Why build history in your world? Don’t get me wrong, I love a good worldbuilding timeline. But perhaps you’re wondering why you should bother worldbuilding the history of your setting. After all, your story takes place in the present moment, right?
But relics, ruins, and the ancient legends that remain on people’s lips… these are the past in the present. What is preserved, what remains valued, is a testament to what is considered important. And that tells you as much about the present as it does the past.
Here are five reasons you SHOULD worldbuild history for your setting, whatever you’re doing with it!
1. History is a source of mystery & adventure
There’s a reason that movies like Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, The Mummy, National Treasure, and Jungle Cruise continue to capture the imagination. And in the DM’s Guide for AD&D (1979), Gary Gygax’s “First Dungeon Adventure” takes place in forgotten crypts beneath an ancient monastery.
The past, even the past of our own world, is a mysterious, exotic location all of its own. The maps are unreliable; we don’t know anyone who’s been there. And there’s treasure and power to be found—for the savvy survivors—and maybe ancient monsters too.
Mystery, danger, exploration, and treasure? This is an ideal combination for a lot of speculative fiction and worldbuilding.
And that makes it an ideal place to search for story hooks. Whether it’s ancient aliens in a scifi world (Stargate), or forgotten artifacts of immeasurable evil (Lord of the Rings), the past can offer up some pretty hefty powers in your worldbuilding. This is true both in terms of technology/magic and protagonists. Blade III has [spoiler alert] a great example of modern vampires trying to resurrect the first vampire in an ancient Syrian tomb, again bringing back a power from the past.
There are also considerations like financial reward for ancient artifacts. Which is what drives Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, Alan Quartermain in King Solomon’s Mines, and, arguably, Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.
And of course, secrets that support the status quo are just waiting to be overturned in secret history reveals like The Da Vinci Code. Maybe the story of how the Monarch claimed the throne has some holes in it? Or how a religion really began? Over-turning the status quo is a great piece of world conflict—a fantastic way to add drama at either the beginning or end of a story or RPG campaign. Delving into the past is usually the only way these plots can be set up.
A word of warning, though. Watch out if you have species with significant longevity (like elves) who can live for hundreds (Forgotten Realms), or thousands (World of Warcraft) of years, or even forever (Tolkien). If your characters have a chance to interview an eyewitness and don’t, make sure “stupid” is on their character profile.
2. History shows trends in worldbuilding
No world is static—and no world setting should be. After all, we want our worldbuilding projects to feel dynamic and authentic. And change is a great way to establish mood in your worldbuilding, too. If it’s a dark setting, chances are it’s getting worse. A brighter setting might be improving in some (or many) ways.
That’s all well and good, but how do you show that change?
Contrast! Establishing the ‘before’, then contrasting it with the “now” is vital for showcasing change. How has technology changed in the last five years, in the last generation, in the last century? What about social attitudes, religions, and quality of life? And of course, why has this changed?
This is a trick that Grimdark worlds use very well. Show the brightness of a fallen golden age, tarnished to rust. Show how beautiful things once flourished, then mar them. Alternatively, for a bright world, describe how the privations of the past have changed, or are decreasing. Social injustice, technology, quality of life for the poor, or disease and mortality rates, are all great aspects of a bright world to be trending upwards. Stories about grandparents, or vestiges and relics of the older world like defunct tools and professions (lamp-lighter, perhaps, or “nightsoil man”), are great ways to show this.
3. History can be a great “show don’t tell”
Did you know that the Ottoman sultans considered themselves Roman emperors, inheritors of the Roman Empire? So did Charles V, King of Spain and… Holy Roman Emperor. And then, of course, there’s Charlemagne seven centuries earlier, and Napoleon two centuries later. There’s even the German Empire in 1871, all of which, one way or another, claimed lineage from the great Roman Empire.
All that from a bunch of toga-loving road-builders with a taste for dormice and rotten fish sauce.
Don’t get me wrong, the Roman Empire was impressive. But so were the Assyrians and the Babylonians, before them. The Romans, though, became the symbol of overarching, organized power in the early-modern and modern world. And that’s really what Napoleon, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Charles V were all saying—“I am as powerful as the Romans”. Not to mention “history has conferred this inheritance upon me”. (We’ll get to that in point 5.)
So how does that help your worldbuilding? Well, these claims only make sense because we know the history. So creating these kinds of historical powers—Empires, great Kings, and what have you—allows you to have various imitators, ancestors, and “inheritors” in the time you’re telling your own story. How about the CEO who aggrandizes himself as the next Alexander the Great, or a Megacorp who believes they’re the next Roman Empire (or your world’s equivalent)? All this adds flavor and depth and authenticity to your worldbuilding. And it can create interesting conflict between conflicting visions, and potential stories in the present, too. After all, who can claim history?
4. People love a prequel, and a prequel requires a past
What links Star Wars, Dune, Narnia, and The Hunger Games? No, it’s not that they’re all awesome. It’s that they all have successful prequels!
Prequels—a story focusing on events that precede those of a prior work—can be useful for both writers and Dungeon Masters for a lot of reasons.
First of all, they can give you a reason to flesh out the history of a setting. That can be useful and valuable in its own right (see for reference, the rest of this article!). It also might give you a chance to satisfy questions your RPG players or readers have been asking. That too, can add a lot to fan enjoyment, as well as strengthen your campaign setting or novel setting in general. An example of this is the House of the Dragon series. It focuses on the in-setting “history” book, “Fire & Blood”, supposedly written by an Archmaester of Westeros. Or how about “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” (2009), which veers away from hi-tech vampires to delve into the 15th-century origin of the Vampire-Lycan war. (Terrible movie, by the way, but it illustrates my point!)
Prequels are also a chance to dig into iconic or beloved characters. Take, for example, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992), Hannibal Rising (2006), Cruella (2021), or even Pixar’s Monsters University (2013), which all focus on how iconic characters became who they are. Or how about the most famous (infamous?) prequels of all, the Star Wars I, II, and III movies, which tell the story of the rise of Darth Vader, and the fall of Anakin Skywalker.
And finally, prequels can offer another chance to spend time with beloved characters who have died, or in settings that already have their largest stories told. Netflix’s prequel series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, is a great example of this, as is the Dark Crystal Adventure Game. Both tell an epic story that precedes the original 1982 Dark Crystal movie and allow us more time to wallow in that rich and whimsical world. The premise of the tabletop roleplaying game Adventures of Middle Earth (Cubicle 7, 2016) is the same—explore Middle Earth before the events of The Lord of the Rings.
5. The past has authority and innate value attached to it
Did you know that the phrase “time immemorial” isn’t just a saying—it can be a legal precedent? An English statute from 1275 declares that Time Immemorial is any time before King Richard I’s reign (specifically 3rd September 1189), and it defines the limit of legal memory in the UK. In the USA, “Time Immemorial” is used to describe the priority date of who holds water rights—critical for plenty of agriculture and industry.
Why is this interesting? It’s just one example of how history has authority attached to it. In this case, the “oldest one we can remember is the rights-holder”, a kind of historical dibs. The same could be said of the city of Istanbul. Many older Greeks refer to it as Constantinople and still, in their heart of hearts, consider it to be Greek. After all, it’s the home of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchy. All this, despite the fact that the Byzantines (who, by the way, considered themselves ROMANS and not Greeks) lost Constantinople almost six centuries ago. But that’s the authority and precedence of history.
There’s a wonderful quote from Cicero, the Roman rhetorician, who describes how the sons of his sons would look back on this moment, on this speech, from the future. In that speech, he uses the innate authority of the past (in this case, artificially viewed from a theoretical future) to justify his present-moment recitations. Not for nothing was Cicero considered one of Rome’s greatest orators. Because this trick works, and it’s still used by politicians today.
But why does it work? Well, people are often invested in the past, in their historical roots, which gives them a sense of identity. And this gives authority to history, often making people feel obligated to perpetuate it and bow to it. And, certainly in our world, we are taught history with a sort of reverence, with a knowledge that this is important to understanding who we are, and where we’ve come from. Even more so when the history taught is molded by, or tinged with, propaganda.
Antiques are a great example of this, too. A pedestrian object with little other worth can be considered valuable and significant simply through age. At the time of writing, an 18th-century set of weighing scales goes for over 600 USD on eBay. It’s made of wrought iron, copper, and wood—valuable in no way for its materials or craftsmanship. And it’s of little modern use—a set of five-dollar kitchen scales would be more accurate. Only its age gives it value.
So, all this to say, if you want to create authority in your world setting, worldbuilding a bit of history will do wonders. Create historical precedent, lay some “time immemorial”, and if all else fails, ask how your descendants will view this moment. And if you want to degrade or obliterate someone’s authority, call their history into question. Or simply dispute their dibs.