Friday, October 18, 2019

Step-by-step: how to write up a front

This post was originally a conversation on the Dungeon World Tavern back in Google+. Bryan Alexander said "Let's talk about Fronts and Dangers and Grim Portents... you start!"    
Later in the conversation, Bryan said "Honestly, I'm struggling a bit with understanding it myself. I've reread the chapter three times now and it isn't really clicking. We are three sessions in and while I have several ideas and things that tie into each other--I’m not quite sure how it is supposed to come together in terms of how the book says to do it."
And, yeah... Fronts are one of the chapters that folks in the DW community regularly point to and say "this could be easier to understand."  So here's my answer to Bryan, regarding how to proceduralize it.  Maybe you'll find it useful, too? 

From 20 Dungeon Starters (Marhsall Miller, Mark Tygart)

After your first session (or maybe two):


1) Look at the fiction already established, and identify the dynamic actors, the people or things that will move forward and adapt and pursue an agenda: the rival adventurers pillaging the dungeon; the abusive lord looking to increase his power; the goblins trying to defend their home. Each is a Danger.

2) Look for fragile, untenable, unstable circumstances. Like a crumbling dungeon holding a slumbering terror, a village simmering with resentment at its abusive lord, a disease or curse poised to sweep through the land. Each is a Danger, though maybe not yet active. Consider putting a “face” to each of these dangers, like the rabble-rousing matron who’s had enough or the spirit of the restless priest-king buried in the tomb.

Impending Doom & Grim Portents

3) For each Danger, ask yourself: what’s its trajectory? If it gets going and runs unchecked, what’s the irrevocable bad thing that will happen? That’s you impending doom. (If the list of dooms in the book help, great! If they feel confining, forget them!)

4) For each Danger, plot out 2-4 “steps” along the way to that impending doom, your grim portents.

Don’t go into a lot of detail, but these should be observable, concrete things. Things that the PCs can see, or get word of, of otherwise be affected by, and (this is crucial) react to and possibly prevent.

“Lord Douchebag doubles the taxes,” then “Lord Douchebag’s goons start ransacking homes for ‘hidden wealth'” and then “Lord Douchebag’s goons burn down a few houses and kill a few holdouts” and then “Lord Douchebag’s reign of terror: killing anyone who question him or try to flee.” All leading up to the doom of: “the villagers are brutally enslaved, famished, hopeless and forlorn.”

Tip: if you aren’t sure about 3 or 4, pick the danger type that best matches and look at the GM moves for those. That’ll give you ideas for how that type of danger can act, the types of things they can do! Use those to write your Grim Portents and Impending Dooms.


5) Optional: Add names and personalities to the dangers. Who is Lord Douchebag’s right hand? Which of the goons is having second thoughts? Which of the townsfolk is colluding with the Lord? Which ones will stand up to him and take the brunt of his fury? (This is the Cast.)


6) Optional: Ask yourself some questions, things you aren’t sure about but would like to find out in play. Will Balfur's conscience get the better of him? Will any of the Stouthearts survive? Don’t answer them yet, leave them out there as open questions! These are your Stakes Questions. They aren’t critical to making the whole thing work, but I find that they add a lot of depth.

Tip: avoid making your stakes questions the equivalent of “will the impending doom come to pass?” You already answered that. The impending doom will come to pass if no one does anything about it. Stakes questions should (IMO) be smaller, more personal. How will this affect this individual? That sort of thing.

In play, put your stakes questions on screen! Frame a scene that puts the question front and center, where the PCs can witness it and maybe do something about it. Then do one or more of the following:

  • Let the PCs decide. "You can see Balfur's not happy about how this is going. You might be able to sway him. What do you do?"
  • Let the dice decide.  "Sounds like Parley, using his conscience as leverage against him. Roll it!" (and follow where the dice lead)
  • Let the NPC decide, based on their instinct and established fiction and so forth. (Yeah, you're still deciding, but you're doing so with integrity rather than whim.)  "Look," Balfur says after the player rolls a 7-9, "I hear what you're saying, but I'm Lord Douchebag's sworn man, and his father was always a righteous ruler. You give me some proof that he's behind his father's demise and we'll talk. But until then," he swallows hard and sets his shoulders, "I've got taxes to collect."  (this based on Balfur's instinct of "to do his duty").
  • Let things simmer.  If a scene fails to resolve the question, or doesn't resolve it definitively, that's fine. Move on to something else and loop back to these stakes later.  

Using Fronts in Play (by Alfred Rudzki)

Once you've got your fronts prepared, how do you actually use them?  Here's a comment from Alfred Rudzki that I think is spot on:

So the thing about Fronts is that they don’t provide mechanics and I think that’s where some people get tripped up. They look at the Fronts and the Dangers and go ‘but what does it do?’ and the answer is nothing.

Remember how early in the book, you’re told role-playing is a conversation? Take that literally, and consider that Fronts are note-taking. You’ve done your reading — some Tolkien, some Salvatore, some Martin, your own game — and now you’re scribbling on notecards, organizing your ideas, bullet pointing what you think, scrawling out your own educated guesses and conclusions, and then you’re getting in front of your audience and you’re going to invest your ideas in the discussion. And if your audience is grooving or has something else they want to talk about, you go off notecard, and you address what they want to talk about — but you’ve got the cards ready so that if the crowd is happy to follow along, you’re not unprepared.

That’s what Fronts are. You use them by talking about them, nothing more. The players show up, you all sit down… none of them say anything, they’re waiting for you to start. Where do you start? Look at that Front. Okay, you’re thinking something with a menace in the woods and a key and some mines would be rad. How do you get from A to B? Okay, better talk about that thing in the woods. And then you go, “After many days walking, you pass through the deep, dark woods…” or whatever. You take your notes, and you make them into conversation. They’ll say stuff back to you, and you’ll ad lib. You’ll respond, you’ll have fun, they’ll respond… and then you’ll freeze up… oh man what should you do now? Bam, look at your Fronts. Tell the players something else relevant to your notes, or ask them to fill in the blank for you, and keep going. This is how Fronts work. Fronts are just “I think this thing would be cool, and I think it might do X Y Z, and maybe here’s a custom move I should use.” That’s all they are.

They don’t have mechanics, because you already know all the mechanics: players trigger a move and roll, you make moves when they miss or look to you for an answer. Those moves you’re making — the hard ones, the soft ones, the ones because they fail, and the ones because they did something you have to respond to — are often going to come from your Fronts, and they’re not going to come about because of any special device that catapults them form your notes onto the stage, but because you will be expected to speak and you will have done your homework to keep things moving quickly and cleanly.

Have you ever worked in theatre? Between scenes, when the lights are out, we move the setpieces and the props and change the costumes. Nothing on the stage does any of that, we have to do it by hand but we have a plan for how it all has to be moved around. Your Front is your plan for how you would move pieces around if left to your own devices. When left to your own devices, go ahead and follow your plan. When the players do something wild, when you have a sudden inspiration that is killer, go with that instead… the Front is just notes, just ideas, just suggestions for when you freeze up or are put on the spot.

That is what all the Dangers and Grim Portents and all of that are about: they’re about having something to say, and never being at a loss when the players are engaging with your content. If they decide they want to do their own things… well, that’s fine because your prep is just some ideas and you’re willing to ignore it/cannibalize it/repurpose it/approach it differently, and because your prep comes from your perspective. It doesn’t presume anything the players will choose to do, right? That’s how the Moves and Grim Portents and all of that works. Its what the people you control will do.

So, like you know — based on your ideas, from your notes — that you want the PCs to get on the trail of these keys. So, you need to remember to talk about these keys or reveal some instance of these keys. So maybe when you stat up your Dark Elves, you give them a move “announce the vengeance they’ll rain down on their enemies once they have the Key.” Then, during play, if things get heated, and you’re distracted, you have a note right there: Oh, hey! I almost forgot to announce that, yeah, that’s what I’ll weave in right now. And maybe the player’s don’t bite and they go off and do something else. That’s fine! You haven’t forced them into a course of action.

Similarly, Grim Potents, which are bad events that will come to pass without PC involvement, and you use those to update your status quo and illustrate what is coming to pass, to let your players know that “bad stuff is going down.” You narrate a Grim Portent coming to pass, but its something your bad guys are doing, and it doesn’t rely on forcing or assuming the PCs to do X Y Z. The fact that all of your prep is focused on your guys is how you can use your Fronts/notes to run the game and still let the players do whatever they’re going to do.


  1. "Your Front is your plan for how you would move pieces around if left to your own devices"

    I think this has been the most useful advice I have gotten about fronts.

    I've found people can confuse fronts as a checklist of what will happen in the adventure or just a list of steadily escalating calamities for the heroes.

  2. My theory about the Fronts chapter is that it's so prescriptive because Sage and Adam anticipated getting GMs who grew up on D&D and might have bad habits around building railroad plots. By making your prep all about what happens if the PCs do nothing, you guide the GM away from anticipating the PCs' reactions, thus removing a major source of railroad-y thinking.

    It's all very well to have a principle of "play to find out what happens," but principles without a concrete procedure don't help you if you don't know how to put the principle into action. The Fronts chapter is the concrete procedure.

  3. This is really helpful! Here's how I rewrote Front rules in a way that helped me understand how to use them:

    Here is how we organize them for [game]. Remember that Fronts are just a way of taking notes. You don’t have to follow this method, but it’s what makes sense for us:

    TITLE / SYNOPSIS: What are you naming your front? I like to think of them as pulpy episodic titles followed by a short elevator pitch. Although you should write the name at the top, it should almost be the last thing you fill in. Writing the title and synopsis will help you clarify the entire front.

    FIGUREHEAD: Who is the driving force behind the front? This is often a major antagonist or unlikely ally and should be keyed in on a nonplayer character.

    GOONS: What does the Figurehead control? Who can they call on to do their bidding?

    OPPOSITION: Who opposes the Front? Why?

    MOTIVATION: What does the figurehead want?

    STEPS #1-4: How is the figurehead going to obtain their goal? What are the steps they must take? Think of these as things that will leave marks the world. Every time a step passes it’s a good idea to remind the players through gossip, news, or concerned parties. Think of them as act breaks for the Fronts that can be built in multiples of 3, 4, or 5. Steps happen regardless of player intervention, though each hinted should provide an opportunity for your players to intercede into the Front.

    ENDGAME: What happens as a result of the Figurehead fulfilling the Front? It’s good to leave this part broad and ominous. You can come up with it the rest if and when you get there.

    1. I like your version, except for "Steps happen regardless of player intervention". The Grim Portents of a Front definitely do change if players intervene... if the front has been perturbed by the players' actions during a session but not completely dealt with, the GM should re-visit the Grim Portents (Steps) between sessions and re-write them as appropriate, based on what happened. The antagonist is still trying to achieve their goal, but they may have to adjust their plans in the light of the setbacks.

    2. @Rob... I'm pretty sure that what you've described is Ray's intent; otherwise, he wouldn't indicate that each should "provide an opportunity for your players to intercede."

      @Ray: With this structure, you're largely collapsing each Front into what the DW rules would consider a single "Danger." I'm not saying this is bad--it's very similar to what I do in Stonetop. But it is *different*.

      It's also hard to see how non-sentient dangers/fronts would work in this structure. Everything about this structure implies a "villain" with a plan. That in turn implies that you can always punch out the bad guy and defeat their plans. I know its more nuanced than that, but I think it does tend to lend itself to "BBEG" thinking.

      With the standard DW front structure, you can have something like an elemental vortex as a danger, or a brewing slave revolt, or disease. Each of those could have a series of escalating grim portents and an impending doom without there being a particular "figurehead" or a "plan." It's mostly semantics, sure, but I'd feel like I was shoe-horning something like "the dam's about to burst!" into the structure you presented.

      (And yes, I realize that the example Danger types and sub-types presented in DW wouldn't really cover this type of thing anyhow. But I've long given up on thinking of the danger types as exhaustive. The *structure* of fronts--with a cast of characters, multiple dangers with their own portents/dooms, and stakes questions--handle that sort of impersonal danger just fine.)

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