Thursday, June 9, 2016

Home Is Where The Sword Is: Factions & Communities in RPGs

Another archive post? Shocking! Why would I do such a thing? Because of my prep for Origins where I’ll be running Neo-Shinobi Vendetta and/or Magic,Inc. With that plug out of the way, let me explain why I picked this post.

...Because I’ve got a campaign or maybe just a game in my head. I’m not sure how you'd do it or its full shape. Some of this comes from a post I read on superhero domains, some from the Green Law of Varkith, and some from flipping through James Iles’ Legacy: Life Among the Ruins. For this I imagine a huge fantasy city, something like Abashan, Nochet, or Waterdeep. The players each run a faction within it. Those factions have a character sheet (or playbook) as well as a “face” acting as the player’s avatar. If we went with the classics you could run a merchant faction, an element of the nobility, thieves guild, military power, independent bureaucracy, city watch, sorcerer cabal, or other interest-unified gathering (ethnicity, profession, other).

So that's pretty close to Varkith, which has a Planescape-like faction system, but there the players have a shared faction (which makes sense). I’d like something that encourages individual interests and agendas: closer to Urban Shadows. The player factions compete against each other and NPC factions for influence, power, and their particular desires. But there’s an additional semi-cooperative element to this. They also have to deal with threats to the city as a whole from conspiracies, ancient evils, and potentially occupying forces.

I’m pretty sure I’m reinventing the wheel here. I haven’t looked around to see what new tools and games are available to handle this. Kingdom comes to mind, one of my favorite games. But that has almost too much abstraction. I want the factions as an element players can advance and develop. Legacy has a lot of this but doesn’t quite click for me; I’m not sure why. I need to play it to grok what's going on there. (It also occurs to me this whole thing- or rather some stripped down version- could be a fun way to do a game about the different Houses from Ars Magica. So another tangent...)

Anyway, that’s why I dug up this old piece. It is out of date. As before I’m leaving this 2010 post unedited and painfully overwritten.

HOME IS WHERE THE SWORD IS 
I like building games-- that is, I like games where the PCs build a place for themselves. That might be literal in the case of establishing a fortress outpost, or abstract in the sense of creating a fellowship. My campaigns repeat some themes and structures; building alliances and communities comes up often. At the climax, the players can win by bring together their allies. The PCs remain central, but their earlier choices and effort allows them to exert the influence over a wide range. They go from simply winning to winning big.

Accordingly I have a fondness for games which provide mechanics for actions and ideas at that larger scale. Even though I'm a mechanics-lite person, I love rules and systems. I scour games for how they handle these ideas. Usually games which have these rules follow at least one of three structures: 
  • Rules for building communities which serve as a background element-- but have a mechanical effect.
  • Rules for players controlling groups as leaders (nations, armies, bands, companies, cults, organizations, etc)
  • Rules for playing those organizations as a form of “player-character” 
Below I present a few games that have such mechanics. I've only mentioned one military campaign specific book below. Usually I find that while those supplements have battle and resolution mechanics, they leave off interesting stuff about recruitment, day-to-day life, logistics and such.

Any input or suggestions for things I've missed is appreciated.

I'm sure a number of d20 supplements provide rules for handling the creation and maintenance of a military or mercenary company, but I'll point to just this one as an example. The game assumes that the players will take the role of officers and members of a company. That's more a factor inherent in the setting and campaign ideas than in the mechanics presented. The system does provide some rules for recruitment, supply, company structure and the hazards of war (like disease running amok in the camp). That actually takes up a rather slight section of the book. Instead it focuses more on handling warfare at several scales and providing the color and grit a GM needs to convey the idea of a military unit-based game. This served as the inspiration for my own Planescape game. In that case they had two characters each and we spent some time during sessions thinking about recruitment, divisions and organization.

John Wick returns to the samurai genre (having written Legend of the Five Rings) with this adaptation of his Houses of the Blooded system. Groups begin first by creating a clan for themselves, a collaborative process. They define the daimyo, holdings, aspects and so on of their clan. This in turn shapes bonuses and options for the PCs. It is a pretty simple and abstract system, but I can imagine porting to other games and developing it further. One of the key features for the game is that the players make up important people in the clan-- not the typical ho-hum samurai assigned to guarding a grain transport. PCs might be military advisors to the clan, oversee the secret informers, or manage the estates and holdings. From the beginning, the players invest in the community of their clan through ownership and participation.

The game functions in stories told per season. Each season the daimyo decides on season actions which can have effects on the clan as a whole-- increasing resources, involvement in political intrigue, preparation for war, and so on. Officers of the clan also gain season actions. As the clan expands they gain more possible actions. This system has a number of abstract sub-systems, including the role of warfare. I like that the players have a say in moving the course of their community. The system and mechanics presented here are abstract-- more of a framework. Groups desiring more crunch or detail could easily add to this. I think its a strong starting point for GMs thinking of how to handle these issues.


In Ars Magica, the players serve as members of Covenants, essentially magical households. The rules provide mechanics for how the household is set up, what kinds of resources it provides, the character and tenor of activity and so on. The center of most campaigns will be on the lives of these communities-- carving them out, developing them, setting an agenda and so on. Each Covenant is in a “season,” describing how vital they are. A “Spring” covenant has life, youth and idealism, while an “Autumn” covenant has begun to decay and becomes set in its ways. The game provide for interactions between various covenants at regional gatherings and Tribunals, but the play focuses on the building game magical life.

An ambitious failure as an rpg, in Aria the players played nations, cultures and communities over time. Or at least they could-- that was supposed to the the intent of game. But reading through you might find that hard to discover. Aria came in two books Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth and Aria: Worlds. The main book supplies a dense and over-written basic fantasy rpg, with some suggestions on how you might run characters across several generations. These ideas seem sketchy at best. When I say over-written, I mean it. Every single game term and idea which could be given an obscure and pretentious name, has been. The basic book is huge (500+ pages) for the little you actually get.

The second book of the pair, Aria Worlds has mechanics for how to create a culture. Even with that as the focus of the whole book, the options feel pretty minimal. As a resources book for world-building, it might be useful. As a game to actually play out the interactions and history of those nations in a campaign...I'm sorry “Canticle”...it doesn't hold together well.

I'm still working through Reign but at heart it seems to do everything I'm interested in for handling groups and communities in games. The system works with the generic idea of “companies” across levels. To handle those it presents a set of rules which can be adapted to many games. Companies-- from religious cults to cities to business franchises to mercenary groups-- have stats and options. Player-level characters can interact and affect these companies. Companies can even battle one another in an abstract fashion. The focus of the game can easily shift— depending on whether the players are interested in their own actions within the company or more the meta-level groups interacting. I'm going to steer away from saying too much about this as I haven't had a chance to really wrestle with the mechanics. Those who have used it seemed really pleased, so I suspect it has systems which can be ported.

One of the lost settings of TSR, this one never caught on little the others did. I suspect because the game itself was most concept than actual setting. Few but the most die-hard could actually describe the details of the world of Aebrynis. I will admit I have some fondness for one area, described in Cities of the Sun, Khinasi a North African analogue.

The key concept behind the Birthright lay in players becoming regents of areas-- with each area having a powerful bloodline magic which could be captured and used. Those powers ran from the personal to the regional level. This power, called Regency, separated the PCs and potent NPCs from the population. The game included a system for expanding control, for actions on a multi-month scale which mirrored the standard combat actions, for grand scale warfare and for rulership. The emphasis lay on military considerations, but various expansions and optional modules added more to statecraft and commanding a community. Later supplements expanded the kinds of societies and ruler roles used. The setting has some great ideas, but with real military bent (supplements included army cards, battlefield templates and the like). It felt a little like someone had crossed Divine Right with AD&D. The setting also never really managed to sell to players exactly how a group would operate-- would they all be kings? What would the modules be like? A rich and interesting failure.

This Ghostbusters-inspired rpg handles the idea of community very loosely, In this case, it is the franchise which the players manage and run. But that company earns its keep by fighting against the supernatural. Mechanically each franchise has three aspects (Gym, Library and Credit Cards). Dice get divided among these and they can be called on during the game as a resource. The tension arises from the players trying to build up those dice and fighting against their depletion. If the players run out of dice, they're forced to take a bank loan of more dice. You end up with a light framing system for a fairly abstract game.

The second edition of HeroQuest converted the game to a generic version. However some of the roots of its Gloranthan past can be seen (beyond the bit of setting material in the back of the book). Glorantha as a setting focuses on groups and communities-- they essentially define the characters and often provide the frame for campaigns (especially for Orlanthi or Sartar games). Even characters outside of conventional kinship or other groups have themselves defined by that break. The Humakti Deathlord is a dangerous outsider not only because of his god, but because he has split from the ties and support that help explain a person.

HeroQuest abstracts many aspects. The system for community construction has some nice details which make it portable over to other games. Each community is defined by a set of abilities (Wealth, Military, Artistic Merit, etc). The players or group may set these aspects at the beginning of the campaign and assign them values. The abilities then provide a resource the players may draw upon to aid them in the course of their adventures. They have to be careful not to deplete or squander them, as there are consequences. The rules have guidelines for crisis tests, bolstering community resources and other factors. All in all it presents a decent (and simple) set of rules for GMs who want communities (of many types) as a presence in their games but don't want a lot of book-keeping.

Weapons of the Gods has two approaches linking players to communities. On the one hand, WotG “monetizes the setting” to use Ken Hite's description for it. During character creation (and later) players can buy themselves destiny connections with various groups, ideals, organizations, cults, and so on. At the lowest level you're a member or have friends in something-- or even perhaps a rival or enemy. At higher levels your destiny is tied in with the story of that group. In a sense you can buy into the plots, stories and backgrounds of the setting. In many cases this provides a measure of community connection and support. As executed it is both a fascinating mechanism and obscurely presented mechanic. I had to have Hite give me perspective on how it worked to get what was happening in the rules.

On the other hand, WoTG provides a system for grand-scale actions and play called The Great Game. This shows up in the Weapons ofthe Gods Companion. The system can be used to work out wars, but includes a component for shaping the destinies of regions, groups and kingdoms. Players can increase resources, set agendas, and play out diplomatic conflict-- though abstractly. The system assumes player management of a group or order-- such as a bandit rebellion ala The Water Margin. But it could also be played out as a tool for figuring out large-scale events in the game world.

This is an interesting supplement for Runequest II, Mongoose Publishing's revision of the RQ system. The new version of the Empires supplement seems to roll together information and ideas from the earlier Empires and Guilds, Factions &Cults supplements. I've looked at the previews and some reviews for this, and it is on my list of things to pick up in the future. Empires strives to provide rules for handling three levels. First, the rules can be used so that abstractly players play nations or groups as characters. That's a pretty ambitious project as we saw before with Aria. The rules suggest this might be done as a backdrop or meta-game for a campaign. That's an intriguing idea. I can imagine almost having a Play-By-Email or Forum game going on while the standard fantasy campaign would be happening. Events from that might trickle down to the players-- it might be a nice thing to combine with a mercenary company campaign frame...hmm...

The second level provides rules for characters who manage organizations and estates. They're given a framework and system for resolving affairs, dealing with conflicts and managing events. So I'd assume this would be more for later settled characters-- though again I can imagine an interesting campaign frame coming from this. Perhaps a Gormenghastian household of dueling administrators, seneshals, and butlers. The characters could band together to chart the course of the castle's affairs against rivals. The third level gives rules for building groups and organizations-- which seems to be what it takes from the earlier Guids, Factions, and Cults. I like the idea of players being given access to these kinds of tools and letting them chart the course. This uses Basic Role-Playing but I'm assuming could be easily and generally adapted elsewhere.