by Wanderer Werewolf
©2010 Wanderer Werewolf
For those who may misunderstand the title, allow me to assure my readers that Im not quitting the writing game. My brief and unplanned hiatus was the result of an e-mail server changeover on my end frustrating communications between Cubist and myself at a crucial timenot to mention interruptions. I just had to find all three pieces of my good microphone after my five-year-old autistic nephew quietly took them apart and scattered them through the hall
As promised previously, the topic of the day is sewers. Specifically, the infamous trope of the Absurdly Spacious Sewer. These are no ordinary passages for effluent; these are those well-known fictional locations where three men can walk abreast, ninja mutants can hold pitched martial arts battles, and whole societies can live off a citys cast-off detritus.
Now, a certain amount of this is caused by the average author and a bit of confusion.
Confusion: The main and originating cause of this is the fact that most people dont closely study sewer systems. In the United States of America, for example, storm drains are not only part of the sewers, but occasionally called storm sewers. Which is fine except that storm drains run to the large side (some truly large enough to stand up in), while sanitary sewers (where everything that goes down the toilet winds up) do not. (Sanitary sewer lines are rarely big enough for a child to get through and extremely unhealthy to visit besides.)
It only gets worse when catacombs intrude. A catacomb, naturally enough, is going to be very big; theyre built by people for people to get into, after all. But where sewer systems have hit catacomb systems (as in Paris, France), theres an unfortunate tendency to call the resulting combination sewers.
The authors part: Well, bluntly, the average author really needs a place for things to happen out of the public eye. Whether its fantasy, urban horror, steampunk, or even far-flung science fiction gaming, there are some things (and creatures) that need to be kept out of the view of John and Klaatu Q. Public. Buildings and special strongholds are fine for the wealthier characters, but the poorer characters (including the local underworld, possibly in both senses) need a place, too. Throw in the above confusion, and the sheer number of characters traipsing through sewers could overflow Grand Central Station. (Yes, I said overflow in an article on sewers. Sorry about that.)
First, lets address reality: Are there really some very big sewer systems where action could take place?
Well, yes. To begin with, the earliest sewer systems (dating all the way back to Rome) were really storm drains; the average toilet, privy or easement room dumped (Im sorry, some of these puns really are unavoidable) the contents into cesspits. Once theyd dried and aged, they were collected for use as fertilizer. (The occupation in question, that of carting away the contents of the cesspits, was politely called oozeman in English. The less polite terms need no explanation from me.) And since a storm drain has to be of large enough diameter to carry the largest recorded rainfall in the area, some of those pipes were pretty big. The Cloaca Maxima (big drain) of Rome, for instance, is certainly big enough to walk through as long as it hasnt rained recently.
The problem is, cesspits take time to build and, like Romes defensive walls, were always a mile behind the population growth. Officially, of course, it was forbidden to dump your personal outflow into the Cloaca Maxima but public easement rooms and the baths were another story. Then, too, cesspits need a certain amount of down time in which to dry and age; without that, as Paris, France found out when their local subsoil started to putrefy, things quickly turn to rot. (This was well before the Paris Sewers could be built, however; they turned to cesspools (lined, covered cisterns) instead. Of course, those had to be emptied more often )
And, of course, nearly everyone knows someone who would throw their personal chamberpot contents down the storm drain because everybody does it. (Some medieval-to-Renaissance people were inconsiderate enough to toss it out second-story windows, to the point of the French inventing the understated exclamation, Garde leau! (Watch out for the water!) as a chamberpot-related Look out below!) Properly against the law, of course nobody wants to walk in someone elses feces but it could be very hard to prosecute in the days before DNA evidence. Why, no, officer, I would never throw my feces in the road
The modern answer, the separated sewer system, was developed in Memphis, Tennessee in the United States of America, back in the 1890s. It gives biological waste its own separate channel to the treatment plant, drawing on both an original design by Col. George E. Waring, Jr and design improvements by the English engineer, Sir Robert Rawlinson. (Warings original design had one gaping flaw; the lamp-hole accesses were often too small for use. Rawlinson added manholes.)
But I digress. The point is, yes, as long as youre in storm drains, there are indeed sewers big enough to have adventures in. In some cities, such as New York, there are even whole sub-communities living in them between rainstorms (although visiting them is inadvisable; as with any homeless population, there may be some good people, but there are likely to be a few dangerous nuts here and there). And if there are catacombs (as in Seattle, Washington, USA, or Paris, France), things can really get interesting.
The next question, of course, is: How do I get my characters/the PCs down there? After all, we now have a reasonable (if shaky) justification for setting adventures down there; how do we get the adventure in?
To begin with, while the classic manhole as we know it is recent, the idea is not. Ever since Rome paved over a bunch of streams to make the Cloaca Maxima, youve had to have someone get in there and unclog it. (Not to mention, where the wicked will take advantage, authorities shall seek to punish. While most cities have locked or welded grates over their exit pipe openings, Vienna, Hungary, actually has its own sewer police (a division of their Wiener EinsatzGruppe Alarmabteilung (WEGA) forces) to search the storm drains for criminal activity. And yes, they did appear in Orson Welles movie, The Third Man.) No matter where or when you are, any sewer system is going to need a maintenance access.
Of course, there are problems. Manhole covers started out made of stone (Ancient Rome used cheap sandstone squares), and have only gotten heavier. (Modern manhole covers are cast iron, many with a cement filling. Weights of over 100 pounds (45 kg) are average.) Lifting them off with a pick from above is hard enough; pulling the age-old fictional trick of lifting it one-handed from below, over your head well, it just isnt too likely with that little leverage.) So its a lot easier to get in than to get out.
Of course, there are always the exit pipes; theyre big enough, and you dont have to worry about lifting 100+ pounds of lid. Depending on the setting, you might even get royal/governmental permission to go in that way. (And if not, well, lockpicks are lockpicks and guards are guards.) The trade-off, naturally, is convenience; starting from the nearest large body of water, you can wind up walking miles through those pipes before you get to your destination. Hope you brought a map
(Materials note: While modern systems are made with cement pipes, the original ones were made with laid stonework. The Cloaca Maxima is downright beautiful, with mile upon mile of well-laid stones and archways. Not bad for a storm drain.)
And thats before you consider that the local government knows exactly where each and every opening is
Of course, there are always alternates to these reality-based answers. Depending on setting, you can get characters in through the local catacombs, a teleporter of one sort or another, or even a trapdoor. Then they just have to figure a way out
Finally, assuming you decide to set action in a storm drain, there are important setting notes to consider:
(Of course, you can also skip having sewers altogether
but wheres the fun in that? No, I kid. Just remember that every society has to do something with waste and runoff, and plan accordingly.)
Above all, though, remember that a storm drain should never be just another room. Even under the dry streets of Las Vegas, the storm drains are damp, dark and dirty. Thats the true absurdity of the Absurdly Spacious Sewer trope: Treating a storm drain as though it were a dry and well-lit room. Just remember what normally flows through that room, and youll be fine.
Now, how can storm drains be used in your adventures? Consider:
All in all, storm drains make a usefulif somewhat intermittent, depending on weatheraddition to your terrain catalog. Just watch out for summer showers
From a species-neutral topic, next time well be looking at a similar item with more individuation: Catacombs. What they are, how big they can be, and some notable historical instances (and discoveries) to shed light into these underground demesnes (along with the sorts of variations you could reasonably expect from certain species and not just rats, either). Until next time, friends!
The History of Sanitary Sewers: Specifically, their multi-page timeline, Tracking Down The Roots Of our Sanitary Sewers, a good recounting of some of the sewers finest moments in history. Put together by Jon Schladweiler, the historian of the Arizona Water Association. One of the few I know to get the story of Thomas Crapper right in every detail. As good as youd expect from the sewer advisor to the Modern Marvels series. (Includes full bibliography, as well.)
American Architect and Architecture, Volume I: A complete (if long and dry) recounting of the history of Memphis sewer system can be found in these pages.