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?