by Mikhail Bonch-Osmolovskiy
For all their seeming simplicity, Icon relationships can be tricky to use in a game, as some GMs, myself included, occasionally struggle to offer a satisfying use for them. Icons are just too abstract, too detached, too far away from the daily life of a low-level adventurer. They need intermediaries, something to connect the dungeons to the floating towers, the blood to the idea, the PCs to Icons. They need factions.
At their most basic, factions are NPC organizations who serve one or more Icons. In this article you’ll find advice on preparing factions and their use, as well as optional mechanics for tracking the changing influence of factions.
Making and using factions
Like any organization, factions form in order to achieve a goal. It can be something specific, like “return the Lich King to his rightful place as the ruler of the Dragon Empire”, or abstract like “keep the citizens of Axis safe”. That’s where we start: for each faction you have in mind, figure out its agenda. You’re not writing the faction’s manifesto, a single sentence will do.
Not every faction declares its agenda outright – a decadent high society faction dedicated to opening a new Hellmouth probably doesn’t advertise the fact to outsiders. But it’s this true purpose you’re interested in. Leave lies to your NPCs.
Speaking of NPCs, a faction needs a face (or three), someone the party will interact with when they deal with the faction. It can be the faction leader, but it can just as easily be an approachable rank-and-file member.
Similarly to PCs, factions have relationships with Icons, though these relationships are never rolled, and are purely indicative of the faction’s allegiances. As a rule of thumb, a faction should have at least one positive and one negative relationship, and no more than three relationships overall. The faction’s agenda should make it clear which Icons a given faction supports and opposes. And just as with PCs and their relationships with Icons, thinking of the relationships your factions have may reveal unexpected facets of their “personality”.
Ideally, your factions will cover every Icon with which the PCs have a relationship with both positive and negative relationships of their own. For the frequently referenced Icons, you may wish to have multiple factions that are interested in them. Ties to other Icons are nice, but less essential. In this way, the Icons your players pick will impact your worldbuilding, helping you to further focus on the aspects of the world your players find interesting.
If you use the “Icon relations story-guide results” table from the core book, you may wish to amend it with names of factions supporting or opposing the Icons.
Armed with this information, the next time your players want to use a relationship roll, you’ll have a faction or two with the same Icon relationship that fits the bill. Maybe one of its “face” NPCs shows up to offer assistance, or you suggest the PCs visit them to ask for help.
If the relationship die was a 5, you have a starting point for what the faction may ask for in return for its help – its agenda. Alternatively, a 5 on a positive relationship could indicate the involvement of a faction with a negative relationship to that Icon, and vice versa.
Note that this doesn’t rule out any other use of Icon relationship rolls the books suggest or you come up with. Indeed, factions merely offer a framework for some of these suggestions.
Faction influence level
In case you’re looking for some extra granularity in distinguishing between factions, you can assign levels to them. A faction’s level determines the average level of its significant assets and personnel. To put it another way, kicking down the door to the faction’s headquarters and taking them on would constitute an adventure of the faction’s level.
A level 1 faction is not much more than a group of local thugs, a level 5 faction can run a town, while a level 9 faction is a continent-spanning organization.
A faction’s level indicates the resources they have access to, helping determine what kind of assistance or opposition they offer to the PCs. An adventurer-tier faction can’t hand out champion-tier magic items, for instance. Additionally, faction levels provide some ideas for the likely outcome of a faction-vs-faction conflict.
Faction levels aren’t set in stone. At the end of every adventure, as well as whenever some significant change happens, ask yourself: did any faction get more powerful or otherwise achieve a major victory? Did any faction lose major holdings or important allies? Adjust their level by 1 in either direction. Where appropriate, campaign loss caused by PCs fleeing may also result in a faction losing a level.
As a rule of thumb, PCs can’t affect the level of a faction that is three or more levels above theirs without major plot upheaval to assist them. However, large and high-level factions are rarely monolithic. Consider introducing local chapters or sub-factions of a level closer to the level of PCs so they can more easily influence each other.
The changes to faction influence levels represent tangible consequences to the PCs’ efforts, making it easier to see how their adventures affect the world around them.
Example – factions of the Sea Wall
Let’s say your group has decided upon the Sea Wall as the starting location for the campaign. Sea breeze and giant monsters, what can be better. The player characters have positive relationships with the Archmage, the Dwarf King, and the Prince of Shadows; they have conflicted relationship with the High Druid and the Diabolist; and a negative relationship with the Three.
Looking at the map, we see a slight problem: there’s the Iron Sea on the one side, the Blood Wood on the other, and not much else. With the chosen Icons in mind, let’s start with the obvious options and expand to accommodate the more esoteric choices.
Sea Wall Maintenance Crew
Level 5 faction
Agenda: keep the wall standing. Currently occupied with repairing a massive breach that occurred last month. Nominally subordinate to the Sea Wall Guard (a faction with positive relationship to the Emperor, in which we’re not as interested).
Relationships: positive with the Archmage and the Dwarf King, ambiguous with the High Druid.
Faces: Prince Azbarn Stonebeard, fifteenth in line to the Dwarven Throne (dwarf, naturally), and magister Ariel Thornfist (high elf) are in joint command. Both are highly ambitious and competitive, with views of distinguishing themselves and leaving this backwater post behind.
Level 3 faction
Agenda: to safeguard the Blood Wood (and the Empire, as a secondary consideration) from the sea monsters.
Relationships: positive with the High Druid, ambiguous with the Orc Lord, negative with the Diabolist.
Face: Uzg (orc) left his clan and his clan name behind to serve High Druid. An unlikely but enthusiastic guardian of Blood Wood, he’s assembled a warband of other renegade orcs, wood elves and beasts of the forest. Currently weakened from their continued skirmishes with the sea monsters that got through last month, Leviathan Hunters would love to live up to their name and take the fight to the enemy – if their level reaches 5, Uzg will lead an expedition beyond the Sea Wall.
Red Right Pincer
Level 4 faction
Agenda: to bring down the Sea Wall by summoning a mighty leviathan from the depths.
Relationships: positive with the Diabolist, negative with the High Druid, the Emperor, and the Archmage.
Face: Deep priest Kashtarak (sahuagin). The designated bad guy for the first few levels of the campaign. Red Right Pincer currently hunts for mystic beasts to slaughter in the Blood Wood, in order to use their hearts for an unholy ritual that would weaken the magic protection of the Sea Wall. Should the Pincer’s level exceed that of the Sea Wall Maintenance Crew, a new massive breach is all but guaranteed.
Level 2 faction
Agenda: recover the treasure that has cursed them to undeath.
Relationships: positive with Prince of Shadows, negative with the Three.
Face: Captain Sam Kellock (human) was a daring pirate, his ship Storm’s Bane feared by all. That is, until he robbed one too many ships that belonged to the Three, fled from their pursuit into the Iron Sea, and met his end in the jaws of a leviathan. That would have been bad enough, but unbeknownst to him the treasure he carried was cursed. Now ghostly remains of his crew plague the shore, looking for fools to help them recover the gold and break the curse. After a century of torment, Kellock is desperate and sees the PCs as his last best hope. Should their relationship go awry, he would even help sahuagin bring the leviathan that swallowed his treasure to the shore, in hopes of someone killing it for him.
Mikhail Bonch-Osmolovskiy is a game designer and a writer. He’s currently looking for a publisher for his board game, Passages & Plunder; writing a blog, PonderingsOnGames.com; and planning on resuming his YA horror serial at newvalenar.wordpress.com. He lives in Sydney, Australia and has given up on teaching the locals how to pronounce his name.