I still feel awkward working with Fronts

I still feel awkward working with Fronts

I still feel awkward working with Fronts

Fronts are a part of the game I expected to really dig, but in practice I find it really hit-or-miss: Sometimes the fiction generated during play fits right into the Front framework, but the majority of my campaign and adventure fronts don’t seem to fit.

As a result, most of my would-be fronts are pretty fuzzy. The concrete thing I work with is a list of major NPCs, locations, and named items, and I have an oblique sense of what everyone wants. Beyond that, I get by on Graham Charles’s advice in Play Unsafe: “Be obvious.”  We’re still having fun, mind you, I just feel like I’m missing out on a significant piece of Dungeon World’s game tech that would be making my life better if I was doing it better.

I feel like what I need is to see some examples, each describing a First Session and then the Fronts that came out of it.

Because my DW campaign is in full swing, it’s not easy to isolate something to ask for advice. But a few weeks ago, I ran a completely off-the-cuff session of Swords & Wizardry, which resulted in the same kind of fiction one might expect after running a First Session of Dungeon World.

Before we started, the players told me:

* They are adventuring in a howling forest in a haunted, mountainous region. Most settlements are villages of crooked cottages.

* Their patron is the Archmage, who lives in a tower on a peak, and the party’s magic-user is his pupil. We didn’t establish any other bonds yet, but the Archmage gave them some quirky magical doodads before play began, so he must know them.

* They wanted to kill a bad guy and they wanted to explore a dark cave

I printed out one of Dyson’s cave-like maps and made a quick list of quirky magic items for them to pick from, then started cold. Here are some details that emerged about our setting and the focal conflict:

* The bad guy was a bandit lord called “The Ghost”, because they ride into a village at night, round up almost everyone, and disappear before anyone can alert nobles or their militias.

* Their Ranger led them straight to the cave, they had a confrontation with the Ghost and a few bandit archers. The bandits were puny minions and fell down easily, but the Ghost retreated into the cave complex to mount further defense.

* With a few tense battles, they explored a bear cave, a guard tower built into the mountainside, and a cave being used as a stable for the bandits’ horses and the Ghost’s malefic steed, which had fangs and belched fire. They were just about to venture further into the fortified cave complex at the end of the session.

Here are some things that came to me during and after the session:

* The howling forest/haunted mountains reminds me of Jonathan Harker’s description of Transylvania in Dracula.

* That gave me the idea of a variety of cultural tensions. Maybe the church is about to split, like the Great Schism, and the Archmage is busy trying to broker a truce between the East and West.

* The cave map reminds me of a secret religious order that hides out in caves, like early monastics and the Qumran community.

* The religious order could be a heretical sect of women who worship a snake as a symbol of wisdom, like the serpent who gave Eve the fruit of the tree of knowledge. They built their shrine in these caves. This could tie in to a whole lot of D&D monsters.

* The Ghost is a D&D Wraith.

* She was once the slave of the Sultan of a neighboring kingdom, who was given to the Archmage as a prize for beating the Sultan in a game of Chess. She became the Archmage’s pupil, but studied dark stuff—blah blah blah. The Archmage believes she died, unaware that she planned to come back.

* Why has she been raiding villages at night and taking these people away? This is the question I struggled with most. Maybe she is still loyal to the Sultan, and she is rounding them up for slave labor.

* What is she getting out of it? No idea yet. She must be very shrewd, and she wouldn’t be sending him slaves without some kind of payment.

* What is her relationship with the shrine maidens? My first idea is that they were being held captive with the villagers, and the Ghost just took over their shrine as a convenient base because of it’s seclusion. But it might be cool if they were in cahoots, and giving refuge to the Ghost and her men was benefiting them in some way.

* That reminded me of Mike Mignola’s version of the death of Rasputin (in the Hellboy comic): When he died, he saw the Dragon (of Chaos) and it resurrected him. Maybe the Ghost’s study into dark magic likewise led her to give fealty to the Dragon, and she sees the shrinemaiden’s as fellow-travelers.

* The idea that they might be in cahoots also inspired me to stat up some of the shrine maidens as D&D Monks, with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon martial arts skills.

* Also, I want to put a basilisk in one of the uninhabited caves, which the sisters tend to, blindfolded, as a form of religious devotion. Since that’s kind of vanilla, I thought it might be cool to throw in an invisible goblin that lives in a sort of symbiosis with the basilisk, occasionally killing and eating shrine maidens who come to care for their pet.

* Finally, I thought it would be cool to have the main shrine include a Marilith statue, that is a real Marilith turned to stone by her own sister who is a Medusa. That detail may have no impact at all on this adventure, but if someone ever kills the Medusa in the far off future, the Marilith might thaw out and cause trouble. Anyway, that’s a crazy Easter Egg, but like any stuff you put in, the players might create interesting situations with it.

Anyway, it’s messy, but I tried to expose my thinking so that you can see where I’m coming from. I have not gone over the map yet to

“stock” the dungeon—I just made some notes about stuff I want to remember to put in, like an armory and magazine maintained by the bandits, complete with some sorcerous firearms and maybe a cannon, and a bunch of religious accoutrements—like a mikveh for ritual immersion (filled with holy water), holy scrolls, murals, incense, idols, and altars.

If that was the first session of a Dungeon World game, how would I take that stuff and turn it into Fronts?

17 thoughts on “I still feel awkward working with Fronts”

  1. All a Front has to do is give you a handy reference when you’re stuck for  a GM Move; Announce Impending Badness, cultists jump out from nowhere, the sun(s) go out…

  2. From that first session, I would write the Archamge up as a danger with a list of grim portents, and I would write the bandits up as a danger, with a list of grim portents. We know that the PCs at least care about the archmage, and seem interested in the bandits.

    All that other stuff? They don’t know, they don’t care. Keep it all around as a list of ideas, yeah, but if you write up a whole bunch of basilisk merilith shrine maiden thing and then the players just ignore it and chase after stuff the archmage wants on the other side of the continent, you did a bunch of work for nothing, you know? Introduce a thing you think is cool, and if the players want to pursue it for more than a single session, then write it up as a front/danger.

  3. I agree with Johnstone that you shouldn’t flesh out too much lest your ideas go wasted, but one thing I do find helpful personally is to make a few decisions about what’s going on behind the scenes, so your villains and NPCs have goals and motivations that will make some degree of sense when  the PCs start to figure stuff out. So I would, right now, settle on a basic motivations for your patron, the Ghost, and the snake cult. Those motivations can shift as you see fit, adapting to player assumptions, but NPC goals are important tools when you’re roleplaying those characters.

    The other thing I would do is look at your list of cool ideas and make strong decisions about how things are connected, tightening the relationships and cutting out the excess. Here’s a quick-and-dirty spitball take, in the spirit of “being obvious:”

    The Ghost the leader of the cult, or at least the right-hand woman of the cult leader. She works for the cult, rounding up villagers. If she’s a wraith, then the cult needs a clear and strong connection to the undead. I would make the basilisk a snake (same stats and powers, just cut off its legs), but not a pet — it’s the actual Snake of Forbidden Knowledge that they worship. Then, figure how forbidden knowledge is related to snakes and the undead — not too much of a stretch!

    The obvious thing to so with the villagers is make them sacrifices to the basilisk. They have to be blindfolded in order to get fed to it, because it can’t eat stone, right? Maybe the basilisk consumes the villagers and excretes something that, when eaten, imparts forbidden knowledge. Like how to win an argument against Death when you’re at the Black Gates, which is obviously how the Ghost became a wraith. That could even provide a great choice for the PCs: if they eat the basilisk poop, and roll a 7-9 for a Last Breath later on, Death will allow them to keep living, but only as undead. Also, all of the cult members have eaten the poop, so when the PCs kill them, they can come back as wraiths or similar.

    Finally, you can tie the archmage directly into the action by making him interested in a specific thing that he knows is in the caves — the basilisk poop being the obvious one, but maybe it’s the basilisk itself, or some other arcane relic held by the cult. He sends the PCs out to gather up whatever they can find and report back to him, but he secretly really wants the Mcguffin, which they won’t know until they turn it over to him. At which point their friendly patron becomes a threat in his own right.

    TL;DR: Look for obvious connections, and make them.

  4. Indeed, Jason Lutes says gods things here. I’ve got an entity definition template I use to track these sorts of things. I can get the link when I’m not on my phone.

  5. I make a bubble graph in which three or four main ideas are big bubbles. Then I sprout little bubbles with possible things that can happen from them. Then again with another bubble off each of those. If I need something to happen, I look at the bubbles and see what fits. Sometimes those ideas come to you during a game that “might happen.” Just jot them down in a bubble.

  6. Oh yeah, and in terms of actual Adventure Front using the core rules:



    * Cult of the Death Snake (Ambitious Organization; Impulse: To defeat Death with forbidden knowledge)

    – Impending Doom: Extermination of the local populace.

    * The Ghost (Arcane Enemy; Impulse: To explore the full extent of the Death Snake’s power)

    – Impending Doom: The Ghost becomes one with the Death Snake.

    * The Caves (Cursed Place;  Impulse: To spawn evil)

    – Impending Doom: The Death Snake emerges to wreak unprecedented destruction.

    You can work out some GM moves and Grim Portents from there. 

    The Archmage is probably his own Front, or even a Campaign Front where the big reveal is that he was manipulating them all along.

  7. Lot of great advice in here, especially regarding the specifics of how to link some of those ideas together. I’m still getting used to Fronts myself, but I’m warming up to them quickly so here’s my take on them as a whole.

    The Campaign Front you start putting together after the first session basically answers the question of “What is this campaign about?” It’s not something you’ll use during your sessions, but you’ll probably refer to it between sessions to make sure you’re foreshadowing things and keeping tone & theme consistent. If you’re going for a heavily episodic, dungeon-of-the-week type of game, you could probably skip writing a Campaign Front entirely. But if you want the campaign to be about cultists reviving the Evil God of Destruction and your players punching them in the face, you’ll want a Campaign Front so that you’re good about making it feel cohesive. If they spend 20 sessions fighting bandits and then this Evil God thing pops up out of nowhere in the grand finale, it’s gonna be kinda weird.

    Session-level stuff tends to live in the Adventure Fronts, which answer “What are my players actually doing?” Whereas Campaign Fronts are typically pretty focused on theme, Adventure Fronts are more about location. The Front itself may be “Townsville” or “The Haunted Woods,” but the Dangers in the Front can vary wildly. You probably want at least 1 related to your Campaign Front for consistency’s sake but you can also throw in others – they’ll make the location feel more alive. The witch that turned the princess into a frog might not have anything to do with the Cult of the Evil God’s operations in the area, but maybe it ties into one of the PC’s backstory. Or maybe you just had some neat ideas for it, and surely whatever reward they get for helping her will ultimately be valuable in their quest to punch god.

    For individual Grim Portents, I really like the description of them as “What happens if the PCs don’t do anything?” Start with a clear hook – maybe the PCs encounter the local crime family roughing up a merchant for protection money. Then put a couple major milestones like “The Duke is murdered and replaced by the mob’s stooge.” Don’t get into the nitty gritty, because your players should be running into the hooks for other Dangers as well. Maybe they focus on the mob and are able intervene in or prevent the Duke’s assassination, or maybe they’re too busy hunting a marauding dragon to do anything about it. And remember that you can only cover so much ground in a session, so you’re totally fine throwing a couple “???” Portents in the middle and working them out later on.

  8. I love parallel evolution. Much of what you’re describing, Marty H, is in the articles I linked 🙂

    And I do plots much as you describe — I focus on situations, and identify plot and timeline as what happen unless and until the PCs stick their meddlesome fingers in, then all bets are off.

  9. Real quick answer showing my first session et al.

    It’s a small group, and so far we’ve had one player with a very strong lead: a Paladin with a Quest. Erm, he wants to slay Cthulhu. The first session came in as he and his companion were traveling to R’lyeh. He explained that you have to keep walking towards Cthulhu, and when the stars align right, you’ll step into R’lyeh. (His Quest gives him an unerring sense of direction towards his foe, so…)

    I went, “Hmm, Cthulhu. Alright.” Because it’s that sort of slightly-wacky fantasy game.

    I picked two Dangers for the Campaign Front, which is The Way to R’lyeh Opens.

    The first Danger was the Followers of the Elder God, who I wrote up as a Religious Organization–they endorse the “endless pilgrimage” towards R’lyeh, and as it develops, Grim Portents reveal that more and more people are being coerced to join them, culminating in the rulers of several lands, throwing those lands into chaos when their leaders leave.

    The second Danger was The Dreamings of Cthulhu. As the Elder One sleeps, its dreamings seep into the world, first causing nightmares, then mutations, and then finally they bleed into the world and abrogate the laws of reality in several places.

    I also wrote up a Lizardmen tribe as an Adventure Front, because the first session ended with the PCs ambushed by lizardmen. (The watchman voluntarily decided to fall asleep. xD I love my group. The first session definitely set the tone for the game.)

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