We’ve been talking about world-building in general, and I would rarely recommend designing a world from the “top down” like that, so let’s spend some time thinking about smaller groups. As before, we’re going to start with thinking about our design goals: what group(s) do we need, what function what we create will serve within the adventure, what our faction(s) should look like, and what the members might want.
Affiliations or Adversaries?
As you can see from Adventurer’s League or Pathfinder Society, organized RPG play finds them a useful source of plot hooks and incentivization for players. And it makes sense: factions give players a ready source of identification and immediate structure for giving them directions. Long-term, you can use these affiliations to create allies for your players about whom they might care, further investing them into the world.
Factions also serve as organization for enemy groups. Even if you have one major villain, he or she is probably going to need some underlings. The group needs people to fight at low levels, and having an enemy organization means you can escalate the stakes as your players grow in power. At level 1, maybe they’re fighting a minor officer in the group, but by level 10 they can take on the leader’s chief lieutenant. This keeps the threat growing and consistent over the course of a campaign.
Tropes Are Not Bad
As we’ve mentioned before, borrowing ideas from other places can be very useful, and before you start designing a faction you might want to think about fictional groups you can use as a starting point. If you know your campaign is going to have archaeology and hidden relics, perhaps you need your own “Explorer’s League.” If D&D but with pirates is your aim, you might look to Bilgewater for inspiration. These quick pictures help you figure out what your world should be and let your players understand the world more quickly.
However, you should think about how to put your own twist on the idea so you aren’t just completely copying. Make the trope your own. Maybe you’re creating a group of elven rangers, but they ride giant eagles as their special twist. A lot of times having one of these might lead to another change or two in keeping with the twist: these rangers, for example, might roost with their birds or refuse to hunt at night when their companions’ eyesight is worse. Don’t overuse these details, but having one or two memorable things helps your world stand out as unique and helps disguise the threads you’ve borrowed from elsewhere.
Finally, we should think about what our faction wants. What is its ultimate goal, and how does it seek to accomplish this? Groups are generally drawn together for a purpose, and while you might be able to create one just based on a shared identity (halfling rights protestors, anyone?), making it more action-oriented is usually better. As a Dungeon Master, you need to provide your players things to do, and it’s hard to do much about a group that’s there just for social organization unless your players just want to tear them down. So ask yourself: what do they want?
Twists are also useful here, as factions should not be monolithic entities. Even though all its members may agree on the goal, perhaps their views of how to do it differ. Or perhaps they have different motivations for accomplishing it, and these motivations create friction. It’s rare that everyone gets along at all times, and these intra-group conflicts open doors for your players to get creative.
What do we want to make? For this exercise, we’ll design a group that might be friendly to adventurers if they share their goals but not necessarily so. We’ll want them to have some influence so as to provide plot hooks and be a force if players work against them but also not so powerful as to make resistance hopeless. We’ll start thinking about the tropes we want to employ, but we’ll save this for another day.
Next: what do they want?