skip to Main Content

The Ancients: Tips on Mythic Worldbuilding For Past Ages21 min read

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Concept Art From Disney's Atlantis the Lost Empire
Concept Art from Disney's "Atlantis: The Lost Empire"

Lost Worlds and Hidden Legacies. Ancient Ages and Entities. Prophecies and Relics. This week I want to delve into the mythology of “the Ancients”, an ancestral ur-myth common throughout cultures and fiction. A topic that fills the air with mystery and intrigue, wonder and excitement. So here’s a deep dive for all you worldbuilders, Dungeon Masters, and Game Masters developing fictional cultures. For all you players in tabletop RPGs like D&D and Pathfinder working on your character backstories. And for storytellers and mythology fans more generally too. Anyone building cultural backdrops and character backstories relating to an antique age, building either lore or plot. Check it out!

Did you ever watch Atlantis: The Lost Empire and wonder about those magic crystals? Ever watch those Studio Ghibli films like Castle In the Sky and wondered about those ancient robots? Ever thought too much about Mind Flayers or Quori in D&D? For that matter, ever played a Final Fantasy game? Mythic tales augment and exaggerate the lessons and legacies of those who came before, becoming the tropes of “the Ancients”.

ANCIENT MYTHIC AGE: THE ROMANTIC PAST

Let me speak first of the Ancient Mythic Age imagined positively, the Romantic Past. Perhaps an Advanced Ancient Acropolis, a time of mystical or technological sophistication catalyzed by stability and enlightenment. Or just more simply, Ye Goode Old Days, when the Ancients lived wisely, wholesomely, and authentically. Maybe even Utopia, an age of perfection, peace, and hope. These imaginings conjure idealism, optimism, and nostalgia, witnessed and remembered generationally in mythic storytelling as well as physical and emotional mementos. Yes, tales of inspiration.

We can place these Romantic Past tropes in Seven Timeless Settings in a Technological Complexity scale:
1. Ghibli Hills; Pristine Wilderness – total wilderness, cooperative & abundant (e.g. My Neighbor Totoro; Pikmin).
2. Noble Savage – the primal Rousseauian myth (e.g. The Garden of Eden).
3. Arcadia – rural: pastoral & agrarian (e.g. The Shire).
4. Shining City – urban cityscape (e.g. Superman’s Metropolis, Minas Tirith).
5. Solarpunk – green industrial (e.g. Wakanda).
6. Post-Scarcity – futuristic industrial (e.g. TNG Star Trek).
7. Crystal Spires & Togas – mixed futuristic, contemporary, and archaic (e.g. Atlantis: The Lost Empire).

ANCIENT MYTHIC AGE: THE ANTI-ROMANTIC PAST

I want to speak next of the Ancient Mythic Age imagined negatively, the Anti-Romantic Past. Perhaps a Time of Myths, when eldritch beings stalked the world, supernatural elements ascended, and the Ancients struggled for sanctuary. Perhaps the Dung Ages, the past with all its warts and waste. And perhaps even Dystopia, an age of torment, totalitarianism, and terror unrelenting. These imaginings invoke cynicism, pessimism, and trauma, passed down through generations in mythic storytelling as well as physical and emotional scars. Indeed, cautionary tales.

The Anti-Romantic Past tropes can go in Seven Timeless Settings by Technological Complexity scale too:
1. Red In Tooth & Claw; Polluted Wasteland – a total wilderness, competitive & scarce (e.g. Tennyson’s poem Nature Red In Tooth and Claw; Sierra Madre in Fallout: New Vegas: Dead Money).
2. Nasty, Brutish, and Short – the primal Hobbesian myth (e.g. Lord of the Flies).
3. Shadowland – rural: pastoral & agrarian (e.g. outer Mordor).
4. Vice City – urban cityscape (e.g. Gotham, Sin City).
5. Industrialized Evil – gritty industrial (e.g. The Jungle).
6. Cyberpunk – futuristic industrial (e.g. The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell).
7. Scavenger World – mixed futuristic, contemporary, and archaic (e.g. Mad Max).

BUILDING THE ROMANTIC & ANTI-ROMANTIC PAST BETTER

As you combine time and place, when you draw upon those Timeless Settings, make sure to spin up the elements that define the Past. How do they look when filtered like a daydream, or a haunted memory? What changes? Consider, outdated customs and archaic norms that appear cryptic to modern sensibilities. How do perspectives on idealism and cynicism, optimism and pessimism, nostalgia and trauma vary across the generations? These questions will guide your journey.

And, believe it or not, we haven’t gotten to the complicated part. When worldbuilding, you can join several of the settings together side-by-side as appropriate, such as rural and urban regions. Take extra care with transition zones, boundaries, pathways. Looking at just Anti-Romantic elements, Tolkien used Mordor’s layered gates, passes, lairs, towers, and fortresses narratively as both a gauntlet and a funnel toward a final volcanic showdown. Give these areas history. Let them become rolling epics, struggles that echo across time. Beacons and shadows cast forth across aeons.

Now, you can revisit the transition zones point again similarly with the Romantic Past. But also, you don’t have to keep things simple, either. You can have light within dark and dark within light too. You can give a Utopia a dark and hidden secret, as in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. Or, give a Dystopia a secret sanctuary. These contrasts accentuate and build dramatic tension through conflict and precarity.

What’s more, this has some interesting implications. You can allow for sub-threads of orthodoxy, amnesia or heresy or revisionism, as people embrace, forget, challenge, or re-evaluate portrayals of the past. You can build mystery with this well with hidden strings. Put characters in this world, draw out those four elements as cultural backdrops and character backstories. You can even build cycles of redemption and corruption as the wheel of ages turns. Spin it further: you can set multiple ages in a cycle, where cycles inspire predictions about what lays ahead. More on that in a minute.

For now, let’s expand upon the topic, focusing on entities and ages. Who were the Ancients?

THREE PRECURSORS, THREE AGES, THREE SUBVERSIONS

When we speak of “the Ancients”, we speak of Precursors: those who came before. On a mythic level, they come in three modes. On the one hand, the Benevolent Precursors from a Golden Age, who leave wonders or wards through their consideration. For example, the “First Ancestral Race” in Neon Genesis Evangelion. On the other hand, the Neglectful Precursors from a Lost Age, who leave liabilities or leaks through their oversight. As seen with humanity in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. And on the other other hand (for all you mutants out there), the Abusive Precursors of the Dark Times, who leave traps or tribulations through their animosity. For instance, The Greys of The X-Files.

Neglect? Abuse? You, astute reader, have probably noted the parenting metaphor running deep through this, as it does with much mythology, because of its relatability, and the nature of storytelling, as adults pass down lessons to children. Yes, deific figures often stand in for parents, invoking generational feelings of bonding, resentment, or loathing. You can augment the memorial household simile using the safety of Benevolent Architecture, or the danger of Malevolent Architecture. A space that lifts you up or holds you down. Scale it further: comfortable beds become comfortable camps, empty pantries become famines. Always consider the Ancients in both macrocosm and microcosm: cultures and characters.

You can apply all this in the most basic and classic sense. The singular glimpse of the family and the home, as in a photograph on the mantle above a fireplace and all its static implication. Or, you can get creative. You can subvert it, building a moving story instead of a static picture.

You can subvert it in three ways:
1. Twist: Pick one archetype to start: Benevolent, Neglectful, or Abusive. Then, switch it into another, gradually or suddenly. Again: arcs of redemption, corruption. Recall the sheer emotionality of a parent’s rise into guardianship or descent into indifference or harm. Build up a powerful motivator for this, and attach it to a strong symbol representing the process. Now you have legit drama.
2. Realism: The conjoined option. On balance, the Precursors leave some good and some bad on everyone. This largely undoes the mythological angle, but can facilitate greater immersion. And you can take it even further, adding popular misconceptions about apparent victors and victims regardless. Like, make it just as messy and petty as real life.
3. Factionalism: Good for some, bad for others. Consider parents who spoil one child while neglecting or abusing another. Identify Chosen Ones, Forsaken Ones, Cursed Ones. Ask yourself, how do they relate to one another? Now you’re a wizard, Harry.

Ok, but we’ve kept it kind of vague so far. What specific stories and values actually fell or rose during all this change?

AGES END, NEW ERAS DAWN: EIGHT DIRECTIONS

Let’s look at the mythic end of an age, which contrasts to real-world understandings of how large-scale collapses of Complex Societies function. Largely, these myths come in three types. First, a Magical End produces a trope like The Magic Goes Away, as seen in Final Fantasy Tactics. Then, second, a Technological End produces a trope like Mysterious Ruins, as seen throughout Tomb Raider. And, third, a Religious End produces a trope like Death of the Old Gods, seen in the Ancient Greek Titanomachy, or it can produce the Twilight of the Gods, such as with the Norse Ragnarok. This disenchantment of the world has associations with Coming-of-Age stories, and Secularism.

Correspondingly, we have a parallel trinity. The Magic Comes Back, as seen in Final Fantasy VI. Lost Technology, as seen in Castle in the Sky. The Second Coming, as seen in The Matrix. Yes, the reenchantment of the world. The return of childhood wonder or mystery, with a much more awesome or dreadful reality. The rise of Millenarianism. Perhaps even rebirth.

Actually, we can layer things even deeper. Let’s combine some of this stuff, and elaborate on it. Start with making Greater Precursors and Lesser Precursors, narrative agents for cycles of change. Did these ages change because of the Greater Precursors and their legacy as hegemons, or in spite of them, due to Lesser Precursors who took a stand as underdogs? The fulfillment of prophecy, or rebellion against it?

You have so many directions, so many possibilities to choose from. Where did the Ancients go? Did they ascend or fall? Did disaster and war overtake them? Did the Precursors have an exodus? Does anyone even know? Most commonly, mythology uses cycles of conflict.

Here, I’ll paint you a word picture. Drawing upon the pantheons of Greek mythology, we see original Primordial Deities like Gaia and Uranus defeated by the Titans, such as Rhea and Cronus. Then arose the Olympian Gods, like Zeus and Hera, who defeated the Titans. Now, the cycles did not come clear-cut here: you also had figures like Prometheus, a Titan and Trickster figure who fashioned humanity from clay and gave us the knowledge of fire by stealing it from the Olympian Gods. (Thanks dude!) For our purposes, maybe Prometheus functions as a Lesser Precursor and the Olympian Gods the Greater Precursors. They have a tension there.

Many of these myths relate to real-world historical progressions of Polytheism supplanting Animism. You could also add further cycles based on real history, involving the rise of Monotheistic Gods, or Atheism, or all manner of Esoteric and Occult paths (as I’ve discussed elsewhere at length). You can work with these templates, keeping them simple or making them complex as you see fit. Nice. As a sidenote, I strongly recommend The AngryGM’s recent works on building pantheons with narrative goals in mind, both parts one and two I found very educational.

Finally, the End of an Age contrasts with the Dawn of an Era, as when King Arthur drew the sword from the stone. A marvelous, watershed moment of possibility. Yes, the moments prophecy speak of. You can really push the cinematic nature of these moments, they can really define cultures and characters.

I’d like to revisit the Ends of Ages, as well as Post-Apocalyptic remnants, at more length in a later post. For now, let’s dive more that topic of prophecies. Yeah, you knew this would come.

THREE TYPES OF ANCIENT PROPHECY

Ok, Ancient Prophecies. Let’s start with a really simple framework for pushing prophecies backward in time. Three starting flavors: Regeneration, Degeneration, or Turmoil. Regeneration Era Prophecies indicate renewal and growth, whereas Degeneration Era Prophecies imply breakdown and decay. Note, in the greater sense, Regeneration does not inherently imply good, nor Degeneration evil. It all really depends on the mythical society’s values; like, a society of slavery would see moves toward liberation as “Degeneration”, but I sure wouldn’t. Now, Turmoil Era Prophecies suggest challenge of an uncertain nature: confusion and conflict. You can use it as a sort of catch-all, a wildcard of the mystical and mysterious, and one that could go either way.

Another way to think about it:
1. Regeneration Era Prophecy – Returning virtues or new virtues. Good fortunes. A coming Golden Age.
2. Degeneration Era Prophecy  – Returning vices or new vices. Bad fortunes. A coming Dark Times.
3. Turmoil Era Prophecy – Returning challenges or new challenges. Risky fortunes. A potential Lost Age.

When dealing with ancient prophecy of the past, you have to ask yourself, has it already concluded, or does it have an ongoing legacy? Yeah, mainly, you want to decide if the prophecy reflected the events of the Ancient Age, or speak of things to come in our own time. Lore, or Plot? To whom does it apply? Most often when we think of prophecy, it involves a large scale, and an acute impact on at least one entity or group, though it can entail good things for one and bad things for another (as we discussed earlier with Factionalism).

But wait, you have no prophecy without a prophet, right?

FOUR PROPHETIC PERSONA

We should also look at prophetic persona. You could have a real Oracle on your hands, willingly or accidentally. Or, you could also have a Charlatan, a character of a misguided or manipulative design.

With a prophecy you probably also have an Enemy Figure, which could reflect a being or even a group. Let’s turn this into prophetic narrative option scenarios. And we’ll add some Plot Twist options too, because why not:
1. People identified a prophet, correctly: the Oracle. But maybe multiple ones existed?
2
. People identified a prophet, incorrectly: the Charlatan. Did a different, real prophet exist?
3.
People identified an enemy, correctly: the Nemesis. But maybe multiple ones existed?
4.
People identified an enemy, incorrectly: the Scapegoat. Did a different, real enemy exist?

Oracles. Charlatans. Nemeses. Scapegoats. You can even have ancient prophetic rivalry between Oracles and Charlatans, settled in the past or stirring things up today. Now you have some fuel for the fire! Combine that with the wisdom, hedonism, or malice of Precursors and you practically have a plot engine in the making, whether for worldbuilding, storytelling, or even just a character backstory. Maybe these figures left lineage legacies for your characters, or these characters have past lives, or eerie resemblances, hearkening back.

Ok, but what else did those Ancients leave us?

REMNANT RELICS: FOUR ANCIENT SUPERWEAPONS

Let’s also talk about the Ancients’ Remnant Relics, more specifically, the cool Superweapons the Precursors fashioned to battle deities and eldritch monstrosities, carve out an acropolis, or the remnant hazards and durable deathtraps they left behind. I plan on elaborating in a later post about more artifact types; for now I’d like to primarily discuss just Superweapons.

First, you have the quintessential Ancestral Weapon, the gifts of heroic lineage, like the sword Anduril in Lord of the Rings, or Roland’s pistols in The Dark Tower. Classic.

Second, you have the Lost Superweapon, the eccentric and overpowered weaponry that just ain’t around no more. Dangerous devices sought but lost. You know, the ones the Precursors made in their desperation or audacity, that had to get toned down for safety, perhaps a Super Prototype not fit for mass production. If they do come back, the locked away planetary defense systems like Ruby Weapon and Emerald Weapon in Final Fantasy VII. Or, those which subsequently fell to ruin. Recall that all of Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings basically amounts to an outpost beside a greater, worn down city.

Third, we have the Forgotten Superweapon, the one no one really remembers how to activate or use, which can lead to sudden epiphany moments when BLAM, you pour that Holy Water you had this whole time on my silver tooth and let’s slay us some demons! Or, maybe you just break out the museum piece?

Finally, beyond those, we have the Weaponized Landmark, when those ancient monuments secretly hid lasers and mecha forms all along. Like in Final Fantasy IX when Alexandria Castle fires a beacon flare, sprouts wings, and fights Bahamut. Awesome.

All this talk of lingering relics leads one to wonder, what else stuck around between ages?

REMNANT RELICS: FIVE TIME SHENANIGANS

I could talk about all manner of special remnants, with associated rituals, seals, keys, and gates. Enough material to cover at length elsewhere in fact! For now, let’s look at some of the basic tropes of passages and constants across ages. Time shenanigans!

Revisiting my Greater and Lesser Precursors idea, let’s also consider not just differentiation in space, but also differentiation in time. You can crank the dial up to 11 with Recursive Precursors, considerations of how the Precursors related to their own Precursors. Now you stack ages and build sagas. Have cultures and characters act like ripples and echoes across time. You have rich reasons for both lore AND plot implications, because the contemporaries too shall one day become Precursors. Whoa. Do they acknowledge this? What do they do? Force your characters to consider a legacy.

These ideas also touch on the idea of “Ragnarok Proofing“, artifacts and architecture capable – often intentionally based on Precursor foresight – of enduring cataclysm and acting as a beacon for bootstrapping either enlightenment or scavenging. Pretty much everything technologically weird about Assassin’s Creed as a franchise falls within this. With that in mind, let’s look at specific passages and constants across ages.

First, you have the Time Abyss, Precursor persons or artifacts (like monoliths) that witness even geological time. The Eldritch Abominations of Lovecraft. In The Lord of the Rings: Tom Bombadil, Treebeard, or even Gandalf. Second, the Living Relic: the last of a people, a being whose experience and legacy holds immense gravity. Mass Effect’s Vigil, or the Rachni Queen. Third, the Constant. Landmarks of such magnitude or durability that they survive relatively unchanged from one era to another. Or ones that survive in at least some fashion, allowing for some narrative continuity between ages. The Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes comes to mind.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Let’s think about what we learned earlier. You want to develop cultures and characters. You don’t have to limit yourself to just history, you can use rumor too. Cultures have neighbors, characters have relatives. And what do you have to work with? You have Ancient Mythic Ages in three types and seven settings, and both a negative and positive versions for that. You have three Precursor archetypes, three Era archetypes, and even three subversions thereof. You have eight directions to take the End of an Era. Three Ancient Prophecy bases. Four Prophetic Persona. And you have Remnant Relics: four Ancient Superweapons, and five Time Shenanigans. You have so much to draw upon. That sounds complicated. Start small, and let it grow over time.

However, I do want to show you a glimpse of what it looks like all together too. The full glory. You have the essential pieces to work with, minus one: Precursors can also become portrayed as Victors or Victims, Vindicators or Villains, legacies that define the modern day.

So, fusing everything:
Cultural mythology holds that the people of before used to live in an Advanced Ancient Acropolis or the Time of Myths, Ye Goode Old Days or the Dung Ages, a Utopia or a Dystopia.
The prophets, either Oracles and Charlatans, predicted that the Greater or the Lesser Precursors (each themselves of a Benevolent, Neglectful, or Abusive type) would become, rightly or wrongly, the Victors, Victims, Vindicators, or Villains of history. These prophets said the Precursors would usher in either a Golden Age Regeneration, a Dark Times Degeneration, or a Lost Age Turmoil. Did it bear out, or does it still speak for tomorrow? Did the Magic, Technology, or Religion go away or return after all? The prophets said a Nemesis (who may end up being a Scapegoat) would incite things, get in the way, or take the fall, while the Greater and Lesser Precursors struggled or united with one another, re-shaping pantheons.

Perhaps they themselves contemplated their own Ancients, becoming Recursive Precursors and taking up the duty of Ragnarok Proofing forward a legacy. These Precursors left Remnant Relics like Superweapons of an Ancestral, Lost, or Forgotten nature, sometimes even on the scale of Landmarks. Their Time Shenanigans persist to the current day, perhaps in the form of a Time Abyss, a Living Relic, or a Constant. People now respond to these lineages, lessons, and legacies emotionally with nostalgia or trauma depending on what resonates, particularly toward familial metaphors. And they respond cognitively with orthodoxy, amnesia, heresy, or revisionism. And so there you have it, the mythology of the Ancients, in both form and function.


Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed reading this exploration of the Ancients as I had writing it. If you liked this article, please share it, and let me know in the comments what you would add or change. I publish new posts each Tuesday, and in the meantime, I post original D&D memes daily over on my site’s Facebook Page and Twitter. Also, to stay updated on all my posts, check the bottom sign-up widget for email notifications. Thanks as always to my Patron on Patreon, who helps keep this project running: Rudy. Thanks for the support, Rudy! Feel free to join him!

Liked it? Take a second to support Tril on Patreon!

Tril

D&D 5e blogger.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)

Back To Top