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Spiral Campaign and World Building in D&D

by Mike on 10 April 2023

Often DMs and designers build worlds from the outside in. The 2014 Dungeon Master's Guide describes worldbuilding through gods, religious organizations, the cosmos and planes, and the geography of the world. The world, and the campaign you build within it, starts big — from the universe inward.

But there's another way — a lazier wayspiral campaign development. I describe spiral campaign development in chapter 16 of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master but we'll dig into the topic even more in this article.

For a video on this topic, see my Spiral Campaign Development in D&D YouTube video. A previous article Thinking Two Horizons Out also touched on this subject.

What's the Campaign's Theme?

When engaging in spiral campaign development, we start by thinking about the campaign's central theme, mission, or goal. What's this campaign about? The shorter this is, the better. Ideally one sentence. Maybe even just one word.

If we look at the hardcover 5e adventures from Wizards of the Coast here are some examples:

Sometimes these themes change. Sometimes we start with one theme and switch to another. For Descent into Avernus we might start with "hunt down the cults threatening Elturel" and then switch to "save Elturel" once it's sucked into hell.

A campaign theme helps you and your players understand the focus of the campaign. It lets players know what kind of characters to build and it lets you know what sorts of adventures to prepare.

What Makes Your World Unique?

The campaign's central tenants, often described during a session zero, make your campaign and your world unique. I often refer to these as the "six truths." There doesn't have to be six. There can be three. More than seven is probably too many.

Even though these truths may be big in scale, they matter to the characters right now. They tell your players what the world is like for them and what sort of characters navigate that world. They tell the players what makes this world and this campaign unique among those they've seen or played.

Example questions that might define these "truths" include:

Clarify the theme in these "truths." Let the players know what they're getting into.

Spiraling Down to the Characters

Next, laser in on the characters and what's around them right in the beginning of their adventures or campaign in this world. Instead of answering questions about gods, pantheons, planes of existence, government structures, world geography and all the rest — focus on the following questions and ideas:

You'll notice these questions feel like building an adventure, not a campaign world, but that's what matters. The larger world and the larger campaign is interesting but only in small pieces revealed to the characters as they explore the world around them. You don't need to know every god in the pantheon — just those tied to the characters or to their enemies. Fill out the rest as the characters go on their adventures.

Reinforcing the Characters Motivation

As part of your spiral campaign development, and during your session zero, ensure you reinforce the motivation for the characters. Why are they there? Why group together? Why go on adventures? Make sure this motivation is crystal clear and spelled out early so players have a good reason for their characters to engage in dangerous adventures. Reinforce this motivation often.

A Focus on the Characters and Your Next Game

The whole philosophy of spiral campaign development is a clear focus on the characters, what they're doing, what they're going to do, and what the world around them is like. This isn't the end-all be-all of building a campaign. It's a start. Your world can be vast, deep, and old but the way you expose that to the characters, and their players, is through gameplay. It's during the game that the characters learn about the planes of existence, the old gods, the wars that tore apart the world, the lost species, and all the rest. They learn it one line at a time while delving deep into the old dungeons, caverns, keeps, and temples in the earth.

Focus on your characters and focus on the next adventure you're going to run. Let the world build out from there.

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