How To Create Your Kingdom’s History

The Importance of Kingdom History

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How your kingdom plays in the present is influenced by events that have occurred in the past. For example, if a kingdom has been invaded numerous times over the course of its history, then it may have built up a large army or border wall to repel invaders. This colour gives you adventure options and makes the place interesting for PCs to discover and explore.

Defining the history of your kingdom at the start also helps you to portray the kingdom with a level of consistency important in RPGs. If you’re going to make the kingdom a base of operations or a main part of your campaign setting, then your players will expect to get to know things about it. Having the history written down means you don’t describe the kingdom as a peaceful agrarian paradise one moment and then a war-torn military state the next. It is easy to forget details whilst concentrating on other things in a game, but you can be sure that your players will remember them.

For the purposes of this article, we’re defining a kingdom as a geographical area controlled by a central authority.

Creating a History

Decide how many periods make up your history

We’re going to create a broad framework divided into periods. These are discrete blocks of time (about 50 years or so) when an important event occurred. There may have been other periods where little happened, but they seldom get remembered, so we’re not going to focus on them.

Our method of determining a historical timeline uses a standard pack of 52 playing cards with the jokers left in. Before you start laying down cards, decide roughly how many periods you want in your kingdom’s history. A young kingdom of a hundred years might only require a couple of periods, whereas an ancient kingdom might of 500 or even a thousand years might inspire 10 major periods.

Also keep in mind region size. A higher number of periods usually need a larger region to accommodate them. Young kingdoms would tend to be smaller, perhaps only containing a single large city and some smaller settlements, whereas kingdoms that have been around for longer tend to occupy a larger geographical area and have much larger, grander settlements.

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Sidebar: Kingdom Tags

When creating a kingdom we borrow the concept of tagging from games such as Dungeon World and Pathfinder. Tags are simple descriptors written in your notes to provide guidelines on how to represent the kingdom.

For example, a tag of Poor might mean the kingdom has seen better days and many of its citizens are starving.

See further down this article for a list of the tags.

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Create Your Kingdom History Timeline

To create your timeline take out a deck of standard playing cards, with the jokers included, and lay them out in a row, one card per period.

If you wish to have periods where little is known about them (perhaps because you want to leave yourself some flexibility for adding additional details or lost history later, or maybe nothing of historical importance occurred) then turn those cards so they are face down.

Look at the cards you have in front of you and reference them on the table below. This will give you guidelines as to what each card means.

Black cards represent a period of prosperity for the kingdom is question.

Red cards represent a time of hardship for the kingdom.

 

What The Cards Mean

Card Clubs (Violence) Diamonds (Hardship) Hearts (Diplomacy) Spades (Exploration)
Ace Valuable natural resources are discovered within kingdom boundaries. The people revolt and overthrow the government installing new rulers in the kingdom. Encounters with lost tribes result in a strange disease afflicting the kingdom. Many die before it runs its course. “Peaceful trade agreements are reached with a neighbouring kingdom, bringing wealth and natural resources.

+Trade

2 A record harvest means the kingdom can trade with its excess and import items that cannot be grown or produced locally.

+Trade

“Bandits from areas outside the kingdom begin a period of raiding, stealing people and resources.

+Enemy

“An evil artefact unleashes a terrible curse on the kingdom.

+Curse

Kingdom acquires new technology from a neighbour.
3 “Lost treasure is discovered within the kingdom.

+Artifact

“A neighbouring kingdom declares war.

+Enemy

“During expansion of the kingdom a warlike species or culture is encountered who prey on the citizens.

+Raiders

New ideas acquired via peaceful contact with neighbours result in an increase of academic pursuits.
4 “New understanding of magical techniques leads to an influx of academics and increasing prosperity for the kingdom.

+Magic

“Indigenous people object to the expansion of the kingdom and rebel.

+Enemy

“A strange cult or religion takes quiet root within the kingdom.

+Enemy

“A religious omen results in an upsurge of worship for the religion in question.

+Religion

5 “A powerful magical artefact is discovered that benefits the kingdom.

+Artifact

“A cult or religion takes control of the kingdom in a violent coup.

+Religion

“A strange omen is seen or witnessed that bodes ill for the kingdom.

+Curse

“A certain type of magic becomes easier to cast within kingdom boundaries.

+Boosted Magic

6 New farming techniques and modes of transport increase prosperity in the kingdom. “A mythic beast or violent race plagues the kingdom.

+Enemy

A corrupt official is revealed to have been working for a foreign power. “A political marriage brings the kingdom closer to one of its neighbours.

+Ally

7 “The kingdom reaches a peace accord with a neighbour it had previously been in conflict with, opening trade between the two.

+Trade

A plague strikes the kingdom, killing many. “A notorious criminal wanted in the kingdom is given sanctuary by a neighbour, straining relations.

+Tensions

“The bones of an ancient creature are discovered and many secrets are unlocked from its corpse.

+Adventure Site

8 “The rulers of the kingdom enact laws that benefit a section of society.

+Privileged

Crops fail and a famine grips the kingdom. “Following a publicised incident, the kingdom rulers enact laws that severely restrict certain members of society.

+Persecuted

“A shrine to a forgotten deity is discovered.

+Adventure Site

9 “The kingdom establishes a professional army to defend its borders.

+Army

A sickness spreads amongst livestock, resulting in widespread starvation. A person of importance within the kingdom suffers from madness or an affliction, straining relations with neighbours and causing many problems until he is removed from office. “Catacombs and natural caves are discovered underneath the kingdom. They are full of strange creatures and potential fortunes to be made.

+Underdark

10 “A new religion is founded within the kingdom.

+Religion

A flood destroys much of the kingdom necessitating slow rebuilding. “A cultural misunderstanding causes tensions with a neighbouring kingdom.

+Tensions

“Ancient relics of an almost forgotten past are discovered.

+Adventure Site

J An indigenous people is wiped out or subjugated and their valuables used to swell the coffers of the kingdom. “The government raises taxes to a point that many are reduced to poverty and stealing to survive.

+Enemy

“Relations break down with a foreign kingdom resulting in a war between the two.

+Enemy

“The kingdom discovers a lost land or civilisation and claims it as a protectorate.

+Tribute State

Q “A religion within the kingdom rises to prominence and becomes recognised as a state religion.

+Religion

“Magic within the kingdom inexplicably fails.

+Diminished Magic

“A visiting diplomat from a neighbouring kingdom dies under mysterious circumstances, straining relations.

+Tensions

“A guild house or college of magic is founded in the kingdom.

+Adventure Site

K “Kingdom conquers a neighbour, making its citizens servants and claiming their lands and goods.

+Tribute State

The ruler of the kingdom dies without a clear successor and a period of internal strife follows. “A strange new religion spreads through the kingdom causing widespread problems.

+Enemy

A lost heir to the kingdom is discovered and becomes the new ruler

Once you have determined the events that took place in your kingdom’s timeline, you must also decide whether or not they are still in effect in the present day of your campaign. You can decide this based on the needs of your story or, if you wish to determine it randomly, flip over a new card for each event. If you get a black card then the event is still taking place today. If you get a red card then the event is no longer taking place, although it may still have an affect based on the kingdom tags it created.

Kingdom History Tags

A list of all the tags used in this article is provided below along with guidelines for using them to enhance the feel of your kingdom within your game.

Adventure Site

In the kingdom is an area with potential for adventure. The history you created should provide some guidelines about what this site is, and your next step is to map it out and note the name and brief description. For example: Adventure site (abandoned mine).

Some suggestions for adventure sites:

Card Adventure Site
Ace Abandoned sorcerer’s tower
2-3 Ancient ruined temple
4-5 A large underground complex
6-7 A wrecked sailing ship
8-9 A natural cavern system
Jack A shrine or holy area
Queen A haunted forest or building
King An aqueduct or sewer system
Joker A portal to another plane

Army

The kingdom has a professionally trained force of soldiers that patrol its borders and attempt to protect it from external threats. You should have encounters with regular guard patrols and such to reinforce the fact that the city has a force of protectors watching over it.

Any time the players are in a civilised part of the kingdom and are outdoors there is a 2-in-6 chance there will be a city guard patrol nearby.

Artifacts

An artefact or great treasure or magical power exists within the kingdom. It might be held by the government or perhaps it is hidden in an Adventure Site. Your timeline should provide some guidelines about what the item is.

Boosted Magic

For some reason one particular type of magic works particularly well in the kingdom. You can pick magic type affected or draw a card from your deck and compare the number to the table below:

Card D&D Style School of Magic Other Magic
Ace Abjuration Battle Magic
2-3 Conjuration Elementalism
4-5 Divination Gem Magic
6-7 Enchantment Constructs & Animated Magic
8-9 Evocation Blood Magic
Jack Illusion Witchcraft
Queen Necromancy Shadow Magic
King Transmutation Dragon Magic
Joker Choose two Dream Magic

Within the boundaries of the kingdom, whenever a spell of the boosted type is cast that requires a dice roll, the caster should roll the dice twice and pick the highest result. The GM should decide as they create the kingdom why certain magic works better. Your timeline will also offer some guidelines, and here are some additional suggestions:

  • There is a portal to another plane located within the kingdom and some of its magic bleeds over into the main campaign world.
  • A god blessed the kingdom after one of its residents performed a great deed in its name.
  • The kingdom is advancing its magical theory, attracting many scholars who work to discover the depths of magic. With so many practitioners in one place, the constant use of magic has made it easier to cast here.
  • In ancient times there was a battle fought here and deadly magics were unleashed that scarred the landscape. Since then, magic of the same type has held great power here.

Curse

A curse has been laid on the kingdom that causes problems and complications for those who live within its boundaries. The effects of the curse and the exact reason why it was placed are in the hands of the GM. However, here are a few suggestions:

  • A wizard who was burnt alive for conducting illegal necromantic researches cursed the kingdom with his dying breath. Ever since, bodies have been burned on death or buried under heavy stone slabs since the dead do not rest easy in the kingdom and on the nights of the full moon they may rise from their graves to menace the living.
  • A twin tailed comet was seen in the sky over the kingdom – an ill omen. Since then the birth rate in the kingdom has declined. Unless something is done to rectify this, the kingdom might become an empty ruin in the space of a few generations.
  • The kingdom’s move away from relying on their docks to provide food for the majority of their subjects has offended the sea god. Now a huge sea beast prowls the coast of the kingdom, occasionally venturing onto land and causing widespread destruction before returning to the watery depths.

When broadly sketching out the effects of a curse you need to decide three main things:

  • What the curse does
  • Who places the curse
  • Is it still in effect in the present day

Once you have answered these three questions you will be able to roleplay the effects of the curse in your game. For example, finding out that 100 years ago the kingdom was menaced by a great sea creature until it was driven away is different to a game set in a kingdom where the attacks still occur.

If you wish to create additional details for any curses that might blight your kingdom, you might get inspiration from the RPG Blog Carnival, Curses!

Diminished Magic

Diminished magic works the opposite way of boosted magic and can use the same table to determine which type of magic is affected. However, when the caster is required to roll dice as part of a diminished magic type they roll twice and choose the worst result.

Enemy

The kingdom has an enemy of some kind, a force that threatens the city. Your timeline should give you some guideline about what the enemy is and this should be jotted down in your notes. For example: Enemy (revolutionaries).

Every member of the enemy does not necessarily need statting (and most will probably be troops using stats from your monsters reference) but you should at least address the following points:

  • Decide what type of enemy faces the kingdom
  • Stat up the main leader/motivator of the group
  • Pick some stats from the monster manual for the basic group members
  • Think about why they have become an enemy of the kingdom
  • Create an adventure site that is the base for the enemy

If you need help coming up with ideas about who the enemy might be you can draw a card and look at the table below:

Card School of Magic
Ace A necromancer and his undead army
2-3 A tribe of savage humanoids
4-5 A once peaceful indigenous people who were forced out of their lands by early settlers
6-7 A savage tribe of humanoids
8-9 Rebels and revolutionaries who seek the overthrow of the current government
Jack A group of escaped criminals/bandits
Queen A military force lead by a brutal warrior
King A strange forbidden cult worshipping alien gods
Joker A great beast

Magic

Magic is more commonplace in this kingdom than elsewhere. People are less likely to be shocked seeing evidence of sorcery than others in the world. There are also likely to be lesser enchanted items (such as light globes) in common use throughout the kingdom, elevating the level of technology slightly above the baseline for the campaign world.

Persecuted

A group of people are discriminated against in the kingdom. When they make a roll to interact with city officials or someone in a position of authority they roll the dice twice and choose the worst result to represent this. The GM may decide on the section of society that receives persecuted treatment or draw a card from their deck:

Card Race/Culture
Ace Humans
2-3 Dwarves
4-5 Elves
6-7 Halflings
8-9 Half-elves
Jack Soldiers/the military
Queen Spellcasters
King Clerics/members of a religion
Joker Choose two or pick a monstrous race

Privileged

A certain class or race of people receives preferential treatment in the kingdom. When they make a roll to interact with city officials or someone in a position of authority they may roll the dice twice and choose the highest result to represent this. The GM may decide on the section of society that receives preferential treatment or draw a card from their deck:

Card Race
Ace Humans
2-3 Dwarves
4-5 Elves
6-7 Halflings
8-9 Half-elves
Jack Soldiers/the military
Queen Spellcasters
King Clerics/members of a religion
Joker Choose two or pick a monstrous race

Religion

A single religion has reached great prominence in the kingdom, amassing secular and social power. You should flesh out the broad strokes of the religion, answering the following questions:

  • What tenets does the religion follow?
  • Who leads the religion?
  • What does the religion demand from its followers?
  • Where do they worship?

The GM should also think about how the religion has come to amass such a power. Your timeline should give you some ideas, but if you require additional inspiration try the following table:

Card How The Religion Became Influential
Ace Many people in government have converted to the religion
2-3 The religion is blackmailing influential people throughout the kingdom
4-5 The religion promises salvation to the common folk and they have flocked to it in droves
6-7 The religion was once part of a different faith before it split off over doctrinal differences, taking many worshipers with them
8-9 The military has adopted the religion
Jack The nobility have adopted the religion
Queen Women have adopted the religion
King The king has adopted the religion
Joker The clerics of the religion have special, exclusive powers

Tensions

The kingdom has a tense (but not outright hostile) relationship with a nearby neighbour. The neighbour can be broadly sketched out or it can be created in the same way as your core kingdom. If your kingdom acquires an enemy later in its history or an equitable trade agreement with a neighbour you might want to have it relate back to this tag. The tension could have escalated to outright hostility, or perhaps they repaired the relationship and became trading partners, their previous disagreements long forgotten.

Trade

The kingdom has strong trade ties with its neighbours. All common items would be available, as would a lot of rarer items. The kingdom has several large marketplaces and is constantly visited by traders from other nations. If you can’t find something available for purchase in this kingdom, then it is not worth buying.

Tribute State

The kingdom has another state or kingdom that pays money or goods as tribute to it. This kingdom can be loosely defined or you can create it in the same way as the original kingdom. When creating a tribute state consider the following:

  • Was the acquisition of the state peaceful or do some still resent it?
  • Does the kingdom take advantage of their tribute state or are they benevolent towards it?
  • How do the people in the tribute state feel about this?
  • Is there any chance of an uprising or rebellion?

Underdark

A network of sprawling tunnels and deep caverns spreads out beneath the kingdom – a subterranean world populated by strange creatures that have never seen the light of day. However, there is also great potential for wealth. You might consider adding one or two adventure sites that have entrances to the underdark.

How Big Is The Kingdom?

The simplest way to determine kingdom size is to look at your spread of cards for your history.

If there are more black cards, then this suggests a kingdom that has blossomed over its history and will therefore be fairly large with a number of big cities along with many smaller towns and villages.

If there are more red cards, then the kingdom has suffered setbacks and will be smaller with only a couple of cities and towns, with a smattering of outlying villages.

Effects On The Present Day Of Your Campaign

Once you have defined your timeline and decided on the rough size of your kingdom, go back through your list of events and decide how many of them are still in effect in the present day of your campaign.

Events no longer in effect can still add an extra level of detail to your kingdom as long as your players find out about them. Here are suggestions to how you can do this:

  • Locals detail distorted accounts of what occurred as part of their regional history
  • Carvings or statues depicting the events or people involved
  • In learned kingdoms there may be written records
  • There might still be witnesses amongst members of long-lived races dwelling within the kingdom

Events in play in the present day still need players to interact with them if they are to become known. The simplest way to do this is to have a scene involving the event play out in front of them.

For example, if a plague is sweeping the kingdom, have the players encounter lots of sick people and doctors. Or perhaps there are red crosses daubed on the doors of infected households. If your kingdom discriminates against elves, then perhaps the PCs come across a group of city guards or local thugs harassing a member of that race.

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Following the procedure above should give you a fleshed out history for your kingdom along with a group of tags that help you highlight key points of interest. Use your kingdom’s history and to inspire the types of encounters your PCs are likely to face.

Graphic of logo used as divider

GM Tip Exchange

Tips shared by your fellow readers to help your GMing. Have a tip to share? Just hit reply. Thanks!

 

Creating Fog Of War

Nicholas Atonna

Here’s how we do the “fog of war” on a battle mat:

Fog of war using a cloth

My Level 3 GM Secret

JB

Hey Johnn,

I always love to see others’ methods to madness as a GM.

My take goes back to my late 80s love of the note card. It was also heavily influenced by the Legend of the Five Rings box set, City of Lies.

City of Lies is a campaign city in which the criminal clan Scorpion has the legal right to produce medicinal opium. The players come in as Emerald Magistrates, which is something like an FBI agent in power but with the social implications of a Sheriff who has to worry about reelection.

If you follow the campaign, the players have the diary of the previous Magistrate. It gives a write-up of everyone in the city, from major family heads to individual tradesmen. The GM also has a book that mirrors the players book. It has stats and details for what is actually happening and potential game hooks.

So one of my favorite NPCs is this bastard of a bushi. He is fairly important politically. His big dark secret is his daughter suffers from an intellectual disability. His other tribulation is that his older son is a drunk who acts out and gets in trouble in public. The bushi loves her very much, so keeps her hidden away at his big house. Since occasionally people hear her voice coming from his walled garden, they think the place is haunted.

The players know his son is a jerk from their book and that he is a man of station. But they don’t know the full character.

The box set did this 200 times, so you have a multitude of actionable NPCs able to interact with each other and develop even if the players never show up in town.

I carry note cards everywhere and write down any idea that occurs to me. Could be a magic item or some criminal organization. I also use cards for work, so it doesn’t look as weird, me having a pocket of note cards.

The turnkey to my campaigns is the NPC note cards. I already kind of knew it…as we all do. But the City of Lies really brought it home. So I will have hundreds of cards with whatever amount of information I might have about a hundred NPCs, and I will simply put them in a location they would be at and have them doing what they would normally be doing based on the events around them.

So I will start with the idea of a goblin Golden Dawn style wizard. But that doesn’t work as is. So it is a goblin that wants to be a wizard…I imagine his uncle filled his head with stupid stories while drinking.

Where are the regular scholar type wizards? That is where he needs to go. Maybe he will have some trial and error because he confused wizards and clerics. So some church might have a bounty on him for stealing religious writings or vestments.

Also, a single goblin seems like something a town guard would kill on sight. So our goblin travels in disguise. Not a good disguise but something where he can pass as a gnome when it is a new moon out.

He has to spend time hiding and defending himself. He often breaks into places. So he is a thief by accident who wants to be a high wizard. He is dressed poorly as a gnome and has a lot of spy type intel he doesn’t think is important. There are some religious bounties on his head.

Now I just have to drop him in on the players.

He can be an ally with info. Maybe he has an item the players need. Maybe they try to get the bounty. Maybe the goblin approaches the party wizard.

That is where I get a little sandbox-ish. If I don’t use him, he is on a note card for some other campaign.

And I try to do this from beggars to gods. I still find myself coming up with NPCs on the fly, but my players don’t seem to notice.

So that’s my level 3 GM secret.

 

Room Description Template

Jeremy Brown

Johnn,

With published adventures, I tend to tear them apart and rewrite big long descriptions so they’re easy to find info in. I use a modification of a template published on WOTC’s web site years ago for room descriptions, and this makes running encounters a lot easier:

Area: Name of the room or number on the map.

Size: Dimensions (don’t forget to think 3D).

Description: This is usually not more than a paragraph describing the general layout.

Creatures: If monsters are in the room who, what, and how many.

Tactics: If there are monsters in a room, what will they do in combat?

Traps: Trap and hazard details.

Lighting: Light sources and atmosphere.

Terrain: Also think about furnishings.

Magic: Detectable magic auras notes on magic items or special effects in play.

Detectable Alignments: Self-explanatory.

Secrets: Secret doors, the third orc is actually a polymorphed prisoner, etc.

Treasure: What loot is where.

Skill Checks: If it takes a DC 15 climb check to climb the pillars, or a DC 20 jump check to clear the chasm, I write that in here.

Special Notes: Anything that doesn’t fit above this.

I have a file template and delete sections I don’t need. And when I’m done, descriptions are fast, to the point, and organized so I can quickly find what I need.

 

A Few resources For Ars Magica

Alessandro Bilosi

Dear Johnn,

With a lot of pleasure I discovered your preferred system is Ars Magica. This is a wonderful role playing system for at least two reasons: 1) the magic mechanics get rid of the stiff “slot” mechanisms; 2) you can cast spontaneous spells (with a smaller chance of success as the desired effect is greater), plus the ritual spells for tremendous impact, plus the “raw vis” (source of magic power) mechanic.

The setting Mythic Europe is such a wonderful place and time where legends are true, the Saints are the last help, a curse has more power (or is said to have more power) than that of a King. And evil lurks the land in perennial search of increasing the souls ranking in its army.

For you and those who would be interested in some reading and movie inspiration, useful to feed-up your stories for the Ars Magica setting and any other RPG (medieval and/or fantasy setting), I can suggest the following:

Name of the Rose (Italian: Il nome della rosa)

A novel by Umberto Eco (and a movie also, by Jean Jacques Annaud). It deals with a monastery in Italy, mysterious deaths (murders of course), the Inquisition, and a labyrinth!

The Pillars of the Earth

A novel by Ken Follett (and TV adaptation produced by Ridley Scott). One word is too much, so nothing to say for this masterpiece. Period.

The Cadfael Chronicles

Historical murder mysteries set in the “UK” in the mid 12th century.

Baudolin (Italian: Baudolino)

A novel by Umberto Eco about many stories, plot hooks, plot twists (a lot of plot twists), half truths and perceived falsities, a rise and descent of an empire, a document nobody (including the author) can translate, a locked room mystery (believe me, this time you will NOT guess the murderer! lol), various sieges and fires. All this in the 12th century’s Europe. A must read for those who love the plot hooks and plot twists.

 

Managing Political Will In Your Game

Grenswick

Johnn,

I thought you might be interested in a simple system I’ve developed for managing political will in my game. My campaign map has twelve territories, and three factions are vying for their allegiance. Each territory has a certain number of troops they can supply, and the campaign will end with a big siege in which all three factions are involved.

I wanted players to be able to influence the final outcome of the game by their actions. So this system will track how their actions change political will in the places where they are adventuring.

Each territory has five small boxes, and each box is colored according to the allegiance of the citizens there. So for instance, a region with three blue boxes (King Saul), a brown box (The demon Azael), and a purple box (Unaligned) represents a region mostly dedicated to Saul, but with a contingent of cultists, and a group of people who are undecided. Think of it like quintile political polls.

Ancient map with will boxes
Campaign game map with political allegiance boxes per territory

If the players show up and positively affect a region, a box might change color to represent whichever faction the players align with. Or if the players do wrong, they can damage the reputation of the faction they fight for, causing boxes to change in their opponent’s favor. I update this map after each session.

At the big siege, each region will send troops to the faction that has the most colored boxes there. In this way, players have a real hand in the outcome of the final siege even from the start of the game.

So if the above example had three blue boxes when the game started, but the players left that region uncontested while the demon Azael operated there, the boxes might switch from blue to brown over time. At the end of the campaign, that region will send their troops to support Azael instead of King Saul. Hopefully, the image makes sense of all this.

Thought you might be interested in this! Thanks for all the great content.