Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part X

THE RISE AND FALL OF EMPIRES

[image description: spines of seven volume hardcover set of the decline and fall of the roman empire]

At the mention of the word “empire” no one would fault you if the first thing that sprang to mind was the Roman one. After all, that’s arguably the most famous empire of all, at least in the Western world. But it wasn’t the first, and it certainly wasn’t the last. The first was the Mesopotamian empire of Akkadia, founded way back in the 24th century B.C., and as long as humans survive on this planet, or elsewhere in the universe, it is likely that the last is yet to be forged. Throughout history, empires rise and fall, for various reasons. Just check out this handy timeline to get a sense of how often this happens. It’s kind of ridiculous.

So if you’re going to include an empire in your world, whether it’s for a fantasy novel or for tabletop role-playing, you might want to consider at what point in its life cycle you want the action to take place. Is the empire only just now being forged? Is this a bloody rise or a relatively peaceful one? Or has it existed for some time, having come to know a certain measure of stability, even perhaps to the point of complacency? If so, it may already be well into its decline, whether its inhabitants recognise this or not. Or has it already begun to noticeably and alarmingly fracture, becoming a fragile thing now and then erupting in chaos here and there throughout its vast territories, especially along its borders where it is most vulnerable to invading barbarians?

Another thing to consider is what sort of states and/or nations your empire comprises. Is it a relatively homogenous group, or does your emperor or empress rule over vastly different ethnic tribes or nations speaking their own foreign tongues in addition to the empire’s official lingua franca? Do they all get along, or is law and order barely kept in certain pockets of the empire due to ancient rivalries and long-held grudges? Intrigue is something that festers in every kingdom and principality, no matter how small or petty, so one can imagine the sort of grand machinations that go on within every corner of a vast empire, and one need look no further than the history of any empire that ever existed to gain inspiration for that. And of course, you need not limit yourself to real-world empires for such inspiration, either.

Take, for example, one of the latest intrigue-riddled fantasy empires created for role-playing purposes by Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer to serve as a principal setting in the D&D streaming series Critical Role. Named the Dwendalian Empire, it exists on the continent of Wildemount in Mercer’s fictional world of Exandria. “Founded thirteen generations before the events of Campaign 2,” according to that wiki I just linked to, this empire has a ton of history which you can bet its creator already wrote up extensively before game play began. The reason should be obvious to anyone who’s played any sort of role-playing game; the player-characters are going to ask questions, or read books, or investigate, and make history checks, so you’d better have more than a vague idea of how things in your made up world came to be as they are.

[image description: official map of the dwendalian empire by deven rue (fair use)].

But even if you’re writing a novel instead, I strongly recommend you do as Tolkien did and write that history–or at least jot down a few notes, or create the barest of timelines. Having your characters allude to the history of your world will give it depth, and having written it all down beforehand will help you keep it straight in your head for the sake of continuity.

One crucial thing to keep in mind is that once an empire rises and falls in a particular region, after having united a specific body of formerly independent states, it becomes easier to build a new empire on the ashes–or I should really say the bones–of the old one. See in order to run with any efficiency, empires need an infrastructure, and when the political and military machinery that holds the empire together collapses, that skeleton of infrastructure that once supported it is still there, largely if not wholly intact and ready to be put into use again. So in the real world, the Akkadian Empire was succeeded by the Assyrian Empire, which was succeeded by the Babylonian Empire, which in turn was succeeded by the Persian Empire. Then Alexander the Great invaded and took control of the Persian Empire (but then after he died it got split up between his generals).

The Roman Empire in AD 117 at its greatest extent, at the time of Trajan’s death (with its vassals in pink)

But the rulers of the greatest empires were not merely content to reign over the same territories of their predecessors. Like Alexander, the Roman Empire set out to rule the entire known world, and so set out conquering and “civilising” the wild frontiers known to them as Germania and Britannia, which were inhabited by people they disparagingly called “barbarians” (and also like Alexander, it ultimately failed). But much later another group of barbarians led by Genghis Khan would go even further, forging his great Mongol Empire “from the Black Sea to the Korean peninsula”. After his death, his sons sought to expand the empire further still, and his grandson Kublai Khan would eventually add another more ancient empire to his own when he declared himself Emperor of China in 1271 A.D. Not too shabby for a “barbarian”.

Expansion of the Mongol Empire 1206–1294 superimposed on a modern political map of Eurasia

The rise of an empire is a fairly simple concept to grasp, but when it comes to its collapse, things get a bit more complicated. So for the various ways in which an empire can decline and fall, I highly recommend you watch this five minute video which goes over some of the factors that can come into play:

The Fall of Empires | World History | Khan Academy

One way to use the concept of an empire in your storytelling without having to worry too much about how it all works is to make it wholly a thing of the past. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire much of Europe was left to its own devices during what would become what we call the medieval period, or Middle Ages, throughout which the former “barbarians” built their various kingdoms on the previous imperial framework. Much of the backbone, the infrastructure, was still there; roads, trade routes, ports, fortresses, cities, even some governing bodies. All those things didn’t just disappear after the empire fell, and so while there may have been widespread chaos at first, in the long run civilisation endured.

Many fantasy worlds are at least partly based on medieval and/or feudal societies, so I’ll be covering them in depth over the next few installments of this worldbuilding series, touching on not only Europe and the Holy Roman Empire (which, as Voltaire famously quipped, “was neither Holy nor Roman, nor an Empire”), but also medieval China and feudal Japan. But first we’ll have a look at what happens to an outlying region of an empire after its fall.

Next: “Dark Age” Britain

Previous: Traders, Plunderers, and Pirates

Published by striderlee

Dungeon Master, homebrewer, foodie, bibliophile, and fantasy author. He/Him

2 thoughts on “Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part X

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