Friday 15 January 2010

Elesalia - History 101

I might as well say it now – I’m a top-downer. In fact, I’ve said it before. I know that there are those that disagree with me, but I need a framework. So here is the way that I worked out the campaign history.

There is, as far as I can see, no contradiction between being a top-downer designer and creating a bottom-up sandbox for your players. It all depends on how much the players know. The DM can have the world worked out to the nth degree, with a history going back a thousand years, but as far as the players know, the world has no name and does not exist further than the six hexes that surround their base. They’re going to find out otherwise, but in the fullness of time.

Where I think that top-down designers have got a bad name is that, having put all that work into their world, they seem determined that the players should know all about it, so that their efforts are appreciated. Few people design worlds for their own sake (am I in a minority of one here?) and everyone likes a little recognition. Where the line has to be drawn is the point at which the DM hands out a thirty-page campaign history for the players to read before gaming even starts.

If the DM wants to share the experience of the players, exploring the world as it unfolds, letting the unknown carve out its own shape, then that’s their call. Each to their own. If the top-down aspect of world design turns you off, skip the rest of this post.

I’m just a junkie for campaign histories. I appreciate that a lot of mine will mean absolutely nothing to anyone outside the rather limited Elesalia fan club but further posts on the features of Elesalia will make reference to the history, so I thought I’d better get it on now.

As I’ve mentioned in the introductory Elesalia post, I had a list of things that I knew I wanted in the campaign. I wanted a recent war or two – in this case, two; the Kaldak Forest war which in my world is the equivalent of the battle against the Temple of Elemental Evil – which I’ve resprayed and will be using, and the Ice Wars, in which a horde of frost giants, white dragons, cold-using creatures of all sorts swarmed down from their mountain fastnesses and cast half the Veriel valley into a permanent winter. This was only defeated by concerted action from the forces of good who had, until then, been bickering and squabbling in the way that puts the petty into Petty Duchies. Result – desolate but slowly recovering northern lands, masses of refugees and social stress on the lands who took them in.
So in the past forty years, there have been two big wars. This, for me justifies the presence of many experienced soldiers and warriors who are now thinking about retiring. There is therefore a vacuum for new and upcoming adventurers.

Having taken care of recent history, I started to work back. I knew that the Veriel Valley duchies were the result of a recolonisation of land lost following the collapse of a previous civilisation. I worked out the history of the duchies and their origin in the fortress city of Stonegarth Hold.

At the mouth of the great river, I wanted to have two cities – Old Palintor, a ruin on one bank and New Palintor on the other, bustling, sprawling and a crossroads for the campaign, a city to which all would come, through which all would flow and where, it is said, one can get anything – for a price. The ruins would be the lair of monsters, the haunt of villains, the location of sewers and catacombs, lost temples, hidden vaults. So the city needed to have been sacked or ruined. And the new city needed to have time to grow up. Start calculating, perhaps sixty years here, eighty there, what might have done the damage? Where did they come from? Lightning campaign or slow advance?

Before Palintor grew – and how long did that take? - who founded the old city in the first place? I had the name “The Sea Raiders” in my mind, possibly a borrowing from the Sea Peoples of Bronze Age Mediterranean history, a vigorous and aggressive incomer culture who found a land riven by chaos, overgrown by dark forests and overrun by monsters. But why was it like that? Answer – the Empire of the Snake, an evil and decadent power that had crushed half the continent in its bid to dominate. It too needed its own timeline but because evil is inherently unstable, its duration was shorter but packed with more vents.
Who did the Empire overthrow? I knew that I wanted a halcyon stage of history that would make its overthrow all the more tragic so I came up with Guirioch, a hippy druidic Celtic land, all happy and in tune with nature. Admittedly, it didn’t have that name to begin with – for a good while, it was just known as The Nice Kingdom. It would have no answer to the all-conquering Empire of the Snake and would go down in blood and fire.
And tracing the history of Guirioch back, I posited that in the early years, it had been nurtured by the elves, seeing the emerging humans (possibly at the early Bronze Age or even more primitive) as worth protecting after the chaos of the Kin Wars in which the dark and light elves were forever sundered.

It was there that I decided to put a halt to the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms. For sure, I could have gone on and on, but in the end, the amount of work involved compared to the amount which would actually be encountered by the players made it impractical. Besides, I now had over a thousand years of history to flesh out. What’s not to like?

I tend to think in fits and starts and sustained invention often peters out. I would sometimes leave the history file open on my computer and dip into it as I got more ideas. I also had concepts and subjects that I knew I wanted to use, and just had to work out where on the history they would fit, and how long they would need to happen. In some areas, events in different parts of Elesalia overlapped – were they connected? It was a question worth asking. New plots and ideas may well result from the answers to those questions.

Now, when I am describing ruins, I can say “The Empire of the Snake, that fell into turmoil over eight hundred years ago…” rather than just say “These ruins look really old…” I don’t have to go into detail on the Empire, just like someone might say today “This coin comes from the time of the Romans, nearly two thousand years ago…” without having to give a three-hour lecture on the rule of Vespasian. If the characters want to find out about the Empire of the Snake, that’s their option. It is a sandbox, after all – not just physically but historically as well. And I know that when I give these little bits of information out, it’s internally consistent and I’m not going to have to retcon a few months down the line.

So we arrive at the inclusive timeline for Elesalia. I am aware that a lot of the detail will mean nothing to readers at present. You can skip this if you want, or keep it handy for later reference, since much of what I’ll be posting in weeks to come is going to refer back to it. It is best read in conjunction with the main map and the larger scale maps that I’ll be including with future posts.

Also, whilst I have nailed my colours firmly to the mast as regards top-downing, in most cases, the entries are all that there is at present about the events. I have a vague idea about things like the Great kin-war, the sinister Shadow Hands, the Iron Legion and such like, but until it becomes necessary, mere mentions is all that they will stay. There is, I suppose, room for DM-player interaction to flesh them out but the timeline ensures that such expansion will not be contradictory.

Nevertheless, I like to pepper my sandbox with little titbits and this is where most of them will come from.

All dates are BP (before present)

The Age of Ice
The Age of Water
The Age of Fire

1368 The Great Kin-war, elves and dwarves vs. drow and duergar
1360 The start of the Age of Earth. The first flourishings of Guirioch, which eventually occupied the area from Seknir, up the Veriel to Gelnaris and Stonegarth Hold.
1129 Start of the rise of the Empire of the Snake in the mountains at the northern end of the Yirovian valley. Large-scale volcanic activity around Mount Terarnis and the Blackstone Mountains. Destruction of the city of Prelnax.
1050 Thurgoland and Helfgel invaded by the Empire of the Snake
1050 The Khereseth stop the advance of the Empire of the Snake.
1049-1045 The war that establishes Ghafan (where the large desert is now) as a major power
1045 Empire of the Snake invades Guirioch in a three-pronged attack
1043 Sack of Khlossoth, the Guirioch capital. Start of the supremacy of the Empire of the Snake.
Beginning of the years of Ash and Blood for the peoples between the sea and Stonegarth Hold
990-992 The Red Fox rebellion against the Empire of the Snake
953-956 Rebellion of the Emerald Brotherhood against the Empire of the Snake
950-930 refugees from the Empire of the Snake arrive in what will become Helmer.
862 Outbreak of feuding and civil strife in the Empire of the Snake
840-830 Arrival of the Sea Raiders.
830 Downfall of the Empire of the Snake. Big battle near the marshes north of the Wolfgard
818 Successor regime to the Empire of the Snake sets up in Seknir
805 A band of adventurers raid a temple to the god of decay in the Great Marshes.
782 Grazakar dwarves launch an attack on the regime in Seknir, toppling it.
775 Seknir as it is known now is established
771 Demerus, one of the Mages of Power, flees to carry on his lich process. Three of his fellow mages are killed. One died trying to stop Demerus and the other two were killed in the attack on his mountain fastness, after which he disappears from history.
765 Foundations of proto-Palintor
760 Start of the settlement of Gelnaris
740 Start of the colonisation of the South Marches
735 Start of the settlement of Artumnald
708 A slave revolt overthrows the decadent Ghafan Kingdom.
707 Start of the war that leads to the break-up of the Ghafan Kingdom
700 Gelnaris settled. Start of the settlement of the area now known as Danorin
699 The war concludes with the establishment of a balkanised area where Ghafan once was.
698-690 Elves establish the Immortal Priestess cult, in a bid to keep human unity in the Ghafan area alive.
695-671 Battles between humans and elf alliance in the eastern forests.
680 South Marches settled
675 Artumnald settled
665 Humanoids attack the eastern forest elves
664-655 Elves and sympathetic humans fight wars of liberation to drive back the humanoids.
649 Two members of the Mages of Power killed.
640 The area now known as Danorin settled. An evil wizard arises in the Yirovian valley and causes much mayhem and suffering.
628-625 Dwarves of the Grazakar clan attack and overrun Artumnald, defeat the Gelnaris forces and
drive them back beyond the Arimas river.
602 The Galakmur clan of dwarves are forced out of their mountains by giants and humanoids.
580 The great swamp begins to expand under the influence of the god of decay. The halflings are forced into exile.
575 The Fall of Galassos, the successor city state to Prelnax, to fire giants, humanoids, etc.
535 Final destruction of the Mages of Power by forces unknown. The only survivor is the mage Apsiokt.
523 Apsiokt founds the Keil
510 Rise of the Shadow Hands
492 Gelnaris with the help of Palintor (that’s old Palintor) drives out the Grazakar from occupied Artumnald
466 The fall of Selstone – a shock runs through the whole region as this city had been in existence since before the 1129 eruptions.
445 The Shadow Hands destroy the heart of the Immortal Priestess temple network and the temple of Kallia.
444-442 Adventurers and warriors attack and destroy (or so they think) the Shadow Hands in retaliation.
435 Start of the Great Desiccation
427 Humanoids start their attacks
418 Battles in the war against the humanoids, where the Khereseth are virtually wiped out to buy time for the humans to mount a counter-attack which routs the humanoids.
417 Exodus from the desiccated areas begins
361 Sultanates achieve trade dominance of the Aman Hexu
348 Old Palintor destroyed
343 Fleet of the Sultanate destroyed in the Aman Hexu
341 End of the civil war that led to the establishment of the three modern
Sultanates – Kilgish, Amiantur and Nariaz.
330 Siege of Stonegarth Hold by the Vengansar/Khrast forces and the breaking of said siege – humanoids routed and destroyed.
310 Start of the baron-strife in the Danorin territories
307 The end of the Iron Legion
300 The newly-established state of Danorin begins to expand
290 Arkil is added to Danorin’s control
275 A band of adventurers leads an effort to end the Wolf Wars
267 First towns in Narli founded
245 Danorin completes its settlement of the South Marches
227 The start of the humanoid attacks on the Wolfgard dwarves and elves
167 Humanoids achieve dominance in the Wolfgard mountains
142 Destruction of the towns of Narli
141 Start of the years of skirmishing between the Jhoriz and the humanoids
97.5 Danorin gives the northern barbarians a good thrashing
80 The beginning of Danorin decline. Tremantor throws off the Danorin yoke
78 The South March secedes
77 Humanoids driven back to the Wolfgard mountains by the Jhoriz nomads
41 Danorin starts operations into Valgor to try and seize mineral resources
37 Danorin’s operations in Valgor are broken off by the impending ice war
36.5 Ice War begins
33 End of the Ice War
32 Kaldak Forest campaign war begins
27.5 Kaldak Forest campaign war ends
The present

Having looked at all this, I reckon I need to pay a visit to Obsidian Portal and start me a wiki.


  1. I'm impressed by your thoroughness.

  2. Thanks, Narmer. That's the cut-down version. With all the back-up notes, it runs to 38 pages, and, as I mentioned, I could have gone on and on. World creation is one of my chief interests and whilst I should be working on my sandbox, I'm currently knocking together a dungeon for Old 4 Eyes' new campaign. Roman Juju Zombies, anyone?

    I'm working on the world theology (it's going to be culturally and geographical multi-theistic) but I'm not satisfied with the state it's in at the moment. I'll probably be posting some narrative about particular groups and events within the history next; that's why I wanted to have the history posted so that everyone could see where it fits in.

    I wish I had the time and dedication to put into learning a software cartography system so that my maps could look a bit cooler.

  3. I am of this same school of thought on world design. Even when I try to be vague I end up detailed. When it gets truly horrible is when you try to chronicle the histories of three or four interconnected peoples.

  4. If you keep posting this stuff, before long, you'll have enough for a supplement. Then, you can get set up on Lulu and...

  5. Good stuff mon ami!
    I can safely say I've bought TSR setting related boxsets in the past with less historical backgroundand timeline....B-)

  6. Great read! I am also a top-down game designer, and like you I do it for my own interests and not to bury my players in the history of the world they live in. Reading this has peaked my interest again and I think I will go back to making my campaign setting that I started last year. Thanks!