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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



One issue with RPG magic is that most "spells" are simply scientific/mechanical processes. I'm not sure when the fireball was invented, culturally, but it predates Gygax. Comics? Howard in the 1930s? Tracking that down would be really interesting; fantasy before about 1930 has a much different conception of magic, usually involving charms, "glamors", and the like, as well as some summoning and necromancy (although that, in the best traditional manner, is about talking to dead people, not making animated skeletons out of them). Most medieval and Renaissance magic is very personal in focus. It's about bending people to your will, asking weird beings where treasure is buried, predicting the future, making pacts with devils for worldly gain, etc. In fact, a modern non-scholar's *conception* of "magic" is very, very different from what medievals believed it to be, and in fact I think is rooted very strongly in a positivist, empirical worldview that has soaked into everything we do nowadays.

So the problem is that if your "magic" is just a scientific process, yes, of course it's going to technologize and destroy your "fantasy" world. This must never be allowed to happen. Houses cannot be lit by Light spells. Cure Disease cannot be at every storefront clinic. If so, you are playing a game of technology, and a rather dreary one at that. You might as well play The Sims. So you have to come up with compelling reasons why not.

I think mastery is the real issue. First off, mages are vanishingly rare..so are the people who can be cured by Cure Disease. Everyone else gets a nice prayer and then their nose falls off from the leprosy. In fact, the "heroic" nature of the PCs, and of course a few people like the Big Evil Overlord, is what moves the gods/makes the magic work. And you're one of those special people if your Cure Disease prayer ever actually, you know, cured a disease. But mastery goes beyond that. Simply put, real magicians don't do interior lighting. It's not "beneath" them, per se, it's just a terrible waste of time. It's like a Navy SEAL hired to move furniture for $12 an hour. There are always better options, even if those options involve looking at spell notes for the millionth time or trying to imagine a triune concatenation prolapsed through Andaal's Lesser Conjunct. Given enough time and effort, they'll get to the real knowledge. The very fabric of reality, the very power that runs the universe. Not even to use. Just learning about it would be enough. Even looking at it. So use a torch, peasant. I'm busy. You literally cannot understand how hard this is.

As time passes and you learn more and more, a whole bunch of stuff starts to seem irrelevant. You don't have to be a magician, actual or notional, to experience this. You just need to be a little thoughtful and middle-aged. For a being like an elf, I imagine this would be true, only more so, as the scale of possible mastery would only increase. It's important to adventure in your youth, as that will provide the perspective and insight you'll draw on when you spend 417 years forging a sword. And after that you can start thinking about making a real sword.


And as an aside--it's a truism that D & D has too many apex predators. Like the nerd that I am, I wondered about that. So I did a little digging.

Around 1875--I'm trying to remember the source--a British explorer on an African river steamer counted 2,000 Nile crocodiles along a one-mile stretch of river, the Zambezi IIRC.

There's also this: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-trouble-with-tiger-numbers/

This is a modern, if underdeveloped, tiger habitat. Working with the numbers in the article, I tried to extrapolate them to one of those 30-mile-wide "sandbox" campaign hexes. The results were...interesting.

Such a hex could potentially support 140,000 prey animals, although 75,000 is probably a better estimate. That's tiger prey animals like deer, NOT stuff like rabbits and squirrels. You get an unimaginable number of those too. The hex could support around 75 tigers with that density and with their average territory size, assuming a tiger eats about 75 pounds of a 100-pound deer roughly every week. (These are mainly sikh deer, a bit smaller than American whitetails, but whitetails have incredible population density too.)
Tiger territories are far smaller than generally supposed; tigers also lose about 20% of their numbers each year, almost exclusively to other tigers. Their reproduction rate is such that they bounce back.

So I suddenly have a lot easier time believing in the apex predators in a fantasy environment. We have a lot more fantasy species, but then they'd probably tend to keep the overall numbers down by eating each other or just killing each other. (Tigers are unusually violent; they have been known to attack and kill even large predators such as brown bears on "principle." See Vaillant's excellent The Tiger. Most animals will scuffle but not try to kill; animal wounds are often fatal in the wilderness; so meanie fantasy monsters might take even more losses than in our world.) Fantasy monsters might even eat less than a tiger in some cases, although they might not have to.

We really have very little idea of how many animals used to be on this planet. When explorers arrived on the Chesapeake about 1640, they reported the seawater was glass-clear to a depth of forty feet or so, in part because of the estimated 16 billion oysters in the estuary. They also saw hundreds of five-foot-long cod, which is how big they grow if you give them thirty or forty years to do it in instead of catching them as infants.

Jay Verkuilen

Registered User
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".
As you said elsewhere, the term "domesticated" is being used very broadly. "Tamed" is a much broader word and I think that applies to the kinds of uses that would happen with most fantasy critters.

I think a lot of how you view this could depend on campaign themes. For example, if your campaign has a theme of "the forces of order and civilization versus disorder and barbarism" or the like, it may well be that the forces of civilization only really "work" when mundanity holds. So one thing that the forces of civilization need to do is, essentially, stamp out the fantastic. Things that come out of dungeons? Sure, they might be useful there but only at the peril of your immortal soul and the civilization that we are building! Vice versa, the fantastic might well depend on some kind of supernatural power that is directly opposed to things like domestication.

But I've said this before, but most people don't really care about hyper-consistent world building. I mean, look at most movies, fiction, and so on. Things that are interesting fictionally that show up in superhero stories, such as flight, energy blasting, or trick shots would pale in comparison to many other much less "fun" superpowers. You wouldn't have big cities with lots of mundane folks if superheroes were constantly battling it out with supervillains in the midsts of heavily populated streets.

Gygax pretty clearly didn't care about world building first and foremost---that was for folks like M. A. R. Barker. Gygax was an old skool wargamer who liked pulp action stories.


Oh, yeah. For sure. Trying to develop a consistent, realistic world using D&D materials is a fool's errand. There's just WAY too many inconsistencies for it to work (see the 3e undead spawning rules for how quickly a world would fall apart).

It's more about making a world that is just believable enough that it doesn't trip people's "this is stupid" bar. And that bar is at wildly varying levels depending on the person. For me, I'm definitely one of the folks that as a player, really doesn't care too much about massive gaping setting inconsistencies. I just want to play whatever we're sitting down to play, thankyouverymuch. :)

And, sure, you could set up a setting where the forces of fantasy are in opposition to progress. Fair enough. My beef is when EVERY setting is like that. Or, if we're presuming that every setting has to be like that. It's very limiting IMO. I find settings much more compelling when they can take some element of that setting and make that a driving force in that campaign.

Then again, I see settings as very disposable. I run one campaign in a setting, after a couple of years (at best) that campaign is done, and we move on to another setting. So, I don't have to worry too terribly much about consistency. There's enough blank space in the campaign that the consistencies usually don't get too glaring.

My "suspension of disbelief" bar is extremely robust, so, I'll accept that keep on the borderlands with no farming around it next to a veritable army of humanoids that all hate each other living cheek to jowl next to each other. :D


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