The Architect DM: Creating Histories – Part 2

Last week in my first post tackling the subject of creating histories for an RPG world I discussed relatively “meta” and experimental concepts. This week I’d like to get down to some specifics and hopefully address the concept a bit more directly. The exact question/suggestion that inspired this topic was worded as, “In my homebrew, creating histories in specific territories is a challenge – particularly linking them to the whole world.”

While last week I talked about letting your players help design your game’s/territory’s history and using your previous campaigns to build history, but today I’m going to discuss some ideas about creating histories for a new game world without relying on players to help you out.

Don’t Worry About Creating Less History

For a little bit of guidance, I asked Dave (the Game, my first DM, most likely the biggest influence on me as a DM) what advice he would give on this topic. His answer was, “Don’t build too much in advance, build it during play based on the needs of the story and the characters.” For me this advice is spot on because one of the biggest road blocks a DM can hit when planning a campaign is feeling like they are under-planning and that they are not prepared enough for their own game. There is no rule that says you have to have ‘X’ amount of back story prepared for a game or that you must have fully fleshed out histories for every single city and region that is on your map.

Don’t let getting stumped on creating a history for your game stop you from planning for the ‘present’ that the players are going to experience. If you feel like you’re starting an adventure without enough history of your game world planned, then the odds are you’re doing it right. This advice is the root behind my suggestion in the first post for letting your players help you design the backstory of your game.

I’m Looking for Advice on Creating Histories, Not Advice on NOT Creating Histories

Okay, I’ve covered the “less is more” aspect of this topic enough. There are plenty of situations where you will want to create history for your game world, and this is where Dave’s second bit of advice on the subject is spot on, “Look for opportunities for stories and interesting developments instead of focusing on minutiae that may never come up.” When you are designing histories for regions, territories, or worlds always keep in mind how the details you’re designing can add to the story of your game and how they can be developed through the player’s actions and decisions during the game.

When establishing a basic history for a territory in your game world, start with the physical features of the region and consider how those features would impact the people living there. If you have a region with mountains on both sides, then the odds are that region will have more dwarves than other realms and also that the territory will be rich in stone, minerals, and gems. Fortresses built of large stone and walled in towns might be common in this region, whereas a grassland or forested realm would have less stone but more wood construction.

Interacting Histories Make the World Richer

Developing the region further, a large part of its history will have depended on the resources available to its people and those in bordering regions. A territory with abundant horses and livestock might support more spread out towns and at the same time be able to trade more easily with those around it. While you’re developing the history for each individual territory, you can also work on how they have influenced each other over time and end up with a group of regions linked better with the larger world.

When you’re thinking about how the various regions in your game world would interact, consider what certain regions would have an abundance of and what others might be short on. As you continue to develop the map, look at which regions are adjacent and hopefully you’ll start to find some connections that make sense. One nation that needs stone separated from another rich in stone, and a region good at trade between them, and you have a strong connection between three regions that benefits each of them equally.

How Does All of this Apply to History?

Using the same three regions described above, you have one region that’s history focuses on their mining of stone and exporting it, another that focuses on peaceful and beneficial trade between two of its opposite neighbors, and a third region that relies heavily on both of the other regions for its development. If we go back to the second bit of advice from Dave, you should begin to imagine a slew of story and development ideas that can come from these connections. What happens when the third region loses its source of stone? How can the players’ actions effect or influence the mining and exporting of stone from the first region? What might happen if the second region is disrupted by outside influences and both of the other regions find themselves without the middle man they so desperately need?

Already we’re beginning to develop a fairly interesting set of regions, their histories, and a collection of locations and adventures that the party can experience. All of this came from just the resource of stone and its trade between regions. Once you consider a handful of other natural or even unnatural resources and continue to develop each region, you should have a fairly well developed game world and a detailed history that enriches the game and provides plenty of hooks for your game.

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  1. Great advice about leaving some things up in the air until gametime. I’ve also found it really useful to load history and background with story possibilities. Secret organizations, racial relations, slavery, foreign relations, cultural clash, language barriers, technological or economic dependency, rarity of magic, form of government, prominent figures with high-stake goals, and paradoxical combinations – each of these could be the starting point of history and background. Little loose ends in the history can become adventure hooks on the fly. The point is that “history” is above all “story.” It should catch the PCs by surprise. It should catch you the DM by surprise. Those are my thoughts.

    This is an area I enjoy more than any other in the DMing realm. I really like to jot down notes about little story details or images during my everyday routine. Little ideas can become formative seeds in your world history. As an example, I once jotted down an idea that struck me about a tribal ritual wherein the chief sits out in the marketplace until he dies of exposure. I decided that this would happen once a year, ensuring that the tribe’s chiefs were limited to a one-year term ending in death. Now my PCs are very close to the current chief, who will be dead within the next few months of game time. It created an interesting history that is directly applicable to the PCs right now.

  2. Shilling says:

    Good advice, especially about looking for stories.

    So, in light of this column I have re-examined my own methods for history/worldbuilding. It is along the lines of ‘reverse cause and effect’. Here we go.

    Step 1: I usually start with some aspect of the world that I want to be a certain way. It’s the hook; something exciting and notable. (Let’s say.. oh, the royal family in this city-state are all hereditary assassins.)

    Step 2: I ask what kind of history would be necessary for this to come about. What events and pressures could turn a royal bloodline into assassins, or assassins into royals?
    (let’s say: a tyrannical line of monarchs over a couple of centuries resulted in rebel outlaw families that used assassination as a tool, eventually culminating in a coup.)

    Step 3: kind of the most important step. Having found an answer to step 2: what are the OTHER consequences of that history? I will do some research at this point into the systems involved and analogues in our own history (hello wikipedia!) Thinking about the ramifications produces more details that both flesh out other parts of the world and work in concert with steps 1 and 2.
    (what do other nations think of the assassin royals? What do the general populace think? Is it common knowledge or a secret? Are there any survivors of the original royal bloodline? Are there national holidays to mark the date of the coup? Are there memorials to it? How does an assassin mindset affect the style of rule by the royals and their intra-family politics?)

    I think of this three-part method as the ‘Bounce’. I bounce my brainstorming from the present, backwards in time to a suitable start point, then back up to the present again.

    What this does is produce a history that supports an interesting central hook (something to excite the players, flavour the world and have adventures around) – there is less chance of writing a history that results in little of interest. It also helps me get over the ‘fear of the blank paper’ – it gives me a starting point and a logical series of steps. The best of top-down and bottom-up approaches.

    Finally having the two reference points in the present and the past means that other bits of history and detail can be deduced on the fly. If a player asks about something I hadn’t considered -for example the sewer system for the city – I can go back to my historical reference points and quickly determine what would best fit into that framework (the sewers are large and labyrinthine, and were actually the method by which the assassins gained access to the royal palace in the coup. To prevent the same thing happening again they have posted the sewers with guards and traps).

    As always any idea should be examined with “how is this fun for the players?” and “is there a twist that can add even more fun?”

    I’m loving these Architect DM articles because they give me ammunition to understand the ramifications of these history points. Knowledge is power!

    P.S. all the above examples were invented during the writing of this comment. Now I really like them and may have to use them. Hah!