As a writer, history is something we want to use as base for our own working space, but rarely do we want it all revealed to the player. It should be a tool to help us give originality and historical backdrop to our missions, items, inhabitants and stories, but never force-fed in the form of drudging through in-game encyclopedias. Games are supposed to be fun, not a study for an exam.
But while history is a brilliant tool for our arsenal it can also be a time-wasting rabbit hole. It’s important to remember not to spend too much time on an over detailed history of your world. As much as it may be tempting, over using history in games can very easily become a distraction that swallows up the player character’s own story.
Our aim with world history is a) to create a realistic world and b) to connect the player to it. How do we connect the player to its history? Through the present! Do you care that this race of Snorlaxes defeated the Chikuboos to protect the golden poke ball in the Battle Of Mights one thousand years ago? Probably not. How about if the Snorlaxes just re-started a war because the golden poke ball has been stolen? This is something here and now, that touches the player and makes for a more active and richer experience. We care because this involves us as a player.
- Write a short overview for each relevant culture or setting.
- How have people evolved from this since?
- How does this affect current affairs?
- What are the most recent events to occur, affecting the here and now? Have them escalate in the present.
- Why do we fight?
- What items/ weapons/ characters/ beasts still exist because of it?
- How can the player follow in the footsteps of these legends? Special weapons, bodily remains, being able to finish the unfinished mission somebody started.
Dust your weapons, battle cries, NPC stories, songs, legends, items and cultures with pieces of the past. Reflect it in the most ordinary item descriptions and laws you wouldn’t expect to find it. Let players discover the history gradually through these things, give them the credit that they can piece together the puzzle themselves, they’ll feel a whole lot more rewarded for it in the end (as opposed to reading a codex from dullsville).
Everyone believes in something, whether it be humanity, science or the spiritual. Religion starts from the existential questions: Who am I? Why does bad happen? Life is dark and religion gives people hope and comfort in the lonely darkness. Remember, religion must tie in with its surrounding history, geography, people and culture. Both evolve together and both change each other. Religion is something close to people’s hearts and it often reflect fears and needs within a culture.
- Purpose: What is its purpose? What does it set out to achieve or prevent? E.g. It reduces anxiety, is a promise of comfort in the afterlife, satisfies a need for a greater power, explains good and bad, upholds societal laws, or punishes wrong.
- God: Who is/ are the god(s) and their story? Give them a character:
- How did they come about?
- Why are they interested in mortals?
- Do they incarnate to interact?
- Is their purpose for the benefit of themselves or for mortals?
- How do people communicate with them e.g. prayers and visions
- Beliefs: What are their beliefs and why? For example treatment of death, race/gender? Are there any differing interpretations?
- History: What is its history? Who is its founder? Are they any important events that caused people’s loyalty to strengthen or hatred of it to grow? Does it have any dirty secrets or corruption?
- Clergy: Who is the head of religion? E.g. Priest, philosopher, witch, scientist.
- Worship: How is faith practised? E.g. Any rituals, customs, rights of passage, celebrations of marriage/ death/ birth, places of worships, mantras, special clothing?
- Conflict: Does the religion conflict with other factions or inhabitants?
- Heresy: What happens to non-believers? E.g. Are they accepted, converted, or killed?
- Day to-day: How does the religion affect every day details such as art, clothing, social behaviour, language etc.
Treat religion as if it were another character with flaws and strengths and vulnerabilities. It may be good and pure, but even religions have inner conflicts such as hate groups. If you get stuck on ideas, draw from your own beliefs, or study religions for inspiration.
How can we use twists in language to differentiate societies? Here’s a few ideas, but by all means do not feel the need to incorporate them all; the more subtle the better. We should never stray too far from real-life language at the expense of readability.
- Add accents but, obviously, the foremost important rule here should be to keep readability. All I remember of the dwarven race in FF9’s Conde Petie, is trying to accurately read out their accents in my mind while understanding what they were actually saying. It was totally distracting from the game, though loveable and full of character (omg I’m going to hell, please forgive me for criticizing you, my beloved FF9)
- Rename items and make slang words for a detested food or pest, for example. Famous games can also provide new slang and catchphrases (for example, we have phrases like ‘in the same ballpark’ from sports).
- Create new words and phrases, for example greetings or curses. But steer clear of crazy unpronounceable, uber fantasy words like ‘Lord M’gnunuc’! That’s just plain annoying to read.
- Add titles for the way people address both important and non-important characters
- Small grammar changes such as speaking in third person or omitting certain words and pronouns (think Yoda as one memorable example).
Technology has consequences and it will impact hugely on society, both for better and for worse. It can create power imbalances, spread disease, threaten war, upset ecosystems, spur greed and corruption, cause easy misinformation, or change people’s behaviours. Let’s break all of the components of tech into a checklist:
- How does society’s tech fare for transport, communication, warfare, agriculture and medicine?
- What tech do they have, and what tech do they not have?
- How does their tech define society? Are there any relatively new tech discoveries?
- How does it benefit society and who exactly does it benefit?
- What are the negative consequences?
- Who does it threaten?
- What are its potentials and how has it evolved?
A society’s trade will tie in very closely to its resources and location, as this will set the base from which it has flourished.
- Resources: What are the region’s local resources and transported resources?
- Crafts: From those resources, what crafts have flourished?
- Export: What valuable or lightweight items are exported?
- Influence: A region will have great sway on styles such as clothing, decoration, buildings and household items.
- Beliefs: Shapes and colours can reflect a society’s outlook or belief, or even passed down historical customs. This can be reflected in their items and decoration.
- Guilds: Many trades will form guilds to learn their crafts and control trade laws. What guilds exist in your world?
We’ve established the purpose and customs behind a society, so now we must manifest this into some functioning communities. To start with, a city will inherit all of the makings we’ve discussed already – history, religion, government, language, trade – so figure out whose territory it sits on. So what elements make up a city?
- Size: How big is it, for example, compared to other villages?
- Motivation: What does its residents fear, and what do they cherish?
- Attitude: Are the residents homogeneous? What are their attitudes to visitors or ‘those not like them’?
- Monuments: Are there any buildings or structures that define this city? For example numerous bridges, a watch tower, or perhaps it is home to the only hospital of the region.
- Function: How does society function on a daily basis? For example character roles in helping things run.
- Necessities: How does the city fair with basic education, medicine, science, recording/writing, arts/music…?
- Pros and Cons: Does it have an ugly side and a beautiful side? What are its strengths and weaknesses and how are these apparent in daily life?
- Specialities: What else makes this region unique, for example specific trades and crafts?
- Roads: Any particularly well-travelled roads? Where do the roads lead and what stories or dangers lie at the end of those roads? Any trade routes?
- Holidays: All worlds will likely have important days that they celebrate, and these add all the more flavour to a world. This could be historical holidays/ harvest or seasonal based/ scientific markers/ honoured historical figures or founders/ religious days/ forced government holidays/ fun festivals celebrating games or traditional activities/ deaths or coronations of leaders.
- Disease: What illnesses exist? How do people treat the illness and how do they behave towards the ill?
- Games: What games are popular? Games can be based on skill e.g. sports/ chance e.g. gambling/ strategy e.g. chess/ guessing games or non-competitive e.g. I spy/ Memory games/ memorial e.g. nursery rhymes about historic events.
Tip: Again, if you get stuck: research and take inspiration from real world examples. You can always borrow features you like from existing cities.
Cities, religion, government… It’s useful to treat all these things as characters with vulnerabilities and complex features.