Thursday, October 7, 2010


I was about to write something about writing history, and then I thought, Lord, how dull is that?  But then I reconsidered, remembering that there are people in the world other than me who actually like history.  And there are a lot of them.  Which explains the presence of so many history books in our libraries and book stores.  So I decided, what the hell, I'd write about history after all.

Not actual history, however.  Rather, the kind of histories that people write for their fantasy worlds.  Some of these histories are rather basic ... others are elaborately detailed.  The question arises: how much history does your fantasy world need?

To serve as a baseline, let me quote from an outside source: Dungeon Module BD: The Keep on the Borderlands.  From that book, let me copy here everything that is said there about the history of The Keep.

Mm hm.  Let's see, notes for the dungeon master, time, preparation for the use of the module, ah, here it is ... BACKGROUND.  This should be good.

And there's ... nothing.  Not one word.

That's right, gentle readers, we don't know who built The Keep, we don't know how long it's been around, we have no idea what the lineage is of the lord that runs the place ... heck, we don't even know the name of the 'Realm.'  And we don't care.

That's because, startling as it may seem, what most people view as history adds jack shit to a campaign.  Dates, family records, what so-and-so did four hundred years ago, the fame achieved by what-a-whoozit that half-conquered the world three hundred years ago - worthless.  It's all very fun fetish fuel for those who want to know the real reason Anne Boleyn couldn't keep Henry's little Willy up, but it's influence on the present-day demise of the monarchy in England is negligible (yes, yes, there's a moronic argument to be made to the contrary, but take it on the road, bub).

What is hard to get across is this: the most important thing about the long standing feud between Florin and Guilder is that it is still ongoing.  They hate each other in the present.  Or, alternately, they still hated each other last year, and the treaty is tenuous at best.  It moderately helps to know the hatred has been going on for hundreds of years, but in reality the only hatred that counts is that of the people who are still alive.  That my great-great-great grandfather hated your great-great-great grandfather was a matter settled some time ago.  I only mention it because I use that information to harbour the deep hatred I have for you right now.  History makes good propaganda.

What history doesn't do - this type of history, at least - is make good campaigning.  I'm so glad the DM has spent several weeks drawing up a family chart of who's died in the last seven generations, and who gave birth to whom.  Ah, very nice, I see the present Wilhelm of Zardoz was born of Mildred, who married Peter of Peckerland, who was the son of Ulster of Oosteria and Ganglia of Zardoz, who was the daughter of Omphat the Foul, once King of Zardoz-and-Oosteria in the Twelfth Age of the Little Fly Lords.  Nice work.

Does the bartender want to have a chat about the attractiveness of Ganglia?  No?  Well then who gives a fuck.

Now, please to understand.  I did my degree in history.  I love history.  I have reams of books about history, and what's very interesting is that since my world is based on Earth, all these history books are relevant to my world.  If you could ring my buzzer in the next five minutes, I could let you into my living room, park you in front of my dry erase board and give you a spontaneous 8-hour lecture on anything from the fall of Rome to the failure of France to secure a European hegemony in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.  I'm not saying I'm ready to teach 39 courses (unless it is in general, world history, and then I'm certainly game), but I can babble pretty steady on whatever subject you like.

All this boasting and chest pounding (gawd, it's rude, isn't it?) is only to hammer home the principal that I respect history, I think in terms of history and I apply history to my world constantly.  But it isn't the history of Ganglia and her tendency to poison lovers.

The most important thing about history is not where it has been, but where it is going.  History is the study of the movement of peoples in the search for resources or vittles ... and where two peoples butt up against one another in the acquisition of these things, history is the study of pressure.   It is understanding why these people were able to stay, while these people were forced to go.  In other words, it is applying the momentum of peoples from the past, through the present and extending that momentum into the future.  In the real world, this extension into the future is questionable, at best, and we're very often wrong.

In D&D, this extension into the future is profoundly accurate.

Let me give an example.  Returning to the long standing feud between Florin and Guilder.  The tendency is to think that these two kingdoms, after five hundred years of war, are perfectly matched - but we know from history that there are no perfect matches.  In the long run, one of these two states is going to win over the other one.  One will ultimately gain momentum, while the other backslides.  Which is it that will win?

Well, if you aren't aware, the names 'florin' and 'guilder' come from particular currencies, each possessed by a particular financial dynamo, both of which were present in the 17th century.  Speaking of the coin as the kingdom, Florin was by far the elder of the two kingdoms.  It has begun its rise seven hundred years ago, as the crossroads of the world, taking great advantage of the trade that moved through its borders.  Comparatively, Guilder was a late-comer; moreover, for most of the five hundred years it was a rather weak competitor to Florin.  Guilder's defensive strength was that it was comparatively isolated, and far distant, and therefore difficult to squash.  Moreover, while Florin had been built upon the remains of an old empire, and the resources consequently plundered for 2,000 years, Guilder was replete with resources, untapped and extensive.  Every hinterland surrounding Guilder was a veritable gold mine.

Florin Family Photo
Another circumstance was that Florin, despite its access to old world markets, was hindered in its access to the Great Ocean ... while Guilder, by comparison, had ports right upon that world-covering body of water.  When technological strides had been made to make the sea - and its riches - more accessible, Guilder was placed to make a killing.  Meanwhile, Florin was fixed upon a secondary sea with limited access to the Great Ocean.  When it was discovered that Guilder could sweep in a great circle around the globe and access Florin's markets at their source, Florin suffered a blow from which it never recovered.

The population of Guilder rose; that of Florin stagnated and even declined.  Guilder found itself facing new adversaries, the nations of Farthing and Sous, both of which were also set upon the Great Ocean.  In time, Florin's influence on world markets would become negligible.

All this, because Florin happened to be perfectly placed for an early, but doomed start, and Guilder was placed for a late, but destined victory.  Right now, when the world is happening, they are evenly matched.

Florin's longer history has created a greater emphasis towards the importance of the past, upon philosophies of discourse and contemplation and the creation of art.  It's warmer climate has allowed a greater variety of foods, leading to complex cuisine, while the day's heat has increased the importance of leisure.
Guilder Porn

But Guilder's shorter history has produced a vigorous people, more austere and rugged in their daily lives, with their eye to the future and towards suppressing dissenters who would challenge the social order.  The colder climate has created a monotonous diet, spurring ideals of asceticism, while the colder climate demands a stronger, steadier work ethic.

It is the momentum of these cultures that is the guide to their history, not who ruled in what year.  It does not matter who one which battle or how many fought that day ... the demise of Florin is inevitable, to any DM who has the keys to the future in his or her pocket.  No matter how many battles it wins against Guilder, in the end Florin will fail to put an army in the field - and at the same time, Guilder will lose interest in conquering a land that promises them no wealth.

Such is the movement of history.


  1. I think I get what you mean. I use history as an exploratory creative tool. I create something, like a city or a culture; then ask myself "how did it get here and why is it like this?". Then I trace back the likely series of events. This reveals some interesting necessary side-events that will spawn into other locations, cultures, families etc etc.

    It's a bit like an evolutionary tree. By tracing it backwards I discover surprising related species and ancestors (for ancestors read 'dungeons').

    I use broad strokes of course (very few names of individuals and only approximate dates), but the aim is practical; to produce stuff that will be used.

    On a final note, as other people have discussed D&D has as a theme 'Fallen Empires'. You could just spontaneously and randomly generate these, but I find more satisfying and creative results if I trace some of the who and the what and the why.

  2. Sorry, I kind of lost my point in the final paragraph. I meant to say that in a fantasy game that is principally about the exploration of ruined structures, history is going to be at least partially relevant. History creates the physical space and trappings of the dungeon.

  3. Alexis, what I take from this isn't that history is meaningless to the campaign, but that paying attention to the real forces that drive history instead of the Florin family tree is, yes? The players may not care why the Keep is there, but when the DM knows it could/ should have some immediate impact on the game.

    The Keep is there, perhaps, to protect a strategically important location. Let's say access to resources the nearby humanoids would like to exploit. The humans and like-minded peoples obviously want to prevent this. Maybe it ultimately means nothing why its there, but now the DM knows if he needs to use this information. Maybe the clever party that understands this situation can exploit it to their advantage.

    Inigo Montoya: You are sure nobody's follow' us?

    Vizzini: As I told you, it would be absolutely, totally, and in all other ways inconceivable. No one in Guilder knows what we've done, and no one in Florin could have gotten here so fast. - Out of curiosity, why do you ask?

    Inigo Montoya: No reason. It's only... I just happened to look behind us and something is there.

    Vizzini: What? Probably some local fisherman, out for a pleasure cruise, at night... in... eel-infested waters..

  4. Yes, Dan and James ... exactly my point.

  5. I would respectfully disagree that history (who bonked who and begat turd junior the third) has no impact on the future, due to the reason you touched upon: propaganda.

    Humans do dumb things for reasons of history, things that are illogical are strictly redundant were one to take a longer view of history. Johnny Guilder's mothers third half cousin may have been a noble in Florin and may consider it a matter of honour (or keeping face with his underlings) to launch a suicidal campaign to reclaim the land, resulting in at best a pyrrhic victory that causes his own lands to balkanize upon his death.

    And then there is of course the nature of dumb luck: A plague brought on from more trade, or a a volcano that erupts etc.

    That is really more of picking at outliers I suppose.

  6. You make a good case for creating a bit of history for a specific adventure, Zzarchov, and its the sort of thing I would do. But its not a case for making a big write-up on those things, generally.

    Bits of history are interesting. But a mass collection of bits, collated, listed and ranked are dull as dishwater.

  7. I have long fantasized about an RPG not about history, nor even about historians, but about historiographers. And, natch, their vicious, to-the-death, struggles with each other about the proper way to retell, and interpret, the bloodless facts of the past, which, without their caring embrace, remain, as the great philosopher Ford said, "Just one damn thing after another."

    Finally, with Robin Laws' The Dying Earth I had my system.

    But I lacked then, and lack now, anyone willing to play with me.

  8. Wow, Adam. All I can say is, if we lived in the same city, I'd certainly let you pitch it at me.

    Reminds me of my university days. Bunch of self-righteous faddists...

  9. Both the Florin and the Guilder are subject to wild inflation rates. Long live the English penny! :D

  10. Historiographers And Hissy-Fits is at the center of a campaign that is set within the walls of a Late Medieval-shading-into-Renaissance university.

    I really ought to write this up sometime and work out some of what's in my head about it. The short version is that there's an enormous amount of RPG potential within a Scholastic setting, and it would work anywhere from a straight-up no-magic-but-plenty-of-poison 14th-century-university, to a full-on Unseen-University-in-its-Dead-Men's-Pointy-Boots phase.

    The problem is that I think you could only play it with people who'd done a Humanities grad school program, and those people are probably looking for escapism rather than some sort of cathartic recapitulation therapy.

  11. Adam, check out The Shab-al-Hiri Roach by Bully Pulpit Games. Different era to what you had in mind, but you may well enjoy it.

  12. >That's because, startling as it may
    >seem, what most people view as
    >history adds jack shit to a campaign.

    I politely disagree. I'm in the process of completing a video blog of Ravenloft and in doing research on it, it seems apparent that a lot of what makes that module (one of the best ever written) work *is* the back story. If there is an answer, then it is to make the back story and history an active part of the story rather than simple static back drop. If it is just static, then it is as relevant to the story as the wallpaper in the king's bathroom. If the "story-to-date" is active (person X murdered person Y, and now person Z, the son of person Y, wants "justice", but the King likes person X and turned a blind eye on the murder) then it is relevant. But only if it is active and not static.

  13. I admit I am guilty of foisting timelines and king's list on my players and boring the tears out of them.

    Long ago I figured how to turn to my advantages into two respects.

    First they serve as a source of dungeon dressing and detail. As other pointed out much of D&D is about the exploration of ruins.

    While the fate of the 2nd Komnenoi dynasty isn't interesting as a standalone document. It could be used as key pieces of information that will bring down the lich who was originally the 5th Komenoi Emperor.

    Second it is my way of developing why cultures exists the way they do in the present. While I written what would be considered minutiae I learned to distill out of it key pieces of information that information the players as to why the Ghinorians and the Thules don't get along. And why their conflict is the source of so many of their adventures.


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