How long can a setting's history/event timeline go on before it's boring/useless for you? I like them a lot (I may even be working on one right now) but I think 4-6 pages is my upper limit.
My last one was about 7 pages long. It looks like this (feel free to scroll to the bottom for the TL;DR conclusion):
Because most history is written by the Elves, the following timeline is fairly elf-centric. The further back you go, the harder it is to get specific details. Here’s the Executive Summary:
Age of Myth
Onia the All-mother creates everything, then gets pissy at two of her kids for practicing monogamy. She binds them together to create the world. Later, the Elves and Gnomes migrate from the Feywild to this world.
Age of Heroes
An evil star stirs up trouble. Tiamat and Bahamut, in a rare display of cooperation, shatter it. Pieces of it fall towards the world. Most of the Elves and Gnomes flee back to the Feywild, but the Drow shelter underground because they are badasses.
When the Elves return, they discover that their Drow brethren are now darkly colored and that bits of the star gauged out a new sea they call the Asterfyli. They also find the world is crawling with monsters! Mighty heroes work to slay them all.
Over time, the Elves forge an empire and act like dicks, even accidentally starting a war with the Dragons. They kinda win the war, but Tiamat curses them with low fertility. Eventually, a human called only “the Necromancer” leads a rebellion against the Elves. He’s destroyed after nearly two thousand years of fighting, but the damage is done and the Elven Empire unravels.
Age of Chaos
Bad shit happens all over the place! The Elven Empire completely comes apart. In desperation, human pirates collectively called the “Sea Princes” make pacts with demons to stave off being swamped by goblin invaders. This will have serious repercussions later.
Age of the Tiefling Empire
The Sea Princes become the Tieflings and they start using their new butch demonic powers and warlockery to kick ass everywhere. They even manage to annoy the gods who create the first Paladins and Hasheeshan assassins in response. These lead the rebellion against the Tieflings and create the…
Age of the Holy Confederacy
The Tieflings are kicked off the mainland and driven back to their islands. A victorious paladin declares himself Caliph of the liberated lands. This is a mixed success which goes utterly to crap when they end up with three Caliphs at once, all claiming the mandate of the gods. With some “help” from the Elves, things completely fall apart.
Age of Myth
Onia the All-mother gives birth to Cronviach (the Moon), Gania (the Earth), Apanat (the Ocean), Bahamut (Order), and Tiamat (Chaos).
Gania and Apanat forsake all other lovers for each other. Onia punishes them by binding them together into the world Emhain.
c. 100,000 years ago
The first Lizardfolk Empire clashes with the Dragonborn kingdoms.
c. 80,000 years ago
The Elves and Gnomes migrate from the Feywild to Emhain.
c. 70,000 years ago
An evil star attempts to enslave its siblings. It is shattered by Tiamat and Bahamut. Pieces of it crash into Emhain, some of which create the Asterfyli Sea. The Great Sundering as most of the Elves and Gnomes flee to the Feywild, but the Drow remain behind. The Lizardfolk Empire is destroyed in the resulting chaos.
Age of Heroes
c. 68,000 years ago
The Elves return to find Emhain ravaged by strange creatures, spawn of the Evil Star. The mightiest among them hunt the monsters down, greatly reducing their number.
c. 60,000 years ago
Elven monster-hunters accidentally spark the Dragon Wars by destroying a clutch of Tiamat's eggs. Founding of the first great elven cities.
c. 66,000 years ago
Dragon Wars end with Dragons greatly reduced in number and elves cursed with low fertility by Tiamat. Elves forge an empire of their own.
c. 50,000 years ago
Elves found more cities, including A'kyma-oum (present-day Kyma). The Second Sundering as a third of the Elves turn their backs on the cities and Empire and seek freedom in the old ways, splitting Elves into High and Sylvan.
c. 46,000 years ago
The human Korvus Wordthief steals the rules of wizardry from the Elves.
c. 30,000 years ago
Successive waves of Human barbarians invade from the east. Most are enslaved. This is Prelude to the First Goblin War: armies of Hobgoblins march out of the east. Some elven cities are sacked but the Elves triumph when the Bugbear Emperor, his three brothers, and their mother are slain.
c. 12,000 years ago
The Trolls rise from the Ocean and attack the Elven Empire. Many cities are sacked, including A'kyma-oum. Last Great Alliance between all three races of Elves leads to victory over the Trolls when their nine Warlock-queens are slain.
c. 8,000 years ago
The Necromancer leads a rebellion of humans against the Elven Empire. Through careful diplomacy the Sylvan Elves are kept ambivalent.
c. 6,000 years ago
The Necromancer is finally destroyed, but the Elven Empire is already collapsing, surrounded by new Human kingdoms.
Age of Chaos
c. 5,800 years ago
The Second Goblin War begins. Humans and Elves fight together to push back the hordes. In desperation, the Sea Princes make pacts with demons.
c. 5,600 years ago
The First Orc War mends much of the breach between Sylvan and High Elves even as it spells the end of the Elven Empire.
c. 3,500 years ago
The War Against the Giants: Giants invade, conquering many human kingdoms. They are eventually pushed out over the next 300 years.
c. 2,800 years ago
Brief war between Elves and Dwarves (spawned by a drunken beauty contest) ended by the beginning of the Second Orc War.
Age of the Tiefling Empire
2,253 years ago
The Sea Princes, now the Tieflings, invade the mainland.
2,220 years ago
Tieflings capture Kyma, forge their own empire. Humans fleeing west into the Stonelands first encounter the monastic traditions of the Dragonborn.
2,186 years ago
Tieflings bring the Orcs of the Volgun Swamps to heel, turn their eyes on the Elves.
1,900 years ago
Tieflings capture three Elven cities, sack and pillage one. The rest sue for peace and offer tribute. Sylvan Elves flee to the deep woods.
1,788 years ago
Tieflings complete capture of all lands and cities on the shores of the Asterfyli Sea.
1,724 years ago
Year of the Great Plague
1,676-74 years ago
Third Orc War. Sylvan Elves ally with Tieflings in exchange for forests they were driven out of.
1,643 years ago
Tieflings reneg on deal with Sylvan Elves, some forests burned, many Sylvan Elves slain or enslaved.
1,432 years ago
Tiefling Empress Katarina the Viper attempts to make war upon the Dwarves. This disastrous war gives the Sylvan Elves the opportunity to liberate much of the forests and some of the lands along the eastern coasts of the Asterfyli Sea.
1,406 years ago
Katarina the Viper's granddaughter, Iskra the Sly, murders her, takes the throne, and reclaims all the coastal cities liberated by the Sylvan Elves, if not quite all the forests.
1,200 years ago
Tiefling Empire invades the Stonelands. 300 years of ongoing warfare result of the destruction of two of the original seven Dragonborn monasteries. Dragonborn pay tribute to the Tiefling Empire, but remain unconquered.
876 years ago
Tiefling Empress Iskra the Serrated invades the Goblin Lands, probably pre-empting a third Goblin War. First contact with the Sorcerer Kingdoms of the Eastern Barbarians made.
692 years ago
Asad, Chosen of Xithras, becomes the first paladin. Asad liberates the Temple of Phaedre at Ar which rallies the hidden ranks of the Phaedre's warrior-priestesses to rebellion against the Tieflings.
689 years ago
First Hasheeshin citadel founded on the edge of the Stonelands.
652 years ago
Second Hasheeshin citadel founded deep in the Volgun Swamps.
638 years ago
Alliance between the Rebellion, three of the Dragonborn monasteries, and the Sylvan Elves forged.
622 years ago
High Elves join the Rebellion. Gnomes return to Emhain.
589 years ago
Dwarves openly join the Rebellion after Tiefling Emperor Vladislav killed by Hasheeshins in his own palace.
580 years ago
Tiefling Empire forced out of all lands north and east of the Asterfyli Sea.
576 years ago
Paladin Ghazi forges the Holy Confederacy among the liberated lands. Is crowned the Confederacy's first caliph.
562 years ago
In spite of High Elves withdrawing to their cities, the Holy Confederacy captures Kyma, last Tiefling possession on the mainland.
558 years ago
Last Tiefling Empress, Zaria the Arcane, murdered in her bed. The Sea Princes turn to fighting one another over the succession, sundering the Empire.
Age of the Holy Confederacy
520-513 years ago
Fourth Orc War and the last great alliance between Humans and the Sylvan and High Elves.
502 years ago
Kyma withdraws from the Confederacy over the legality of necromancy and transmutation magic as well as warlockery. Its independence is supported by the Sylvan Elves and thus is not openly challenged (though also not acknowledged) by the Caliph.
489 years ago
Caliph Ghazi's successor, Calipha Sezen, captured by Orcs at the disastrous Battle of the Two Rivers. Orcs run all but unchecked along the Asterfyli's eastern shores but avoid those lands under elven protection.
485 years ago
With the Calipha still in orc hands, she is deposed in absentia and Calipha Tajah crowned in her place.
480 years ago
War of the Three Caliphs: Calipha Sezen "escapes" from Orcs, leads a rebellion against Tajah. Few fail to notice how important her orcish "allies" are in her councils. The eastern cities, feeling abandoned, form their own confederacy and elevate their own caliph, Jalal.
480-320 years ago
The War of the Three Caliphs rages for over a century, with never fewer than two claimants to the Caliph's throne (and at one time their being five). While the Orcs clearly have a hand in matters, the Elves are also secretly involved, hindering whichever side seems stronger in order to prolong the conflict.
319 years ago
Days after Caliph Hakem witnesses the disembowelment of the last "pretender" to his throne, he is assassinated. The Hasheeshans are blamed; rioters plunder and torch Skotas' temples all along the shores of the Asterfyli Sea. In the chaos, the eastern cities cut deals with the Sylvan Elves to secure their independence from the Confederacy.
300-240 years ago
Gnolls, ogres, bugbears and other humanoids living along the borders of the Stonelands invade from the west. For the next 60 years they will raid, plunder, and occasionally conquer and enslave the human communities west of the Asterfyli Sea.
240 years ago
Dawud the Bear leads an alliance of humans with dwarven support against the humanoid invaders. The tide is stemmed, but Dawud's lust for another king's wife destroys the alliance.
219 years ago
Altair Silverhawk, son of Dawud, returns to claim his father's throne. He claims to bear the sword of Asad and is accompanied by Sylvan Elves, Dwarves of the Hill Clans, and representatives of two dragonborn monasteries.
200 years ago
Altair's forces drive the last large host of humanoids back into the Madlands. Altair establishes a Circle of Paladins to safeguard the western shores of the Asterfyli, and a Brotherhood of Rangers to patrol the Madlands and keep an eye on the humanoids, as well as maintain strong alliances with the Dragonborn monasteries. He refuses the crown of the caliph, though does claim the title of High King.
167 years ago
Altair and his bastard son slay each other at the Battle of Nadon. The Circle of Paladins is slain to the last holy warrior protecting their king and the western alliance disintegrates. The Brotherhood of Rangers lives on, though largely as an escort service for caravans travelling into the Stonelands.
140-128 years ago
An alliance of Tieflings and Hobgoblins invades from the Ocean. Many coastal cities fall, but Kyma and the Orcs of the Volgun Swamps unite to keep the Tiefling fleet out of the Asterfyli. The siege of Kyma lasts for a dozen years.
130-128 years ago
The Green King, a mysterious figure many believe to be Altair Silverhawk returned from the dead, forges an alliance of western kingdoms and leads a crusade to rescue Kyma. The Green King vanishes mysteriously during the victory celebrations.
116 years ago
Perizad returns from exile leading a band of western barbarians in a clandestine assault on the Sultan of Kyma's palace. She slays her brother, Abbud the Mad, and is crowned Sultana by the High Priestess of Phaedre.
99 years ago
Perizad founds the University of Kyma to serve as a font for scribes, navigators, and cartographers. It soon also acquires a reputation for excellence in educating wizards.
94 years ago
Perizad's son, Zafir, is crowned Sultan. At 21 years of age, he leads a successful campaign against the Orcs of the Volgun Swamps, securing treaties, tribute, and mercenaries from them.
90 years ago
Sultan Zafir leads his conquering army west, claiming wives and tribute from all the major human cities along the coast of the Ocean all the way to the edge of the Stonelands.
88 years ago
Zafir turns his armies northward, subduing Human kingdoms and city-states. An alliance with Galazos, the last High Elven city on the shores of the Asterfyli Sea, is cemented when he marries the elven princess Kosmyna.
76 years ago
Having won the fealty of nearly all Human settlement on the shores of the Asterfyli, Zafir returns his attention to the Ocean. Leading the largest fleet since the height of the Tiefling Empire, he sets sail for the Islands of the Sea Princes.
75 years ago
Zafir's fleet is destroyed at the Battle of Basilisk Shoals. Zafir's third wife has the children of the other wives as well as all of Zafir's other wives and concubines strangled to secure the rule of her son, Zafir's eldest. Galazos is infuriated by the cold-blooded murder of Kosmyna. In spite of gifts and abject apologies from a number of sultans over the decades, Kyma's ships keep a sharp eye out for vengeful elven corsairs.
74 years ago
A princess of the Islands of the Sea Princes boasts that she keeps Zafir's bloated corpse as a zombie slave. Kyma's grief turns to outrage. Race riots result in the murder of hundreds of Tieflings in the city, as well as thousands of Orcs and Goblins in addition to widespread looting. Up to a tenth of the city is perpetually in flames until the coming of the monsoon.
73 years ago
The Dwarves successfully wall off their ghetto, creating a fortress inside Kyma. They win the right to patrol their own streets in force by bribing the new sultan. They are also tasked with keeping the city's cisterns clean and well-stocked.
70 years ago
A sailing accident results on the drowning of Sultan Zakiyy's favorite concubine and their son and daughter, as well as other favorites of the harem, including one of his wives. From this day forward, the children of the Sultan are forbidden to leave the harem.
66 years ago
Sultan Zakiyy dies under mysterious circumstances. A storm of murder rages through the palace, until only two wives and a concubine are left. The three forge a pact, with the aid of a priestess of Phisia, to rule the succession in the future and limit the bloodshed.
54 years ago
Rumors run rampant through the streets of Kyma that the College Invisible, the secret school of the warlocks, has moved into the city's catacombs. Periodic witch hunts flare up in the city over the following decades, often fanned and spearheaded by the Temple of Xithras.
20 years ago
The ritual murders of children, especially from the Warrens, is blamed on Tiefling warlocks. Race riots erupt in the streets. The Sultan's army crushes the riots brutally, but levels the blame on the Tiefling community. One in ten surviving Tieflings are enslaved, including the girl who would one day be Basheera Quickshadow, as well as her mother. Some claim the Vizier, Suraj, took personal interest in the girl and her mother.
19 years ago
Basheera is purchased by Emira Kardelen to work in her villa outside Kyma.
18 years ago
The Brotherhood of Rangers allied with certain Dragonborn clans and monasteries to crush an Ogre settlement in the Madlands. The assault was unaware that the Ogres were merely the pointy end of a spear being wielded by Hill Giants. Lured into an ambush, the alliance was crushed brutally; the few survivors who were not eaten were sold to unscrupulous humans who in turn sold them into slavery in Kyma.
6 years ago
Malika Qamar begins feuding with Emira Kardelen, culminating in a raid on Kardelen's villa in search of warlocks. While none are found, Kardelen's flower fields, the source of her income, are ravaged by the search. A week later, Qamar is found dead, face down in her breakfast. Physicians and seers are unable to determine the cause of her death, so it is ruled to be of natural causes. The next day, Basheera is freed.
4 years ago
Basheera is given the title emira under mysterious circumstances "for her service to the City and Sultan of Kyma."
2 years ago
After the death of his father (and the surprising upholding of the succession plan created at the crowning of said father), Sultan Habib II is crowned. At 22 years old, Habib has never stepped so much as a toe outside the palace. It is said the new sultan has little patience for the business of ruling and wiles his days away enjoying his harem of exotic beauties and collecting gemstones. The Sultan's mother and his wives are said to wield the true authority, though they often clash with Vizier Suraj who challenges their authority.
1 week ago
Pasha of Two Feathers Bashadin bin Jafal's palace is raided by the Sultan's Palace Guard. Bashadin is found guilty of attempting to blackmail the family of one of the Sultan's wives in order to influence national policy. Bashadin is publicly drawn-and-quartered, his wives and children sold into slavery, and all his worldly possessions (including our heroes, the PCs) are given to Basheera Quickshadow, who is also elevated to Pasha of a Single Feather.
So, at the top, I have a less-than-400 word summary of the broad strokes. This corresponds to most people's understanding of world history: ancient Sumarea, ancient Egypt, classical Greece, Rome (republic followed by empire), the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, etc...)
Even at less than 385 words, my players retained only the most basic aspects of it. They got that the tieflings had an empire in the past, and that many of the ruins they visited had been built by them. They were vaguely aware of an older elven empire. Beyond that, not much.
Still, it gave them enough to get grounded in the basic direction of history, and it was a nice summary for me to refresh myself with.
What follows is a very brief outline of the events of history. These answer basic questions I, as a DM, might ask (or be asked) in the game, like:
- why does this bunch hate that bunch?
- who built this dungeon? Why? What did they put in it?
- is there an old alliance I can call on to infuence this situation?
- what is this book about history I just found about?
- what does the 500 gp worth of jewelry look like, who made it, and why?
- who's in that temple's stained-glass windows or carved reliefs?
- I rolled 28 on my History check; what do I learn?
- which wizard did it?
Keep in mind that many PCs can be hundreds of years old (elves, I'm mostly looking at you, here). What's ancient history to a human was an elf's wild and reckless youth.
A big table-like thing is easier to use than block paragraphs. It just scans easier. As always, I'm not looking for in-depth details (I can make those up as needed); I just want to be certain I get the dates and names right, and what they PCs find corresponds to the general ebb and flow of history.