Minimum Viable Worldbuilding - The Rule of 5

This is a technique for a history-forward’ method of worldbuilding. One where you first construct the history of a location and use that to inform that day-to-day world that your players will encounter. It works for pretty much any size of area, from an individual structure (such as a dungeon) to an entire planet or solar system. I generally use it for towns, villages and any ruin or similar where the party are likely to spend more than a couple of sessions.

The term minimum viable worldbuilding’ refers to the overarching goal behind this. You want to give your players enough material to make a location feel like it has both a past and a present, with multiple threads (and possible interactions between them) to explore. Locations that are entirely past’ feel static - implausible in the way that some unlooted places in open world videogames are. Locations that are entirely present’ feel generic, as there is no context or contrast with whatever the current crisis or rumour is. However, no GM has the time to prepare a fictional history that even comes close to that of the real world, and to do so would fix it too rigidly, incapable of further evolution).

Basically, you’re aiming for somewhere between a Rothko (wherein the absence of detail leads to divergence between what different players project onto it) and a Bosch (time-consuming and leaves you a prisoner of your own detail if you wish to adjust something during play).

rothkobosch Note that I cannot help but look for Wally (Waldo to the Americans) in Bosch paintings. Look, there he is, getting eaten by a half-beetle, half-sparrow.

So what is it?

The basic principle is to answer the question What happened here five _________ ago?” Where the blank can be any unit of time from seconds to millions of years. We choose five different units of time, thus asking five slightly different questions. From these we creatre a timeline with intervals that get exponentially longer the further back you go. The different units will also impact the nature of answers, and how they are expressed in the world.

Aim for your answers to be unique to that area. For example, if something is an answer for two adjacent towns, then it’s actually an answer to the same list of questions for the region, not an individual town.

You can also add one or more pieces of implied information that player characters would encounter in the present. Some of the examples below have had this added. This then leads onto the following section, in which we derive interactions and situations.

Millions of Years
Geographic features. Key steps or divergences in the evolution of plants and animals. Deposits of geological resources. Creation myths and similar works of great, fundamental magic.

  • An asteroid rich in mithril impacted from above, creating Silverwave lake.
  • The warm bloods’ thick fur meant they survived The Time of Ice.
  • Dinosaurs that died in the thick river mud were fossilised, creating a seam of well-preserved remains.

Events described in holy books, philosophical tomes or oral traditions. Extinct civilizations with dead languages. Ruins where the purpose of them and/or their method of construction is unclear.

  • The great tablets covered in runes were raised on the clifftop, still undeciphered even now.
  • The journey of Salid, Son of Mur, brought back the treasures that were sealed in the Vault of Kings.
  • The Karakhim ruled this land as despots, practicing a bloody but even-handed system of justice.

Things recalled by longer-lived species. Building of a structure where the architecture and use is still clear today, even if ruined. A notable battle or other victory (legal, magical, political) with wide ramifications.

  • Malcolm the Great was victorious, and his lineage still rules to this day.
  • The construction of the huge amphitheatre which most of the town now lies within.
  • With the translation of the apocrypha complete, a schism developed in the followers of T’Gren.

Within the living memory of the oldest humans. The establishment of current borders/jurisdiction. A natural disaster that is hoped never to be repeated. The last time a now abandoned structure was used.

  • The day of three rainbows, seen as a sign that the land was fertile and blessed.
  • An assassin’s blade found the heart of Merther Tywit, recently canonized as Saint Tywit.
  • The supposed day of judgement for The Chosen of Datch, which did not come to pass.

Changes of ruler/government. An unsolved crime still lurking in local memories. The war responsible for the ongoing insurgency. A decision or event that is still being argued about by older people.

  • Phinneas the mage built their tower one bend along the river.
  • A fire tore through the Heartwood. The new saplings are still small and fragile.
  • The gates of Murin’s Wall were closed due to the plague, and still are today.

The happenings of the previous season. An ongoing legal dispute. A scandal fresh in local memories.

  • Every sow on the Winthrop Farm became pregnant overnight. The piglets are due any day now.
  • The East guard tower collapsed. Work has not yet started on a replacement, despite much discussion.
  • Lord Northwood imposed punitive taxes, causing much resentment.

The most recent news from a distant place (in a pre-telegraph world). The latest crisis for local government.

  • The Queen is dead. Long live the King.
  • A supply ship foundered on Devil’s Reef. Prices are much higher already.
  • The new road to the capitol was completed. The first pilgrims have just arrived.

Gossip and rumour that is the current talk of the town’. Events that are likely unknown to those outside this local area.

  • There was a fight at the funeral of old Tim. Black eyes remain visible on the combatants.
  • Strangely coloured lights were seen at the windows of the long-empty Gavelack Hall.
  • A group ventured into Spiderweb Forest to hunt the Speckled Stag.

Occurences of the previous day or night. Things that people are still learning about and reacting to.

  • Hilary and Benedict have gotten engaged. They are from two rival families.
  • Famed bandit leader Karl the Crimson has pitched his camp across the river.
  • Ursula the Miller is missing. Her wife swears they went to bed as normal last night.

The immediate aftermath is experienced by the player characters. The event could still be ongoing or have people instinctively reacting to it.

  • The town hall is ablaze. Smoke and flames are visible.
  • An elderly stranger laid his hand upon the plague victim. They are already awake and smiling.
  • Loud trumpets signalled the start of Prince Rupert’s procession.

Inciting incidents. Things that the player characters can observe directly and react to.

  • The actor playing Ser Winthrop staggers backward, covered in blood. That wasn’t a prop knife!
  • Lightning slams into the sign at the crossroads, sending fragments everywhere.
  • The foreman of the jury pronounces the defendant as guilty while the crowd watches.

Deriving the Current Situation

As an example of putting this into practice, let’s consider the town of Ambridge as an example. We aren’t trying to draw connections at this stage - just throw some interesting and varied answers down on a piece of paper.

What happened here five centuries ago?”
A group of desperate travellers chanced upon a large, abandoned orchard. Who planted it remains unclear.

What happened here five decades ago?”
A power struggle as the last of the Hanley family passed away without issue.

What happened here five years ago?”
The murder of popular blacksmith Earl Connely. It remains unsolved.

What happened here five weeks ago?”
Reports emerged of merchants being attacked on the West road. The attackers work at night, are humanoid, cover their faces and mostly take valuable cloth or thread.

What happened here five minutes ago?”
A cryptic symbol appeared on the wall of the Goose & Gander. It is green, luminous and slimy. It resembles an octopus caught in a spiderweb.

We then take these answers and look first at what is immediately obvious - what would the characters notice or be told about as soon as they enter? Then we move onto deeper reasons behind what is happening, and the connections between them. Finally, we ask what is hidden and secret, and what motivations are behind the events that have happened or are unfolding?

As the characters enter the town:

  • Everyone is talking about the symbol. People are running over to look at it whilst others back away. The owner of the Goose & Gander has started to wonder how to profit from it.
  • The mysterious robbers are less discussed, unless someone invents a rumour that connects them with the symbol.
  • Theories fly around as a few brave souls touch the symbol and discussion continues over some glasses of the wine the town is famous for (possibly all the party knew before coming here).

As they learn more and spend more time here:

  • The tensions of the earlier power struggle have not entirely vanished. There are still rivalries between the families that have been here the longest and they seldom inter-marry.
  • Earl Connely was known for the elaborate carvings he could create in metal. The were often based around the number eight and there are probably still some examples dotted around the place.
  • The town’s prosperity rests on the orchard. A belief has developed that its fertility is waning.

And if they themselves investigate:

  • A friendly slime spirit has taken pity on Earl’s weak and feeble ghost, and is attempting to lead people to the truth (despite not speaking any languages) - he was killed to prevent his popularity from challenging the current ruling family.
  • A secret fertility cult is constructing a cloth effigy to burn as part of a restoration ritual. Certain extreme elements believe there should be a human sacrifice inside, and propose capturing a suitable victim…
  • The plan of the orchard matches with a constellation familiar to one of the characters. More evidence that the prophecy is accurate.

But why 5?

grail Even in 2022, tabletop RPG blogs are required by law to feature at least one still from this film. I have chosen to get mine out of the way early, but write to your local representative today to spur change.

Measuring both time increments and the number of questions as the same number makes it easy to remember. Moreover, the rule of three is already a thing, and also three doesn’t feel like quite enough. The idea here is to imply greater depth - by creating just enough material that the details and ramifications of it can’t be summarised in just a single conversation. Five things gives you ten possible interactions between them all - more if you have three or more things all interact simultaneously!

October 23, 2022