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Historical Timelines

Random background for your campaign

There’s nothing like working on a project to remind you of the tools you don’t have. I’m putting the final touches on the Swords of Telm supplement and finding that I need to fill in a few historical gaps. While I have a relatively complete history in my head (meaning the setting’s history, not my head’s), I don’t mind seeking some polyhedral guidance.

The tables below cover four eras of a setting’s history. Setting is a loose term—it can apply to a kingdom, a geographic area, or maybe even an entire world—regardless, it’s up to you to define, based on the size of your campaign and how you choose to interpret the results. The events you generate represent major turning points—things that you’d expect to read about in the history scrolls. And, since events often seem to become less significant with age, you’ll note that the number of these turning points decreases as one travels back along the setting’s timeline. The implication is that the more distant the era, the more pivotal the events.

Prehistory

Any event that occurred before recorded history. In most cases, this era is described in speculative terms, typically describing how the setting came to be peopled and serving as a precursory justification of the setting’s ancient period (see below). As a result, prehistory events may or may not have actually happened, but because they’re so broadly foundational and there is little evidence (or need) to dispute them, they are offered with the weight of scholarly truth or religious faith. Roll 1d4 events, each spaced 1d10x1000 years apart:

  1. Divine cleansing via (d6: 1 flood; 2 earthquake; 3 eruption; 4 disease; 5 cosmic event; 6 magic energy)
  2. Rise of (d6: 1-2 human sub-race; 3-4 humanoid race; 5 monsters; 6 planar beings)
  3. Decline of (d6: 1 human sub-race; 2-3 humanoid race; 4-5 monsters; 6 planar beings)
  4. Arrival of (d6: 1 new gods; 2-3 planar beings; 4 human tribe; 5 humanoid tribe; 6 extraterrestrials)
  5. Disappearance of (d6: 1-2 old gods; 3-4 planar beings; 5 monster population; 6 powerful mortal race)
  6. Mortals attain knowledge of (d6: 1 writing; 2-3 basic technology; 4 divine order; 5 advanced technology; 6 psionics)
  7. Mortals punished for (d6: 1 excessive pride; 2 decadence; 3 worshiping false gods; 4 worshiping evil gods; 5 ignoring the gods; 6 succumbing to base urges)
  8. Mortals threatened by (d6: 1 planar beings; 2-3 rampaging monsters; 4 rampant magic energy; 5 uncontrollable technology; 6 superior species)

Ancient History

These events occurred during the setting’s distant past, typically describing the rise (and possible fall) of an ancestral race or explaining the remnants of a now-extinct culture. Like prehistory, ancient events are offered with a fair amount of speculation. However, unlike prehistory, there is more evidence of ancient culture (in the form of monuments, burial mounds and tombs, lost scrolls, et al.) to inspire scholarly debate and varied interpretation. As a result, there is usually enough doubt surrounding ancient events to prevent taking them at face value. Roll 2d6 events, each spaced 1d10x100 years apart:

  1. Cataclysm (d6: 1-2 technology gone awry; 3 magic gone awry; 4 demonic intrusion; 5 natural disaster; 6 cosmic event)
  2. Rise of an empire
  3. Fall of an empire
  4. Mass migration into region (d6: 1-4 human tribe; 5 humanoids; 6 monsters)
  5. Mass exodus from region (d6: 1-2 human tribe; 3-4 humanoids; 5-6 monsters)
  6. Discovery of (d6: 1 advanced agriculture; 2 energy source; 3 industrial material; 4 advanced manufacturing; 5 precious metal; 6 unusual substance)
  7. Historical figure (d6: 1 sorcerer; 2 sage; 3 prophet; 4 inventor; 5 artist; 6 slave)
  8. War (d6: 1-2 successful defence against invaders; 3-4 successful conquest over foreign power; 5 defeat by invaders; 6 failed invasion)
  9. Empire flourishes through (d6: 1-2 territorial expansion; 3-4 golden age; 5-6 renaissance)
  10. Empire declines through (d6: 1-2 territorial reduction; 3-4 imperial decadence; 5 technically backward; 6 militarily inferior)
  11. Religion (d6: 1-4 new religion founded; 5-6 old religion driven out)
  12. Astrological event (d6: 1 comet; 2 star alignment; 3 planetary alignment; 4 new star appears; 5 solar flare; 6 conjunction)

Past History

These events occurred after the setting’s ancient period but before the last living generation. About two-thirds of these events should provide general support for the setting’s background, while the remaining third forms the foundation for present-day adventure hooks. Depending on the setting’s age, this period can span a really long time; I recommend rolling 4d6 events, each spaced 1d10x10 years apart, but add as many more as you feel are necessary to represent sufficiently the era’s duration:

  1. Discovery of (d6: 1 advanced agriculture; 2 energy source; 3 industrial material; 4 advanced manufacturing; 5 precious metal; 6 unusual substance)
  2. Historical figure (d6: 1 -2 sage; 3 inventor; 4 explorer; 5 artist; 6 advisor)
  3. War hero (d6: 1-2 brilliant general; 3 leader of elite unit; 4 master spy; 5 battlefield heroine; 6 average soldier)
  4. War (d6: 1 successful defence against invaders; 2-3 successful conquest over foreign power; 4 defeat by invaders; 5-6 failed invasion)
  5. Kingdom flourishes through (d6: 1-3 territorial expansion; 4-5 resource surplus; 6 defeat of enemy)
  6. Kingdom declines through (d6: 1-2 territorial reduction; 3-4 loss of trading partners; 5-6 source of major resource lost)
  7. Natural disaster (d6: 1: fire; 2: flood; 3: earthquake; 4 meteors; 5 volcanoes; 6 violent storms)
  8. Man-made disaster (d6: 1: fire; 2 flood; 3 famine; 4 plague; 5-6 pollution)
  9. Kingdom expands (d6: 1-3 through conquest; 4 through colonisation; 5-6 through diplomatic means)
  10. Religion (d6: 1 new religion founded; 2-3 progressive split from orthodoxy; 4-5 cult founded; 6 old religion driven out)
  11. Astrological event (d6: 1 comet; 2 meteor shower; 3-4 eclipse; 5 solar flare; 6 conjunction)
  12. Rise of a kingdom
  13. Fall of a kingdom
  14. Rebellion (d6: 1-4 successful; 5-6 failed) perpetrated by (d6: 1 military; 2 peasants; 3 colony; 4 anarchists; 5 slaves; 6 prisoners)
  15. Political system (d6: 1-2 challenged; 3 created; 4 reformed; 5 replaced; 6 dissolved)
  16. Cult (d6: 1-3 formed; 4-5 rooted out; 6 assumes power)
  17. Strong leader (d6: 1-2 reigns; 3 dies of natural causes; 4 assassinated; 5 canonised; 6 abdicates)
  18. Weak leader (d6: 1 reigns; 2 dies of natural causes; 3-4 assassinated; 5-6 forcibly deposed)
  19. Genocide of (d6: 1-3 domestic racial minority; 4-5 foreign group; 6 religious sect)
  20. Population shift (d6 1-2 to follow resources; 3 following discovery; 4 resulting from disaster; 5 due to oppressive laws; 6 resulting from warfare)

Modern History

These are events that have occurred within the lifespan of the last living generation; only those living under the setting’s rocks will not have some memory of these events, either as a participant, a live observer, or as a direct relation to same. Because people tend to have relatively short attention spans, and because the effects of these events may still be felt, these events have artificial prominence that the stuff of older histories do not. As a rule of thumb, each of these events should form the basis for a current adventure hook, either as stand-alone instance or as an extension of an event from a previous era. Roll 2d6 events, each spaced 1d10 years apart:

  1. War (d6: 1 successful defence against invaders; 2 successful conquest over foreign power; 3 defeat on foreign shores; 4 is fought diplomatically; 5 ongoing defence; 6 ongoing invasion)
  2. Disaster (d6: 1 fire; 2 flood; 3 famine; 4 disease; 5 earthquake; 6 violent weather)
  3. Kingdom expands (d6: 1-2 through conquest; 3-4 through colonisation; 5-6 through diplomatic means)
  4. Religion (d6: 1 progressive split from orthodoxy; 2 resurgence of orthodoxy; 3 forced underground; 4 acquires secular authority; 5 purge of the “unfaithful”; 6 absorption of associated cult)
  5. Astrological event (d6: 1 comet; 2-3 meteor shower; 4 eclipse; 5-6 conjunction)
  6. Scandal (d6: 1-2 religious head; 3-4 ruling family; 5 military leader; 6 high-level bureaucrat)
  7. Formation of a county (or some subdivision of a kingdom)
  8. Dissolution of a county (or some subdivision of a kingdom)
  9. Rebellion (d6: 1 successful; 2-4 ongoing; 5-6 failed) perpetrated by (d6: 1-2 peasants; 3-4 anarchists; 5 slaves; 6 prisoners)
  10. Political party (d6: 1-2 challenged; 3 created; 4 reformed; 5 replaced; 6 dissolved)
  11. Cult (d6: 1-2 formed; 3-4 forced underground; 5 rises to legitimacy; 6 rooted out)
  12. Leader (d6: 1 found insane; 2 scandalised; 3 heralds prosperity; 4 assassinated; 5 abdicates; 6 roots out injustice)
  13. Schism between (d6: 1 political contenders; 2-3 noble families; 4-5 religious factions; 6 guilds)
  14. Political reform (d6: 1-3 improves; 4-6 worsens) (d6: 1-2 tax rates; 3 minority rights; 4 laws of conscription; 5 slavery; 6 system of law)
  15. Major monster (d6: 1-2 population increases; 3-4 hunted down; 5 establishes wilderness foothold; 6 eradicated from setting)
  16. Commerce (d6: 1 tax increase; 2 raider activity rising; 3 economic boom; 4 recession; 5 trade route discovered; 6 guild unrest)
  17. Population (d6: 1-2 boom; 3 decline; 4-5 divided; 6 whispers revolt)
  18. Creation of advanced (d6: 1 food production; 2 manufacturing; 3 weaponry; 4 medicine; 5 defence; 6 transport/communication)
  19. Criminal activity (d6: 1-2 rises in urban areas; 3-4 plagues the countryside; 5 is ruthlessly quashed; 6 prompts new laws)
  20. Ethnic minority (d6: 1-2 seeks diplomatic sovereignty; 3 suffers persecution; 4 foments sedition; 5 afforded special legal status; 6 migrates out of area)

Final Words

You’re free to use these tables in whatever way best supports your vision of the setting. Determine a number of events from each era, then connect them however you see fit. The idea is to let the table results inspire patterns that explain how the setting got to be the way it is today. Suggestions are always welcome, and if you create a timeline you’re proud of, please post it in the comments section.

  1. May 20th, 2010 at 03:10 | #1

    Excellent post, bookmarked for future reference.

  2. brandon kruse
    May 20th, 2010 at 14:54 | #2

    Brilliant!

  3. May 20th, 2010 at 23:18 | #3

    Glad to hear it’s of use. If I can goad my quasit into obedience, I’ll get an Inspiration Pad version up soon.

  4. deimos3428
    May 21st, 2010 at 09:24 | #4

    I haven’t tested this out yet, but it got me to stop slacking and think about my setting’s timeline. It may prove useful in filling in some gaps. You may wish to consider an even earlier category to cover primordial events/creation myths.

  5. May 21st, 2010 at 10:02 | #5

    @deimos3428 : Yeah, it’s primarily intended for gap-filling. The assumption is that you already have a few ideas of your own, but need some random bits to suggest new directions or provide a more complete history.

    I like the idea about creation myths, though that they tend to be coupled more with religious beliefs / cultural views, so I excluded them from this round. But it’s definitely a good topic for another set of tables… ;)

  6. May 24th, 2010 at 10:10 | #6

    Love the blog, and added it to my site’s News page – I think a lot of D&D gamers can use something like this!

  7. May 24th, 2010 at 10:32 | #7

    @Neuroglyph : Indeed — while I playtest all this stuff with Chimera, it should be easily portable to other systems. Thanks for reading!

  8. May 28th, 2010 at 16:21 | #8

    Berry berry nice!

    -Tourq

  9. May 31st, 2010 at 20:41 | #9

    I just wanted to let you know that this article clinched your victory as Stuffer Shack’s Favorite Site of the Month.

    Thank you!

    -Tourq

  10. May 31st, 2010 at 22:43 | #10

    @Tourq : I’m flattered — thank you. What else would you like to see covered?

  11. Evil Eli
    November 16th, 2011 at 14:27 | #11

    Erin, This is by far one of the best timeline generator I have ever seen. I have just a few comments.

    What would you recommend as a stating point for the timeline? 10,000-20,000 years in the past.

    Under Ancient History you have Rise and Fall of a Empire, but you don’t have a sub-table for race.

    Was this on purpose?

  12. November 16th, 2011 at 22:00 | #12

    @Evil Eli : Thanks for the encouragement!

    Instead of assigning a starting point, I recommend working backwards from most recent (Modern History) to most distant (Prehistory), basically tallying years and seeing where “Year 1″ ends up. You’ll probably arrive at more than 20K years distant, but you can tweak the results to suit your vision. I should probably update the article with this tip…

    I left the Empire rise/fall to GM fiat, so you can use whatever race seems most desirable for your campaign. For a little polyhedral inspiration, try this: (d6: 1-2 humans; 3 humanoids; 4 fey; 5 monsters; 6 off-worlders).

  1. May 19th, 2010 at 21:42 | #1

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