My friend Darrell Hardy has a term he uses called a “Storyworld.” I think it is an apt description when we apply it to settings that we then use to tell stories in and around. This is not limited only to gaming; some of the greatest storyworlds in our culture are things like Star Wars & Star Trek, for example. You could make the argument that, for an action film buff, there’s a “Die Hard” storyworld (that has since been fractured by the later films in the franchise).
At any rate, for today’s post, I want to get into the discussion about the decision of whether or not to have an advancing timeline in a storyworld, and what it means when you go in either direction.
Advancing Timeline Storyworlds
Many well-known storyworlds out there have had advancing timelines. They establish their premise of the setting at one place, and allow the setting to evolve and grow over time. Things that were true during the setting’s beginning (i.e., “There is a Galactic Empire controlling most of known space”) are either no longer true (“The Galactic Empire has been replaced by the New Republic”) or have changed considerably later on.
Advancing the timeline can be both a blessing and a curse for a storyworld, depending on how the advances are implemented. Storyworld events can highlight the storyworld’s tone, themes, and defining conflicts. However, these same events can have a significant impact on those same elements–such as highlighting negative themes or developing conflicts that detract from the storyworld’s appeal–ultimately changing the perception of what the storyworld is really about.
Static Timeline Storyworlds
There are several storyworlds that are static, meaning they encapsulate a very limited frame of time–often with a firmly defined endpoint, meaning that most of the action takes place in a somewhat more nebulous period prior to that endpoint.
The Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 universes are both excellent examples of this type of approach (I will address Age of Sigmar later, I promise). One was a gritty, low-fantasy setting, and the other was “space fantasy” more than true science fiction. Both had a defined end-point and both set their stories and characters in relation to that.
A static storyworld doesn’t mean that it never changes or evolves. It simply does so without advancing the timeline. Most often, this is done by “discoveries” of hidden events that occurred in the past, or by simply digging down into the details of the setting to find more stories. The Lord of the Rings is a good example of this second approach.
The upside to a static storyworld is that, usually, the development of the storyworld is far more closely related to its core elements of tone, theme, and conflict. On the other hand, a static storyworld also can feel somewhat bland if there is not enough new content to satisfy or engage the customer. Also, if and when significant changes need to occur, it can require more drastic measures than with an advancing storyworld.
More to Come
I’ll post again later with more thoughts on advancing & static storyworlds. Given the amount of content in my outline, this could be a small series of posts, actually!