Creating history for your world can seem a daunting task, but it’s totally worth it! Not only will it give you more tools to create plot hooks and expanded context to create a richer world, but your players or readers will also feel more immersed. So, to get started with this, I recommend building a civilization that was once powerful and influential but has since been lost. In our world, we have Mesopotamia, the Maya civilization, and the Roman Empire, among others. What does your world have? Let’s look at 5 examples from fiction you can draw inspiration from for your fantasy worldbuilding!
1. Númenor: deep history for a deeper culture
You probably know about Númenor if you’re a fan of the Lord of the Rings books (or the Rings of Powers series, which actually has Númenor as one of its locations!). Númenor was created by the Valar (the “gods” of Middle Earth) as a gift to the Edain, a group of humans who fought alongside elves. But Sauron, who you’ll know from the Lord of the Rings, corrupted their last king, who in turn decided to wage war against the Valar. As you can imagine, this didn’t go well for the Edain. Ilúvatar, the original creator of the universe, intervened directly and punished the Númenoreans by sinking their island.
But Númenor is still influential! In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is a Dúnadan, which means that he is a descendant of Númenor. And the White Tree of Gondor comes from the one that used to be in Númenor! And if this is not influential enough for you, the fall of Númenor is the reason Middle Earth is round—it used to be flat before then!
So, what can we learn from this? Well, it’s very easy to focus on technological influences when building a civilization. But think about how your lost civilization changes cultural and social aspects of the world too!
2. Atlantis: fantasy history in the real world!
Speaking about Númenor… Atlantis was one of Tolkien’s inspirations for it! In the original story (by Plato), Atlantis was a prosperous civilization that went to war against Athens and lost. This made them lose the favor of the gods, and consequently, they sunk under the Atlantic ocean. Unlike the other examples on this list, Atlantis is part of our culture beyond the story it was originally created for. So it’s really interesting to see how we treat it in our world! Many people used to believe it existed, and there are tons of theories about its true nature. And you’ve probably seen several interpretations of the story too.
Unlike Númenor, Atlantis is a myth, and this changes absolutely everything! It’s still influential in our culture, but for different reasons. Instead of changing our governments or our traditions, it’s been a huge influence on our pop culture. And that’s what will happen too in your world if your old civilization is shrouded in myth and legend.
3. Numenera: a post-apocalyptic world
Yes, this is from a role-playing game, but don’t skip it if you’re a writer! Numenera is a setting where eight technologically advanced civilizations have risen and fallen, and now the ninth civilization is just starting out (this is why it’s also known as the Ninth World). The ninth civilization is living in a medieval-inspired society… with super-advanced futuristic technology! Most of this technology has decayed or works in unexpected ways, but they still use it in their daily lives, with a catch: they see it as magic. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”!
This is in stark contrast to Númenor (even though they have similar names). Numenera’s old civilizations mainly influenced over the technology of the new world, as no one really remembers the civilizations that came before so there isn’t much cultural influence. But even so, this gives the world a feeling of immense historical depth and gravity. So, depending on the mood and themes you want to express in your world, you can have a similarly extensive scale of events too! For example, if you want to show the resilience of humankind in a hopeful tone, showing a ninth civilization after presumably eight apocalyptic scenarios is a great way to do it!
4. Elder Things: building horror through history
Speaking about hope… yeah, this is the opposite. In Lovecraft’s works, the Elder Things are a species of aliens that lived on Earth many millennia ago. They had wings that let them fly through space (which is pretty cool, not gonna lie), tentacles, many eyes, and overall looked absolutely horrifying. They were quite advanced technologically speaking, but they ended up retreating to Antarctica because of a war, and most of them died there. Only some of them managed to survive in cities at the bottom of the oceans.
Old civilizations (and old things) are a great way to add mystery or straight-up horror to your world. A big reason the Elder Things are so horrifying is who they are (or were) as a species, but the historical scale also plays an important role there. If powerful beings like them ended up dying, this must mean that there are things even more powerful and terrible out there, right? And the answer, in Lovecraft’s mythos, is yes, of course.
5. First Ones: fantasy history in the present
Heavy spoilers for She-Ra and the Princesses of Power! Proceed with caution.
The First Ones are another example of a civilization that’s not completely extinct. But it’s the only example in this list where the main character of the story is part of this lost civilization! They were wiped out after a war a long time ago, but some of them survived and, since the main character is one of them, the First Ones are very important to the plot. However, because it’s been so long since that war, the main character doesn’t know anything about them, so a big part of the plot is discovering what their goal was.
As you can see, this old and lost civilization is not only influential to the current world, but it’s also central to the plot! If you’re having trouble finding the motivation to build a civilization that was lost centuries ago, make it directly relevant to the current conflicts in your world. You’ll be much more engaged with it, as will your players and readers.
Building your fantasy history on World Anvil
The easiest way to build an old civilization is by using the Chronicles feature on World Anvil! It’s a feature that lets you set up an interactive map with pins and a timeline. Then, you can link map pins with timeline events to clearly see where and when everything happened! It lets you keep track of everything that has happened in your world in a visual and interactive way. Here’s an example with the Roman Empire:
Check out the Chronicle live! As you can see, the map is filled with pins that are related to the events displayed on the timeline below the map. Creating a Chronicle is as easy as uploading your map, and then clicking on the map or on the timeline to add new pins and new markers! This will make your old civilization feel even more immersive, and whether you use it as a personal reference or as a way to show your lore to your players or readers, it will improve your worldbuilding so much! You can watch the guide to Chronicles here:
If you want to check out more fictional histories, we did a whole competition on them—you can read the entries here! And if you’re ready to build your own lost civilization, create a World Anvil account to get started!
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