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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

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
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.
Because it turns out that not all species can be domesticated despite thousands of years of trying?

I suppose selective breeding might yield some with reduced dangerous qualities and enhanced benefits like larger glands or whatever it is that glow. On the other hand, it's also possible that those traits are linked in such a way that make that impossible. In any event, there's no reason to assume they must be domesticable or bred for specific qualities simply because of time. That's more of an artistic choice for the setting.
 

drl2

Villager
Interestingly some of Tolkien's early writings that formed the basis for the history of Middle-Earth did involve more modernized technology - the original story of the fall of Gondolin talked of the city being overrun not by dragons but by fire-spewing machines.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
Because it turns out that not all species can be domesticated despite thousands of years of trying?

I suppose selective breeding might yield some with reduced dangerous qualities and enhanced benefits like larger glands or whatever it is that glow. On the other hand, it's also possible that those traits are linked in such a way that make that impossible.
A good one might be that fire beetles glow because of something they eat in dungeons, but that itself doesn't grow where dungeon air ain't foul enough. It might be cool to play with the idea of alchemists trying to breed them, though.


In any event, there's no reason to assume they must be domesticable or bred for specific qualities simply because of time. That's more of an artistic choice for the setting.
Certainly. They were trying to mimic the kind of craziness that existed in Marco Polo or other travelogues that were filled with lots of BS.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
Interestingly some of Tolkien's early writings that formed the basis for the history of Middle-Earth did involve more modernized technology - the original story of the fall of Gondolin talked of the city being overrun not by dragons but by fire-spewing machines.
Tolkien was very strongly influenced by the pollution of the countryside that came along with industrialization and also by the devastation of the landscape he saw during the Battle of the Somme, so that makes a lot of sense.
 

Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
The issue here is less about their life-expectancy but, rather, their birth and fertility rate. I'm not sure why we are treating elves as if they were pandas. I don't really see an issue with saying, "elves live long lives and have lots of kids." If people are worried about elves over-running the place, then one can introduce the idea of "the Longing," where elves who reach a certain age are drawn to live in the fey courts of the Feywild. We never see elves over a certain age because the rest join the "Hidden Kingdoms" of the fey. Explanation made.
I'm fairly certain 5E has something I either Volo's or Mordenkenian's about that.
 

Aldarc

Adventurer
I'm fairly certain 5E has something I either Volo's or Mordenkenian's about that.
Neat. I'll take a look at that later. I did not really read the standard playable race sections that closely.

Because it turns out that not all species can be domesticated despite thousands of years of trying?
Maybe, but (1) humans have a long history of domesicating things that almost seem unintuitive to domesticate, and (2) there is tremendous history in D&D of monsters of domesicating other monsters.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
A lot of RPG fantasy settings are post apocalyptic. Or at least posit a distant era where ancient now extinct civilizations created wondrous buildings and powerful magical items player characters adventure for. That could explain why things haven't changed a whole lot.
Including Middle Earth. We know that the Noldor settled in Middle Earth to fight Morgoth, built realms and a substantial civilization that was nearly wiped out by Morgoth's resurgence. We know very little of the average fertility of the elves at that point - except that we know some of the great patriarchs of Noldor civilization were having 6-7 or so kids. It's a bit harder to assume much of anything else when we have so few data points like Elrond and Celebrían's 3 kids.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
Maybe, but (1) humans have a long history of domesicating things that almost seem unintuitive to domesticate, and (2) there is tremendous history in D&D of monsters of domesicating other monsters.
From what I understand, there really aren't that many species we've domesticated, but lots more can be tamed. Elephants, for instance, are tamed, but not domesticated. Ditto most apex predators like bears, lions, etc. There are numerous examples of plants that seem like they should be domesticable but aren't. Huckleberries aren't but strawberries are, which is why the latter cost an order of magnitude less than the former.

My feeling is that if it's fairly replicable and in widespread distribution among peasants then it's a good call for domestication but if it takes a special "beastmaster" or enchanter, you're talking about taming. (Of course, it's fantasy, so who knows?)
 
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drl2

Villager
Tolkien was very strongly influenced by the pollution of the countryside that came along with industrialization and also by the devastation of the landscape he saw during the Battle of the Somme, so that makes a lot of sense.
Yep, and if I remember correctly, that particular story was begun while he was hospitalized recovering from trench fever - possibly having seen or heard about the first use of tanks in warfare.

The Ents were allegedly a response to technology as well; supposedly the idea for them sprang up as he watched a bulldozer clearing trees and one of his children said something like "I wish the trees could fight back".
 

Aldarc

Adventurer
From what I understand, there really aren't that many species we've domesticated, but lots more can be tamed. Elephants, for instance, are tamed, but not domesticated. Ditto most apex predators like bears, lions, etc. There are numerous examples of plants that seem like they should be domesticable but aren't. Huckleberries aren't but strawberries are, which is why the latter cost an order of magnitude less than the former.

My feeling is that if it's fairly replicable and in widespread distribution among peasants then it's a good call for domestication but if it takes a special "beastmaster" or enchanter, you're talking about taming. (Of course, it's fantasy, so who knows?)
And then you have House Vadalis of Eberron. ;)
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
A good one might be that fire beetles glow because of something they eat in dungeons, but that itself doesn't grow where dungeon air ain't foul enough. It might be cool to play with the idea of alchemists trying to breed them, though.
The Gnomes of Krynn gave us the Giant Space Hamster, the Miniature Giant Space Hamster, the Sabre-toothed Giant Space Hamster and the Fire-breathing Phase Doppelganger Giant Space Hamster.

By that standard, the domesticated Giant Fire Beetle would be a doddle. They might even throw in the miniature one for free.
 

R_Chance

Explorer
Looking at the game mechanics as presented? Elves don’t really have anything about them that makes them über as compared to the “mayflies” they share the world with. Nothing to suggest there would be any significantly lopsided kill ratio in their favor.

Now, Melniboneans and Pan Tangians in Stormbringer, OTOH...
It depends on whether you thought through the effects of being that long lived. Elves (etc.) as PCs seemed to gain experience at the same rate as humans. As an aside at one point I considered reducing their experience awards, but that would have killed them as PCs (iirc it was an option in 2E but I'd already nixed it for my campaign). Well, if they gain experience at the same rate as humans and they are limited in gaining levels (in original D&D 4th level Fighter / 8th level Magic User / unlimited as Thieves - and with good stats a little higher 6/8) what are they doing with their time? Do they adventure for a couple of years and retire at 4/4? Do Elves never leave home and stay at level 1/1 for 1,000 years? What makes sense?

I came up with mythic / historic reasons for their level limits and life spans. Still, limits or no, there is no reason for Elves to be level 1/1 their entire long lives. I assumed that only the low level youth were out adventuring / gaining levels and the more mature Elves stayed home brooding sharpening their swords, researching spells, pursuing other vocations and cursing their ancestors who restricted their levels and life spans. It's called the Limiting in my game setting. Those levels went up in 1E and later of course.

Now, why would Elvish kingdoms continue to exist (if you're setting has any) if they don't have some advantage? Are they hidden? That's one option, but how long could they do that for with inquisitive humans running all over? Are they geographically isolated or naturally defensible? Maybe. Are humans just nice to their neighbors... err, scratch that one. We're not even nice to our fellow humans. Some combination of factors have to account for their survival. I decided they were tougher militarily than your typical human state, the reasoning being their life spans / experience. This is fairly reasonable. Imho, of course.

I made these setting decisions in the "age of homebrew" (1974-79) :) I substituted small groups (or individual) Elves for those 20-200 Elf wilderness encounters in the original game and 1E. It worked for me, and I've had no reason to change my mind on it. I still use the 1E lifespans for Elves (and other races) and level limits (from 2E, typically level 12 / 15 and I give bonus levels for high stats). Given my game doesn't churn out level 20 characters it hasn't effected any PCs. Yet anyway. Give it time :D
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
It depends on whether you thought through the effects of being that long lived. Elves (etc.) as PCs seemed to gain experience at the same rate as humans. As an aside at one point I considered reducing their experience awards, but that would have killed them as PCs (iirc it was an option in 2E but I'd already nixed it for my campaign). Well, if they gain experience at the same rate as humans and they are limited in gaining levels (in original D&D 4th level Fighter / 8th level Magic User / unlimited as Thieves - and with good stats a little higher 6/8) what are they doing with their time? Do they adventure for a couple of years and retire at 4/4? Do Elves never leave home and stay at level 1/1 for 1,000 years? What makes sense?

I came up with mythic / historic reasons for their level limits and life spans. Still, limits or no, there is no reason for Elves to be level 1/1 their entire long lives. I assumed that only the low level youth were out adventuring / gaining levels and the more mature Elves stayed home brooding sharpening their swords, researching spells, pursuing other vocations and cursing their ancestors who restricted their levels and life spans. It's called the Limiting in my game setting. Those levels went up in 1E and later of course.

Now, why would Elvish kingdoms continue to exist (if you're setting has any) if they don't have some advantage? Are they hidden? That's one option, but how long could they do that for with inquisitive humans running all over? Are they geographically isolated or naturally defensible? Maybe. Are humans just nice to their neighbors... err, scratch that one. We're not even nice to our fellow humans. Some combination of factors have to account for their survival. I decided they were tougher militarily than your typical human state, the reasoning being their life spans / experience. This is fairly reasonable. Imho, of course.

I made these setting decisions in the "age of homebrew" (1974-79) :) I substituted small groups (or individual) Elves for those 20-200 Elf wilderness encounters in the original game and 1E. It worked for me, and I've had no reason to change my mind on it. I still use the 1E lifespans for Elves (and other races) and level limits (from 2E, typically level 12 / 15 and I give bonus levels for high stats). Given my game doesn't churn out level 20 characters it hasn't effected any PCs. Yet anyway. Give it time :D
Yes, I have thought through the effects of longevity. However, none of the stuff you’d expect shows up in the game off the shelf. There was very little thought- if any- put into why there are still elves when species that are their equals in every way that matters but with breeding rates that are orders of magnitude higher surround them on all sides. Neither authors of fiction NOR game designers devoted serious thought about that “ecology”.

And everything you posited is houserules.
 
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R_Chance

Explorer
Yes, I have thought through the effects of longevity. However, none of the stuff you’d expect shows up in the game off the shelf. There was very little thought- if any- put into why there are still elves when species that are their equals in every way that matters but with breeding rates that are orders of magnitude higher surround them on all sides. Neither authors of fiction NOR game designers devoted serious thought about that “ecology”.

And everything you posited is houserules.
Yes, it is (mostly) house rules extrapolated from the games rules, because, as you noted, there was very little thought put into it by the game designers. They popped in the standard Elvish tropes without thinking about the effects of it. I like to ponder the effects of accepted "facts" and put a lot of time into developing ideas about them. You could just take it "as is" and not wonder about it. I wonder about it (and other things like it). Imho, my house rules (actually it does not involve any changes to the rules, just encounters for Elves - which can be balanced for the danger they represent) make more sense than RAW D&D in this area :D As always, ymmv.
 

Hussar

Legend
Because it turns out that not all species can be domesticated despite thousands of years of trying?

I suppose selective breeding might yield some with reduced dangerous qualities and enhanced benefits like larger glands or whatever it is that glow. On the other hand, it's also possible that those traits are linked in such a way that make that impossible. In any event, there's no reason to assume they must be domesticable or bred for specific qualities simply because of time. That's more of an artistic choice for the setting.
There's a few problems with this though.

It gets awfully convenient when "nothing" is domesticatable. Particularly when you have access to magic that lets you actually TALK to animals. It becomes something of a stretch when every time some says, "well, what about this race" the answer is always, "Well, it can't be domesticated".

Considering we're talking D&D here, I'm having a really tough time believing that it's impossible to domesticate ANY fantasy creature. And, even if that's true, what about the intelligent ones? Why domesticate when you can flat out HIRE? There are tons of monsters that would massively change how society would look (imagine what you could build with stone giant labourers) if you just flat out spent money and hired them?
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
There's a few problems with this though.

It gets awfully convenient when "nothing" is domesticatable. Particularly when you have access to magic that lets you actually TALK to animals. It becomes something of a stretch when every time some says, "well, what about this race" the answer is always, "Well, it can't be domesticated".

Considering we're talking D&D here, I'm having a really tough time believing that it's impossible to domesticate ANY fantasy creature. And, even if that's true, what about the intelligent ones? Why domesticate when you can flat out HIRE? There are tons of monsters that would massively change how society would look (imagine what you could build with stone giant labourers) if you just flat out spent money and hired them?
Would or could? As I said, whether or not a species is domesticable or not (and no, being able to talk to an individual with magic probably isn't going to change what is and is not domesticable), is a matter of art, not some kind of direct, inevitable product of enough time.
 

mockman1890

Villager
A lot of good points in this article! Yeah, the incredibly stable millennia-old civilizations in fantasy fiction are a little hard to imagine when you really think about it.

OTOH... it's also difficult to imagine human beings (or "elves" or whatever nigh-immortal race or immortal wizards you have in a setting) living for hundreds or thousands of years and still having anything like the same kind of personality, memory or mentality that we associate with being human. But this is another popular trope.

While acknowledging the cliche and ahistoricism of the "5000 year kingdom", I think the challenge with both 5000-year empires and 500-year-old wizards/elves/whatever is to start from the assumption that it *does* work, and then back-build a way that it *could* work, however crazy and bizarre and magic-filled it is. It's more fun to start with a crazy premise (i.e. dragons exist! there's multiple species of humanoid races simultaneously!) and then adjusting reality to make it possible.
 

Hussar

Legend
Would or could? As I said, whether or not a species is domesticable or not (and no, being able to talk to an individual with magic probably isn't going to change what is and is not domesticable), is a matter of art, not some kind of direct, inevitable product of enough time.
Yeah, I made the mistake of using the word domesticate. My bad.

How about exploit? Utilize? Tame? Pick one and I’ll use that and avoid pointless pedantic nit picking in the future.

I mean it’s not like insects aren’t farmed now. Silk worms. Bees. Stuff like that. Heck, I have a beetle store five minutes from my house.

But yeah, a beetle that would be one of the most useful insects around? Naw. Imposdible to use. Same as ever other thing in the monster manual and every spell in the game. :erm:

So much more believable.
 
My game worlds - even if they are taken from published settings - have as much history as I want and need them to. They are NOT stagnant. Almost always they will have multiple civilizations that no longer exist for one reason or another. Civilizations that do exist for the PC's to see will either be growing at some rate, or collapsing. However, if they are growing they are never growing terribly rapidly unless by direct conquest of neighbors. PC's seldom get more than a few hundred years of recent history and mostly concerned with the area where the campaign begins. If a civilization HAS existed in the game world for millennia it has almost certainly gone unnoticed while doing so, and even then is NOT going to be in the same relative state as when it began.

There's really just one reason for all that - it makes it easier for me as DM to start and run any game world. If I want more history in the game I'll introduce it, and it will almost always have little if any compatibility with what any setting authors wrote for it. It will be stuff _I_ wrote that fits what I want. If the already published deep history fits what I want that's great, but it isn't what I invest in any setting for. Anyway, until any of it affects them directly players and their characters really don't much care, nor would I expect them to. But, that then means that even if the civilizations around them HAVE existed in a largely static state for centuries it doesn't matter. Just as it doesn't matter that a dungeon remains in a static state until PC's show up to clean it out. What matters is how the setting changes (or doesn't change) when the PC's interact with it.

It doesn't matter to me or my players if the history of a setting isn't "realistic" and doesn't make sense (assuming THEY are even paying attention to it). If it means that when the PC's stomp around in it with their size 12's it reacts in fun, dangerous, and interesting ways, all is well. Its state 500 years ago is irrelevant.
 

MGibster

Explorer
I think one of the reasons D&D is so popular is because the setting is so generic. I can plop someone into most D&D worlds and the players are going to be up to speed fairly quickly. If you introduce too much strange it'll alienate a lot of people and make it difficult for them to get into the game.
 

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