The Spiral Method of World Building

From Hannah L.

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0397

The Spiral Method of World Building

[Comment from Johnn: this article has been featured in the RPG Carnival! October 2022’s theme is all about world building, which Hannah’s Spiral World Building method is perfect for.]

One of a GM’s biggest investments in a campaign is world-building. With all of the advice out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. A complete world needs cultures, maps, climate and weather, currencies, ecologies, and a thousand other things. But how much of that really comes up in the session-to-session life of the players?

If you’re short on time or don’t want to create an elaborate world for a campaign, consider the spiral method of world-building. I call it that because you take the center – the players – and build out from there, but without covering everything in the circle.

This method lends itself to a certain style of GMing over the course of the campaign, by which I mean it’s not for those who shy away from improvisation. For a flexible GM whose players are always choosing the option “none of the above,” the spiral method offers a great way to get a campaign started and keep it going with minimal prep.

Step 1: Launch With a Minimum Viable Spiral World

The key to spiral world-building is to start with fewer details. The less detail you have in the beginning, the more options you have in the future. This might seem counterintuitive if you’re used to heavily- detailed prep, where all the behind the-scenes plotlines are known to the GM from the start. However, once you get the hang of it, you will discover that scanty planning gives you more chances to construct elaborate plots, not fewer.

With the spiral method, the idea is to gradually add onto what you have as the players discover it – the more blanks you leave, the more possibilities can fit into those empty spaces. Defining something from the start makes it harder to change as the plot dictates.

This mean you should take good session notes if you want your campaign to be cohesive. Because you won’t have written things down before they happen, you’ll have to write them down afterwards if you want to remember them.

Since you’ll be building your plot up gradually based on the actions of the players, you’re limited in terms of foreshadowing and the like. The way to correct for this is to throw in random details, note them down, and then bring them back at a later time when it seems like they might be relevant.

A bard singing a tale of ancient adventurers might be nothing. It might turn out your party will go on a similar journey. Or perhaps an evil force from the tale will reawaken. A shortage of steel in three consecutive towns might be due to bad luck, trouble in the mines, an increase in bandit activity on the roads from the mountains, or the king’s new tax on steel to support the cost of his coming war.

The most important thing is to let go of the need to know exactly what’s happening in your world. You don’t need to know why the blacksmith doesn’t have enough steel to fix the fighter’s great axe. Just remember that that was the case. Later, when happenings in the plot seem like they would affect the availability of steel, leave some clues linking the situations.

This is one of those times when listening to your players is a great way to come up with plot ideas. They might figure out the connection between the steel shortage and the main plot before you do.

Step 2: Create a Spiral World Background

If you want your world to have a unique flavor, pick one or two ways to showcase it. You don’t need the royal lineage, currency, religions, guilds and exotic weaponry all fleshed out. People in a remote village are unlikely to experience all of those things in full, and your players are even less likely to remember them.

Instead of describing everything that gives your world flavor, outline the important things and flesh out only one or two categories. In one particular world I ran, I gave the players no background information, but instead, a list of what transportation was available. This included horses, specially bred dire dogs, trained dragons, enchanted pookas, and highly unreliable alchemical motorcycles.

From this information, players could infer this was a high-magic world with a lot of alchemy, non-sentient dragons, and plenty of mythical beings. I didn’t have to describe the weapons for them to know standard medieval fare would be most common, enchantments were plentiful, and guns were present but prone to blowing up in their owner’s face.

We’re half a year into the campaign now, and I still haven’t told them exactly what races are present in the world. They’ve met humans and gnomes so far, but they don’t know if there might be more strange beings in the land beyond the northern mountains. Had someone wanted to play, say, an elf, I would have had to decide whether or not that was possible. But since the characters have yet to encounter any elves, there’s no reason for the players to know if elves exist.

Obviously, not all players or all GMs will be comfortable with quite that level of vagueness in such an important facet of the world. Deciding which features of your world you can handwave and which you need specifics on will save you time and allow you to go all-out on those few features you do decide to put detail into.

Step 3: Create a Basic Map and Plot Then Spiral Out Via Gameplay

Sketch a rough outline of the world map. Not anything detailed, but just the basics – nations, obvious geographical features such as oceans and major mountain ranges, and so on. Fill in only the capitols of each kingdom, and maybe a major city or two.

Choose a starting area for your players. Skip the broad outlines and settle on the place where your party’s adventure will start. Either way, this area will need the most detail. If you do choose to start with a rough map, and the players hail from different areas, add a few details to those places as well.

If your players need more information to flesh out their backgrounds than you’ve provided, consider a bit of collaborative world-building, such as Microscope or Dawn of Worlds. Your bard wants to be from a small island nation? Throw one in that empty patch of ocean off the coast. The party’s fighter trained at a monastery in the mountains? Sure. There are now three different monasteries in that small range to the north. Which one is he from?

As you’re drawing in geography basics, add some plot. Perhaps the players start in a small farming village, with a main road connecting it to another village. The area around both villages is heavily forested, and full of dangerous creatures. There are a few small streams running through the forest, but the nearest river big enough to sail on is just past the second village. Thus, all trade from the starting village must go via the road, creating an excellent opportunity for banditry.

This is enough plot and geography for the first session, and you’ve created it in little time. All you have left to do is stat out a few bandits, and plant some rumors about how the attacks have been getting worse in recent months. The village will need a tavern and perhaps a blacksmith or general store, and one or two colorful NPCs who may be linked to the plot.

The more confident you are in your ability to improv, the less you have to prep. Certainly the party will interact with the innkeeper, but are you sure they’ll be stopping by the general store? If you feel you can come up with some prices and a shopkeeper off the top of your head, why plan those things out? If the party skips on shopping, you’ll have saved valuable time you can use in spicing up the bandit encounters.

Step 4: Plan a Few Encounters

Flexibility and creativity are key to making loosely-planned encounters interesting. You might know the players will be fighting some bandits, but there’s a number of ways that could go. Does the party venture into the forest to track down the bandits? Or will they journey down the road with the next merchants, hoping to guard them against an attack?

Rather than make thorough plans for all eventualities, have a few vague ideas in mind about what could happen either way. Given the party’s level, a group of about five bandits might be just the right challenge. Stat out that group and create a situation. Then let the players make it complicated.

If you feel uncomfortable running combats without a map, then draw some generic maps of the kind of terrain the players are currently traveling through. If combat comes about, sketch in a few relevant features to make the map interesting and you’re good to go.

Planning and running encounters in this way might take getting used to. The impulse is to plan for each eventuality, but you’re better off planning situations instead of specific outcomes. I’ve found GMing in this way is much more enjoyable. I never have to worry about railroading players. And I’m having just as much fun discovering the plot as my players. I’m still running things behind the scenes, but rather than being a Machiavellian plotter, I’m just along for the ride.

Step 5: Ask Why? to Expand the Spiral World Storyline

When your players are closing in on the bandits’ camp, it’s time to figure out just what those bandits were doing there to begin with. After all, you planted rumors that banditry was up, and there has to be some reason for that.

Maybe the bandits turn out to be down-on-their-luck farmers from a neighboring area who’ve been suffering from poor crops. This might just be a bad season, or perhaps some evil mages are summoning a demon who’s playing havoc with the weather.

Alternatively, the bandits might be paid mercenaries hired by a local lord. Why? The bandits don’t know, so you don’t have to, either. This local lord lives in a keep a day’s journey down the river from the forest’s edge, next to a slightly larger village. This village has a few shops, and is known for its extravagant temple. Until the players get there, that’s all the information they – and therefore you – need.

Once players have dealt with the bandits and created a plan for dealing with the noble, it’s time to figure out a higher layer of the onion. Again, ask Why? Why is that lord resorting to banditry? As it turns out, this lord has ambitions to extend his power, and he’s trying to bring the nearby villages under his rule. He was hoping the villagers, after being plagued by bandits, would be forced to turn to him for aid.

He wants control of the villages so his tax and recruitment base will be expanded. This will enable him to challenge the lord of the adjoining province, who probably has some schemes of his own up his sleeve.

A few more sessions down the road, players might realize they’ve stumbled into a whole nest of feuding lords, competing for an increasingly unstable crown. Maybe the lord whose bandits they first foiled is really a pawn in an ever larger game, instructed to provoke a conflict with his neighbors so the King’s forces will be sent to deal with the disturbance, diverting them from a brewing rebellion halfway across the kingdom.

This sort of ever-growing spiral expansion also lends itself to reversals. What if… the rebellion is necessary to topple an unjust king? The rebellion’s leaders feel the ends justifies the means, or maybe the local lord just got a little over-eager in his maneuvering, and wasn’t supposed to be harassing hapless peasants as part of the scheme.

The players might be confused as to why they’d seen no signs of an unjust King earlier, but remind them that news travels slowly to isolated villages. And what about that steel scarcity? It was caused by the King impounding steel shipments to arm his forces.

Use this method to stay two or three steps ahead of the party without too much detail in case players go in a different direction.

Build Your World the Spiral Way

If pressed for time, overwhelmed, or not interested in extensive world-build before your campaign starts, use the Spiral World-Building method to build your world as you play.

Use these five steps for a fast start:

Step 1: Launch With a Minimum Viable Spiral World
Step 2: Create a Spiral World Background
Step 3: Create a Basic Map and Plot Then Spiral Out Via Gameplay
Step 4: Plan a Few Encounters
Step 5: Ask Why? to Expand the Spiral World Storyline

Then fill out the blank hexes, details, and plot as you go.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Make Your Campaign Beatable

From Danny East

Some gamers are goal oriented. They enjoy playing games to win. Due to their open-end nature, RPGs pose a bit of difficulty for such players. To encourage these folks to roleplay, and help them enjoy RPGs in a way they can relate to, try adding an ending goal to your campaign design. Make your campaign “beatable.”

Have tangible group goals. The campaign is over when these goals have been met. This might last for generations of PCs.

  • They have to defeat the space pirates, and own their own fleet to monopolize the heavens before they can retire.
  • They have to (Diablo style) clear out the mines before the Dwarven Kingdom can return.
  • They must collect two of every species and build a space ark to inhabit another world before the comet strikes.
  • A deposed prince must regain his throne, putting his fellow adventurers into their respective positions for the court. All courts need a jester, wizard, bodyguard, priest, general, and spy. Once there, you can roll credits.
  • The detective agency (complete with thief, cop, face man, computer guru, mechanic, and tank) must arrest the hard to find, well defended, and notorious gang leader, thereby bringing peace to the city. A peaceful city needs no detective agency.

Have a specific, pre-designed, final goal for your individual characters. The politician has to be elected Prime Minister, the entertainer has to get her own TV show, the fighter has to win a championship, and the necromancer has to raise an army of 2,000 to gain admittance into the next realm.

These are goals that would take the character out of adventuring, therefore “retiring” them to an NPC.

Reward more XP to players for completing plot-related quests than you do for hunting random monsters. Keep the hunting in, though. It’s fun. But use it as a vessel for the campaign, not just as a leveling device. This will help keep the goals game and character specific.

The possibilities are as endless as the plot twists. Be sure to tell your players at the start of character creation what their final goal will be.

Players with a goal are players with focus, and players with focus are determined to play the game to the limits of their imagination and ability. That will breed enough excitement to fuel the next campaign. So, let them beat the game.

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Use Real Estate Brochures For Mapping

From David Hickman

I was thumbing through a magazine and saw something that I just had to pass on.

Go to a nearby realty company and pick up some magazines for houses, the ones that show the floor plans. These are excellent maps for on-the-fly, ready-made dungeon crawls, taverns, fortified manors, mansions, common halls, government buildings, or whatever.

If things are too close together, just add some halls between the rooms, plus some traps and furnishings for flavor, and viola, you have a ready made…whatever.

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d100 Statue Rooms

From Tommy H.H.

  1. A statue filled with acid, which is released when someone hits it.
  2. A living statue that attacks the first person who touches a certain door.
  3. A statue that opens up a secret door when turned.
  4. An electrified statue, which does double damage if hit by a metal weapon.
  5. A statue that is just a statue.
  6. A cracked statue with a skeleton inside.
  7. A cracked statue, with an undead skeleton ready to burst out of it.
  8. A statue holding a real bow and arrow.
  9. A living statue holding a real bow and arrow.
  10. A statue full of gas holding a real bow and arrow.
  11. A regenerating but otherwise normal statue.
  12. A statue equipped with a talking mouth, pretending to be a trapped person.
  13. A statue equipped with a talking mouth, not pretending to be anything.
  14. A living person turned to stone but able to talk, pleading for help.
  15. A statue that, when touched, teleports the toucher to one of three rooms at random.
  16. A statue with a trap door just in front of it.
  17. A living statue wearing an amulet.
  18. A living statue wearing a fake amulet.
  19. A living statue wearing a cursed amulet.
  20. A statue wearing a fake amulet with a fire trap on it.
  21. A statue wearing a cursed amulet with a fire trap on it.
  22. A cracked statue with a living statue inside.
  23. A cracked statue with a gold treasure inside.
  24. A cracked statue filled with army ants, which are released when it is smashed.
  25. A statue standing on a hidden catapult; when touched it smashes against the ceiling, and rains down on those in the room.
  26. A cracked statue acting as a cork to stop a river of lava beneath it from flowing into the room.
  27. A statue that, when smashed, teleports three living statues to the room.
  28. A statue that teleports out of the room if something is about to damage it.
  29. A cracked statue with a hidden portal inside it.
  30. A statue holding a potion of flesh to stone.
  31. A statue holding a potion of stone to flesh.
  32. An archer statue that fires magical arrows.
  33. A talking statue that directs you to unwittingly trigger a trap.
  34. A statue blocking a doorway that steps aside after answering a riddle.
  35. An animated statue that disgorges a smaller statue that disgorges a smaller statue and so on.
  36. Two living statues locked in a never-ending battle, one symbolizing good, the other, evil.
  37. A statue with a potion, which is actually fast-drying glue that reacts when moisturized by something, such as a swallowing throat.
  38. A statue with a false potion that explodes when the potion is touched.
  39. A living statue holding a potion that turns the imbiber into a rat. The statue will attack any rats it sees.
  40. A living statue holding two potions; the first turns the imbiber into a rat, the second turns the imbiber into a cat.
  41. A statue holding a rope stretched out in front of it. If someone pulls the rope two things happen: the statue falls through a trap door under itself, and the rope changes into a chain around the pulling person’s hand.
  42. A statue standing in the ceiling of the room, holding a rope stretched down to the floor with a bell on the end. If the rope is touched, a reverse gravity spell is cast on everyone in the room. They will fall upwards and take damage. The bell on the rope chimes out loudly, and guards armed with crossbows arrive for target practice.
  43. A statue holding a hammer and a gong stretched out so they can be taken; if someone hits the gong, guards will arrive.
  44. A living statue holding a hammer and gong stretched out so they can be taken. If anyone tries, the statue attacks with the hammer, using the gong as a primitive shield. Every time the statue is attacked and hit on the gong, guards somewhere in the dungeon will laugh and hurry to the battle.
  45. A statue holding a hammer and gong stretched out so that they can be taken. If someone hits the gong, the owner of the dungeon flees with all of his or her treasures.
  46. A living statue swinging a huge hammer on an anvil; if a non-magical weapon is placed on the anvil, it gets +1 or more.
  47. A living statue swinging a huge hammer on an anvil; if a non-magical weapon is placed on the anvil it is destroyed, and the statue attacks the weaponless person.
  48. A huge statue surrounded by a boxing ring; anyone entering the ring is attacked.
  49. A crystalline statue; if destroyed everything else in the room made out of crystal turns to dust.
  50. A crystalline statue; if approached it activates all potions in the room, acting on random characters.
  51. A crystalline statue. If touched, it heals a person with a small amount of hit points. When the statue is touched the fourth time, it will instead hit that person with a fireball.
  52. A crystalline statue, just made out of (expensive) crystal.
  53. A statue crying blood.
  54. A statue crying blood. If destroyed, it will explode, bathing everyone in blood. Good characters take acid damage, evil characters gain a permanent hit point, neutral characters just say yuck!
  55. A living statue crying blood. It attacks if someone touches a certain door.
  56. A statue crying blood; if touched it will crumble to dust, revealing a huge, blood red diamond.
  57. A statue crying blood; if touched it will teleport the toucher to the dimension of nightmares.
  58. A cracked statue crying blood; if destroyed, a rotten corpse falls out. 10% of the time, the statue instead holds treasure.
  59. A cracked statue crying blood; if destroyed, a demon escapes from it.
  60. A cracked statue crying blood; if destroyed, a trapped person is released from it.
  61. A statue holding a mirror; anyone looking into the mirror will turn to stone.
  62. A statue holding a mirror; anyone looking into the mirror sees into a random room of the dungeon.
  63. A living statue holding a mirror. If someone looks into the mirror, it explodes in the person’s face, damaging and possibly blinding them. The statue roars, “you’re too ugly to live!” and attacks.
  64. A statue holding a signpost with “turn left” written on it. There is a trap in the room to the right.
  65. A statue holding a signpost with “turn right” written on it. There is a trap in the room to the left.
  66. A statue holding a signpost with the text “turn left” or “turn right.” There is a trap in the room that the sign refers to.
  67. A statue holding a signpost with the text “turn left” or “turn right.” Both rooms in these directions hold traps, but if the statue is turned in the right direction, a secret door will open.
  68. A statue bulging with muscles. Describe it in a way that heightens the sense of danger. If anyone attacks the statue, a stonemason will run out in front of it and scream, “Don’t destroy my masterpiece! The lord of this dungeon wants to buy it, but hasn’t paid for it yet.”
  69. A living statue. It asks to join the group, because it is bored with this dungeon.
  70. What appears to be a statue, but in reality is a statue- mime hired by the dungeon lord as a spy. If he is untouched he will warn the lord, and when the players come to the end of the dungeon there will be no big boss and no treasure.
  71. Two living statues having a spirited argument.
  72. A living statue which, if attacked, will run through an opening. If followed, it will run straight to the lord of the dungeon, throw itself at his/her feet and scream, “Help me master!
  73. A living statue which, if attacked, will run through an opening. If followed, it will run to a room filled with five other living statues that are ready to fight.
  74. A living statue which, if attacked, will run through an opening. If followed, it will run down a corridor with a classic giant boulder trap. The boulder will send both statue and players running, but what stops the statue from grappling a player and committing hostage suicide?
  75. A statue with a sign around its neck reading “do not touch.”
  76. A statue with a sign around its neck reading “do not touch.” The statue is electrified.
  77. A scantily clad living statue. It will flirt shamelessly with any characters of its preferred gender.
  78. An angelic statue. If touched it will radiate sun – vampires will be crawling, but most can walk away with a nice tan.
  79. An angelic statue. If an evil character touches it, that player will be teleported to heaven (which can be bad for the bad).
  80. A devilish statue. If it is touched, the room will be consumed by a sea of flame, burning all non-evil characters to ashes.
  81. A devilish statue. If touched, it will giggle.
  82. A recently ruined statue, signaling the players aren’t alone in the dungeon.
  83. A statue which, if touched, will secretly steal the top item in that player’s inventory. If the statue is destroyed, the item(s) will be returned.
  84. Statues of each player. If touched, they will dissolve like the illusions they are.
  85. A statue of the lord of the dungeon. If it is smashed, the lord of the dungeon will vanish with all of his treasures.
  86. An enchanted statue of the lord of the dungeon. It grants the dungeon lord 20 extra hit points, but if it is destroyed he will lose those hit points permanently.
  87. A statue of the lord of the dungeon. He has a big ego.
  88. Two statues of the lord of the dungeon. One of them is a living statue guarding the other against vandalism.
  89. A cracked statue. If smashed, an impersonator is freed that resembles one of the players. The impersonator will claim to be that player. The true player has to prove his identity.
  90. A cracked statue. The statue imprisons a player who was previously secretly replaced by a doppelganger.
  91. A cracked statue. If smashed it releases a ghost.
  92. A statue of a mime searching a wall. (Even the lord of the dungeon hates them.)
  93. A living statue that appears to be chopped to bits. If anyone touches a certain door the illusion will break, and the statue will try to chop the players to bits.
  94. A statue that will turn the first who touches it to stone. The former statue will become an NPC, who will refuse to touch the new statue and take the curse back onto himself.
  95. A statue looking like an ice elemental, in the middle of a strange room where the floor slopes to each exit. If players touch the statue, ask them on which side they are standing. The floor will turn to ice, and all players will slide down the slopes in front of the openings. There may be more traps at the end of some slopes.
  96. A statue which, if touched, will reach out and touch that person in return.
  97. A female statue which, if touched in any way, smacks the offender.
  98. A living statue that mimics the nearest person.
  99. A living statue. If it is touched the entire floor of the room falls down into lava pits, revealing that the statue is build on a huge stalagmite towering up from the lava.
  100. A living statue. If anyone touches a certain door, it will attack and activate a stone to lava spell on the floor. 100) Erh, I think I’m out of inspiration. Why don’t you just roll twice on this table and see what troubles your players will have?