RPG Design Journal #3: History is a Nightmare…

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This might be too much history for a game…

The land is mapped, the course is clear – the time has come to delve headfirst into the past so that we may define the present of our world.

History building can be one of the most dangerous parts of world building. Its very easy to get wrapped up in the details of a setting’s past, but the more information present in a world’s history the more difficult it will be to implement it into the actual gameplay so that its palatable for players. You can try writing a “history book” for the players to read before hand, but that’s even more time consuming and not all players will want to read that. Plus, how are you going to determine what information players are familiar with and what information is unknown? When I make a world’s history I try to come up with a list of major events that have directly influenced this setting in a way that affects the players. Smaller, more “bite sized” events can be built out of NPCs, locations, monsters, spells and other elements of the world. This way the big events build the history in a visible manner, while the smaller bits (the parts I would say constitute the “lore”) are built into parts of the world that can be interacted with and discovered. So, let’s start with the keystones of the world’s history.

We know that the game setting is a colony, so that’s an important event: the Empire moved north some time in the past and then “discovered” a new land that they began colonizing. This is a good starting place. But, instead of moving forward towards the present, I’m going to go backwards just a bit more. The Empire is an important presence in this world, and now is a good time to give it a little more flavor. The founding of an Empire is an important event, and a world-spanning Empire often has a big say on how it determines its own history. We’ll say that the Empire is founded in year zero of this world’s timeline (the Empire started its calendar at its founding). The Empire is also a useful tool to say why all the character races (human, dwarf, gnome, etc.) can be found together and why they work together (maybe some don’t work together, but we’ll get into that later). Of course, people don’t usually just submit to being assimilated peacefully. We’ll say that the Empire underwent a long period of warfare that ended with it assimilating or destroying most of its surrounding neighbors that ended in, say, year 500 of the calendar. Finally, we’ll say that the Empire discovered the New Lands (what would become the colonies) in the year 1000. Yes, the dates are a little too neat and even to be realistic, but they’re easy to remember and we can put in other events as needed.

So, the colonies begin in the year 1000. The first city – St. Malun’s – is probably made that same year. As the colonies expand they slowly begin to move East. In 1020 the colonies split into Curelsed and Yûevellin. In 1025 Harthkatha is formed. The Coalition is a military territory formed in response to the monster migrations. If we say that the migrations happen, say, every 30 years then we can say that the colonies face the first migration around the year 1030 and the Coalition is formed shortly afterwards – say 1033.

So here’s our calendar so far:

  • Year 0: Empire is founded.
  • Year 500: Empire reaches current borders in homeland.
  • Year 1000: Empire explores North, founds St. Malun’s.
  • Year 1020: Curelsed and Yûevellin separate.
  • Year 1025: Harthkatha becomes separate colony.
  • Year 1030: First monster immigration encountered.
  • Year 1033: The Coalition is formed.

For the current year we’ll jump a bit ahead and say the players are playing in the 1300s. That gives us 300 years of distance and a bit more room to add recent events.

This seems very bare, and it is, but that’s not bad. This gives us an idea of scale of the world’s history, and tells us how the colonies were developed. Now we can start sprinkling in some other ideas that pertain to this calendar.

Let’s look a bit more at the Empire. Even though its a clichè, we’ll say that humans were the main force that began the Empire. Humans are adaptable and industrious, but we’ll also say that they’re more single-minded and aggressive than most other people. I think the Dwarves will also be an early addition to the Empire – Dwarves are rather similar to people, they’re industrious, they live in permanent urban environments, overall they mesh well with humans. So the Empire probably began with a human-dwarf alliance. The halflings and the orcs were later conquered. The halflings in this world care a lot about personal freedom, and they’re not the kind of society that will take lightly to being conquered. The orcs feel similarly, but also have their own aggressive expansionism. So between the Halfling tribes and constant Orc uprisings we can see why it took 500 years for the Empire to reach a period of stability (albeit a stability built upon violence and cultural suppression). But wait, what about Elves and Gnomes? Where are they in this history? Well, I’ve been thinking about the idea of the Eternal Forest and how I want this world to be darker and more dangerous than usual settings. The Forest as an unknown has an almost Lovecraftian feeling to it – a mysterious location of untold power, impossible to comprehend or explore, but I don’t want to just throw in the tentacles-and-slime style of the usual Lovecraft horror. Instead, I’m going to make the Forest draw upon the idea of the Fey and Faerie as seen in ancient folk tales. This means that the Elves and the Gnomes aren’t going to be your average, everyday D&D stock creatures. Elves and Gnomes are dark reflections of humans and halflings from the faerie realm, armed with great power and utterly incomprehensible to mortal minds. I’m also including the Calibans from the Ravenloft setting to reflect the orcs. Right now the Duergar are seving as the usual dark-dwarfs, but I’ll see if I can find something more fitting later.

So Humans and Dwarves have a relatively friendly history. The Halflings and the Orcs are a part of the Empire, but they’re not big fans of it. Elves, Gnomes, Calibans, and Duergar are dangerous denizens of the Eternal Forest that other races don’t understand and rarely encounter.

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An early sketch for the elves of the setting

We should also determine the actual technological setting for the game. D&D is usually a mix of high-medieval and renaissance tech which occasionally borrows from the Enlightenment and the Victorian periods. This setting, being so heavily focused on colonialism, exploration, and superstition, seems closer to the Renaissance, maybe spilling a little bit into the age of Exploration. We’ll say that this world is closer to the Renaissance. Armor still exists (especially in the less developed colonies) but is on its way out in the mainland where gunpowder is beginning to be developed. This world may also borrow from the aesthetics of the Age of Exploration and Victorians to get that gothic feeling as seen in Solomon Kane and Bloodeborne.

As we develop the world more history will come out of it: why did the Empire go North? Who first met the Elves? Do any Fey live outside the Forest? Do dwarves, orcs, and gnomes have their own religion? Or is there a state religion? The important thing is to develop an experience. The history isn’t important if it doesn’t interact with the players. If we know who discovered the New Lands then we should make that character have a footprint: did they leave behind an artifact? Are their descendants important npcs? Is there a mystery surrounding them? Did a player’s ancestor serve with them? These are the things that make the world matter. Only once the history becomes tangible to the players is it lore, otherwise its just a bunch of words on a page (or even worse, a bunch of words in your own head) that they have no reason to care about. So as we continue we’ll need to start creating and answering questions about the specifics of this world within the basic history we’ve just laid out.

Next up we’ll begin with the creation of some important NPCs.

Cheers,

-PH

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