it really is. occasional thoughts on how to make it survivable and keep from losing your mind in the process.

The Writing Game: How to Front

The Writing Game: How to Front

[This is an occasional series that is ostensibly about the craft of writing but is in fact a very unsubtle excuse to talk about how much I love tabletop roleplaying games.]

I ran a short Dungeon World game this weekend and it was glorious. Dungeon World is kind of like Dungeons & Dragons except it uses a really different set of base rules and belongs to a lineage of games collectively referred to as Powered by the Apocalypse. It’s less combat focused and more about storytelling, roleplaying, and character relationships and motivations. This last bit is important because the thing I really love about this system is how it centers what drives a character to make choices and how connections to the people around them influence those choices.

Alignments aren’t just the usual meme-grid of good/evil, lawful chaotic. Instead an alignment is a statement. It is something like “follow the letter of the law over the spirit” for lawful or “destroy something rather than understand it” for evil. It allows a player to build a character around an impulse rather than a vague ideal, subject to interpretation. Choosing how to phrase one’s alignment is choosing what character you’re going to play.

Which brings me to the thing I really want to talk about: Fronts. Okay, this is going to get a little complicated but sit with me. So in Dungeon World the GM (they who run the game) builds out what are called Fronts after the first few sessions of play. This is the mechanic that drives the whole plot of a campaign. A front is built from any force in the world that is opposing the players. So, for example, a front can be a horde of demons that is planning to invade the world. It has an Impending Doom, in this case destruction of all known civilization, and there are several Grim Portents, markers along the way that signal to the players that things are getting worse and the Impending Doom approaches. Effectively, a Front is the skeleton of a plot. You have the major conflict, the big climactic points along the road to the thing your heroes are trying to prevent.

A novel is not a game. You’re not telling a story of a clockwork world that ticks forward with no direction from the writer. But, that said, you want to create a feeling for the reader that the world moves even when it’s not in frame. If the world around your protagonist feels static, then the whole story feels flat. Ideally, antagonists make moves all by themselves. Security guards step away to get a coffee. Siblings get grounded. Parents have a bad day at work. Things happen that aren’t related directly to the main plot of the story.

Now, you don’t have to put all those things on screen. Writing is largely an exercise in removing irrelevant detail as much as it is putting relevant detail on the screen. The problem though, is that often you, the writer, need to be aware of what’s happening in the world, even if you’re only focused on the hero’s quest across the vast and trackless wastes.

Fronts strike me as a great way to think about that. Don’t think about every thing the demon king does to summon his demon army. Think about what does the demon king want. What are his goals? What drives him? And then, when your protagonist emerges from the other side of his quest, you can extrapolate, easily, what the demon king has been up to lo these three weeks of epic questing.

Or, if you figure out not just who the principle of the school is as an antagonist, but what drives her, then that opens up new and surprising avenues for storytelling. If she’s not a simple authority figure, but someone who has a particular fear, or a particular need that your spunky pre-teen girl reporter keeps triggering then you have a much more nuanced interaction between these two characters.

If you step back from a story and look at the players, the protagonists, the factions, the antagonists and start breaking down their goals, their drives, and their fears then you can start building a quick and easy framework to solve plot problems.

Plot derives from character, but not just your hero. Plot is about conflicting needs of a variety of actors. Every character can be boiled down to a want. That want is the beating heart of your story.

Next time you get stuck, think about Fronts, by which I mean think about motivations, desires, and goals.

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Jamie Larson