Where do we come from?
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.
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.
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.
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February 4, 2014 @ 1:50 pm
I like the aberrant idea…read Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness for ideas on ruins of an above ground aberrant city. I also like the idea of the metallics, devils, tiefl ing idea just for breaking with tradition of metallics being all good.
Not as much a fan of the giants story…nothing wrong with it, just seems very mimic of Eberron. Not sure of a replacement for sure to offer, lots of choices. I also think that the idea of finding ruins for giants sounds cooler than it always plays out. The mental visual can be epic, but the logistics of being Medium size creatures trying to navigate an enormous building can be a pain in the ass.
February 4, 2014 @ 1:55 pm
The chromatics could have created the shard minds as their servants…help explain their psion bent because of being made to fight aberrants. Created from weird crystals in the under dark empowered by the birth of the dragons, also allows for cool crystalline ruins to be found later. They don’t age, so you can have pcs stumble across shard minds in torpor in their crystal crèches that still remember the war as a current event.
February 4, 2014 @ 2:12 pm
That’s actually a good thought. And think of the ruins shardminds would leave behind… I hadn’t thought of the Eberron angle with giants, but I clearly should have since I love that setting to which you introduced me. “… the logistics of being Medium size creatures trying to navigate an enormous building can be a pain in the ass,” made me laugh right out loud.
February 6, 2014 @ 2:24 pm
GM: “There is a door in front of you carved in a beautiful bas relief of a storm giant throwing lightning bolts against some kind of great aberrant worm creature…what do you want to do?”.
Players:”We check the door for traps and assuming it is clear, we open it and keep going”.
GM:”Hmmm, sorry…the door is sized for giants and has not been oiled for 2000 years…please make a Strength check, DC 75…oh wait, you can’t POSSIBLY roll that high. I guess you can’t get inside. Sorry, adventure is over.”
February 6, 2014 @ 10:56 pm
That’s some harsh DMing, though logically, I see your point. Also, if giants built their buildings to last, wouldn’t modern day fantasy smaller folk have turned them into apartments and high rises and the like?