World Building Month: The Question of History

So you’ve made your world.  You’ve populated it with a cast of interesting characters, and given it a rich history.  So now, as you sit down to play for the first time in your setting, the question becomes do you tell your players this history?

History is a necessary evil for any setting.  If the world has no history, it will end up feeling bland and without depth.  It shows the craft and thought put into your world.  It makes the cities and ruins more significant and it can give the events of the game more impact.  A battle in a shrine with a thousand year history is far more interesting than a battle in some nameless shrine.  An exposition session, where you tell the players of the history of your world, can be a great time.  It gives you the chance to flew your storytelling muscles and tantalize your players with hints of artifacts and ruins they’ll encounter.  It can really enhance your game.

But what about the opposite?  What if you tell your players nothing and let them discover the history on their own in the confines of the game?  This can be just as fun.  That nameless shrine in the woods can be just a nameless shrine, or it can be significant in ways the players have to discover.  The lich with the weird name, maybe they discover him in some ancient tome, turns out he’s the rightful king of the country.  This is the kind of writing you can’t do when you give your players the entire history.  And you give the players a reason to take the history skill (and use it).

Personally, I like to take a middle road approach to history.  You know I enjoy feeding my players false information, and the histories of my worlds are no exceptions.  An old adage states that history is written by the victors.  But history can also be forgotten, erased, and altered.  That aforementioned nameless shrine, if my players encounter it, it’s nameless because someone wants it to be nameless.  That lich? Wrong side of a losing war and his enemy tried to destroy him completely.  If my players roll history, they’ll also have to take into account the source of their knowledge.  Real history is full of authors embellishing or altering accounts to favor those in power, why should the history of my world be any different.   Why shouldn’t my players have to deal with the same half remembered oral traditions and metaphorical myths that plague modern historians?

So, when the time comes for you to approach history in your game, keep these things in mind.  You can give your players everything, nothing, or some amalgamation of the two, but the most important thing is what you want to do.

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3 thoughts on “World Building Month: The Question of History

  1. Given that player characters tend to do a lot of impromptu archaeology (exploring ancient ruins, digging into forgotten tomes); presenting the campaign world’s history with the kind of inaccuracy, misinformation, and outright falsification we see in real-world historical study provides them with opportunities to discover the Truth. This can be really exciting for those players who love digging into the world background, especially if the DM builds up certain “facts” only to have the evidence prove the contrary.

    The trick with an approach like that is still rewarding characters who use the “History” skill. Succeeding at a difficult roll only to be told your knowledge is false because “every living scholar was lied to!” just feels like a cheap way of saying you failed the roll. Instead that success could indicate the player has doubts about the authenticity of information, and might inspire the PCs to dig further.

  2. With all the ruins exploring and ancient book reading that PC tend to do, they often find themselves as impromptu archaeologists. Creating a campaign history fraught with misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and outright falsifications gives them the opportunity to “set the record straight” and have a stake in the world’s true story – while also making the campaign world a bit more realistic.

    The tricky bit about this is rewarding players with the “History” skill. It feels cheap to succeed at a roll only to be told that “you were wrong because all living scholars have been fed lies!” While that may be accurate, it’s essentially telling rhe player they failed their roll. A more empowering answer is to tell the player their success leads them to have serious doubts about the authenticity of information, and might even inspire the PCs to take the initiative to dig deeper into the world and its mysteries.

    • I agree completely. I had one DM who was a history professor who would always reward smart use of the History skill. In general, I think it’s a smart practice to always reward smart uses of skills.

      I’m also love to use failure as a tool. Say the players fail the history roll. Give them lies, bad information, anything to make their failure interesting. The worse the failure, the more sure they are of their false information.

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