Although Jamison is very good at emphasising the need to focus on the player characters and their own personal Nemesis, it's important not to forget that there is a wider world or universe surrounding the actions of the heroes.
Factions are a nice antidote to becoming over-focused on the heroes... a trait which can lead to the players believing that only what they do matters.
This piece of GMing advice landed on my bookshelf from within the excellent Imagine Master's Manual
(which, at the time of writing, is a mere $14.95) back in 1999. I've written before (on another blog) about the very strong "Gamemastering" section in the book, and this particular technique.
"Conflict is at the heart of every story. Without it characters are going through the motions; living without a common purpose; or worse, arriving at their goal with little challenge. The party itself is the simplest faction in any game - a band of noble or ignoble few who stand against capricious fate...
...Fledgling Gamemasters often ask what it is that makes a setting interesting, but believable. While piles of statistics (the facts and figures) can be useful, they are shadows when compared against the factions in your setting. It is factions that create conflicts, story line and even history."
This quotation from the Master's Manual outlines very clearly what factions are about: groups of beings who band together to obtain or protect their interests. The heroes are one such band... but it's the other factions who will make your setting sing.
Our current fantasy game is set in and around the small town of Mortenburg. It began with a simple mission for the heroes: bring back the head of local brigand, Gerulf. Now, after several sessions, the heroes are about to return with the head of the bandit... and they are still wanting to play. Our one-off has begun to bloom into an ongoing campaign.
As GM the problem arises: I don't know what to do next. Certainly while Jamison's advice to look to the heroes' goals and the GMCs (Game Master Characters) is good, I remembered that the best next step I can take is to write down the settings' factions.
By way of a partial example, here's what I've done to dig myself out of the mire of uncertainty.
Following the advice from the Imagine Master's Manual, I've decided on the largest area of influence in the campaign right now: the Barony of Faulstieff. Mortenburg sits on the edge of this territory, independent but closely allied to the Baron's family.
The first faction is, therefore, House Stieff... the Baron's own family. They are led by the Baron himself and he seeks to maintain his power, perhaps extending it if opportunity arises.
Standing aside from House Stieff is the Mortenburg Council, led by Meister Eckhart. This coalition of landowners seeks to remain distinct and independent from the Barony... but they also need the trade of their neighbours.
Threatening the Council are the raider groups surrounding them. To the north is Gerulf's Goblin tribe, now in decline (perhaps) following the death of their leader, Gerulf. In the south, in the Schwarzwald, lies the territory of Uter's warband. Both raider groups seek to plunder the trade caravans and farms of Mortenburg, hoping eventually to extract tribute... but Uter also seeks to conquer the town and use it as a base for more power.
Assisting Uter's bid for power is the Dark Elf Mage-Priest the heroes witnessed at the Moon Gate. Whilst I have determined her own goals, and those of her faction, I can't really reveal them here... but hopefully you get the idea.
All well and good, you might be thinking. How do we use these factions in prep? Simple.
The heroes may well choose to follow their own path. In my game they will perhaps seek to find out more about Uter and exact revenge for the death of Karl's brother, a stated personal goal that many in the group might be willing to help with. Or, instead, they may choose to travel to Faulstieff and report to the Bishop their discoveries in the caves. Or something else...
Yet none of their choices should occur in a vacuum. All around them the other factions are plotting, scheming and carrying forth their plans. What is Uter doing now? Having failed in his plan to ally with Gerulf's tribe, how will he respond to the change? Perhaps he himself will seek revenge on the heroes... or maybe he has bigger plans.
What of the Mortenburg Council? Will they be grateful to the heroes for killing Gerulf? How will they react to the news of Uter's involvement and threat? And what of the news of the Baron's head, picked up by the heroes at the cave? What will this development mean for their independence?
How will House Stieff react to news of the death of their Baron?
Hopefully you get the idea... each decision of the factions will create new circumstances and, potentially, drive new stories. What if the Council ask the heroes to take the Baron's head back home? If they accept, what will they encounter? If they refuse, how will their decision affect their standing locally?
Factions will drive the action even when the heroes are dithering over what to do next.
Prepping With Factions
How do you prep for all of these eventualities? Simple.
Make some decisions about how each major victory or defeat might affect one or more of the factions. I'd start with two questions:
- Who gains from this change?
- Who loses from the change?
The former faction(s) are likely to respond favourably to the heroes (should they encounter them) and the latter are surely destined to respond negatively.
Choose the faction who gained the most and decide what action they take in response. Then do the same for the faction who lost the most. In our case, Mortenburg's Council gained the most from Gerulf's death... and Uter's warband lost the most. The choices of these factions will drive towards new actions and plans... and some of those might involve the heroes.
What if Uter decides to wreak revenge? No matter what the heroes choose to do next (and they must be allowed to choose), Uter is coming for them. Devise a plan and set up the things you need to know. When the time is right, and that might not be for some time, you can then drop the obstacle into the story. Does he send assassins? Create the combat encounter and, when the timing feels right, drop it on the party's head.
Fun, fun, fun!
Factions are easy to add to your game. They add spice and detail to an otherwise 2D world that revolves around the heroes. Certainly the story should move around the choices the player's make... but not the whole world. Factions add the spice that will make the heroes' encounters seem all the more believable.