In the most recent session of my Wild Talents game, some of the players got to plan the defence of a superhuman enclave. Also, an ongoing actual play stream of Stars Without Number had something called a “GM turn” recently. These two events got me thinking about factions in games and how they can form the undercurrent of a sandbox game.
Initially, I ran sandbox games by giving my players a spray of plot hooks and letting them choose which ones to take. When I started writing my Wild Talents game, I started building factions and teams with certain motives and/or goals. With player intervention and the personalities and methodologies of the factions, plot hooks emerge organically. The interactions between groups are either (as I've done it) up to the GM's judgement or played out in full. Given the number of potential factions and conflicts between them, playing them out in full is not really feasible. So, given my nigh fetish for rules design, I started planning a reputation system that would affect how behind the scenes action happened. This post is not a description of that sub-system, just my thoughts on what goes into designing these systems and potential components.
One, I guess I'd call it bias, I see in games (both on the side of the developer and the player) is the preoccupation with symmetrical design. I'm talking about the idea of one solid set of rules that the GM and the players use. The GM might get a few extra tools, but everything works on the same underlying basics. I suppose this makes balance easy, but I don't think it works in all cases. With the notable exception of GM-less games, the medium is fundamentally asymmetrical. The Game master already has a different role than the other players so to me it seems insisting on symmetry as a design philosophy seems dishonest. I'm not saying symmetrical design is inherently bad, just like asymmetrical design is not inherently good. I bring this up because the entire idea of faction mechanics hinges on the idea of the GM having mechanics exclusive to their role.
What are faction mechanics? First of all, it is large scale mechanics depicting struggles between two or more groups of NPCs. Secondly, these struggles take place over larger spans of time than typical PC actions. Third, these interactions would be time consuming to calculate using the interpersonal mechanics.
Before settling on conflict resolution mechanics, we need to decide how factions exist mechanically. I like the idea of breaking them down into assets that contribute to different rolls. For instance, if a criminal faction has a gun running operation, that would give them access to a steady supply of weapons and money from selling them. This would increase their buying power and their military power. Each asset would have resilience based on morale, strength of arms, and strength of numbers. So a small group that is well armed and extremely loyal is roughly equivalent to a large group of poorly armed fanatics, or a large group of well armed cowards.
When it comes to the titular faction actions, there should be a cost involved. In the example of the gun runners, I would say they can either earn money, bring in weapons, or act as personnel for something the faction attempts. If they earn money, that could go towards purchasing a new asset for the factions or supporting an action. No matter what the endeavour is, it will cost some money. Even purely money making actions take some capital to start up. That said, I would simplify matters by removing any sort of cost for using capital producing groups to add to the faction wealth. If they brought in weapons, they wouldn't make any money from selling them, and would likely need to spend money bribing border officials and the like but the rest of the faction would have the weapons available to them, adding to the overall capacity for physical force. Lastly, if they are used as personnel, they aren't doing their usual jobs and are acting as foot soldiers, recruiters, spies, or anything else the faction might need from them. There should also be some mechanical facet that marks the gun runners as criminals.
A logical assumption to make is that factions don't operate on the same wealth scale as player characters. The gun runners touched on this a bit. The question is whether wealth should be treated like a stat, or as a game economy. We aren't counting out every gold piece, credit, or dollar, but we could create an arbitrarily large sum of money that factions deal in. That said, it need not represent liquid capital, it might be production capabilities or sufficient barter goods. What a wealth score represents depends on the setting and could even vary from faction to faction within a setting. If we treat wealth as a game economy, spending and gaining points over time, what else can we treat as a game economy?
Reputation, or at least the goodwill of a group of people is difficult to represent as a game economy. After all, what matters to the population of one island/planet/city/whatever the territorial separation du jour in your setting is, may not matter to the population of another. A rebel group may be isolated to a single region, or it might be a populist movement across the whole country. I would say that the previously mentioned marks may be a way around this. If a movement is limited to a specific area, it should be easier for them to cash in on their reputation there, but more difficult elsewhere. Why a game economy for reputation? What benefits does it grant the system? I think it makes sense that, like wealth, a faction cashing in on its reputation (either the fear, or goodwill of the populace) will run out eventually. For example, the gang of gun runners and a populist uprising are both strapped for cash and need a place to hide out. They intimidate or accept the hospitality of the common people, respectively. Eventually, the people are going to strike back against the intimidation, or get sick of the rebel fighters and kick them out. In either case, unless the faction does something to inspire fear or hope in the people, the reputation that allowed for the action in the first place is going to expend itself.
Not everything should take the form of an economy. The use of force is an example of a resource that can't really be spent in the same fashion as wealth or reputation. Factions don't accomplish everything through force though. Each faction is made up of many, many characters and if each character has the capacity to do certain things, then it stands to reason that a faction should be able to do the same, but in a coordinated manner. The use of force is one such thing, but it certainly isn't everything. Just as we consolidate all aggressive capabilities, be they gunslinging or spellslinging, we should also consolidate other character options that use the same general methodology. Stealth and deception should be one part of a faction's repertoire.
Knowledge, sadly, is a difficult thing to work with on a mass scale. First we need to look at the function of knowledge in a character scale. I'll separate this into two categories, world knowledge and skill knowledge. World knowledge is the kind of thing that players develop from exploring the setting and getting relevant contextual information from the game master. Simply put, these are facts about the setting and its inhabitants. Skill knowledge is general knowledge about academic subjects, or the knowledge needed for trained skills. This is things like knowledge of heraldry, or occult secrets, or how to fix a starship. Even these categories break down further and there is some overlap between them. If knowledge of the Black Knight’s heraldry, or the Ritual of Unseen Dangers is relevant to the plot, then it might cross over from skill knowledge to world knowledge. What would a faction use the knowledge of how to fix starships for? Well, you can fix starships which either gives you a starship, or someone pays you for fixing their starship. Either way, this falls under the category of wealth. When is knowing occult secrets or heraldry important? When it gives you an advantage in winning over a potential ally, thwarting an enemy, or other things that I haven't thought of. With that in mind, can we separate knowledge into its own category? I have to say no, when knowledge is relevant, it is enhancing some other aspect of the faction.
These are just some initial thoughts. I may revisit the subject with some more concrete ideas. I may also touch on potential uses for a faction scale system in the hands of the players. We'll have to see what we end up with, won't we?