An important aspect of creating a world that feels lived in is that it must have its own history. Just like NPCs don’t suddenly pop into existence, your world wasn’t created yesterday. History is so important in explaining why people act the way they do in your world. From the way the world is shaped to who rules it, player characters should have some idea of the past and how it affects their lives now. It might seem daunting, but coming up with your own world’s history doesn’t have to be difficult. Creating history is easy if you answer a few major questions.
Who is in Charge and Why?
Types of Government
Types of government are as varied as the day is long. But there are a few that pop up more than others in D&D settings. Check out the following and see if any of them are the right fit for your world and its history:
- Autocracy: Power resides in the hands of one single person. That person may be, for example, a monarch or a dictator.
- Oligarchy: Rule by a small number of people. Different from aristocracy, these people rule because they share a common attribute, like wealth, connections, strength, intelligence, specialization, honor, etc.
- Republic: Rule by a form of government in which the people, or some significant portion of them, have supreme control over the government and where offices of state are elected or chosen by elected people.
- Kraterocracy: Rule by the strong; a system of governance where those who are strong enough to seize power through physical force, social maneuvering or political cunning.
- Meritocracy: Rule by the meritorious; a system of governance where groups are selected on the basis of people’s ability, knowledge in a given area, and contributions to society.
There are so many different types of government to choose from, and you’re more than free to choose as many as you like for your world. But it’s important that you answer why and how that region developed that particular form of government. It might also help to answer how the people feel about the type of government they live under. Do they prefer the old ruler, or are they now living in a time of peace and prosperity?
Wars and Politics
Different governments give rise to different ways of politicking. Unfortunately, sometimes the aspirations of a few people can cause problems for the many. Wars can erupt over petty things or by someone trying to position themselves for more power.
The people in power rarely care how war affects the common farmer. They only care about the results of the war. Wars can last any number of years. Many people can harbor grudges against regions their homeland fought against for hundreds of years. This is especially important to consider in D&D, as a number of races have extremely long lifespans.
Many countries today still differ heavily in types of governments they choose to run. And just because a region is under one form of government one day does not mean that it will persist as time goes on. All it can take to shake up the political power in an area is enough civil unrest. Never mind all the mayhem that can occur in a D&D session. Fortunately, we never have to worry about the wrath of gods or liches destroying our political structure in the real world. However, your players might not be so lucky.
In what ways has the ruler of a world or region affected its culture and the world? Rulers of a culture can decide every aspect of their people’s lives, be it freedoms, clothing, or even the food they eat. Some popular rituals in one area may be taboo in another. The ruling class may decide on cultural aspects based on health reasons, religious reasons, or perhaps even whimsy or madness.
Rulers may even appoint special groups whose purpose is to protect their cultural heritage, like the Dai Li in Avatar: The Last Airbender. And much like the Dai Li, these groups can become bastardized versions of themselves as the years go by.
How Did the Environment Shape Your World’s History?
Who Lives in Your World?
Environment plays a key role in determining the structure and history of your world. Not only does it affect the animals and ecosystem of a region, but it also determines what its people are like. People who live in environments where they can’t grow food, like deserts or swamps, are going to be dependent on places with plains and prairies.
The amount of water in your world will play a huge role in determining things like region divisions, trade routes and merchandise, and professions. Are pirates and sea merchants common in your world? What events lead to that other than just the world geography?
The history of many cultures begins with gods creating the very world they live in. Religion is a major part of D&D. Clerics and Paladins get their divine powers from gods they choose to follow. It’s easy for people to believe in deities in D&D because they get to see very real examples of their power and if they’re (un)lucky, sometimes the gods themselves. Having such a large pantheon of gods to choose from allows you freedom to explain plenty of historical events, including the creation and shape of your world.
Numerous gods have power over the physical environment and affect things like crop harvest, weather, and water. Perhaps regions in your world who have bountiful harvests or fish filled oceans receive blessings from a particular deity. Include when this happened and what people do to honor the blessings they’ve received. The gods could have even created giant mountains to trap their foes, or left scars in the earth from epic god vs. god battles.
Myths and Legends
It is incredibly popular for cultures to attribute things they can’t explain to gods and heroes. For example, the flood myth is pervasive throughout our own world and depending on who you ask, a different hero is responsible for saving humanity.
But whether you side with Noah or Gilgamesh is irrelevant. Different cultures in your world should have their own version of how ancient events went down, especially if an event happened worldwide and communication is not instantaneous. Think of it like a global game of telephone. People relay events mostly correct at first, but the details change over time and distance.
Get examples from real life myths. Take for example an Ojibwe legend that gives the Sleeping Bear Dunes of Michigan their name. As the story goes, a mother bear and her two cubs were trying to escape a forest fire.
The bears dove into the lake for shelter and tried to reach the opposite shore. The mother was able to reach the shore, but sadly the two cubs drowned from exhaustion in the lake. The mother bear stayed in the hopes that her cubs would appear. The Great Spirit, impressed by the mother bear’s determination and faith, created two islands in honor of the cubs. The winds eventually buried the mother bear under the sand of the dunes where she waits to this day.
Take Inspiration from Real History
There’s no need to go to all the trouble of creating all of your history from scratch. It’s very common for popular authors to derive a good portion of their world’s history from actual historical events. People begin wars for the same reasons, whether it be in the real world or in fantasy worlds. Differences in cultures are apparent as you travel from one country to another on this planet. Use the real world and its history as a framework for your own history and you’ll find that you have less work to do.
Game of Thrones is a very popular book and tv series. It has a rich world with different cultures and legends that shape the actions of its characters. But what many people don’t know is that George R.R. Martin got a lot of his inspiration from The War of the Roses, one of the bloodiest civil wars in British history.
Even the house names are lifted and slightly altered: Lancaster and York became Lannister and Stark, respectively. Obviously there were never any White Walkers or dragons in England, but there certainly could be in your D&D game.
Dragons and the undead are very popular enemies. One of them is so popular it’s even in the name of the game. So take your inspiration from real world history and give it a little tweek. Unless you’re playing with a bunch of history buffs, your players won’t even notice the parallels.
One of the best pieces of advice we can give when creating your world history is to work backwards. Start from the point in time where you introduce your players, and then slowly figure it out. Say your players meet the king of a region. Well, how did he become king? Did he fight a war for his right to rule, or did the gods give him power over the land and people? That’s history, and that affects numerous aspects of the world.
In working backwards, it will be easier to integrate improvising at the beginning. But as you flesh out your world more and more, you won’t be able to take as many liberties and still be historically consistent. So make sure you’re keeping track of flavorful history you’re giving your world when you make up details on the spot.
Worlds are rich due in part by their very history. Whether that history as been affected by the environment, wars or the gods themselves, your players should feel that your world has a past. Put some time into thinking about why things are the way they are in your world right now. Adding lore to your world will make it feel lived in. Try to draw on the history of our own world for inspiration. Just try to keep in mind that your world wasn’t created yesterday, even if it really was.