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Timelines in Published Settings

A couple of weeks ago, I read a comment about Columbia Games’ Hârn setting to the effect that every Hârn product is set in the same year. That leaves room for GMs to advance events as they see fit, rather than feeling like they’re going against canon (which also seems to really bug some players).

I found this fascinating, and completely different from any of the published settings that I’ve had experience with. This got me to thinking: how do different settings handle their timelines — and what makes timelines GM-friendly?

Let’s look at a few different settings (and games with default settings), each of which illustrates a different approach to timelines.

Call of Cthulhu

CoC is set on Earth, so the setting’s timeline is essentially Earth’s history, creatively modified to include Mythos elements. CoC books include historical references as needed (and are generally set in different eras — 1920s, 1990s, etc.), but there’s no overarching timeline. Most scenarios are set in “19__ (any year between 1920 and 1928),” or the like.

Forgotten Realms (D&D)

With the Forgotten Realms, the timeline is advanced not only by game books, but also by novels — and the advances are often pretty large jumps. From 1st Edition AD&D to 2nd Edition AD&D, the setting was shaken up by the Time of Troubles. The changes were explained in game terms in a gaming book, but described in detail in a series of novels.

From 2nd Edition AD&D to D&D 3rd Edition, the setting advanced again — but this time in (generally) more subtle ways. Again, the advances were mainly described in the oodles of novels that had come out during the 2nd Edition years.


As mentioned in in the intro, Hârn products are all set in the same year. If a supplement details a situation on the tipping point — an uprising, let’s say — then it’s up to the GM to decide what (if anything) happens from that point forward.


In Shadowrun, the setting timeline is advanced by new products for the line. Sometimes these advances are relatively minor, and sometimes they’re fairly major. If you opt to juggle things around, or ignore certain events or changes, there’s no serious fallout.

World of Darkness (White Wolf)

The World of Darkness advances fairly rapidly through game books, which (as is WW’s way) are heavily story-focused. On top of that, the timeline advances through each of the WoD game lines — Vampire, Mage, Werewolf, etc. (this may not be true in the latest edition). So if you play Vampire, there are storyline changes that aren’t described in any of the Vampire books.

I look at those five games/settings as being pretty representative of the different ways a game with a published setting can approach its timeline:

Of these five approaches, I much prefer Coc’s and Shadowrun’s — and I’d love to try a setting that take’s Hârn’s tack. I’ve run several FR games, and I generally just ignore or modify the timeline as needed. As far as WoD goes, I’ve never run any of White Wolf’s games, but I have read a ton of material; their approach certainly makes for interesting reading, but I think it would bug me as a GM.

In general, it seems like settings with static or slow-moving timelines should be more GM-friendly — there’s more wiggle room. Particularly in Hârn’s case, I’d imagine that the concept of a static timeline would be an active encouragement for a GM to take the setting in her own direction.

On the flipside, if you’re looking to run only published adventures for a setting, then having an advancing timeline could come in handy. An advancing timeline can also be a great source of ideas about how the setting could change, rather than limiting the GM’s options.

What have I missed, in terms of approaches games take to the timelines of their published settings? Do you feel hampered by having a timeline that advances outside of your game, or do you just ignore it?

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Timelines in Published Settings"

#1 Comment By James On August 3, 2005 @ 1:58 am

Hi my name is James, recently located your weblog and find it very interesting reading. Being a default GM since age 11 (i’m 30) I have had many battles with these different types of approaches to it. I find if a game dictates too much of the timeline I lose interest in running it. In a game such as WW Vampire or one of it’s sister games, I feel railroaded in many cases. My players want to play certain types of characters, and can’t if I don’t include certain events. The other issue with this matierial is it’s “end of the world” approach. They have apparently axed that particular problem, but are falling into the other again as we speak.
Another example is Forgotten Realms, as you mentioned, With multiple Novels covering the timeline. It is hard to go anywhere in Faerun without crashing into a series character. The players feel robbed in two ways. First, they want to see these people and interact with them. Second, when they do, and invariably they find a way, they allways want them to get involved. This second point has two difficulties, it takes the character out of his specified timeline, and robs the PC’s of their glory. I have found over the years that avoiding games with established cannon about NPC’s is best, and that using matierial that allows for GM guided timeline steering is best.

#2 Comment By Martin On August 3, 2005 @ 9:35 am

Thanks for the kind words, James — I’m glad you like TT!

I’ve actually had pretty good luck running FR games with no series character involvement. I think this is partly due to the fact that I usually had only one player who had read the novels (and I’ve only read a couple), so there were no expectations along those lines. Probably not the typical FR experience, as you said.

Have you played any games that have the GM-guided timeline approach you mentioned at the end of your post? If you have, I’d love to hear about them.

(And if I can make one recommendation, include some paragraph breaks in your comments — they make the text much easier to parse. 🙂

#3 Comment By James On August 10, 2005 @ 5:11 am

Sorry bout that 🙂

As far as games I have played that allow for GM
timeline control. Cyberpunk was a good one.

They released the main game which took place
in 2020 and subsequent support modules for that

Then they went about putting out “Tech updates”
for years further down the road. This was to give you source matierial for going forward without restricting.

They also set out supplements that detailed alternate settings and branches in time, but included
ways you could pick jusy certain aspects of them to use in your campain.

Other than that there was RuneQuest.

#4 Comment By Martin On August 10, 2005 @ 8:52 am

(James) Then they went about putting out “Tech updates”
for years further down the road. This was to give you source matierial for going forward without restricting.

I’ve never played or even read any Cyberpunk books, but that sounds like a very clever — and as you said, GM-friendly — approach. I have to imagine that Cyberpunk is pretty tech-driven, though, — I wonder how you would go about using a similar approach in a fantasy setting?