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.”
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.
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?