Wednesday, October 15, 2014

An extended treatment on adapting "fronts" for Cypher games

The audio segments for Strange Encounters are necessarily limited.  Given the format and timing, there is only so much information I can provide for each segment.  Where appropriate I will expand on the explanations in the audio segments in posts like this.

For now, I wanted to expand on the use of "fronts" for Cypher System games.

CarbonNYC -- David Goehring

For a quick review, fronts are a strategy for developing adversaries for RPGs.  The keys are to create one or more groups for the players to face.  For each group, the GM must define:

  • The Impulse -- the motive for the group, long-term goals, etc.
  • Grim Portents -- how the world reflects the progress of the group towards its goals
  • Impending Doom -- what the implications would be for failing to stop this front 
This approach to planning has a number of advantages.  The key is that it balances sandbox-style freedom for the PCs with a defined narrative arc (which GMs tend to like).  Frankly, this may be considered the illusion of a sandbox because the structure of the fronts are deterministic to an extent (they define what will happen but for the work of the PCs).  The agency for the PCs comes in choosing which front to tackle when.  

The agency involved in choosing which front to tackle is a key strength of this approach.  This is why I recommend having at least two fronts in play at any given time (in the campaign, not necessarily in any specific session).  If you only have one front, the narrative will seem to be like a railroad.  The players will more-or-less be forced to confront a specific threat -- though they may have more or less flexibility in how to confront the adversary depending on how you design the campaign.  With more than one front, the PCs will always have a choice of which front to address -- preserving their agency.  With two fronts, the structure will look a lot like a tradition plot/subplot structure for many genre television seasons.  More than three may fronts may get too complex -- but I  have never actually tried this out.

The core book for The Strange provides many possible option for fronts -- providing some of the details you will need out of the box.  If the PCs are operatives of the Estate, they may face several fronts on Earth (one could spread fronts across recursions, but I will keep it to Earth for simplicity sake in this illustration):  the September Project, the Circle of Liberty, and the OSR.  We can treat each of these as a front with its impulse defined by the basic setting material.  

The grim portents and impending doom of each front will be the key creative work for the GM.  You should start with the impending doom.  For each front, consider what the world would look like if they front had its way.  You can then walk the doom back a step to imagine a set-piece, final showdown between the PCs and the front.  

Let's take the example of the OSR -- to avoid spoiling the nature of the September Project and the Circle of Liberty from the core book.  I will make something up for the OSR that is unrelated to a the core setting -- hopefully avoiding stepping on or spoiling anyone's campaign.  My impending doom for the OSR would be a police state empowered by advanced technology brought back by recursion exploration of OSR agents (possibly in concert with another actor in a different recursion).  The OSR becomes the power-behind-the-throne for this ascendent police state armed with psychic monitoring equipment (from Atom Nocturne?), bionic agents (from Ruk?), and mechanical leviathans (from the Graveyard of the Machine God?).  Between the surveillance potential of the psychic equipment, the manpower of the bionic agents, and the siege power of the leviathans -- nothing can stand in their way.  

But the PCs won't let them get that far -- will they?

Inspired by the final confrontation in Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier (very light spoilers), I envision a final showdown between the PCs and the OSR agents.  The PCs have to fight across multiple levels -- possibly running along the back of a mechanical leviathan -- to prevent the full activation of leviathan (activation could render this a full level 10 threat -- or simply too big for stats) and the connection of the leviathan into the OSR surveillance network.  

To define the grim portents, we can walk the narrative back even further.  The collection of tools from various recursions makes the grim portents simple.  Each of the components could represent a phase of the narrative.  The first phase of the campaign is small scale and would be invisible to the PCs if they do not actively engage (possibly because they are dealing with a separate front).  In this phase, the OSR agents are traveling to Ruk and contacting a potential supplier for biological implants for their agents.  If the PCs do not interact with this front in the first phase, the front advances and the first grim portents for this front begin to emerge.  From this point, OSR agents are likely to exhibit the implants they acquired in phase 1 (conveniently increasing the level of the threats for now more advanced PCs).  The OSR may also be linked to bio-mechanical breakthroughs reported in the press (PC investigation is likely required to link the breakthroughs to the OSR).  

If the players start to investigate these breakthroughs or otherwise confront the OSR, they will find that the OSR is sending agents to Atom Nocturne.  Here the PCs could face the threat and see the results of the existing relationship with Ruk and try to prevent the importation of Atom Nocturne psychic tech (or a bathtub full of psychics -- whatever you like).  This would bring the PCs directly into the narratives front despite their attention to other matters in phase 1.  This also presents the world as a breathing, evolving world that develops independent of the PCs actions.

If the PCs thwart the OSRs plans in Atom Nocturne, you can pull the psychic surveillance from the finale.  This gives the players a sense that they have affected the outcome.  If they fail, the front proceeds.  The grim portent may be an increase in government efforts to eliminate opposition.  At first, this could be an unprecedented series of surgical strikes against terrorist leaders.  Less publicly, the government may be going after potential sources of opposition -- including the Estate itself.

The final phase is the OSR efforts in the Graveyard of the Machine God.  You will want to vary the nature of the mission.  If the visit to Atom Nocturne had a strong investigative and social feel, you will want to make the mission to the Graveyard of the Machine God a different tone.  This may be a setting where something more like the exploration of tombs or a special ops approach makes more sense.  Again, if the PCs thwart the OSR -- they determine elements missing from the final confrontation.  If the PCs prevent the recovery of the leviathan, the OSR does not have a leviathan to activate and may have to fall back on the factory activation of bio-implants as their endgame.  It is essential that each phase feel different but have narrative linkages to convince players that these are all parts of a greater plan.

And in that way, you have accidentally developed a campaign.  Of course, you want to do 2-3 of these.  That may seem like overkill.  Why develop a full OSR campaign if the players could simply focus on the September Project?  There are several reasons, actually.  First, this creates the sense of agency and dynamism as the various fronts proceed.  Second, anything you do not use can simply be saved for another time.  Maybe the players deal with the September Project but now you have plans for a long arc to follow where the players have to catch up to the now advanced plot of the OSR.  You may even have to make the Circle of Liberty climax the campaign climax, but you still have extensive notes on this OSR front for the next campaign.  

In all, I find this to be a great way to organize the development of a campaign around narrative.  This is not the sort of mechanic I have discussed before that affect die rolls and the like.  This is a macro-level development mechanic but one I think you will find very useful.  

For a more develop version of the "front" approach, you should consult the Apocalypse World RPG (warning:  elements of this RPG are decidedly NSFW) or the related Dungeon World RPG -- a fantasy counterpart.  

Please tell me what you think.  Does this inspire you?  Do you like longer treatments like this or TL;DR?  

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