The Scope of History

Seriously… I do need to write about Fallout; so, I’m going to institute (see what I did there) Fallout Fridays for the foreseeable future. I just have other stuff on my mind.

One of those things is worldbuilding. Specifically, history.

I’m working on my own gaming world again – my little fantasy child that grew from taking names in my hometown and surrounding areas and turning them into larger, grander, fantasy equivalents. And this world has a rich history. I’m all about the grand sweep of history, the tales of how we got to where we are “today” (whatever that means in the context of the modern version of the setting). I need to talk about how that affects my approach, what I’m realizing about that approach, and a thought or two about settings that do it wrong/right (in my opinion).

As I mentioned above, I love the idea that my fantasy world comes with history as deep and rich as that of the real world. I love reading that history. I love delving the depths of the lore on a world and learning a lot about it. I remember reading the FASA Battletech book that was a history of the Star League. It read like a history textbook. I devoured it. No game data at all, just history of a fake future. I want those details. Not only to make me fall in love with the setting and make it more evocative but – also – because I like my worlds to make sense. I like knowing how we got from point A to point B.

Some settings are great for this. Some, less so. A lot of the really big licenses are problematic when it comes to telling their stories in a roleplaying game. Middle Earth and Dragonlance come to mind for me in this category. Both of those worlds are places where the most important story they ever have to tell has already been told. They can still be fun to adventure in, but in the back of your mind, you already know that the big story is out there for others to accomplish.

Star Wars is an odd middle-ground in this discussion because it has a most-important-story if you just think in terms of the Empire, but Star Wars is also still very much grounded in the lives of mere mortals and so it is easier for each new generation to have their own stories to tell. The galaxy of Star Wars is also so damn big that there are plenty of places to adventure that don’t care about the petty struggles of the Rebels and the Empire at all. It avoids the problem with breadth. Which I love.

Battletech is different because it doesn’t really have “most important stories.” It is a tale of wars fought on an interplanetary scale. And yes, some of those wars result in big shifts of political power or create new states but, at the end of the day, they are also bound up with the concept of mortal lifetimes and with an ever-existing hunger for change. You can drop into any period in BT history, play games, get involved in big events, or just be mercenaries out on the Periphery, and it all fits. There are some big players on the stage but they are just people, just like you and me. And the history of Battletech is written with the intent of inviting you in. They want you to play games set across the eras of their history and it shows in how they present that history.

The existence of these Big Players is why worlds like the Forgotten Realms never hold my attention. Sure, the Realms has a rich and extensive history but it is a land beholden to the whims of a few very powerful individuals. The Forgotten Realms never need level 5 adventurers. In order to make the Realms “legendary scale” you have to fill them with legendary scale people, wizards, and gods. And since many of them stick around for centuries (or more) at a time; well, you will always know your character is less than.

But back to my issue. I love the deep, rich, long-winded histories of worlds. I love immersing myself in them. I enjoy a well-written abundance of lore that invites me to be a part of it. And I want to do that with my world. I want to do that with my game. I set about compiling all my notes and history into one giant, narrative, timeline. I’ve realized two things.

First, this should not be a part of the core rules of your system. Looking back at my example of Battletech doing it right, they sprinkle their core documents with just enough details to get you hooked. They use a combination of simple historical storytelling and in-world quotes to create the feeling of a comfortable, lived-in, rich history without dumping it all on you at once. I remember reading about the reputation of Hanse Davion and the wars for water on Periphery planets and thinking that I wanted to be a part of that. I didn’t even know what the Star League was at that point other than a “golden age” that some people looked back on in awe. I read the exhaustive history text later. Because I wanted to read it.

Second, it’s exhausting to write. Creating a compelling narrative that hangs together on the scale of “real world” history is a nigh-impossible task. It’s brutal. And if it is that exhausting to write… it’s going to be equally exhausting to read when you are first being invited into a game world.

My new plan is to emulate my betters. I’m going to keep working on my history textbook in the background but I’m going to focus my creative efforts on creating those inviting nuggets of history that explain the world just enough to make you want to be a part of it and then give you the option of digging deeper at your pace.

Any experience with this? How have you handled it? And, as always, thanks for reading.

And come back Friday for some actual Fallout content this time…

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