D&D World Building Week, Part III: History

This post is third in a series on creating a “homebrew” setting for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I and Part II before continuing here.

The importance of history in a campaign setting varies with style of play. In games where the focus is on combat and powergaming, for example, players don’t typically care where abandoned ruins come from; practically speaking, the ruins only exist to provide monsters with a place to live, and heroes with an interesting background for fighting them.

For games that place greater emphasis on role-playing, however, campaign history is a vital way to connect players with the setting. A key element in helping players suspend disbelief while playing is showing them how their characters fit into an ongoing story. If the dungeon master (DM) can use hsitory to explain why the heroes are where they are, and give the impression that the heroes’ successes or failures will impact the future of the game world, the players will have an easier time playing their roles in the story.

Creating the History

The World Builder’s Guidebook, a supplement for the second edition of the D&D game, provided a very thorough set of tables for randomly generating campaign history. Since that product has unfortunately been out of print for decades (although used copies can still be obtained at some gaming shops, online auction sites and used booksellers), we’ll settle for borrowing an idea or two from that supplement for this post.

The guidebook separates campaign history into three categories: ancient ages, roughly 500 to 1,000 years in length; middle periods, about 50 to 100 years in length; and recent events, separated by one to six years, sprinkled across the most recent 50 years or so of campaign history. By stringing these events into a timeline, the DM can create a useful reference for connecting campaign advenures with the past.

Ancient ages tend to be marked by epic events, such as the rise and fall of empires, natural and man-made cataclysms, technological discoveries, epic wars and great migrations, or even legendary figures, comparable to Cleopatra or Julius Caesar from our own history. Due to the span of time between these events and the start of the campaign, though, most of these events are shrouded in mystery; there is no way to verify that any of them actually happened.

Middle periods usually date back to the oldest institution in the campaign, like a prominent kingdom or temple, so records are a bit more reliable, although historical revisionism can be as much of a problem in a campaign setting as it is in our own world. These events are more mundane than ancient events, with plagues, colonization, natural disasters, the rise and fall of kingdoms, technological or magical advances, and wars of invasion, succession, crusade or rebellion predominating.

Recent events can be even more local, including strong or weak rulers, plagues, monster or brigand activity, recent or current wars and even social scandals.

Combining History with the Setting

By combining the campaign history timeline with the campaign conflicts from Part I and the Map drawn in Part II of this series, the DM can create an internal logic for the placement of settlements or adventure sites that can withstand questioning from the most astute of players.

One of the best methods for doing this was put forth in a 1985 article in Dragon magazine. The author suggested the idea of making multiple copies of the map depicting the terrain of the campagin region, devoid of settlements or political boundaries. Each copy was assigned an approximate year in campaign history, dated about 500 years apart. Then, the DM would place political boundaries that existed at each map’s date, creating something of a pictorial history of migrations, trade routes and wars.

As an example, the author described a settlement founded where a major tributary met a large river, situated between two great forests. The settlement, called Dun by nomadic humans who came there each season to trade, was eventually taken by the elves when the elven tribes of the two forests were governed by a single king; the river became the gateway to the elven lands, and the gateway settlement was renamed Dundorian. Later, the elf empire divided and the settlement was abandoned. Humans taking up permanent residence there kept the name, but the elven named passed into the harsher human tongue as Dun Dorgan, the name the town held at the start of the campaign.

Thus, the DM can draw out the origins of the conflicts established in Part II, and pinpoint the locations of where cities, fortresses, great battles, magical sites and other significant places. Moving from one age to the next, the sites of some cities and castles become sites of ruins, based on the rise and fall of nations, the outcome of wars, and the growth of trade.

The next post in this series will describe how to examine a campaign’s history to help create distinct, believable cultures for a homebrew setting.

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4 comments on “D&D World Building Week, Part III: History

  1. max.elliott says:

    I am so going to have to reread this entire series. Good Work!

  2. [...] campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I, Part II and Part III before continuing [...]

  3. [...] campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV before continuing [...]

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