You’ve all played fantasy games, or even made fantasy games, that set up the stakes of their world with the EPIC BATTLE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL, which typically took place 10,000 YEARS AGO or maybe just 1,000 YEARS AGO, either way these numbers are way too fucking long.
Stuff that happened 1,000 years ago can be interesting if you’re a huge nerd of course. But to most people anything that happened 1,000 years ago exists in a nebulous state of history where it could be anywhere from 500 years ago to 25,000 years ago for all it has any clear effect on them. Of course you probably are a nerd and some of your players are nerds, but they aren’t all going to be playing nerds – and we need to talk about your in-universe history from the perspective of the people who live in your universe.
All that stuff your every fantasy instinct is telling you to make have happened 1,000 years ago? Make it happen 200 years ago, or even 50 years ago! Trust me it’ll be way better.
Reason the First: Holes in your history are boring!
If all the cool shit happened 1,000 years ago – why hasn’t anything happened since? Lots of stories have this fantasy stasis problem – where tremendous amounts of time pass with no new technological or social developments in the meantime.
You have limited creative resources to come up with your alt-history. Let’s say you’ve got ten big world-shaping historical events in you – if all this shit happens hundreds or even thousands of years apart then entire generations come and go with seemingly no impact on the world. Your world won’t feel alive if no one does anything until the villains and players come along, apparently the first people in their generation to have the idea to change the world in any way, shape, or form.
Holes in your alt history will also make it very hard for you to treat your history as an evolving story. If your ten historical events are spaced out too far there not going to believably follow from or have a direct influence on each other. This will make it harder for you to write more history or adlib what it might mean for something to have happened between any of your big events.
Reason the Second: A Detailed recent history is really neat!
You know what’s cool about something that happened 50 years ago? You, a 26-year-old halfling, don’t remember it – your entire life has happened post that event. Your parents, both 58, came of age in the immediate aftermath of that event. Your grandparents remember it and reacted to it as adults – so did your 70-year-old elven wizard friend. Players can have a relationship with recent history, and the relationship is massively shaped by their age. Recent history creates a dynamic between characters of different ages to each other and to the world at large.
Additionally, recent historical events can chain into each other in really clear and cohesive ways creating a texture of the setting’s recent past. Making it very easy to improvise NPCs relationships to these historical events and how these events might tie into current quests and problems around your world. Recent history can directly attach to player characters at the table. 1000-year history is only ever going to read like a Wikipedia article for all the PCs are directly involved.
When we go to things that are just a little older in the 100 to 200 years ago range a very interesting dynamic happens. Consider the history of WW1 or the American Civil War, to some that aren’t really that effected by it these are ancient history – utterly unimportant to anyone but history nerds. But to other people these events may as well have happened yesterday for how incredibly important they are to their present. There is real tension between those who want to sweep events into the dusty and ill-defined realm of ‘ancient history’ while others are still living through the consequences of the past.
Time does not pass evenly: In bustling trade cities, untouched by conflict, the major events of five years ago float from memory as if they were the sort of unimportant historical minutiae you swear your history teacher made up to bore you to death. In small villages, directly impacted by a major event, history lingers. The buildings have never fully been repaired. The deaths of even a few people radically alter the personality and psychology of an entire community. What was a lucky windfall elsewhere is a prosperous golden age on such a small scale.
Reason the Third: It works so well with kings and shit TM
Does your fantasy setting have nobs? It probably does given most fantasy settings. You know what fleshes out feudal politics like crazy? A reasonably detailed recent history. Take whoever the big lady of your setting is and ask:
-How long has she been around?
-What challenges did she have to overcome in the realm (if any)? Do any of them linger?
-What challenges to her rule did she have to overcome? Do any of them linger?
-Is she different from the previous lady? How? Does she lean into those differences or try to present herself as more of the same?
Then take her mom or the person she butchered to get the chair and ask all the same questions. Repeat going back five generations and half your worldbuilding is done for you!
Maybe a previous king promised to better the lot of the poor refugees created by his own father’s wars. Before anything substantial was done he died in some embarrassing ye olde king way, probably syphilis. His son didn’t even pretend to give a shit about the refugees and reneged on all such promises of charity. Now you have a dynamic where a bunch of poor, desperate, and quite angry people feel betrayed by the crown – their nostalgic for a better era that was taken from them too soon. Older folks still hold out hope that the crown will do the right thing but folks younger than the current regime have only known naked tyranny. Even if our poor syphilis king wasn’t really all that great just by contrast of what comes before and after he becomes a symbol for just kingship and his legend is seen as a condemnation of the present.
Okay so what about Elves
Elves don’t need to live 1,000 years. Heck, they don’t even need to live 500 years. Consider how incredibly wild in the context of American history a 300-year-old would be. They could give you a firsthand account of the civil war, of chattel slavery, of the revolutionary war, or each and every genocidal act taken by european settlers against native people. A thousand-year-old elf sits outside of history, the world they were born into is almost unrecognizable to the one anyone lives in now. But a 300-year old elf simply sees things on a bigger scale – able to see not discrete historical events but the directions of entire societies. Long-lived creatures are going to be a lot more interesting and distinct if you have a recent history for them to be blithely aware of – none of these as monumental to them as it was to the fleeting mortals.
Thats all I’ve got for now. TLDR give your fantasy world an 80’s and a Reagan who is the architect of all modern misfortune but died so recently your dad remembers him as a mediocre actor. Give your fantasy world a WW2, a conflict no one you interact with day to day remembers but shaped absolutely everything about your world in ways so pervasive as to be invisible. Give your fantasy world nostalgia cycles and events swept under the rug of history because their uncomfortable or inconvenient for the elite to think about.
An Example history from my current pathfinder campaign
0 – Lichking ascends to lichdom. Yes our dating system is this fuckers undead birthday.
2 – lich conquers the southernmost vampire house of nachtblud. Utterly obliterating the vampires. First time any of the houses has been meaningfully opposed since their founding 300 years prior.
14 – war between the lich and vampires brought to an end. Lich severely wounded holy vampire emperor who has decided to take a power nap. Vampires cede southern territory to lich and promise not to fuck with him.
27 – church gets mad mortal kingdoms are trading with lichking. Cardinals start heated debate over wtf to do.
34 – church finally gets everyone to agree to not trade with the undead, it took some small wars and shady politicking but mortals are no longer bankrolling the lich.
37-39 – first vampire civil war caused by opaque politicking only vampires care about. Lich wants to fuck with them but is too poor to do so.
45 – swamp kingdom neighbouring lich, convinced noone is looking, starts trading with lich again.
46 – church and swamp kingdom fight. Lich funnels almost all wealth into weapons and magic shit in proxy war. Church wins and occupies kingdom, lich funds insurgency.
62 – church goes bankrupt for unrelated reasons but occupation of swamp kingdom didn’t help. Pro lich heir installed in swamp kingdom ousting church puppet within a week of church withdrawal.
85-97 – vampires are starting to get a little afraid of the staggering economic growth of lichking. Plot to go to war with him before he becomes unstoppable. Plot is a mess, vampires have another civil war. Lich arms both sides and gets even richer.
96 – someone tries to wake up holy vampire emperor to pull things back into line because things are not looking great. Emperor kills him and goes back to sleep.
97 – losers of second vampire civil war exiled to the northern steppe.
114 – university founded north west of vampires to observe fascinating undead ruled societies.
121 – long golden age of lich ends due to ill advised colonial investments and a series of droughts. Swamp kingdoms fortunes devastated by lack of trade.
131-135 – vampires betray promises to lich and occupy his northmost lands.
135-146 – vampires are overrun by steppe people from the north led by exiled vampires.
146 – exiles after destroying house that wronged them are relegitimized.
151 – lich claims to have converted and petitions to become next pope. Cardinals agree to an edict that says you have to be alive to be pope and lich abandons new faith. Many half-built churches remain.
157 – lich attempts to court pope’s sister into marriage. A short war is fought over the insult and the lich apologizes.
161 – lich marries nouveau riche merchant. She has no titles but she finally bails him out financially and starts series of clever local investments.
165-179 – vampires decide to work together for once and fight mortals for territory to get back to their pre lich size. Decide to invade swamp kingdom. Lich gets rich off both sides again.
178 – swamp kingdom pleads church to save them from vampire tyranny. Church tells them to go fuck themselves.
185 – vampires hyped up on winning for once decide there on a roll and invade seaside kingdom – who ask for church help that they do receive – thrashing vampires thoroughly.
195 – mortal kingdoms near nachtblud petition the church for crusade against the unliving. Church uses momentum to hype people up to kill the lich once and for all!
200 – crusade takes vampire capital in largest military operation world has ever seen. Emperors guards flee wuth his casket and the city is renamed crusader’s landing.
201 – crusaders hyped on how easy this all is march south to lich king and are absolutely and thoroughly crushed. A few months later crusaders sign ceasefire with lich and just limit operations to vampires. Lich starts selling weapons to both sides again.
207 – realizing they cant win and most of them are criminals or bastards with nothing to return to the crusaders declare the crusader state, an independent polity of captured vampire territory. Pope is so fucking angry he dies.
211-220 – new pope rallies second wave of reinforcements and new knight commander. Initial enthusiasm is high but fighting becomes a quagmire. Church goes bankrupt again.
213 – lich’s first wife dies. He becomes withdrawn from politics for a while. Remarries two years later to swamp princess and buys out the swamp kingdom’s debts.
221 – lich offers to buy out church debt if they make him a cardinal, is refused.
224 – crusader state and lich formally begin trading, enriching both.
231-present – third wave of fighting between crusaders and vampires kicked off by new generation of failsons hyped up on religious fervour and desperate to earn land of their own.
232 – present