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Timelines in your Setting

Plutancatty

Explorer
Alright, so I'm writing down a rough timeline for my campaign right now and right now:
-All the races available to PCs and big bad races (orcs, goblinoids, Yuan-Ti) have been created (the others just pop up in the background at some time, I don't really care)
-The elder races (Elves, Dwarves, Dragons, Giants to a lesser extent) have fallen from power
-Humans have taken over most of the world
-Devils and Demons have rebelled and been defeated
Most of the big things have happened, now it's all just "normal" history until the era the PCs currently play in

And in all this only 16100 years have passed since the creation of the multiverse. Is this too little, should I just inflate the times to add more time for civilizations to rise and fall?
How are the timelines in your campaign, did you take a more realistic approach (evolution and whatnot) or did you just do the "gods made the races" thing?

Also, since I like hearing history/worldbuilding stuff, what are the big, world shaking events of the past that gave birth to legends and ancient heroes/splits in the driving forces of the universe?
 

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Bawylie

A very OK person
Maybe not exactly what you’re looking for but...

Any history or backstory in my games have to be explainable in three or fewer sentences. In fact, the less I explain the better. And I don’t use precise timelines either - it’s always “aeons ago” or “in the elder days” or “in the beginning.”

Even recent history is “some few years ago.”

And if I’m naming historical events, I try to pick something evocative that is light on specifics. So you’ll hear something like “In the years after the Heavensfall wars, the demon rebellion spilled across the mortal realm like a bloodstain.” That’s the opener, then I outline some of the color to give a sense of what things were like. Then I hit the conflict or situation that relates to the players’ current situation.

Essentially I’m relying or storytelling conventions to relay history. One, because it’s more interesting and memorable that way. Two, because a history can over-explain something and suck all the romantic mystery and nostalgia out of it. (Consider literally any prequel).

If I end up needing a timeline, there aren’t dates per se. Just these sorts of events laid out in basic chronological order. Doing it this way leaves me space to fill in other stuff I might want or need, or to explore any given time in greater detail. Sort of like saving a seat for later.

I don’t like spending too much time on background or backstory because I prefer to spend my time and efforts mostly on playable content instead. :)
 

Plutancatty

Explorer
Maybe not exactly what you’re looking for but...

Any history or backstory in my games have to be explainable in three or fewer sentences. In fact, the less I explain the better. And I don’t use precise timelines either - it’s always “aeons ago” or “in the elder days” or “in the beginning.”

Even recent history is “some few years ago.”

And if I’m naming historical events, I try to pick something evocative that is light on specifics. So you’ll hear something like “In the years after the Heavensfall wars, the demon rebellion spilled across the mortal realm like a bloodstain.” That’s the opener, then I outline some of the color to give a sense of what things were like. Then I hit the conflict or situation that relates to the players’ current situation.

Essentially I’m relying or storytelling conventions to relay history. One, because it’s more interesting and memorable that way. Two, because a history can over-explain something and suck all the romantic mystery and nostalgia out of it. (Consider literally any prequel).

If I end up needing a timeline, there aren’t dates per se. Just these sorts of events laid out in basic chronological order. Doing it this way leaves me space to fill in other stuff I might want or need, or to explore any given time in greater detail. Sort of like saving a seat for later.

I don’t like spending too much time on background or backstory because I prefer to spend my time and efforts mostly on playable content instead. :)

Makes sense. I myself enjoy thinking about exactly what happened and then deciding what filtered through the ages to become common knowledge, what is know only to a few, and what is known only to the gods (or maybe not even to them). Obviously, I don't like swamping my characters with info, firstly because they might get bored, secondly because I think they need to earn the right to know all the obscure things that happened way in the past.
 

Vymair

First Post
I tend to be quite specific in timelines for recent events and things that happen during the campaign itself. I usually sketch out pretty specifically what has happened over the past 100 years and give a short summary to characters with the history skill. In my current game, I played an earlier campaign in this same setting but advance the timeline 350 years so the past characters are part of older history now. I have a pretty good idea of the past 500 years in the immediate area for that reason, but I usually just lay out a very broad past sequence of events and don't bother assigning specific years. The time of the great famine is the trigger point for my modern timeline, before that it gets pretty hazy on specifics.
 

Sadras

Hero
I don’t like spending too much time on background or backstory because I prefer to spend my time and efforts mostly on playable content instead. :)

That is a fair point except in the instance where the background/backstory starts rising to the fore and becomes part of the playable content, which is common enough in campaigns as the characters rise in level.
 

the Jester

Legend
My campaign's timeline is very complicated and extends over billions of years, but to most people, the relevant stuff starts with the ignition of the Sun approximately a million years ago. The ensuing epochs are largely only known in the vaguest of terms, until you get to the last few tens of thousands of years.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
In my campaign world I have two distinct time frames, before and after the Great Destruction. The world was nearly destroyed some unknown number of years ago in an apocalypse of epic proportions when mortals tried to gain the power of the gods. The entire world order was disrupted, only a tiny fraction of life on the planet survived, etc. There are rumors of what came before the destruction, but those immortal beings that know do not discuss it. What little is known is that occasionally artifacts of great power will surface from this forgotten time which tend to be as dangerous as they are powerful.

While it is generally assumed that the mortals that caused the destruction were human, that has never been verified.

Civilization and "history" in the world as people know it started about 1200 years ago. There have been upheavals and disasters since, but nothing quite on the scale of the Great Destruction. Around 500 years ago, a cabal of wizards tried to recreate the power of the ancients and the gods destroyed the region they were based in. The potential damage they could have wrought was simply too great.

In more recent times Loki escaped his prison and started the world on the path towards Ragnarok (end of the world). Fortunately with the assistance of some epic level adventurers, he was re-imprisoned before the world was destroyed, although the population reduction would make Thanos proud and entire cities were wiped out.

I created this campaign world a long time ago, the idea behind having a big reset in the past was to have a time of true legend, a time lost to those still living. That way I didn't have to have a "where did everything come from" story; people know there was something before and that people back then had magic much more powerful than what they have now but that's it. It also gave me a way of explaining why some powerful artifacts exist even though no one knows how to create them any more. While the gods occasionally create artifacts, others are more alien.

The occasional massive events are an excuse to have lots of dungeons and ancient ruins to explore.
 

Bitbrain

Black Lives Matter
The gods created the Cosmos and everything in it about 13 million years ago.

After 12 million years they shifted their focus from the Prime Material Plane over to the Parallel Universes, which the gods refer to as "Secondary Material Planes".

No Player will ever learn this, however. The only thing they know about the situation is that 1,000,000 years ago the gods abandoned the world, and nothing has really gone right ever since.
 
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Mercurius

Legend
Bawylie gave good advice on how to actually bring this stuff into game play. But assuming you are asking for your own enjoyment of worldbuilding and/or as background for game play, I think it really depends upon what sort of feeling you want to evoke.

A longer history allows for a feeling of age - that there have been waves of civilization, many of which are forgotten. I personally like this feeling in a fantasy setting.

On the other hand, then there's a setting like Dawnforge, which takes place in the "elder days" when civilization was just getting started. This evokes a different feel, perhaps one that is more mythic.

I personally like to give myself wiggle room, with gaps that I intentionally don't fill. Why? Because it helps me feel that sense of mystery and the unknown that I would want my players to experience. This is similar to map-making: if you detail every continent and island, there is no Terra Incognita - everything is known, mapped. To me this takes away from that tingling feeling that I so enjoy when I'm world-building: it feels like I am not making something, but rather discovering a world that already exists and is forever beyond my full comprehension.

So if you want that feeling, I would leave parts undefined. You could still give time periods times, like the "Lost Ages," but perhaps scholars in your world argue over the length of time.

That's another thing. RPG worlds tend towards an unquestioned objectivist assumption. The reality of our world is that there are different views on just about everything, including history and the origins of civilization. Sure, we have the scientific timeline which is as close to "objective truth" as we have, but even that is in question and always changing and any good scientist knows it is just a best estimate. The point being, it could be interesting to have different timelines, or rather different cultural takes on your world's back-story. In this approach you wouldn't need to define the "true history of the world" - just outline the views of different cultures. More work, yes, but also more interesting (imo).
 

I like to have a lot of space to work with in my world design. I've seen too many fantasy settings where they put something exotic on the edge of the setting, and then expanded the setting until what was supposed to be the core of the setting became a speck surrounded by a whole world of other stuff they rarely did anything with, but made the core focus area feel less significant to me. Forgotten Realms is a great example of this. I'm a big picture thinker in a number of ways, and map space = importance in world design for me. The best way of avoiding such issues (assuming you dislike them), is to leave a lot of not yet defined space on your map. Don't put China adjacent to Germany just because your game is set in western Europe and you want to mention China. Say that it is in the far and mysterious east, past "the unknown lands" or such. Then you can fill them in as needed. You can leave distances vague or make them specific on your side of the screen ( maybe you decide you want 2500 miles to work with--now you have reserved space).

Timelines can be done exactly the same way. First, decide how you want the knowledge of the longer lived races to impact things. If you want a civilization to be unknown to the elves, it probably needs to be a long time ago. Put plenty of time between your major events. Feel free to arbitrarily decide that your "second empire" is actually the fourth or fifth empire. Leave vague time periods, making sure there is room for various feels at each time by location.

The way I did it is to make a world that is something like 64k miles across (it is flat). I vaguely specified where the ancient ethnic groupings traditionally have lived or migrated to, and what sorts of cultural milieus exist as of the main campaign's "present date", in very broad terms, like that this general area and that general area are both Viking kinds of places. That way if I make some stuff up for one of them that sees play, and later decide I wished I had done Viking lands different, I can do the other one differently. I also leave plenty of room for fitting extra space between the defined areas. So if I want another smaller third (or fourth) Viking land somewhere, I still have room to add that one in. The same applies to all the sorts of general cultural areas I thought of when creating the world. And I have room to add others.

The timeline has a few long ages (the more ancient ones were longer than the more recent ones). I decide what I want the general character of each to be like, how it started and how it ended. I think of movies and such for examples. Then, I divided each age up into a few smaller segments with their own general character. I haven't fleshed out details, and won't need to unless they get played in. But I said that one certain time is like Conan and Red Sonja in feel, another is like Legend (the old 80s movie), etc. I separated my ages with the rise and fall of world spanning civilizations, and/or cataclysmic destructions. Cataclysms are great for removing knowledge of the really ancient ages. My first age is so distant it doesn't even feel like the same world. It started out with the creation by the immortals, including the creation *of* the younger immortals in/on that world, passed through a stage a little like The Dark Crystal, and culminated in a civilization that's kind of a cross between Netheril, steampunk (or maybe "clockpunk") and some other things, where dragons and other powerful races shared in the same great civilization of science and magic and the planet was like those Star Trek multilevel chess boards. Suffice it say, about all that remains of that age is the equivalent of creation myths.

My current age is the fifth age and the last great empire of humanity dwindled only a few thousand years ago. That empire was sort of like if the Romans had been culturally English. The current age is mostly a traditional D&D style--very much like Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk. I made it to intentionally showcase a D&D baseline. The specific flavoring I gave it to make it unique was that there are two human pantheons with a complex relationship (it isn't as simple as saying they are opposed to each other, and different cultures view the pantheons themselves and their relationship differently). One is a very tight pantheon--essentially a single religion--with each god having a specific place, and the alignments and portfolios all designed to fit together and support a functioning society; while the other pantheon has a more emergent organic feel that more closely mirrors real world pantheons. I also am coming up with my own take on subraces that starts with the most iconic ones (essentially the Greyhawk presentation) and then makes them more like I would have done them.

That last paragraph was mostly irrelevant, but once I get talking about my world...

So the point is, make plenty of room. Then you don't have to create a new planet if you realize you want something you didn't initially stick on the map or timeline-but you can actually *have* a skeleton of a map and timeline too.
 

Nevvur

Explorer
I like having a detailed and accurate timeline, but it's more for my sake than my players. Something to reference as I go about building adventures and campaigns. I try to keep the events relevant to how the modern world acquired its current shape, or as possible plot hooks for adventures. An obscure war 900 years ago that has no bearing on the current political landscape doesn't belong in my timeline. If that war produced an artifact MacGuffin that's going to make an appearance in the current campaign, it belongs.

I make all my setting documents available to my players, but I neither require nor expect them to read it. However, I always do a quick overview of the last 50 years because the world underwent a pretty major catastrophe, and the campaigns I've run have all taken place in the aftermath of that. The age of PCs is a very salient point, with older characters having lived in a world that was much safer, wealthier, and integrated with magic than the present day, and I think it's important information when conceptualizing a character.

Etratia timeline

Anyway, it sounds like you've got enough ancient history stuff to ground your modern era stuff. If I were a player at your table, I would probably want to know more about the modern era, the "normal" history as you call it. However, don't be surprised if your players don't give a whit about all your writing. Most of mine don't, and that's fine. Like I said, my setting documents are for me.
 

Coroc

Hero
In my Greyhawk campaign i use the roughly timeline of the bluebox , they are still in the year 579, so full circle of eight alive.

In the Ravenloft campaign i did dm (Converted Hyskosa Hexad) i used the official timeline, but it did influence not much since the Players and the inhabitants of the Domain had no means to track it somehow, and surely were not aware of timelines in other Domains. The campaign started out in FR year 1000 though.

Would i dm in vanilla FR i would use the time of the grey box so roughly 200 years Prior to the actual official campaign date.

What i do use although is some pseudo historic what-tech-is-availabel stuff. In my greyhawk campaign it is RL 30 years war tech Level, just w/o gunpowder although i would have loved to use it but one of the Players objected.
In the Ravenloft campaign the Players were dark age, so no plate armor available and no greatswords.

Since i Balance out things pretty much and got mature Players, it always works well this way.
 

Staccat0

First Post
I think that a magical world created by gods could be well into the medieval era in 16100 years yeah. This is assuming the gods created the races and that magic was a powerful tool for thousands of years.
 

Plutancatty

Explorer
That's another thing. RPG worlds tend towards an unquestioned objectivist assumption. The reality of our world is that there are different views on just about everything, including history and the origins of civilization. Sure, we have the scientific timeline which is as close to "objective truth" as we have, but even that is in question and always changing and any good scientist knows it is just a best estimate. The point being, it could be interesting to have different timelines, or rather different cultural takes on your world's back-story. In this approach you wouldn't need to define the "true history of the world" - just outline the views of different cultures. More work, yes, but also more interesting (imo).

What if I was just a special type of crazy and liked knowing both what actually happened for real, period and what various different races/institutions believe/teach?
Because me, being the all-knowing in this setting, as all DMs are, really know more that the greatest of deities (they don't know they don't exist, after all :p), so I like to write all I can, truthfully, then think about how the truth was covered up or distorted with the passage of time.
 

My timeline tends to be precise, yet relatively recent. I find it a bit pointless to detail the rise and fall of various civilizations. Such ancient history does not have to be that detailed. Instead I'll just state that an ancient civilization rose or fell a long time ago, and focus on more recent events, that will actually be important to the players. (Such as, when two countries started their current war, and how long a peace treaty held. Or how long ago an important figure died.)
 

Coroc

Hero
[MENTION=6801286]Imaculata[/MENTION] The Thing with ancient Scenarios in the official Settings (FR Netheril, DL Ishtar, Eberron Giants vs Dragons, Greyhawk Twin Cataclysm, DS everything up till present :) ) is that it gives instant and believable Explanation for a lot of stuff:

- Ruins aka dungeons
- Unusual (powerful) Magic
- Unusual Technology
- Rifts (temporal, dimensional)
- Forgotten cults
- Ancient Villains rising again (not necessarily undead)

etc. etc.

It is not thought to be a fictionary history lesson in the first place but rather to consturct those bullets
 

@Imaculata The Thing with ancient Scenarios in the official Settings (FR Netheril, DL Ishtar, Eberron Giants vs Dragons, Greyhawk Twin Cataclysm, DS everything up till present :) ) is that it gives instant and believable Explanation for a lot of stuff:

- Ruins aka dungeons
- Unusual (powerful) Magic
- Unusual Technology
- Rifts (temporal, dimensional)
- Forgotten cults
- Ancient Villains rising again (not necessarily undead)

etc. etc.

It is not thought to be a fictionary history lesson in the first place but rather to consturct those bullets

Does all of that need to be explained though?

Like for example, this is what the timeline for my campaign looks like:

attachment.php


I skip a large period of time, and a lot of historical events, because they simply are not relevant to the campaign. All I really need is events that have happened in the last 30 years.
 
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Draegn

Explorer
I use a timeline to define origins and events. Three thousand years ago the priests and sorcerers of (Egyptian area) created the anthropomorphic races (lizardmen, minotaurs, etc..,) in the image of their gods. These beings rebelled and destroyed the former empire. The survivors live in ruined cities unable to rebuild the great monuments with the only friendly race (tabaxi) and are now ruled by the (Babylonian/Sumerians).

One hundred and fifty years ago the last scion of the ruling house died, the nobles of the area at the time agreed to rule as a council rather than fighting among themselves to see who would rule.

The elf prince is the only known person to have slain a dragon in the last one hundred years.

This gives my players a starting point and I have their actions and deeds fill in the intervening time.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
A lot of times when coming up with a history of a campaign world, less is more. In the same way you don't have to map out entire continents and would never map every alley of every city, leave space in your history for events that could have happened.

For example, for my last campaign I started dropping hints that at one point dragons had ruled the land because I was thinking of running my next campaign stealing ideas from Tyranny of Dragons. I thought it would be fun if there was an ancient dragon from the time when the dragon empire fell that wanted to reclaim past glories.

Did I have that written down in my history before I started dropping hints? Of course not. Even if I had, I may not have revealed it to my players. I have two sets of histories - the one the players know and the "real" one which may diverge from the accepted history. My point is that I have pretty massive gaps that I can always fill in later.

Another point to this is that the accepted history may not be what actually happened. History is written by the victors and while I publish a timeline that they would reasonably know my "real" history has notes about actual events.

So back to the OP, how did the world start? Do the PCs know how the world started, or do they just know the last few decades? Do the elder races share what they know or do they "simplify" the truth for other reasons?

This gets a little tricky when you have extremely long-lived creatures or immortal beings, but their perspective on things may be quite different from mere mortals. In addition, even immortals may forget the past after a time. I remember reading a story of a (virtually) immortal woman that would keep diaries. Going back to her older diaries she would be reminded that she once had children and a husband but had no recollection of them. It had simply been too long and she could only remember so many things.

TLDR: leave plenty of room in your history for mystery and discovery.
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
IRL History goes back about 6000 years (earliest written records in a language). There are artifacts and dig sites that indicate social / civilized behaviors for maybe 10,000 years before that.
Plus, "the history of the world" has a lot of groups that don't know about each other at all. So things can happen over here (Greece) that nobody knows about over there (China). And 'uncivilized' or isolated areas have things happen that nobody else at all knows about.
 

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