In a recent conversation on google+, Jason Pitre asked how many non-player factions we thought should be present in an RPG campaign.  There were several different suggestions that included small numbers (say, 4) and larger numbers (0-4 to start, then at least one per dungeon or adventure after that).  My first suggestion was “perhaps 1-3 per PC, but they may be shared”.

Jason thought the larger number and my suggestion were higher than he was expecting, so I thought I would explain myself.  I then realized my response might make a good blog post, so here we are.

I didn’t understand what Jason had meant by ‘faction’. He provided an example from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which had the Federation, Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans, Borg, and “maybe Ferengi”.  I didn’t watch a lot of ST:TNG and don’t remember seeing the Ferengi, so I’m not sure where they come in; perhaps because they showed up in a later series with shared characters, so they’re part of the same setting?

What he was considering a ‘faction’ I would call a ‘nation’ or ‘racial group’.

To me ‘faction’ is a political structure within a larger group, most often of theoretically allied (or at least associated) nature.

I’m thinking much smaller groups than the major political entities.  I can run a campaign within a single one of the ‘factions’ you mention… and would probably have factions within that.

For instance, in my Bandisal campaign I’ve got:

  • the king and his political allies
  • the Duke of Arlemagne (owes fealty to the king, but has almost as much land and money, and almost as many vassals)
  • the Council of Gods (political group based out of the churches; Laris (god of hunters) and Albry (god of healers and farmers) are not part of it, Trenneth (god of justice) might join if they figure it’s right — and within the Council each church has its own agenda, but for now they are allied and aligned to try to keep whatever happens with the king and duke non-disruptive),
  • du’Chade (neighboring nation) is taking a hand, so they’ve got a faction here trying to make things turn out the way they want (playing both sides to make the best deal they can)

This is just a subset of the factions I can see, all working to various purposes with and against each other.

Now, many of these are background.  I can easily see the factions mostly providing news for the others.  For instance, the Larisians are mostly occupied in the forests resisting an incursion of unnatural creatures.  If the PCs are mostly involved with this effort they’ll be fighting aberrations and alien creatures, and the political machinations of the capital are little more than entertainment… or a source of irritation because the meaningless posturing of the nobility has caused local allies to be called away from their posts near the forests, stretching the Larisians thinner.

On the other hand, if this is a more political campaign the plight of the Larisians might be mere mumbling and rumors from the outlands, or might become a political issue that leads to a gambit to suddenly gain power in court.

Also, in a political campaign the factions become more important to how things work.  A ‘simple’ situation might be that everyone is loyal and in service to the king (or patriots who want to see the ineffectual king replaced by a stronger ruler with a greater sense of tradition, and support the duke).  In either case, the council might be courted to get their support to ensure continuity (or smooth change of power), the Chadians are going to be suspect at best (they’ll join in and ‘tip the balance’ once they think they see which direction it’s going to go), and so on.

This can get even bigger if desired.  What if

  • the PCs are from multiple factions?
    • One is a ranger of Laris, come to gain military support for their efforts in the forests (which means courting one or both of the king and duke, and possibly the council… and maybe the Chadians if nothing else works).
    • One cousin of the king supports the king, while another supports the duke.
    • Everyone is associated with the Council, but from different factions within the Council.  Is there contention there?  Is one church trying to maneuver within the Council to gain power over others?  Is there one willing to sacrifice the goals of the Council to defeat another member?
  • the Chadian king discovers one of his less-reliable vassals is interfering with the internal affairs of his brother-king?  Will the Chadian king act to rein in his wayward vassal?  Or will he demand a cut of the action?
  • all the PCs are followers or otherwise aligned with Trenneth, and are watching to find the ‘most just’ solution to this contention… and there are differences of opinion (I can see ‘pro-king’, ‘pro-duke’, and ‘not yet decided’ factions within the Trenneth church).

So.  Lots of factions, because none of them is really big enough or powerful enough to grab full control, despite being nominally allied.

It can be as low as ‘one active faction’ (which is to say, none really since there is no important contention within a single faction), with the activities of other factions providing news, entertainment, and possibly introducing or imposing new situations on the PCs.  It might be as high as three or more per PC (at least one allied, one opposing, one neutral), though I expect that with this structure things would be somewhat disjoint unless PCs were sharing them.  Mind you, ‘sharing’ doesn’t mean they agree — two PCs might ‘share’ three factions because the PCs’ factions are opposed and both court the third.

I find that I can juggle a fair number of factions with this kind of scope.  Once I have defined the factions I know their goals, how to tell they’re involved, what they will be (or like to be) involved with, and so on, and it gives me a fairly broad palette to draw from when designing scenarios.

However, as many factions as I may have in total, a single scenario is likely to involve no more than three to five factions.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the post and I do agree with you in a general sense. “Factions” are an odd concept when you examine them in detail, filling the space between the individual player characters and the broad setting on a whole. Factions are organizations, nations and groups that have their own mandates and agendas.

    What defines a faction? That depends entirely on the scale of the campaign. In a space-faring game, this might deal with entire races and star systems. In a kingdom-scale game, this might involve politically influential groups vying to control, protect or destroy the kingdom. In a modern street-level game, even small gangs of a few dozen people might constitute Factions. Fundamentally, Factions are the amount of the setting that players could reasonably expect to affect during play.

    At least, that’s my perspective and opinion. :) Thank you for your detailed post!

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