I've been playing Apocalypse World in a few different groups, both as a GM and a normal player. While I love the game, I found defining Fronts a pain and therefore decided to only introduce them in the second session. And then I neglected them during the second session as well, and then the third, and now we've played for several sessions without using the Front system at all.

I have done my usual world-building stuff, planning of factions, geography and the like. We've had good fun. Incidentally, I've also found out that none of the people who has mastered AW groups where I've played have used the Front system, and we've had very fun games regardless.

However, I have this nagging feeling that Fronts, as structured in the playbook, could improve the experience. After all, I consider AW an excellently designed RPG and therefore I usually pay a lot of respect to any suggestion or rule in the playbook. I realize my usual style of mastering fills in some of the gap, but I don't know if I'd benefit even more from using the structured Front form of the playbooks.

So, experienced Apocalypse/Dungeon World players and masters, please tell me: are me and my players missing out when we're playing without Fronts?

EDIT: as I've learned, the Dungeon World Front system is the same as in Apocalypse World, and so an answer from the DW perspective would be equally appropriate.

  • 2
    It's worth mentioning that Fronts are supposed to be ignored in the first session, so that part's Doin' It Right at least. And Sage (of Dungeon World) has said that Fronts aren't necessary if a particular GM doesn't find them useful tools; which doesn't necessarily apply back to DW's parent AW, but is wisdom worth considering. – SevenSidedDie Sep 24 '14 at 18:28
up vote 6 down vote accepted

I've mostly played the game in forums, so I don't have a lot of experience when it comes to playing the game in real-time.

Like you, I've generally found the fronts a pain. But that isn't to say that there aren't some good stuff to say about them.

First off, they have the threats which are a good inspirational tool, in that they get you (or at least me) to look at things from a different angle. Making a landscape or afflictions an active opponent is something I probably wouldn't consider without the list of threats. And keeping to the list of threats forces me to consider only threats that are active in some way (even adding moves you can make on their part).

And having to create 3 or 4 threats for each front forces you to populate the setting. You can't just have the rival hard-holder and his gang, you need at least two more.

Having an agenda/dark future forces the world steadily towards the precipice, giving the players stuff that they need do something about.

It's all stuff that you don't need the fronts to handle. You could do it without fronts. But then, neither do you really need the MC's agenda, principles or moves. But they are very handy too. I generally find that even when I don't play according to the rules, the rules can still teach me a thing or two.

You said that you did your world-building stuff. I too like world-building. And that might be where fronts fail us. Try this out for an exercise. Make two fronts. Do it using the checklist; select scarcity, make threats related to the scarcity, make dark future, etc. Don't at any point try to force your own characters and places into the front, instead let the characters and places spring from the front.

Feel free to throw the fronts away afterwards. The point of the exercise is not to use the fronts, but that you might learn a thing or two about creating threats (in the the form of warlords, grotesques and the overall front agendas) for the players to interact with, instead of a nice and tidy world for the players to interact with. One provides them challenges and opportunities to grow, the other risks being a mere theme park where the players get to kill people.

Not that I'm saying that you are normally MCing themepark worlds. What I'm saying is that you are unlikely to find a world with more threats (and therefore challenges), than one guided solely by fronts.

Fronts are how you prep in Apocalypse World. They include choosing names, countdown clocks, custom moves and answering questions that you have about what's going on. Much like MC moves, you look at your fronts when looking for something to say. They provide you with a loose structure in which to make your moves, which is particularly useful when those 6- results sometimes keep on showing up and you may feel like things are escalating too quickly against the characters. Fronts are also important as a basis for custom moves that highlight elements that you find interesting. These reinforce the principle that the characters have to do the move in the fiction in order to do the move in the game, because sometimes some things may not trigger a basic move but a specific custom move that you have prepared and the only way to know which is which is by keeping in touch with the fiction.

In general, fronts also help to demystify the role of the MC. If somebody says "I would like to MC but it looks so complicated." you can show them step-by-step what do you do before, during and after the session and how you use principles, moves and fronts to always know what your options are.

As long as you build good Threats, you don't need explicit Fronts or countdown clocks to run an excellent game of Apocalypse World. I feel confident saying this because the game's 2nd Edition straight-up makes this the standard way to play, removing the language of Fronts entirely from the game book.

Threats themselves are very easy to use because they don't impose a lot of extra formalities on your MC prep. Mostly it's just a matter of making sure you keep track of impulses. But it helps you circle back and figure out not only what your antagonists want, but also how you can express that in play. I often consult this thread for ideas about how to characterize specific threats and bring their relevant impulses to life through moves.

In my experience, if you don't do any prep (or any structured prep) at all, you tend to forget about some of the juicy loose ends you've left open, and your threats tend to get samey-ier because you reflexively rely on a narrower bag of tricks.

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