Thursday, June 29, 2023

Conflict-forward factions

Most advice on how to design factions can usually can be summarized as “[group] wants [goal], but [complication]; fill in the gaps.” This is a solid and fast way of getting ideas down for groups but I find that it, at least when making factions for a full campaign as opposed to a dungeon or adventure locale, it's largely left up to the DM to come up with compelling interplay— the most important part and, as is often the case, the hardest to do on your own. What this method lacks is a way of organizing the factions within a larger framework or scenario for the players will contend with. 

What I suggest instead is a way to think about faction creation that starts with the overarching circumstances the factions exist within and working outward from there in order to build out how the figurative position each faction occupies in those circumstances and thus in turn the potential energy of how they might play off one another (once the players get involved). 

So where to begin? Conflict. Conflict is always compelling because it gives rise to change, which gives rise to opportunity. It creates an instability or tension from which could arise any number of new or unpredictable scenarios. Because of that, compelling factions ought to be in involved in conflict. Instead of coming up with the factions first and figuring out why they hate each other, it's more productive to start with the conflict itself. Working from a blank slate, that means identifying a scenario characterized by instability (the root of conflict) and designating factions based on different positions a group can take relative to the resulting tension. 

There's no hard-and-fast rule for this but generally instability appears in the interim between when one paradigm declines and another is ascendant, or when something big and consequential happens unexpectedly. 

A great example of a sandbox adventure that takes full advantage of instability is Better Than Any Man, probably the best thing to come from LotFP. You have the foreground circumstances of the magic strangeness going on in town (instability) coupled with the emergence of a mysterious cult (more instability), as a war in the backdrop (but wait!), with the looming threat of the Swedes (there's more!). Interweaving layers of conflict form a beautiful tapestry of mayhem. I also did something similar in The Cerulean Valley, my never-before-plugged adventure in noisms' sensational zine In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard vol. 1. Check it out. 

Here's what it looks like building this from the ground up. The situation: 

A few years back, a cruel warlord invaded a thriving city-state, slew the aging king, and installed himself as the city's Overlord. 

Given that this is a city locale, we'll take the bog-standard D&D city fixtures to become our factions: nobles, wizard's guild, church, and thieve's guild. We're also going to have the Overlord and his agents as their own faction, since they make up one pole of the conflict. 

Once the factions are decided, it's time to identify different ways a group can perceive the circumstance they're in, based on what hardships and what opportunities this tension offers a given faction. Or even more simply, just thinking of what different perspectives would be appropriate in this scenario. In its most basic form there are the two sides to the conflict, the old thing at the new thing, and a handful of groups that seek to exploit the conflict for their own gain—one who wants to swoop in when both are weak, one who wants to side with the whoever has the most to offer them, one who wants to prolong the conflict and maximize chaos, and so on. 

First is the Overlord and his agents. Perhaps they have insinuated themselves into the cities municipal and trade bureaucracies and now control the city’s commerce and the rule of law. They're the ones in charge, but the transition has been rough and their hold over the city is tenuous at best. 

Opposed to them are the noble families, who have been allowed to maintain a diminished stature in exchange for their deference to the Overlord. Some are content and try to make the most of the situation, but by and large the nobility are against the new regime and look for any opportunity to undermine the Overlord and return things to semblance of the way they were before. 

A powerful group indifferent to either side is the magicians’ Collegium, a loose conglomerate of magic-users sanctioned by the city-state. The Collegium was formed generations ago to allow magic-users to collaborate and work as they please in exchange for agreeing to keep civic disturbances within a manageable threshold and come to the city-state’s aid in times of need. The agreement has remained unchanged in the new regime. The Collegium typically wants everyone to fuck off and leave them to their business, yet given that the institution possesses massive power that can only marginally be controlled by politics, they have much to offer both the Overlord and the royalists. While they're tentatively willing to support whoever has the most to offer them, they're more interested in suppressing both sides and sweeping as much influence as they can. 

The faction who wants to side with the group with the most influence is the Church. Already a fossilized institution before the new regime, their relevance has only further declined since the Overlord has little interest in preserving the traditions and observances that were at least nominally upheld under the king. Still, the Church has the power of divinity on their side. Within the vast catacombs beneath the great cathedral are secrets of immense consequence, forgotten by all save for their holy custodians, granting them a not-insignificant amount of leverage. The Church hopes to reclaim its influence by siding with whoever has the upper hand, both in the hopes of bringing an end to the conflict and also to curry as much favor as possible with whoever comes out on top. 

And the group that thrives in the turmoil and wants to prolong it for as long as possible is the thieves' guild, or maybe the local serpent cult or whatever you should get the idea by now. 

So here we have an idea of not just what each faction is and what they want, but also how each faction’s respective want ties into a larger overarching theme. Potential conflicts and factional moves can emerge from this organically, while allowing it all to stay focused around a larger tension. Of course, you can have a bunch of factions with disparate goals (ie the magic-users want magic artifacts, the thieves' guild wants money, the church wants adherents, etc.) but organizing the factions from the center outward like this provides you with an organizing framework to more easily build adventures.