The other day, Deuce Richardson of The Cimmerian once again did me an honor by using my Tolkien birthday post as a springboard for musing about world creation and its limits. In addition to reminding me that I really need to change my "About Me" picture from the one I posted at Halloween, Mr Richardson's post reminded me of Robert E. Howard's essay "The Hyborian Age," in which the author briefly laid out the history of Conan's world. I long ago noted that Howard's imaginary world is, in many respects, a perfect model for roleplaying settings and I stand by that assertion. REH strikes the right balance between borrowing from real world analogs and making details from whole cloth. It's one I've tried to emulate in my ongoing Dwimmermount game.
So, I went back a re-read Howard's essay yesterday and I was surprised at how long and specific it was. My memory of it was that it was a short and fairly "fluffy" piece, with little specificity or depth. Certainly there aren't lists of kings (though some rulers are mentioned by name) or extensive gazetteers and the dates are mostly vague, but there is a wealth of information to be gleaned from the essay. As I understand it, Howard prepared the essay in preparation for writing the Conan stories, although whether it actually predates the writing of "The Phoenix on the Sword," I cannot say with any certainty. Regardless, the essay indicates that Howard did give thought to the historical/cultural background of the Hyborian Age and was not simply making up details as he went along.
The demands of fiction are, I think, rather different than those of roleplaying, which is why I generally advocate a more "seat of the pants" style of world creation. Anything more than a general outline is, in my experience, an impediment to the cross-pollinating creativity between players and referee that I so enjoy these days. This seems to have been the case in a lot of the earliest RPG campaigns too, with details being added over time rather than laid down in stone beforehand.
Take a look, for example, at the rather brief history included in 1975's Empire of the Petal Throne and compare it to the reams of details created in its wake. Tékumel is popularly portrayed as an obsessively detailed world and so it is. Now. But at its inception, at least in its initial presentation for roleplaying purposes, it was probably less detailed than is almost pre-packaged setting currently available. Likewise, even now, after 30+ years of continual play, there are still many, many aspects of the setting that have never been established, such as the name of the continent on which the Five Empires are situated.
In any case, "The Hyborian Age" is worth re-reading if you haven't done so in a while. I found it clarified some thoughts in my mind about the process of world creation and I'll likely have more posts on this topic in the near future.