The Importance of Histories in Fantasy Worlds

On some occasions I stumble into a fandom, get a glimpse, and walk out. This is either because I don’t find it as interesting or the fan base is incredibly intense. This is how I felt with The Lord of the Rings and Middle-Earth. I have seen all the movies (and at the time of writing not the extended editions) and read the Hobbit when I was younger. As I venture deeper into the world of fantasy writing, I have realized that I know very little about some of the roots of our modern day fantasy culture. So I started reading Lord of the Rings. At the time of writing I am nearly done with Fellowship of the Ring.

I now find myself way too deep to get out. It’s gotten to the point that I started looking up YouTube videos about the lore of Tolkien’s universe. I am even now motivated to get through the three volumes of Lord of the Rings simply so I can get to The Silmarillion. Why? Because I am obsessed with how deep the lore is in his universe. Not just that, but the amount of history the world seems to bleed. It made me realize something really important about worlds, one that I had only touched on because of player questions. Why do certain “man”-made things exist the way they do?

I have though hard on the ecologies of my world and work very hard at answering why certain natural things exist the way they do, because history has less impact on them. It only has impact in events that change habitats, and those are much quicker to answer. However for man-made structures this can become much more of a rabbit hole because there is so much history behind even a single ruin.

History Creates Meaning

I’m going to keep coming back to ancient ruins because it’s something that I love to work with. They are ancient places often shrouded in mystery with unknown creatures inhabiting them. They are places of danger and adventure. However slapping a ruin down in a location because you want to have that adventure is just lazy, and honestly will come off quite flat.

Adding history to the ruins will help you in constructing something far more meaningful and mysterious. I’m going to take the ruins of Osgiliath from The Lord of the Rings as my example. From various sources I uncovered that there is a history to the place, one that is actually really interesting and explains a lot about the motivations of individuals. It used to be a grand place that more or less had a large string of tragedies befall it until it withered, died, and then ruined. Why were the people of Gondor trying to fight for it? Because it had meaning to them. That meaning had a long history of those people.

If you have a place that is considered sacred, or a lost temple to some god, or even a lost mine, consider the history behind the place. This lets you build specific features into these locations. Perhaps the grove is sacred because during a long ago war, an Ent sacrificed itself to seal away an ancient evil and now a great tree rests where it fell, and that felling the great tree would unleash the evil. For a lost temple, why is it lost? Was there a massive rockslide that isolated it from the world or some event that cause the monks to seal themselves away? For a mine, when was it lost? This would tell the style and age of garments. Did the mine collapse? Maybe the awakening of some ancient being caused the entrance to collapse sealing the workers inside. There is so much more I can expand on this but the more history you have to the place the more you can flush it out and make it seem real.

Past Conflicts Create Current Grudges

We all know that Dwarves hate Elves and Elves hate Dwarves, but why? As much as I would like to blame kale, it most definitely is not the reason. This is one of those common tropes we pull from Tolkien’s world without much thought as to why. If you dig into it Tolkien actually has an explanation. There is real history in their grudges, a series of events that lead to mutual distrust. Sticking in grudges for the sake of having grudges gives no depth and no emotion to those grudges and makes them out to feel empty and the character just like a jerk.

These past conflicts can be simple misunderstandings or breakdown of communications. By having it be a simple solution it is entirely possible to include this in your games to allow two groups to make amends or at least start down the road toward it. The past conflict could be central to your plot. Something like a disagreement over possession of a dangerous artifact that happened behind closed doors could lead to conflict, with the true reason being hidden from public view.

An Aside on Racism

In my example I use different races of people in these grudges. This will come off as racism and is a heated debate within the RPG community. Some insist on using it because its part of the history while others want to do away with it all together. I am using this example largely because it is the most well known grudges between two large groups of people to help me illustrate a point. I do not want to tackle the problems with racism in games in this article and I don’t believe I am qualified to be able to do the topic justice.

Characters Create History, and Vice Versa

Just like histories help flush out places, so do they create places for people. Too often when writing histories have I had to include a notable person(s). Often I will leave the name blank as I am working on the history as a whole, but they are key to that history. Who Gandalf the Grey and the Balrogs are gives great meaning to their motivations. A civil war cannot be fought because an adventure calls for it. It has to have people who are upset with what one faction is doing. The people have no reason to revolt if the King isn’t cruel or unwanted by the people. No one goes around thinking “You know, maybe we should have a revolution”.

Why don’t they think that? Because there is history leading up to strife. While people cause events to happen, those events affect other individuals. This is a never ending cycle of cause and effect that we call history. In reality if you look at our actual history, this is what happens ALL THE TIME. You want to get better at writing histories in your fantasy world, pick up a history book or go watch stuff on YouTube. Those can be more entertaining and consumable.

Now this isn’t the end of it. We also get the cases where historical events create a character down the timeline. A country that is punished for war crimes has someone just zealous enough who is suffering from the punishment that they rise up to create even MORE conflict. Sound familiar? If not that’s fine. This is basically what happened with Germany and the rise of Hitler.

Artifacts of the Past

This is the topic of history I feel I see the most of when it comes to RPGs. The idea is that the magic items and artifacts you find in game have a history to them. Heck Tolkien’s work does exactly that with several of the magic swords that they find. Glamdring, the sword that Gandalf carries, belonged to an ancient elven King. The goblins are even terrified of it. Why? Because that sword has a past, clearly the sword was used in some way against the goblins that THOUSANDS of years after its creation that they recognize it and fear it. When writing your histories think of significant objects that were used in the execution of events. Just look at Christianity. How many artifacts have come just out of the story of Jesus? The nails that stuck him to the cross, the crown of thorns, the spearhead that pierced his heart. Heck the Holy Grail is a prime example of this. History makes these artifacts a symbol of past events and potential shapers of the future. What about the story of Excalibur? I think I could go on for pages of actual historical artifacts but I hope you get my point.

This gets even more interesting when you start to introduce sentient magic items. When an item knows its own past and can inform the wielder of this past, this can create for some amazing story hooks for finding a magical sword buried in a ruin. This doesn’t mean that you need to create a history for every magic item. After all I don’t need a complete history of how a normal potion of healing is located at a shop. Or maybe it can, if you have the setting for it.

Technology Shapes History

In our world we are making constant advancements in technology. It is impossible to say that the advent of new technology would not shape its history. Since I have not delved that deep into the Tolkien universe I can’t say that I know of any examples directly from his world. However I will bring up a different universe that does: Avatar the Last Airbender. In it, there is a clear delineation of power (in the grand scheme of things) between the Fire nation and the other nations. While this does change over the course of the show, the history of the world showed that their advancements in technology (even if powered by relatively primitive means) gave them a leg up in conquering the world.

Now for some real world examples! One of the earliest examples (that I can recall) is the advent of the Chariot in its uses for war. It was a game changer because you could have two people riding for the price of one horse, a driver, and a bowman. If having to charge a bowman on foot wasn’t terrifying enough, now add the fact that they are in a large wooden cart being pulled by a horse AND they are shooting at you. Unless you have a chariot of your own there isn’t much hope of you catching them without dying. And thus the early arms race began! However that isn’t much the point. What this causes is a complete change in the way we fight wars, or get around for that matter. Chariots were created around a 1000 years before they became tools of war.

For something less war oriented let's look at one of my favorite: the printing press. This revolutionized our ability to spread information more reliably. Before the printing press we had to duplicate text BY HAND. For anyone who has written for long periods of time you know how painful this can actually be. I’m not sure I can actually quantify in words just how impactful the printing press is to society and yet it is a real question that we need to ask ourselves when creating our fantasy histories.

The Natural World Shapes History

For those who have even the slightest knowledge of history have probably heard the story of Pompeii, a roman city that was buried beneath the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 A.D. While I am no historian, it is difficult to say that to a society that was so closely religious that the loss of Pompeii had no significance to the people of Rome. It could have been that the fall of Pompeii only solidified religious beliefs that the gods were willing to dole out punishment.

Since we exist in the natural world it is impossible to deny that it impacts our history. What foods are available, what natural disasters occur, what terrain is there that protects us (or lacks protection) from invaders? How many different flood stories come up in the various myths and legends? The ancient civilization of Egypt was centralized on the Nile river and much of their ways of life and belief systems stemmed from the river. Going back to Tolkien the ruins of Osgiliath were located on a river, that river plays into its history and defense.

Conclusion

History is a complex and mysterious topic that we struggle with in our real world. The benefit of writing a fantasy world is that you can fill in all the details even if you don’t bring them to light for your readers as these histories will impact portions of your world. Creating histories for existing elements of your world may help you determine the impact it has on other elements of your world as well. It brings a level of depth and immersion for the more curious players and readers in your world.

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