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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    Elvensilver's Avatar

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    Default This land has a history-how to run this?

    For a 3-player home game I'm running, I made a lot of background fluff but I have some problems to build adventures. So I want to use as much as possible of the history, geography and local customs in a sensible manner in an adventure. While I have one player who really enjoys lore (please stop reading here, sister;-)), I don't want to overwhelm the other two with too many dates.
    What I'm mostly looking for are small clues in the area or story, which point to the history of the place (giving hints for fights to come) without being too obvious or flat.

    Story pitch:While the heroes accompany a carawan to a new camp site, they should stumble into monsters and murder victims. The new villain holed up in a research facility/summer home left over from an occupation of a diabolic-practicing nation some 1000years ago. The villain is not strong enough to take care of all the demonic tainted monsters left there, and basically releases them into the wild to be other people's problems. Villain is mostly occupied with privately motivated murders, but will sooner or later stumble onto a macguffin which can grant them vast powers for a price.

    Background: the surrounding area is pretty barren and cursed in different ways, but there is an oasis whith an abundant water supply. Long ago, fishers and gatherers lived here, until they left for greener pastures after the whole subcontinent was victim of a magical calamity cursing land and inhibitants. The oasis then served as a resting place for nomads, until a diabolic country occupied the area and built a town from scratch, where they traded ivory, bone and slaves as components for spells, which resulted in further, somewhat elephant-themed curses on the spring and town, making it more and more inhabitable until druids used their methods to warp elephants to take revenge on the diabolic town. Mostly abandoned, the local governor mansion was turned into a stronghold/prison to keep some presence in the area. Some hundred years later rebellious locals evicted the governor, but the battles left a demonic taint and a somewhat inert portal to the lower planes.

    So, given the background how can I subtly reference the history of the land without clues in dreams or random reference books?
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  2. - Top - End - #2
    Ogre in the Playground
     
    DeTess's Avatar

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    Default Re: This land has a history-how to run this?

    First of all, Ruins. Based on your description there should be at least two visually distinct layers of Ruins, one for the town, and one for the prison built on top of the governor's mansion. Make sure to note this difference, as it'll give your players a feeling for the age and history of the place, even if they never try to find out anything more.

    Given the place's history, the PC's might also encounter a variety of hidey-holes in the area around the oasis, places escaped slaves and the like would use. These place's would be nothing more than sheltered places with maybe some bones or other remnants to hint to their previous function.

    You can also allude to the elephant-themed curses and the druid attack through things like large bones in the desert or maybe even the remains of a temporary grove the druids created to prepare for their attack (now it would just be a grouping of bleached dead trees).
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  3. - Top - End - #3
    Barbarian in the Playground
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    Default Re: This land has a history-how to run this?

    Quote Originally Posted by Elvensilver View Post
    I made a lot of background fluff
    This is probably a mistake, unless you have a hefty dose of experience and a clear vision of what you want to do with the game. If nothing else, don't get too married to some bit of fluff that gets in the way of an adventure.

    Quote Originally Posted by Elvensilver View Post
    So I want to use as much as possible of the history, geography and local customs in a sensible manner in an adventure.
    This is kind of easy. Culture should be apparent every time an NPC speaks in some small way, geography drives descriptions. History, on the other hand is a bit more nebulous because it can mean a lot of things. We'll get to it.

    Quote Originally Posted by Elvensilver View Post
    I don't want to overwhelm the other two with too many dates.
    Word of advice from someone who deals a lot with presenting real world history - if you use more than one date people need to remember per hour, you're doing it wrong (okay, unless we're dealing with academia - but we're not). Yes, that means schools are teaching history wrong. History isn't a sucession of numbers and events, history is the study of what has happened and why. Ultimately, history builds a narrative - it can be confusing, complex or very simple, and it can be wrong, but it will be there.

    So, if you have Tolkienesque timeline of events, forget about presenting that to players as something they should remember - at most in a throwback "Oh yeah, this battle happened in 1234" way by a historian. What you should do is present it in the manner of more digestible parts of Silmarillion - stories of the people involved. At that point, the only thing you need to do is make the stories interesting.


    Quote Originally Posted by Elvensilver View Post
    Story pitch:While the heroes accompany a carawan to a new camp site, they should stumble into monsters and murder victims. The new villain holed up in a research facility/summer home left over from an occupation of a diabolic-practicing nation some 1000 years ago. The villain is not strong enough to take care of all the demonic tainted monsters left there, and basically releases them into the wild to be other people's problems. Villain is mostly occupied with privately motivated murders, but will sooner or later stumble onto a macguffin which can grant them vast powers for a price.

    Background: the surrounding area is pretty barren and cursed in different ways, but there is an oasis whith an abundant water supply. Long ago, fishers and gatherers lived here, until they left for greener pastures after the whole subcontinent was victim of a magical calamity cursing land and inhibitants. The oasis then served as a resting place for nomads, until a diabolic country occupied the area and built a town from scratch, where they traded ivory, bone and slaves as components for spells, which resulted in further, somewhat elephant-themed curses on the spring and town, making it more and more inhabitable until druids used their methods to warp elephants to take revenge on the diabolic town. Mostly abandoned, the local governor mansion was turned into a stronghold/prison to keep some presence in the area. Some hundred years later rebellious locals evicted the governor, but the battles left a demonic taint and a somewhat inert portal to the lower planes.
    Your problem here is that history you have here is both boring and has holes in it. If i understand it correctly:

    • more than 1000 years ago - stone age hunter gatherers
    • still more than 1000 years ago - magical calamity, welcome to wizard Fallout
    • 1000-whatever - diabolists build a city
    • whatever - druids mutate elephants
    • closer to now - local rebellion leaves even more wizard fallout, evicts diabolists


    Even when you look at the diabolists, about the only real world empire that lasted that long is Roman, and to do that you need to count Eastern Roman empire as part of it. What I'm saying is that you have a span of time so massive here we managed to go from stone axes to nuclear missiles in it.

    So, you have two options, make the span of time lesser, or fill it out. An empire can go through several phases - aforementioned Romans had a lot of those.

    Once that is done, you need to make your history more interesting. It's not diabolists, they have a name, what's more, they have a leader, who has rivals. Create smaller stories around important people at the top, how they came to power. Make them have names, personalities.

    These are, after all, your NPCs - sure, players won't meet them as they are kind of dead, but they will learn about them.

    With that, you can start to make smaller stories that use your larger history as a backdrop and are actually useful for a campaign - you see, there was this fort commanded by Praetor Maximus, during the rule of Grand Karcist Xariel, and it still has the body of the Praetor wearing his enchanted armor. Now, this fort fell during the Third Slave Rebellion, so you may find some slave rebel zombies there, still fighting their battle in the undeath. Or something like that.

    A story like that is not only interesting because it has human element to it - did the Preator give his life willingly? Was he scared? It is also immediately of interest to even the less scholarly PCs, as there is neat loot and dangerous things in there directly as a result of it. Add some personal touch, like an old letter from Praetor to his family that never got delivered on account of rebels with sharp things, and you have some emotional stuff as well.

    Quote Originally Posted by Elvensilver View Post
    So, given the background how can I subtly reference the history of the land without clues in dreams or random reference books?
    Dreams, don't use them, unless there is a very good reason, they are kind of tired cliche at this point. Magically preserved imprints of people who fought at battles, or magical videos of the battles themselves are less prone to cause eyerolls. Also, devils probably remember, as do other immortal spirits. They could very well go "Oh hey, ist hat the armor of Praetor Maximus? I knew that guy, blew up gates to his fort when a rebel mage summoned me."

    And, as I stated above, make a small historical story a part of the narrative of the place your adventure happens. It doesn't have to be the focus, maybe that armor of Maximus is there just as a coincidence, and your PCs are there because some cultists set up shop in that fort to control zombies and send them to do cultist things.
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  4. - Top - End - #4
    Ogre in the Playground
     
    Clistenes's Avatar

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    Default Re: This land has a history-how to run this?

    Introduce lots of strange customs and eccentric behaviors; that way players will be encouraged to ask...

    Like, when to caravans need to walk a narrow mountain path at the border of a precipice, they do so in order of preference by the power of their kingdoms and social status of the owner... they would arrive to the precipice and shout their name, social status and birthplace to the top of their lungs so they know who has the right to go first.

    Armed men would go ahead the caravan so, if there is a conflict (when none of the caravans accepts to sit and wait and they meet in the middle of the path) they would fight and the winners would throw the camels and mules of the losers down the precipice (because the path is too narrow for the beasts to turn back).

    That way, players will learn about social ranks and the relative power of the kingdoms... and they will be curious about why they are taking that path instead of going down to the open plains where the mutated monsters are...
    Last edited by Clistenes; 2020-09-10 at 03:36 PM.

  5. - Top - End - #5
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RedWizardGuy

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    Default Re: This land has a history-how to run this?

    Quote Originally Posted by Clistenes View Post
    Introduce lots of strange customs and eccentric behaviors; that way players will be encouraged to ask...

    Like, when to caravans need to walk a narrow mountain path at the border of a precipice, they do so in order of preference by the power of their kingdoms and social status of the owner... they would arrive to the precipice and shout their name, social status and birthplace to the top of their lungs so they know who has the right to go first.

    Armed men would go ahead the caravan so, if there is a conflict (when none of the caravans accepts to sit and wait and they meet in the middle of the path) they would fight and the winners would throw the camels and mules of the losers down the precipice (because the path is to narrow for the beasts to turn back).

    That way, players will learn about social ranks and the relative power of the kingdoms... and they will be curious about why they are taking that path instead of going down to the open plains where the mutated monsters are...
    That's a great idea.
    You can also take some old real-world customs and modify a bit.
    A very common one is for all members of a certain culture having to wear a certain symbol/tattoo/item in order to be considered a person of class and substance, and losing it requires penance of some sort or perhaps even an Atonement spell. Various forms of ritualized combat are also a big one.
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  6. - Top - End - #6
    Barbarian in the Playground
     
    Batcathat's Avatar

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    Default Re: This land has a history-how to run this?

    Quote Originally Posted by Martin Greywolf View Post
    So, you have two options, make the span of time lesser, or fill it out.
    I think the first option would be best, if only to avert the all too common tendency among fantasy (and sci-fi) writers to have such exaggerated periods of time between events. Everything always seems to have happened a thousand years or ten thousand years ago. Yet somehow the technology level and culture barely changes during all that time. I'm not saying that's the case here, but it is very common, even among otherwise skilled world builders, so it's good to be on the look out for.

  7. - Top - End - #7
    Bugbear in the Playground
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    Default Re: This land has a history-how to run this?

    1) Ruins

    Ruins are great. A ruin automatically triggers questions : Who built this ? For what purpose ? Why is is abandoned now ? And it also allows to find some of those answers through exploring them. You can do some of this even with inhabitat settelements when you have clearly different architecture styles or obviously repurposed buildingx.

    2) Relationships

    The people who live there and how they treat each other, which conflicts or alliances they have... all of that has roots in the past. And different groups tell of this past in different ways. Understanding what happened allows to interact with living NPCs better, so there is real motivation to make an effort.

  8. - Top - End - #8
    Barbarian in the Playground
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    Default Re: This land has a history-how to run this?

    Remember that history is what created the present.

    Fleshing out really ancient events can be a good foundation but think about how culture developed in more recent times and how the legacy of those cultures and their conflicts defines the world to this day.
    If you are using D&D then you have certain standard elements to work with, races, classes, backgrounds, religions.

    Often the DM has a sweeping timeline, with cool stories, but very little of it interacts with those modern elements which the PC's will use to create their characters.

    So make it so that there are no neutral choices.

    Decide on the core conflicts of your setting, past and present, and make it so that at least one character creation choice has to tie the player into one of those conflicts.

    Want to play a mage? Your magic derives from that empire of diabolists. Old spellbooks, warlock patrons, a sorcerer bloodline descended from the imperial house. Maybe tieflings are still persecuted for their ancestors sins. Maybe the empire's state religion survived under a more "friendly" guise and is working in secret to rebuild it.
    What about those Druids? What races and classes are linked inextricably to their order?

    By making the history a part of the characters heritage, and part of their lived experience you ensure that they have to care about it.

    I've found this works much better than trying to introduce dry texts with little relevance to the plot to a party of outsiders with no real reason to care about it.

    Make it affect them, and make it affect them so intrinsically that most meaningful choices when creating their characters reinforce that history. That then carries on into the game and how all the interactions with those conflicts play out, and what matters most to any one character, or puts them at odds with another.

    Now, admittedly this approach takes a fair bit of work to pull off, and practice is required to do it well. Depending on your group, you might find players don't want to be tied to the setting, or don't want their character choices to have that sort of implications for their place in the world. So absolutely discuss it all with them before putting in a lot of work. If every one is up for engaging with the world to this extent it can create some of the best campaigns. If most of them aren't then it's best not to force it.
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  9. - Top - End - #9
    Orc in the Playground
     
    Dr paradox's Avatar

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    Default Re: This land has a history-how to run this?

    Truly ancient history like you're laying out here is real tricky to integrate, because it rarely matters directly to people's behavior today (It's hard to argue that modern Italians are still holding a grudge against Tunisia) and because not a lot of artifacts wind up left over (Books, scrolls, maps, and other handouts.)

    To an extent you can get around this second one by having layers of history delineated by how much access the players have to them.

    • 50 Years Ago a national merchant company tried to establish a post in the region to take advantage of the oasis and trade with the nomads passing through. This leaves behind straightforward infrastructure, wooden buildings, decaying carts, unburied skeletons. The main trading post is likely to have surviving ledgers and journals if it's still standing, not to mention trade goods that give an idea of what the nomads' lives were like.
    • 500 Years Ago A hobgoblin army attempted to claim the oasis and surrounding territory as a stronghold. This leaves behind the hardier structures, stone and iron watchtowers, pits for holding slaves, foundries and mines. Bodies from the stronghold's fall are all gone, as are the dirt roads and wooden barracks they set up. Some monuments remain, with inscriptions that may hint at the hobgoblin victories and mortal foes, and depending on the climate you could find a sealed scroll case or two with cryptic, context-free bits of information.
    • 1000 Years Ago Anything still standing is remarkable, perhaps even spooky. Most of what remains above ground will be tumbledown walls, washed out stone roadways, maybe some larger building projects like aqueducts, cisterns, or stone ritual sites. Any given ruin should be several times removed from its original context, such that it should be rare that you can determine its original use. Most useful for gathering information will be burial sites, where grave goods and mementos were deliberately sealed away from the elements. Avoid the popular impulse to build these tombs sensibly, I think. Embrace a certain amount of funhouse design motivated more by the character of the civilization than practicality. The lore players can gather should come from interpreting art on pottery, mosaics, and frescoes.


    The manor/prison should loom large over everything. That it's still standing and more or less intact makes it overtly magical and probably very frightening to people passing through the area. If the monsters inside have only just now been released, that means it's been sealed since the governor fled almost a thousand years ago: You can scatter tools around the area from treasure hunters who tried and failed to get in, including siege equipment, scaffolding, and other indications of sustained effort. The door being open should send locals into fits of paralyzing terror. Nomads who passed through the area may have set up warding totems to try and keep the evil contained, all broken by the villain or the escaping monsters.

    Inside the dungeon you can telescope this even further, with portions of the structure dating back all the way through its ancient history. Weapons and skeletons can suggest the battle that drove the governor out. Retrofits from manor to prison are easy to suggest by having cage doors and chains bolted haphazardly over crumbling scrollwork and frescoes, which themselves depict elephants from the Oasis' heyday.

    I would caution against laying out the history of the place in terms of dates unless the players are REALLY looking for it. Better to let the implication of a history enrich the sense that they're wandering in the long shadow of something distressingly vast and ancient.
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