Once again, I need to credit Gundobad Games for sparking this thought process, albeit in a completely different context from last time. It was many months ago when I was trying to do research on domain-level play and I dug up a bunch of reddit posts about it and read people's game recommendations and blablabla and one of the most fruitful things I found were these blog posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. I could say a lot about those posts but right now I'm just gunna focus on Part 3, and I'm gunna re-write everything relevant from it here.
So the writer was putting a spotlight on Chris McDowell's Into the Odd, a nifty minimalist old-school RPG, and in particular, on its faction system. He calls them "enterprises" which is a decent name. Here is the full text of Into the Odd's enterprise rules, reproduced here:
Between expeditions, you can try your hand at business, or muster a military force. DETACHMENTS and ENTERPRISES each cost 10 Gold to establish. Detachments demand a further d6 Gold in upkeep each month, or else they revolt.
Income: New ENTERPRISES generate 1d4 Gold of Income each month. They also face a Threat that will cause 1d4 Gold in Losses unless dealt with. If an Enterprise cannot pay its debts, it collapses. Growth: If an ENTERPRISE ends a month with Profit, its income moves up to the next type of die, to a maximum of d12. However, this larger die also applies to losses from Threats.
By the by, a "detachment" is his name for a group of warriors fighting together, which we won't be discussing here. Maybe another day.
Anyway, today I'm gunna talk about the strengths and weaknesses of this system, the more immediate ways in which I've thought to tweak it, and then how I might go about reconciling it with all those other thoughts I vomited up in my last post.
Into the Odd's Faction System Reviewed
Here's the important thing: it's simple and elegant. Honestly, just for that quality alone it instantly becomes better than 90%+ of any alternatives. That's why I titled this post the way I did. The main thing which turns people off to domain-level play is the worry that it'll distract the game from the fun stuff and make you focus on boring accounting bullshit. Business-management just isn't the activity that your players signed up for.
On this subject, I have previously said that the most important thing you can possibly do is make your faction system entirely automated if the players so desire. Like, if your player wants to benefit from owning a lucrative organization and you want to reward them with one, but they still prefer to be Batman over Bruce Wayne, then you need to offer them an Alfred who can manage all the behind-the-scenes stuff. I wouldn't necessarily want to deny any player the option to micro-manage their enterprise if they really want to, but it has to remain an opt-in thing, you know? It's never more complicated than they want it to be. If they're content to just bring home a bit of scratch from their enterprise at the end of each month with no greater concern, then let them.
But here's what I like about the Into the Odd enterprise rules: not only is there not much micromanaging to be done, but they're basically just quest generators. And while I said I think players shouldn't have to concern themselves with their organization's upkeep if they don't want to, I actually think this is a pretty fair thing to ask of them. "The benefit of owning an enterprise is you automatically get some money every month. The cost is that you'll have to routinely thwart some bullshit that threatens to destroy your enterprise." Sounds like a win-win for me. If you don't wanna be tied down to your club, then don't start one. Whether you choose to be a Barbarian or a King, you'll be doing the same amount of adventuring. It's just a question of whether those adventures will be a bit more free-spirited and meandering around the world or if they'll have consequences concerning the parts of the world you've spent time investing in.
The main downside of the system is that you really only get money out of it. I suppose there's no reason the referee couldn't allow the PCs to use their enterprise for other benefits implied by their description of it (e.g. if the PCs create a thieves' guild enterprise then they might also use it as a secret place to stash stuff away, as a network of informants in their local area, as a front to build clout and gain a group reputation, etc.), but it certainly doesn't work great for nonprofit enterprises. Don't get me wrong, I totally understand that 99% of ideas players have for a faction would be money-making schemes, and even the sorts that aren't necessarily "businesses" can still manage to turn a modest profit (like if they start their own religion/cult). But if they wanted to start something like a charity or a political party then it really is strange to model it as a "monthly gold generator" first and foremost.
So the first set of tweaks I had introduced were 1) changing the money system to match the economy I use in Brave, and 2) adding "Opportunities" in addition Threats. So instead of just generating 1 plot hook per month (something that'll cost you money if you ignore it), it'll also generate an extra plot hook that'll double your money if you secure it. After all, you have a whole month to address the Threat, so generating a second quest hook at the same time isn't too cumbersome. Plus, you know, it's fun to think that you're expanding your club through concrete and exciting actions.
As for details, I added a bit more substance to the money side of things. Here's the text I wrote for that:
Any profits made can be used freely, whether saved up, spent on items or assets, covering the upkeep pay of an employed crew [note: this is what I was calling a detachment in my rules. Now I'm thinking of calling them "cohorts"], or invested as growth. An enterprise that has spent three cumulative months growing can increase in size class [note: this is equivalent to the Into the Odd rule of "increasing the die size of your monthly profits"]. If an enterprise suffers great enough costs to exceed income, the enterprise has to pay out of pocket to cover the losses or go into debt. Any subsequent income gained can (and likely should) be used to pay off debts. An enterprise perpetually in debt will have trouble doing business, and if its debt worsens for three consecutive months then it will decrease in size class. For simplicity’s sake, the referee may treat all NPC enterprises as breaking even each month unless the PCs’ actions create Threats or Opportunities to change them.
I don't think that extra level of detail was wasted. Then I started thinking more and more about other questions I wanted answered, and I wrote all this out too:
An enterprise’s sites-of-operation should be accounted for. Many enterprises will have a headquarters, others might work as a phantom cell, while others yet slowly accumulate more and more properties. A site could be bought, rented, built, granted, stolen, or whatever else. Enterprises require people to operate of course. Management and laborers are usually abstracted, but contacts, experts, and other NPCs with special roles may be tracked individually. Lucrative enterprises may eventually employ crews and other, smaller enterprises.
Conglomerate enterprises are informally called institutions when their combined incomes, assets, crews, and savings yield enough power to shape societies, such as militaries, wealthy dynasties, popular churches, and even kingdoms. Operations at this scale require more income than a single Huge enterprise [note: this was the name of the largest size class on my chart] can provide, but also multiply their Threats and Opportunities as they grow more complex. Enterprises with many crews in their employ will eventually have high enough upkeep costs to barely break even.
Another thing that really made me think this through a bit deeper was my own written attempt to explain the distinction between cohorts and enterprises. The vast majority of cohort rules have to do with their function in combat, but I was determined to make sure they were not merely defined as "a group of warriors who fight together" because I can think of lots of non-combat cohorts that would benefit from being defined by a lot of the same mechanics. But a non-combat cohort of people who work together for some other function might end up just being... well, like an enterprise, right? Here's what I ended up writing:
It can be tricky to distinguish cohorts from enterprises. While you could describe one as “people” and the other as an “operation,” obviously operations are performed by people. An enterprise requires characters to function, but they’re typically individual NPCs and faceless middlemen involved in carrying out various processes. A cohort represents a detachment of NPCs who all work closely together in coordinated activity. And for the purposes of management, demand payment together and lodge together. So, if you run a thieves’ guild as your enterprise, then the people involved are various individual thieves, as well as fences, fixers, paid-off officials, accountants, and other associates. But if you recruit a cohort of thieves, then you now have a squad of burglars who can expertly infiltrate a house and clean it out of all valuables together.
What I didn't bother including was probably the most useful element of the explanation: if you set up a physical map with minis of all these world elements, then you should make cohorts either a jumble of a bunch of minis standing together in formation or you should represent them with one big mini that abstracts the group. Meanwhile, you can't represent an enterprise by similar means because they transcend mere personhood or people-hood.
So when I tried writing a list of cohorts and then a list of enterprises (each of which the referee could roll on when generating factions), there were lots of weird similarities where the line is kinda blurry.
- Warrior clan
- Criminal enforcers
- Hunting band
- Research techs
- Performer troupe
- Rebel fighters
- Expedition team
- Manor staff
- Pack of animals
- Field workers
- Ship crew
- Pirate crew
- Spy cell
- Angry mob
- Miners and diggers
- Thieves’ guild
- Mystery cult
- Merchant company
- Pirate ship
- Spy ring
- Political party
- Social club
- Ranger conclave
- Knightly order
- Assassin order
- Artisan guild
- Alchemist lab
- Fine arts company
- Wizard cabal
- Witch coven
- Rebel group
- Explorer society
- Historic preserve
- Crime racket
- Secret society
- Heist team
- Philosophy school
- Noble house
- Art movement
- Ethnic clan
- Fight club
You seeing some of the problems? Of course a philosophy school or a courthouse or a bank isn't a cohort. And of course a group of archers or pack of animals or troupe of acrobats aren't an enterprise. But "mercenaries" describes both a business and the chunks of warriors conducting that business. Militaries are an intangible operation on one level but are comprised of tangible groups of soldiers doing the hard work. And assassins? Obviously an assassin order works as an enterprise, but to be honest, does a cohort of assassins who all kill together as a group really make a lot of sense? I'm pretty sure the Ides of March was a one-time event, you know?
It gets worse. I was also thinking about how to make the most useful possible "faction generator" when you're generating a settlement, and how, sure, the possibility of enterprises being important forces in society makes as much sense as individual cohorts also being influential. But you know what else is often a really powerful force defining a city? A popular ethos. That's when I made this third table, which might also be rolled on if the "random faction roll" dictates it so:
Maybe you can see how these function similarly to factions. When you are defining the social landscape of a city, you might think that you ought to mention the big gangs and the rich businesses and the respected knightly orders and whatnot, but you also need to consider the really big political leanings that motivate people. If your settlement has a defining ethos, then every NPC you run into probably has a varying degree to which they support that ethos. And if an NPC adheres strongly to an ethos, a clever PC might appeal to it and sway the NPC. If a settlement has multiple competing ethea, then they can probably be treated much like alignment, or perhaps party affiliation. And you can systematically attack or support an ethos in much the same way as you can a faction. They don't own property or have leadership like a true faction does, but you can certainly generate Threats and Opportunities that'll strengthen or weaken that ethos in the local culture.
But look how far I've gotten from where I started because of thinking like this.
Reconciling This With The Freeform Faction Systems I Previously Covered
What's funny is that, in my own rules, I was already framing these things as basically just being a part of an individual PC's inventory, rather than something that exists as its own thing independently of that. Here's the opening description I wrote:
Big-time adventurers face big-time threats, but also stand to gain big-time resources. A domain entails all the major assets and reach a character commands beyond their own person. The referee uses NPC domains for allies and enemies who project power and ambition, but successful PCs can also begin building their own domains. The two major types of domain assets are cohorts and enterprises.
So while the front of your character sheet has slots for the items you carry on your person, the back of your character sheet lists all the assets your character has which go beyond that. Money in the bank and items in storage, contacts and favors, hirelings and vehicles, properties owned and, at least I thought, cohorts and enterprises. But that's all just kind of a mess. At what point does an assortment of domain assets coalesce into a proper faction?
I'm strongly considering making it a hard mechanic that a player must "found" a faction, likely by pooling their domain assets with at least one other character (likely a PC), and essentially create a new legal entity which owns those assets. Something that exists beyond one person, and which can continue to exist without them. And what does it take to found a faction? Honestly, probably just declaring it. You just have to understand going in that, by doing so, you're also converting personal assets into shared assets, personal goals into shared goals, personal rules and expectations into shared ones, and so on. When you declare it, you have to tell the referee the faction's name, basic description, and what assets you're putting in to start. And from there, all the real work can go into giving more detail on the asset types. The real questions are "what does it take to add a cohort to your faction" or "what does it take to add a recurring source of capital to your faction" and so on. I imagine nearly any kind of asset which could be added to a faction could also be stuff that an individual has at their disposal, but any individual that ends up running an iron mine, getting a percentage from a trade caravan, and barking orders at a community militia is probably functioning so much like a faction that they may as well formally incorporate as one.
I think there might be some formal mechanical benefit to it as well. For example, I always wanted to impose a limit on how many cohorts/what size of cohort a single PC can command (and even a single one would automatically fill all their normal "follower slots"), with the most sensible strategy being to pool your cohort capacity with other PCs... but if cohorts are loyal to a faction instead of a person then there could definitely be a lot more of them. Loyalty to the PCs would be a bit looser, with a greater risk of members being more committed to the organization and its mission than any individual leader, but this might have to be a prerequisite for that quality of "followers being so common they're on the local random encounter table" thing I was talking about in the last article.
But in any case, the sort of matrix I mocked up near the end of the last article might be something made into its own "faction character sheet" with as many asset types as I can think of. There'll be a small library of example assets, but the explicit message that players and referees should be creative in thinking of more (so you get the kind of rich variety of useful traits that a faction in Blades in the Dark might have, but tailored to your faction). And then specific major asset types, like buildings+vehicles, cohorts, and "enterprises" (or whatever I'll call the asset defined as "recurring, reliable source of money") will have their own rules spelled out a bit more. So while all of those kinds of things can exist on their own, they can also be ingredients making up a faction. And this is probably a lot more elegant than the idea I had of "conglomerate enterprises," which was just "when a PC owns more than one enterprise."
Much as I hate to add more fiddly bits, it might be worth it to give factions something like a level system or a reputation score, just because I feel like I need to define their power and reach somehow. Not all types of assets are easy to measure against each other, but there's gotta be a difference between the kind of faction that just patrols a piece of turf in a city versus the kind that shows up on random encounter tables in a a 100-mile area. The enterprise system was nice because I could just key those sorts of traits to its size class. "Once an enterprise makes X amount of money per month, then they're considered big enough to do this." Not so anymore. I still might substitute the hypothetical "reputation system" with something like "the sum of all character levels among the faction owners" since that's an already-existing stat.
What I'm Thinking Now
Okay, I'm going to work off of that matrix-looking thing I made last time. Here's that image again:
But in any case, I think I'm now comfortable acknowledging that Into the Odd's enterprise system offers me a good framework for "running a business" but is still not the actual full solution for "running a faction." And that factions should definitely be modeled as a network of different asset types, many of which can have some hard rules to them but always retaining a freeform spirit to how they're used and how they're affected by the world. Something else that's definitely needed to bring a faction to life is flavor stuff, which PCs should be explicitly told. Come up with a symbol, a uniform, a handshake, a catchphrase, a ritual, a gimmick, etc. Give it some character and that'll go a long way towards making it feel real. Likewise, it's those parts that'll be most meaningfully experienced from the point of view of a faction's members. Don't forget: this system is also used for NPC-run factions, and if a PC wants to become a member of someone else's faction then the asset matrix really isn't the part that concerns them. But at least having an awareness of the pieces that comprise the faction is still valuable to members. Knowing the faction's relationship to other things is important and knowing what buildings you can go to or experts you can consult as a member will help a lot.
As for that idea about "when a faction is large enough to be omni-present in an area," I was thinking about that being another thing that, yes, is in the domain-level play, but which is uniquely available only to factions (rather than PCs). Perhaps one defined type of asset could be "outpost," which has the explicit benefit of generating patrolling members out of that area (who'll then start showing up on random encounter tables). I've also thought about "supply center" being a fairly generic but defined asset, which would offer guaranteed safety to rest and some basic common supplies related to that faction's primary activities (e.g. the Merry Men of Robin Hood would have supply centers with plenty of arrows). Then, I think an asset maybe called a "headquarters" combines the benefits of both. I think an outpost in the wilderness will give you rough control over a hex, while setting up an outpost in a dungeon of course requires that you establish control over it. In a megadungeon, one outpost merely indicates that your faction controls one region of the megadungeon (like I showed in those diagrams last time). And in a settlement, outposts have to be done one district at a time. Only once you've gotten an outpost in every district can you now claim control over the settlement, and your members will start showing up across the entire overland hex.
And as long as we're thinking about "qualities exclusive to factions," I feel like there could also exist the nebulous trait of "super-broad membership" even if the organization is fairly lite otherwise. Like, I bet when a lot of people think about "factions in an RPG," they might be picturing something more like the factions of Planescape or Dark Souls. They're more like allegiances and a shared identity than a true club or operation. Maybe they have some tangible assets like a home base stronghold and a sentry guard to defend it, but the membership is basically just "thousands of people who've sworn themselves to the group, gone through all the rites, and can be called on to serve the group's goals." This is a very real type of faction dynamic. If you're registered with a political party in your country, you probably don't actually have much involvement with "your" faction beyond keeping up with their activity and voting for them now and then. Likewise, the faction of "House Lannister" has "members" of different degrees: actual family members (probably mostly PCs but maybe a few unique NPCs), employed NPC cohorts and experts and armies and whatnot, and then Joe Schmoe NPCs who just support the Lannisters as mere citizens. Those people are technically an asset to the faction, you know? How do you gain that asset or define it, mechanically? Something to consider.
The Impact it Has on the Game
My main problem remaining is that I increasingly feel like it could get unreasonable to let a player be totally hands-off with a faction that's, like, national-level. It's one thing to adventure while you have a business running in the background or a little witch coven you organize. It's another thing to be in charge of the Catholic Church and still be off doing sword and sorcery. But then again, I've always imagined that players participating in the management of huge factions would always be doing so in collaboration with lots of characters, likely a large pool of PCs. Want the PCs to run a kingdom or a group like the Knights Templar? Someone's gotta put in a minimum number of monthly "management days," but the more people you can share the burden with, then less of your adventuring time is taken from you. That might be my solution.
Remember, in traditional old-school D&D, when a PC gets high level and starts managing their own little barony or whatever, you didn't actually stop adventuring altogether because you had other PCs to play as. I'm already going to build my game for an assumption of "stable of characters" play, so once again: maybe it is okay to ask a bit more involvement of PCs running a faction if you know there'll be a way to balance against it. Robert Baratheon gets too high level and starts focusing on running the kingdom all the time, so the player starts spending more sessions playing as their other PC named Tyrion. Eventually Tyrion hits mid-level, so the player creates another PC they can play during the sessions when they have to commit Tyrion to a bit of domain management. So now about 50% of their sessions they're playing as Brienne of Tarth and the other 50% they bring Tyrion back out for some proper adventuring. And if you only want to have one PC you're focusing on? Then get the other players to help you run the faction and each take turns managing it.
Speaking of Game of Thrones, one of the more interesting types of national-level factions I've been thinking of this whole time is "powerful family dynasties." After all, couldn't you model the Lannisters as a faction with this system? A strong combination of collaborative domain-level play that the party focuses on sometimes, but also with individual PC members playing their own part in the whole thing. And if you, as an individual PC seeking to create your own faction to control, get married and start having kids... well then the faction rules can also be one and the same with the "lineage rules" that might enter the campaign. Your "stable of characters" is literally just your family.
Alright, this has been a lot more spitballing without firm results, and I don't know where I might take this subject next, but hopefully this was worth thinking and writing about. I'm happy I was able to take the Engle Matrix Games and the Blades in the Dark crew rules and think of ways they influence the design of my faction rules. The Dungeon World stuff didn't find it's way in but maybe I'll see something in there.