Welcome to February, my fellow nerds! I can’t speak for anyone else, but January felt half a year long so I am excited to get to a new month. Not least of which because a new month brings a new RPG Blog Carnival topic. This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Enderra, and is focused on Legends & Lore in your campaign, a topic of particular interest to me.
Having talked about my D&D 5e campaigns in previous articles, I won’t go into too much repetition here. In short, when I started with the new edition I was excited to create my own homebrew world, something I hadn’t done as a DM in what felt like forever. I created a metric buttload of lore for my campaign world, and later in the month I’ll talk about some of it and how I created some of the stuff I did. But to kick off the topic I wanted to give you some tips for creating and using legends and lore in your campaign. So here are three things to keep in mind when creating your campaign’s backstory.
Major Events are the Cause; What is the Effect? – You will be tempted to throw major events into your campaign’s lore, and that is absolutely as it should be. Go ahead, make those events huge, world shaking calamities (or successes, not everything in the past has to be bad). But once you’ve done that, take some time to think about the effect such a calamity would have on the folx experiencing it. Then think about the knock-on effect; how does that effect your world a generation, two generations, a century after the event? Not all events will ripple through your world like that. But we can see even from our own history how major events can change how we act in the present. The same is true for your campaign.
As an example from my campaign, the most recent major event is simply referred to as The Cataclysm, when an attempt to end a centuries-long war resulted in an arcane explosion that contaminated the world with high levels of magical energy. The Cataclysm happened five hundred years before the start of my campaign, and if I just had it listed as a major event but didn’t take it anywhere, it would just be another campaign fact for my players to note and move on. But I spent some time thinking about what the effects of such an event might be, even so long afterwards. I decided that, prior to the Cataclysm, my campaign world had no aberrations, and that monster type came about as a direct result of the arcane contamination. Because of a flood of aberrant monsters stalking the countryside, survivors were forced into coastal cities, where at least they could defend themselves with the sea at their back. Becoming isolated in cities meant that farming had to be modified, and since it couldn’t spread out as before, it went up and down instead. And that led to…you get the point.
So yes, build out those big, earth-shaking events. But consider how they ripple and what effect they have in your campaign now.
If it isn’t Personal, it isn’t Important – Having created all of this wonderful lore for your campaign, it can be tempting to dump it on your players at every opportunity. Suddenly every innkeeper and farmer the party encounters also happens to be a history major, just dripping with surprising facts about events that happened centuries before. After all, what good is all of that lore if you can’t share it? Don’t your players deserve to enjoy it, too?
I sympathize. I, too, have struggled with the impulse to lore dump given the slightest excuse. But struggle with it you must, because the fact is your players are going to tune out most of the lore you’re dumping if it doesn’t affect their characters directly. So find a way to make it personal for them, make it directly affect their life and well-being in some way.
For example, let’s say there was a war centuries ago in your campaign, in which the current human kingdom came together with the neighbouring orc kingdom to repel a great evil. For whatever reason, however, it is remembered by the humans as a war with the orcs instead of alongside them, while the orcs have kept a true record of events. An interesting historical tidbit, but so far it doesn’t affect your players. Except your human fighter and your half-orc wizard have very different ideas of how that war ended and what it is even about, so now you have a bit of interesting role-play that can happen. Further, in their adventures the party discovers this great evil is again on the rise, and it may take the united kingdoms to defeat it once again. But how can the party bring them together when only one of the kingdoms even acknowledges the event happened?
If the event in question is even more recent, don’t be afraid to make it even more personal for the players. Give them the option of including the event in their character’s backstory. Not only does this let you reveal a bit more of your campaign’s lore, but it helps tie the character into the world you have crafted, giving them a feeling of immersion.
Lore does not Equal Truth – We know this from our own world, the “truth” of any history is dependent on who is telling the story. So don’t be afraid to use this in your campaign. When you create the story around a historical event in your campaign, consider who is telling the story. Then look at the other species in your campaign and decide if they might see things differently.
For example, the history books of the human kingdom tell of a great battle a generation (approx. 15-25 years) ago against an immense extraplanar creature laying waste to the land. When it was finally brought to ground near the northern mountain range, it looked for a time as if it might destroy the array of knights brought against it. All seemed lost, until the Dwarven Host came forth from under the mountain, supporting the knights at a crucial moment and destroying the fell creature.
The history books of the dwarven kingdom don’t mention the event at all. The logbook kept at the Southern Gate, however, does mention that a training cadre of dwarven warriors was dispatched to investigate a disturbance just outside. The disturbance was dealt with, and the recruits fell back inside the gate after enduring the effusively grateful humans who had helped cause the disturbance, and kept mistakenly referring to the Head Instructor as “King” and “Great Lord”. The recruits, now warriors, consider it another example of human ridiculousness.
So once you have created your event, take a moment to turn it and look at it from another angle. What bias is inherent in the way you’ve described it, and how might someone else describe the same event? And then decide for yourself who, if anyone, is correct. Maybe none of the people involved have it 100% correct, and that variation can be the crux of your next big adventure.
Hopefully you find these tips useful when creating lore for your campaign world. Something to keep in mind, lore doesn’t always have to come from the GM. As a player, you can come up with bits of lore that fit in your character’s backstory, suggesting ways you want to be involved in the campaign world. So don’t be afraid to talk with your GM about this and work together to build something for your character and the campaign as a whole.