It started with Goblin Punch asking why fantasy games have a fantastical contemporary ecology, but not a fantastic evolutionary history leading up to the present?
Then Throne of Salt answered the call, with 10 fantastical prehistoric eras. Some highlights include:
"1. The Elemental Epoch: A period of constant conflict. Alliances among air elementals violate the precepts of the Noble Gases and create water elementals. Earth elementals get their shit together and start the Protoplanetary Revolution. Fire elementals undergo species-wide existential crisis after realizing that phlogiston doesn't exist. Ends with the formation of the Periodic Congress."
"5. The Stone-and-Chicken War: Passing asteroidal basilisk petrifies an entire hemisphere and drops eggs from orbit. Enterprising species from the surviving hemisphere colonize the granite wastes, mostly gallusiform avians who fill the nice of apex predator after evolving the kill-signal crowing lethal to basilisks."
"10. Doppelgangerdammerung: Mimicry emerges among freshwater cephalopodic echinoderms as a method of imitating larger, scarier organisms. Over the next few million years the biosphere becomes so adept at mimicry that few organisms even know what niche they actually fill, being so skilled at imitating other beings. Land predators imitate aquatic herbivores. Airborne detritovores imitate subterranean autocannibals. Organisms emerge from the egg-sack imitating another species entirely. Successful mating becomes impossible."
Then Coins & Scrolls followed suit with the fantasy history of his campaign world. Unique among these responses, his final pre-contemporary era actually helps explain the current state of his campaign world (if a ribald folk tale can be said to be an explanation):
"8. Floodbeds: Mammals and birds develop. Rise of the Chimera, the Cockatrice, the Coatl. Frequent flooding due to three-way wars between angels, water elementals, and air elementals. Agriculture rediscovered. First prophets. Conversion of the water and air elementals."
"Extinction Event: The Deluge. Civilization of gren-lings and the gren, wiped out by a worldwide flood. They had deliberately flouted the Authority's laws. Two of every animal saved in a giant wooden boat. When the waters receded, the creatures had become all the different types of lings known today."
"A non-canonical, ribald version of the tale says that the good gren-ling who built the boat and filled it with two of every creature neglected to bring along his wife. After a few weeks afloat he became very lonely..."
"9. Current Era: Diverse species of humanoid -lings. Discovery of iron. Snake-men civilization rises, collapses, leaves war machines, mimics, and half-understood magic scattered around. Discovery of mirror realms, stable enchantments. Arrival of the High Elves. Castles. Gunpowder. Soon, the printing press."
I Don't Remember That Move soon followed suit with a more overtly humorous series of epochs:
"4. The Age When Bacteria Were Big And Animals Were Small: Self-explanatory."
"7. Bird Age: Everything was birds. Trees? Tall birds. Viruses? Small birds. Rocks? Heavy birds. People were pretty happy to see the end of this one."
"9. Second Bird Age: God damn it."
Goodberry Monthly followed a day later, using the language of microbiology and the syntax of myth to write the tale of successive eras in a way that casts RNA as Chronos and DNA as Zeus.
"2. Age of Protein Tyranny: For when Protein came about there was a great reckoning. With protein came Division, and Sequestration, and Disparity. Walls began to sprout up, churned and woven by the arisen Disciples of the Fold, to isolate and herd the Free Acids into concentration membranes. Quaternary-Proteo-Ribo Micronauts, the abomination-titans of their time, with cruel nano-sorcery created the ultimate binding ritual for their overpowered and peaceful foe. It was a prison of reflection - a doppelganger duplicate manacle of self: DNA. No weapon has ever been more potent or more final."
"3. The Plastic Epoch: Protein was victorious. With its competitor subjugated, it set about its evolutionary design. The first layer in which we find 'life'. An age marked by an explosion of replication and partitioning. It was an age of Fiber. An age of Biofilm. An age of Lipid. The oldest of the progenitor-foes date to this period: Prion Golems, Quaternary Phage-Key Folders, Neckcracker Enzymes, Oppression Engines. In this layer lies hidden a material scientist's dream: potent polymer-plastics yet to be rediscovered."
|Fig. 1 - Max Ernst 1920 "Stratified Rocks, Nature's Gift of Gneiss Lava Iceland Moss 2 kinds of lungwort 2 kinds of ruptures of the perinaeum growths of the heart b) the same thing in a well-polished little box somewhat more expensive"|
Or maybe HP Lovecraft started it. "At the Mountains of Madness" starts with the discovery of fossilized tool-users whose civilization predates the Cambrian Explosion, and ends with the discovery of mosaics that tell the story of Earth being colonized and conquered by three successive waves of alien invaders (the Yithian, the Star-Spawn, and the Mi-Go), each of whom rules the planet for longer than all of human history, perhaps even longer than humans have existed as a species.
Lovecraft might have been inspired by "At the Earth's Core" or "Journey to the Center of the Earth", but while Burrows and Verne both imagined known prehistoric lifeforms surviving below despite their extinction above, Lovecraft imagined something more unsettling, something like Olaf Stapledon's "Last and First Men" in reverse - he imagined that the earth was not really "our" planet, that other civilizations came before humans, and lasted longer than humans, and achieved more than humans.
Daniel Quinn claims that our way of remembering history is teleological, even mythical. We tell our story something like this. First the Big Bang happened, and that caused the universe to come into being, which led to the Milky Way, which led to our Sun, which led to the Earth. Life on Earth evolved, first single-cell organisms, then simple multi-cellular organisms, then dinosaurs (who went extinct), then mammals, and then humans. First we were cavemen, then we discovered writing, which caused the Greeks, who caused the Romans, who begat the English, who begat Americans, which is "us". Quinn claims that telling history this way doesn't just make "us" feel important, it also makes us feel safe. It makes us feel like the culmination of history. Everything that happened before happened for a reason, and it all happened "just so," just so that it could lead to us, here, today, living in the best of all possible worlds.
The scientific view of deep history is much more frightening. The universe didn't conspire to create us. It seems like dumb chance that our planet is even capable of supporting lifeforms like ourselves, and at several points in its history, it wasn't. Far from seeming foreordained, we seem like an accident, and one that almost didn't happen, wouldn't have happened if an unlucky asteroid hadn't killed the dinosaurs. We may not even, with 100 percent certainty, be able to rule out the Silurian Hypothesis, which asks whether it is possible for us to know whether or not the dinosaurs may have evolved intelligence and civilization, perhaps even one that lasted longer than ours has - or will.
So our myths make us feel safe. First, by telling us that we aren't an accident, that we were never in danger of not existing. Second, by telling us that we are important. The past is long, but it's full of things that aren't us, and therefore it doesn't matter. We are the only intelligent species on the planet, our civilization is the most advanced civilization that has ever existed, and therefore we have a moral right to rule over the planet, and those of us who speak English and have leisure time to read gaming blogs (so the myth tells us) have a moral right to rule over other humans. To contemplate deep time is like staring into the yawning emptiness that stretches between atomic nucleus and electron cloud, it is to stare deep into the abyss.
The frightening idea that biology and geology and astronomy keep converging on is the idea that our myth isn't true. What Lovecraft is doing in "At the Mountains of Madness" is writing a fiction that communicates the emotional truth that we reject when we glimpse it in the findings of scientists - that the past is long, the human species is young, and Western civilization has no divine right to kingship. (I said that Lovecraft gives us Stapeldon in reverse - in "First and Last Men," Olaf Stapledon asks what it would mean to be human if we could know the future, and know that humans as a genus would spend only 1% of our existence as our current species, and only 10% of our existence on Earth, before moving to Neptune, and enjoying our longest-lasting civilization as a race of psychic manta rays.) It's this same fear that led Robert Howard to propose that a race of Silurian-esque serpent people had a civilization that pre-dated ours, and led Geoffrey McKinney to try to one-up him by suggesting that the serpent people bred humans as lab animals to sacrifice in magic rituals, that humans like ourselves are some kind of feral mixed-breed who exist because a few guinea pigs jumped their cages and escaped the lab.
|Fig. 2 - Max Ernst 1921 "The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses"|
All of this brings me back to my original question. What do you do with all this prehistory?
LP Harley claims, "The past is another country; they do things differently there."
William Faulkner says, "The past isn't over; it isn't even past."
But in a game where the only things that really exist are the things that happen among the people playing the game, the past doesn't, the doesn't exist - unless you make it exist by doing something with it to make it come alive at the table.
So what do you do with all this pre-history?
(1) You could direct your players to a humorous blog post, encourage them to read it, all have a good laugh together, and then get on with a game where nothing in that blog post matters.
(2) You could use the past as set-dressing, like in The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope's Stonehell Dungeon. You enter the Contested Corridors, you use the main corridor loop to navigate the quadrant, you find yourself wandering through the Chamber of the Desert, the Chamber of the Woods, the Sea, the Mountains, the Jungles, the Meadows. You find rooms decorated like themed hotel rooms, a remnant from a time before the orcs, goblins, and kobolds moved in. The rooms don't provide any insight into the larger history of Stonehell, instead they're just a glimpse at an unrecoverable past, a time before, a time when the dungeon existed for itself rather than for the orcs, or for you, just enough to tell you: this place is old, it was here before you, it will be here when you're gone.
(3) Or you could use the past as a kind of clue or foreshadowing, that shows the players where they could go next, like False Machine does in Deep Carbon Observatory. Find the right room in the Observatory, and you find a museum showing off geological strata displayed like giant microscope slides: a core sample from a layer made of fossilized vampires, a stratum a mile deep made of nothing but rusted swords, a city that burned and was rebuilt a thousand times over a million years. You find that museum and you begin to understand what will happen if you venture down into the Veins of the Earth. It's what Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle do in The Mote in Gods Eye, when their characters discover a museum that shows them what the aliens' past was really like. It's what Lovecraft does in "At the Mountains of Madness" (though his characters run away, rather than going deeper). It's what every game designer who allows you to find frescoes that tell you what you'll find next does, what The City of Iron does in The Ruined Abbey of St Clewd, what Tony Dowler does in my favorite, Purple Worm Graveyard.
(4) Or you could try to formalize the mystery solving, make a list of propositions for the players to discover, like Detect Magic does, or draw up worksheets with lists of clues pointing to the existence of various high-level truths, and award XP and gold for finding each clue, and bonuses for finishing each worksheet and "proving" the existence of each "truth", as Grognardia does in Dwimmermount. Make the search for historical truths at least as important a source of level-advancement as the usual search for monsters and treasure. Have factions willing to buy up player maps and newly uncovered rumors. Require the sharing of secrets to level up, as Paul Wolfe recommends in volume 4 of the 2017 Gongfarmer's Almanac.
(5) Or you could use the strata to define the levels of a megadungeon. Level 1, closest to the surface, is essentially the present day. Level 2 is the recent past. Level 3 is a the ancient past. Level 4 is the deep past. Etc.
(6) Or you could complicate matters by making each layer a palimpsest. Level 1 is a mash-up of the present and the recent past. Level 2 mashes up the recent past and the ancient past. Level 3 mashes up the ancient past and the deep past. Etc.
(7) Or you could make a more complex palimpsest by using something like Tony Dowler's How to Host a Dungeon to overlap the strata in more different ways. Some areas will be defined by a single strata, others by a mashup between two adjacent strata, others by mashups between non-adjacent eras. The resulting mix will be nonlinear. Going deeper into the earth generally means going deeper into the past, but you never know quite which era to expect to encounter next.
(8) Or you could travel to past directly, just as though you were travelling to another planet. Go the Chrono Trigger route and visit them in a time machine. Play a Spelljammer campaign and sail a wooden galleon to distant stars that are currently undergoing the epoch of your choice. Start your game in Planescape's city of Sigil, or step through one of the 666 doors of the Kefitzat Haderech, and through every doorway discover another time, another planet. Take advantage of the unlimited range of Pathfinder's "Interplanetary teleport" spell to come and go on your own schedule.
The options aren't all mutually exclusive. 1-4 are basically different ways of using information about earlier epochs in your game. 5-8 are different ways of visiting those epochs more or less directly. But I recommend, if you want there to be a fantastical prehistoric past in your campaign, find a way for players to learn about it, and then, find a way for them to go there and see it firsthand.