Building a Fantasy World X: History
Many aspects of worldbuilding have an instant payoff. The very first descriptive words of the Hook can establish the tone, nations and cities quickly establish the backdrop, racial or class limitations drive character creation, and large chunks of the plot can be driven by factions and pre-established conflict.
And then there’s history.
History is important for establishing the “why”, it drives the reasons for much of the current conflicts and stories. But most of it is entirely in the background. While players interacting with a campaign setting might ask “why”, for the most part history is deep in the background, the unseen foundation propping up the rest of the structure.
For settings planned for publication, history is a necessity. DMs and people using the world need to know the “whys” to make use of the world. But for personal campaign settings, histories are a lengthy time-consuming self-indulgence. The players in the campaign are unlikely to see 90% of the world’s history. Time spent working out past dynasties, old wars, fallen kingdoms, ancient disasters, and the like is time that might be better spent doing anything else, from writing adventures, fleshing out nations, or spending time with loved ones.
This does not mean you should ignore histories. They do serve a purpose. This also does not mean you should never write a lengthy history, you should just be aware who you’re doing the work for and why. If it’s because you like writing lengthy histories and knowing the full nuances behind current events, then that’s fine. Happiness can be a rare and fleeting thing, and if writing histories brings you joy then that’s reason enough to continue.
But, then again, you shouldn’t just ignore the history of your world…
Table of Contents
This blog is part of a series on Fantasy Worldbuilding. The other parts are listed below
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Variables
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Monsters and Dungeons
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Organizations
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player’s Guide
Part 15: Other Realms
Part 16: Miscellaneous
Given writing lengthy histories is not entirely time spent productively, how much time should be spent planning and outlining past events?
First and foremost, anything relevant to the story should be be known, at least to the DM. Anything the players are likely to ask about should also be known. Anything immediately relevant to the backgrounds of the players should also be planned.
Tolkien makes for a solid example. The world of Middle Earth has an expansive and detailed history. Much of this bleeds through in the narrative where we get glimpses of other stories, and hear songs of past events. But little of it is relevant to the actual plot, and much of excised in the film adaptation as it is mostly irrelevant. The backstory Gandalf provides early in the novel has the majority of what we need to know: there was a war that the bad guys lost and there were Rings of Power with one being tied to much of the Big Bad’s power. While Gandalf goes on a little long, there’s much more he also doesn’t say. We don’t need to know of Morgoth, the Maiar, or the Silmaril. And while the movies omitted much of the extra backstory from the songs and poetry, there is still a sense of history: there are the ruins of fallen keeps, statues of old kings, and other hints of a larger, older world.
A good campaign should have the same sense of history as the Lords of the Rings. The DM should know the history the PCs need to know and will (eventually) have explained to them. And they should also know that little extra backstory behind the main history. The rest is all flavour. A good DM only need know the basics of their entire world’s history, the broad strokes and rough outlines. With the skeletal outline known, gaps and details can be filled-in as needed, improvising answers to player questions or adding more details as necessitated by the direction of the adventure.
Recycling my analogy from the Introduction, think of an an archery target. The bullseye is the present and recent past, where the most detail is required. This includes the backgrounds of characters and adventures as well as the events surrounding the main plot of the campaign. In the bullseye, timelines should have annual or even monthly entries. As you move away from the bullseye time period, details should become lighter. Entries in the timeline might come once a decade and there might be lengthy gaps where no events of importance occurred. This does not mean nothing historical happened, just nothing of relevance to the story. Beyond the middle rings of the archery target are more distant events. These should be the distant foundational events of the region. Timeline entries should cover whole centuries with entire generations being glossed over. The outer ring is the most distant of events, the creation and early years of the world. This is likely little more than myth, the age before history or before the current races developed civilization.
A Lengthy Example
Using a real world example, imagine a story set during World War II. The relevant history could potentially stretch back to the German Empire of the 1870s but practically everything prior to the end of WWI can be glossed over. So the 1920s to 1939-ish is the bullseye period. Relevant events are the worldwide economic depression and the resentment the German people felt over the Treaty of Versailles. A timeline might have details of the major battles and involvement of nations since the start of the war with some details of Hitler’s rise to power.
In the next ring come the details of the Great War, Wilhelm II, the Germanic Empire, and the broad strokes of European politics for the past few hundred years. This is mostly handy for the background information, such as Nazis referring to a “Third Reich”, the relations between the major nations, the establishment of the economics that would play a role, etc. Books can (and have) been written on the subject but for the campaign a couple paragraphs are more than enough.
The more distant history is largely irrelevant to the story. Rome, Greece, and Egypt are functionally irrelevant to a WW2 tale (to say nothing of the Mongol Empire, Chinese Dynasties, the Mayans, etc). But for someone unfamiliar with Europe a rough understanding of the prior two millennia helps to paint a background picture. Such as the ancient ruins in Italy and western Europe, which are far older than anything in Germany. Or how despite being allies in the current war – and the previous two major wars – England and France have a rivalry and mutual dislike. Some knowledge of the prior 500 years is also important for race relations, with the lingering inequality and racism.
Now, while I said the ancient Roman and Egyptian empires were irrelevant save for scenery, this might not necessarily be true. The lore, history, and myth surrounding Egypt tied heavily into Raiders of the Lost Ark. But not much knowledge is really needed, just that Egypt was once a great empire that built fantastic monuments in what is now desert, and that they were tied to the early days of a now prominent religion who lost many relics in those lands. In a campaign emulating the adventures of Doctor Jones, greater knowledge of antiquity might be useful, but for one archaeology-based adventure in a WW2 campaign just a brief note of Egypt and the Hebrew people is enough.
Summarizing, a timeline for someone unfamiliar with European History for a WW2 campaign might have monthly details for early 1941, summaries of most of the years from 1920-1940, summaries of the decades from 1800-1920, of the centuries from 1200-1800, and some notes on each millennia from 1000 BCE to 1000 CE.
The time before history spans from 200,000 BP to 7000 BCE. While much happened during this time, including the domestication of crops and animals and inhabitation of North America. Really, prehistory denotes the time before written history. There’s no uniform transition between prehistory and ancient history. Prehistory can be as recent as 3000 BCE, as not all cultures developed writing at the same time (or wrote on substances that withstood the passage of millennia).
In a fantasy world, prehistory would be the period before the current dominant cultures rose. Prehistory might actually be well recorded, just not by traditional or surviving races. This might be the time of fallen empires of now-devolved lizardmen or the Age of Dragons. The history for the elves might begin several thousand years before human history.
Prehistory is the age of legends and myth. It should include some origin tales and creation myths. This era should be less timelines and more prose, and it should be light on specifics and hard details. Everything should be expanded and distorted after ten-thousand years of telling and retelling. The stories should have truths, half-truths, and lies pretending to be truths.
It’s tempting to expand this section into a full-blown mythology but very little of this will be relevant to the players. However, it maybe help establish the tone of the world, and sometimes campaigns have a story seed in prehistory.
This era spans from roughly 5000 BCE to 500 CE. It’s the era of antiquity, of Sumer, Egypt, Greece, and early Rome. The history can be pieced together but there are gaps filled with legends, although much is known about the more recent periods.
This is the foundational time of history. The nations and regions of this era are long gone and the prior ones have been forgotten. The current nations share little with the the empires of this era except territory. The more recent nations might be common knowledge but other might be more obscure, known only to the educated.
It’s handy to think about this era from a D&D worldbuilding perspective. This would be the era of grand fallen civilizations that have left relics and ruins across the continent. Or, in other words, this might be when many ancient dungeons were built. This is likely the stereotypical time of forgotten magic and lost knowledge when magic items were crafted, artifacts forged, and wondrous relics were fought over and lost.
After thousands of years, only the most memorable events would survive to the common day, often those attached to stories of oft-told legends. Scholars might be able to learn more if pressed, the common man likely has large gaps in their knowledge. Few people can name more than a half-dozen Roman rulers but everyone knows the basics of how Julius Caesar died.
The covers 500 CE to 1500 CE and is otherwise known as the Middle Ages. The feudal and medieval periods ending at the Renaissance.
This is a tricky period as your standard fantasy world would take place in an idealized generic era roughly similar to the 1100s to 1400s. But for our purposes, Middle History would be any time 500 to 1500 years prior to the present, the time between antiquity and the modern age.
This would be the period when familiar elements before to form. Many of the prominent nations and regions during this history might still be around in some form, either having slowly grown in power or beginning to stagnate and collapse. The precursors to other modern empires would have risen and fallen during this era, the vacuum of their passage leaving room for new kingdoms. This would also be when the great cities of the modern era are founded and begin to grow. Some long-lived organizations might have also been founded at this time. While the buildings of the previous era are likely ruins, the structures built at this time might still be in use.
From a worldbuilding perspective, it’s easier to write this period last. This time frame connects the current era with the ancient world. Knowing how things start and how things end, this period is a matter of filling in the blanks. It’s a deliberate gap that can be used to help justify the current state of the world.
This would be the period from 1500 CE to the Present. In our world it’s the most recent five-hundred years, but can be any time after a significant change radically altered the world. In our case it was the Renaissance but in a world akin to Medieval Europe it might just as easily be the Rise (or Fall) of a Rome-like empire or the Black Death. Other examples might be a great war or a massive natural disaster such as a great earthquake, supervolcano, or drought. Anything that serves as a stark before/after distinction for an entire region or continent. At the same time, this break between what came before and the now should be several generations in the past. Anything that occurred during the lifetime of the current population is simply too recent. Without the benefit of a few decades of hindsight it’s hard to tell if an event really changes everything. For example, World War II and the creation of the atomic bomb might seem like a paradigm changing event but the following fifty years were not that different in terms of squabbling and competing nations.
Elves and other long-lived races do make this tricky, as their “recent history” will be very different from the humans. It’s tempting to use elves as the baseline then, setting the change several elven generations back. However, the benefit to having long lived races is their greater knowledge of the past and variant perspective. Really, this depends on which race is the focus of the campaign. In a humanocentric world humanity should determine how far back “recent history” begins, while in an elfocentric world it what is recent might be many hundred years older.
History in War World
I’ve already decided that the modern history of War World is a period of endless warfare that has stretched back a thousand years. With what I’ve written above, this stretch can be divided into two periods: the recent wars and the older wars. The time prior to the continual warfare would be the ancient history, half-remembered by most and forgotten due to its seeming irrelevance to modern life.
The Obsidian Age: I’ll start with the distant time before history, which I’m calling the “Obsidian Age”, a counterpart to the iron and bronze ages: instead of stone, there was obsidian. Mostly because it sounds cool. I have nothing else planned for this era so I just need a simple hook to hang ideas from and “obsidian age” works.
In the distant past (pre-prehistory), the primordial gods and their titans were more active in the world, with fire and earth being particularly combative, sometimes with each other and sometimes with the dragons and other powerful beings that roamed the world. Dragonfire and primordial flame blasted the landscape creating battlefields covered in black volcanic glass. As the battles quieted (or moved to other worlds) the young races spread and turned the remnants of the ancient battles into tools of hunting, agriculture, and civilization. For untold centuries, humans, elves, and halflings wielded obsidian and spread across the face of the world.
The Obsidian Age ended when the dwarves emerged from their mountains, bringing iron and knowledge of working stone. The oldest writing were the dwarven runes, carved into enduring stone.
The Time of Peace: The Time of Peace is a bit of a misnomer. There was war, but as the war had an end and there were generations without conflict this has become known as the time of peace.
This will be the standard fantasy antiquity. The various races (dwarves, humans, elves, and gnomes) worked together and built fantastic structures across the landscape. Modern generations marvel at these ancient cities and ruins, with their curious aesthetics and impractical designs being planned for something other than defence. This allows for ancient ruins in otherwise unexplored regions, possibly with forgotten lore and secrets.
There should be a couple fallen empires that ruled during this time. Dominant forces akin to Rome, Netheril, the Baklunish Empire, or Thassilon. Your standard source of ruins that people can look back on fondly and wistfully exclaim “those were the days” despite potential barbarism.
A dwarven trade empire might be fun, an empire built not on conquest but on economics. The dwarves dug deep in search of gold, gems, and iron then sold their wares across the continent, establishing trade cities wherever the terrain was mountainous enough. They built vast highways both aboveground and below to better ferry their goods across the continent.
I know war has to explode sometimes so I can look for ways to set-up conflict. The dwarven trade empire works perfectly for this because it keeps the peace but doesn’t prevent subtle conflicts such as espionage and sabotage. Rival nations have to play nice or risk upsetting the dwarves and being alienated from trade, which allows tensions to build under the surface.
I’ll also stick an empire on the the southwestern subcontinent, mostly because that area is lacking in the present. Having the current civilizations built on an ancient empire adds some flavour to an otherwise bland area. And having a powerful empire there encourages travel across the mountains. This empire was a human nation that spread to the limits of that region before becoming blocked by water and mountains. Unable to easily expand, the empire focused on monumental public works while the empire slowly stagnated until it collapsed (as nations that do not continually expand are wont to do). But not before establishing strategic passes through (and underneath) the mountains.
The Time of Peace ended when the wars began a thousand years ago. I’ve already established the dwarves lost their wars, so they make a lovely first victim of the war. The dwarves expanded too far, and the edges of their territory began to be assaulted by goblins and orcs. The straight highways the dwarves had built allowed enemy forces quick and easy travel between dwarven cities. At the same time, the dwarves delved too deep and more subtle menaces from below emerged. Troglodytes or aboleths would be an interesting threat, as would other aberrations (kuo-toa or mind flayers) but any subterranean menace would be interesting. I’m going with kuo-toa as they’ve always been implied to be a major menace yet few worlds have had them play a significant role. So the dwarves faced kuo-toa with troglodyte shock troopers.
Busy defending themselves against the threat from below (which, given the depths and darkness, only the dwarves could face) the dwarves entreated the elves to defend their flank from the goblins and orcs. The alliance worked well until the drow returned, engaging the elves (massive coincidence or coordinated by the kuo-toa?). This forced the elves to withdraw their forces, ending the alliance and dooming the dwarves.
The dwarven empire ended and hordes of orcs and goblinoids spilled from dwarven tunnels spreading across the land. With many nations reeling from the sudden assault, rivalries flared as the opportunity for revenge or conquest presented itself.
War had begun.
Aside: A limitation on worldbuilding is your potential audience. For the subterranean menace I mentioned above I mentioned multiple different races. Kuo-toa are my first choice, however, they are classified as “product identity” by Wizards of the Coast and not included in the Open Game Licence. If I were to consider writing-up War World, either as a free world on a website or as a sellable PDF product, I would be unable to use the kuo-toa. But if War World were limited to my personal homegames then the kuo-toa would be usable.
The New Wars: I’ll skip over the intervening middle era to establish an outline of the present. I already know the major power nations: there’s Kaledon, Guimarn, and Firaxies. In addition, there is the animal husbandry nation to the south, a couple elven nations, and the conquered nation to the east of Kaledon. I also mentioned a fallen empire to the south, at the edge of the subcontinental mountain range.
Recent history (within the last hundred years) includes the the occupation of the northern elven kingdom and Kaledonian conquest of its neighbour. The elven occupation should be roughly a century ago, while the Kaledonian victory could be much more recent since it’s still facing resistance. I’ll put that fifteen years ago.
The fall of the southern nation was a big change, and could be the big event that signaled a calendar change, as I presented that as a formidable opponent that took multiple nations to bring down. But I think it should be a little more recent, only a couple centuries back.
From there I can add the foundation of empires, the rise of current rulers and the like.
With the southern nations busy with their own war, I’ll have Guimarn conquering its northern neighbour and expanding its territory around the same time. Guimarn might not have originally been a military dictatorship nor might Kaledon have been ruled by a death knight. I can have the ascension of those figures also be events in the recent history.
I can also have assorted open wars. Kaledon and Guimarn should have regular warfare that has grown cold in recent years. The most recent should be a generation or so ago, so the nations’ forces might be replenished and ready for conflict to resume.
The Old Wars: I’ll start by thinking of a transitional event between the current era and this older middle era. It needs to be something large that stands out on a continental or national scale. The eradication of the gnomes is one possibility. However, given how key the old dwarven empire has become in the past (the War World equivalent of Rome) its final fall might be a transitional event. For much of the “Old Wars” era the dwarves were fighting and defending their homes and there might have been this optimism that this was temporary and the dwarves would win. No one expects the millennial-old status quo to just end. I want the dwarf nation to be shattered and ruined generations ago, much farther back than the start of the modern era. So the transitory event might be the definitive fall, a point-of-no-return. Such as the destruction of the dwarf capital. So over the centuries of the Old Wars period the dwarf empire was fragmented with cities isolated and cut-off from each other, with city-states and regions regularly falling or being abandoned over the years. But it wasn’t until the 0-year when the vast dwarven metropolis, the center of dwarfdom, finally fell. Rather than allow orcs, goblins, and other non-dwarf races to occupy their city the dwarves sabotaged the massive support beams that held, collapsing the entire city over the invaders. The orc and goblin hordes were decimated in the process, changing the dynamic of the surface wars. The sinkhole created by the catastrophe also ruined mountain passages and disrupted trade routes, causing even more disorder.
Beyond that, the Old Wars period is marred by numerous other wars. The elves withdrew to face the drow. The gnomes fought their losing wars with the kobolds and giants. Several long-dead human nations eradicated each other after the dwarf-enforced peace ended. A few nations might have been destroyed by extraplanar threats such as Fey or demons.
At this point I’ll brainstorm a timeline. Arbitrarily I’ll have the modern era start 400 years ago. 413 to end in a familiar number. Which means the middle era runs from -600ish to 0.
I’ll start by establishing the dates of the events mentioned in the sections above and adding some other important events.
ME (modern era) 413: Current Year
ME 398: Kaledon conquers its neighbour.
ME 397: Ceasefire between Kaledon and Guimarn
ME 361: Hostilities resume between Kaledon and Guimarn
ME 353: Ceasefire between Kaledon and Guimarn
ME 325: King of Kaledon becomes undead
ME 321: Guimarn attacks Kaledon
ME 313: Elven nation occupied.
ME 295: Military coup of Guimarn.
ME 277: Current King of Kaledon takes the throne
ME 251: Guimarn conquers its northern neighbour
ME 247: Southern Nation crushed
ME 226: Nation of animal husbandry begins half-orc breeding program
ME 186: Kaldeon established from union of city-states against southern nation
OE -1: The dwarf capital of Dwarfhome falls.
OE -11: The siege of Dwarfhome begins.
OE –46: A number of villages amalgamate into the city of Nespirc.
OE –658: The Great Betrayal. The drow attack the elves
OE -670: The Dwarf Wars begin
Looking at my sample timeline, I can see where there are gaps. Not much happens between 0 and 150 so I can squish events like the gnomish genocide in there.
ME 168: The gnomish bastion of Gnomehold falls. The Gnomish Purge ends.
ME 116: Deciding to make a stand, the gnomish people gather in defendable location: Gnomehold.
ME 54: The Kobold Principalities begins its Gnomish Purge.
That said, it’s good to leave some gaps in the event of future great ideas, rather than trying to force said idea into a packed timeline.
If this were a full campaign world, I’d expand the timeline by thoroughly describing the most recent years (411 and 412) and then add rough details of the major events every year or two from 380-410. After that we have notes for every decade from 300-380 or so. And then just the highlights prior to that. The idea is to create some adventure hooks for yourself and set-up future conflict and stories.
Here’s a brief idea what that might look like:
Late 412: A general on the Guimarn War Council dies suddenly. There are rumours of assassins hired by Kaledon, possibly as preliminary step to invasion, but possibly also due to rivalries in the Council.
With an opening in the War Council, lower-ranking generals begin competing for a promotion by demonstrating their worth.
Miners unearth a forgotten dwarven outpost in the mountains. The small keep looks intact suggesting it fell quickly or was abandoned early in the wars. Although, it could have been abandoned even earlier for now forgotten reasons.
The winter was mild suggesting the rivers and northern seas might be quickly free of ice. This generally means the northern dragonborn raiders will be more active.
Mid 412: The summer storm season is more violent than usual and several tornadoes tearing through Kaledonian farmland. Many agricultural zombies are lost suggesting food might be low that winter.
There is a rash of murders in Nespirc, all identifiable due to the removal of the victim’s eyes. The initial deaths go unnoticed in the slums, but the killer soon spreads into middle class neighbourhoods. As suddenly as they started the killings end.
ME 400-410: The draconic rulers of the Kobold Principalities begin to rouse. Shifter tribes raid northern Guimarn until repelled. Kaledon and Guimarn quietly rebuild and position their forces in preparation for the next war. The Nespirc Fraternity’s civil war ends with a new Elder Brother chosen, although the Thieves’ Guild is still disorganized.
ME 390-400: The second Kaledon-Guimarn war ends with a ceasefire so Kaledon can focus its forces on its other neighbour. Mage Colleges from the western coast begin to open in the East. The Fraternity in Nespirc loses its Elder Brother to disease without a clear successor; the Fraternity falls into internal violence. An attempt at unionizing the guilds of Nespirc ends in violence.
A good campaign setting is not akin to the thought-experiment of Schrodinger’s Cat: events should not be dependent on the PCs being in eyesight and things should change, unfold, and progress in the background. The world should be a dynamic living place. Knowing the history of the world helps set-up the events of the future, in addition to giving a background to the adventures of the heroes just as it helps provide background flavour and justifications for the world being the way it is.
A compilation of this on Worldbuilding Blog Series, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding, is now available. The blogs have been updated, edited, and expanded, so the final book features almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.
Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is available in Print on Demand and electronically. The electronic copy is available on Kobo, Kindle, and DriveThurRPG. The PoD copy is available on Createspace and Amazon.
Learn how to: sculpt a continent, design a nation, plan a city or village, create a Pantheon, and build your world! Designed for use by fantasy tabletop role-playing gamers (especially those using the world’s oldest RPG system) but also useful for novelists, creative types, and people with too much free time.
The original blogs aren’t going anywhere, and will remain available for free on the website indefinitely. But if you want an offline or improved version (or support me spending over a year of my life typing away advice) feel free to purchase a copy and earn my enduring gratitude.