Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pellatarrum: Broken River 4

Broken River
Part 4: Faction, Faction, Who's got a Faction?
by Mike (Rhishisikk) Kochis

Well, everyone has a faction, naturally. Most of us don't realize that we have more than one faction. Note that faction isn't an allegiance – it's a cause to which we contribute, whether we support it or not. And, because we normally get something back, if only a feeling of accomplishment, we normally keep tabs on what's going on with our faction.

For example, I once had a job with fast food. This doesn't mean that I'm attempting to pawn off grease burgers and convert the vegans. It means, that for a time, I was assisting a fast food place in exchange for money.

Take a look at a political faction, the Trask family. All are members of other factions (with the possible exception of Susan, but it's just because we haven't detailed her yet). Harver Trask is obviously going to be concerned with anything affecting his family, the Church of Light, and the Sow's Ear.

In other words, the conflict between Light and Dark and the Elements isn't just a matter of metamagical balance. It's something that affects and drives the lives of our NPCs.

Which Factions are Important?
Well... to whom? To your players and their characters, of course. Naturally, I don't know who your players are and what races, classes, archetypes, and whatnot they're playing. So I have to cover lots of bases. How, you ask, is such a thing possible?

Human nature, of course.

Stage One: Class
Remember how I told you not to generate the mayor? Now is when we generate the mayor, decide what branches of government are important, and start to worry about things like laws.

Also, we need to look at our "big four" classes, and set up at least two factions for each. I never set an upper limit for factions, which does come back to bite me in my buttocks.

Okay, fighters and related classes are obviously going to be interested in the town watch, the loose array of "rangers" (mostly warriors and commoners) who patrol lands around the outlying farms, caravans that are hiring guards, and other ways to employ their skills to shine in town.

Clerics are going to be interested in the Church of the Light, the order of midwives taking care of day-to-day medicine, the disenfranchised poor, and so on. And, of course, the Cult of the Dark; note that important faction doesn't mean friendly faction.

Arcane types will be looking for libraries (we didn't put one in), the alchemists of the Salt Works, the Order of Four (four sorcerers, one tied to each traditional element), and ways to acquire one of the not-yet-existing towers for their laboratories... but we'll get to that later.

Rogues and bards will care about the Smuggler's Union (and possibly the Sow's Ear), the Ladies' Floral Society (the aristocratic women who protect their menfolk from all manner of stupidity, normally started by the menfolk themselves), and possibly even the long-standing feud between local government and the remote government clerk, Seamus Gantry (7th level commoner).

We have a number of industries, or economic powers. I decide we don't (yet) have a farmer's co-op, although one rancher on the dirty side of town is trying to organize one. Obviously, the Salt Works sits astride the town's major thoroughfare, so in spite of just wanting to run their business quietly, they often find themselves embroiled in local situations. The Mucker's Union, those stalwart commoners who dig up the clay needed for so much of the local economy, is going to be a faction. And, of course each "noble" family (local nobles, not landed gentry, like the Family Trask) has its own economic interests.

Which brings us to an important note about factions and organizations: they rarely fit into just one category. Let us return to the Sow's Ear for a moment. Clearly, Captain Sowsberry cares about both his legitimate business, and his smuggling operation. But the network of links doesn't stop with just the big boss. Because of Sumi Dragonrage, we have a link to the half-orc community. Likewise, Mister Hamsteader ("just call me Alex") in the back can be a link to halfling and gnomish interests.

But let's examine a short "loop" of links to demonstrate where I'm going with this. Captain Sowsberry runs a "package delivery" (smuggling) operation. This is managed by Harver Trask. So, there is a first-link status between Harver and the Captain. In turn, the government "officially" (I haven't decided how corrupt the government is, yet) disapproves of smuggling, and asks the Church of Light (specifically Anton Trask) to expose and stop such foolishness. This means that Anton and Harver have two first-link statuses; from Anton to the Captain is, therefore, a two link status.

In real life, I have heard it said that we are only seven "steps" (a less formal relation than our links, which is why I specifically use the term links) removed from every living person on the planet. Do I take pains to make sure all my NPCs are only seven links removed? In fact, I do not; it often happens anyway.

So, why do we care about the links? Take our theoretical halfling rogue, Chubby Chesterson. Chubby wants to do roguish stuff (surprise!), and is looking for the "thieves' guild" at the Sow's Ear. Naturally, he's going to ask his fellow halfling. Working with both the Captain and Harver, it's pretty likely that he'll know; but will he give them up to a stranger? Probably not.

Here's the problem; we're trying to motivate the party into checking out a ruined monastery for the Church of Light. Our (again theoretical) monk and cleric are on board, and our sorcerer will be hooked in by other means.

When in doubt, kill as many birds with a single stone as you can. "I know some smugglers," Alex admits, "but I don't know that I can trust you yet. There's a man what snoops around here scaring our customers, by the name of Anton Trask. Maybe if you were to find something else for him to look into? I heard the Church of Light is interested in the old Iron Fist monastery; maybe you could manage to find something there, have the church send him to look at that for a week or so?" Just the sort of quid pro quo I associate with my halflings. Now, instead of spending time screaming around town that he's a burglar and needs work, Chubby should be motivated to go to the monastery with the rest of the party.

We note that there are the ruins of a monastery in the nearby foothills (an adventure location, again a later post), and move on.

Notice that three of our four hypothetical characters have adventure hooks right there at the Sow's Ear. Every faction has adventure hooks, rumors about it in the town, and resources that they can provide to PCs they like. Most of our major NPCs will have this layout also. Although we don't flesh that out until later, now is a wonderful time to start note cards of our ideas.

Yes, this is getting messy fast, even without a cat or small child to knock the stacks of notecards everywhere. It gets messier.

Stage Two: Race
Yes, we've all heard that fantasy worlds are egalitarian, and equal for all. How boring. The truth is right there in the fluff text, even for Pellatarum. Remember how much your brain protested Sumi (our buxom barmaid) being a half-orc? Didn't you have a twinge that said Alex should be a gnome, just look at what he does? (There are games like Fantasy Craft that just blend the two races right together into a single package of small-size heroism.)

How much worse would it have been if I had said that halflings ran the paladin order, or that only dwarves were inquisitors? Right, and I'm not going to. But, over and over again, I find that authors make these "intuitive leaps" and trample all else underfoot.

So let's look at races from an elemental perspective:

  • Air: Dragons and Kobolds. There is a strong enough bond here to consider them one faction. However, as with anything that near-indestructible, dragons have MASSIVE egos, and are their own worst enemies. I was going to have just a single dragon manipulating parts of Broken River from behind the scenes. However, now that I know kobolds are a playable race, we really need two or more, for that dragon-on-dragon cloak and dagger-ness. 
  • Water: Elves and Gnomes. Ooh, this one is a toughie. Aligned, but not truly one solid faction. The elves are still feuding with their underwater cousins, which gives us two factions of snotty elves trying to one-up each other. Most gnomes have already washed their hands of the feud, probably with the recent death of one of their leaders. 
  • Earth: Dwarves and Humans. I hadn't placed any mountains nearby, and there are no minerals the dwarves are really interested in. I create Copperbeard Jaegra, and decide she's head of the Dwarven Trade Consulate, assigned out here as a punishment for original thinking. I'll put a pin in that, for later. 
  • Fire: Orcs and Goblins hate each other. In fact, everyone hates orcs and by implication half-orcs. Even orcs hate each other. I decide that one of the dirty side gangs is run by a half-orc. Pathfinder goblins are amusing; I'll need to ask Erin if they're a playable race, also. 
  • Unaligned: Halflings are curious, even to themselves. Nobody knows where they fit in the cosmology, how they're here, or even remembers how they first attached themselves like lampreys to the underbelly of the other races (Yes, even the local orc tribe has halflings. More on that later.) 
Of course, these stereotypes are rich with NPCs. Halfling rogues, gnomish wizards, elven rangers, dwarven warriors – the list is endless. I know, I stopped trying after two pages of college rule paper, three columns per page. These are rich prototypes, which your players will identify immediately, and know where they stand with each one.

The temptation here is to over-use it. I had a dwarven player once flabbergasted to find that there were twelve dwarves in a township, and not one of them was a blacksmith. Just because a stereotype exists, doesn't mean you have to use it; for that matter, just because I say something exists in my game doesn't mean it exists in yours. I ran a module once where the players were looking for their half-elven ranger guide, the strongest reason I can think of to both read a book and to use your own archetypes when you want to.

It is, as I've already said, also important to break those molds. Make a halfling monk, a dwarven archer, and other silliness. Sumi Dragonrage, for example, began her concept as a half-orc bard; but she didn't need the magical abilities to do her job. Besides, bards always run in short supply in my designs. There's just too many places to plug them in at once you run out of aristocrats, another reason I stress using commoners where they can be used.

Another risk I've hinted at; don't over-use your races. There are only 1250 people in Broken River – it is worth noting if I have more than a dozen of any non-human race. This means that the bulk of my NPCs should be human, and I've broken my own rules in setting up the Sow's Ear. And that's okay, as long as I both know I'm breaking the rules, and that I keep things in check.

Sidebar: When to Break the Rules
For example, the Order of Four. I "trade back" my third level sorcerer for two second levelers; this means all of the Four are second level. It is easier to trade down than up; otherwise you have isolated high levelers with nobody even able to step into their shoes if they end up dead from say, a rampaging troll. Don't ask; I've had three seperate groups think bringing a captive troll downtown was just a wonderful idea. One of them set the troll loose deliberately, to show off the prowess of their fighter. Without even stopping long enough to replenish their spells.

The other time to break rules is when setting up villains. I have a number of factions that just don't play nice with player characters. At first and second level, it's okay to fight organizations led by a first level fighter or wizard or whatever. After third level? The same challenge is barely a speed bump, but again that's a different article.

Stage 3: People are PeopleIt's easy to just slap a class, location, and faction on an NPC and think you're done. Sadly, this lacks verisimilitude. Lacks what, you ask? Trust me, I don't use this word because it has a lot of syllables. I use it because it's the only word other than realism, and realism just doesn't fit. Verisimilitude is the sense of reality within the accepted fantasy. For example, wizards behave differently in Conan than Earthsea; each has its own accepted backdrop. A standard wizard in one setting becomes an anachronism and individual worth noting in the other setting.

For example, it's not a stretch to give the Captain a peg leg. This has verisimilitude. But we can't give him a cybernetic arm with a built-in lie detector (although this would be cool), as that totally breaks the motif. So when adding to characters, always keep in mind that some things don't fit.

Also, as with the peg leg, just because something fits doesn't mean it has to be there. Within what I'm about to tell you, use this engineering principle: "You have not reached perfection when there is nothing else to add, but rather when there is nothing left to take away."

Read the warning label? Okay, then. Let's jump in.

Every individual should be unique, should be an individual. Perhaps the Captain likes small furry bunnies (and in his soup, he does). However, these are things that rarely come up in the process of playing the game. Players will generally care that the Sow's Ear has cheap rent, a tolerant landlord, and has a not-too-unsavory reputation. Do they care that the wine cellar is made of halfling brick? Probably not, but it's important to know.

Why, you ask? Because knowing these things – that Harver Trask can't stand wearing a tie, and thus ducks every "high society" event that his family will let him, are important to related feelings. AND it's especially important when making the town's rumor matrix, especially for Light-oriented NPCs. As a paladin, Harver Trask probably openly derides the evils of the tie as a fashion mistake when asked – even (especially) at events where he simply MUST wear one.

Look! Look! We've just added a wrinkle to Harver Trask's character. He loves his family; he just can't stand formal events. Likewise, his mother just can't have him going about offending all her important guests. With just a little effort, we've added something that "feels real" about Harver, fits with what is already there, and defines his character just a little bit more for the players. Even if they never see him in silken finery, learning this about him makes him more of a "real person" to them.

And that's what crafting a base city is all about; players should love some characters, hate others with a fiery passion (and, if we do our job just right, different characters will evoke different emotions in different players), but should only feel indifferent about NPCs that don't matter to our plot, the story we're trying to tell.

So how does this relate to faction? Exactly because people join the same cause for different reasons. Maybe Jillian, a druid, joined the lumber union specifically to minimize the damage done to wild animals. Maybe Casker Thorn joined the Jar Breakers because of his late wife's interests, and just hasn't gotten around to leaving them. Some will join for power over others, or to have another field for rivalry with their enemies.

And, of course, some fifty to seventy percent of any faction's members are there just because they fit into the model of an "ideal member". Again, it depends upon the faction and the NPC.

But I'm approaching the limits of a single post, so I'll be back soon with a look at the kobolds of Broken River.

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