From the Ground up – Creating a History


We’ve made our way, creating a brand new world, through Geography, flora, fauna, Magical traits, and basic knowledge of civilization both traditional and non-traditional. Each of these steps has been to build the knowledge with which to create a solid framework and foundations. Now, we start getting into the world of the people, and how it is both perceived and lived. First up, a working history. 

I would say, from building many worlds, stories and adventures, that the history of a place and its people is often the single largest factor in determining the current outlook of the current inhabitants. 

You see this if you look around at the greater world we live in today, and this can easily be neglected in a world being created from scratch. Americans take their prompts of life from the Americans before them. Italians share heritage and houses with those from thousands of years ago. The Nepalese live among shrines that have been active for centuries. Many of these places and people place pride in their history. Others feel shame, but it is intrinsically part of the identity. This too, should be a part of the world your building. 

Start at the Beginning 

The basic setting of most fantasy RPG’s is that of the middle ages, a time of transition between the Roman empires collapse and the rise of the Renaissance. This collapse of the Roman Empire is critical to the formation of many of the critical, foundational systems in the Middle ages. The Roman embrace of Christianity lead to the Divine Right of Kings, the breaking apart of the Villa lead to manors, and the great roads paved and created during the empires height collapsing into disrepair cannot be understated. 

This means that many of the assumptions of the middle ages are based on the kingdoms having this backbone to build upon. If your game is a middle ages game, you almost need to have a fallen empire of a vast and powerful scope, if not two, in ruins under your game world. Having this will often set the tone and narrative of the kingdoms that currently exist. If the past civilization was one that persecuted magical ability, then you have grounds for both continuing that prejudice or reversing it and embracing them, with the different tons that come with those choices as well. Much of the creative joy that comes from building a world is from connecting the dots to make a cohesive whole when none existed prior. 

start by looking at the nation or empire that directly preceded the current order. this would have the greatest impact on the currently living individuals. What was their culture, in the broadest of senses. Were they militarily or mercantile? Did they build great edifices, or were they more scholarly? These things matter a great deal. Additionally, your going to want to look at the layout of the world and find where the two cultures would have overlapped, and more importantly, where they wouldn’t. Few cultures sit directly on top of each other, and fewer still completely overlap or envelop. This will also give you, going back to the last article, a good place for a marchlands as two Kingdoms fight over an important piece of territory, one because its heritage matches those on the other side of the border, and the other because it is claiming natural resources, cities or other important factors with in the ceded or conquered land. 

The Peoples 

A proper history will also give you ground for placing people in the right place and the right area. You’ll know when the elves arrived, where from, and what they started doing. You’ll have their history and fall mapped out briefly, and know where they should be located in both concentration and rarity. The same goes for all of the peoples of a given area. 

Now, don’t think that you have to map everything out the exact hour and time, being vague, especially with things that aren’t going to be relevant to the characters or the story immediately will enable you to edit the backstory without much of a problem. If you write up a history of the dwarves that has them coming out of the Mountains of the Ironfoe 2000 years ago, with no forewarning or reason for anyone to believe that there was a civilization there, you don’t need to go and create the reason. If you do, you don’t even need to stick to it. There have been some great moments when my players have either playfully or intentionally made a part of the history of the world. your idea for the Dwarves was that they were all on the other side of the mountain and were chased through and came out because they had found an ancient terror in one of their mines. Your players, one day, joke about them being crafted by fire and earth elementals to serve in their great elemental city in the center of the mountain range, rebelling and fighting their way free, and you think the players idea is much better (It is!). Its simple to just co-opt the idea and call it a day. Just don’t forget to credit the player when you reveal the history of the dwarves. Its important for the players to know that they, too, are shaping the world simply by playing and being a part of the game. 

In addition to setting the infrastructure up, the historical ages that lie beneath the eons of time help create the attitudes of the people in the world. Connecting a certain people to great mythical figures gives them ties and great bonds among themselves, as well as raising themselves above their lesser neighbors. This is something that is rarely addressed, often because its awkward to do so, in games. Almost every person thinks their culture or nation or kingdom is the most powerful, best, strongest in the known world. Being able to back that up with Legendary figures among the heroes of the nation is a huge boon. 

Cultural Legacy

Finally, there will be a great cultural tie, in addition to foundational and personal, that you’ll be able to exploit for good measure. If the culture that dominated prior to the present was flavored in an Egyptian context, with reverence for the dead, mummies, god-kings and giant monuments to the deceased, then you have a really strong idea of what a culture that overlaps where they ruled would feel like. There are many different places and times you can steal from to make an intriguing and interesting unique culture. Combine physical atributes of one place, the historical naming conventions of another, and the government of another, and you can endlessly find a strong theme to run through the past empires

In Practice

Make sure, when your creating your worlds, to give them an interesting and detailed background. This need not be anything more than details in your head that you keep track of and change on a whim, but it could also be written or typed notes that define your adventures and their motives. I know that in one of my adventures, I dug deep into the past and dug up an ancient dwarven empire, while in others I rarely touched it except to give context to coins, weapons, and magic items. 

Its a great way to introduce a bit of realism without a ton of work, and make the characters feel a bit deeper and a bit more involved in the world than your standard manor and king tropes. 

till next time,