Nyngan (pronounced Ning-gan) is the small town in central New South Wales where I grew up, so I know it well – at least as it used to be. It’s so remote that I haven’t been back there for years. In the following passages, I hope to bring it to life for my readers, then adapt the general description to various game settings.
The Real Nyngan
To begin with, let me acquant you with the real settlement, the township of Nyngan.
The Nyngan Environment
Technically, Nyngan stands astride the desert line, but compared to most towns in central and western New South Wales, they are very lucky in that they have ample water supplies most of the time, though minor water restrictions are permanently in place, and water rates are very expensive. Wooded stands are common, but the general natural ecology is scrubland.
Nyngan in Summer
The heat sucks the breath from your body, and it is all the casual visitor can do to pant and think of something cool and moist. It’s so hot that the bitumen softens to become sticky tar with gravel in it, The earth seems flat as a pancake, and the roads are so straight that they can be hypnotic. It rarely rains, droughts alternating with rare flood years, when sheets of water fifty or more kilometers across sweep over the landscape. In dry years, clouds of thick red dust that sticks to everything like glue occasionally choke the town. When it rains, this turns into a cloying, clinging mud that is more than enough to unbalance tires. Flies are common irritations, most are small in size but occasionally you will find one a centimeter or more in length. The record temperature is 47°C (116.6°F) in the shade, the average is 33°C (91.4°F).
Nyngan in Winter
There are colder places, but there are few that feel so chilly when the southerlies blow. They seem to ferret out any opening and insinuate themselves between coverings and flesh. At night, the temperature plunges, and thick frosts are not uncommon. Fog is infrequent but not unheard-of. The lowest temperature on record is -4°C (24.8°F), but the mid-winter average is about 8°C higher than this (39.2°F).
Most houses stand alone on sizable blocks of land with front and/or back yards fully large enough for a second or even third dwelling. These tend to be individually fenced. When water restrictions do not force them to burn a withered yellow-brown, they are a vibrant green in summer, a little less so in winter. Burrs and weeds are common. Many have their own water-catchment tanks attached to supplement the town supply. Few homes these days don’t have air conditioning, though a few still make do with electric fans. Many of the homes now have solar panels on the roofs.
Houses all have screen doors in addition to more typical wooden doors. Homes are often unlocked when someone is at home, or even when nipping down to the shops to buy something; crime is relatively low. Many would fit the description, “spartan but homey and comfortable”, but over the years domestic improvements have accumulated. All told, the urban population numbers roughly a couple of thousand people.
Most of the streets are wide; some have gravel shoulders, others are bitumen all the way to the curbs. Trees are commonplace, and their shade provides welcome relief from the summer sun or the winter wind.
The Dangers Of Nyngan
In the surrounding lands, occasional wild dogs and wild boars may be encountered, but the most prevalent dangerous wildlife is the Kangaroo, predominantly the Eastern Grey and occasional Red. These can weigh as much as 90kg (200lb), stand 2m (6’6″) tall, and can leap more than a meter in the air to clear fences. They have sharp claws on feet and paws, and the former especially can be dangerous when the wild animals are confronted.
Black and Brown snakes are uncommon but can occasionally be found in gardens and yards even within the town boundaries. These are highly venomous. The browns are rarer, but often more aggressive, or maybe it’s the other way around – I honestly don’t recall.
Redback Spiders are a menace that children are taught to beware of from an early age; they like to crawl into cool and sheltered locations, under homes and into garages and tool sheds, and will often make a home in any opened can left lying around for long enough, or the undersides of toys.
Nyngan At Night
The stars are breathtaking, especially just outside of town, removed from the glare of streetlamps. Even within the town boundaries, the view is hundreds of times sharper and more densely-populated than the best city view. In summer, a chorus of insects fills the air. Mosquitoes are an ever-present nuisance in the hot seasons, especially at night; the locals avoid standing directly beneath streetlamps and overhead lighting in the open to avoid being (metaphorically) eaten alive.
The locals generally hate daylight savings; it frequently does not grow dark in midsummer until 8:30 or 9:00 PM. The gap between closing time for the businesses (generally 5:30) and darkness is when the town is at its social height (barring weekends). There’s really no excuse under such conditions for parents not spending time with their kids, though it still happens. Casually visiting friends and relatives is frequent during these hours, whether it be for 5-10 minutes or half-an-hour.
The Shopping Centre
Entering the settlement from the direction of the city, almost 600 kilometers away, one is almost immediately within the commercial district. A short distance into town, the major highway turns left to cross the railroad line, though the road itself continues straight ahead; this involves climbing an artificial hill to the not-at-all-level crossing. A system of flashing lights and bells warns when a train is approaching the intersection, but is rarely needed these days; passenger trains now stop at Dubbo, the nearest city, 170 kilometers away (this trip supposedly takes less than 2 hours but most drivers would consider that a good time, 2½-3 is more common, especially if part or all the travel is in twilight or at night). From Dubbo, you take a coach to Nyngan. However, the line remains open to freight trains.
Twilight travel requires both driver and passengers to be constantly alert for wildlife, especially Kangaroos, on the shoulders of the highway; hitting one at speed can write off a car or severely damage it, to say nothing of the potential consequences to vehicle occupants.
Some commercial properties lie along the original route, but it is only across the railroad crossing that the real town centre is reached, as the highway turns right and heads west. Secondary operations exist elsewhere in town, but 95% or more of retail operations occur along this stretch of road, or one of the side-streets branching off to the south, almost all within a block of the main street. Nyngan has the usual shops, but is oversupplied with taverns, pubs, and clubs for a town of its size. It is probably undersupplied with cafes, cake shops, and takeaways relative to most similar towns.
In many ways, Nyngan is the same as any small town anywhere in the world – people are friendly, if not immediately embracing of strangers. The locals generally divide into two groups: those who live on farms and sheep/cattle stations (“ranches” for the American readers) outside of town, and the urban population. The latter like to think of themselves as the reason the town exists, but the reality is that everything local is infrastructure to support those who support the non-urban population.
A vital secondary function relates to the towns positioning on the major connection between Sydney and the capital of South Australia, Adelaide.
As well as sheep and cattle, Nyngan has a large and growing farming industry. Wheat, barley, oats, and canola, are the most commonly crops. This is a very costly and unrewarding occupation; if the rain does not come at the right time, farmers are lucky to cover their expenses, but the odd good year is enough to keep them trying again and again. Another new industry that has emerged in recent years in the area is mining. Nyngan currently mines copper ore only, but there has been minable gold discovered in the region too. For the immediate future, there are no plans to exploit this last development, but eventually it will almost certainly happen.
If this gives the impression that the residents are all optimists, it’s not far from the truth, though they can complain as much as anyone anywhere else. Most of the residents love a gamble but few risk to excess. “You have to be in it to win it” is very much a Nyngan philosophy that extends to all aspects of the lives of the population. Another characteristic is a steady, unwavering determination; no matter how bad the times are, economically, for the region, there is always a new prospect on the horizon that will keep the settlement ticking over.
Most Nynganites are very keen on sport. Rugby League is the most popular and men travel up to 200km each way to compete in both Rugby League and Rugby Union competitions. A local touch football competition is also very popular with high participation and strong local attendance. In summer there is a local cricket competition and both lawn bowls and golf are played all year round. Every few years, Tennis rises in local popularity.
Amongst families, little athletics is very popular and parents think nothing of taking their children long distances each weekend to compete with the “neighboring” towns.
Of course, given the summer temperatures, swimming is a popular recreation. This is not usually organized competition; its more about getting cool and wet, splashing around and having fun. Hundreds have been known to pack the municipal swimming pool at a time.
Small roads leave town to the north and south. The main routes out of town are to the east (already discussed) and to the west. Taking that westerly course, you cross a bridge across a large, reasonably slow-moving river, the Bogan. Beyond this bridge is another park which provides access to the river for swimming and boating. This has only one advantage over the swimming pool: it’s free to use. Once or twice a year, major events draw hundreds of people to the site.
The town has a library, a hospital, 3 churches, and an Olympic swimming pool. There’s a primary school, a catholic school, a high school, and a kindergarten. There are a few parks, a couple of ovals, and an aerodrome suitable for light aircraft. In recent times it has been announced that a huge solar energy farm will be constructed in the region that is expected to generate a lot of employment.
I still have aunts and cousins living in Nyngan, and other relatives who visit regularly so I had some of them review the above for accuracy and comment. I need to thank them for their contributions before I go any further.
The Nyngan Of The Past – a personal impression
Discounting recent developments such as the farming and mining, there’s been very little change in Nyngan over the years. A major event a decade seems to be the average; the pace of life is slower there. Beyond that, only minor differences divide one year from the next.
In part, that’s due to the dependence on the rural economy; if there’s a bad year, you cope and wait for the next in hopes of improvement. In part, it’s due to the isolation, which also insulates against whatever is going on in the wider world. Both of these elements attract a certain kind of personality, those who might list perseverance in the face of adversity in a profile – if they went in for such nonsense, which they don’t.
Roughly twenty years ago (give or take a couple of years), the town was at it’s lowest ebb. That was when the town was at the heart of the worst flood on record. Desperate attempts by the locals to reinforce levee banks failed, and the entire town had to be evacuated by helicopter. The rural economy had been failing for some time, and for many, this was the last straw. I was told that up to 1/3 of those evacuated did not return, and did not intend to return; this was an opportunity for a fresh start elsewhere. Many of my relatives felt the town was dying. And yet, the lure of the easygoing people and the cheap real estate and the homesickness factor has led many of those who departed to creep back in ones, twos, and threes, over the years, and the population level of the settlement is now almost exactly what it was in my youth.
25-30 years ago, passenger rail services to the town were stopped, producing the rail-bus arrangement described earlier, except for increasingly rare exceptions each day that eventually stopped completely. A few years earlier, the public high and primary schools had separated and the primary moved into a new complex. That happened the year before I entered Secondary Education (school years 7-12).
Fourty-five years ago, more-or-less, the swimming pool and municipal library opened, at close to the same time. I think the swimming pool came first by a couple of years, but couldn’t swear to it. I was just starting school.
That’s the pace of events and changes in Nyngan: slow to develop, slow to change, one day much like the next, and even more like the same day the year before. The town preserves, conserves, and encapsulates some of the best attributes of society in a more golden era. Think 1950s, but without the 1950s attitudes. There’s an unhurried pace to life, and the sense that there’s always time to pause and say hello to the people you know and have a chat about whatever. It’s a product of gritty determination, a hardy optimism that rarely if ever relents, a hostile climate, and a relative isolation that spares it from the volatility, the highs and lows, of much of the modern world. They have just enough contact to avoid becoming insular, to remain relatively cosmopolitan in outlook, and avoid living up the cliché of the country hick.
The Isolation Of Nyngan
It’s worth mentioning a trend that has continued for decades: In olden days, when cars and roads weren’t very good, there used to be a lot of country towns half-a-day’s travel or less from each other. As transport and infrastructure improved, people didn’t need to stop as frequently and undertook longer journeys. Travel to Sydney by car used to be a ten-hour all-day trip, departing early in the morning and arriving late in the afternoon; that has now been cut to six or seven hours.
The difference has been small but has accumulated, and many small country towns have withered and all but died. The same is true of many of the smaller settlements that surround Nyngan. This has led to the contact between the town and the outside world being diminished except for when special occasions prompt one or more locals to make the trip to “the big city”.
Prices In Nyngan
Every commodity seems to cost more in Nyngan, largely because it has to be transported to the town. Fuel prices are very high, and enough to invoke slightly bitter laughter when urban dwellers complain about the price of fuel going up; whatever the landmark valuation is, it was old news in Nyngan more than a decade earlier.
Balanced against that is the price of land and housing, which is a fraction of the city or suburban pricing. What would be a million-dollar home and block of land in a cheap Sydney suburb is a tenth that price in Nyngan. At one point I calculated that it would have cost only $5-$10 a week more than I was paying in rent and utilities to buy a house in Nyngan and commute by air to the city and back every weekend.
A lot of services that more populous centers take for granted just don’t exist. I remember it causing a minor sensation when Nyngan first got a taxi. At times there have been a couple, at other times none; whether or not there’s one at the moment, I don’t know. There’s no internal public transport aside from school busses, which collect kids from the surrounding country properties each morning and deliver them back at the end of the school day. You either provide your own transport, or you walk. The town is small enough that you can do that.
Nyngan in Fantasy
Nyngan can be used as a model for any isolated community without much change. The architecture would be different, and perhaps the wildlife that occasionally reminds the citizens that they are surrounded by nature. The climate would need to change to match the surrounding environment. The primary requirement would be to explain the isolation. This can be done with geographic distance, or with geographic difficulties. It’s not a place of high adventure, but it is the sort of place that might lie along an invasion route, or to which a dark evil might escape to lick its wounds in hidden shadows after a defeat. You could change the threat of floods to the threat of a volcanic eruption and never miss a beat.
Nyngan in SF
The same need has to be accommodated to use the town in an SF setting. It could be transplanted to become a small lunar colony, established to extract minerals from the lunar subsurface, an industry that has given way to hydroponic farming, for example.
You could easily scale up the township to provide the model for an agricultural world within some galactic federation or empire. The trick is to expand and analogize the elements that make up the town to the same scale – the major travel route passing through, the relative isolation, and so on.
Nyngan in Pulp & Horror
Nyngan is not the sort of town to feature in either of these genres unless the isolation was somehow unusual, the people trapped in a twilight zone where change hasn’t kept pace with its surroundings, and the citizens live in ignorance of the lurking horror or alien invaders amongst them. The township is even more isolated than the community that is the initial point of contact in “The Puppet Masters” by Robert A. Heinlein, so much so that there would be no need to disguise the spaceship of the Titans as a schoolboy publicity stunt; there wouldn’t be any media attention to begin with. It’s probably the least-likely place in the world from which to launch a bid for global domination – and that in itself makes it an attractive setting for the headquarters of such a bid to a GM.
Of course, it would only take a small exaggeration of the ‘friendliness’ of the locals and their willingness to go the extra mile to speed a stranded traveler on their way to make the township assume subtle but really creepy overtones.
Nyngan in a Western
If there is one genre for which Nyngan seems naturally suited, it’s that of the Western. Some municipal elements might need to be downgraded, and the technology regressed, but the town itself barely needs to change.
Nyngan in Cyberpunk
The internet reached Nyngan a long time ago, but even there it is relatively isolated by slow speeds, something that is only slowly changing. The latest generation of internet-enabled Smartphones have probably had a very big impact – something I hadn’t thought of when talking to my relatives about the content of this article, or I would have asked about it specifically.
What that means is that Nyngan is a surprisingly-good and interesting fit when viewed as a model for a community in this genre of game. You have the physical isolation, you could easily have a backwoods sub-society of cybernetically-enhanced toughs and hillbillies, and yet the township could easily form the nexus for a plot aimed at domination of the Net. Most of the town would be ignorant of this role, but the isolation and the small size of the community would provide a number of natural defenses to such an operation. Strangers would stand out from a mile away, and as I said in a another context a few paragraphs ago, this is the last place you would look for a plot aimed at global domination.
Nyngan & Superheroics
In one way, Nyngan and Superheroics just don’t mix. There’s nothing there to attract the sort of vile menace that four-colored heroes are prone to tackle. In another, since superhero campaigns can borrow plots from just about any other genre, the town is an easy fit. In a recent adventure within my superhero game, a corporation had set up a ‘facility’ for hiding people they wanted to bury away from public scrutiny, disguised as a hospital and attached car dealership. While the township itself was a small community set in Canada, I was all set to use Nyngan as my model for it – but the PCs never went there. It was that idea that initially led to the subject of this Blog Carnival.
Nyngan is a strange hybrid of isolated country town and cosmopolitan centre, of friendly folks and a distinct personality, that makes it a useful conceptual model for a wide range of communities in gaming. It is a chameleon, large enough to be used as an urban settlement and small enough to simply be the focal point of a region dominated by primary industry.
With the exception of a year or so back in the 80s, I haven’t lived there in more than 30 years, but it continues to exert an influence over my way of thinking and my personality; in many ways it is the wellspring from which I have sprung. Would I ever move back there? Almost certainly not; I’m too well-adapted to the larger urban environment in which I reside. But you can take the boy out of Nyngan, you can never take Nyngan out of the boy. It’s been a privilege to share my impressions of it with you.