Creating Factions: 3 Basic Questions

Most people like to feel like they belong to part of a group. These groups take on all sorts of sizes and compositions. Some of them offer very little as a part of membership, and do very little in the way of influencing the world around them. Some aim to be movers and shakers, pursuing world-shattering goals. In tabletop roleplaying games, we often refer to groups as “Factions,” and setting up Factions is an important step you can take in making your world feel more alive and realistic as a GM.

At their core, Factions can be described along the same lines as characters. The first three things that you need to decide when creating a Faction are: 1) Who are they? 2) What do they want? 3) Why can’t they have it? These three basic questions will form the core of the Faction, and are things that you should constantly revisit and reassess as the campaign continues and your world evolves. I’ll explore these three questions in more depth, and answer them by creating a Faction from scratch as an example as a part of this post.

1) Who are they? This is your basic description of the Faction. When sitting down to create your Faction, it is important to think about who joins this Faction and who runs it. This is where you create the character and feel of your Faction. You should think about the Faction’s origins, when and where it began, since this will have a significant impact on who the members are. Define who is likely to join this Faction and why, as well as why other types of people may decide not to join, or don’t have the opportunity to join. As with all of these questions, the answer to “Who are they?” is tightly interwoven with the other two, and you will likely find yourself bouncing back and forth between the questions to flesh things out. However, try to keep the answers segregated into three different sets, since as the campaign continues, things are likely to change. The group’s goal may change, but they will still have the same membership, for example. This section should also describe the capabilities of the group: are they able to affect significant portions of the world around them with their power, or are they small-timers, unable to cause much of a stir outside their neighborhood?

For our example Faction, I’m going to say that the Faction is a small revolutionary band in the Kingdom of Weissland called The Voice. They are led by students of the universities of the kingdom, and the majority of their members are well-educated members of the gentry; in fact, most of the members are students or former students who studied together. Their membership spreads across races but is primarily made up of Humans, Elves, and Half-Elves, since Dwarves do not often travel to the city universities for studies. The members of the Voice are rather naïve in their assessment of their own importance and their own ability to rally members of the general population to support them once they make their revolutionary move. They spend little of their time actually strategizing for a significant act, and much of it drinking and philosophizing. They have stockpiled a small amount of weapons, bought over time by members from local blacksmithies and stored in an unused cellar room below the library at the University of Ordail.

2) What do they want? This speaks to the central reason that the Faction exists. The larger a Faction is, the more goals they are likely to have, but you should initially identify one primary goal that unites the members of the Faction, the reason that they have all come together. What the Faction wants will be the thing that helps unite members who may be from disparate or even opposing backgrounds, and they will work best when pursuing this central goal. When the Faction or its members begin to pursue other goals, it has the possibility lead to discord and even fragmentation, depending on how radical the divergence. This is probably the most important question to answer and keep in mind over the course of developing the Faction and planning their actions in your campaign and world; what the Faction wants should be the primary driver of their activities. This can and should affect actions all the way down to the choices they make during combat. A cult devoted to trying to bring back an ancient god should not focus on killing the players if they discover the players have an artifact which will help them in their ritual. In a combat encounter, they should instead focus on securing the artifact from the players, and then fleeing and covering their tracks; after all, if they stay and fight they may all die, and then how can they summon their god? You should also examine why the group wants to pursue this specific goal. What event or status in the world has driven different people to want to band together and pool their resources to try to achieve a united goal?

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The Voice wants to overthrow the King of Weissland and replace him and the system of nobility with a representative-style government, with themselves as the first elected leaders, of course. They believe that over the last thousand years, the nobility and the kings have not done the best that they can for the people of Weissland. Sure, the country has remained relatively safe and the economy has grown, but much of the wealth is still concentrated in a small number of people at the top. The students are actually from well-to-do, though not noble, families, but they believe that their positions of privilege should be used for the betterment of the common people. Some of them are particularly appalled at the callous actions and attitudes of certain nobles they have come into contact with. The group is divided on what should be done with the nobility and the king once their revolution is inevitably successful; should they be killed? Exiled? Be made simple, poor citizens? No one has been able to decide.

3) Why can’t they have it? This is the last question for you to answer, and where you set up the primary conflict that the Faction is involved in. Every Faction in your world has not achieved its goal, otherwise there would be no reason for the faction to exist. Even if a Faction achieves its goal over the course of the game, or has done so in the past, the Faction must evolve and change, redirecting its efforts towards a new goal. Without that focus, the Faction will lose cohesion. If a group wants to rule the world as its goal, and it takes over the world, its goal must change to something like “keep control of the world,” as it redirects its efforts to stamping out any revolutions or resistance groups that pop up. So, since the Faction’s current goal has not been achieved, what is the reason that it has not been achieved? What factors have thus far prevented their successful accomplishment of their goal? This could be a single, massive obstacle to overcome, or many different ones which together frustrate overall progress. These frustrations are important, because they will become the primary ways through which the players come into contact, and possibly conflict, with the Faction. The players may serve as agents of the Faction, helping them deal with their issues, or as participants in events which will further frustrate their plans.

The reasons that the Voice have not achieved their goal of overthrowing the King and the nobility are many. For starters, they feel that they do not yet have enough manpower to fight the Weissland Royal Army, as well as the various personal guards of the nobles scattered across the country. They think that some of the Army and the guards will turn on their rulers and join the revolution, but they need to first infiltrate those organizations and find out what kind of help they can expect. They have not yet gone about infiltrating those groups, since they don’t actually have anyone skilled in infiltration or spywork. They place a large amount of stock in their ability to turn the common folk into a “people’s army,” but they do not yet have anywhere near enough weapons to arm as many people as they think they need to fight the King’s forces. As you can see, the Voice has quite a long way to go to achieving their goal, and the issues they have above can easily be spun into quests for the players.

I hope this post has been helpful in creating the initial groundwork for Factions in your roleplaying world. I plan on delving further into factions in future posts, so if there is something specific you want to see my discuss, don’t hesitate to let me know.

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