by Mike Shea on 16 May 2016
We here in the Sly Flourish laboratories continually look at where GMs can get the most from their effort and time. This all led to the book The Lazy Dungeon Master where we propose that limiting the time we spend preparing our game can actually make our games better.
Many activities potentially offer little value for the amount of time we spend. I would suggest these few:
I also submit a few ways we might maximize our preparation time to make our game great:
It's this last one that we'll discuss in the rest of this article.
Back in 2013, Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel published the roleplaying game Dungeon World, a fantasy RPG based on the story-focused principles and mechanics of the game Apocalypse World. Dungeon World received a lot of well-deserved attention for its focus on player-driven storytelling and world building, even getting the attention of lead D&D designer, Mike Mearls who said:
"Even if you're not looking for a new RPG, Dungeon World has some nifty elements like fronts that are useful in D&D."
Dungeon World fronts are a great way to move your mind away from designing plots and instead driving the story forward through the actions of the most influential aspects of the world. Fronts are the oncoming storms soon to smash into our PCs.
The easiest fronts to define are major NPCs. Depending on the scope of your game, these NPC fronts might be Alesburn the influential sheriff or Orcus Prince of Undeath. Focusing fronts on NPCs works well since they're so clearly atomic entities. Other more nebulous fronts can work, like a malevolent plague sweeping across the land, but might be harder to get your head around. It's also hard to see through the eyes of a massive blighted storm overtaking the forest of Moonwood.
As written Dungeon World fronts are already nicely stripped down ways to think about the major threats in your shared world. Some of the concepts, however, can be a little obscure and, for some, not as useful. Instead, we can break down fronts into a more simplified form. Here's an example:
This alone is usually enough to build out a nice front. In any campaign its probably worth having three such fronts to keep things complicated and engaging. As fronts get wiped out, new fronts might appear. More than three might become too complicated to manage. Fewer than three makes the game feel a little too simple.
Apocalypse World had a wonderfully named component referred to as the Armageddon Clock. Dungeon World renamed this the Impending Doom. If the PCs do nothing, what horror will villain unleash on the world?
The impending doom is led to by grim portents. What are the visible steps the villains will take to inflict their doom upon the world? This is very similar to Dave Chalker's 5x5 Method in which you define five major threats and the five steps those threats need to take to reach their goal. It's a simple and elegant solution that builds a wonderfully complicated nest of problems and threats in which your PCs can get involved.
It also doesn't take a whole lot of time.
It certainly doesn't need to be five steps either. Three steps are usually easier to come up with.
If we look at the D&D adventure Legacy of the Crystal Shard, we can see three clear NPC fronts and three clear impending dooms:
All three of these villains have clear motivations, goals, and impending dooms. However the PCs move, these villains move forward as well. The grim portents for these villains are all outlined in the adventure, so we won't to over them here.
Looking at the 13th Age adventure, Eyes of the Stone Thief, we can create another set of fronts. We'll stick to three main goals for each front since many of these are likely to change as the campaign moves on.
All of these worldly events are great, but how do they affect the lives of the PCs? Good fronts, grim portents, and impending dooms are only good if the PCs can learn about them. If they're too large in scale, are pushed too far outside the PC's views, or are too secretive to be discovered, our PCs may never benefit. That's sure a waste of time.
We can fall back to another powerful tool of the Lazy Dungeon Master: secrets! After we have our larger fronts written out, before each session we can write out a dozen or so tweet-sized secrets that our PCs can discover. These secrets can be all about the fronts, grim portents, and impending dooms along with any other clues that might give them a view of what's going on. Secrets are powerful GM magic, use them well.
Pushing multiple fronts is a great way to build a living, dynamic, and dangerous world around the PCs. Some players, however, aren't really big on this. They might like it in theory but in practice they feel like no matter how well they're doing with one front, they're always two steps behind with the other two. As they take on the threats of one of the fronts, the others are moving forward without them.
Looking back on the Legacy of the Crystal Shard, this can certainly be a problem. While the PCs are off saving the barbarians from the Ice Witch, Gant is busy kidnapping the speaker of Bryn Shander and the dwarves are getting further corrupted by Akar Kessel's black ice.
If the fronts move too fast, the PCs can find themselves defeating one villain only to have two others succeed with their nefarious plots.
We can handle this by making sure that the other fronts take some time to move forward and that there's always opportunities for the PCs to push things back. We can also fail forward by ensuring that, even if the villains do get close to, or even succeed, in accomplishing their Impending Doom, that the PCs can still get in there and push them right out again.
The fantasy RPG 13th Age gives us another tool to keep fronts moving at the right pace without outrunning the PCs' ability to stop them. Instead of all fronts moving forward at the same pace, we can use 13th Age icon rolls to see which of the fronts have moved and which have run into troubles outside of the PC's involvement. Again, we can make these results visibile to the PCs through clues, secrets, and rumors.
The concept of fronts continues to be a powerful tool we can add to our lazy dungeon master arsenal. With just a few notes on some 3x5 cards, a sheet of paper, or a text file on our computer; we can design large and powerful threats that bring deep complications into the lives of our PCs and into the imaginations of our players. Give them a try.