Thursday, September 25, 2014

Communities & Organizations: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 34

This week Play on Target considers Communities & Organizations in RPGs. This covers a wide range of elements in our games: factions, locales, icons, and clans. When done well, I adore these elements in games. I like how they offer a shorthand for GMs and a resource for players. The smartest games make them into a conversation. They inform players about the world without resorting to an info dump. But they also offer a channel to support the players with strings attached. A good faction ought to give and call in favors- a two-way street.

Before I move on I want to direct your attention to RPG Geek’s VirtuaCon, an online gaming convention coming up October 10th-12th. Play on Target came together through RPG Geek and we’re the "unofficial" podcast of the site. VirtuaCon offer 60+ events for free, including games and panels. You can see the full list here. I’ll be running four games and one panel, as well as participating in several others. Expect me to collapse by the end of that weekend.

I’ve been thinking about what fiction has factions and organizations as useful touchstones. Steven Brust’s Jhereg comes to mind. While the main character only belongs to one faction, the interactions between the other Houses define that world. Eventually when a character of a particular house appears on scene, they arrive with a set of expectations. Brust develops those naturally over time. Harry Potter offers another example. Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and the other ones each represent a kind of faction in the world. School games can easily replicate this or break things along other lines (Years, Clubs, and Nationalities). You might also be able to read the Marvel Universe this, with the political and power splits of X-Men (Good Mutants), Brotherhood (Evil Mutants), Inhumans (???). You have strong characters leading each. Maybe you could borrow something from 13th Age and have iconic relationships in a modern supers game.

Many games have integrated ideas of factions to help lay out their world. Brian mentions how World of Darkness has crafted nearly all of the new worlds (Vampire, Mage, etc) with a two-level system: group and philosophy. In Changeling the Lost, players select a Seeming and then usually connect themselves to a Court. That’s given added complexity through a system of “special interest clubs,” the Entitlements. It is interesting to look at games which offer archetypes that define role (Shadowrun, Earthdawn) versus those which define interests or allegiance (Legend of the Five Rings, Fading Suns).

In the episode we mention several games focusing exclusively on communities: The Quiet Year, Blood & Honor, Durance, Deluge, and Kingdom. I want to emphasize that last one. Kingdom’s a really interesting game and a great exploration of the tensions between competing interests within a group and the collective desire to maintain a stable society. We don’t mention World of Dew, Ben Woerner’s sequel to Blood & Honor. This deals with classical Japanese urban society and the lives of the non-samurai. DramaSystem (Hillfolk & Blood on the Snow) also features many campaign pitches focusing on the dramas inherent in communities.

It’s worth looking at some of the traps and pitfalls that factions offer as well. For example, I love the factions of Planescape. They’re supremely cool. But they’re also a great way to get a group at each other’s throats. If players pin too much attachment to those ideals it can lead to serious inter-party strife, worse than some alignment BS. Group attachments also have to have some payoff for the players. They should get a benefit at least slightly outweighing the cost IMHO. They also shouldn’t lock down or severely restrict the PCs’ choices. If the game’s mobile, any community attachment shouldn’t guilt them for travelling. Also be aware of the bookkeeping trap. If you introduce something the players can spend points on or build up, don’t go too granular. Otherwise you’ll have to track all of those details- especially if each player has their own to play with. Think about the economy of this. If the players can invest in something (a town, a base, a ship) figure out how far you expect them to go, how much that will cost, and how many sessions you expect them to play. Dole out points and set costs accordingly.

Most importantly if you present groups and communities in a game, you need to be willing to explain how and why they function. What does the Thieves Guild offer people? Why don’t the authorities directly act against it? If they’re so powerful, why don’t they take over? You need to establish the logic of these things. That’s especially true with authority groups, since players usually have a knee-jerk reaction against those. For example, the Court system in Changeling the Lost often irritates PCs. Why would Changelings replicate a hierarchy out in the real world when they’ve just escaped from that? I have something of the same reaction to Werewolf Clan structures. The answer is that they are doing something collectively that individuals couldn’t do, for the benefit of the group as a whole. That’s often hidden and forgotten behind layers of ritual. In CtL the Courts and their cyclical nature offer a powerful magic to help conceal the Freehold from the attentions of the Keepers. If that magic weren’t in place, then everyone would be vulnerable. Authority groups have duties and obligations and shirking or concealing those should cause them distress.

I have a useful trick for integrating communities in a meaningful way: put the players in charge. Make that part of the game's premise from the start. It’s a little like a Star Trek game. Everyone’s an officer and the ship’s a community. It’s a shared resource and responsibility. This is how I’ve handled two recent campaigns. For The Last Fleet, everyone took up a role in this rag-tag Fantasy/BSG fleet. Each player represented a particular ship/race. They had to balance the desires of their own peoples against the needs of the fleet as a whole. That meant sometimes enforcing rules and roles against their own. One player ended up effectively exiled from them for her choices. I’ve also done that with our homebrew L5R game, The New Dragon. Borrowing from Blood & Honor, everyone holds and office and we switch between classic adventures and seasonal actions.

I’ve written a few posts related to this topic you might find useful:

I’ve done several posts assembling games with a group or faction theme. 

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

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