How To Spend Even Less Time Prepping Dynamic Campaigns
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #702
Loopy Planning Meets Dungeon World Fronts
From Johnn Four
This summer I spent time reading Dungeon World again and exploring blogs and articles about the game. On first perusal, Dungeon World felt weird and stilted. The terminology was odd and it seemed like the rules made GMing this awkward recipe of moves.
However, the Campaign Fronts section was excellent and I realized it’s similar to my Loopy Planning approach to agile GMing. So I am experimenting combining the two for my Murder Hobos campaigns, and things are going great so far.
Today’s tips are about how to apply Dungeon World’s notion of Fronts to your campaigns to make prep and maintenance faster.
You don’t need to know Dungeon World to use the tips, I’ll give you everything you need here now. And the tips are useable by just about any GM running any kind of system.
How Does Dungeon World Work?
The thing that clicked with Dungeon World this time reading it was realizing the game operates on two levels. First level is the typical rules for an RPG. Classes, races, and so on. The other level baked into the rules is how to GM.
Most games add a section of sample play to show you how to GM. A fictional script of a game in action.
But in DW, how you GM the game is integrated into the rules.
For example, when it’s the GM’s turn, there are two kinds of moves: Soft Moves and Hard Moves. You can see types of moves and rules for each on the DW SRD website (you can get DW free online as the creators published DW under the Creative Commons Attribution license).
The game begins with the GM putting a danger in front of a PC. The player takes an action (also called a Move). If the action is a success, the player or another player gets to do something else. If the action is a partial success, the GM gets to make a Soft Move, like making the PC’s situation worse or introducing a new danger. If the action is a failure, then the GM makes a Hard Move, like having a foe take an action and dealing damage.
Another way to look at this is, if the players stop talking, it’s the GM’s turn. Either they need something from you to proceed (a Soft Move) or they cannot advance gameplay and you need to take the baton for a bit until you can give it back (a Hard Move).
In most games, this back and forth is inferred from examples of gameplay, either as demonstrated in the rulebook or as taught by someone in the group who has RPG’d before.
But in DW, all these little things about gameplay never explained to you are actually part of the rules. In this way DW teaches you how to be a GM as well as being an RPG rulebook.
Make sense? If not, drop me a note.
Moving along, everything in DW has Moves. Classes, races, monsters, items. Even dungeons and campaigns have Moves. Almost like in board game fashion where on your turn there are ten choices you can make. But in DW, Moves are open-ended RPG style, which is why the game works so well.
Which brings us to Fronts.
What Are Fronts?
The term is coined from war. As in, the PCs are fighting on two fronts.
But really, a Front is an adventure. The Dungeon of Doom, the Cult of the Serpent God, the Waterdeep Dilemma.
In DW there are two types of Fronts. There are Campaign Fronts and Adventure Fronts. The Campaign Front is wrapped around a central danger that ties all the Adventure Fronts together. In Murder Hobos, for example, the Campaign Front is Orcus returning to the land and looking to become Emperor.
Within your Campaign Front are several Adventure Fronts. In Pathfinder, these might be the six books of the adventure path. In D&D, these might be the chapters in your adventure book or a string modules. For homebrewers, these are the individual adventures you make, all tied together along a central theme or plot.
For me, an Adventure Front is a Loopy Plan. A plot.
I’m writing a book on 5 Room Dungeons right now, and the term I use for Fronts is Plots. There’s two kinds of Plots: site based and faction based.
A site plot, or Front, is like a dungeon or hexcrawl. There’s a map and you explore it. Apply Missions and Quests to add great layers of story.
A faction plot is PCs vs. NPCs. It could be a single NPC like one of the villain’s lieutenants or a barmaid in dire need. It could be an organization like a thieves’ guild or cult. The point is, there’s no specific site tied to the victory condition. Even if the PCs find the lieutenant’s headquarters, he might escape and continue the plot. Thus, it’s a faction based Front.
In summary, Campaign Fronts is your grand scheme that grinds in the background, and Adventure Fronts are the site and faction plots you game out during sessions.
The Adventure Front Stat Block
Enough theory. Let’s dig into what we actually need to put on paper to make gameplay happen.
In DW, the Adventure Front has this stat block:
- 2-3 Dangers
- Impending Doom for each Danger
- Impulse for each Danger
- 1-3 Grim Portents
- 1-3 Stakes questions
- Cast of Characters
- Custom Moves for the cast
The stat block in the rulebook is spread out over several pages, and I’ve just condensed it here to make it easier to use and design with.
What I like about this stat block, and why I’m sharing it with you today, is its brevity and dynamic nature.
Fill out the stat block and you have an entire adventure plotted out in few words and in such a way you could improv a lot of the details, thus saving you a ton of prep time.
Run the stat block, like the play card of a quarterback, and it gives you inspiration and guidance on what to do next when players do stuff or stall out.
Let’s dig into each item of the stat block.
What Are Dangers?
These are the major driving forces and obstacles of an adventure. Each Adventure Front should have 2-3 Dangers. You decide based on how big you want the adventure to be. Could be one Danger or six. Three Dangers should give you a dozen good sessions of gameplay.
DW lists five types of dangers:
- Ambitious Organizations
- Planar Forces
- Arcane Enemies
- Cursed Places
For example, to defeat the Winter King as an adventure, the PCs might need to explore some ruins (Cursed Place), then get past his army of ice zombies (Horde), and finally, confront his cabal of Frost Sorcerers (Arcane Enemies).
Minor dangers like traps, monsters, and hazards lurk in each major Danger, as well. For planning purposes though, we just need to focus on fleshing out the major Dangers.
With Dangers inked in, we now have great focus for the rest of our planning. The edges of our “plot map” tell us where to design next.
Each Danger gets an Impending Doom. This is clever.
What happens if evil wins? What happens if the Danger goes unchecked by the PCs?
This totally fits in with past advice in this newsletter where I advise you begin with the end and work backwards.
Give each Danger a vision for what’ll happen if the PCs fail so you can work out who will care about this (Cast of Characters), what’s at stake (the conflict), and how you can make the PCs particularly well-suited to be the heroes (backstory, spotlight, rewards).
As gameplay courses onward, all you need to do is keep the plot moving toward fulfillment of its Impending Doom.
This approach makes Loopy Planning even more powerful. In Loopy Planning, I have you make a list of each Plot and write down the next step, action, or encounter opportunity the Plot can offer your game.
You just note one Next Action for each Plot to make prep fast and to stay flexible so you don’t over-plan or be tempted to predetermine player decisions.
Combine Loopy Planning with Impending Dooms and you have a guiding force helping you choose Next Actions. Think how each Plot can get one step closer to its Impending Doom. That’s your Next Action for each Loop.
DW lists several example Impending Dooms for ideas:
- Tyranny (strong over weak, or many over few)
- Pestilence (illness spreads everywhere)
- Destruction (apocalypse, ruin and woe)
- Usurpation (the order of things become broken)
- Impoverishment (enslavement, injustice)
- Rampant Chaos (lawlessness, might over rights)
In our Winter King example, failure to cleanse the ruins (Cursed Place) results in a warping of nature and winter comes (Usurpation).
Each Danger gets a crucial motivation that drives it to fruition. Called Impulses in DW, these embody theme, style, action type, principles, instincts.
When choosing how a Danger will do something or react, it should stay true to its Impulse. Therefore, the Impulse needs to work well with the overall Adventure Front.
For example, the Impulse of the ruins could be to:
- Draw in the weak-willed
- Spawn evil
- Tear apart reality
- Disgorge demons
- Corrupt the living
- Be controlled or tamed
The ruins are a good example because they are static and it might be harder to wrap your head around how they might drive forward the Impending Doom. If we gave them the Impulse to break reality though, hopefully several ideas come to the fore (come to the Four?).
Such as, seven seals. Each seal broken gives the Winter King, his cabal, and his horde of ice zombies more power. And winter comes one step closer.
I love the Impulse idea. For Loopy Planning, it’s guidance on what your Next Action should be. It’s general so you don’t get painted into a corner. But the nature of it should provide clarity on whether you are within theme, plotting a tighter story, and maintaining immersion.
Now we come to the crux of the stat block, though I think this is underused by DW GMs based on various Fronts I’ve read online and purchased.
Grim Portents are the events that unfold as the Danger uses its Impulse to achieve its Impending Doom.
That’s a fancy way of saying a bullet list of encounters.
For site based Fronts, we draw a map and fill the rooms. DW encourages you to leave areas of the map blank to take advantage of player ideas and serendipity.
For faction based Fronts, we do some thinking to reason out what must happen to go from point A to point B.
Here is where you decide how much you want to design and how much you want to improv. It’s a flexible system. At the least though, I think it’s a wonderful idea to jot down 5-7 steps or events you could trigger to bring about the Impending Doom.
Even though player actions will change or derail this list, at least you have a logical scheme for evil’s success. Use this to guide you during play.
I’ve done this for years using Loopy Planning. I call it a Critical Walkthrough:
- What are the essential things that need to happen to have the villain triumph?
- What are the essential things that need to happen to have the PCs triumph?
- How can I turn these steps into one or more encounters to bring my ideas down to the gameplay level (the ultimate reason we’re doing this pre-game designing)?
And between sessions, as I Loop through each Plot, I decide the Next Action, now informed by the Impulse and Impending Doom. I believe doing so improves the drama and pacing.
For example, if I chose a Next Action that did not bring evil any closer to winning, then that’s less important and dramatic for the players to deal with. But if Next Actions have bigger stakes – a chance for some kind of setback for the PCs – sessions stay exciting.
Our frosty ruins have a natural sequence of Grim Portents – the seven seals. I’d be inclined to allow random seal order to make the design more flexible and more dangerous. The key is to make each seal’s breaking into an encounter. Perhaps seals have traps, puzzles, or guardians. Perhaps seal #1, #4, and #7 result in some kind of summoned threat. Perhaps each seal broken results in the ruins freezing faster.
Why are you GMing this Front? Why are the players playing it? Why are the characters struggling for victory?
We all play to have fun. And players come with different motivations, such as levelling up, getting magic loot, being with friends, being tactical. GMs have a bunch of motivations too.
But in the end, we all play to tell stories and see how they end. More than that, we want to see how specific aspects of our stories turn out. Every story is different.
Therefore, what we want to find out is unique for each Front or Plot. These are the specific dramatic questions, or Stakes Questions in DW lingo, we want to ask during planning to ensure we’ve got a compelling adventure plan on our hands,
For example, will the druid overcome her fear of orcs? Will the wizard choose to join the cabal? How will the cleric respond to her sister’s betrayal?
Dramatic questions should be specific to your PCs, players, and Plot. That makes them relevant, important, and dramatic.
Will the PCs win is a great question and worthy of gaming to learn the answer, but it’s too general and it’s always present. So while good, it’s boring in a way. We need specifics with which to test the Grim Portents and Impending Doom we’ve designed to ensure they’re a great fit for our campaign, players, and characters.
I advise writing a Stakes Question for every player/PC. This ensures you have a way to capture the interest of everyone in your group.
Cast of Characters
Here we note key NPCs we’ve mentioned in our Danger.
If you use Loopy Planning, I’d also include a Cast of Locations and a Cast of Items. Sandbox games need good information and detail tracking for consistency and game element reuse. Recurring elements make your game come alive with depth and growing player knowledge of the milieu they can use to make meaningful choices without causing you extra prep.
For each entry in your cast, add a couple of details. For NPCs, either write a couple of words or use the 3 Line NPC method to stay nimble. Items and Locations just add a brief description. You can flesh description out later as needed.
Finally, now that you have an idea of all the moving parts in your Danger plan, write a short summary to remind you what the Danger is about. Your future self will find this handy, especially if the Danger does not trigger for a long time.
A summary is also a good test to see if you understand the core essence of the Danger. If you don’t have a good grasp of your adventure plans, you’ll have problems GMing them, or worse, your players will be confused and hesitant.
Boiling your Danger into 1-3 sentences makes you take a step back and assess your design.
What Is Loopy Planning?
I use this to help me plan each session just-in-time and stick-handle all the plots running in my campaign.
I like to have storylines for each player and character, plus at least one major story arc for the whole campaign, plus a sub-story arc per campaign season.
It’s a lot of plots. But my group is pretty good at chewing through encounters and keeping the story going during sessions. So we tend to get a lot of gaming done.
Plus, I try to make plots cross-over where possible. So I chunk the overall plot count down to 4-6. That is a little more than Dungeon World suggests, but we also tend to have 2+ year campaigns.
Anyway, with Loopy Planning, you write out each plot on a separate line, index card, or file. I use Campaign Logger and I make one Log Entry per plot and tag it !PlotName.Loopy. That way I can instantly bring up all my plots and details.
Between sessions I run through each plot and advance them with one Next Action.
What do the bad guys do either in reaction to the PCs or to advance toward their goal? I write down their action, with key being action. I want this planning to result in encounters. I don’t bother with next idea, or next plan, or next thought. I want Next Action so I’ve got new game material to work with.
Last, I prioritize this work according to what plots I think will come into focus next session. I’m not worried about two or more sessions from now. I’m only prepping for next game to avoid wasting time and to make best use of my limited time.
Therefore, I work on Next Actions for my most imminent plots first in case I run out of prep time and session day arrives before I can update everything.
- Prep plots for sandbox style play
- Use Lego approach for NPCs, Locations, Items to save time and deepen the world
- Focus on encounters triggered by plot advances: Next Actions
- Work on plots likely to trigger in gameplay soonest in case I run out of prep time
When I encountered Dungeon World again this summer and studied Fronts, it occurred to me how Loopy Planning and DW are a natural fit. Here’s why.
Loopy Planning Meets Dungeon World
DW is a prep light game. It asks for more world and adventure creation from players. And it wants you to leave areas undeveloped for future gameplay to explore.
There’s an invisible slider you are welcome to use to provide more or less material in advance of gameplay. For example, you might show up with a complete game world, or you might use the DW add-on Perilous Wilds to co-create a world with your group in the first session and beyond. So you can tweak DW to suit your GMing style.
With the Front Stat Block, we have Dangers that progress through their Impulses and Grim Portents.
The Grim Portents are just like Loopy Next Actions. What must happen in the game to advance the plot?
That gives you the What.
The Impulse of each Danger guides your decisions about the How. The Next Action should make sense, be in-theme, be interesting. That’s a piece missing from Loopy Planning.
The Impending Doom of each Danger is your Why. It’s the or else… part of your design. That’s also not part of Loopy Planning yet.
The Stakes Questions ensure players are invested in the action. In Loopy, I did this by spawning a plot per PC or combining plots to include multiple PCs. However, I like Stakes Questions better because they seem more efficient and on target for hooking players into Dangers, Fronts, and Plots.
All this boils down to a hybrid I’m testing out now in my Murder Hobos campaign and playtesting for my 5 Room Dungeons book.
I’m calling Fronts Plots. I’m creating a Plot out of the major Loops in my Loopy Plan using the DW Stat Block. And between sessions I’m advancing Dangers via Grim Portents using my Loopy Planning Next Action approach.
I believe this gives me a quick, fun, and efficient plot creation system. It also lets me stay agile and not over-plan or railroad. And it saves me time, because I can flex and roll with player decisions as the campaign winds on and avoid creating materials that get unused or become irrelevant.
I’m doing the converting for Murder Hobos right now. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this. If you are a DW GM, a Loopy Planning GM, or are just curious about how to prep better, please hit reply with your thoughts and ideas on how I can improve this system.
Thanks very much!
Brief Word From Johnn
Paging John Holst
John Holst, you purchased Campaign Logger August 8 but your email address seems to be incorrect. Please email me so I can send you your license details.
It’s Been A Crazy Summer
I can’t believe how fast time went this summer. It’s late August already!
I took a break to reignite the engines in July. We went camping on several weekends, including a fantastic place near Nakusp, B.C. Here’s a short blog post that has some pics I took.
In August I’ve been working on the tech side of things at the website:
- I moved the Gamer Lifestyle Course (how to publish your RPG) over to the Roleplaying Tips site (though it’s not linked up yet).
- Doing the same with Faster Combat and several other products.
- Aiming for just one login for you to access your Roleplaying Tips account, profile, and products in the future.
- Switching to a new listhost soon.
I’ve also started writing again. A lot of writing. I’ve been meeting my goal of 300 words a day, and beaten that soundly on several occasions.
This has translated into additional stories, tips, and inspirational ideas I’ve been sending out on a test basis to Patrons and a few others. I wanted to see how that worked and felt before sending them to all subscribers.
So far it’s been wonderful, with great feedback that the emails are useful and entertaining. So, when I switch listhosts you’ll start to receive them too.
However, if you want to start getting them sooner, like this week, you can sign up here.
Another development is I’m GMing two campaigns now. Murder Hobos monthly with my regular group. And a five person crew from work who wanted to see what Dungeons & Dragons was all about. The work group are playtesting the adventure I’ve written with James Introcaso called Demonplague Dungeon Part I: The Frozen Necromancer.
So I’m GMing almost weekly now, sometimes twice a week when schedules align so.
Last, I’ve been reading up a storm. My refueling quest involves not just creating more and playing more, but filling the well with new ideas. So I’ve been chainsmoking various blogs, reading lots of sci-fi and fantasy, and studying GMing books and resources from my GM bookshelf.
It’s been fantastic exploring new ideas and seeing how other GMs think and run their games. I’ve especially focused on dungeon design and adventure design. And as a result, we have today’s article for your consumption.
The Dungeon World RPG offers a cool and different way to look at adventure prep. If you are a veteran DW GM, then today’s article might be old hat to you. But if you have not read the game yet, I hope you’ll find its approach very interesting and inspiring – something new for your GM Toolbox.