The Dungeon Project, Part 3 (Factions)

So, I’ve sort of nailed down the mileau of this fantasy space. To recap, we have:

  • A large open space, filled with sculptures across its entirety.
  • A small town, run by convicted political prisoners who have been lowered down (by force) into this space.
  • Other factions, out in the space, operating with their own goals.
  • The PCs are recently convicted prisoners, with the game starting by having them lowered into the space.
  • Character “class” is chosen by who each individual PC aligns with in the town. Without signing up with someone, they cannot survive.

I think the starting town, the safe haven, should have a number of factions operating inside of it. Sub-factions. These can be mission givers, rumor generators, item shops, and also the in-game way that PCs can level up. By taking on “debt” to these sub-factions, PCs can train and get better abilities and level up. I think something like Down We Go works well with this sort of set-up, since in the base game there you can choose a different class to level up in each time you do. You’re not beholden to a single career.

Outside of the town, I’m starting with 3 main factions. These are the biggest players. Any other factions that might occur in the sculptures will either be sub-factions, or small enough that they probably don’t own much territory. These small groups would be good to recruit by more powerful players to help out on their missions.

So, let’s talk the three main factions:

  • The Ghoul Vaults: An undead horde, created long ago, sealed up in the sculpture maze in various vaults spread across its depths.
  • The Necrophage: A infectious biomass that hungers relentlessly for undead flesh. It spreads through infection, creating mutated minions of any flesh it can get its tendrils on.
  • The Archaic Cultists: Are humans, worshipping 10 foot tall semi-humanoid creatures, called Archaics. Each Archaic has its own cult and rivalries, but they can still unite against common enemies quick enough.

Factions

I’m going to ramble a bit about factions. First off, I think that factions make the game, even when that game isn’t specifically about factions. Groups of people working (mostly) together to accomplish things can be the strongest hook a player has to understand the game world, and there’s almost an infinite depth you can take factions to. If a player joins up with a revolution, that’s awesome! But as they get further in, they find that the revolution is made up of sub-groups, that all think that the change needs to come about from different methods. Getting even deeper still, that player might hone in on a single sub-faction of the revolution, and find that its two leaders are struggling against each other. Who do they support? What does ending that conflict do to the faction at large?

I’ve written a small hack of Beak, Feather, & Bone called Smoke, Fuel, & Fire (you already own it if you’ve bought the Palestine bundle) that deals with factions on a worldbuilding level. As you play the game, you tie various NPCs in a settlement to factions (almost no-one is purely on a single side.) At the end of that game, you have a large group of NPCs and more importantly, a group of factions all vying for power in some way.

The name of the game means things on two levels, one for NPCs and one for factions, but they’re close enough that we can generalize:

  • Smoke: How is the faction identified by others? What are they known for?
  • Fuel: How does the faction accomplish goals? What do they use?
  • Fire: Why does the faction want to do these things? What drives them?

If you want to randomly generate some factions, I also loaded up the random generators into perchance.org, so check that out here. I’m always adding more and more entries to the tables, so it’s a good bookmark to have when you need a random faction.

But, where I’m going for here: I think by identifying a faction’s smoke, fuel, & fire, you’ve actually gone a long way to making the faction stand out. You might not have any immediate goals or NPCs yet, but what you do have is enough grist that you can improv those things. If one faction is trying to seize the means of production from another, you can throw that into a game pretty quickly!

If you don’t like the SF&F wordage, there’s another way I think you can look at it. Retired Adventurer proposes that NPCs only need 3 things in his blog post Motive, Means, and Opportunity.

  • Motive: What does the NPC want?
  • Means: What does the NPC have that they can use to get it?
  • Opportunity: A chance for the NPC to make their move, usually using an if/then statement.

As you can see, that’s actually pretty close to SF&F. They key takeaway is that I believe you can use this same framing to create a faction. How do they do things? Why do they do things? What’s their next chance?

The neat thing about using SF&F or MMO is that you can set it up as a big overarching faction, but you can also just as easily use it to detail out NPCs. I’m a fan of readable, usable information at the table, so having these three things (and that’s it!) for an NPC/faction really means you can get a hold of the person or group quickly and have players begin interacting with them.

Faction Goals

So, let’s say we’ve created a faction and given it a pretty big, ambitious goal for it to work towards. How do we bring that into play?

Well, this is where I think it helps to add a bit more to a faction that’s going to be a big mover and shaker in the game world. Lots (most) of factions can survive on just their three key concepts, since you can pretty easily improv at the table what they’re trying to do when the PCs look over at them. With bigger, more important factions, we might need something more.

One thing that I’ve seen before is a timeline of events that will happen in an adventure if the PCs do nothing. It’s a very handy trick, in my opinion, as long as you are willing to quickly adapt it when the PCs begin mucking things up. Instead of it being stuck in stone, it’s a framework that you can refer to as a “north star” in regards to the adventure. I think we can do the same, but for factions: take the faction’s goal, and extrapolate it into general goals that they’re going to try and accomplish over the course of the game. Once gameplay begins, think about how often you might want to “check” one of these goals off.

I think factions should start in a stalemate of sorts: there’s a lot of potential energy built up, but apart from little wins and losses, they’re essentially locked tight. However, once the PCs show up, things start happening. The PCs might help out a faction with a single thing, but that might be enough for the faction to check one of their goals off. Once that happens, I think randomly letting factions check off goals and move forwards is fine, even if the PCs don’t get involved. They’ve tipped the first domino. Now it’s up to them to try and ride the wave in the direction they want, or get out of the way.

Let’s say we have a faction of thieves who wish to steal the magical crown from the king. That’s their main goal, sure, but we can split that up some:

  • Break into the archives and steal the plans to the palace.
  • Steal a device that can nullify arcane locks and alarms.
  • Gather blackmail on a higher up who can gain them entrance.
  • Find a way to protect themselves from the crown’s corrupting magic.
  • Break in and steal the crown.

Now, even if we have players that aren’t part of the thieves guild, they can still help out right? Maybe the thieves pay to have the adventurers break into an old tomb and take the Nullifier from it and hand it over. Once that happens, things are set in motion. Maybe the PCs hear about plans stolen from the archives. Maybe they don’t hear about the blackmail, but you check that off during some downtime anyways. The thieves can make progress, and that progress can be gleaned from clever players as an insight into what the faction is doing.

You can adjust these checklists in between session easily enough, based on what kind of wrenches the players are throwing around the world. The beauty of them isn’t rigid structure—it’s in having a framework that you can adapt on the fly and provide some verisimilitude in the world.

Detailing What I Have So Far

Let’s think a bit about the three main factions I’ve laid out so far, and assign them some SF&F. I’m deliberately skipping the starting town, since I think dealing with sub-factions there is more helpful:

The Ghouls

  • Smoke: Dead, rotting flesh peeling back from blackened bones. An unmistakable stench.
  • Fuel: Legions of ghoulish soldiers, wight sorcerers, and necromantic magic.
  • Fire: Find the lost vault that contains the Ghoul Mother, their leader, so they can escape this place.

The Necrophage

  • Smoke: Rainbow-colored growths on mutated flesh.
  • Fuel: A connected network of phage controlled creatures.
  • Fire: Find the lost vault that contains the Ghoul Mother so it can consume her.

The Archaics

  • Smoke: Threadbare cultist clothes, golden daggers that crumble when touched by the unworthy.
  • Fuel: Small sects of various cults, all following their own Archaic.
  • Fire: Find the lost vault that contains the Ghoul Mother so that her power can be taken.

Interesting! I didn’t plan on them all having the same goal, but it did sort of fall together like that. For now, I think that’s very interesting. It means that they can’t all live in harmony, and they can’t all win. This weird threat triangle seems like it can create some interesting scenarios.

In terms of PCs getting involved, I think the Archaic cults will be the most approachable. In exchange for power and things, the PCs could help out the Archaics. Next up, I think the Ghouls can also be worked with: they no doubt have intelligent undead that would be happy to try and manipulate living creatures to working with them. The Necrophage might be tougher, but I’m also imaging a sort of “Gravemind” like from Halo that could serve as a mouthpiece, and if someone can talk, it can strike a deal.

Faction Territory

One thing I’d really like to implement is some kind of territory system on the map. I love the idea of the three factions above controlling vast amounts of space, but also having lots of “contested” territory that clever adventurers could slip through. If I continue along the current path (detailing out the world via a pointcrawl that is procedurally generated) this seems easy enough. Each point from the starting town begins as neutral, and the procedure has lots of opportunities to slip over to a different, faction controlled procedural generator. The interesting thing there might be if PCs turn back, trying to go a different way, or they try and slip through the territory anyways.

As time goes on, hopefully the pointcrawl can connect a bit like constellations on a star map, and a real sense of the world comes into play with contested fronts and various amounts of territory intermingling amongst enemies.

But, of course, I might need to revise that and instead make it less procedural and more solid to start, if I want to try and create the results I’m looking for. Another thing I need to be careful of is that each specific delve/dungeon needs multiple factions within it to provide some substance and variety. If you discover a delve inside the Ghoul’s territory, you shouldn’t immediately think it’ll just be filled with undead ghouls. That would probably be boring and predictable. That’s where the jewelbox dungeon design will really come into play, in creating these territory delves that all feel unique and fun.

Conclusion

That’s it for this week! Coming up, I think I’m going to continue by detailing out the starting town and all of its sub-factions. This will hopefully give me a chance to create a unique little safe haven that players enjoy intermingling with.

As always, you can find me on Twitter @eldritchmouse if you’d like to reach out or comment on this. I love hearing from people! I’m also available on discord at eldritch mouse#3320.

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