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Designing great factions for a great game – Tips for the perfect imperfect factions

This article is written by Kim Smouter from the New Worlds Project, which we’ve blogged about before (see other articles here).

Berleos class light destroyer

Getting your factions right is key to a setting

With New Worlds Project launching on the 2nd January 2016, I was reminded of a series that I wrote for OngoingWorlds a few years back in anticipation of our Reboot. In looking for themes for a new article, I decided to concentrate on an aspect which can make or break a role-playing game, and that is: it’s setting and particularly its factions.

Every role-playing game master will face this choice. Whether they will base their setting on an established setting like Star Trek, Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games or whether they will take that leap and create their own where everything has to be built. And such games aren’t like word games where you can work your way around using Wordscape answers you get off of the internet. You have to pass the levels with great diligence.

When my co-founder and I decided to take this latter option in creating New Worlds Project, we wanted to ensure that our community was driven by a great setting that could play host to numerous stories crafted by the role-players themselves. For us, getting the major factions right was key to achieving this objective.

My co-founder and I spent a lot of time designing, balancing, and enriching these factions. It would become one of our prides and joys.

I wanted to share some takeaways resulting from that exercise in the hopes that it might help others who are thinking about going down this route to design a universe that will prove engaging to your potential role-playing base and importantly believable.

Imperfect factions make for great stories

As a role-player, I have always found that imperfect characters were the most fun to role-play, grow, and nurture. The imperfections allow for unexpected twists and turns to occur, they connect us imperfect readers to the characters that make up the setting and allow the whole to become much more engaging.

In the same way, designing imperfect factions is key to make sure that they too can foster great stories intertwined with the necessary tensions that keep a reader going.
At New Worlds Project, we designed a setting that had 4 major factions each with their own strengths and weaknesses, domestic and external tension points, thereby ensuring none had all the answers, and none had all the problems either.

We also made the factions dependent on one another so that they relied on each other to survive and thrive. For example, one of my favourite factions, the Rosebourg Monarchy, had the gift of having the largest interstellar empire in the known galaxy, but at the same time it had grown too fast and its economy was buckling under the pressure, preventing it from keeping up with some of the other factions that were nimbler.

The tension fostered by the socio-economic reality has enabled a number of New Worlds Project’s role-players to explore and incorporate these tension points in their story adding to the political intrigue that in turn enriches their stories.

Factions are rarely all good or all bad

We wanted to make sure that in introducing our factions to our role-players we didn’t introduce a black or white contrast between them. We wanted each side to hold part of the truth and have validity in the actions that had shaped and made them the major factions of our setting.

Having a war-torn setting, we wanted to make sure each faction had a reason to go to war that was believable. We also also avoiding the trap of making one faction “the bad one” and one faction “the good one.”

In our setting, we crafted an overarching storyline whereby the humans unified under the banner of the Terran Democratic Republic go to war with the militaristic Gohorn Directorate. We took painstaking efforts to find a balance which made Humans and Gohorns alike responsible for taking the universe down this path driven by their combined hubris and mutual provocation.

In doing so, it allows role-players to want to explore all of the factions eventually and allows the tensions to be explored in-story more neutrally by your role-players.

Factions are driven by their history

Factions don’t just appear; they often result from a series of historical events that enable their creation or shape the direction of things to come. It’s therefore useful that game-masters in the design of their universe think about each faction’s historical roots and even think about tracing a year-by-year timeline that can help foster a more comprehensive and cohesive story.

We’ve used our timeline to sow contexts where the factions have intermingled for decades which in itself creates the explosive brew that makes our setting so fascinating to explore creatively.

For each faction, we delved deeply in their historical timelines to build their identity, and seed their motivations in present and future. In doing so, we’ve been better able to craft resources for our role-players that enables them to understand how the factions came to being. We’ve made this information available to our role-players who often use these defining moments in a faction’s history as the starting point for stories.

One can see this in the way we’ve crafted our Luna Minoris Confederacy of Non-Aligned Worlds, a faction which results in our setting from a series of historical nudges that on the one hand creates an environment where smaller factions that have peacefully co-existed can begin to see the value of coming together, and on the other hand domineering factions that accelerate this process. By having an extensive timeline, it helps produce more engaging stories for players and readers alike.

Factions don’t exist in vacuums

Similarly, it’s important to underscore that factions don’t exist in vacuums and that the influence of two factions meeting one another cannot be underestimated. From language, to cultural references, from clothing styles to music, the co-existence of factions has always led to a tremendously surprising story of cultural diffusion and it’s important that you consider these elements to add further realism.

In designing factions, it’s therefore important to consider how each faction, how the things one faction holds dear can become the source of conflict or indeed the source of solidarity with another faction.

Even within friendships, there may still be points of tensions…we see this play out in the New Worlds setting in the tensions that exists between Humans and their Navak friends. The two are bound by strong socio-economic ties which helps both societies, but also inevitably can lead to periodic jealousies. Sometimes, the allies are more at odds with each other than the belligerents!

We dealt with this relation in a story called Patrol, Patrol which I am optimistic will be published quite soon after we reboot. In this story, the ties that bind the allies are truly tested and the historical, social, and ethical context which drives the factions really comes to the fore and turns the story into quite a read. It’s a great example of the power game masters can wield to support their players make good stories great.

Always leave space for other factions

One aspect which we probably were not prepared for as world builders was the desire of other players to contribute new factions to the setting.

Every major faction will sometimes resort to proxies and other vehicles to advance their geopolitical agendas and we were fortunate enough to create the space for these factions to exist. These have proven useful to allow those who were interested in making their own to have the space to do so, whilst allowing the factions to slot into the pre-existing setting.

It’s important to allow that space to exist for creative role-players who have that inclination but it’s also important to ensure that the initial balance of power that you strike remains intact so as to not undermine the game mechanics.

The same level of detail spent on designing the major factions can be just as important to ensure that the newly added factions are believable and contribute rather than detract from the setting.

In conclusion…

Factions are critically important to a setting and the time spent on developing their backstory can be critically important and will shape the way the game is played out by your role-players.

Ensuring that factions have the same depth as an imperfect character is key to making these factions fun spaces to explore for players and can be a fantastic ingredient to make any role-playing game even more attractive to join.

Designing great factions means designing a great game, and who wouldn’t want to join one of those?

Article written by Kim Smouter.

Kim Smouter is CEO of New Worlds Project, the non-profit behind the New Worlds Project creative community relaunching 2nd January 2016 featuring an original war-torn 26th century setting featuring several finely detailed factions struggling for intergalactic domination. More info: