Do you remember the Borg? The Borg were f$&%ing awesome. But chances are, you’re a twenty-something little zygote who will make me feel oldballs for even bringing it up. So thanks for that. Jerk.
See, before J. J. Abrams decided to absolutely f$&%ing ruin Start Trek so he could include “ruining a major, beloved science fiction franchise” on his resume and thus prove to the House of Mouse that he had experience ruining science fiction franchises when they asked if he had enough experience to destroy the Star Wars franchise with over-the-top, one-dimensional, crap characters, Mary Sues and Marty Stus, a plot that manages to be put together like garbage despite being literally photocopied from another, better plot, and emotional moments that lack ANY sense of emotional weight, scope, or scale…
Sorry. Let me try that again…
Before J. J. Abrams squatted out his own cinematic turd of a take on the beloved franchise, Star Trek had been around for, like, half a century. And in the second incarnation of the Star Trek television franchise, Star Trek: The Next Generation, we were introduced to the Borg. What happened was that the that the exploration vessel, the starship Enterprise, captained by the French-by-way-of-English-accent Jean-Luc Picard, was flung across the galaxy by a godlike comedy relief alien who was basically the Great Gazoo from the Flintstones except slightly more tolerable because he was played by the usually pretty okay John De Lancie. On the other side of the galaxy, they met a race of cybernetic aliens. Basically, these half-biological, half-machine creatures were mindless drones plugged in to a central hive mind. The individuals had no thoughts of their own. Instead, the collective mind of all of the Borg controlled all of the Borg. And because of their technological components, they could be tweaked and reprogrammed on the fly. So, if something terrible happened to one Borg – like being shot by a laser gun – the other Borgs would quickly develop shielding against lasers tuned to those particular frequencies. Not all lasers, mind you. Just a very specific frequency. They also ignored anything that wasn’t currently acting like a threat, even if that thing had previously murdered dozens of Borg drones. So, they were smart in a very specific and kind of stupid way.
Another thing the Borg did was to assimilate races and technologies. Whenever they encountered new technology, they would take it, study it, and adapt it to their needs. Likewise, whenever they encountered new species, they would kidnap them (like, all of them if they could), implant them with cybernetic components, and add them to the hive mind. And that completely wiped out all traces of individuality in the assimilated creatures, except when the plot demanded that it didn’t, so that the process could be reversed on main characters.
Why am I describing all of this? Well, because the Borg present an interesting solution to a question lots of people ask me about running adventures and campaigns. And, fortunately, the solution allows me to cram an unrelated side-thing into my ongoing series about NPCs with a little bit of semantical gymnastics. Ready? Here it is? In essence, the Borg were a single character with multiple bodies. That is, even though they were an entire organization, they functioned like a single NPC. Yeah, you see where we’re going here.
And, by the way, before the big ole heading pops up and forces me to abandon the Long, Rambling Intro™ and start saying useful s$&%, I just want to address those of you in the know about the Borg. Yes, First Contact was a good movie. But the Borg Queen doesn’t count. I can explain all of the specific reasons why she had to exist and what she was, but that doesn’t negate anything I said. She was a part of the Collective like everyone else. And I don’t care what books and fan theories and whatever other crap you want to reference. And I DEFINITELY don’t care about what Voyager had to say about the Borg. Voyager said that if you travel at warp 10, you will evolve into a lizard, die, bring yourself back to life, kidnap your captain, turn her into a lizard, have nasty lizard sex on a swamp planet, and then you can turn back into a human. So Voyager cannot be trusted about ANYTHING.
Guilds, Factions, Clubs, Fraternities, Sororities, Companies, Families, Caravanersai…
Once you start talking about NPCs in D&D, and I have been, you eventually have to discuss what happens when NPCs clump together and form little bands or units to pursue common goals. And there are A LOT of different ways they might do that. And A LOT of different reasons. And thus, there are a lot of different names for in-world groups of people banding together to do things together. For simplicity, I’m going to refer to all of these different groups as Factions. When I say Faction, you can assume I’m referring to any collective group that exists in the game world, from professional guilds to churches to social clubs to military organizations.
Now, look, human beings are inherently tribal creatures. We’re social because it gives us an evolutionary advantage, so we’re hard-wired to band together. That makes sense. And by banding together, we can accomplish things as a collective that would be impossible for individuals. This is a very basic part of the human experience. And thus, in our role-playing games, we expect the same kind of behavior. Remember, even when RPGs are about elves or robots or sentient clouds of gas, they are still about humans. And so, every GM eventually reaches the point where they realize their game world needs some Factions. It needs some organizations and guilds and clubs and mercenary houses and companies. And that’s a perfectly valid conclusion.
But then, as happens with all good ideas about bringing something into D&D, GMs – and game designers – go absolutely f$&%ing bonkers and decide that, if a thing exists in the game world, it needs a complicated system and a set of rules and some terms and all sorts of other s$&%. Because if a thing doesn’t have a page of rules, it hardly feels like a part of the game at all.
The thing is, Factions are actually incredibly simple. There’s very little you actually need to bring Factions into your game. And most of it, you already know how to do. And that’s because a Faction is essentially a hive mind. A collective. It’s a single NPC with lots of bodies. Sort of. It gets a LITTLE more complicated. But not much. And if you try to make it more complicated, you ruin it.
So, let’s break this down.
As with absolutely everything in an RPG, there’s two sets of reasons why something might exist. There are the in-game reasons that make sense to the fictional characters in the imaginary world and there are the out-of-game reasons that make sense to players and GMs and game designers. And for anything to exist, it needs at least a couple of each. Yes, you heard me. Nothing can exist purely for the game or purely for the story. And if you think it can, you don’t understand RPGs.
From a gameplay perspective, first of all, Factions can serve all sorts of purposes. But I don’t have to list them because I already have. See, Factions serve all of the same purposes that NPCs serve. Factions, are, after all just a way of grouping NPCs. And, in a lot of ways, a Faction is very much like an individual NPC. Basically, they are interactive game elements with comprehensible goals that the players can engage with. Remember that? We talked about it and why it’s important.
But Factions do more than NPCs. First of all, Factions are an important tool for building stories. See, a Faction is a collection of individuals that have a similar goal. That means they work together and support each other. The GM can use Factions to build teams inside the story. If the PCs murder some innocent shopkeeper and that shopkeeper was a member of a professional guild, the GM has an instant collective of NPCs to use to build future stories about how the idiot PCs got lynched by the Grocer’s Guild. If the PCs actually, against all odds, befriend a sage with a very specific area of knowledge, they might be able to get access to other areas of knowledge because the sage is a member the Fraternal Order of Librarians.
Second of all, because Factions are identifiable and recognizable and understandable collectives, they can also serve as a shorthand for the players. Suppose the players learn a thing or two about the Cult of the Diseased Fish. They understand its weird goals and motives. When they encounter a cultist wearing the robes of the Diseased Fish, they instantly understand something about that NPC’s motivations and goals. They might recognize the NPC as an ally. Or recognize it as a threat. And they might know how to engage it. Or think they know. Basically, Factions are a way of color coding NPCs so that the GM doesn’t have to go through the rigmarole of establishing motives and goals every time the players meet someone. A Faction uniform or badge or secret handshake or whatever? That’s just a way of saying “ditto.”
In terms of the game world, the major reason for Factions to exist in the fictional world is that that’s how humans function. Humans team up, as we’ve already established. They work toward common goals or support each other. That’s the payoff. Of course, membership in any Faction always has a cost. ALWAYS. Even if it doesn’t seem like it. Guilds might charge dues or they might take a cut of your business or they might dictate specific rules for how you can do business. In return, they provide you with business contacts, support, and political power. Religions might work toward lots of different goals and offer lots of different benefits, but membership in any religious organization requires you to follow various codes of conduct or adhere to certain strictures. And they might require specific services or donations from you. Social clubs provide you a safe place to spend time with like-minded people and plenty of recreation. But they often have exclusive membership and may require dues. The point is, every Faction provides a trade-off for its members: they get something, but they give up something in return.
Types of Factions
Now, we can talk about Factions in lots of different ways. But there are, again, two different ways of categorizing them which are important. First, there’s the in-game, in-world purpose. Second, there’s the out-of-world, meta-game purpose.
Fictional Factional Classifications
Inside the imaginary world of D&D, there are several reasons that people might band together to form Factions.
Professional Guilds represent people with common business interests. They might all be people in the same profession or they might be a collection of all professionals in a given area. Professional guilds exist to protect business interests in an area. And thus, the guild might provide collective political clout or it might provide licensing and business protectionism. The professional guilds might speak with one powerful voice before the king or local town council, for example. And they might have laws enacted that require one to be a member of a guild to practice a specific business. If they have lesser influence, membership in the guild might simply provide competitive advantage. It might just be a stamp of quality. Guild bakers are better than freeman bakers because their quality is guaranteed by the strength of the guild. And thus, they can charge more and get more business. Professional guilds can also expedite or facilitate business deals. The grocer’s guild and the farmer’s guild might agree on a set of prices that all grocers and farmers pay in their deals.
Profession Guilds can be local, regional, or even international. Membership in a guild in one area might mean practical membership in all areas. See, if you assume that the world has been unified under various empires that have risen and fallen, you can also assume that professional guilds all over the world are descendants of professional guilds that existed in various ancient empires. So, two different Blacksmith Guilds in two different cities might have their origins in the same ancient guild. And that they might recognize and respect each others’ members. And in any world with active trade, similar guilds in different cities are likely to band together to protect their collective interests. That doesn’t HAVE TO BE the case though. It is entirely possible that a given city’s guilds recognize no foreign guilds. Or that every city has its own guilds.
Criminal Guilds such as assassins guilds and thieves guilds are basically a special subset of Professional Guilds. They work much the same way, except that the services they provide are a little different. While they might provide political clout (in the form of blackmail, bribery, or extortion) and business protectionism (if you’re not a guild thief, don’t get caught thieving or they will cut off your hands), they will also provide safe hiding places, alibis, and other forms of protection from the law. They will also provide ways to get a hold of illegal goods. And for service-oriented criminal organizations (like assassins), they provide a point of contact so that people who need assassins can find an assassin without having to do too much legwork. Like Professional Guilds, a Criminal Guild can be a collective of many different types of professionals or they might provide a single type of service, like assassination or gambling or smuggling. And, while we’re on the subject, a Gang is just a small Criminal Guild.
A Company is a bit different from a Professional Guild. Here, the organization is organized for a very express purpose. Usually, it’s to pool resources, skills, and talents in order to make money at a specific profession. However, technically, money doesn’t have to be the object. The point is, though, that members provides skills, resources, talents, and time in return for rewards or because they want to see a specific project completed. Sailors might serve on a particular ship, their pay is the reward for their service. Soldiers work for a mercenary company, earning pay in return for their military service. A church collective might pool its resources to build an orphanage or library or temple. Money does not HAVE TO be the object of a company. Any Faction in which people pool talents and resources to accomplish a specific goal, either in return for a reward or out of a desire for the specific goal, is a Company.
A Social Club provides recreation and social interaction. That’s it. Members benefit from the chance to meet in an exclusive venue with members of their social circle or people who share a similar interest. At worst, the group might gather to share food, drinks, and camaraderie. But specific entertainments might be offered. Events might be organized. And there might be other benefits, too, such as valuable political or business contact. In return, members often have to pay dues and they have to meet some sort of specific prerequisite.
Educational Organizations provide training, education, and the opportunity to continue one’s academic pursuits. The organization might act a bit like a Company, earning money by educating students and paying its teachers. Or it might provide grants and an opportunity to pursue academic interests to its teachers. Or its members might pay in return for training and education. An exclusive mercenary academy that requires two years of service after the training is complete is as much an Educational Organization as an arcane college that provides its wizards housing, labs, and grants so they can continue to study.
Religious Organizations, which might be called churches, orders, or cults, can be organized around specific purposes or simply organized to allow people to support a specific faith or deity in a communal setting. Community churches simply provide places for parishioners to worship and pray at regular intervals. And they might also provide charity work. Other religious groups, though, might be formed for other reasons. An order devoted to the god of knowledge might be dedicated to exploration, archaeology, and the perseveration of ancient lore. An order devoted to a healing god might set up hospitals, clinics, and orphanages wherever they are needed. In point of fact, Religious Organizations are not really a type of Faction by themselves. They can be Social Clubs, Companies, or Educational Organizations. The key is to figure out what they are really after. A cult trying to bring about the end of the world? That’s a Company. A local community church? That’s a Social Club. A monastery devoted to training soldier-priests? That’s an Educational Organization.
In the end, Factions are either going to be Professional Guilds, Companies, Social Clubs, or Educational Organizations. All other organizations are just a subset of those four.
But that’s all in-game crap. There’s a bigger, more important question that every GM has to wrestle with? Why does this Faction exist IN THE GAME?
Mechanical Factional Classifications
Just like NPCs, Factions can exist in your game to serve a number of different purposes. In fact, the list is almost identical. Except that Factions can do a little more than your average NPC.
Resource Factions exist to provide the PCs with information or resources. The party might buy their special magical supplies from the Alchemists or Artificers Guild. They might acquire illicit goods from a Smugglers or Thieves Guild. They might consult the sages at the local Arcane College for information about specific quests. Healing might come from the local Healing Church. And so on. Such Factions exist solely to fill a particular need in the game. And, honestly, the only reason to use a Faction here is because it makes more sense than having a single individual NPC. And honestly, you COULD have one, single NPC fill the same purpose. Instead of a Smuggler’s Guild, you have Captain Marta. Instead of the Arcane College, you have Wise Old Bertram. Instead of the Healing Church, you have Sister Angelina Contessa Luisa Francesca Banana-Fanna-Fo-Fesca, III. Resource Factions are the closest to being individual NPCs that you can get.
Patron Factions exist to provide the PCs with quests, motivations, and to otherwise start off adventures and side-quests. They are basically the same as quest givers. And, just like Resource Factions, they could be replaced with individual NPCs. However, the implication here is that the PCs are either members of the organization (more on this later) or are hired by the organization. Of course, just as with NPCs, it helps if the PCs are sympathetic to the organization.
Background Factions exist to make the world real and interactable, just like all the innkeepers and random people on the street. They exist because they should exist in the world and they bring the world to life. However, as noted, they also serve an extra purpose by being a shorthand. Slap a background Faction on an NPC (that might exist for some other purpose), and suddenly, the players understand that NPC a little better. For example, the quest giver this week might be wearing the emblem of the Most Holy Order of Knights Who Are Basically Just Really Good People and Want to Do the Right Thing All the Time. As long as the players already know about the Holy Order of Knights WABJRGPWDRTAT, they will already understand where the NPC is coming from just by seeing the gold star emblazoned on his white tunic.
Antagonist Factions exist for the same reason that villainous NPCs exist. They provide opposition to the players. They might be the villain of the campaign or they might represent an occasional side-obstacle or rivalry. Or, the pursuit of their goals might simply get in the way of the PC’s own goals.
And honestly, that’s it. Any Faction is either going to sit in the background providing story details, provide resources, provide quests, or get in the way of the PCs. As complicated as Factions seem, in game terms, there isn’t much they can do.
Can Players Join Factions?
It is IMPOSSIBLE to discuss Factions and organizations without eventually addressing this issue: are Factions there so players can join them? Or are they something that exists for the rest of the world only? Long story short: it actually doesn’t matter a whole hell of a lot. And, in terms of game mechanics, it really doesn’t change much. What do I mean? Let me explain.
In theory, a player could join a Resource Faction, a Patron Faction, or even a Background Faction easily enough. And, in fact, occasionally, it’s assumed that players have done just that. Clerics, Paladins, Druids, and other religious folks are almost always members of a faith. And often, they are members of a specific church, temple, order, or circle which follows that faith.
So, what happens in a game in which the players are members of a Resource or Patron Faction? They get access to resources or get assigned jobs by the Faction. And what happens in a game in which the players interact with Resource or Patron Factions? They get access to resources or get assigned jobs by the Faction. See? It really isn’t that different. For the most part. We will talk about one little nifty way you can change that toward the end.
The point is, resources are never free. Either the party pays for them somehow, or they pay for membership in a guild and get them, or both. And it really doesn’t matter a whole hell of a lot. As for Background Factions? Well, those are just interactable bits of the world. What does it matter whether a player is interacting with it from inside the Faction or outside of it? And patrons will offer jobs because that’s how adventures happen. Either the players are employees or they are independent contractors. The pay and the job is the same.
What’s in a Faction
Here’s the part where most GMs and role-playing systems s$&% their pants. They want to give you a complicated system for building Factions. One that allows you to build all the Factions you might want to put in your world. Fortunately, I’m here to give you a smarter approach. Build Factions the same way you build NPCs.
See, a Faction is essentially an NPC. At its core, it has a goal or motivation. And that is what makes it do whatever it does in the world: provide quests, sell resources, act as a villain, and so on. Beyond that, just like NPCs have personality foibles and hopes and fears and relationships and backstories, so do Factions. And just like NPCs, a Faction only needs as much of that crap as it has screen time. So, a church organization that appears in ONE adventure to provide ONE quest and then disappears forever? All it needs is a goal. But if the players keep going back to the same hunter’s lodge over and over again and get to know it, it’s going to need more quirks and relationships.
And here’s where things get very simple: there’s really only three things you can add to a Faction. You can add backstory, you can add relationships with other Factions, and you can add members. So, if the party keeps spending time at the same hunter’s lodge, they might meet more members of the organization with goals, hopes, fears, foibles, etc. Or they might learn the history of the lodge and learn about the time the first hunter strangled a spider-bear with its own web. Or they might learn that they have a rivalry with a logging company from another town that is encroaching on their terrain.
And that’s it. Seriously. That’s why you don’t need whole complicated stats and terms and things.
In the end, a Faction needs a goal. That’s the first thing. Why does it exist? What does it, the collective, want? And it needs a game purpose. Does it provide resources, patrons, background, or an antagonist. Those are the two most basic requirements for a Faction to appear in your game. And that’s really ALL you need for a Faction to appear on camera the first time. Well, obviously, if it provides patronage, you need a quest or adventure. Obviously. And if it provides resources, you need to decide what resources and at what cost. Obviously. But that goes without saying.
Most resource and patron Factions that don’t appear as part of the premise of the campaign come into being because a specific adventure needs them or because the PCs create them. Again, just like NPCs. You might need a religious order to hire the PCs to protect a priest on a pilgrimage. You might need a way for the PCs to get access to healing spells and potions. Or the PCs might decide they need the sort of research only a mystic sage can provide and thus hunt down an Arcane College. And everything I’ve said about how NPCs are born and how they grow applies to Factions too. The more time they spend on camera, the more details you can add. Until then, all you need is that starting point: fictional goal and game purpose.
Except for the First Member. AKA the Face.
The First Member of Every Faction
So, in the movie Star Trek First Contact (yes, we’re back to that), the crew of the Enterprise meet a Borg who speaks for the Collective. She embodies the Collective. She IS the Collective. And that’s because individual humans must interact with individual humans. You can’t interact with an entire organization. And the same thing is true in D&D. As a GM, you decide on the goals and purpose for the organization. But the players can’t interact with the Faction itself. They must have a specific person to interact with. So, whenever the players interact with a Faction, they will really be interacting with a member. And the FIRST TIME the players interact with a given Faction, the person they interact with has a very important job. That person is the Face.
The Face of the organization is a character that represents the purest expression of the Faction. The Face is utterly loyal to the Faction and shares its goals utterly. In short, that person is an embodiment of the Faction. While other members might waiver in their loyalty or question the Faction or turn traitor or they might have their own unique way of doing things within the Faction, the Face cannot do any of those things. The Face must represent the Faction utterly and completely.
Why? Because the players will define the Faction by the first member they meet. Whatever he or she says and does, that will be the Faction to the players. Other members can be unique individual snowflakes, but that first member is the definition of the Faction in the story. This is extremely important. And that’s why I started with all of that crap about the Borg. Because the Face and the Faction are one and the same. The Face is your mouthpiece for the Faction.
The Face doesn’t have to be the leader. He doesn’t even have to be particularly high up. He could be on the bottom rung. It doesn’t matter at all what position he holds in the Faction. All that matters is he wears the uniform and he carries the banner with pride.
When you create a Faction, you must also create a Face, an NPC who will serve as the first point of contact with a new Faction. And that’s true even if the players already know what the Faction is about. That is to say, if you told the players about the Church of the Merciful Sloth repeatedly in your campaign notes and they’ve heard about it from several NPCs already, you STILL need to create a Face and that Face needs to be the first Priest of the Merciful Sloth the players ever meet. And the Priest and the Church must be unified in their goals and ideals.
Now, I know what you’re going to ask? Surely I can have a story where the Face turns traitor, right? What a twist that would be? Or a story where the Face ends up at odds with the organization? Right? You CAN, but you SHOULDN’T. And if you DO, you need to do it CAREFULLY.
This is complicated, but let me spell it out. Remember that the whole reason to have NPCs (and Factions) is to give the players something to care about. It’s all about emotional engagement. And that means that most non-antagonist NPCs (and Factions) exist to garner sympathy from the players. You want the players to identify with NPCs (and Factions) and to sympathize with them. Right? The Face exists because, in the game, the players need something human to interact with before they can really start to emotionally engage. It’s part of that whole “show, don’t tell” thing. So, the Face exists to garner sympathy for the Faction. Which is why they have to align. The moment they stop aligning, you’ve short circuited the emotional engagement. You’ve made things very complicated. The players MIGHT keep sympathizing with the Face and turn against the Organization. Or they MIGHT sympathize with the Organization and turn against the Face. But there is no way to be sure how it will all play out because, until the moment of betrayal (or whatever), the Faction and the Face were THE SAME THING in the players’ minds. The players are attached to both equally and for the same reasons. Suddenly, you’re asking them to separate the two. When the whole purpose of the Face was to be inseparable from the Organization.
That said, you CAN try to play games with the Face of the Faction. But it can be tricky. And whatever else you do, a Faction must ALWAYS have a Face. So, if the Face is going to turn traitor, you need another NPC in the story to ALREADY EXIST and ALREADY HAVE A RELATIONSHIP WITH THE PLAYERS to step up and become the new Face.
So, when the party discovers the Face turns against the Faction, they should already know someone else in the organization who is shocked and appalled along with them. Someone who is also loyal and sympathetic. Someone who can fill the void left by the Face. Or, alternatively, the new Face is someone antagonistic and unsympathetic who drives the PCs to realize it was the Organization that turned against the Face, not the other way around. It depends on where you want the story to go. Either way, there should be a new Face primed and waiting in the wings to redefine the organization for the PCs and tell them whether their sympathies should stay with the Faction or stay with the Face.
Factional Relationships and Interactions
So, now you see Factions don’t need to be complicated. You play them just like NPCs. You understand their in-game goals and meta-game purpose and you act through their members. You utilize a specific NPC Face to define the Faction for the players. You make decisions for the Faction as a collective based on its goals and purpose and play out those decisions through various members. And, you can also make decisions for individual members, who may or may not align wholly with the Faction. Just like any other NPC. And you don’t need complex numbers or stats to do anything with Factions. It’s all just the same sort of human decisions you make with NPCs.
And the same goes for relationships. Factions, collectively, have relationships. They might like or dislike the party. If they like the party, they are more likely to provide help, support, and resources. If they dislike the party, they may withhold resources and support. Gamers LOVE to intent complex systems for reputations and relationships between the players and organizations. And there is simply no need for it. As a GM, you simply need to note the positive and negative relationships and make decisions based on those relationships. You know, just like the PLAYERS do when deciding how to react to a particular NPC or Faction.
Likewise, when it comes to dice and checks and social interACTIONs! with a Faction or organization, it really isn’t any different from interacting with any other NPC. Except that you have to take the NPC’s relationship with their Faction into consideration. If the PCs are favored by the Faction and the NPC is loyal to the Faction, that should be worth a bonus. If the interACTION! is likely to land the NPC in trouble with the Faction, that will probably work against the PCs in the form of an objection.
There IS an extra step you need to take though. You need to decide – after the PCs interact with a member of a Faction – whether that interaction carries over and affects their relationship with the Faction. If the PCs rough up someone in the Faction, they might find the Faction is pretty pissed off with them. But if that someone is a low-level nobody with a bad attitude that nobody likes, the Faction might be okay with it.
But then, that’s part and parcel of the whole GMing gig anyway. Remember that resolving an action involves not just an outcome, but also deciding how consequences spread through the game world. And, in that respect, a Faction is really just a vector by which consequences can spread from NPC to NPC.
But, look, if you DO feel the need to invent some sort of system for Factional Reputation, fine, feel free to do so. May I suggest something as simple as the 10-Point Scale I mentioned as part of my Mechanical Miscellany or something modeled on my ideas for Honor Systems?
I mean, hell, I’m sure your game is not needlessly complicated enough already.