Reading roleplaying sourcebooks, one of the common and usually pretty extensive sections of any setting will be the history. You know, the long exposition of the big backstory of the world as it is in the game. Examples include the history of Glorantha, the history of the Third Imperium, or the history of the World of Darkness.
What is this stuff actually for? I love to read it but I really do wonder what the purpose of this stuff might be.
Most roleplayers are not interacting with the backstory of the world. The players are exploring the world as it is today through the lens of their character’s perception but most of the backstory is not immediately relevant to them. The GM is usually busy making up new situations for the characters as they are today, not really fussing over re-creating the stories of the past.
I suppose you could re-enact major parts of the history from your setting. RuneQuest does this with the world of Glorantha – especially when characters go on Heroquests – but that is pretty much a unique feature of RuneQuest and Glorantha. Gamers generally don’t do this with other worlds.
The usual answer I hear is that the backstory provides hooks upon which to build new stories – presumably giving you a context within which the world of today arose – but, honestly, most games I have played in don’t really make much of this in reality.
Perhaps we get to visit the site of some ancient event but it’s really just a backdrop to whatever shenanigans we are doing now. As a GM, I don’t find many players building an extensive set of historical notes to inform their decisions in the game.
What’s it for? Is it something that GMs enjoy reading so that they can feel more connected to the world as it exists? Is it a giant mental placebo that coincidentally sells lots of sourcebooks? I really don’t know.
This isn’t some facetious rhetoric. I genuinely am trying to figure it out. Why do I love reading the backstories of the worlds I play in so much, even though most of the content is never going to come up in play?
What’s it for?