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Worlds of Design: A Time for Change

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Silmarilion set a fashion for fictional civilizations lasting many millennia without much technological or social change. This worked for the literature, but rarely makes sense for games.



It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million.” Carl Sagan​

One of the things Tolkien did with Middle Earth has encouraged an unbelievable view of history as something that very slowly changes over millennia. Perhaps one reason was that in Middle Earth there were people who remembered the First Age. They were alive then, a consequence of the practical immortality of the elves (and some half-elves). If your world doesn’t have the continuity of immortality then barely-changing history stretching thousands of years makes even less sense.

What I’m trying to do is point out why these fictional civilizations that last for millennia don’t make sense. Why is this important? One word, immersion. People who know much about history will probably see your worlds very long history-without-much-change as unbelievable, thus destroying the immersion in the world that’s so important to engaging play. Though those who don’t know much history may not find it distracting at all.

Often, the very long histories are a form of self-indulgence, the writer writes what he wants even though it is hardly necessary to the game.

The funny thing is, it’s not necessary to have thousands of years of history to do what you want; a few hundreds of years will be just fine. What was our world like 500 years ago? The end of the Middle Ages, the recent discovery of the New World, the beginning of the end for Mesoamerican civilizations, China drawing back into isolation, the Ottoman Empire growing into Europe as it was no longer opposed by the no-longer-extant Byzantines, Russia still a benighted land fighting the Tartars, India dominated by Muslims, and so forth. Armies still included pikemen and others not yet armed with gunpowder weapons. The first circumnavigation of the world was being accomplished.

And that’s only 500 years ago.

Now if we go back 5,000 years there were nascent civilizations only in Mesopotamia and Egypt (China and Harappa (India) came later), and technological change was slow (though faster than we may think today because the changes were so fundamental, such as the development of writing). Iron-working had not yet been developed, bronze was very expensive, and horses were much too small to pull chariots, let alone to ride. When iron-working was developed it took many centuries to spread throughout the Old World.

Furthermore, a civilization with iron or steel armor and weapons, with well-developed ships, is not going to sit in stasis unless someone is deliberately trying to suppress change, as we see in some fantasy and science fiction stories (see David Weber’s Safehold series).

There are lots of reasons why civilizations cannot remain static - which is the primary way you’re likely to have histories thousands of years long, civilization in stasis. There are resource limitations: if you use iron for many centuries you’re going to use up easily accessible sources, and have to develop new technology to be able to continue to obtain iron ore. That’s true for many other resources, even renewable ones such as timber. If you irrigate land long enough (as in Mesopotamia), it begins to deteriorate from salt deposits. You can’t continue doing things the old way because the resources change.

And the longer your civilization goes on, the more you must change.

If you’re writing a separate setting, one that is not part of a particular game, then circumstances are somewhat different. There are so many supplements available, whether world settings or adventures, that you can’t really expect many people to use them directly in games even if they read them. In other words, many people are reading them for the story more than for their utility in a game. That’s compounded perhaps by the people whose RPGs are primarily storytelling machines and not opposed games. (There’s no possibility of failure.) Those folks are naturally going to read settings and adventures more as story than as game.

In these cases, indulging your storytelling bent at the expense of game makes perfect sense. So those long histories, if they are relevant to the stories, are no longer self-indulgence.

Rome (kingdom, republic, and empire) had a history approaching 1,000 years - more if you include another thousand for the Byzantine Empire that succeeded Rome, and called itself Roman. China has a history more than 2,000 years long. There were empires in Mesopotamia more than 4,000 years ago - but they were lost to memory until archaeologists excavated ancient mounds that turned out to have been great cities, that used fired-clay tablets to record information. A 3,000 year history is a very long time.

Of course, if YOU want to write thousands of years of history for your campaign or your RPG rules, that's your choice. It may help you create your game. But do you want to inflict all that history on the gamer? I enjoy history (that’s what my Ph.D. is in), but very long histories for games are not my preference. Your mileage may vary.

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. Lew was Contributing Editor to Dragon, White Dwarf, and Space Gamer magazines and contributed monsters to TSR's original Fiend Folio, including the Elemental Princes of Evil, denzelian, and poltergeist. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Hussar

Legend
I gotta admit, Mr. Pulsifer, this is one of the few times I've read what you've written and found myself nodding along the entire time. Totally agree here.
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
I've often wondered how much technology would increase if you added dragons and other creatures to the setting. The constant state of "war" with the orcs and hobgoblins alone would drive tech.

The intelligent giants invent gunpowder. What happens next?
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
We've all had that one guy in our campaign, who goes to the butcher's shop, then the grocer's, then the miller's, then the dairy farmer's, and finally puts it all together and starts selling his "cheeseburger," expecting to be rolling in gold pieces very shortly since no one's ever done it before.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
I'm not sure I buy the static vs. dynamic moment in history. If things had gone differently in the Middle Ages, it's quite plausible to think the Industrial Revolution wouldn't happen and 500 years of dynamism might well have skipped. We don't know and it's an interesting thing to play with in a campaign. Static society or dynamic one is IMO not crucial here and I think misses quite a bit about Tolkien's world, for example. It's quite clearly a post-apocalyptic world in decline when the War of the Ring happens. It's filled with ruins and a declining population, with society really declining after the fall of the Northern Kingdom and the Great Plague. (Also, as this video of Matt Colville's points out, in many ways, The Shire is the Garden of Eden, while Bree and the rest of the world represents having left Eden. He utterly denied that LotR was a crude allegory for World War II, which I do totally agree with, but a lot more of Tolkien is metaphor or allegory than even Tolkien himself liked to admit..)

I think a way to extend this is to focus on relevant verisimilitude. For instance, if the campaign is focusing on things from 1000 years before the time of the campaign arising, it's pretty important for the DM to have an idea of what happened then and how it's important to current events. It's not, however, important to have super-detailed history for the intermediate days that's not relevant to the campaign. No reason to drown the players (or the DM, for that matter) in that material.

In a lot of ways, Tolkien himself does focus on the relevant: There are certain really crucial moments in his narrative and that's got some detail---think the end of the Second Age, when the Last Alliance defeats Sauron in a Phyrric victory and Isildur took the Ring but failed to destroy it---while a lot of the rest is simply just a list of names.
 
I'm not sure I buy the static vs. dynamic moment in history. If things had gone differently in the Middle Ages, it's quite plausible to think the Industrial Revolution wouldn't happen and 500 years of dynamism might well have skipped.
Given that the high middle ages were already in an industrial revolution, it's possible to go the other way as well. If the black death hadn't destroyed the medieval world, then we might have seen an earlier industrial revolution taking place without or with far fewer social changes than occurred otherwise. So then you have an interesting question of how an industrial revolution might have, or might not have, forced social innovation on the medieval world.

In a lot of ways, Tolkien himself does focus on the relevant: There are certain really crucial moments in his narrative and that's got some detail---think the end of the Second Age, when the Last Alliance defeats Sauron in a Phyrric victory and Isildur took the Ring but failed to destroy it---while a lot of the rest is simply just a list of names.
True not only of his timelines but his maps as well. Tolkien hints in several places that there are far more villages and towns of people in those wildspaces on the map than he ever fills in, they just aren't important to the story.
 

Oryzarius

Villager
If the black death hadn't destroyed the medieval world, then we might have seen an earlier industrial revolution taking place without or with far fewer social changes than occurred otherwise.
Plenty of historians actually view the Black Death as one of the major set-up factors for the Renaissance.
 

Retreater

Explorer
Consider that the Stone Age lasted over 6500 years (8700-2000 BCE), the European Bronze Age lasted 2600 years (3200-600 BCE), and the Iron Age also lasted close to 1000 years. This doesn't even take into account that period of prehistory when modern human behavior first appeared in Homo sapiens (50,000 years ago). So yes, civilizations can remain mostly unchanged for millennia. It's not unrealistic at all.
 
The one major difference between Earth history and most fantasy settings is the availability, and sometimes heavy proliferation, of magic. It's possible that, in a magic-heavy setting, that science and technological development might slow to a crawl. Sure, an alchemist could discover gunpowder eventually, but magic is basically the science of the world, so more effort would be put into it than hard chemistry. Magic can renew land, create water, and otherwise alter the environment in major ways. And, usually, without a lot of costs in resources, compared to changing it through technology. I read a comment somewhere once that, especially in things like healing, magic has it all over technology. "What you prefer? A triple coronary bypass operation or a Cure Disease spell?"
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
Given that the high middle ages were already in an industrial revolution, it's possible to go the other way as well. If the black death hadn't destroyed the medieval world, then we might have seen an earlier industrial revolution taking place without or with far fewer social changes than occurred otherwise. So then you have an interesting question of how an industrial revolution might have, or might not have, forced social innovation on the medieval world.
Maybe, as I recall a lot of the Industrial Revolution was pushed by labor shortages after the Black Death.


True not only of his timelines but his maps as well. Tolkien hints in several places that there are far more villages and towns of people in those wildspaces on the map than he ever fills in, they just aren't important to the story.
Yeah, to some degree, though by LotR things are getting pretty darn bad in most of Middle Earth. But I very much think it's important to remember that JRRT was not trying to present an entire world that's map-realistic. One thing I think folks often need to recall is that he uses the "unreliable narrator" all the time. Pretty much everything is through the eyes of the hobbits and they are decidedly not omniscient.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
Consider that the Stone Age lasted over 6500 years (8700-2000 BCE), the European Bronze Age lasted 2600 years (3200-600 BCE), and the Iron Age also lasted close to 1000 years. This doesn't even take into account that period of prehistory when modern human behavior first appeared in Homo sapiens (50,000 years ago). So yes, civilizations can remain mostly unchanged for millennia. It's not unrealistic at all.
Indeed, there are places where the Stone Age more or less survives to this day, such as the Andaman Islands (admittedly with the cooperation of outsiders) or remote parts of the Amazon. It lasted in Australia until the arrival of the Europeans.
 
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doctorhook

Adventurer
This is one of the things I always loved about Eberron as a setting. It feels more realistic and dynamic than traditional fantasy, due in part (I believe) to the fact that it prescribes a time period as much as a location.

Khorvaire in 998YK is a powder keg of geopolitics, intrigue, and magical innovation, and most of the rest of the material is about how the world got there, what forces are in play at that moment, and then dozens or hundreds of plausible ways that everything could spin into war or chaos within a very short timeframe. Obviously lots of other settings try to achieve a vibe similar to that, but most of them aren’t so vibrant. Eberron is a world in constant flux.
 

Paul Umbers

Villager
I can understand the reasoning here, and agree with it in most circumstances but there is one key factor that's not mentioned: fossil fuels. Pretty much every technical advance from the late middle ages onwards came in some way from the mining and use of fossil fuels. Yes, you can invent the steam engine, but without an energy-dense power source such as coal you're not going to get much further - sure, you can use charcoal but the energy density is not the same and making charcoal is a labour & time intensive process. After that, you have no oil and so no gasoline, no natural gas, no internal combustion engine, no gas lighting/heating/engines.

You can apply this thought experiment best in a post-apocalypse setting, given that our modern world has already pretty much exhausted all easily available sources of fossil fuels and we now have to use high-tech industrial methods to eke the last few ounces out of the ground.

So, if you want to move a medieval-like society forward, figure out a way to do it without fossil fuels - it's not as easy as you think.
 

R_Chance

Explorer
Another thing about change in our world... a lot of it is driven by technology and repeatable results in science. What if science doesn't work that way, or even exist as it does irl? What if results are not repeatable? What if no combination of three easily available chemicals gives you "gunpowder"? What, in short, if magic and chaos are a bigger part of the world? Progress, as we know it, may not be possible. You might get an "Eberron" version of progress, if magic is that reliable and repeatable. Or you might just be stuck in the ancient / medieval setting that a lot of fantasy posits.

Thinking about "magic as a (repeatable) science" would lead to a Eberron magic = technology setting (imo). If magic is an "art", reliant on the practitioner and not easily replicated (say, ahem, it taking a long apprenticeship to learn / personalize magic as D&D does) you get a long term ancient / medieval setting.


*edit* Spelling and added bits.
 
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Orius

Villager
Ah yes, static unchanging histories, one of the things about fantasy fiction that tends to bug me. I definitely fall into the camp that views historical timelines that last millennia as absurd.

With LotR, there are of course the elves and their immortality to take into account. Going beyond the elves, much of the Second Age saw ME under the rule of Sauron who likely was most certainly not interested in seeing much technological or social advancement under his rule. The Numenoreans were a different case of course, but they lived longer and Numenor was blessed with rich resources for them. As they went into decline they became more imperialistic which could be partially the result of declining resources. The Third Age is primarily the fall of Arnor and the rise and decline of Gondor, and both are somewhat plausible.

Other fictional worlds get pretty ridiculous. A big offender is Eddings' Belgariad and Mallorean series which has a 7,000 year history in which nothing happens for centuries at a time. Utterly ridiculous. Never got into the Game of Thrones universe myself (when is Martin going to finish that last book!?), but doesn't it have something like an 8,000 year history? By comparison, 8,000 years ago is 6,000 BC IRL. That's 2 or 3 millennia before the development or writing, and before the emergence of Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations and maybe thousand years or so before the first usage of copper, and so on. I can't take a time scale that lasts thousands and thousands of years seriously.

Look at the longest lasting human civilizations. Ancient Egypt had a history of about 3,000 years, with over 2 dozen dynasties from the Early, Middle, and New Kingdoms, with intermediate periods until going into a long decline until being conquered by the Romans. Said Romans had a culture that lasted 2,000 years with about 5 centuries under the Republic, and an Empire that took another 4-5 centuries to collapse in the West, while the Eastern half managed to hold on for another 1,000 years, coming close to the brink of collapse several times until it finally ended in the 15th century. Rome's dynasties didn't last very long, and there was often a pretty high turnover rate among emperors. Chinese culture has been around for about 32 centuries or so with a few strong dynasties like the Han or Tang that lasted a few centuries with periods of war and division in between. Fantasy human cultures that last thousands of years with a single dynasty ruling over the whole thing is hard for me to take seriously at all.
 
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TwoSix

Lover of things you hate
This is one of the things I always loved about Eberron as a setting. It feels more realistic and dynamic than traditional fantasy, due in part (I believe) to the fact that it prescribes a time period as much as a location.

Khorvaire in 998YK is a powder keg of geopolitics, intrigue, and magical innovation, and most of the rest of the material is about how the world got there, what forces are in play at that moment, and then dozens or hundreds of plausible ways that everything could spin into war or chaos within a very short timeframe. Obviously lots of other settings try to achieve a vibe similar to that, but most of them aren’t so vibrant. Eberron is a world in constant flux.
True, but one of the few design decisions in Eberron I disagree with is taking Keith's initial timeline and expanding it by a factor of 10 to make it more epic seeming. 10-15 years for the Last War and 200 years since the settlement of Khorvaire by Lhazaar feels a lot better to me than the actual timeline.
 

Hussar

Legend
Indeed, there are places where the Stone Age more or less survives to this day, such as the Andaman Islands (admittedly with the cooperation of outsiders) or remote parts of the Amazon. It lasted in Australia until the arrival of the Europeans.
North and South America as well, at least until the arrival of Europeans. Sort of. South American pottery and glasswork was just as modern as European at the time of first contact. The reason for the limited advancement had to do with limited resources.

In most Fantasy Settings, you hit iron age technology and just stop. It's not like the Second Age in Tolkien was being fought with clubs by guys in furs who had just discovered fire.

That's where the problem comes. It's not that you have static cultures, that happens. It's that the entire world advances to a point where massive changes are entirely plausible and then stops. For thousands of years. :erm: All over the world. Regardless of the resources and whatnot of the different cultures.

Really, it's like D&D settings that are created that never take the Monster Manual into account. It bugs me to be honest that most settings ignore the enormous potential of various monsters. Take the lowly Fire Beetle. A three foot long beetle that generates perfectly safe light? Never mind the eating potential there, you've just lit every city in the world for free. Who wouldn't breed these things to be safe? Garbage disposal, free light and food for the taking.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
The one major difference between Earth history and most fantasy settings is the availability, and sometimes heavy proliferation, of magic. It's possible that, in a magic-heavy setting, that science and technological development might slow to a crawl. Sure, an alchemist could discover gunpowder eventually, but magic is basically the science of the world, so more effort would be put into it than hard chemistry. Magic can renew land, create water, and otherwise alter the environment in major ways. And, usually, without a lot of costs in resources, compared to changing it through technology. I read a comment somewhere once that, especially in things like healing, magic has it all over technology. "What you prefer? A triple coronary bypass operation or a Cure Disease spell?"
What fantasy settings also often have is civilizations of species with far longer lifespans than those of humans. We’ve see IRL that some ideas get supplanted and societal changes only after an actual generation (or more) dies off. With common fantasy races like Dwarves or Elves having lifespans an order of magnitude or two longer than humans, their societies may be far more resistant to change- at least, of certain kinds- than human cultures would be.

And if those fantasy races’ cultures were still the major powers in the world, their resistance to change could possibly also slow the mutation rate among the cultures of other, shorter lived races.
 

Leatherhead

Adventurer
Never mind the eating potential there, you've just lit every city in the world for free. Who wouldn't breed these things to be safe?
People who don't want to be on the wrong side of that local Druid Cult. :p

Just like IRL, the answer to why any particular kind of new technology doesn't catch on, is because someone with power and/or friends decides it's against their interests. Be those interest motivated by profit or ideology.

That said, I have found that most games with arbitrarily high numbers could stand to shave off a few digits for the sake of simple comprehension.
 

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