Advancing the Timeline

One of the most contentious issues surrounding old school gaming is the notion of campaign settings where the creator/publisher “advances the timeline”. This happened with the most popular TSR/WotC era campaign settings such as Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, and Dragonlance. Other settings, such as Hârn and the Wilderlands Campaign opted to simply hold at a particular time in the setting and keep fleshing it out.

I wonder, though, if there couldn’t be a happy medium. Imagine a setting that was detailed at the year 1000, as well as the year 1025. The intervening twenty-five years would be described in detail in adventure modules, wargames, novels, etc. But nothing would happen after that point. Nothing published ever – no way, no how. Everything after the self-imposed endpoint would be in the GMs’ hands.

Such an arrangement would provide a framework for GMs who wanted to start their campaigns in the year 1000 and have a lot of pre-done work in terms of events, plots, characters, etc., enough to last for many campaigns. There would be a ton of background events in motion, plots progressing, characters advancing, dying, etc., to give the GM who didn’t want to have to work up all that sort of background something upon which to hang his particular campaign. A built-in framework for years of play.

It would also allow those GMs who didn’t want to be constrained with “what’s supposed to happen” to have an incredibly detailed recent history from which to draw when determining the course that his or her campaign is going to follow. Nothing preordained, but a lot of arrows in flight which could land in any one of a dozen places, each impacting the other.

This has a couple of benefits that I can see right off the bat. “Location adventures” such as lost cities, haunted ruins, etc. are somewhat “timeline neutral”. The “lost city of Poosh” is just as lost in 1000 as it is in 1025, and one could publish it and have it applicable to either type of GM. “Plot-driven adventures” would, in turn, have a set context for the first type of GM and act as historical background for the second.

If you’re one of the gamers that loathes the idea of advancing the timeline, you simply start your campaign in 1025, and the timeline never advances beyond what you determine. You just have a ton of detailed recent history to refer to.

If you’re one of the gamers that likes the idea of a grand sweeping arc of history, you set your campaign in 1000 and play with all the big events happening in the background, and probably your PCs being involved at one or more crucial events. Your campaign would probably even go off in a different direction, which would be perfectly fine. But you’d have all that other background information to fall back on if you needed it.

Such an arrangement does require a bit of trust between the gamers and the publisher. We’ve seen examples of such trust being broken in the past (I seem to recall something in the FR Gray Box that said that Cormyr Sembia would never be detailed, leaving it for the GM to define for his own campaign, but that went away very quickly). But as a concept, I think this has possibilities.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

8 thoughts on “Advancing the Timeline

  1. The problem isn't that the big, sweeping events occur, but that they happen in a way that is disconnected from a DM's particular campaign, and they also invalidate the products that DMs were sold. A DM should be the one making the big, sweeping events, not the publishing company that has no idea what is going on at any given DM's table.

    I think that something like your middle ground would be possible. But, I'm left wondering what the advancing timeline people would think about already knowing how things are going to turn out. One of the reasons that I have lost a lot of my original interest in the Traveller Imperium setting is that I know that it's all going to end up in the Rebellion and subsequent Virus apocalypse (which were very poorly designed, in my opinion). There's no hope for the Imperium. Then along came GURPS Traveller, with its alternate timeline that had no Rebellion, but that just felt stagnant in relation, since they were still advancing the timeline except without anything happening. Better to not advance the timeline at all, leave that to the individual Referee.

    I think that the best solution is to offer a non-advancing timeline, but include suggested plans for the future on the behalf of various movers and shakers in the game world. Of course, for people who can stand that sort of thing, you could also include various historic eras. That's another thing that Traveller did, with its Milieu 0 setting for T4 and such. But that would be more like the main, non-advancing setting being in 1000, and the previous, advancing eras being in 750, 500, or even Year 1. Allow enough room that the timeline can continue to advance without ever impinging on the non-advancing era.

    Another suggestion would be to adapt something like the event tables in Oriental Adventures (the 1E version), so that sweeping events could be easily generated by the individual DM for her personal campaign. Along with those, suggested unique events could be presented (Mongol Invasion, Black Plague, Muslim Conquest, Crusades), without prejudice and without setting a specific date. Maybe the random event tables could include an entry labeled something like "Unique Event", which would be a result that caused the DM to include such a unique event, or one of her own design. Of course, these tables aren't essential, but I've always liked the dice oracle.

    Now, one could argue that an advancing timeline acts in many ways like a dice oracle, in that the DM has limited control over it, but the problem (to me, anyway) is that it is then exactly like every other DM's campaign in terms of these major events, and also that there is little room to adapt the events to the particulars of the individual DM's campaign. For instance, if (to pick events from the Realms) I wanted to have the discovery of the Mazticans, but didn't want to have the Horde Invasion (or vice versa), I would have had to deal with products that assumed both of those.

    Anyway, there are some random thoughts of mine on the subject.

  2. When I finally merged my Oerth and Mystara worlds I moved the time line ahead something like 200 years.
    That way anything in the books or the game products that came out after that (1986) would not really change my game all that much, but would come up as "history".

    It worked out really well for me.

  3. I think the idea of a timeline is a good one, I just fear it is doomed to failure.

    I've always found that I can map out what is supposed to happen, no different from inventing a history, but the inevitable military axiom about battle plans applies. The future never survives contact with the party.

    Maybe I just like toying with an apocalypse, but my futures always resemble a plot tree. I've done it that way ever since Ragnarok happened through a book keeping error. Since then that plot tree has detailed any number of ways the future might turn out differently if the gate to hell is left open, if someone sits on Arawan's throne, if the Holy Rock of Schnot is recovered, or if they fail to close the doors of the sacred temple of Kud Zu the Enveloper.

    In fact, I've now accumulated so many unrealized apocalypses, that I've started to design my next campaign around the idea of a number of alternate post-apocalypse worlds.

    So I question how useful any book which details a single future can really be.

  4. I like many of faoladh's ideas, however from a publisher's perspective it does present several challenges to meet.

    While many GMs prefer to create their own adventures and large scale campaign events, others do not. Some GMs prefer to use published adventures. Now, with an approach of NOT enforcing a predetermined future on a campaign setting, just how would a publisher produce interesting adventures? Sure, they could create many adventures which have little to no large scale effects, and there is a market for such small scale adventures. Still though, if you want to provide a large scale adventure series for GMs who want this, what do you do? Any adventure of that nature would be considered canon for the setting and thus you have now imposed your will on the future of the setting.

    I think that for each setting / publisher it comes down to what do they want to produce, and what type of GM do they want to sell to: a GM who only wants a static setting for their own adventures, or a GM who wants a dynamic setting with official adventure series accompanying it. The one thing can't please everyone as we all have our preferences.

  5. Spiral Bound: Perhaps such adventures could be treated like I was advocating for the unique events, so that they exist as suggestions, explicitly for the DM to include or not. A DM whose group wants everything published would be able to do that, while another group that prefers a campaign more tailored to the ideas of the DM and players in the group, but still with interest in published products as idea sources, could make use of whichever published adventures they want, without forcing unwanted canon on them.

    This brings up the idea of adventures with "prerequisites", as it were. That is, an adventure might be labeled "For use in campaigns that incorporate the events of The Fall of Matalan". That adventure would make assumptions that some of those events occurred in order to set up the current situation in the adventure. This would also allow the DM to incorporate those events as a way of leading up to that adventure.

    Finally, there's Hârn's way of doing things. There, an adventure is a description of the situation on the date that all of the Hârn products are set, including future plans of the NPCs. This does mean that it is up to the DM to advance these timelines to conform to her game, however.

    For me, I think that I've talked myself into the idea of Unique Events, which can also cover events that traditionally would have been presented as an adventure with a definite, but flexible, date (T1-4, for instance, or GDQ). Of course, more sandboxy, location-based adventures (B1, B2, B4, and so on) could be presented in the traditional fashion, since they aren't based around any particular set of events occurring. They are simply locations where adventurous events can occur.

  6. Brett Evill's Gehennum (published ages ago on the web) incorporated a similar idea, with details for an Archaic (City-state), Classical (Imperial) and Decadent Ages, each ~400 years on from each other.

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