After spending a significant amount of time playing Civilization V this Labor Day weekend, I got the bug to start worldbuilding again. My own world has remained dormant for several years now and it seemed time to return to the project. The notes were scattered around, and while reviewing what survived several primary computer jumps, the history (or lack thereof) jumped off the page, and my mind centered on a question that has been bugging me for several years now during my numerous excursions through fantasy RPG land:
Why do most major fantasy roleplaying settings, as well as numerous homebrew settings, incorporate a major catastrophe, one which caused such massive destruction that it threw the world into a lengthy dark age?
Many fantasy RPGs (Pathfinder and Earthdawn are my personal favorites.) contain this idea of a significant event that eliminates the trajectory of the setting and represents some type of rebirth to an age where the game begins. This framework is quite common and is becoming more ingrained in both commercial and homebrew settings. My own setting contained a massive plague that had wiped out most of the world’s population (which is nothing like King’s The Stand) and where civilization was just clawing back to a state of normalcy. I have encountered many variations of this framework over the years, but it seems to be defined by these stages:
- Colossal Catastrophe – An event of global proportions ruins the world’s current development. This event comes in the form of a crashing celestial body (in both senses of the word “celestial”); a global meteorological event, possibly an ice age; a massive plague or illness, usually indiscriminate of fantasy race; or a magical event, often one that restricts or inhibits the ability to practice magic.
- The Loss of All History Prior to the Catastrophe – The history becomes either lost, buried, or guarded by some sentinel being or fantasy race.
- A Gaming World that Starts Numerous Centuries after this Catastrophe – The default game setting takes place at a time far removed from the catastrophe, and much of the default exposition and geopolitical systems account for only a small portion of the time being the catastrophe and the default time.
I am not going to take a critical stance on this trope, as it can be useful in fleshing out a fantasy world, particularly homebrew settings that require an extensive amount of bottom-to-top construction. My question is what aspects of setting generation and worldbuilding prompt the use of this trope. Why does it feel like a natural, often expected, convention to use when crafting ye old Republic of Old/Middle English Place Name? More to the point, has it become a required element that must be present to address the audience’s expectation or assist in the suspension of disbelief necessary to engage with a fantasy setting. I have some thoughts, but I would like to hear other opinions on the matter.