Ever notice when you’re reading a great book or watching a great movie or TV show how tense everything gets? You are on the edge of your seat because the characters you are rooting for are under tremendous stress and the stakes are sky-high.
How do you bring that to your game?
One trick I use is called “fronts,” a concept I stole from the dungeon bashing game called Dungeon World. Like Numenera and The Strange, Dungeon World is rules light and focuses on story telling. Its aim is to create great stories of heroic adventurers in a medieval fantasy setting without the rules getting in the way. Here’s an online version of the rules.
While the game mechanics aren’t at all like the cypher system, the use of fronts to create tension comes across beautifully. A front is a set of problems (called dangers) that will only get worse if the player characters don’t solve them. There is usually more than one danger, so while the PCs work on one, the others fester and grow worse. This forces the players to prioritize and make hard choices.
Throw in multiple fronts, each with their own dangers, and watch the PCs sweat!
Here’s an example I call Bantion, Village in Peril.
First I have to choose between a campaign front and an adventure front. A campaign front is a big, long running front. Say how The Convergence (Numenera) or Lotan (The Strange) are going to devastate nations.
A shorter term front is an adventure front, and Bantion, Village in Peril is an adventure front. The problem with Bantion is that it is built into ancient ruins. Yes the ruins provide shelter and a source of cyphers or magic, but they also provide the dangers. The village could be in The Beyond or the hinterlands of Ardeyn. To keep things simple I’m going to use Numenera examples, but the basic story elements can work just as well in The Strange.
A front has two to three dangers, so I’ll choose two. Both involve mental powers and villagers acting strange, which will probably confuse the PCs. Yay!
For my first danger I’ll choose a cursed place that wants brains. The Chamber of Unity, deep in the ruins below Bantion, has recently been activated. It seeks to unify people into a hive mind. To do that, it wants everyone’s brains to be taken out and placed in a big soup of nutrients and nanites. It uses mental powers to force people to do its bidding. Those people become angry and emotional.
The second danger will be a nano seeking mental powers. Kavlon the Seeker has found a way to build his mental powers by injecting himself with nanites grown in brainstems of psychic parasites. First he’ll create hosts out of villagers, and then after the parasite kills off the hosts, he’ll harvest the brainstems. A win-win! To create a contrast, the hosts will lose all affect and become emotionless.
OK, we have two dangers, now what? For each danger we come up with 1 – 3 grim portents. A grim portent is something bad that happens if PCs don’t defeat the danger. This way, if the PCs are out fighting Kavlon, the Chamber of Unity will be ticking off its grim portents.
Here are the grim portents for the Chamber of Unity:
1. Villagers vanish (they sleepwalk to the chamber)
2. Scapegoating: Paranoid villagers turn on one another, guards arrest many “troublemakers” (guards are under the influence of the Chamber and deliver the prisoners there)
3. People rounded up en-mass and driven to the chamber
Besides grim portents, each danger has an impending doom that happens if all the portents get ticked off because the PCs didn’t defeat the danger.
For the Chamber of Unity, the impending doom is that the entire village will be emptied into the brain soup. Yay!
And for Kalvon, the grim portents are:
1. Villagers become hosts to the parasites and become affectless
2. Hosts vanish to be replaced by new hosts
3. Mass grave of dead hosts discovered
And the doom? Kalvon’s mental powers become such that he makes all villagers thralls or experimental subjects. Or both. Yay!
How do you GM this? Pick one or both of the dangers and set off the first grim portent. Then just follow the players. While one danger gets worked on, the other ticks off another grim portent.
(For those following along with the Dungeon World rules, the Chamber of Unity is a Cursed Place, a Shadowland. The Doom is Destruction. Kalvon is an Arcane Enemy, a Power Mad Wizard seeking magical power. His doom is Tyranny.)