All fantasy game worlds have something in common. They all have geography and a period, but they also have a history. You could have the history as a background to the adventures the PC’s are having, with enemies of old resurfacing or ancient artefacts of the Old Kings/Gods/Magic Squirrels coming to light. Even so, there’s only so much the PC’s can do before the quests are burnt out.
Living in the real world, we are constantly reminded of our history and the role it has had in shaping our present day lives. The same can be said of gaming worlds. We sometimes imagine what it would be like to live during those days, but the great thing about role-playing is that you can actually do that.
For example – lets take Lord of the Rings. The main bulk of the story and the central core of the work is the War of the Ring, which many people know and love, but there is a whole plethora of background material set thousands of years before the main books that had an influence on the cause and the outcome. To re-invent the world your players are gaming in, you could go back to those ancient times and actually play those legends spoken of in the game, be those characters whose names grace the pages of history, and actually be responsible for the making of the ancient songs and stories.
Most game worlds have a pre-written history so you may think its difficult to create a story out of an already structured past, but at the end of the day its your game to mess with. The history the characters know of their game world may just be the tip of the iceberg – there could be plenty of stories never told, or forgotten, during ancient times. Or the history could be false; the evil and threats of old may actually have been benevolent forces but have been given bad reputations by the victors of history. This is a great way to turn the players beliefs on their heads – they go into a game set thousands of years before with preconceptions of how some of these historical figures may be. Perhaps the creation of the world is completely different to what they have been led to believe by those in power – this makes the games fresh and non-predictable, with surprises and shocks around the corner.
But how to get the players back in time? Well, the simplest way is to have them roll up fresh characters and have them begin their new games in this ancient age, where certain races or cities may not yet exist, or the same may exist but not in the future. They would be familiar with the territory but not with the content of it. This can create some great games. Alternatively, they could choose names that share the same identity of certain locations and actually be the character that gave their name to it in the first place! This is an excellent way of combining both role-playing and a sense of combined creativity, giving the players a hand in the actual creation of the world.
Another way is to have the characters actually go back in time, through a rift in the planes of existence or a magical spell that controls the flow of time. Having PC’s from the future of your game world interacting with a past, which will bring to the surface all the preconceptions and assumptions the PC’s have of their history, is difficult but immensely satisfying. If done correctly, the players will be subjected to the awe and grandeur of interacting with a place they thought they were prepared for. It makes for some fantastic role-playing opportunities.
The history of a game world can be rich and detailed but don’t let this throw you – there are plenty of things you can change to make it work. It is your game, after all, and no doubt the players will have a working knowledge of the past, especially if they have been playing in the game world for so long. Re-designing the past can be exceptionally satisfying for a GM, but can be even better for the PC’s when they are subjected to those changes. After all, not only will it change their attitudes to the history they thought they knew, but also to the future where they originally adventured, creating opportunities for new ideas and events in the world you like to game in the most.