On Writing Worlds: The Reverse Timeline Approach

There’s a point in many a GM’s life where they sit down and decide to write something entirely from scratch. This could be a story within an existing setting all the way to an entire new world, and each comes with their own challenges to overcome. Sometimes just getting started is the hardest part, as it can be enormously overwhelming to just sit down with the idea that you’re going to ‘make a world’ and get smacked in the face by the sheer scale of what you’re trying to do here. We have examples in history (possibly most famously J.R.R. Tolkien) of people whose endeavor to write a fully fleshed out world was essentially a life discipline, taking decades of study and writing to create universes that in some ways feel almost as real as our own.

Pictured: you after the realization of how much work this is going to be crashes down on your head.

Thankfully, as a GM constructing a world, we don’t have to create something this fleshed out. All you actually *need* is enough to work with to tell the story you’re trying to tell, and have enough general information rattling around in the ol’ skull (or on a notebook or something) to be able to come up with reasonable information on your world on the fly, which can be canonized in the moment.

Over a few articles, I want to talk a bit about some methods for getting started writing a world or story. There are myriad ways to start this process, with no real “right” way beyond “the way that works for you,” but I’m going to detail a few of my favorites, starting today with the Reverse Timeline Approach.

While a lot of advice you might receive centers around starting small, in a sense this method is doing the opposite, though achieves a similar effect if used correctly. In a reverse timeline, one would start with the end result in mind; where is this story likely to go, or what will the state of this world be at the end of the story we’re going to tell. This can be done as expansively or as narrowly as you wish depending on the purpose; in the case of a one-shot adventure meant to last only a few hours, maybe it’s just what’s the big fight or event you want to happen at the end. In the first episode the Astelian Account one-shot series on our YouTube channel (which I’ll be spoiling ahead, so if you haven’t watched it I’d check it out here), I began writing it with an event in mind.

This is here to break up space before spoilers. It’s also a map I made and I think it’s neat.

The end result of the adventure was for the Lion to have a massive personality shift and lead to a showdown with him in his twisted form, and I went into writing this with this as the end result. If you’re writing a longer campaign with world-spanning events, think about what those events will cause the world to be; could the material plane be shattered, leaving the survivors adrift in the astral sea? Is the capitol city sieged and taken by a rival barbarian nation with access to new powers no one has ever seen, leading to a nation forever changed? Does an enormous, ancient dragon perch atop the great mountain at the top of the world, enacting a ritual to become a god over mortals? There’s endless possibilities, and only your imagination can limit you here.

Now you might ask… doesn’t writing with the end in mind lead to a bit of a railroaded experience? Is there any choice the players can make within this structure? That’s the real secret to this approach: that end result is not an assured situation with no agency, but is in fact what will happen to your world, for better or worse, if your players are *not involved* in the situation.

You can take this end result state and work your way backwards. In order for the capitol city to be taken by a barbarian nation with strange powers, what things need to exist? A capitol, an antagonistic nation, and some kind of strange power that exists in the world and hasn’t been discovered. By having this last image in mind, you’ve created many questions for yourself that gets those creative ideas flowing. Who is this nation? Why are they at war? What are these strange, unknown powers? What relationship does this nation have with them?

You can take this end result and work back through a series of events leading up to that moment. This can be rough outlines, as detailed or as vague as you wish, but they let you build a timeline that starts at the end, with each prior event describing how we got to the one following it. In this sense you could also call this the Descriptive approach, as much of what you’re doing is explaining how each event occurred to lead in to the one you already wrote down.

If you can build out these series of events until reaching an inciting incident, you have a basis to start what can turn into a first few adventures. Maybe the Barbarian King (we’re just throwing random titles around here), before he grew to power as a young man, stumbled across an ancient ruin leading him to a pact with a mystical being, kicking off a series of events leading to his taking over of his tribes, uniting them, and eventually invading. You can decide what point in this overall timeline your players begin their journeys, possibly in some other, small, seemingly unrelated town doing some tasks that get them introduced to the world, but what you’ve created is a timeline that details the events that would occur if no chaotic outside force intervened; a story to be told.

With that framework, and having focused on constructing the things you need in order to tell that story, you will have a foundation that gives you room to flex as the players begin to do what players do best: screw up everything you carefully made breath life into the story and begin to enact their agency on it. Maybe they can eventually come in contact with this strange power and steal it for themselves, maybe they’ll organize a defense of the city and turn the battle around with their heroism, leading to a victory. Maybe they’ll join the barbarians and become powerful figures on that side, leading to other conflicts. Maybe you’ll never, at any point, reach that original end “goal” of the invasion and taking over the city, but by constructing this timeline from the end backwards to the beginning, you have what is ideally a logical series of events that would occur without outside agency enacted on them, and can reasonably adjust as a story unfolds.

There are many other ways to write out a story, but this is one of my favorites, especially for grander scale campaigns although it does work fine at a much more zoomed-in level. By creating a world that has a sense of the directions it will go without player intervention, you can avoid the world seemingly like it was entirely created around the existence of the players, while still giving them the ability to create change. It’s all part of the illusion of a living, breathing world.

Let us know what you think! I’d love to hear other ways people enjoy getting started writing or creating worlds. Next time we’ll talk a bit about another method I enjoy, which is possibly a bit more typical: starting small.

Thanks for reading!

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