Building a Fantasy World IX: Factions & Organizations
An often overlooked element of world building are organizations. Even if they are included, organizations are often limited to the role of antagonists. This might be to avoid heroic groups that might be seen as deus ex machina (or a dreaded Dungeon Master PC). This does a disservice to groups as they can play multiple roles in a campaign setting and have varied benefits for a setting.
There are innumerable examples of organizations in official worlds. Dragonlance is especially known for its organizations with the Knights of Solamnia, Knights of Takhisis/Neraka, the Legion of Steel, and the Wizards of High Sorcery. Dark Sun has the Veiled Alliance, Eberron has the Order of the Emerald Claw, and the Forgotten Realms has several such as the Red Wizards, the Zhentarim, the Cult of the Dragon, and the Harpers. The Realms is also good example of organizations not being valued, with the Spellplague and 4e transition neutering the Harpers ostensibly to make more room for PCs to be heroes.
Organizations are not limited role-playing campaign settings. In folklore there are the Knights of the Round Table and Robin Hood’s Merry Men. The Wheel of Time series has the Aes Sedai (and the Black Ajah), the Children of the Light, the Kin, and arguably even Darkfriends or the Forsaken. Drifting into the more futuristic end of the speculative fiction spectrum, Star Wars has the Jedi and Sith Order, Black Suns, and Mandalorians. The TV show Babylon 5 , while science-fiction, was influence by fantasy and has the Rangers (the Anla-shok), the Psi Corp, and technomancers. If you want to see the influence fantasy has on B5 just look at the code of the Rangers: We are Rangers. We walk in the dark places no others will enter. We stand on the bridge, and no one may pass. We live for the One, we die for the One.
But what are organizations so prolific? And are they really important to a world? Read on.
This is the ninth part in a series on fantasy world building.
Table of Contents
This blog is part of a series on Fantasy Worldbuilding. The other parts are listed below
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Variables
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Monsters and Dungeons
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Organizations
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player’s Guide
Part 15: Other Realms
Part 16: Miscellaneous
Roles of Organizations
Organizations are handy because they’re so darn flexible and add so much to the world. On their most basic, stripped down level they serve two opposing purposes: to help or to hinder. Groups can be allies that aid the Player Characters or they can be adversaries that try and harm the PCs.
Or they could start as one and then become the other. Or they can be both depending on the situation. Or they could even be neither, with goals unrelated to whatever the heroes are doing. Or they could be an enigma that is there but whose true nature and motives are unknown.
Organizations make excellent recurring villains. The problem with good villains in D&D (and RPGs in general) is that they die. Quickly. If a good villain manage to encounter the PCs and escape (which is rare without a little DM aid) then they’re the first to drop in the rematch. It doesn’t matter how many henchmen you plant as a buffer between the Big Bad a the party, the villain will be the first to die. But if the villain was a member of an organization, be it a guild or society or brotherhood, while the individual dies the evil organization lives on. Marvel comic’s Hydra is a good example of this (boasting: “We shall never be destroyed! Cut off a limb, and two more shall take its place!”), but any organization full of henchmen and interchangeable lieutenants works. This allows the PCs some sense of accomplishment and progress as they cut a swath through the society while not completely eliminating the threat.
In many ways, an organization is even more easy to hate than a single NPC. With more screen time, an organization can have their goals examined and opposed. Captured and interrogated flunkies can fanatically spout the evil goals of the organization. After awhile the society doesn’t need an introduction, they’re just known. While good villains often require complicated motivations for their monolithic evil, you don’t need as much much for an organization. The head or founder of the organization might not be pure evil (and should have the standard background and motivations), or even misunderstood, but the monolithic force he has erected to do his bidding lacks his subtlety. Meanwhile, the underlings just need to be slightly evil, or amoral and need the work.
Organizations also work nicely as allies. A single helpful NPC can become bothersome, quickly toeing the line of the aforementioned DMPC (Dungeon Master Player Character), a little like Gandalf or Elminster in a bad Forgotten Realms campaign. But organizations can make this more palatable: consulting a group of scholars for information seems less like begging an NPC for help and more like asking a librarian for help finding rare information in a book. It’s logical and makes sense in-world. If you’re trying to find the lost temple of the god Ketzalkoatl then asking his priest is just a smart move.
An organization does not need to provide active help in combat to be considered an ally, and instead could supply information, supplies, healing, or just a place to rest. For players who like a little more direction and guidance, an organization can act as patron and quest giver.
The final role an organization can have in a campaign is as a goal. This is a bigger and understated part of the campaign, so I’m giving it its own section.
A forgettable aspect of organizations is one of goals. Not the goals the groups set, but the goals they represent. Dragonlance is a good example of this with the knighthoods and Orders of High Sorcery. Gaining membership in the knighthood was a major character goal for one of the protagonists. Likewise, PCs might not start as members, but have to earn their place. Its a position to be aspired to, and membership is an accomplishment. The organization represents a character goal, and frequently one that can be achieved without railroading the story or dominating the campaign.
Organizations allow players to make their characters part of the world. Once a character joins an organization they are a part of the setting. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the Forgotten Realms and have only experienced it through what the DM has supplied, if you join the Harpers you can feel like your character belongs in that world and only that world.
There’s also a lovely element of accomplishment that comes with having your character recognised and respected/feared as a member of an organization. No matter how widely known the PC and other adventurers are known, they are likely less common knowledge than a century-old organization. And becoming well-known in such a prestigious organization is even better. Being a knight is one thing, but being held as a paragon on the knighthood is even better.
Organizations can also be used to set a mechanical goal as they often have unique crunch. 2e represented this through kits, 3e through Prestige Classes, and 4e did this best through themes. And it sounds like 5e will return to something akin to Prestige Classes. Options like Prestige Classes are great because they’re another way a character can feel apart of the world despite not not starting as part of the world: the players show up, rolls a generic farm kid PC, and plays the game. But at higher levels they can change their character into something that could only exist in that campaign. Prestige Classes have always worked best when they were world specific, and organizations are a great way to generate world-specific Prestige Class ideas.
Because there might be an organization-specific Prestige Class, this also sets goals for the character. If a mechanically minded player wants the benefits of the “Legionnaire” Prestige Class they first need to earn a place in the Legion of Steel to be taught the implied specialized training. Even though this is a mechanically inspired decision, the goal is no less valid or influential to the story.
(Design Aside: While Paragon Paths worked, they tended to be a little higher in implied skill and also focused on role. 4e characters just start more potent; it’s easier to have your 1st level character as a member of the organization. This fit with the design goal of not having to work towards your character concept. If designing for 4e it’s better to have Paragon Paths focused on a higher and more specialized place in the organization. They’re not just a “Harper” or “Solamnic Knight” but a “Harper Scout” or “Solamnic Honour Guard”.)
There are some more ephemeral benefits to organizations in a world and campaign.
First, organizations can provide much needed NPCs and characters. Most NPCs are tied to a location, such as a favourite innkeeper or the king. Meanwhile, a party of adventurers might cross a continent or live on the road. Members of an organization can follow the PCs, or conveniently be nearby. This can give the players a supporting cast of allies, friends, friendly rivals, or even antagonists. Even if the NPCs are unfamiliar, the PCs might feel comfortable they can always walk into a Bard’s Union Chapterhouse and be greeted and warmly.
Organizations also provide depth and detail, both to the world and for the world. Groups suggest what the values of a nation or world are, telling what is important and necessary (or viewed as important and necessary). Similarly, how people view and react the organization is often as telling as what the organization represents. In the world of Dragon Age the existence of the Grey Wardens suggests the Blight and darkspawn are dangerous (or there wouldn’t be a group dedicated to stopping them) but the setting also establishes things are not well in the region as the order is not what it once was. The Orders of High Sorcery in Dragonlance suggest both that magicians must band together for protection, that magic has to be trained and regulated, and that wizards must identify themselves as such dressing in appropriately coloured robes. In contrast the nature of the Veiled Alliance of Dark Sun suggests that magic is considered dangerous and practitioners must keep their craft secret, but also that good wizards must oppose those who would abuse magic.
Because of the above, organizations offer a subtle information dump. In explaining the organization and touching on its history the players are given a glimpse of the larger world. A good organization has rites and traditions that offer clues and background to the world without lengthy narration.
Another way an organization can potentially help the game is by unite the party. It’s quite possible for the PCs to all be newly initiated members of an organization or a newly forced taskforce. This helps solve the problem of the party working together despite clashing personalities or relying on the trope of meeting in a tavern. This does require a little player buy-in – or at least ambivalence – unless the organization uses press ganging (like pirates), the draft (an organized military), or some other means of coercing new members. You could do an interesting campaign with a group akin to the Nights Watch that recruits criminals, and require the PC’s backstory to involve a crime, either real or mistaken.
The first step in creating a group for your campaign setting is deciding what you want its motives and purpose to be. Clubs and societies don’t just exist for no reason. Even if it’s just a social club the motive is entertainment and diversion. What is the organization trying to do? What are its goal and ambitions? If it had unlimited power and influence, how would it change the world?
While alignment can be overly restrictive and all-encompassing (as organizations might be composed of both good people and bad people) it can be a helpful guide and limiting factor. Is the group generally Good (allies of the PCs or dedicated to noble causes) or Evil (dedicated to corrupt goals or enemies of the party) or Neutral (self-motivated but not entirely selfish or selfless). In short, are you trying to create an organization that will (usually) help a group of heroes or (usually) hinder a group of heroes?
Consider how active you want the organization to be. Do you want a primarily physical group that will regularly be in the field and is known for its presence in the world, or an intellectual or scholarly group such as a monastic order? Or does the group have a combination of both, such as the Pathfinder Society of Golarion, which have field agents (often PCs) and support agents at the various lodges. Also ask yourself how much you want to group to be a part of the action; one organization might help communities by training troops and supplying weapons while another might just go out and kill the raiding orcs.
If you need help thinking of potential organizations, the rules can actually be a good source of inspiration. In D&D Next, Backgrounds have certain assumptions, such as Thieves’ Guilds, academies where people can study magic, the existence of a knighthood, etc. Filling those holes is a good starting point, and a great way to tie the PC directly into the world (“Oh, you took the Guild Thief background? Well, that means you likely come from the city of L____ and know ____”).
Don’t forget to consider membership in the group. Are there any particular limits? Knighthoods tends to be restricted to noble families and something like a wizard’s guild would obviously be restricted to mages and spellcasters. There might also be age, national, or gender limits. Also consider race when thinking about organizations. Is a particular group open to all races or only some? If open, was it always so or is the change recent? Was it founded by a particular racial group?
Organizations can be either public or secret. Cults and secret societies tend to be more villainous than heroic, as good people seldom slink around in the shadows hiding their actions, excluding resistance forces and the like. Some cults or secret societies might have a public front: while the public believes them to be one thing, such as a social club or scholarly organization, the group’s true motives are different.
Spend some time thinking about how one joins the organization, or how the group recruits new members. This is mostly important for organizations the PCs might join, but it can be useful from a world building perspective. If a guild of assassins has to kill someone to gain membership it sets the tone of members as killers. However, iif the first victim has to be a family member or loved one then members take an entirely different light. Likewise, what requirements does the organization place on its members? Do they have to pay dues or tithe a percentage of their income? Do members have to obey a hierarchy or attend meetings or rites?
Finally, add quirks and memorable traits to your organization. This might include rites and rituals, things like oaths or formal ceremonies but also small things like prayers before important actions or deeds. This is much like building NPCs, as groups need a few memorable traits but too many and the quirks blur together and are forgotten. A couple fairly memorable traits are often better than a dozen unique features. Stereotypes are best avoided unless the stereotype is going to be turn on its head or the cliched nature of the cult is an important aspect. Cultists wearing dark robes holding candles and chanting in Latin before a giant stone idol is going to be mockable more than eerie.
Ideas for organizations can come from real world organizations. This could be modern groups like the Boy Scouts or the US army’s Rangers or Marines, groups from recent history such as the Nazis (reputedly the inspiration for Eberron‘s Order of the Emerald Claw) or the ‘20s Chicago Mob, or far older history such as the knights of Charlemagne, Spanish Inquisitors, Crusaders, Mamluks, or Hashshashins. There is no shortage of potential templates for guilds and groups.
It’s also helpful to think of groups that could act as potential mentors and aspirations for PCs. Look at the various archetypes and classes and consider if there’s a group that supports that class. Who do all the little boys dreaming of being fighters look up to? Who do guttersnipes living in the alleys tell stories of? Is there a bardic college or holy order? Is there particular monastic schools and orders (both religion and kung-fu given the existence of the monk class)
Organizations in War World
I start with a checklist of the basic assumptions. I need some kind of mage academy, thieves’ guild, as well as many military forces and maybe an assassin’s guild. As a theme of the world is warfare, both open and subtle, so there should be opposing forces and rivalries. Furthermore, I don’t want magic to be too standardized and united, so I’d like a couple opposing magical guilds.
As a personal preference, I like having a group of international meddlers and do-gooders in my worlds. Something akin to the Harpers or Grey Wardens but often drawing more inspiration from the Rangers of Babylon 5. In War World these might be more akin to the Pathfinder Society. After a thousand years of war much art and history has been lost, as has knowledge not useful to warfare. The organization seeks out lost wonders, treasures, and art, making them equal parts explorers and archaeologists. They believe that eventually civilization will stop fighting and people will long for what they have lost, and the group plans to be ready for that time. Because the world is dangerous there are two arms to the organization: scholars and guards. These operate in small groups venturing out in the field for weeks at a time.
I have a few potential military nations who would might use magic. Some, like Khaledon, must have some magic to animate their armies of the dead. I see this as courtly wizards tasked with maintaining the military and workforces. Given the militaristic nature of the nation, this would be formal with highly trained yet specialized wizards singularly educated in necromancy. In the mercantile nation of Firaxies mages would be trained as enchanters, hired to make premium weapons for the southlands. Magic academies would be more like sweatshops and workhouses where as many mages as possible can be trained in basic enchantments to be used for the finest swords and magical wands.
The high elves would have highly trained war wizards serving as their standing army (or special forces). While the high elves might have once been generalists and used magic for beauty, these aspects of the art have fallen into disuse, being replaced by weaponized magical skills: evocations, golem crafting, enchanting weapons, creating fortifications, defensive magic, etc. I think I’ll add a dash of sexism here. Elves are fairly human-like so the average male is likely larger and stronger than the average female. To an elf’s eyes, males are more suited for battle and things like swinging swords. Magic, being a mental skill, is thus the realm of women. Men are the grunts and infantry while the women are the spellcasters and hold positions of power in the military hierarchy. As such, the elven magical academy (State Wizards, ala FullMetal Alchemist) would be principally female. While men have been allowed to enter (a recent development) all ranking officers are female and there’s a glass ceiling. Likewise, elven State Wizards would typically be elven or half-elven.
I’ll also have a magical academy in the westernmost nation. This was both a nation I loosely described both as being caught in a violent civil war and also the land of tieflings. It’s less a mageocracy and more a land that embraced magic, and relied on it at resulting in its fall into diabolism. This was the land where magic flourished and there were a number of wizardry schools. A League of Mages, for lack of a better name. However, people in that nation have become frightened of magic as it is used more and more for summoning devils and demons, used in the warfare of the land, and used to kill. Magic has becoming a corrupting and defiling force, one too easily abused.
The academies have divorced themselves from the actions of the state and students are now taught restraint and the dangers of unbridled power and the focus is on magic for magic’s sake. Students are tested, judged, and slowly introduced to magic to weed out those seeking power and gain. The League of Mages has spread eastward slowly, establishing new strongholds as its old bastions fell to demons, warlocks, becoming abused and corrupted. (There would also be the corrupted version, wizards and warlocks that summon demons and continually seek more power.)
Thieves’ Guilds are a trope of the game, yet one that has not been widespread in published worlds. Thieves’ Guilds tend to be localized affairs, limited to single cities and separated. It might be interesting to let a Thieves’ Guild spread out farther, thus justifying a single unified Thieves’ cant. The Fraternity as I’ll call them, have cells that are kept purposely small, for you can’t have many thieves in a city before you run out of potential victims. It focuses on various illegal activities including smuggling, theft, extortion, blackmail, prostitution, and the like (plus the occasional assassination). Members are taught to treat each other like family (specifically brothers and sisters). Each town has its leader (Eldest Brother/Sister) but they are expected to work with the Eldest from other towns. There is no true leader, as the Elder singlings hold councils to determine policy. They propagate the legend of “the King of Thieves” and Father to the Fraternity, to keep full attention off themselves and on some non-existent central power. When bored, some cells will stage elaborate and overly complex heists under the name of The King of Thieves, grand public affairs that only the greatest thief could ever pull off (or a dozen coordinated thieves).
The Fraternity regulates the business so wealthy targets are not robbed too often (unless the Thieves need to set an example), and collect protection money from businesses, which is often just that: businesses protected by the Guild are left alone by everyone as no one wants to hurt the Thieves’ source of income. In this respect, the Guild is Neutral, if not Lawful Neutral as it has its own laws that are to be obeyed. The Fraternity has declared certain targets “off limits” for theft (orphanages, monasteries, the military) and maintains neutrality in the wars by not engaging in espionage or targeting one side or the other.
For a martial order, I’m starting with an earlier idea: the followers of Tadir, god of lightning and warriors, and then expanding it with an elite version. Knights of the Lightning (Lightning Knights?) are essentially honourable mercenaries that serve for food and shelter, Ronin with some sense of honour who seek battle and glory. The knights do not take applicants but recruit the best and brightest, seeking out warriors with a reputation for both skill and honour. They dedicate each fight to their god with prayer. Once the blade of a Knight of the Lightning is drawn, it cannot be sheathed until it has drawn blood. Knights of the Lightning are easily identified by their bright yellow cloaks, meant to evoke the colour or lightning.
I also need a few evil organizations, dedicated evil villains. While the above could be adversaries, sometimes you want som full on mustache twirling maniacal laughing eeevil.
I like the yuan-ti / serpent folk and they need a place in the world. Instead of a separate race they work nicely a cult (possibly with ties to a fallen race). There’s less room a dedicatedl serpentine god, but something akin to a serpentine demon prince or Old God ala Dagon would work. (Coincidentally, Dagon has been represented as a demon prince in earlier editions of D&D.) As a twist on having a seemingly good group be the front for evil, I might have the yuan-ti work behind the scenes of an evil group, inhuman evil hiding behind mundane evil. In 4th Edition, the yuan-ti god Zehir was also the god of murder and assassination, so having the front be an assassin’s guild makes narrative sense.
Anyone can join the Assassin’s Guild, but new recruits are subjected to a series of tests with failure meaning death. The guild has seasonal meetings with a renewal of oaths and a communion. The assassins think they’re just part of a your standard group o’ killers being fed magical potions to make them stronger, when really they’re being fed venom and essence of serpent, to bring out their inner snakeman and prepare them to be used as breeding stock. This also helps explain some of the different types of yuan-ti. You have the fallen human purebloods, the naturally inhuman abominations, and the halfbloods which are the children of both.
For a final example, I’m drawing inspiration from the War World’s hooK. After a thousand years of open and violent warfare, traditional pacifist movements would have evolved and potentially grown more desperate and extreme. In order to end the wars and save uncountable thousands, it has become acceptable to sacrificing hundreds. The Peacebringers want to end the perpetual warfare dominating the continent, and have moved to terrorist actions to do so. The group operates in your standard autonomous cells but have the advantage of magic (crystal balls, sending stones, scrying pools, etc) that allows them to anonymously communicate, coordinate, and share information. They do their best to disrupt the flow of war, sabotaging arms and targeting troops.
The Peacebringers have a few active long-term plans. They hope to be able to find something that they can use to force kingdoms to stop fighting, a weapon they can use to broker a peace. They’re also aware a mutual enemy might be enough to encourage peace, but such a threat would need to be continent-wide in scope.
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