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Illusions of Depth: Factions and Teams

Places are cool, but it’s people who make a world. Welcome to the next installment of Deep as a Puddle [1]: streaming NPCs. Or at least creating several interlinked puddles. Whatever the analogy, we’re making groups of NPCs, while still trying to keep them interesting, with individual details and motivations. If you wind up with guard #2, you’ve gone down the wrong path. [2]

This trick is for building NPCs in thematic batches. You’ll find that creating a few related NPCs can produce interesting interactions, relationships, and depth–often in much less time than building the NPCs one by one. There’s also nothing to prevent you from sketching the groups this way, then delving deeper into individual NPCs with other techniques.

Why Make NPCs in Groups?

Don’t your players need large organizations devoted to evil? Enemies large enough to cause significant wrong? This approach fills out the adversary’s organization, deepens it by adding nuance, develops NPCs, and provides hooks that the PCs can take advantage of.

The inspiration and original development comes from Chris Chinn’s Conflict Webs [3] and several older posts he used to develop the technique.

Groups and Factions

No matter what game you’re playing, or setting the characters are exploring, people are going to organize themselves. A medieval game features guilds, guardsmen, nobles, merchants, peasant groups and many more potential organizations. Modern and sci-fi worlds are more prolific yet; a pilot’s guild, professional associations, the junta’s inner circle, a church’s steering committee, battalion command, or even a corporate board of directors all form organizations that make a world feel more comprehensive. Superheroes need globe-spanning conspiracies to oppose; Viper in Champions or Cobra for GI Joe. The greatest need, though, stems from intrigue filled games. World of Darkness games–with their sprawling cabals, tight bonds of blood, packs and septs, traditions, clans, and other groupings–benefit greatly from the technique.

Build the Web

Jot down an influential group (the Tremere), or the name of someone influential (Duke Jonathon). A few inches away, jot down another name (Ronald Higginbotham of Cirus Corp), group (the Lasombra), or other character to interact with (the Lady of the Lake). Draw a line between them. Choose a relationship and write it between them. This can be precise (splintered from) or vague (antagonistic). An easy technique is to roll a fudge die: + means they get along (friendly), blank means professional/transactional or obligation/duty, while – means discord, dislike, or hatred.

Now add another name, group, or faction a few inches away from an NPC or group already on the page, draw a line to someone, and set a relationship. Repeat a few times, and you’ll have a group of people who have a history and tone to their interactions.

So your town might have the mayor in collaboration with Corus Corp, Corus Corp indebted to Melissa Rothchild, Melissa Rothchild spitting mad at the mayor, Corus Corp allied to the Century Club, and the Century Club hostile to both the mayor Melissa Rothchild. What a tangled city!

Now Complexify It

From an aside in Collaborative Conflict Mapping [5]:

For longer term play, I generally like to take any given leader/representative of a faction in a scenario and give them two voices- one who leans one way on an issue, another who leans the opposite way (The ol’ Kirk-Spock-McCoy triangle) and you get some interesting stuff out of that.

So let’s try that with our example city.

The Mayor doesn’t run the city alone; he has a relationship with Brand, the council president, and Sam, his trusty administrative assistant. If disaster has struck and the PCs are trying to get the city to declare martial law (say, to keep innocent victims out of the way of a cannibal horde), the mayor will talk to his trusty advisors. Brand might encourage the mayor–even offering to swing a snap council vote to grant the mayor the authority to press gang security guards for the duration of the emergency. Conversely, Sam might point out that the cannibals seem to be victims of a drug or other brainwashing, and encourage an investigation into the source of the problem.

One thing that you’ve probably already noticed: each of the members of the group can have relationships with the other factions. Brand might hate that his friend, Melissa Rothchild, and the mayor can’t get along. So Brand is often the go between, brokering deals that both sides hate to accept.

A Big Example

The Well of Souls [7](pdf), has great relationships and a plot that could be adapted to any barony. With a coat of paint and some slight modifications, the same scenario could play out in space or a modern city.

Making a Campaign out of It

If you like the technique for generating NPCs, you can reduce your prep (and get increased player buy-in) by sharing the factions and NPCs with your players during character creation. By encouraging your players to help you flesh out the factions and develop relations to the NPCs [5], the resulting player characters fit the world and have an idea of what they can affect from the moment the game starts. Pretty cool, huh?

This is really well suited to intrigue heavy games; group your NPCs into factions (the kingsguard, the praetorians, Duke Ewan’s faction, etc.), write them down, and share their general relationships. The PCs can always dig into the praetorians later and see if there’s a clique who can make common cause with Duke Ewan’s faction, even against the official stance of the group as a whole.

Intrigue and Your Games

What techniques do you use to generate factions, conspiracies, and power players? If you have tips for sharing their attitudes in game, or techniques to record their dispositions, I’d love to hear them. Please share in comments!

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Illusions of Depth: Factions and Teams"

#1 Comment By Svengaard On June 22, 2012 @ 5:31 am

I find campaigns are more interesting when you have one location (or several close by) and that means I have to design factions and organizations all the time.

I make my charts similar to yours, but I also add boxes for organizations rather than make them points on the chart. For me that makes it easier to tell if Person A has a vendetta against Organization B or just Person C. This may not seem like such a big difference on the small scale, but when you’ve got multiple fleshed out organizations it helps a lot.

Another thing I’ve been trying is to have more than one chart on the go: one for each major organization. From there I add secondary organizations as small blocks and individual people as single points (rather than list their organization. This keeps tracking the traitors, alliances, families, and so on easier.

One thing I’m wondering on your charts though: Do the colours have any significance? That gave me the idea that colour coding could make tracking relationships even easier.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On June 22, 2012 @ 9:05 am

[8] – In my case, I set black = positive, red = negative, and blue = debt/obligation/professional or neutral but nuanced.

In the top chart (which I may expand on in another post as an extended example), the green box contains the “Iteration X” working group. I like the idea of drawing relationships to the box when it’s a opposition to the organization as a whole–neat twist!

#3 Comment By kirkdent On June 22, 2012 @ 10:03 am

I like this roughly org-chart approach to establishing relationships between characters. It reminds me of early-phase architectural design, which uses circled room names and varied lines between to associate the spaces (solid line for direct connection, dashed line for view connections, dotted line for rough adjacencies, etc.) I never really thought to apply it to interpersonal relationships as well.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On June 22, 2012 @ 10:11 am

I’m increasingly of the opinion that the FIASCO! model is worth study when undertaking this sort of project (my Delta Green game requires lots of what this article talks about since the essence of a good DG game is not one recurring character but many, all interacting mendaciously when possible).

The interesting thing about a collection of people, even imaginary ones, are the forces that define their relationships rather than the people themselves.

Define those forces and make a few “FATE” like statements about the NPCs themselves (i.e. give them Attributes) and the rest seems to fall out intuitively, at least, it has for me.

It also makes sense of the interconnection color code – it allows the GM to quickly re-acquaint him/herself with what it is about the relationship between Grand Mof Tarkin and Darth Vader that turns the connection red but still leaves the connection in place. This becomes important if the campaign shifts its focus from the group you’ve defined for a few weeks, then suddenly swerves back into its sphere of influence, or if the network of NPCs grows very large.

Nice article.

#5 Comment By BryanB On June 22, 2012 @ 10:23 am

Nice article Scott! This is very similar to what I have done in conjunction with my Matrix Method approach for designing the key “movers and shakers” types of NPCs for a particular game that I am setting up. It is an excellent way of visualizing the interpersonal relationships that your NPCs have with one another (or not).

I’d say that what we get is not really an illusion of depth at all. We get a real sense of depth in a campaign. Actions and words will have more meaning. How the players act and react to this immersive depth is going to be a real difference maker in the evolution of a games development and in the outcomes of dramatic events.

What you have posted here is a very useful tool to help make games shine. To make them really stand out. Well done! 🙂

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On June 22, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

[9] – Glad you like it!
[10] – You’re right; Fiasco like ties between the characters are a good way to ensure that their relationships are complex in interesting ways. The original conflict web suggested that you write a note about the relationships on the line joining the members… which is basically moving the connecting detail from the Fiasco card onto the connecting line in the web.
[11] – Thanks! You’re right, what’s gained (especially as laid out here) is mostly a sense of a deeper, more interrelated world, rather than complex NPCs. I do think that taking these relationships into account makes the NPCs themselves appear more realistic… but it may take another article to demonstrate it. 😉

#7 Comment By BryanB On June 22, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

[12] – I look forward to the follow up article. 😀

#8 Comment By evil On June 23, 2012 @ 1:13 am

I do this quite a bit in my political intrigue type games. You’ve already show how to use colors and line types to expand on the information given. I suggest also using colored circles or different geometric shapes to around each person as well. These can show the various affiliations, races, attributes, or the status of a given NPC.

In the past I’ve started a game by giving my PCs a list of NPC names, a blank sheet of paper, and some colored pencils and had them write down what they think the relationships are among the characters. This is a good way to get ideas (if you fail to plan as much as I do) and also a nice way to figure out where they’re going to run off the rails.

#9 Comment By Scot Newbury On June 24, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

Thanks for the article Scott, and as usual it hits at just the right time.

I’m in the process of putting together something new for my players and this is just the thing to get it jump started.