as the principal seaport for nearby inland cities on the Yucatán Peninsula, connecting overland trade routes with seaborne trade in the Carbibbean. The walled city sits right on a cliff overlooking the sea from which beacons may have served as a lighthouse to help guide incoming ships through a gap in the barrier reef. A small sheltered beach between cliffs provided a safe landing. Imagine piloting a trade canoe laden with salt and textiles through a stormy night, trying to keep the beacon fire in sight as the waves crash on the reef all around.
The city had a roughly rectangular wall with multiple gates. The height and thickness of the wall suggest that the defense of the site was a top concern, but the many gates also show how important it was to keep the city open to trade. Imagine a company of mercenaries hired to guard a caravan of porters bringing loads of copper and jade down from the mountains towards a trading port on the coast, always on the lookout for bandits, rivals, and wild beasts.
Within that wall, a number of temples, ritual sites, and elite homes occupied the central ground. The trade that came through Tulum brought wealth and power with it. Wherever there is wealth and power, there are struggles to control it. Sometimes that control is manifested in big, obvious ways like the grand temples and palaces where the mighty enact the rituals of power. Sometimes it comes in subtle ways like the intricate, unspoken rules about who enters a room first or begins a conversation. Imagine walking the porticoes and streets of such a city, plotting the next move in a deadly game between rival factions.
Images: “El Castillo,” photograph by Greg Willis via Wikimedia. Temple of the wind god, photograph by Popo le Chien via Wikimedia. Aerial view of Tulum, photograph by Dronepicr via Wikimedia. Temple of the Frescoes, photograph by Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia.
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.