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I'm new to GMing and am in the process of creating my first world. It's going to be a far future scifi setting, where the civilisation to which the players will belong is a space faring one that is nearing the end of its time. I'm looking at creating a world that is a combination of Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe and the Warhammer 40,000 setting. The technology the civilisation has will be advanced, but they have long forgotten how to build and maintain it - they only really know what pressing the buttons does, and even then, they only know how to effectively operate a little of their equipment, with many more things being completely alien and simply gathering dust.

Like I said, this civilisation is on its last legs, and I was wondering how I could make the players feel nostalgic for the better days of their people.

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up vote 16 down vote accepted

Run a one shot during the "better days" you mention. Tell the players it's just to get them used to the system. Give them pre-made characters who actually do know a thing or two about their technology. Then it'll actually mean something to the PCs when the characters they make 200 years later are less skilled, less powerful, and wonder how their ancestors made all those things.

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To keep the feeling of nostalgia current, you can try to have a regular, or semi-regular, portion of your sessions involve a story or scene from the distant past.

Ideally, this would be something which the players, with their knowledge of the worlds' history (whether through background stories, or through participation in the world creation) would be able to understand, while their characters do not. Examples include finding holographic recordings of battles, or of family scenes, or any of the day to day life that is no longer around.

Depending on the situation, you can tune this. For example, some of the scenes could be played out out-of-character, allowing you to point out the connections with history, if your players aren't that familiar with the history yet. Alternatively, if the players are intimately involved in the history, the scenes or descriptions could be something that you build into the actual game play. Maybe the characters discover a device that they won't be able to actually use - beyond getting it to play a broken recording (maybe the device is an instruction manual for a non-existent tool, or a school book, or equivalent). A children's school-book might contain lessons that a player today can understand (QED?), but the character won't find at all relevant.

You can also try to create this kind of juxtaposition by showing modern tools being mis-used. A children's toy being used as an alarm bell, an airplane's fuselage being retro-fitted and used for a truck, an old hovercraft having shoddy wooden wheels attached to it and being pulled by draft's animals are all good examples. Again, these can play into your session - the devices might still be functional if repaired, or maybe they're functional to a point, where the players find an advanced piece of technology is completely missing.

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I think it would be much better to do what @valadil suggested: a single, complete, one-shot in the past. Doing lots and lots of mini-flashbacks would be annoying, frustrating and definitely not poetic (you would likely break any suspension of disbelief). –  Lohoris Feb 22 '11 at 9:42
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@Lo'oris He's not saying mini-flashbacks as the rule, but the exception. This answer is "weave in notes to the gameplay" that show the players (but not the characters) that the world is old and broken. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 22 '11 at 18:58
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+1 for 'modern tools being mis-used'. –  Joe Nov 21 '11 at 21:09
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In a D&D campaign I am in, we – the DM and the players – first created the world with a world building game that was quite fun. I have found that the fact that we all know the general history of the world and the people has made it easier for us, as character, to long for the simpler times of peace and tranquility in the world. Not that our characters were involved in the past events, they were just raised on the tales of the old times when things were happier, simpler and "better." We, as players, know all the tales and history that our characters do so it is easier to step into the role.

We used "Dawn of Worlds," but the way you and your players make the history does not matter, what does matter it that they are involved in recording the decay of their civilization, at least up to a few decades before their part comes up, then you can start.

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Yep, it's Dawn of Worlds. I've added the link to its page to your answer. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 22 '11 at 18:55
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In the campaign I am co-authoring, we're borrowing a page-or-two from JRR Tolkien hoping to create those feelings by writing about emotional historical events in poetry and songs relayed by NPC's, major and minor, and to surface player histories.

A bard in a tavern can sing of the great rise of the now-crumbling empire.

Like Aragorn, a party companion can quote poetry about a torrid love affair between two important historical characters as either backdrop, explication, or a forshadow of upcoming events...

Encourage the players share their player histories when appropriate to the plot. "That encounter reminds me of how my father came by this sword he gave me." - Create situations to encourage this! Any good player history will have at least one hook you can use. Grant XP bonuses if it will help bashful role players to speak up...

In the 1960's version of The Time Machine, golden rings, when spun on a metal table "spoke" about history...

These are several of the literary devices lumped under "flashback." Rather than run the players through the past, you can just invent more flashback devices.

Think of Spock's mind-meld: Sharing memories is a great way give interactive access to history without breaking the time-wall or creating other characters. In the future, devices can have memories - right?

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