Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Creating history

Some people believe that Earth is only a few thousand years old, and that God created a kind of fake history by sprinkling dinosaur bones everywhere. Creators of lesser worlds, like the Dungeon Masters of their own D&D campaign, frequently do the same: Creating a fake history for a virtual world for their campaign to play in. Just recently Chris Perkins from WotC presented his historical campaign notes. But every time I read such campaign outlines, I ask myself "why bother?"

For me the main problem is how my players come into contact with all that history. I'm sure not going to start the campaign with a 4-hour history lesson, my players would be bored to death. A far more likely scenario is something like "Seeing the ruin, you succeed your history check and know that it is a remnant from the Nerathian Empire which fell over a century ago". For that I don't need a complete list of all the battles, emperors, and major events of the Nerathian Empire.

A secondary problem is that I don't plan my campaigns for 30 levels ahead. My current campaign is just over one year old, and the players are level 5. And I know what adventures I want to play for about the next year, up to level 10, but not beyond that. After all, D&D is interactive story-telling, and you never know how things evolve. So by making up my campaign as we go, I prefer to have a maximum of freedom. I create history when I need it for the adventure, instead of creating history at the start of the campaign and then running into conflicts between the history I told in advance and the history I need for a specific adventure.

Ultimately all this is a question of scale. My campaigns tend to work bottom-up, being created in mind with what the players see from their perspective. Given that this is medieval fantasy, it is only logical that this perspective is limited. Apart from some sages, people tend to know only local and recent history, and not be aware of the rise and fall of empires centuries ago. A top-down approach, where you spend hours creating a huge world and its history, most of which the players will never see, often leads to a waste of time. And risks forgetting the parts that the players actually care about. It is easy to create a fantastic world at a high level and end up lacking the detail that the players actually encounter.

So personally I don't even bother creating worlds. I take pre-made campaign worlds like the Forgotten Realms, and then fill them with my campaign. Sometimes I use the history of the Forgotten Realms if it fits, sometimes I modify stuff to fit my campaign. For example my campaign early on had the players encounter an avatar of Selune, an event which gave the campaign its name "The Favorites of Selune". So in consequence I turned the evil twin sister of Selune, Shar, into a major adversary for the campaign. Lore and created history has to serve the campaign, not the other way around.

I think you might have overlooked something. Objectively speaking, creating a complete history might not be very effective. But maybe some people simply enjoy doing it... :)
Creating world can be really statisfying for the mind !

One reason to create a little bit of history and a world is to let player feel that they are in a real world. Too often in Fantasy, it seems to the player/reader that the world is created for them. I love to feel that the world exists even where/when I am not.
Tolkien create a full world with history, and that is part of why this is such a great story. Harry Potter on the contrary has a great England magic world, but it does not feel that the rest of the world exists or is real. History is built on the fly, and feels less consistent.
I agree with the other commenters, to me, it comes down to wanting to create a world for the sheer pleasure of doing so. I've pondered, for years, an app that could do such a thing, complete with social, political, natural, structural, biological, geological, historical, etc... features that allows you to easily drag and drop and connect and tell a whole story in one little file, without necessarily having an actual narrative. Think of a story as a tactic - on the ground level scenario... It could be epic spanning thousands of years, but in the end, it's tactical, it's down there with the select people. I envision a strategic overview of it all. To me, that's a fun thing, and I'm sure it's fun to many others. I don't know if it really has any advantages unless one is going to create a giant world for a story or a longer term multiyear campaign in one specific setting... But it sure is fun as hell.
One of the reasons I've been DMing since the dawn of time is I love the creative process, and I've built elaborate settings as a result. A lot of times this information is more relevant to the creative process, and you don't expect the players to find even a fraction of it unless they look...and for those players who like to explore the setting, it's a real reward to find actual content there waiting for them. That said, I usually start a new campaign with some core details, a short gazetteer and brief history, then let the rest grow organically as the game demands.

I've noticed that players seem to fall into two types: those who are there for what's going on, for their choices "now," and the player who's there for the whole package or experience. The latter are the ones who like to find the local library in a new city and find out what the political scene is, while the former usually wait for the other guy to tell them who to hit based on that info. a DM I find world building very rewarding, and it creates a distinct framework off of which to hand adventures in a way that retains internal consistency and lends to a sense of verisimilitude.
I've never liked long exposition either - be it in movies, books, games, or D&D sessions.

Unless the players get into contact with a piece of history through an action they are taking, I keep the history to myself, I don't even bother putting it on paper.

Paper makes it real and then you have a tendency to treat that history as carved in stone and not as a daydreaming session that went wrong.
I don't have much experience with that kind of thing as a player, but I do as a reader. And as a reader I can say that at least for me its an awesome feeling if I feel as if I'm part of a world that has a history.

I will almost never grasp that entire history.. Its not about that. Its about feeling that the history is there. I grasp bits and pieces of it and I know if I could make the character I'm following stop and pursue this I would learn a lot.

The point is not experiencing the history.. its feeling that its there. Its a kind of luxury stumbling across an ancient battlefield, deciphering some inscriptions that let you know that here the temple city of XYZ fell, finding some sacred axe that was used for ritual beheadings.. and still knowing that this is totally trivial and nothing that you have to pursue the heck out of, because then you will never be done, because the landscape is positively riddled with small reminders of time past.

It gives you the feeling of being in a living, breathing world instead of a story.
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