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I'm having an issue in a campaign I am running where an impending doom that was part of a front was stopped by the players pretty much by dumb luck.

In order to both prevent any of my nosy players from getting behind the front info, and to make this simpler I will use a made up example of the same issue I am facing:

My front has the impending doom:

The Dark Serpent Deorcaþexe is awoken by King Cyndemund's meddling.

And I have an early portent:

King Cyndemund's scouts retrieve the tomes of arcana.

This portent comes to pass, and the players meet a suspicious pair of travelers staying at the same inn. The pair has some sort of box that they are heavily guarding. The players reason that although they look suspicious, many people look suspicious and it just isn't very important so they will ignore them.

Now this is fine; ignoring my front is something I can totally deal with. This is certainly not the first time this has happened.

However a short while later when the party is a bit strapped for cash they decide that they remember these suspicious travelers and figure that they must have something valuable. So they attempt to steal the box, things go south and they end up murdering the travelers. They find that the box contains some boring old books, not gemstones, and burn the evidence. The party wizard uses charm person to pin the crime on an old man also staying in the inn. They use the reward money to pay off their debts and the party leaves the town later that week.

So now with the tomes destroyed my front obviously has to change, but I am a bit conflicted. Usually when the party ignores a front I want to increase the danger. The party seems to think these travelers were unimportant and I was being stingy with distributing loot. I could make another way for King Cyndemund to access the magic he desires. However I also don't want to railroad anything; we are playing to find out, and "Oh you destroyed the tomes, but it turns out there was a second copy!" is not really in line with my principles.

So what is the right path here? Do I consider the front resolved even though the players ignored the portents? Do I repair the front and ignore the players' actions because they were incidental?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ RE: "I am asking for an answer that is more general than just this fake scenario, so while you may feel free to use examples from this, something highly specific to this scenario is close to useless to me." Without the reader knowing which parts of question's scenario are accurate and which aren't, answers risk misinterpreting the importance of each detail the question provides. I urge putting the the actual events from the campaign in spoiler markdown instead of alluding to them. That way answers can be immediately relevant, and your plot can remain concealed from players' nosy eyes. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 22 at 12:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd encourage you to rethink that last paragraph: in my experience (sitewide, but even more so with DW questions) good answers to specific questions/scenarios tend to also explain good general practices/wisdom, while an author trying to write a more-general answer ends up with something less useful both in the specific and the general. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Mar 22 at 12:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's just that, as a potential respondent, I don't know how to work around that. For instance, if I suggested Cyndemund hunt for the author of the destroyed tomes, in your campaign there might not be an analogue for Cyndemund, the author, and/or the tomes therefore my suggestion is useless to you. It's kind of like going to the doctor and saying your foot hurts and hoping the medicine the doc prescribes soothes your migraine. (Pardon the imperfect analogy.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 22 at 12:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Well I guess I am saying that you can trust me to adapt whatever answer to my scenario, rather than worry about it yourself. I think nitsua60 is probably correct in saying "good answers to specific questions/scenarios tend to also explain good general practices/wisdom". Because the core of this is not "what do I do?" but "how do I do?". \$\endgroup\$ – Wheat Wizard Mar 22 at 13:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Suggesting Cyndemund hunt for the tomes is sort of already covered by the first option I present, where Cyndemund finds another way. I am already capable of repairing the front on my own in multiple ways. The explanation as to why this in particular is a good solution would be valuable to me. \$\endgroup\$ – Wheat Wizard Mar 22 at 13:04
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What happens when a king doesn't get what he wants?

This is not a trick question. What you should do next depends on what your prep about this front says about King Cyndemund and why he wanted the books in the first place.

Because he wanted the books, right? This wasn't just some misadventure with no intentionality on anyone's part? If it was one of those, Dungeon World isn't going to be able to help you. You can keep going forward with fronts after PCs derail them, explicitly because they're being driven by actors with motivations of their own, whose plans can be derailed without them being annihilated and who will continue to act:

Every danger has a crucial motivation that drives it called its impulse. The impulse exists to help you understand that danger. What pushes it to fulfill its impending doom? Impulses can help you translate the danger into action.

-- "Creating Dangers", from the repo

That goes both for the overarching impulse that drives Cyndemund on the campaign scale and the individual motivations that lead to his plans as expressed on the adventure scale. For the sake of example I'm going assume you modeled him based on ambitious organizations and detail some more portents for you to dish on your PCs. Maybe you'll find what you're looking for here, maybe you won't.

King Cyndemund didn't want these books in particular, he's just all about that ancient forbidden knowledge. Okay, great! Your world is lousy with ancient forbidden knowledge. So, as a first step, Cyndemund could buy out someone important - since the king can't trust his own agents he's probably going to start funding expeditions for the stuff, on the up-high or perhaps the down-low, but either way a band of mercenary adventures like the PCs is going to get clued in on it eventually. And if they don't bite, Cyndemund then claims a resource - someone else makes the big score down the line, Cyndemund gives them a king's ransom, and that's the talk of the taverns for a while. After this point the arcane/planar/cursed force you've decided he found will start making some moves as Cyndemund oopsie-doodles the apocalypse. It's maybe not the apocalypse you planned for initially, but why should there only be one old forgotten way to destroy the world?

King Cyndemund wanted these books in particular, for Important King Reasons. Okay, great! So, pop quiz: is a king with the mandate of Heaven or whatever going to believe that all his plans have come to ruin because of a misadventure with some confused old man? Or is he going to see enemy action where none apparently exists? So Cyndemund influences a powerful institution - now the talk of the taverns is that the entire town the PCs just left got interdicted by the King's Quisition. And when they're out in the wilderness they can see the king's court mages scrying from the sky, searching for answers - this is what observe a potential foe in great detail looks like when you're a paranoid king. The PCs are the answers, and eventually they're going to get found, unless they can do something to hide themselves. Really, this mostly just stands up a new front and dumpsters the old one, since the doom is going to be quite different and much more personal. So congratulations: your PCs averted the apocalypse! I'm sure that'll be a great comfort on the chopping block.

No, you've got it backwards. The books wanted King Cyndemund. Oh, this is one of those scenarios. So tell me: are the malevolent missives of a buried god really going to give up the ghost in the face of one ordinary torch? Or is this new arcane enemy going to be offering up some portents of its own? It could cast a spell across time and space as a more overt sign - the talk of the taverns is that Cyndemund was going to come down on some old peasant like the fist of a merciless despot, but when they were going to confront the old man with the evidence of his crimes, there the books were, like nothing ever happened to them, and glowing with a holy light! Actually it was kind of a mix of purple and a color that doesn't exist and when I close my eyes I can still see-- A HOLY LIGHT. For extra fun, perhaps it's already recruited a follower or toady - the old man has also heard the whispers of the Buried One and he's "a prophet" now. Has he left behind the mortal concerns of petty revenge in the face of this higher calling, or are the PCs about to be done by as they did?

Problems and Intent

Now, these last two cases might be a bit trickier of a sell to the PCs. You risk coming off as the bad GM who punishes the PCs for messing with their plans. Which is why it's important to have your prep in front of you -- the PCs did mess with the plans of a king and/or a god, after all, so you need to present them with the retaliation of a king and/or god in the ways it makes sense to happen, which the PCs can still see coming and take steps to fight or avoid.

And in the first case, from your perspective as a GM, the PCs didn't actually accomplish anything. But from their perspective, they did everything they wanted! They destroyed the evidence, they shifted the blame, and potential bonus: someone's willing to pay them to fix the problems they caused! Now, their actions aren't entirely without consequences; for instance, I'm sure you can imagine some fun dramatically ironic times when they end up working alongside the former king's agents, still obsessing over that fateful night and their fall from grace. And you're probably going to adapt the campaign in response to Cyndemund's more obvious desires for arcane secrets, bring in some new dangers that might not have gotten involved before. But the PCs didn't intend to stop King Cyndemund from seeking arcane power, and so they don't: he continues to do so in ways that are obvious to them. He continues to give off grim portents because he's still a danger.

What usually motivates the PCs to jump into the teeth of a campaign or adventure front is their interest in acting against the impending doom. When the apocalypse starts happening in scenario 1, the doom's going to get way more obvious and the PCs are going to have to get involved with it somehow. If you want to make them aware that they might want to get involved before then, you'd need someone who does intend to stop King Cyndemund from seeking arcane power. Actually, someone like that would be an asset in all three scenarios, with some strike-that-reverse-it as appropriate. Let's call them Demevend. In the latter two scenarios, Demevend can be an ally to the PCs and help them escape retribution. In the first one? Demevend might approach the PCs to hire them on as double agents, especially if they're not engaging with Cyndemund's expeditions already. Or, if the PCs went after that good good royal purse, Demevend might act against them, and confess their suspicions in a dramatic confrontation.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the final example is stronger if you rope in the PCs: they stood around a pile of burning magic books, right? Well, now they have absorbed the divine secrets of Deorcaþexe and it whispers in their dreams. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex P Mar 22 at 14:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WheatWizard I've fleshed out the last part a little. Let me know if it's helpful. \$\endgroup\$ – Glazius Mar 22 at 15:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ For the first, of course, if you want to preserve the apocalypse you got, you just say that the book they burned had a different one. It's the one he got that has yours. \$\endgroup\$ – Mary Mar 23 at 23:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer, useful regardless of style and system. \$\endgroup\$ – jcm Mar 24 at 7:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've accepted this because of the most recent edit. The grounding in the front rules really makes this answer complete. Great work as always! \$\endgroup\$ – Wheat Wizard Mar 25 at 23:55
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What is to say the knowledge is destroyed just because the books are?

In hindsight this may be what one of my previous DMs did. In a similar scenario (except we knew the books were headed for someone powerful), we destroyed the books but as we did a strange mist rose up. Didn't think much of it until we all started having strange snippets of dreams. Turns out the knowledge of the spells was transferred to the party, spread out so no single person knew how to cast the apocalyptic spell.

You can bring this in too. Members of the party have a dream where that book opens up for them, flicking through pages and showing each of them separate components of the spell. The next day perhaps they see the king's men interrogating the man they pinned the crime on, perhaps some mages talking about how to extract the knowledge from the man's mind...maybe even suspecting that it isn't him the knowledge has seeped into.

You can then have the party hunted down by the king's men for the information stored in their minds.

In the campaign I was in we would have encounters with a group of mages trying to extract the knowledge from us (taking up their action each turn and we had to make wisdom saving throws) and some others protecting them. It makes for interesting combat.

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I find in this situation it helps to consider the basic costs that a player might face in this situation. The king has lost the macguffin they need, and so if they want to achieve the ritual goal, they need to pay a much higher cost.

Consider the other issue. One of the stakes the players feel is important is money and loot.

Your stakes questions are 1-3 questions about people, places, or groups that you’re interested in. People include PCs and NPCs, your choice. Remember that your agenda includes “Play to find out what happens?” Stakes are a way of reminding yourself what you want to find out.

The PCs want their group to become rich. That seems to be their big stake.

So, why not combine the two?

King Cyndemund needs an ancient artifact to replace the tomes, and so he hires the players to go into a dangerous, loot filled dungeon and retrieve it? The cost is too high for his servants to do so easily, and so he needs to seek out another source. He could also send dangerous soldiers to compete with the PCs when they seek out a large source of loot and treasure to fulfill their stakes.

You can also lessen the impending doom.

At the end of every danger’s path is an impending doom. This is the final toll of the bell that signals the danger’s triumphant resolution. When a grim portent comes to pass the impending doom grows stronger, more apparent and present in the world. These are the very bad things that every danger, in some way, seeks to bring into effect. Choose one of the types of impending dooms and give it a concrete form in your front. These often change in play, as the characters meddle in the affairs of the world. Don’t fret, you can change them later.

If he lacks the ancient arcana, The Dark Serpent Deorcaþexe will presumably be weaker, have less minions, have weaker magical powers, or in some way be less potent. His summoning will be notably flawed.

You can have the King rant at them for destroying his plans later if you want, explain in depth how bad people they are for destroying his magical books, how it was clearly intentional.

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When your players just stopped the plot by accident, are they aware of it?

When they aren't, that's no problem, because you can just change the plot.

Remember that any information you didn't give to the players could just as well not exist at all. Nothing you have in your notes is set in stone until your players know about it. Any untold plot-points can be retconned whenever you want. When the players just burnt some "boring old books" and they have no reason to believe otherwise, then you can just decide that they indeed just burned some boring old books of no significance. You can just make up a new hook to get the players into the main plot of your campaign.

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I would consider possibly that the doom is still impending.

Consider the following scenario:

  • Deorcaþexe is awakened by the tomes that were destroyed. The tomes had some sort of ancient magicks on them that contained Deorcaþexe's wrath. It was originally thought that the tomes contained the knowledge to release Deorcaþexe but that was not the sole case - Deorcaþexe's soul was contained within to be released on the utterance of an incantation among a carefully carried out ceremony - respondant only to the chosen one to free them. It just so happens that burning the books had an unintended consequence - for had been sealed by fire, they now have been reawakened by the very element that sealed them. Without a chosen one, Deorcaþexe is free and seeks revenge on a realm that had imprisoned him for so long.
  • Additionally, King Cyndemund is infuriated to learn that mere meddling travelers have squashed his ambitions of forbidden knowledge. He sends out teams of decently leveled troops to apprehend or eliminate the interlopers. (this would work through random encounter events. Roll out random character stats but make them earned victories by making them sufficiently difficult - THERE ARE CONSEQUENCES MY FRIENDS!)
  • The adventurers now face a battle on two fronts - Deorcaþexe has been awakened and news is brought by an injured courier who manage to escape the tomb where he slept. King Cyndemund is not so forgiving and still insists on eliminating the adventurers for both interfering in his matters and for threatening his kingdom with doom - ignorant of the fact that his own meddling was the core source of the problem.
  • (You now have multiple paths for resolution - a plan must be considered by the team and they have to figure out what's best. They could possibly attempt to face King Cyndemund directly, and then deal with Deorcaþexe. They could attempt to get on King Cyndemund's good side- appealing as hands for hire, or retrieving riches for him. King Cyndemund may just happen to have just the thing to seal Deorcaþexe away once again and for all - Will they be able to convince him to relinquish it to do so? The king may still want to ignorantly try to reign in Deorcaþexe and control their massive power? Play it however you want!)

A wise person once told me - The closing of one chapter is simply the beginning of another. The book isn't over yet.

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