Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Nuts & Bolts #61 - Rolling Thunder

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Well that doesn't look optimal does it?

Something I have been trying to do for a while now is get my head around the Apocalypse/Dungeon World "Fronts" mechanic. I've read about it from others, and put some time into reading those rules in their natural habitat, but I just couldn't get my head around it. It's frustrating, in part because I know others have asked me to share my thoughts on the, and because I can see that there is a good idea in there for GMs to use, but try as I might I just couldn't quite get it.

Like that photo above I knew Fronts were a way to deal with oncoming threats to the game.  Fronts are that on-coming storm front, or an increase in street crime, or maybe the withering of crops, or the unexpected eclipse of the sun. They foretell things yet to come.

That storm for instance. I'm guessing there was rain, thunder, lightning, and some heavy wind behind that rolling cloud bank. Probably a whopper of a storm. The key though is that the Front is just those ominous clouds. Or the sudden cool wind as the pressure changes. Or the sky going dark.

Actually it is all of those things. That's what I didn't quite get.

But I kinda do get it now. I get the idea, even if I still don't understand the "rules as written" in the Dungeon World book. That probably comes from me not caring much for DW, and not knowing the rules much. I've played it couple of times, but I just wasn't my style. That said I get now how Fronts work.

Which means I can tell it my own way, based on how I use the idea.

I call call these Threats, because I think that makes more sense. Threats are what the Antagonists pose to a setting should they achieve their Goals. Each threat will also have Manifestations that are the tangible signs that the Threats are moving forward. This partly comes from my (perhaps poor) understanding of Fronts but also from my experience playing Shadow of the Demon Lord and reading about the mechanics of the titular Shadow.


The first thing I did as I started to map this out for a recent game was identify the antagonist that is driving the manifestation. It's important to know if you have a group or a lone individual for instance. The players will fight and defeat these antagonists differently. A group of antagonists can act in a hydra-eqsue fashion, allowing you to kill a group of them, but still allowing the threat to roll forward, or at least lick their wounds and return later. A lone antagonist either dies after a single confrontation, or escapes death in some way. While this works fine once or twice, it can quickly grow tiresome for the PCs to have their victories rendered impotent.


What are the goals of the antagonist(s)? Is the group out for world domination? The lone villain who is actually trying to accomplish something noble by using less than savory methods (the road to hell is paved with good intentions after all). It's important to know what your goals are. If you have group wanting control of the world that will inform how the progress of the Threat shapes up as it Manifests (see below). It's also somewhat wise to know at least a little about the motivation behind the Goal. World domination sounds fun, but it's also a lot of work so there's probably something there. Maybe it's a Dr. Horrible style "rule the world so I can fix it" motivation, or maybe the motivation is more like Magneto wanting to wipe out humanity to make way for humans because he's seen humanity at its worst.


So Manifestations are the things that the Threats impose onto the game world. This is the effect on the world of a part of the Antagonist's plans on the way to their ultimate goal. Manifestations are also the things that the players will see and potentially react to. I say potentially because there may be other, more pressing, things that require the player's attention. Manifestations are symptoms of the disease. If you have a world domination goal that may start by taking over a military, then a government, then a region. The undermining of those things by the Antagonist can be used as Manifestations.

When creating Threats you should plan to have more than a single Manifestation per threat. Two, three, or more are appropriate based on the Goal of the Antagonist and your intent for how long the Threat should take to defeat. You should also consider how many Threats you will have running at a time. The players can probably only deal with a single Manifestation and through that stymie the Goal of a single Antagonist at a time.

Or, to put it another way, if the GM's have three or four Antagonists, each with a different Goal, and each of which is showing different Manifestations the players will not be able to react to all of them. The key to using threat (and Fronts) is to have a few of them active at a time. .

If you have three Threats A, B, and C. After the first play session the players see the "first level" Manifestations of each of those threats. They will probably pick one to address in their next adventure (let's say they go after B). If they succeed they either destroy/stop Antagonist B or at least push them back to ground zero without any visible Manifestation. Depending on the specifics of the other Threats, A and C may reveal their next Manifestation or they may only make some progress to that next stage. Or, to say it differently, the Threats not addressed by the players should make progress toward their next Manifestation.

Lemme show an example ...

Threat: Professor Pain's Domination Ray
  • Antagonist: Professor Pain (a villain who uses blackmail to achieve his goals)
  • Goal: Construction of a Domination Ray that will allow Professor Pain to control other people
  • Motivation: Professor Pain will use the Domination Ray to continue is criminal activities by controlling other people to execute his plans for him!
  • Manifestations
    • Crystal Labs Robbed (component 1 of 3 stolen)
    • Dynamo Power Systems Robbed (component 2 of 3 stolen)
    • Compusys Robbed (component 3 of 3 stolen)
    • Domination Ray complete (this is the ultimate manifestation and should make Professor Pain very difficult to defeat)
So Professor Pain is a guy who uses blackmail to coerce people into doing what he needs done. He's decided that blackmail just isn't enough and has devised plans for a domination ray that will allow him to mind control people. Every session that the players don't address this threat another heist will occur at one of the locations detailed in the Manifestations. In this instance the Manifestations don't impose anything on the setting beyond getting Prof. Pain a little closer to his Goal, but in the next example we'll see how that could play out. If the Antagonist reaches his final Manifestation Prof. Pain will gain the Domination Ray and the final push to defeat him will likely be much harder as he will be able to turn other heroes against the PCs and maybe even compel the PCs during the final encounter.

Example 2: Where I steal the plot of the film The Mummy (1999) as an example...

Threat: The Mummy

  • Antagonist: Imhotep, a cursed priest of ancient Egypt
  • Goal: resurrect his lost love (Anck-su-Namun), dominate Egypt
  • Motivation: love & revenge, Imhotep wants his love back, but also wants revenge on Egypt for his thousands of years of undying torment
  • Manifestations:
    • The Mummy's Curse - Imhotep hunts down those who disturbed his tomb and consumes them to revitalize his body, each man thus consumed regenerates his appearance and adds to his powers
      • Dr. Allen Chamberlain
      • Christopher Henderson
      • David Daniels 
      • Bernard Burns
    • The Plagues - using his powers Imhotep brings the plagues to Egypt once more. Each of these could be a full Manifestation, or you could apply them more quickly (but with less impact) depending on how many sessions you want to play things out during.
      • Locust Swarms
      • Rain of Fire
      • Water to Blood
      • Boils
      • etc.
    • The Mummy's Curse and the Plagues should be intertwined with each death due to the Curse bringing forth one or more new Plagues as the Mummy's power grows.
    • Resurrection - the final manifestation is the fully powered Imhoptep attempting to resurrect his dead lover. At this point the heroes are able to gain the knowledge needed to finally defeat Imhotep ... for now ...
This is obviously an imperfect example; for much of the movie the protagonists are reacting to the various manifestations without being able to stop them. However it does succeed in showing how the progression of Manifestations moves the overall Threat/Front toward the final showdown between the heroes and the Mummy.

Flipping it Backwards

You can also apply the same ideas in reverse to chart the PCs progress in cleaning the land of a dark evil, or stopping the apocalypse. In this case the Antagonist is replaced by the Protagonists and their goals are something they will set themselves, but it is still important to understand Motivations though in this case these should be things to use to motivate the players to continue pushing the manifestations of evil backwards (or to push forward the manifestations of their own good deeds).


The best part is that once you start to get this, and as I said it took me quite some time to really wrap my head around it, you can start to apply the fractal and scale it up or down. If you have players trying to operate during a disaster there may be a storm raging (with a set of weather manifestations), a building on fire (that will burn down without intervention), and the like. You can scale these down so that the Manifestations are a scene long, or even shorter, depending on the Threat. Likewise you can scale the whole thing up to the size of a campaign and then treat each Manifestation as a Threat unto itself with its own sub-Manifestations. 

Closing Thoughts

So why use Threats/Fronts? Well the point is that by doing some work up front you can set up multiple things for the players to have to deal with, and have an easy list of Manifestations that show the consequences that happen while the players deal with one Threat but ignore another. With three Threats and a handful of Manifestations you can put together a small campaign's worth of content that will feel interconnected to the players. If you want longer play you can have additional Threats waiting in the wings to begin after the players defeat one of the current threats. 

I'm going to be trying this out in my Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign. I have some rough notes and the players will be discovering the first few manifestations during our next session. Hopefully, if I execute well, this will lead to a campaign that can be both planned ahead and have a "sandbox" feel where the player direct the action in terms of what Manifestations they choose to deal with, and through those which Threats they end early and which are able to grow more powerful.