Worldbuilding: Timelines

Note: this is part of a series on worldbuilding. See the worldbuilding section of the sidebar for discussions on designing religions, creating a local campaign area, and more.

A timeline or history of your world can add a great deal of depth that can have as much impact on your storylines as you like.  Timeline facts will often even suggest new story ideas.  The World Builder’s Guidebook states, “Building a history provides you with ancient ruins to scatter about the area, smoldering rivalries of legendary monsters or fearsome raiders, rumors of mad kings and sinister counselors, and lingering fires of patriotism or rebelliousness just waiting to be fanned once again into blazing warfare.”

As you begin to put together your timeline, start your focus on the current events at the time of your story.  Then build outwards in each direction. You may be less detailed and have fewer events as your branch out further from the time of your planned story. You may even want to add a few “ancient” time periods to your timeline.

Examples in Popular Fiction

J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 universe was mapped out 1000 years in each direction according to Straczynski.  This allowed him to accurately plot a complex storyline where some characters (the Vorlons) live thousands of years and had been mucking with earth’s history for thousands of years, at least one major character traveled back in time and the result of that time travel was already part of the main timeline, and for one story to jump forward and let the viewer see the universe in 100, 500, 1000 years and even further outward.

One strength of the world of Krynn in the Dragonlance books was its rich history.  The main storyline was set up by a major cataclysm a couple of hundred years prior to the story.  Another key story was the “Legend of Huma” a knight during the prior dragon war.  Other prior events led to key concepts and realizations in the main storyline such as the disappearance of dragons, why the good dragons stayed in hiding, and the secret behind the birth of Draconians.  The setting’s overall history was divided into a number of “Ages” and there were myths and stories from each age.

The Lord of the Rings series also had a rich history.  Key events from the distant past included the forging of the rings, the partial defeat of Sauron, and the One Ring being lost in the river.  Key events from the recent past included Bilbo finding the One Ring, Sauron’s alliance with Sarumon, and their influence over King Theoden.  A future event that plays a role in the story is the departure of the elves.

These are just three examples, but if you think about any well-loved fiction, an interesting timeline makes the world seem more fully developed.

Building a World Starting with a Timeline

If you have a rich set of ideas for your world’s timeline, you may be starting by fleshing out your timeline.   Get your ideas out and build on them as you brainstorm.  Don’t dismiss any idea at this stage.  Once you’ve got a set of ideas.  See how they might fit together.  Do some group around the present time?  Are a few further back?  Are some plans for how the setting will evolve in time?  At this stage, if half of your ideas aren’t within 20 years of your planned story, you may want to brainstorm more or think about how you can push a few more ideas into that 20 year time or consider setting your story at a different point in your timeline.

The reason for centering on the story’s current time is two-fold: First, those events should have a more direct impact on your story.  Second, people will remember less of events further back (in the case of past events) and you don’t want to box yourself in too much (in the case of future/planned events.)  Expanding on the second point, before newspapers and the widespread availability of books only major events beyond half a generation (about 20 years) were remembered by anyone except those few with access to books.  Only catastrophic (good or bad) events several generations back would be remembered.  Beyond a couple of hundred years only the birth of a son of god or the names of the most loved or hated kings were remembered.  (But the accomplishments of the king’s would only be known by a relative few scholars.)  Even for stories set in the future, a cataclysm of some sort could destroy many records or the general public might be more concerned with current events.  They might have a decent grasp of events 100 years back, but not 300 years ago.

If you’re struggling a bit for some timeline events, consider your planned story.  Are there events in the story that would benefit from some related preceeding events?  Are there characters that should have been involved in key prior events?  Are there institutions (governments, companies, churches, etc.) that may have interesting histories?  After considering those factors, if you are still looking for ideas, pick up a history book.  Randomly pick a page (or more if needed) and consider transplanting that event to your world.  Maybe you flip to a page about the Martin Luther’s 95 theses.  In some cases you may want to lift this story nearly exactly to your setting.  However, that may be jarring to some who are expecting a fictional world.  Therefore you may want to change it so the Luther character is the new leader of the church who nails his theses to the door and takes the main church in a new direction, but a smaller, traditional branch breaks away.

If Worldbuilding Began with Another Aspect of the World

If you’re not starting with a timeline, you can consider what you’ve already written about your world.  Even if you started with the timeline aspect of your world, you can always come back to the timeline as the world is fleshed out.

Consider the aspects of your world which have already been developed.  For example if you’ve already created a pantheon or two, what stories behind the gods imply events on your timeline?  Was there a major holy war 500 years ago?  Has one of the gods been banished recently?

To help you brainstorm (using either approach), below are a few lists of events that would typically be remembered based on each time period.  If you like random charts, you can easily put a numbers in front of each item.  Also note that it is occasionally possible to have an event from one time period occur in another time period.  For example, maybe your story takes place just a few years after a major cataclysm.

Ancient Times (mostly 500 or more years ago, although rarely these events an even can be more recent)

  • Rise of an empire
  • Fall of an empire
  • Rise of a new god/birth of new religion
  • Fall of a god/end of a religion
  • Legendary hero/quest
  • Exodus/persecution of a population
  • Cataclysm (major flood, large asteroid, man-made, etc.)
  • Great wonder built (Pyramid, Colossus, etc.)
  • Miracle
  • Major discovery of a technical/divine/arcane nature
  • Epic war
  • Major discovery of a new territory, such as a continent or planet

Historical Times (mostly 20-100 years ago, although a few events  may be up to 500 years ago or more recent than 20 years ago)

  • Major war between large countries/empires/religions
  • Rise/expansion of a kingdom
  • Fall/decline of a kingdom
  • Plague
  • State of decadence
  • Invasion/Raids
  • Exploration/discovery of a new land
  • New technical/divine/arcane discovery
  • Split of a religion
  • Scandal

Recent Events (mostly within 20 years)

  • Feud/Succession dispute
  • Military campaign against a neighboring state
  • Internal military strife (civil war)
  • Raids/monster incursion
  • Natural disaster
  • Death of a noble
  • Founding of a secret society

Text Copyright 2009, Inkwell Ideas Inc.

References/Further Reading:

  • World Builder’s Guidebook by Richard Baker, TSR 1996.
3 comments on “Worldbuilding: Timelines
  1. ravenpolar says:

    This is very cool. I was just working on a new timeline for another setting that I have been asked to write this morning and this gives me some great pointers.
    I also managed to dig out an old DOS program that generates timeline events that I downloaded from somewhere ages ago. Its great fun just dreaming up things in the long distant past that may have huge influences on the present. Got to be one of my favourite pieces of building a setting.

  2. OrionRising says:

    Triple Ace Games released a free pdf a while back that revised and updated the old system for timeline generation from the World Builder’s Guidebook. It’s at
    Definitely worth checking out!

  3. Kantron says:

    One thing I have found is Rolemaster actually has charts for generating a timeline. Being 1980’s-1990’s Apple // nostalgic type, I am writing a BASIC app which uses this for quickly generating a timeline. One thing I am also working on is eras.

    I, too, am going to have my Kingdom stretch hundreds of years in both directions. In order to help this along, I will have eras for my history. Some of the basic ones I am using are:
    1. Establishment
    2. Scattered City State
    3. Centralized Feudal
    4. Collapse and rebuild.

    If you are going to have a long timeline (In the hundreds of years), I recommend setting up eras. Different times can have different tones and even have different campaigns across the same timeline.

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