Time and the Campaign Setting

One thing that has often frustrated me about fantasy campaign settings is how they handle time. Possibly to accommodate the lifespans of demi-humans, many published settings fall victim to the model I’ve come to call “thousands of years where nothing happens.”

Nothing Happens?

What does that mean? In short, it means the history of those settings has been artificially elongated so as to be meaningless in many ways. Barring divine intervention, it seems unlikely that worlds populated by intelligent beings (Mannish and otherwise) would remain at a Mediaeval level (socially as well as technologically) for thousands of years. Even hundreds of years feels like it’s stretching the point.

My Solution

When I developed my campaign setting, I determined to use a realistic timeline as much as possible. This worked because I built a ‘reset’ point into the history: a cataclysm caused by magic that shattered the old order and drew new gods into the world. These new gods were actually extraplanar beings who reordered magic to prevent another cataclysm from taking place (my explanation for the three Realms in Rolemaster…Arcane is actually an echo from the past order). The cataclysm took place a thousand years before the campaign began. Each society rebuilt itself from scratch, explaining the technology level and social development in the same breath.

Does It Matter?

Is this important? For many gamers it’s likely not. But for me, a historian by training and inclination, it was very important. The more ‘real’ a campaign setting seems, the more engaged players seem to be in my experience. If the history of the world is short, with new developments occurring all the time, they see opportunities to write their characters into that history. And that happened in my setting, with one realm actually being ruled by a player character.

It’s Not Who You Know…It’s Who you Are

It’s also possible because I base my time scale on the lifespan of the dominate race in the setting: Mannish peoples. The elves in my setting are small and scattered, divided by quarrels dating back to the cataclysm. Dwarves are fighting their own battle against the races that drove them underground, but as they grow in power they will start shaping the overall timeline as well.

How Others Do It

Historically in game setting terms, both Grayhawk and the Warhammer environment both use shorter time scales, while Forgotten Realms and Shadow World use longer scales. Harn is somewhat unique in how it handles time, committed as they are to freezing world development at a certain point and letting players and GMs go from there. What works, or doesn’t work, for your gaming group?

11 Replies to “Time and the Campaign Setting”

  1. I think one problem with a progressing setting is that will result in new technology. Most settings border on Renaissance, and it doesn’t take much to push that into Industrial – and that, unless you want a steampunk game, is probably a bit too much.

    Possibly one of the greatest hindrances to the spread and development of technology is the difficulty in transmitting knowledge. After all, the Greeks had steam-powered toys, so could in theory have built steam engines, and I believe there are also millennia-old batteries, plus the Ankywhatsit Mechanism which could be early clockwork. Consequently, in my opinion, the most important item of technology is the moveable type printing press (something that has cropped up in the most advanced culture in Shadow World, as well as early steam power), which allows knowledge to be disseminated much more easily – and prevents its loss.

  2. Egdcltd mentioned the printing press. It is often changes in technology that can create or drive major social changes. The stone age did not end because they ran out of stones, just a better technology came along to supplant stone knives, scrapers and axes.

    I can envision that magic could have a massive stagnating effect on technological advance. Why strive to build a machine when magic already enables that task?

    The printing press enabled knowledge to be disseminated and stored. A magical alternative may be someone who watched an inspired orator giving a speech could create a magical item that could ‘play’ an illusion of the speaker giving that same speech. This would allow the item to be watched and passed on to share the ideas.

    In our world the printing press allowed people to create pamphlets to share ideas and these were often shared and passed on. At this point the two are kind of equivalent in function.

    Where they differed though was the printed pamphlet itself inspired others to print their own ideas. The magical item doesn’t do that. Making permanent magic items is normally something that is beyond the ability of all but the most capable magic users.

    Why develop plough technology if the druids can feed the entire local population through prayer? Why build siege engines if mages can split castle walls asunder with a single spell. Why develop medicine if clerics can heal any wound?

    1. There may also be a substantial overlap between the type of people who can do magic and the type who would develop technology. There was even in our world; if magic did actually work then inventors might be less common.

    2. My thought on this is that many fantasy systems also place limits on magic through making casters weak or limiting their numbers in some way. Gary Gygax’s Dangerous Journeys system made some sort of casting available to just about everyone, and had (I think) the best potential to show how magic could supplant technology through availability. Most games, however, don’t really go that route. I tend to think that in any system where magic is limited or restricted, other methods would be developed to accomplish the same things.

  3. Great subject. At the root is how are lengthy histories supported by minimal or non-existent technological development? a few random thoughts.
    1. Our own Master Atlas touched upon some disruptive forces: Isolationism and Catastrophism.
    The Biome of Kultea is diverse and varied. Many geographic areas are isolated from each other by physical barriers: mountain ranges, broad seas, and the invisible walls of Essænce. These divisions have created a world rich in varying cultures, languages and technology. Thus it’s not unusual to have bordering regions with completely divergent weather, flora, fauna. In many regions, cultures are frequently unaware of others’ existence and have very little contact with the outside world.
    While most life on Kulthea can be traced back to the Althans or the tampering of the Lords of Orhans, other influences have speeded up species evolution. The fundamental effects of the Essaence flows have an potent mutative effect on Kulthean life: isolated biomes could host entirely different versions of life, uniquely adapted to their immediate environment. Some of these lifeforms are best left in isolation.
    Kulthea is a land of recurring cataclysms: some caused by vast social conflict, some geological, and others heavenly. Each major event has caused wide spread devastation and extinction; sometimes even reshaping the very topography of the planet and destroying the slow gains of civilization. Thus life, cultures and civilizations have had a tenuous hold on the surface. Earthquakes, volcanism, and severe Essænce effects are real phenomena with often tragic results.
    Perhaps the most “consistent” destruction and change is brought by the comet Sa’kain. Every 150,000 years it passes Kulthea, disrupting the Essænce, rupturing the fabric of space and wreaking physical changes upon the planet. Sa’kain is seen as a dark harbinger: a doom bringer to the peoples of Kulthea.
    Because of these periodic destructions, Kulthea is often a world of amnesia: much of it’s past glory and technological achievements are lost in time and memory. Even the Elves, who measure time in centuries or millennia, retain only fragmented memories of ancient events. Kulthean history reaches back almost 200,000 years, with many long periods of destruction and darkness. Just the current period, the Third Era, has lasted over 6,000 years—similar to all of known history in current Terran understanding. Clues to Kulthea’s vast history is scattered across the planet: found in ancient ruins, inscrutable devices and half remembered myths
    2. SW also has a dampened chemical interactive effects–eliminating developments like base chemistry, gunpowder, fossil fuels and combustion processes.
    3. Does magic inherently replace technological process? Why develop mechanical work if magic can do the same? (Already noted above). And is it magic itself that progresses rather than technology?

  4. Great responses! One thing I’ve noticed about many settings, though, is they tend to be compressed into fairly small geographical areas. Kulthea is obviously an exception, and my own setting is as well. I accounted for isolation in my setting with cultures that have varying levels of both magical and technological development. But for settings with a small geographic area the isolation argument seems fairly weak.

    But this also raises the question: if magic replaces tech to a degree, why are so many settings apparently stagnant there, too? I built an explanation for this into my setting (active gods who keep a tight hold on magic to prevent the cataclysm that brought them into the world in the first place), but not all settings seem to do this. I’m not overly familiar with Shadow World (its flavor and style never quite worked for my gaming groups…either as a player or GM), but I know Warhammer had a method for doing so.

    I also realize the discussion is slightly academic, but one thing I’ve always tried to do with my gaming is to make the setting feel as ‘real’ as possible. That’s helped a number of novice RPG players get a feel for things quickly. And they really enjoy being able to ‘see’ the world change and feel as if their characters are a major part of that process.

    1. Continual technological process will be disrupted by catastrophism–the trick in the game world is to assign the mechanism for this. In Kulthea, a comet causes massive physical and Essence disruption, upending whole civilizations. War and conquest should also reset the “progress clock”. Certainly in a fantasy world, you need disruption to create lost cultures, ruined cities and forgotten civilizations; how else do you create adventure environments.

      I also see new technology as a great adventure hook or historic inflection point. We’ve introduced gunpowder into our SW campaign. It’s very unreliable, currently only artillery size but still disruptive.

      1. Of course. In my world there are a couple of levels of ruins: ones tied to an earlier version of one of the Mannish cultures and others that are relics of the previous civilization. The players have been deeply puzzled by the latter ruins thus far.

    2. I think that’s going into an area I’ve mentioned both here and on the SW forums. Namely, just what effect magic has on a civilisation. In most settings that don’t go the Sith route of one apprentice, one master, for every 20th level spellcaster there may be dozens, if not hundreds, of people able to use 1st level spells. Such an amount of low level magic will surely have an effect. Casters may cancel each other out to a degree in wartime, but what about peace? A book I’ve mentioned before, A Magical Medieval Society (I have the 2nd edition but it’s now up to the 3rd) explores these in a D&D context.

    3. I have also noted the apparent stagnation in magic and in my game new magic is constantly being introduced in the form of evolving spell list composition and the characters are actively encouraged to develop their own new magic.

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