Posts Tagged ‘timeline’

I originally wrote this article for Johnn Four’s free roleplaying tips newsletter you can and should sign-up for over at

There is no task for a game master more daunting and gratifying than worldbuiding. Creating a universe in which a group of PCs can romp around in is very gratifying, but the seemingly Herculean effort it takes to get there can be miserable especially if you have many life commitments outside of gaming. For the last decade I’ve been running Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs in published campaign settings, but it was always a dream of mine to create a new world. I mean a full, rich world with a huge history. We’re talking original rules modules, big honking maps, new monsters, intrigue, dungeons, rivalries, and more open-ended story than the closing chapter of a Goosebumps novel. The kind of thing I had the time to do as a kid but could now tackle with the wisdom of an adult.

Last year I finally embarked on creating that new world. With the impending release of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons I set pen to page and began creating a world from the top down. With so much going on in my own world and the promise of an Open Gaming License from Wizards of the Coast I’m still working on my 300+ page campaign guide that I’m preparing for my first self-publishing venture. I’ve been chronicling my efforts on this blog since January of last year. During that journey I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks that can help you build a RPG world of your own, no matter how fleshed out you want your own campaign world to be. Your world might be built top down or bottom up or half off the top of your head and one session at a time. If your world is an original (or modified from an existing) creation these tips will help you out. Here they are in no particular order.

Take Notes

You are going to have ideas for your campaign. Lots and lots and lots of ideas. They might come at work, during your commute, during dinner, or another time a pen and paper aren’t handy. If you don’t write ideas down, they’re going to fade away. Your phone is your friend. Most mobile phones, even those of the non-smart variety, have a notepad feature. So when you get a great idea jot that sucker down and you’ll have it as long as you have the phone. If you want to backup your ideas copy and pasting them into an email or text message is super easy. When you sit down to flesh out your world you’ll know exactly where to find your awesome ideas.

Know Your World’s Central Idea

What makes your world special? Does it feel like a Lovecraft story? Is it recovering from a recent war? Is it in the middle of one? Does one oppressive (or benevolent) ruler have absolute power? Do the gods come down in person and give decrees to their worshippers? Is it a whacky place where every natural landform is made of candy?

Your world should have a central idea which sets it apart from the rest. In Exploration Age, the central idea is that there are unmapped areas of the planet that the civilized world is racing to uncover and colonize. I hold onto that idea and wonder how it affects everything else happening in the campaign world. How do the “uncivilized” peoples react to the colonization of their home by others? How do competing countries negotiate different land grabs? How will the new resources discovered in the new world affect the old? What struggles do the colonists have? Let your central idea permeate through all aspects of the world. Whenever you’re creating a new place or person within your world as yourself how it relates to your central idea.

Have A Map

I’m not an artist, but good lord it helps so much to have a map. Being able to visualize the world is not just a help to players, but to you as well. Everything becomes so much clearer and the world feels more real once you have a map. This is because most people are visual learners and need to see something to understand it. You can start small, just what you need for your first session, or build out your whole world at once. Knowing how close a city is to an ocean or orc infested mountains can help you discover what is unique about that settlement. If you’re like me and can’t draw freehand I recommend checking out some software. For free there’s Hexographer (which I use and is worth buying a few extras) and Stone Sword, or you could be fancy and buy Fractal Mapper, Campaign Cartographer, or Mapdiva.

Have A Timeline

Even if it’s very rough make a small timeline of your world’s history. Think about how major events would shape your world and adventure sites. How do these events tie into the central idea of your campaign? In my world aberrations used to rule the land before they were wiped out by dragons. Their magic technology can be salvaged within the ruins of their former empire, many of which are hidden deep in the uncharted wilds. These ruins are blank spots within blank spots! The events of my timeline inform the current world and relate back to the central idea. The rise and fall of nations and rulers, the birth of races, the discovery of new lands, the creation of important technologies, wars, treaties, and the like are the sort of events to consider adding to your timeline.

Steal and Twist

When it comes to stealing ideas for your world, don’t be afraid. Let literature, video games, film, television, art, and other campaign settings inspire you. When you do steal an idea go one step further and twist it. Add something to the idea or turn it on its head and see what happens. That idea is putty. Play with it until you’ve made something you think is interesting and original. Let’s take the giant spider infested Mirkwood of The Hobbit. Maybe you want to add a similar forest to your realm, but instead of spiders, it’s crawling with giant snakes, or undead animals, or enormous bees. Maybe falling into its rivers and streams doesn’t induce a magical slumber, but rather the waters keep people awake, slowly driving victims insane with deadly exhaustion. Perhaps instead of a forest it’s a desert, swamp, jungle, or arctic wasteland. Stealing is just step one. Challenge yourself and twist the stolen goods. It’s far more rewarding for everyone.

Ask Your Players What They Want

Before you embark the incredible worldbuilding task before you, start by asking your players what sort of game they want to play. I sent my players a brief email asking them about their preferred genre, tone, magic level, intrigue level, and play style for in D&D. Even though I’ve been playing with my groups for years some of the feedback was surprising. Have a chat with each of them, give them a quick questionnaire, or lead a more organized group discussion. It matters what your players want since they’re going to be playing in the world with you. Your gothic horror game could cost you some friends at the table if they’re not really into undead and lycanthropes.

Let The Players Do Some Work

Like I wrote above they’re playing in the world too, so let players shoulder some of the worldbuilding responsibility. I give my players a basic description of the world and then they create their PC backstories. In the process they’ve created cities, fantastic locations, artifacts, and even rules modules for the world. Encourage your players to do the same once they have a good idea of the tone and central idea of your world. Anything they add will just make the game and story richer and more interesting. Don’t worry. As the GM you reserve the right to nix anything that doesn’t make sense in your world. (e.g. The Kingdom of Bubblegum in your post apocalyptic zombie game)

Share Your Stuff

Don’t keep all your information too close to the vest, especially if you’re building a world from the top down. Share it with your players and other gamers you trust. Since a lot of worldbuilding isn’t game rule specific sharing the information with people outside of your gaming circle who appreciate fiction. My girlfriend has never played D&D, but she reads a lot of what I create. Having her outside-the-industry perspective is invaluable. All she cares about is story which should be the focus of a RPG world. The more input you can get, the better. Just remember that all feedback does not need to be taken to heart. Listen to those who are kind enough to offer feedback, but only implement the ideas they provide which sound good to you. I often link this blog in gaming forums and various social media sites and solicit feedback from strangers. I’ve gotten some of the best insights into my work this way.

Having people provide feedback can also keep your worldbuilding on schedule. It’s my mission to share updates twice a week on my blog which keeps me writing and worldbuilding. You could keep a similar schedule with whomever you are sharing your world. Maybe it’s the first of each month, or every Wednesday, or every day. Giving yourself a deadline and having others hold you accountable will keep you writing.

Write Everything You Ever Wanted

Put anything in the world you ever wanted to create. Stuff that thing full of all you ever wanted in a campaign world. You’re not going to run out of ideas. Take it from a man who has been a GM for 20 years. More ideas will come so don’t save anything. You might never use it if you keep hanging onto it. If you write what you want to write the work is worth. That’s sort of the point, right? These are games and are supposed to be fun. Let your imagination run wild and get a little crazy. Happy worldbuilding!

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

First up, my real world timeline. I wanted to give you all a quick update on the Exploration Age Campaign Guide. Most of the history, description, and fluff has been written. That’s all being looked over by a group of close friends, pretty much all of the guys who play in my campaign. I’m taking the comments left on the blog into account as I revise and edit as well, so please keep them coming!

Right now all mechanics are still being tweaked. Obviously, I’m waiting for the release of the fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons core rule books before I lock it all down. I won’t be able to release anything for sale until the Open Gaming License is revealed in 2015. That’s good, because it gives me more time. I’m only one person and I can only do so much, especially when I want any modules and supplemental rules to be fair and balanced.

All that being said I know I can start finalizing some of the mechanics I’m creating starting July 3rd when the first set of D&D Basic rules drop and my local friendly gaming store will put out the D&D Starter Set. Wow that is close!!!

A Special Sneak Peek?

I also know that a lot of folks out there are eager to start a campaign around August 19th when the Player’s Handbook drops. Maybe, if I’ve done my job right, there are a few of you eager to play in the world of Exploration Age? Maybe with a less complete campaign guide lacking art and layout, but for free? A manuscript version of the Exploration Age Campaign Guide, if you will. If you are interested in that sort of thing, keep checking back here and follow me on Twitter for updates. It’s going to happen, but I won’t be giving it away for free for long so keep your eyes and Twitter feeds open.

And now a bit about my own process of creating Exploration Age and some excerpts…

Starting Point

When I first began getting into the details of Exploration Age, I wasn’t sure where to begin. If you’ve been following this blog for a while you how I determined the ideas and themes of the world as well as the major events inspiring Exploration Age. But what led to all of these events and got Canus into its current state? I needed some help and inspiration.

I looked at the timelines of my favorite campaign worlds like Dark Sun , Forgotten Realms, and Eberron. In looking at these timelines I realized something huge. Timelines are outlines. They give readers and authors the significant events in a world’s history. These events are deemed significant by the fact that their impact is still being felt in some way in the present. I didn’t just need to write a history, I needed to start with a timeline to help me mold the rest of the world.

All of these timelines begin with big, broad strokes which paint the settings’ most important beginning events with hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of years in-between events. Heck, Eberron’s first event in its Age of Demons is 9.5 million years away from the next.

That's a big jump.

That’s a big jump.

This is to say, only the really big events of the far past still matter today (for the most part). In general, when we look back in Earth’s history, it’s the real game changers that matter and for which we can still find evidence. Your ice ages, your rise and fall of the dinosaurs, and your big bangs fall into these broad strokes categories. Here’s what the beginning would look like for Exploration Age. (Note: BF stands for Before Findalay – since the formation of the countries and continent of Findalay are the defining moment in Canus’ history according to the people making the calendar. More on that below.)

  • ??? Aberrant beings rule Canus. The first dragons hatch from eggs buried deep within Canus’ core and the tunnels they dig to climb out become The Underdark. The Chromatic Dragons bleed from the effort, lacking the hard scales of their metallic brethren, and their blood turns into the drow. Somewhere in the present day Damned Lands, a psionic race of peaceful humanoids has shielded their lands from the aberrant influence.
  • 500,000 BF In present day Findalay and Parian, Chromatic Dragons, coveting power for themselves, war with the huge population of aberrants, but become locked in a bloody struggle in which no side ever has the clear advantage. Metallic Dragons in Verda form a less straight-forward plan to beat the abberrants and begin experimenting with planar magic.
  • 300,000 BF Chromatic Dragons create the shardminds who, enslaved by the dragons, destroy the aberrants in Findalay and Parian. The remaining abberants flee underground. The Damned Lands earn their name as an unknown tragedy envelopes the land. For hundreds of millennia its skies and lands glow hot with psionic energy, changing the land and destroying all civilization within its borders. Metallic Dragons open a portal to The Nine Hells, releasing legions of devils upon Verda to battle the aberrants. While many devils are subservient to the dragons who summoned them, others are able to break free of their bond and form alliances with the aberrants. The devils and the aberrants mate, creating the morchia.
  • 100,000 BF The shardminds rise against the Chromatic Dragons in a surprise attack, releasing two races of their own creation – the dwarves and the gnomes. Canus is completely devastated by the attack. The shardminds are spread far and wide as are the dragons, with most of their civilization in ruins, few of either ancient race remain after the war. Some gnomes and dwarves are driven deep underground and welcomed by the drow, while others begin to build new lives on the surface once the war settles down. The Metallic Dragons of Verda create a race to uphold their ideals of learning from the devils still loyal to them known as the tieflings.

Then, People Showed Up

Eventually people show up in the world and that’s when the timeline becomes less broad. As people, our personal history is more important to us and has more of an impact on our present. Still, the far past of human history is painted in broader strokes with more time between events than the more recent past. The rise of Christianity, the fall of the Roman Empire, and the Norman Invasion are events in our own distant events which shaped our world today. The period of time between events could be hundreds of years, decades, or less.

These medium-broad stroked events are also part of the history of fictional campaign worlds. Again, I’ll use the Eberron example.

These are still pretty big jumps, but smaller than before.

These are still pretty big jumps, but smaller than above.

Exploration Age has some similar jumps in its timeline as it comes closer to the present year – 403 FF.

  • 4,000 BF A sect of devout humans on Parian, now an established, powerful nation, face religious persecution from their emperor. The remaining gnomes face racial persecution. Together they board a boat in search of safer lands and come to present day Aeranore. The dwarves welcome the humans and gnomes, who, in exchange for land of their own, promise to aid the Bragonians in a renewed fight against Taliana and Marrial. Tieflings, fearing their own destruction at the hands of the morchia, begin to research a way to seal the morchia in The Underdark.
  • 3,500 BF Parian declares war on Aeranore, seeking to punish those who left. Bragonay turns to the powerful Parian, offering to help destroy the inhabitants of Aeranore in exchange for help against Marrial and Taliana. Aeranore joins forces with Marrial and Taliana against Bragonay in return for aid against Parian. The First Great War begins. On Verda, the tieflings use The Reckoning Spell to bind the morchia back beneath the ground. The ritual is so powerful, they break it into many pieces and hide it.
  • 1,000 BF Parian declares a truce with Aeranore, Marrial, and Taliana in exchange for trade rights. Bragonay now faces a war against the other three Findalayan nations alone, but is aided when Taliana’s capital city is swallowed by a massive earthquake.
  • 500 BF Desperate, Bragonay makes an exclusive treaty and trade agreement with Marrial to remove them from the war. Taliana’s capital is rebuilt on the site of the old.

It is usually during this time that many histories have their defining moment of the current age. In the real world for many cultures this defining moment was the rise of Christianity. BC standing for Before Christ and AD standing for the Latin phrase Anno Domini meaning “in the year of the Lord,” are good examples of that. All other events in many of Earth’s cultures are defined by their temporal relation to the birth of Christ. Regardless of your beliefs, that’s some lasting influence right there!

In Exploration Age the defining moment for the calendar is the founding of the continent and nation of Findalay. For tens of thousands of years the various nations of Findalay were at war with one another. When the leaders signed a (temporary) peace and officially created their borders, that moment was huge for the people of Exploration Age. It has helped define the current age in a major way. Thus everything in the Exploration Age timeline is either BF (Before Findalay) or FF (after Findalay’s Founding).

Details of the Recent Past

When one thinks of the recent past, he or she can name numerous defining moments of the world’s history. In the United States we still feel the effects of slavery, World War II, the moon landing, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and more. I could name a bunch of events in the past few years we’re still feeling. That’s how it goes when you’re looking at the recent past. Even smaller events have an impact if they’ve happened recently. Again, let’s look at Eberron, who’s starting campaign year is 998 YK. Not only is the distance between events much shorter, some years have multiple significant events.

Less than 10 years between jumps here.

Less than 10 years between jumps here.

So for Exploration Age the trend follows. When I got to this point in the time I began with broad strokes. There were major events I knew I wanted to have happen – like the cooling of The Damned Lands, the creation of the Explorers’ Guild and The Society of Seekers, and of course, the discovery of Verda. Then I put random placeholder entries between the years of major events I knew I wanted. In those placeholders, I began placing minor events. These were usually events that I wanted to happen that would create interesting organizations, adversaries, conflicts, and adventure sites for PCs in Exploration Age. Some of these events were ideas I had in my head for years and some were things I thought of on the spot as I was filling in the spaces I had created for myself.

As I’ve used the timeline as an outline to flesh out the actual Exploration Age Campaign Guide, events have been added, subtracted, and modified. I love coming up with another cool idea and then finding a place within Exploration Age’s history for it. Take a look at some of Canus’ recent history.

  • 377 FF The Plague of Twenty Cycles comes to Verda and decimates the tribal population for twenty years.
  • 384 FF Parian discovers Marrial’s involvement in the freeing of slaves and joins Bragonay in battle due to Marrial’s breaking of the Pardalay Treaty.
  • 387 FF Desperate to remove the pressing grip of Parian and Bragonay, Aeranore makes a deal with Parian and provides them with slaves to replace those lost to Marrial. Parian agrees to the terms and leaves the Fourth Great War.
  • 392 FF End of the Fourth Great War as the warforged rise up against the dwarves.
  • 393 FF The Explorers’ Guild discovers Verda. Findalayan countries and Parian rush to establish colonies.
  • 397 FF The Damned Lands finally cool and exploration begins… and most end badly.
  • 401 FF Ragorn Zhul Prison has a massive riot and the guards stay on the walls. The prisoners stay inside and run the prison city.
  • 403 FF The campaign begins…

So that’s the Exploration Age timeline! Take a look and let me know in the comments below if you’re toying with the idea of playing a few sessions in Canus.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcast on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

This weekend I sat down to make the timeline of major events in Exploration Age that lead up to the time of play. I found that I still had a lot of thinking to do. Mainly, how did Canus and the folk of Exploration Age go from literally nothing to being what they are now?

I don’t necessarily have to describe how the world came to be, since medieval fantasy RPGs are somewhat based on our own world’s actual past. Back in the day those folks weren’t sure how our world came to be (though they did have theories, but that’s another post). However, I do need to describe how the beings that populate Canus came to be where they are now. History is very important. Big actions have big repercussions that are felt for long periods of time. For instance…

  • During prohibition of alcohol, the American gangsters are born and continue to operate even after it becomes legal to drink again.
  • During WWII Germany invades the Soviet Union. After WWII, Berlin is occupied by the Soviets until 1990.
  • The Americas are discovered and a whole bunch of countries rush to colonize.

You get the idea. My point is – the actions being taken that greatly affect the folk of Canus are those which deserve to be written down on the timeline. The players are not going to care to read every little detail of when a specific plant came into being or care when a local organization of farmhands was formed. I only put that kind of thing in if I know it’s going to be important to the plot. The rest of the stuff, can be big, broad strokes to give your players the idea of the history of a people or government or culture, etc. Most of the time, these will be actions taken by a specific group or individual. The only time pure nature makes it on the timeline is for something really crazy – like a meteor causing the end of the dinosaurs, an earthquake swallowing a city, or ice covering the planet.

Remember that, in general, you care more about the history of the world than your players do. “Why do the warforged hate the dwarves?” they might ask. “Because they kept them as slaves,” you reply. For some adventures and for most players that will more than suffice.

Starting the Timeline

Before I began the timeline, I had to figure out how old Canus is, or at least how far back its significant history begins. Since I want the world to be frame by the Findalayan point of view, I decided that it’s been 700 years since Findalay’s Founding (FF), when all nations of Findalay officially recognized each other. Before that, Aeranore, Bragonay, Marrial, and Taliana all came into existence, but they constantly at war with one another. For thousands of years! So when they decided to put down the sword and begin trading, that was a big enough event for them to begin counting the years. Now that’s not to say there haven’t been disputes and wars in those 700 years, but each nation is now officially recognized by the others.

However, more important than those 700 years are the years which came before. Those years, Before Findalay (BF) have had a huge influence on what happens in the world today. So I wanted to go back and in broad strokes think about the world and how each nation of people got its start. How each race came to be and what actions led to where they are. And of course, since this is a fantasy setting, I wanted to make sure there was plenty of magical flavor to all of it, since that’s what we love.

Before Dwarves, Elves, and Humans

So before our PC races made it onto the scene there were great forces walking the earth, just like in the real world there were dinosaurs before us. I wanted Canus to do something different for originality’s sake, so I decided the first beings to populate its surface were aberrant creatures. Beholders, illithids, umber hulks – all the bizarro creatures that normally live underground, well their ancestors lived on the surface of Canus.

Just some mind flayers hanging out, thinking about their ancestors.

I like the idea of picturing these creatures’ surface-dwelling ancestors. I like thinking about what their great civilizations might leave behind. This gives us a way to spread similar, but mysterious ruins all over Canus. It also gives the aberrants a reason to abhor surface dwellers once they are driven underground (more on that below). That’s my first beat on the timeline and it has a bunch of question marks next to it, because no one sure how far back the aberrant civilizations go.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my dragons are pretty important to me. They’re old and mystical and have been around almost since the beginning. More importantly to me, chromatic and metallic dragons are part of the material world. Think about it, dragons have all this magic at their disposal and for the most part they choose to stay in the material world. They must really like it there. I decided that on Canus, dragons are drawn to staying in the material plane because they are literally part of the world. The first dragons were incubated in Canus’ core and birthed out of the ground. For whatever reason, the metallic dragons ended up in Verda and the chromatic dragons ended up in Parian and Findalay.

So the aberrants are doing their thing when suddenly the first dragons hatch from beneath the ground. The dragons think to themselves, “It’s time for us, baby. These crazy-looking dudes got to go.” War that rages for years with neither side having a clear victory. So second timeline beat – dragons hatch from the earth and war begins. This is around 500,000 BF. Broad strokes.

You didn’t know I was down here, didja? DIDJA?

Now, when the dragons hatched from the ground, the spaces and tunnels their bodies made became The Underdark. The chromatic dragons bled for their efforts, lacking the finer scales of their metallic kin, and their blood became the drow race. This is also part of the second beat.

Third beat on the timeline comes when the dragons gain their advantage around 300,000 BF. The chromatic dragons create a new race to aid them – the giants. With the help of the giants they destroy many of the aberrants and drive the rest into The Underdark. Meanwhile in Verda, the metallics have a different plan and open a portal to the Nine Hells calling forth devils to kill the aberrants. This only half works, as some of the devils create alliances with the aberrants, creating a horrifying half-fiend, half-aberrant race who eventually become The Sleeping Ones. In the fourth beat on our timeline, around 100,000 BF the devils who remain on Verda and side with the metallic dragons eventually evolve into the tieflings.

The pattern here with the beats is that they get closer together and more specific as they continue. More significant history exists closer to the time of the game. In-game there would also be better historical records for more recent events.

The PC Races

So you can see above where tiefling and drow came from, but we still have a bunch of races to define here. I’ll give you the bullet points for each.

  • Eventually, the giants get tired of their chromatic dragon oppressors and create the dwarves and gnomes to help them rise up. Their bloody revolution is not so successful and dragons and giants, now few in number are scattered across Parian and Findalay. Some gnomes and dwarves retreat to The Underdark and become duergar and svirfneblin. Some stay on the surface and begin to found their own civilizations.
  • The aberrants regroup for thousands of years in The Underdark and then invade the kingdoms of the drow. After a few thousand years of war, some drow grow tired of the war and retreat to the surface. These drow evolve into elves, the drow left behind feel betrayed and the hatred begins.
  • When the elves retreat to the surface some of the svirfneblin come with them, who evolve yet again over the course of time into halflings. So halflings and gnomes are related in this campaign.
  • Metallic dragons create the dragonborn race to help populate Verda, but the their allies, the tieflings become jealous and so the dragonborn are sent away on ships and eventually come to land in present day Marrial.
  • In a cycle of slave creation learned from their masters, the dwarves create the warforged.

I’m a big fan of evolution apparently.

It’s obvious there are some races I’m choosing to leave out of this list. I think the only races that need a big explanation are the ones that have their heritage impacted by their creation and evolution. Orcs, minotaurs, etc. formed organically over time and scientific evolutionary processes. Or magic if you like. Or divine intervention. Their origins are not as important as their actions, which do end up on Exploration Age’s timeline.

Human might be the most obvious race missing from the list, but that’s because I think the big questions of why are we here and how did we get here are part of the human experience. I think it will make the humans of this world feel natural and relatable to sort of just appear without fanfare one day and through survival, suffering, and hard work build a civilization.


So once the races are established the timeline gets pretty interesting. The Bragonay dwarves have all of Findalay under their control and then the other races begin trying to take their land in a crazy struggle that has alliances forming and breaking everywhere. In the midst of it all, earthquakes, plagues, inventions, magic, and the like happen. Meanwhile on Verda the half-fiend, half-aberrant problem persists with a host of other failures and successes on the part of its people. There’s some big events that lead up to the time of play, like the discovery of Verda that I’m excited to share in the future.

Looks like the world is coming together! I’ll probably divide the timeline up into different ages such as Aberrant Age, Draconic Age, etc. and have the time period of play be known as… you guessed it. Exploration Age.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcast on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!