Sunday, September 29, 2013

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.