Who cares what year it is?

I’ve been thinking about “What year is it?” and why it winds people up? I think it’s not necessarily the specificity of it. It’s that we don’t mark ‘genre’ time in that way, except in certain cases. For brain fodder, here are some examples of popular properties and how we track time vs their timeline!

Star Wars
It seems very natural to refer to the film around which the game is set, rather than the year itself.

Is it during the Clone Wars? (Is it 22BBY?)
Is it after Return of the Jedi? (or rather, is it 0BBY/0ABY?)
Is it after Rise of Skywalker? (or rather, is it after 35ABY?)

Game of Thrones
Even something as relatively recent as Game of Thrones tends to be marked by major events in the books/TV show rather than the years themselves, or even the books or TV series.

Is it before the Baratheon Rebellion? (Is it before or after 280AC?)
Is it at the start of the TV show? (Is it around 298AC?)
Is it after the TV show? (Is it after 305AC?)

DC Comics (and indeed, Marvel Comics too)
Because comics never seem to nail down a year, and have shifting timelines, pinpointing a specific year is almost impossible. Instead, you would tend to either reference an ‘age’ (Golden, Silver, Bronze, Iron etc) or a specific important crossover event

Is it set before Crisis on Infinite Earths? (DC)
Is it set before Civil War 1? (Marvel)
Is it set after Rebirth? (DC)
Is it set after Infinity? (Marvel)

Even in the MCU, where later films have put actual dates to events around ‘The Snap’ in Infinity War, you would still be far more likely to reference an MCU game by the film it was concurrent with than the year it took place.

Star Trek
Again, time is measured around the TV series (and sometimes the films) even when the exact year is usually know

Enterprise? 2151-2155
Discovery (S1-2)? 2256-2259
Star Trek TOS? 2266-2269
Next Generation? 2364-2370
Deep Space Nine? 2369-2375
Voyager? 2371-2378
Lower Decks? 2380-2381
Picard? 2399-ongoing
Discovery (s3+) 3188-ongoing

There are others – The lore of Middle Earth lends itself to specific dates in specific ages, but most people will still navigate by big events; the fall of Numenor, the Battle of the Five Armies, the Fall of Sauron etc. Book series do the same – the Harry Potter novels would be seen as a timeline of events, rather than specific years. In fact, thinking hard about this, the one property that I think is drilled into having years as part of its popular appeal is Babylon 5. Even then, I would bet that all but the most die-hard B5 fans would have to count up from 2258 to remember which series each year aligned to?!

Why is it a problem?

When people insist on knowing the year, what it feels like they are really saying is ‘I am stating that I know enough about this setting to draw meaningful conclusions from that specific detail.’ with an unspoken assumption to some of ‘…do you?’

And that sort of perceived intellectual superiority winds people up, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s not only the intellectual cock-waving that’s to blame. It’s also that for many, RPG setting history is far harder to absorb than genre media. You can’t just pop in a DVD and watch a movie of the rise of the Sartar Empire in Glorantha (I hope I’ve got that right!). The best you have is a good series of YouTube videos (Having never read a 40k book in my life, all I know about 40k comes from YouTube!) to rely upon or hours and hours of reading.

And most of it is irrelevant to the scenario you’re going to be on anyway. Unless – and this is the nightmare fuel for any unsuspecting GM who gets the ‘what year is it?’ question – the questioner is going to make it relevant.

“Oh, that’s interesting? You said we’re playing proper Lands of Flynnbar setting and you’re using necromancy in 2231GH? So you’re ignoring the purging of the death planes that happened in 2229GH, cutting all necromancers off from their magic? So a homebrew version then….*pushes glasses up nose* ….understood.”

How do we solve it?

I can think of a few ways that I would handle the dread question

Your [Insert Setting] May Vary – The nice people who make Runequest have coined the phrase ‘Your Glorantha May Vary’ to codify that the game at your table may not be the same as the official setting. This is definitely one way to handle it – a disconnection between game and established setting, from the off.

Tropes not Trivia – As Ian is detailing on his blog, in our recent Werewolf Accelerated game we specifically played around with the tropes of White Wolf Werewolf lore but did not recognise any specific events or timelines. Another sort of disconnection, it allows you to embrace the feeling of the setting without worrying about the details.

Embrace the expert in the room – On the other side, why not embrace the expert and use them as a resource. Ask them to explain what the implications of the year would be to the game, and allow them to show off their knowledge. Sincerely, not passive-aggressively … although, if they are really knowledgeable you have a great resource, and if they are a blow hard, they will soon shut up…

State early and firmly – pre-empt it and state early and firmly where you are at and how it works, so “The game is set around 2376, which some of you will know is after the end of the Dominion War in Deep Space Nine. So if you’ve seen that, excellent, but if you haven’t, don’t worry – nothing that happened there is going to have any real impact on the game.”

How would you handle it? What’s the worst case you have come across? What genre property do you know all the years for? Let me know on Twitter @vodkashok

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