Sunday, February 28, 2021

Musings on Gaming #2 - Time

In this post I would like to talk about the role of time in world-building.

It is common for the typical medieval-fantasy RPG world to have a long history - a "lore" - and while I do not do any world-building of my own, I agree with that practice; in our own world, thousands of years of written history existed before the medieval period, and tens of thousands more are known through archaeology, and millions more known through other scientific fields.

When looking at fantasy worlds, I tend to view their histories through the lens of our own prehistory and history, and this for me is when the suspension of disbelief becomes difficult.

Many of the fantasy settings I have game in have histories that are both too long and too short: typically, the period of prehistory is too short, with species coming into existence and then reaching a medieval-level civilisations in the blink of an eye, and then remaining at that level for much longer than our own medieval period lasted.

One way of rationalising this is to look at the official lore or "fluff" as something which the peoples of the fantasy worlds viewed as their own history, and not necessarily as the truth. Just as in our own world people gave accounts of the origins of themselves and lists of kings which we today see as bearing some core of truth but over all inaccurate, so too can we see the fluff. Similarly, the peoples in these worlds also imagined their ancestors as having the same level of technology as they possessed, much as how our own medieval artists depicted supposedly ancient kings in contemporary armour and weapons.

Interpreting the official lore of the worlds this way makes it easier for me to accept them as real, and I try to bring this across to my players by mapping the historical periods in the game world to our own, such that when they explored ancient ruins or tombs they would come across artifacts and burial practices that mirrored those of our world: a period when material culture could be identified but there was no metal working, a period with copper alloy or bronze working, and finally an age with iron and steel artifacts. 

Setting the history of the game world against our own also allows me to determine the level of technology that is appropriate to the period. Our own "Middle Ages" spans a thousand years, and it will be wrong to imagine that the level of technology, or the prevailing system of government and law remained static during the entire span of time. So if a player asked me if a certain thing - say eyeglasses - existed in the game world, I can find out when they were invented in our own world, and decide if they would exist in the game world. On a more general scale, technologies that improved agricultural yields or trade would have enormous impact on the populations and material prosperity of the peoples and places our PCs existed among, so if the world had large cities with cosmopolitan populations and exotic goods, I would have to make sure that the technologies that allowed for such a world existed.

Going further back in time, I often think about the existence of several humanoid or "demi-human" races/species in fantasy worlds and how that might work in a "real" world.

Probably every culture in our world has their own creation myth and how they came into being. Whether these myths were viewed as literal truths by the people who told them, or whether they were understood to be an expression of the place they saw themselves in the scheme of things, I think we can safely say that they are all factually wrong.

Our own species is now believed to be an admixture of archaic humans and other hominid species. This, and the fact that there were several hominid species leads me to wonder if the various fantasy races could in fact be viewed in the same light: not as peoples created separately by their own gods and distinct from the other races, but as different branches on the evolutionary tree. Certainly it would be interesting to imagine a scenario where all the hominid species in our own world all existed in the same period and developed civilisation. None of this is likely to have an impact in gameplay, but it is again something which makes the game world more real to me.

Of course time is only one of the dimensions which give a sense of realism and depth to our game worlds - the other dimension is space, which we will discuss in the next post in the series.

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