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How to create a believable history for your fantasy world

Updated: Jan 8, 2023




Creating a believable and immersive history for your world can be a challenging task, but it is also an essential part of world building.


Whether you are writing a fantasy novel, designing a video game, or simply creating a world for your own enjoyment, a well-crafted history can add depth and richness to your world.


In this essay, we will explore some key considerations for world builders looking to create histories for their worlds, including historical eras, fantasy historians, the forces that drive historical change, and the ideas that shape historical events.


By understanding these elements and how they interact with one another, you can create a dynamic and believable history for your world.


In a fantasy world, history might be seen as a series of tumultuous events, such as battles, wars, and the rise and fall of empires.


This is similar to how ancient historians like Herodotus wrote about history - as one long, epic story. However, modern historians approach history in a more nuanced way, considering multiple perspectives and trying to understand the context and causes of events.


To create a convincing fantasy world, it can be helpful to think like an actual historian and consider the various factors that shape historical change.


This might include economic, political, social, and cultural forces, as well as the actions and motivations of individuals and groups.


By taking a more complex and multifaceted approach to your world's history, you can create a more believable and immersive world for your readers or players to explore.


Economic factors have played a significant role in shaping world history. For example, the development of agriculture allowed humans to settle in one place and build civilizations, while the Industrial Revolution transformed the way people worked and lived.


Economic changes can also lead to political upheaval, as different groups compete for resources and power.


One example of economic factors driving historical change is the colonization of the Americas by European powers.


The desire for new markets and resources, as well as the technological advances of the time, allowed the Europeans to explore and conquer new lands.


This colonization had far-reaching consequences, including the displacement and exploitation of indigenous peoples, the transatlantic slave trade, and the spread of European culture and institutions.


Social factors, such as class, race, and gender, have also played a significant role in shaping history.


These factors can intersect and overlap, creating complex dynamics that influence historical change.


For example, the abolition of slavery in the United States was driven in part by social and cultural changes, as well as economic factors.


The abolition movement was led by a diverse group of people, including freed slaves, white abolitionists, and religious leaders who believed that slavery was morally wrong.


The movement was also influenced by the Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality, which were spreading at the time.


The abolition of slavery had a profound impact on the United States and its history, shaping the country's social and political landscape for decades to come.


Cultural factors, such as religion, art, and literature, can also drive historical change. For example, the spread of Christianity during the Roman Empire had a significant impact on the empire's culture and politics.


The religion was eventually adopted as the state religion, and its teachings shaped the way people thought about the world and their place in it.


Similarly, the Renaissance, a period of cultural and intellectual revival in Europe, was driven in part by a renewed interest in classical literature and art.


This renewed interest in the classical world led to the rediscovery of scientific and philosophical ideas, which in turn shaped the cultural and intellectual landscape of Europe.


In summary, economic, social, and cultural factors have all played a significant role in shaping world history. Understanding these factors and how they interact with one another can help world builders create a more believable and immersive history for their worlds.


Fantasy Forces of History


In a fantasy world, you have the freedom to include any number of fantastical elements that might shape the course of history. Here are a few ideas for historical forces that might shape a fantasy world:


  1. The emergence of magic: In a fantasy world where magic exists, it could play a significant role in shaping the course of history. For example, the discovery of new magical abilities or the development of new magical technologies could lead to great leaps forward in society. At the same time, magic could also be a source of conflict, as different groups vie for control of magical resources or seek to use magic for their own ends.


  1. The rise and fall of empires: As in the real world, the rise and fall of empires could shape the course of history in a fantasy world. Empires might rise to power through military conquest, diplomacy, or economic dominance, and their fall could be brought about by internal conflict, external threats, or a combination of both.


  1. The emergence of powerful beings: In a fantasy world, the emergence of powerful beings such as dragons or demons could have a major impact on history. These beings might be feared or revered, and their actions could shape the course of events. For example, a dragon might demand tribute from a kingdom in exchange for protection, or a demon might seek to conquer the world.


  1. The realization that the world is connected to other realities or dimensions: In a fantasy world, the discovery that the world is connected to other realities or dimensions could have major consequences. This could lead to the exploration and colonization of other worlds, or it could bring new dangers and challenges to the world as a whole.


In each of these cases, it is important to consider how people in the world would react to these occurrences. Their reactions and cultural adaptations to these events can shape the course of history and the evolution of society.

EXAMPLE: The Riverfolk


The kingdom of the Riverfolk was a peaceful and ordered place, with a complex network of rivers serving as the lifeblood of the realm.


The river system allowed for the development of trade routes, connecting the various towns and cities of the kingdom.


The nobles of the kingdom built castles along the rivers to control the flow of trade and protect the realm from external threats.



Over time, the kingdom of the Riverfolk prospered, with towns and cities springing up along the rivers and roads connecting them.


Farms dotted the landscape, producing food for the growing population.


The feudal system that had developed in the kingdom was stable, with the king and his nobles ruling over the commoners and peasants.


However, all of this changed when a portal to the shadow realm of Thule opened in the heart of the kingdom.


The inhabitants of Thule, hideous creatures of darkness and evil, poured through the portal and began to attack the kingdom.


The people of the Riverfolk fought back, but the war was long and bloody.


It seemed that all was lost, until a group of brave heroes stepped forward and managed to close the portal, banishing the Thuleans back to their own realm.


The war with Thule was a world-shattering trauma for the people of the Riverfolk.


It shook their beliefs and values to the core, as they realized that their ordered and peaceful kingdom was vulnerable to outside threats.


Many of the nobles who had fought in the war returned home changed, questioning the feudal system that had served the kingdom for so long.


Some began to call for reform, arguing that the commoners and peasants who had fought alongside them deserved a greater say in how the kingdom was ruled.



As the kingdom struggled to come to terms with the trauma of the war, a new age of unrest and upheaval began, as different factions sought to shape the future of the Riverfolk.


Some argued for a return to the old ways, while others sought to forge a new path forward.


It was a time of great uncertainty, but also great opportunity, as the kingdom worked to rebuild and move forward in the wake of the war with Thule.


Traumas


This would be a world shattering trauma on the scale of the Black Death or the First World War for those who experienced it, all their beliefs and values would be thrown into the air, rather as ours would if we woke to see alien motherships hovering over the White House.


In the case of the kingdom of the Riverfolk, the war with Thule could have had a number of significant consequences:


  1. Some nobles may have been tempted to learn the secrets of Thule in order to defeat the enemy. In doing so, they may have been seduced by the evil of the Thuleans and become monstrous themselves. These nobles could have become the legacies of the conflict, feared and reviled by the people of the Riverfolk for their association with the dark powers of Thule.


  1. The war may have resulted in significant loss of life and damage to the kingdom's infrastructure. This could have disrupted the economy and led to widespread poverty and suffering among the people. The kingdom may have had to rely on aid from other realms in order to rebuild, leading to a loss of autonomy and possibly even a decline in the power and influence of the Riverfolk.


  1. The war could have led to a shift in the balance of power within the kingdom. Some nobles may have emerged as heroes of the conflict, while others may have been blamed for the kingdom's woes. This could have led to a reshuffling of the feudal hierarchy, with new leaders rising to power and old ones falling from grace.


  1. The war could have had significant cultural and psychological effects on the people of the Riverfolk. The trauma of the conflict may have left deep scars on the collective psyche of the kingdom, leading to a shift in societal values and beliefs. The people may have become more cynical and distrusting of outsiders, or they may have become more open and accepting of different ideas and ways of life.


Overall, it is likely that the war with Thule would have had a profound and lasting impact on the kingdom of the Riverfolk, transforming it in ways that would have been difficult to predict.


The Culture of the Riverfolk


The war with Thule would have had a significant impact on the culture of the Riverfolk.


The loss of life, damage to infrastructure, and shift in power dynamics could have all contributed to changes in the kingdom's social and economic structures, as well as its values and beliefs.


It's possible that the trauma of the war may have led to a more cynical or distrusting society, or it could have encouraged the people of the Riverfolk to come together and become more open and accepting of change.


The heroes who emerged from the conflict may have become cultural icons, inspiring future generations with their bravery and selflessness.


The aftermath of the war could also have led to a greater emphasis on unity and cooperation, as the kingdom worked to rebuild and move forward.


It's likely that the bards of the Riverfolk would have created a number of folk stories about the war with Thule and its aftermath.


These stories could have served as a way for the people of the kingdom to make sense of the traumatic events they had experienced and to preserve the memory of the conflict for future generations.


Some possible themes that might be explored in these folk stories could include:


The bravery and sacrifice of the heroes who fought to close the portal and banish the Thuleans back to their own realm.


These stories could celebrate the courage and determination of these individuals, and serve as a reminder of the power of ordinary people to do great things.


The horrors of the war, including the atrocities committed by the Thuleans and the suffering of the people of the Riverfolk.


These stories could serve as a warning about the dangers of conflict and the importance of peace.


The aftermath of the war, including the rebuilding of the kingdom and the efforts to come to terms with the trauma of the conflict.


These stories could explore the struggles and triumphs of the people as they worked to rebuild their lives and their society.


The cultural and societal changes that occurred in the wake of the war, including any shifts in power dynamics or changes to the social and economic structures of the kingdom.


These stories could provide insight into the ways in which the war with Thule shaped the culture of the Riverfolk.


It's also possible that the bards of the Riverfolk might create more lighthearted stories as well, in order to provide some relief from the heaviness of the war and its aftermath.


These could include tales of adventure, romance, or comedy, and could serve as a way for the people of the kingdom to find joy and hope in difficult times.


When Tolkein captured the melancholy of Middle Earth and particularly of the Elves who had suffered so much and lost so much in order to fight Sauron (and who lived such long lives that they remembered the First and Second Ages in some cases) he understood the legacy of the past and its transformative power very well. It’s almost as if a former British Army officer on the Western Front was affected by the destruction he saw and mourned for a lost age of innocence.


Really bad fantasy worlds fail to do this, they create characters living in a medieval fantasy version of our own postmodern ‘endless now’. Nobody is shaped by history, nobody is the product of their past, the story of the past seems to have virtually nothing to say.



What if the Thule thing never happened? Would the Riverfolk be just like the Munchkins in Oz? The good folk?


Probably not.


The Mundane Struggles of History

All history, to paraphrase Marx, is the history of class struggle. All fantasy history (without demonic invasions) that is based in the material realities that we exist under will also be the history of class struggle too. Class struggle can be boiled down to two issues:


  • Who does the work

  • Who owns the wealth


Spoiler - it’s never the same person.


In medieval England, when the peasants rose in 1381 their leaders spoke in terms that Marx would have recognised and their grievances were about the iniquities of the feudal system and the Statute of Labourers of 1349 (which basically said ‘despite the fact that there a lot fewer peasants after the Black Death and you can all charge higher wages for labour, don’t go getting any ideas, your poverty is now sanctioned by the King).


Even in a fantasy world, economic factors like currency, debt, and systems of labor can have a significant impact on society. Here are a few ideas for how these factors might shape life for the Riverfolk:


Currency:

The use of currency in the kingdom of the Riverfolk could have had a significant impact on the economy and society. The adoption of a standardized currency could have facilitated trade and commerce, making it easier for people to exchange goods and services. At the same time, the use of currency could also create inequality, as those who had access to it would be able to buy more goods and services than those who did not.


Debt:

Debt could also have shaped life in the kingdom of the Riverfolk. The ability to borrow money could have allowed people to invest in their businesses or take on large projects, but it could also have led to financial instability if people were unable to pay their debts. The ability to take on debt could have also had social implications, as those who were able to borrow money may have been seen as more successful or reputable than those who could not.


Serfdom:

In a feudal society like the kingdom of the Riverfolk, the system of serfdom could have had a major impact on the lives of the common people. Serfs were tied to the land and owed labor and services to their lords in exchange for the right to work the land. This system could have created a rigid social.


Conclusion

In conclusion, creating a believable and immersive history for your world is an essential part of world building. Whether you are writing a fantasy novel, designing a video game, or simply creating a world for your own enjoyment, a well-crafted history can add depth and richness to your world. To create a convincing history, it is important to consider historical eras and the ideas that shape historical events. Economic, social, and cultural factors can all play a role in shaping history, as can fantastical elements such as magic, powerful beings, and portals to other realms. By understanding these elements and how they interact with one another, you can create a dynamic and believable history for your world.


Here are some other articles that you might enjoy on NPCs, world building, GMing and the like:




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