I love Laughing in the Wind, a Chinese TV drama from 2001. It’s not exactly pretty- weird camera work, early digital production, and highly variable subtitling. (You can find episodes on YouTube.) As a Patreon supporter of the Jianghu Hustle podcast I asked them to cover Laughing. Their episode hits on one of my favorite series bits: the variety of colorful factions with conflicting agendas. Inspired by LitW, tons of action in my Hearts of Wulin sessions has been driven by the rivalries of clans and sects, with PCs caught in the middle.
I first remember factions as a thing in rpgs from Gamma World (1978). These groups struggled for power in the wasteland—Knights of Genetic Purity, Seekers, Followers of the Voice—included one led by a Nazi bear. The James Bond 007 RPG (1983) included villainous organizations, but listed intelligence agencies around the globe with the implication these could be allies and rivals. Paranoia (1987) leaned into the concept with every character belonging to a Secret Society (which might or might be functional or even real). Vampire the Masquerade’s (1991) clans focused the game on clashes between these groups.
Recent games have added interesting tech to the faction mix. The Sprawl focuses on corporations. Each player develops a corp they owe a debt to. These, plus one or two others, become the world that the PCs operate in. While some moves directly interact with corporations, what really matters is their threat clock. As you run jobs against them, their clock ticks up, eventually resulting in action against you. Your team has tools to mitigate this, but they’re costly. Playing one against the other offers a safer, but still dangerous, bet. It’s a good system because it’s strongly visible to the players and supported by the mechanics.
Blades in the Dark also uses clocks for factions, specifically to track their plans and operations. Groups primarily have a tier (aka strength) and status in relation to the PC crew. The latter measures their attitude from -3 (at war) to +3 (tight friends). It’s a good and easily trackable system. Heat operates as a separate but related mechanic. As players do jobs, they generate heat which raises the level of problems they encounter between jobs. While heat is a general measure, Scum & Villainy tweaks this by having system to system heat. A more complex system might blend The Sprawl and Blades’s approach.
Both games offer useful mechanics, focused on the player side. Factions have importance in how they relate to and directly impact the PCs. But what about their interactions between one another? We don’t often get mechanics covering that. I can only think of a couple. In Mutant: Year Zero: Genlab Alpha players building up revolutionary cells among various groups and the game tracks those relations. The recent Sigmata focuses on similar ideas and has a robust rules for it. Urban Shadows has perhaps the simplest and most player facing, with its Start of Session move letting the player generate events within and between groups.
WORLD OF THE DRAGON CLAN
Several years ago I ran a Legend of the Five Rings campaign with the party as members of a newly established samurai family. I borrowed a good deal from John Wick’s Blood & Honor, with characters having offices and seasonal actions. Much of the campaign involved dealing with the families and clans around the PCs domain.
To simulate this and give a sense of the world in motion, I randomly generated seasonal events. I created a short list of the relevant families & forces. Then I rolled from a large table of random “events.” Some of these offered specific happenings (like Plague or Assassination). But abstract phrases made up the largest share of the table. I found a site with a complete card index for the L5R CCG. I collected the names from Actions and Event cards (A Test of Courage, Honor in Death, Refusing the Throne).
When I rolled these, I’d consider the meaning in the context of that particular group. If the phrase suggested a connection to a second group, I randomly generated that. This system worked well and allowed me to create cool events quickly. This loosely meant I could usually think of a way to have new events build on previous ones. In many circumstances, the results spun the story (and the world) off in unexpected directions. Since it worked so well, I’ve been thinking how to retool it for my current campaigns.
I wanted a quick and dirty method to make factions change and breathe in my games. Importantly, any approach should generate material which evokes the world, run quickly, and provide actionable events. Equally, it should be fun to prep. The method I’m using steals a great, great deal from Brendan Conway’s The Green Law of Varkith. This Dungeon World setting has the PCs run a guild in the eponymous city. Play cycles between normal adventures and Guild turns. During the latter, the GM generates results, rolls conflicts, and tracks the stats of the most relevant guilds.
My approach drops tracking and resolution, while expanding possible actions. It’s purely a backdrop generator. I’m using this currently for my 13th Age campaign. I begin with a large grid, running the factions along the top and right hand side. I focus on factions connected to Icons the PCs have relationships with, plus a few other groups we’ve seen in play. I ended up with twelve—way too many, but it’s my tool. For each I generated one action from a table.
If an action suggests fighting or friendship with another faction, I randomly generate that target. I write in the action on the matching grid line. If I roll the same faction for target, that indicates an internal split. Then I look and figure out what’s happening. I sketch a sentence or two about it in my notebook. This isn’t about resolution, but If I need a relative success level, I throw a simple fate d6 (1 being abject failure, 6 being full victory).
TWELVE FACTION ACTIONS
1 Attack: This could be a concerted assault, whispering campaign, duel, assassination, or public debate. The nature depends on the initial group and relation to the target. If the group’s previously done Discern Strength, Expansion, or Big Magic I use that info rather than rolling a target.
2 Expansion: The faction works to gain something from someone else: territory, patronage, recruits, rights, honor, status. This hasn’t yet risen to the level of an attack. Instead they’re beginning to push and prod. An internal target could indicate some kind of building project or gathering of power.
3 Gather Information: The group has begun to look into another faction—history, membership, plots, goals. This isn’t necessarily hostile; they could be exploring an alliance or searching for something. An internal target suggests a search for dissension, researching history, or even looking for spies.
4 Discern Strengths: The more aggressive version of Gather Info. Here the group’s looking for weak points and avenues of assault. This could be the prelude to an attack or expansion. The faction might also decide that such a conflict isn’t worth it or store the info away for a rainy day.
5 Big Magic: The group’s performing some kind of major working—magic or otherwise. This is fairly open ended and based on the faction’s resources, aspects, and target. They might be preparing defenses, summoning aid, inflicting a curse, changing the environment. It should be big and take time to put together.
6 Bargains & Exchanges: The group publicly makes deals or arrangements with another faction. This could be an alliance, sales, or even exchange of prisoners. Interesting stories can come from odd couples here. An internal target suggests an alliance to bring the faction under tighter control (or the opposite).
7 Secret Deals: The group carries out behind-the-scenes machinations. Perhaps they settle old debts, conspire against a third group, or agree to aid one another on something both want hidden. An internal target could represent a conspiracy within.
8 Entrench Power: The faction works to bolster defenses, assure loyalties, or improve public image. If they’ve recently made gains, they work to secure those. This result doesn’t need a target unless you want to know who might be driving them to it.
9 Send Expedition: Agents travel out for some purpose. They might be sending the vulnerable away, seeking an object of power, exploring a lost location, or attempting to reach a distant embassy. In any case, they dispatch people beyond the collective factions’ reach. Perhaps the PCs sign on to protect or disrupt the expedition. Or maybe they simply want to get there first. If targeted, then either expedition is a shared one or the faction’s objective strikes at a target’s interests.
10 New Arrivals: New forces or faces appear. These may be members from another branch of the faction, a replacement for losses, or an old agent returning from travels. Their arrival should suggest a change in the status quo.
11 Recruit Outsiders: An attempt to increase numbers. Depending on the group this could be enrolling students, preaching to converts, or hiring mercenaries. It could show a weakness in the group or preparations for a bigger operation. It should be an opportunity for the PCs to get hired or else put an agent in place.
12 Change Approach: This should be a big event or shift. The faction could give up an ongoing project, dump old allies, or move into areas it’s never had interest in. Why is this happening? Has a new leader arisen? Has some prophecy come to light? Or have they been hiding their real intentions all along!!!
I confine my prep to one hour before a session. This approach neatly fits into that. The material it generates can be used for multiple sessions. I call this kind of thing “Bicycle Prep.” You pump the pedals really hard for a little bit, coast for a while, and then pump again. I reuse the grid by writing in later results in a different color.
For me it’s a super-rich set of details to mine. When I see that the Infernal General’s collecting info on Archdruid Lorthain, what’s that about? I look at the Archdruid’s result and see that his group’s bargaining with the High Priestess. Hmmm…is there a connection? I like when two results cross paths—Group A’s attacking Group B and Group B’s doing Big Magic. Is one in response to the other? It could be an attempt to stop the ceremony or maybe the ritual’s a defensive one.
These events don’t have to come front and center in a session. They should be peppered throughout and alluded to. If the PCs hit the streets, obviously they provide a rich fodder for rumors. But if characters go to NPCs for other reasons, their contacts might mention bits in passing. It could also serve as an explanation for why a particular NPC can’t help them at that moment. Since the factions connect to Icons in my 13th Age game, it makes this great fodder for “5” results on the Icon die.
OTHER WORLDS OF FACTIONS
I’ve been thinking of other games this could work well with. When I run Mutant: Year Zero again, I’ll definitely use this to generate ideas for things happening in the Ark. Event card draws would supersede these, but this technique could tell us how groups interact. In this case, the factions would be each of the different Bosses, the circle of scholars around the Elder, plus any other group with independent pull (like the Gearheads or Stalkers). I think this could offer the depth of detail missing from the Ark phase of the game
This system could be a useful bolt-on for Blades in the Dark. It could make the factions less static, offer ideas for clocks, and generate new jobs. The Sword, The Crown, and the Unspeakable Power has minimal tools for the factions. This could be an interesting way to generate GM hard moves and responses. Basically any game with different groups locked in a power struggle could use this--Coriolis, Changeling the Lost, Planescape.
What tools have you used to manage groups & factions at your table?
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.