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Old 11-20-2012, 08:26 PM   #1
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Sewer Systems In Fantasy

I am not an engineer. Nor do I play one on TV. My knowledge of the subject is (extremely!) limited to how it relates to the fantasy genre, particularly PC and tabletop gaming, but the Obligatory Sewer Adventure is also something that comes up in written fiction all the time. (And since I'm adapting a campaign to a series of novels, I gotta pay attention to this stuff.) Personally speaking, I don't think this is any more cliche than any other common fantasy trapping; it's all in the execution, and sadly, the execution seems to be where most of us get it wrong.

In this blog post, an engineer Dungeon Master gives several easy to understand examples of just how badly game designers do this. Even the Big Boys like Wizards of the Coast get this wrong, and they do it as recently as Dungeons and Dragons Online.

As I said, I am not an engineer, so you'll want to listen to this guy more closely than you listen to me. Below is a snippet from his post, which contains some of the fundamental principles of real sewer design:

Quote:
1) Water flows downhill. Almost every sewer has some slope to it to make sure it drains.

2) Digging underground tunnels (of any size) is expensive and potentially dangerous. So designers design for as little excavation as possible.

3) Bigger pipes are more expensive than small pipes. So designers always use the smallest pipe possible to convey the storm.

4) Wet climates need bigger pipes than dry climates.

5) Big cities with lots of impervious surfaces (rooftops and roads) produce more runoff and effluent than small towns.

6) Sewer systems tend to follow the natural contours

7) In the modern era, sanitary sewers and storm sewers are kept separate so that surface waters and ground waters are not polluted by effluent. In the fantasy realm, this is not typically so (this is called “combined sewer” by the way), which can have excellent narrative consequences.
That last point in particular presented a great worldbuilding opportunity for my husband. He actually wanted the culture in which Obligatory Sewer Adventure takes place to be more advanced than typical medieval Europe. And of course, since it's fantasy, he could think about how magic could shape the way sewers were built and maintained. So yes, these people know enough to separate the poop from the run-off, but that doesn't make walking around their sewers any less dangerous. Let's just say that the characters were extremely thankful both for the existence of antitoxins and that they could accomplish their task without going to the sanitary section of the magic district.

I welcome any corrections or additions a real expert can make. I'm just the wife of a veteran Dungeon Master who scrapped hours of map preparation in favor of a more true to life sewer experience. I'm sure that we still got a few things wrong, but I think we're on the right track, and the story has been improved tenfold by his research.

And really, that's the whole point, right? A better story?

(Note: please excuse any typos or other weird errors. I wanted to type this up before I went to work. I'll be back later tonight!)
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Old 11-20-2012, 08:55 PM   #2
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re: Sewer system

Use as much of the idea you need, throw the rest out. If your characters are trapped in the sewer system then maybe more explanation, but I would go with a less is more mentality. Beware of major info dumps that happen when you think things like this out to much. Cheers

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Old 11-20-2012, 08:58 PM   #3
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Do you really have to explain the sewer system? I see people using sewer tunnelswithout explanation in fiction all the time and don't really question it.
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Old 11-20-2012, 09:28 PM   #4
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You may not question it, sassandgroove, but it irritates the heck out of some of us, in the same way that you'll notice stuff other people don't. That article is spot on, and if it helps me not have to grind my teeth at yet another bad level/dungeon/story even once, it's brilliant.

Some of us wonder about what the people in that mile-high city were eating, how the people who never saw daylight got their vitamins, and where all the monsters in this fortress slept and ate. Wondering about who on earth designed the sewers to be twisty, long, complicated and huge, with all sorts of random rooms and passages for no apparent reason, is part of that.
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Old 11-20-2012, 10:08 PM   #5
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Sewers do seem to be part and parcel of various fantasy game adventures.

Historically, the kinds of sewers that people could actually walk in and use to sneak into buildings are fairly recent. The London Sewer system was built in the 1800's, I believe, and the cloacae of ancient Rome were mostly above-ground culverts and smaller pipes, from what I've read. But in some fantasy novels, more advanced sewer systems been explained (in passing) via magic. It does seem like sneaking into the castle or fort via the sewers (or an old mine shaft that just happens to be underneath, or an abandoned escape tunnel or catacombs that hardly anyone remembers) seems to be a common theme. I was thinking of using this in my book (because they do have sewers in my main city, thanks to the earth and water magi), but it felt a bit too cliche, so I had the sewer idea be something they discussed and rejected as a possible tactic before they came up with another way to get where they needed to be.

It's one of those things that I'd think shouldn't be explained in info dumpey detail, but maybe a plausible reason for their existence should at least be alluded to, and preferably not just 30 seconds before the characters need to use them for something.
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Old 11-20-2012, 10:27 PM   #6
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If explaining your sewer system is necessary, then by all means do so. But if you stop the progress of the story or scene from moving forward, then don't do it. Just hint at the system and let the readers use their own imagination...

As to piping, most sewer piping systems in medieval times was baked ceramics. Metal was too expensive and the technology too inferior in that the metal pipes would rust out in a very short time causing more expense to dig up and replace.

You also have to remember, most buildings did not have indoor plumbing or potties, even in big cities. Castles and large estates had limited indoor plumbing and potties. Whatever system is in use, they have to be large enough for someone to go in and unclog, as well as clean it out from time to time.

If you research sewer systems in ancient European and Mediterranean cities, you will see a lot of them had very large drainage tunnels that led out to a river or sea. It was just one of the causes of the plague in how the rats could travel freely.
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Old 11-20-2012, 10:30 PM   #7
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I think an accurate system would throw up interesting features that would make for a more interesting book. Some Roman systems have been well described, there was even a goddess of the sewers. They understood the importance of hygene.
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Old 11-21-2012, 05:06 AM   #8
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I'm home! And I like the conversation that's been started!

I think it's going to be about three years before I'm even close to the point where I would actually be writing out this part of the story. I mainly wanted to share a few of our findings because 1) I was surprised at how fascinating I found this information to be and 2) I was glad I no longer had my characters walking through an impractically designed maze full of stagnant water with no real place to go (IE, every DDO sewer map ever). And there were no treasure rooms either!

Thothguard, the stuff you mentioned is a big part of why DH ended up rethinking so many things he had initially planned. At first he wanted the sewers to be maintained by these hulking iron golem things that were made back when magic was more powerful. He soon discovered that those kind of golems wouldn't work at all, so instead he has these 1 1/2 ft tall, stone and platinum dudes fixing the clogs, mending the holes in the stonework, clearing the pests, shaping new tunnels out of the natural cave system when necessary, etc.

My characters go into the sewers because the water that fills the wells and bathhouses is starting to smell bad and make people sick. The taverns are nice and full (Water is bad! Beer for everyone!) but the bathhouses, a vital part of the city's economy, aren't getting any business. And of course, people dying from poisoned water is bad for morale. The only other clue is that the human sewer workers keep finding broken golems that no one had had the magical knowledge and skill to fix for years. The king wants the MCs to help the magi/sewer maintenance people find out what's going on before he agrees to help them with something they need to move the meta plot forward.

So yeah, I don't plan to go overboard with this information, but this is the difference between characters strolling through tunnels a subway could fit through while they try to find a secret door, and characters army either hunched over or army crawling slowly upwards while they try to find both the source of the problems and a functional golem so the magi can experiment with it.

And in case you tabletop nerds were wondering, your combat options are especially limited if you've got a "squeezed" penalty, a movement speed penalty, and a dim light penalty when suddenly a puddle of semi-sentient acidic slime drops inches away from your face. :P
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Old 11-21-2012, 06:44 AM   #9
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You might want to check out the "Ten Books of Architecture" by the Roman engineer Vitruvius. One of them deals with aqueducts - which would have fed the bathhouses, as opposed to sewers.
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Old 11-21-2012, 06:47 AM   #10
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Aqueducts are even cooler. And pure water needs only a very shallow slope to function and so can be ultracomplex.
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Old 11-21-2012, 07:15 AM   #11
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You might want to check out the "Ten Books of Architecture" by the Roman engineer Vitruvius. One of them deals with aqueducts - which would have fed the bathhouses, as opposed to sewers.
You're awesome! Thanks for the heads up. I see that the ebook is free, so I'm going to snap that right up.

Do you know if it mentions what they did for purification? If anything? I'm specifically trying NOT to mirror any particular time period, but a sense of place is always good.

Right now this city's sewers have purification houses connected to the sewers. The purified water would be pumped from those buildings to the bathhouses rather than straight from the storm sewer. They'd purify the sanitary sewer too, but not for drinking or washing, just to keep the ocean from getting overly polluted. He figured the purification process would be a blend of magic and "real" chemicals, but since it wasn't vital to the story we were trying to tell he didn't spend much time developing the specifics. For myself, I would like to have an idea, if only to add to the 90% of research material that won't make it to the actual book.

This is why my slow writing pace doesn't bother me anymore. I never know what I'm going to learn in the meantime, and as impossible as it is for me to completely avoid looking like an ignorant fool, I'm all for reducing the frequency at which it happens.
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Old 11-22-2012, 12:03 AM   #12
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Do you know if it mentions what they did for purification? If anything? I'm specifically trying NOT to mirror any particular time period, but a sense of place is always good.
I'm afraid I don't. At this point, I'd recommend a quick shuffle through Wikipedia's entries as a starting point for a more detailed search.

I do know that some systems use "settling pools" that allow all the solid material to drift to the bottom; the liquid from the top is then drained away. That being said, obviously a settling pool does nothing for pathogens or contaminants in suspension.

Generally speaking, even today it's too expensive to turn waste water into drinking/bathing water.
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Old 11-22-2012, 01:04 AM   #13
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I think part of the issue with sewers is not necessarily describing them in detail to the reader (unless the story merits it), but using sewers correctly and in a novel way. So help me, if I read about another character crawling to freedom through a sewer (a la Shawshank Redemption), I'm going to stick a finger in my eye!
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Old 11-22-2012, 01:52 AM   #14
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I think part of the issue with sewers is not necessarily describing them in detail to the reader (unless the story merits it), but using sewers correctly and in a novel way. So help me, if I read about another character crawling to freedom through a sewer (a la Shawshank Redemption), I'm going to stick a finger in my eye!
Haha, yes, exactly!

I thought about patching up DDO and giving it another try recently, but knowing what I know I now I really don't think I can do it. Players spend the first like 20 game hours in various sewer maps, and the whole time I would be like, "How am I literally swimming in this stuff without dying of sepsis? I can't cure disease, I'm only level 3! AND WHERE IS THE POOP ACTUALLY GOING?!"
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Old 11-22-2012, 02:16 AM   #15
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Do you know if it mentions what they did for purification? If anything? I'm specifically trying NOT to mirror any particular time period, but a sense of place is always good.
I kind of doubt most Romans purified bath-house water before or after use. I vaguely remember one documentary where the presenter even saw fit to draw attention to the fact that the bath-house he was visiting had pipes for clean water, but no drains. At all, in fact. Sadly I can't remember specifics, neither on documentary or location of that particular bath-house.
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Old 11-22-2012, 02:42 AM   #16
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I kind of doubt most Romans purified bath-house water before or after use. I vaguely remember one documentary where the presenter even saw fit to draw attention to the fact that the bath-house he was visiting had pipes for clean water, but no drains. At all, in fact. Sadly I can't remember specifics, neither on documentary or location of that particular bath-house.
It seemed pretty unlikely to me too, but ancient civilizations have surprised me with their advanced know-how. In fact, as I'm reading through the book Smiling Ted recommended, I find myself going, "Holy cow, you people know about this stuff?"

Netflix's selection of historical documentaries can be kind of hokey, but I've hit gold a few times. I'll see what I can find there when I'm home alone all day Friday.
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Old 11-22-2012, 03:04 AM   #17
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I vaguely remember one documentary where the presenter even saw fit to draw attention to the fact that the bath-house he was visiting had pipes for clean water, but no drains.
That was Mary Beard. So I guess you really don't remember!
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Old 11-22-2012, 03:18 AM   #18
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I know that filtering 'clean' water using straw was done in Africa only a few decades back. What I don't know is whether that was only part of the process or not - but Grandma swears by a hot cup of tea, so I suspect the straw was to remove anything solid and boiling dealt with microbes etc.
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Old 11-22-2012, 03:29 AM   #19
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As to piping, most sewer piping systems in medieval times was baked ceramics. Metal was too expensive and the technology too inferior in that the metal pipes would rust out in a very short time causing more expense to dig up and replace.

You also have to remember, most buildings did not have indoor plumbing or potties, even in big cities. Castles and large estates had limited indoor plumbing and potties. Whatever system is in use, they have to be large enough for someone to go in and unclog, as well as clean it out from time to time.
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Old 11-22-2012, 03:32 AM   #20
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I know that filtering 'clean' water using straw was done in Africa only a few decades back. What I don't know is whether that was only part of the process or not - but Grandma swears by a hot cup of tea, so I suspect the straw was to remove anything solid and boiling dealt with microbes etc.
That reminds me of a similar process I saw on season one of The Colony. They basically filtered rain water through layers of sand, charcoal and gravel, then they boiled it to get all the invisible yuckies out. The production team let the team of "survivors" drink it, so I'm assuming it's fairly safe and effective. (They also built an ozone generator later on in the season, but I'm pretty sure that wouldn't fit in my culture's era, even if it is fake. ) I'm not sure how they could make that kind of filtration system work with such a large scale supply of water though.
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Old 11-22-2012, 03:33 AM   #21
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That was Mary Beard. So I guess you really don't remember!
Strange, I remember her, but I don't think I've seen Meet the Romans yet, and my memory said an older documentary with a male presentator.

Maybe an older documentary that built on her work? I was sort of thinking maybe Ancient Worlds with Richard Miles. Could be wrong, curse that poor memory of mine.

Still, that's one more documentary series to look out for! So thanks.

(Although I wish I remembered more of these things, I see cool documentaries all the time and I forget such a bleeding lot.)
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Old 11-22-2012, 03:51 AM   #22
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For sewage treatment,

Many sewage treatment plants have these large retaining vats. The sewage is pumped in to a certain level. Lye like chemicals are spread in and then its left to bake in the sun. The residue looks like dried horse manure. As a matter of fact, they used to sell the stuff to farms as manure. The poor also used dried manure as fuel to burn in braziers and pot belly type stoves. Cheaper than a cord of wood...

Anyway, for medieval times, I would think the dried sewage stuff is sold and spread over farm fields. Another source of income for the city or King to offset the cost of maintaining the sewage system.

Remember, sewage has its own system separate from a city's drainage system so that the sewage is not reintroduced into the city's drinking water system.
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Old 11-22-2012, 07:12 AM   #23
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Originally Posted by Smiling Ted View Post
Generally speaking, even today it's too expensive to turn waste water into drinking/bathing water.
Sorry Ted, incorrect, re: link below.

http://www.readersdigest.com.au/drinking-recycled-water

Most Australian sewerage treatment plants produce drinkable (or what is called potable) water. It is not expensive, it is just that the public does not want to drink what once was s_ _t. Do not forget, all you are doing is taking already clean water and removing the poo from it. This is much easier than taking undrinkable water and making it clean (such as through desalination or heavy chemical removal). Water filtration (either via chemicals or filters) is different to sewerage treatment (mainly a bacterial and sieve process).

Now, olden day wise, sewerage treatment did not go through a three phase process (re: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sewage_treatment) as it does today. Instead they relied on the old principle of suck your drinking water upstream of your sewerage outfall, and don't live downstream from a big city.

From a sewer perspective, there is a section of the Adelaide sewerage network (which services around 1 million people) that is about 1 km long in which you can drive a boat. On the surface of the water floats a whole heap of little white balloons, and you need breathing apparatus to row the boat. The rest of the network is smaller than that, either crawling space or pipes which you cannot fit through. The stormwater system is much bigger and separate.

And don't forget the methane. It loves to ignite those wonderful little torches you are carrying with spectacular results.

Just my 2 cents worth. Have fun.
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Old 11-22-2012, 07:25 AM   #24
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It's Fantasy. Can't you just have some minor sanitation wizard make the stuff vanish?

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Old 11-22-2012, 08:29 AM   #25
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It's Fantasy. Can't you just have some minor sanitation wizard make the stuff vanish?

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