Part of creating a vibrant, full world is working with multiple timelines. Just as understanding the past allows us to make sense of our political, cultural, and personal present, knowing your game world’s history helps you to determine conflicts, alliances, trade relationships, religious practices, and more.
In this post, we will work through some practical steps to take and questions to ask when thinking through these past eras. Also, it’s really fun!
When looking backwards from the present, try to think through three different eras in your world’s history. In our game, we developed a period 2000 years, 5000 years, and 10,000 years in the past. I love that D&D provides the space for thinking through the wide array of changes and possibilities over things like thousands of years’ worth of past eras!
What do past eras tell us for worldbuilding?
These fallen empires will affect the types of magical artifacts spread throughout your world as well as their distribution. Are there extensive ruins, and how thoroughly excavated are they? How many undiscovered spaces still exist in your world?
The buildings and constructions used by these civilizations will also determine the types of dungeons in your world. Though we often think of a “dungeon crawl” taking place in a dark, dank stone cavern, trying to navigate the rotting remains of a jungle temple in the middle of a rainforest could have a similar yet fresh effect.
Your pantheon, and the pantheons of the past, will have resonances with one another over time as well. Many of the races in the officially published D&D texts are linked back to a deity that created them, such as the drow with Lolth and orcs with Gruumsh.
The Spellplague in the Forgotten Realms is another such example when a magical disaster utterly changed the geographic makeup of Faerun. The homebrew race of the Luminians by GeekFireLabs, which is one of my favorite pieces of homebrew lore online, are defined by a similar occurrence. Their magical city, protected by the goddess Selune, fell out of the sky when she abandoned them during the Convergence for reasons that the few remaining Luminians still don’t understand.
Multiple Ranges of Cultural Memory
The various life expectancies of the peoples in any give area are going to affect the longevity of cultural memory in that particular nation, city-state, or region. Eras a few thousand years in the past might only be one or two generations back for long-lived races while they will be quite removed for those with a much shorter lifetime.
For example, the turn of the century is probably only two or three generations removed in your family tree while the Roman Empire is long-since past. However, if humans lived for 800 years or so, Ancient Greece might feel as close to our own time as the mid-nineteenth century does now.
Further Geographic Resonances
Geography and history will also help to determine how diverse the various kingdoms in your world are. Nation-states with open ports and easily accessible neighbors will likely be more diverse than those that are separated from others by difficult-to-traverse terrain such as swamps, thick jungles, a desert, or intense mountain ranges.
I would echo something that I’ve learned from Deven Rue on her Patreon and encourage you to isolate certain regions by using undesirable landscapes besides mountain ranges and extensive forests. Several days of travel through the mountains will be easier to attempt than the same travel time across a desert.
A couple more questions to consider:
- How has the geography of your world changed over the last age? The one before? An ancient empire?
- Was a past era more technologically advanced than your present era?
Expanding and developing the history of your world is a really exciting process. Don’t be intimidated if you’re just starting out in your worldbuilding, and don’t worry if these civilizations take time to fully flesh themselves out in your mind.
A Helpful Tool to Try
We’re planning an entire post about this affordable and easy-to-use resource soon, but in the meantime, allow me to share one of my most recent projects.
I’ve been working a lot with the lore from two of the past eras in our world, 2000 years back and 5000 years back, so I decided to make a map of each of those eras to help me think through what those geographic and political changes have looked like.
5000 years ago, in a world called Eldura
3000 years later, an apocalyptic flood
Resulting in the present day
Inkarnate made it really easy for me to create several maps and play with erosion and seismic shifts over time as well as magical and environmental disasters and alterations.
And speaking of our homebrew world of Azuria, if you would like to get involved with bringing a one-on-one D&D world to life, we’d love for you to join our Patreon where we’re working on a long-form duet campaign and setting and are eager to help you plan out a world of your own as well.
We have several other posts discussing worldbuilding and setting up your homebrew campaign.
If you’re a new DM, I have some beginning resources for you here.
When you’re ready to zoom out a bit on your game and think through the balance of your player’s/players’ effect on the world and its effect on them, we’ve got you covered.
And, speaking of magical items, I also have some ideas for you for personalizing them based on a character’s class!
And an Additional Resource
Finally, if you’d like even more questions and ideas to consider, Matt Colville has a great video, “Dead Empires,” about things to think through when adding to your world’s past:
We’d love to hear about the histories of your homebrew world or answer any questions you may have in the comments below!
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting the blog by purchasing our adventures and supplements in our shop or on DMsGuild or sponsoring us on Patreon. We’d also love for you to follow us on Twitter and Instagram. We appreciate you so much! Thank you for reading. – Beth and Jonathan