Building Fictional History

So recently I’ve have been the Dungeon Master for a bi-monthly game of D&D. I’ve been running the game in my own setting which I’ve been building since the beginning of the year. I still don’t have an all-encompassing name for the world. As part of this, I’ve been investigating advice on how to build a world. There are some decent sources for shaping land masses and creating societies. There is a lot of worldbuilding info out there. However, I wanted to draw on something I have some actual expertise in and hopefully provide some useful on the subject. That thing is language and stories.

Now, I want to frame these ideas around the history of the world. There are a few things that go into how history occurs. Now, while I am a scholar, I’m not a scholar in this particular area so take what I say with a modicum of salt. Now, with disclaimers aside, I’ll explain my thought process on these things. History is fundamentally human-centric and significant enough to be remembered. As a result, history requires documentation or an oral tradition to be passed down. Rather, than thinking about this abstractly, I want to add some concrete examples.

Consider this phrase that isn’t always used but is certainly part of our contemporary lexicon: ‘crossing the Rubicon’. Now, using this phrase in everyday life would be unusual but not extraordinary. It might suggest something about the person who uses it and their educational background. Now, if someone had never encountered this saying before, it might require some explanation. Crossing the Rubicon, for example, refers to Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon river into Italy and when used is a fancy way of saying ‘passing the point of no return’. If someone were unfamiliar, you might have to explain who Caesar was and why crossing the Rubicon was significant. You may or may not know. When worldbuilding, this is important.

History in your world can be like history in our own. Many people have a vague understanding of history and how it frames everyday life. The same is true of people within a world. The reason that we are vaguely familiar with Caesar is that he was a significant figure in Ancient Roman history. A history that we know because of Rome’s existence across the European continent over a period of roughly 1000 years. Now, why is Europe significant to our history? Simple, colonialist expansion by early modern European empires led to the establishment of many colonies across the world. We know Europe because colonial Europe imposed itself upon the world.

We also know of Roman history because of the Renaissance. Roman and Greek history was venerated in this period leading to retellings of Roman history including by a Renaissance writer, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote plays about Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra. Due to a variety of factors, Shakespeare continued to be known after his own death and via the colonial routes of his homeland, Shakespeare found his way across the seas. Shakespeare also inspired another ominous phrasing in his work around Caesar, ‘beware the Ides of March,’ as a portent of doom. When worldbuilding, you just need a Caesar and a Shakespeare to have figures from ancient history live into the modern day.

Speaking of Roman impact on modernity, consider the imagery of Washington DC that is spread across the world via film. America is a modern superpower and the countries seats of power have a certain look to them. Both the Capitol building and the White House are buildings with Romanesque white marble pillars. We often talk about the Senate, an idea of Roman origins. Rome is a fallen Empire that existed hundreds of years ago at its latest and its imagery is still evoked in the world’s largest superpower America.

What I’m getting at is that worldbuilding need not be highly detailed and complex. Your world will feel more lived in if there are pervasive historical ideas that most anyone can tell you. Ask enough questions about the architecture of buildings and you’ll encounter a long-dead empire in our world. If your audience encounters someone living in your world and asks about your world, you can get far by shaping out some large ideas. Give yourself a Roman empire, a Caesar and a Shakespeare. You don’t have to make them those examples with the serial numbers filed off though. Think about what is important to your world and tie them into that. With those, anyone who is educated has a vague idea about art, history, and culture of your world just because of the basic elements of their everyday world.


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