Copyright © 1994 B. A. "Collie" Collier
God is love, but get it in writing.
--Gypsy Lee Rose
This zine is an article I originally wrote for another publication. Since I have yet to see my payment, let alone have the signed contract returned to me, I feel no remorse in re-using this. I'd not yet decided on a name for my zines in Interregnum, since at that time it wasn't known that The Wild Hunt was truly defunct. Thus the uninspired title. :-) Let me know what you think of the article -- I'm always interested in commentary!
Also, it was very amusing, once this hit print, to see the worried, perplexed looks of my players in my then-game. There was just enough drawn from the game to make them bothered, but not enough matches for them to be able to point and say, this is the truth. And they know better than asking me -- 'who do you ask?' is my standard answer in those situations! I have no idea if they actually liked the article!
"Okay, you go to the inn." "Who's there? What do we see?"
"Who's there? What do we see?"
"Uh, you can get some drinks and some entertainment."
"Entertainment? Not barmaids again!"
"Uh, it's a storyteller."
"What story is she telling?"
"Uh, the story of some hero or something... you know, beginning of
the world stuff."
"Great! Tell the story!"
Have you ever been caught flat-footed by your players expecting more background than you've prepared? Have you heard the complaint that your world is like a movie set for a western town -- when they push on the building front it falls down because there's nothing behind it? Making a timeline can prevent this.
Timelines can be used to tell players something about the world their characters exist in. Preparing a timeline can help the GM flesh out the culture and give the players some idea of the world, and possible backgrounds for the PCs themselves. Timelines give a "feel" for the area and culture. They can also exist in multiple versions: the GM's version can include all the past, current, and future plots and intrigues, and the players' versions can be used to give cultural or regional points of view. Admittedly, if all the players are from one culture they will only receive one point of view. Even so, the timeline can be used to show cultural bias, accepted modes of behavior, the impact of religion or magic, and the importance of any other institutions the GM wishes to accentuate. Finally, they are a nice story-telling touch to add breadth and verisimilitude to the world.
Making timelines can seem daunting at first, but they are easy enough to start. The beginning of history in any fantasy world is almost always shrouded in religious symbolism. To start a timeline for a specific culture, figure out the religion of the area and apply the appropriate cultural bias. For example, if a culture believes art is the greatest profession, it's a strong probability that their foremost deity will be some kind of artist. Perhaps this artist carved the known world out of the primal slime, or sang the defeat of the chaotic dragon that was preventing the orderly creation of the world. If the creator of the world is a healer deity, the fertility of the world may rest solely on the fact that this deity periodically heals it. Remember, most cultures model their deities on what they believe is a cultural ideal. Observe below how the GM can have deities, a possible quest (to defeat the evil fighting your deity), and a cultural background -- already built in with the creation story.
Say the GM wants all the best warriors to come from the North. The culture should be very war-like. The GM wants the warriors there to be egalitarian, with most men tending to be berserkers, which favors the generally greater strength of men. Women will compensate by being the distance fighters: missile weapons, strategists, and clever leaders. Furthermore, expansionism should be seen as a bad thing.
Okay, the lead deities should be aspects of warriors. The lead god is a female tactician, and the secondary god will be a male berserker. This means She should do something using His strength to create the world. Let's say She shot the evil whatsis with her bow, wounding it enough that He can slice it up with His sword in a berserker rage, but not be killed by it. Then She planned what the world would look like and instructed Him as to how to hew it out of the evil whatsis' corpse so people would have a place to live. The deities are not omnipotent, so some of the evil managed to stay in the world, and regularly comes to light in the North. She has made the North an unforgiving climate so harsh warriors would be bred to fight the evil when it rises. Since the evil only rises in the North, the warriors want to stay where their deities have told them to stay in order to fight it..
After the creation myth is established, more current legends and heroes can be filled into the timeline. These legends can also be used by the GM and the players, working together to flesh out each PC's background and motivations. This gives a new PC some context in her relationship with the world around her. If a legendary quest or cultural imperative exists already, many players like to work with the GM to place their PCs within this context. Alternatively, some people like their PCs to be the "odd man out." However, most cultures believe what they do is not only right, but the only correct way to do things. Depending on how fanatic a culture is, the "odd man out" can even be seen as wrong and dangerous. Note logic is not necessarily a part of this sort of cultural decision-making!
In the South, there is an artistic, male-dominated society. Their monotheistic religion says that the world and man are the artistic masterpieces of the male Deity. Woman was a creation of evil which cajoled man into disobeying his god. Man's transgressions allowed woman, death, and decay to become a part of the heavenly cosmos. This has defiled the beauty of His creation. It is His command that man atone for his weakness by subjugating woman. Furthermore man must spread His religion to all by showing the splendor of His world (His greatest creation) in artistic formats. Thus the South's greatest heroes are painters, architects, sculptors, and other artistic types of people -- but always andonly male.
Unfortunately, while the South has effectively subjugated women in their own culture, they are having some trouble convincing the North that the Northern religion is wrong. There have been three great wars between the North and the South. Unsurprisingly, the North has won all three. The South is becoming bitter and turning isolationist economically. However, it feels it must accomplish its religiously mandated goals. Instead of fighting the next war with warriors, it will have to fight on another front.
Now the world has a mythical background, two strongly defined and opposing cultures, and several obvious inherent conflicts. It doesn't matter if there was really a Big Bang, or if the world is really held up by four elephants standing on an exhausted turtle. What matters to the players is how their PCs see the world. A creation story, whether mythical or otherwise, gives a PC a sense of knowing, understanding, and belonging in this world or culture. Also, players have a wide variety of social stations and motivations with which to begin character development. Will they play a Northerner or a Southerner? Will they play a grim, dedicated warrior priest, or a flippant, talented youngster who doesn't really believe in "the evil"? Will they take up the quest of finding a way for the South to sneakily triumph over the Northern unbelievers, or will they play the person who believes the South should be able to defend itself physically, by training warriors instead of just artists?
One of the nice things about identifying and describing the heroes and legends that have gone before is they can be used as inspiration for both the players and the PCs. If one of the great "traitors" of the South was a woman who wished to change the South's religion and/or culture, perhaps one of the players will find this interesting and wish to include it in her character. Making the PC related to this long-dead person will connect the character with both the background and other people within the game. Perhaps the Southern One True Church is quietly watching the members of this particular family for more of those "dangerous" ideas. Perhaps it is a public shame on the family escutcheon which the PC's father wishes to see erased. Maybe the PC secretly desires to emulate the ideals of this ancestor.
Plots, intrigues, and points of view can also be delineated by one or more different timelines. The GM may have the driving forces behind certain cultural trends written down in her timeline, whereas all the players see are the different cultural reactions to these trends. The progression of "off-screen" actions, such as a distant war or assassination, can also be traced this way. Cultural points of view can give different groups different interpretations of these actions. What one culture sees as heroic another group may see as blackest villainy. Simple changes in how the story is told can be used to show this. As an example, a specific event occurring before the PCs begin playing can be described in several ways:
Pre-PC Date (Northern version) Southerners basely murder Northern hero/queen, and invade Northern valley. Northerners righteously object. Justice is done.
Dwarves (newly discovered race; friendly to North) teach Northerners to build sensible, square, stone, defensible buildings.
The same event is shown from the Southern point of view. Note how the emphasis on certain events and the descriptive style has changed:
Pre-PC Date (Southern version) In a gesture of peace, the Southerners attempt to establish an embassy in some Northern valley. The obstreperous Northerners violently object; apparently they do not know how to trade or share. Some unimportant Northern chief is killed in some tedious provincial political troubles; of course, the Southerners are framed for the murder. The Northern barbarians will not listen to protestations of innocence. They also start building monstrously ugly stone buildings all around the country they've seized. These are hideously painful to the Artistry of the One True God. The Northern barbarians are too stupid to see the truth. Like children, they will have to be taught correct behavior.
The writing for the North is shorter and choppier to signify the almost militant adherence to brevity and conciseness. The writing for the South is somewhat florid; it shows a slightly pretentious attention to the artistry of words. Obviously, both sides will depict themselves as right.
The GM, on the other hand, has a different version altogether -- she knows the cause and effect:
Pre-PC Date (Secret GM version) The dwarves (a race unknown to the Southerners) decide to support the North, as their culture is closer to dwarven ethical standards, and the South is xenophobic. For religious reasons, the Southerners enter a Northern valley. Northerners object. The dwarves conduct an experiment in manipulation of humans by killing a Northern hero/queen in the valley, and leaving evidence against Southerners at the murder site. The Northerners naturally blame the Southerners for her murder, and violently repel all Southerners from the valley. The dwarven experiment is a success.
The dwarves teach the Northerners how to build big, square, stone, defensible castles so the Northern domains can be defended from Southern depredations. This will keep the Southerners from bothering the dwarves.
One thing to bear in mind while filling in details on past history is the cyclical nature of history. This can be roughly explained by pointing out that cultures tend to follow cycles of increasing and decreasing effects. For example, a militaristic society might wage war to the maximum capability of its homeland. At some point the supply lines get too long, or there is some huge setback, or there isn't enough raw materiel and people to throw into the military machine. At this time the culture will start to become disenchanted with its former goals. The cycle will start to swing to a less militant position. Some of these cycles can be conservatism vs. liberalism, militarism vs. pacifism, religious fanaticism vs. magical fanaticism, or any other "-isms" you wish to include.
Scholars are still arguing over whether this theory (the cyclical nature of cultures) is true or not. However, someone trying to fill in up to several thousand years of history with interesting cultural trends and occurrences probably doesn't care. Use cycles to make logical chains of events. If one culture waged war on another, the loser probably had a bad time of it. In an agriculturally based economy, destroying the crops will probably cause hardship, starvation, riots, or even plague. If you lose a lot of your populace, eventually you will reach the carrying capacity of the land, and recovery may begin. At this time the loser may decide to redress old injuries and declare war on its former conqueror, who may be having current problems of its own. And so the cycle starts another turn.
This type of thing will cause change in the culture. It doesn't matter if these changes take generations: people and news moved more slowly in the medieval time period. You as GM can do the same in your fantasy game if you wish. Also, one of your greatest time-savers in creating a timeline is to use previously existing histories. One of the best is the history of our world. Reading medieval history is not only fascinating, it vividly illustrates the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction.
Now the GM has a beginning, and some of the intervening times. Set this aside for a while, and identify precisely the "feel" of the current cultures in the game. Figure out what would cause these cultural generalizations, and put them in the timeline, working backward from the present. Eventually the GM will have the past and the present meet, and the timeline will be ready for play.
The desired current feel in the game is one of impending disaster that only drastic action can prevent. Okay, make sure the South has been caught at some unforgivably heinous deed, such as casting at the North immensely powerful, generations-long spells designed to kill women. Obviously the North is VERY angry with the South, and the South has never been good at defending itself militarily. Since there are so few women now, the Northern religion of Him is certainly on the upswing, with more berserkers than ever before. Make sure the PCs have a good reason to not want the South to be obliterated, as it most assuredly will be unless something is done immediately. It doesn't matter if the PCs are Northern or Southern; the game's feeling will be one of impending disaster that hopefully only their quick thinking can prevent.
There are two basic times to make a timeline. Obviously, the first possibility is before the campaign begins. This has the advantage of giving your new and future players somewhere to start in their quest for an appropriate background for a PC. If a world and its cultures are delineated ahead of time, there is a framework existing on which to create your characters. How many times have you heard something along the lines of "she's kinda like a Viking"? This is a simple example of using a culture to give a character definition.
The second possibility is to make your timeline up after the game has begun. This isn't as difficult as it may sound. The one thing the GM must keep in mind is consistency. Pull together all your notes and organize the current, PC-affected history of the world. Obviously you'll already have a "feel" in mind for your game; you've been GMing it for a while. Once you know where you wish to end up, backtrack and figure out what would cause the game's current set of attitudes. Fill in the current events the PCs know about, keeping consistency in mind. Then add a few current events they're ignorant of, and you will end up with a timeline which has gaming suggestions already built in.
A final note on your timeline: you don't have to fill it in completely. Put in blank spaces; e.g.: the time of the Great Plague was a decade of deep fear and unrest. Most of the records of that time were lost or destroyed. This means you as the GM can always have the beginning seeds of some useful game idea you've just thought of come from that time. Don't worry that it's too long ago -- most huge cultural problems have been fermenting for generations as it is. Leave yourself some slack to "ret-con" history. "Ret-con", or retroactive continuity, can be a very useful tool in explaining both things which were originally forgotten, and cool new ideas you now wish to insert.
This article has been written with Fantasy Hero in mind, but it can be easily adapted to other genres. Remember, timelines tell your players about the world and about possible backgrounds for the PCs. For your beginning, use whatever the current culturally applicable myth is. Today there are people who believe in the Biblical story of Genesis, as well as people who believe in the Big Bang. Neither has received the public "Deity Stamp of Approval." Both are systems of belief which help explain not only the creation of the world, but also our place in it. Both cause people to act in certain specific ways, and affect the culture of the people holding those beliefs. Also, blank spots in the timeline allow really weird things to be found from the "Imperial Millenium," or a work of "fiction" from pre-history. For intervening times, heroes and legends can still be used, they'll simply be more well known, culturally specific, and widely spread.
The lanky gray rabbit busily chewed on a carrot and leaned against the backside of the industriously digging fat man. His characteristic "What's up, doc?" was answered by the expected "Shhhh! Be vewy, vewy quiet! I'm hunting wabbits!" The crowd chuckled appreciatively. They knew exactly how the story would end, but they still loved to see the fat man get his comeuppance. They were watching a cultural ideal in action: never start the fight, but always finish on the winning side.
Finally, use the same techniques delineated before for current history. Leave blank spots, work backwards from the "feel" you want for your game, use cycles of events, swipe from our past. Keep in mind, history is written by the winners. If the GM needs to change some point in the timeline, have an adventure where it is discovered "the Truth" has been covered up, and the currently accepted version of events is a lie. Above all, have fun. If it isn't fun, why are you gaming?
Let's try the opening again:
"Okay, you go to the inn."
"Who's there? What do we see?"
"Who's there? What do we see?"
"You can get some drinks and some entertainment."
"Entertainment? *sigh* Barmaids again?"
"No, you twit, it's a storyteller!"
"What story is she telling?"
"It's the story of the great goddess of wisdom and leadership, and
Her consort, the god of emotion and war, and how they defeated the evil
Chimaera of Chaos and created the blessed Northern environs for us
"Great! Tell the story!"
Last Updated: Tues Mar 24 1998