Today’s guest article was written by Gnome Stew reader Mark Kernow, and it tackles a nifty topic: taking existing rules for characters and stretching them to encompass entire groups. He uses d20 System games as a reference point, but the concept is easily extended to other systems. Thanks, Mark! — Martin

What if you treated factions like characters? You could easily introduce new factions into your campaign by giving them statistics and backgrounds similar to characters and monsters. You could build on existing rules and simplify bookkeeping. You could even give each faction ‘character’ an ‘activity’ as part of downtime between adventures.

I was playing around creating factions in a game with a fairly detailed faction system [1]. As much as I was getting excited, I was getting frustrated by having to learn all these new rules and by constantly having to go back and look stuff up. So I started to list out what a less crunchy, rules light faction system would need to cover: faction resources, goals, maybe backgrounds, a few key abstracted statistics, some sort of simple combat or interaction model perhaps. Then it hit me, all roleplaying games already have this built into their basic rules for characters. Why invent a whole new system for factions? Why not just use what is already there, and abstract it a little?

Let’s think about the advantages of this approach. No additional rules to learn, and easier bookkeeping, just use the existing character sheet (or monster stat block). Factions would have a built-in set of rules for combat, and for interacting with each other (the latter usually via ability or skill checks). But it doesn’t stop there. You could use character background or goal systems for your factions. If you are using a game with classes and levels, why not use them for factions too? Another advantage is that you can use existing electronic character generation tools to speed up the process of creating factions as characters. You can even make-over an old favorite NPC and translate them into a faction (or give them a faction to head up based on their existing stats).

So how would it work? The mental shift required here is to think how the existing rules can be applied to a bigger scale. You also need to accept that you are sacrificing some fidelity and detail for a usable approximation. At their most basic, factions will need hit points and defenses, backgrounds (or alignment) and goals taken from your game’s character generation system. They will also need at least one attack and a damage value. You can add abilities and skills to this if you wish. When it comes to fighting or interaction, this will be in a much slower timescale. Typically, a round, a turn or an action will take a faction, say, a game month. If you want to scale hit points between factions and your player characters, then use 1 to 100 or 1 to 1000, so that say 1 faction hit point equals 100 player character hit points. But it is usually better to avoid this, and keep things abstract.

At a minimum, active factions should get in one or two actions each between every complete adventure. This could be an attack or an interaction using a skill or ability. They could be reacting to each other, the actions of the PCs, or carrying out an activity in pursuit of their goals. The starting point is whatever a character can normally do on their go in combat, but it seems neat to allow factions both a proactive action, and a bonus or quick reaction to others as part of a single sequence. You could then build the results of faction combat and interaction into an in-game gazetteer or newsletter that lets your players know what is happening in their part of the game world.

When factions fight each other, you will need to think what damage or resulting conditions mean to the faction. Have they just lost the use of an important base, or has one of their key NPCs been put out of action? Generally, you will find most things translate from your existing ruleset and have a potentially useful meaning when applied to factions. Factions can be poisoned, incapacitated, knocked prone etc. It just takes a bit of translation. And if factions are not interacting directly with player characters, my advice is to save your efforts and keep it abstract.

To give you an example, I’m going to work up a snake cult for my d20 game of ‘Primeval Thule‘ (a great campaign background from Richard Baker and Sasquatch, think Conan meets Atlantis meets Cthulhu).

My cult is pretty powerful, so since this is a level game, I am going to make this faction a 5th level rogue. It has 5d6 = 20 faction hit points. That represents its temples and cultists in my game world. It is fast moving, in faction terms, and has basic protection measures and fortifications in place, plus most cultists wear leather armor. I am going to give it a faction armor class of 17. When fighting other factions, it has a faction attack modifier of +5 added to a d20 roll to score a hit, because it is a 5th level faction with high faction dexterity (a 17). It does 1d6+2 (for its dexterity modifier) faction damage per hit. And in certain circumstances, it can do an extra 3d6 sneak attack damage.

The snake cult’s faction alignment is lawful evil, since it operates successfully within human society in the many cities and settlements in Thule. Its goal is the domination of humankind by the snake god Set. Its flaw is overconfidence. Its trained or proficient faction skills are stealth, knowledge (religion), intimidation and insight (it is good at finding out people’s secrets and motivation). It is opposed by the heavily armored 10th level fighter faction of the Warriors of Mitra, a lawful good faction.

You can see how I’ve been able to use the existing d20 rules to model and describe the faction without needing much additional effort at all. I think this should hold true for most if not all d20 games or indeed most game systems which use some statistics to define the player’s opponents. And an indie game like Fate with its approaches and aspects seems tailor-made for this.

When you start using the monster statistic blocks for factions in your game, you can really get creative. Interesting monster templates to use for factions include: hydras and other regenerating monsters, shape shifters, monsters that can phase or become insubstantial, and the undead. Let’s think about what these mean in game terms. A faction that can regenerate clearly has some means of easily spawning or recruiting new members. Or maybe it has a cell structure with a hidden leadership concealed behind some false fronts. Perhaps the leaders are clones? For a faction with phasing powers or the ability to become insubstantial, is this simply that members are good spies using infiltration tactics or are they using technology or magic to pass through obstacles. Shapeshifting factions could be simply be made up of aliens, doppelgangers, or lycanthropes who can change form. Alternatively, they could be ordinary people using some sort of device or simply beings posing as one thing in the game world but secretly another, a variant on the false front approach. However you play it, there’s lots of rich story possibilities in how these character combat powers translate to faction abilities in your campaign.

I’ve also been experimenting with the idea of a player faction character. This is a character stat block that represents the combined might of your players at a faction level. It takes all their resources, their influence, contacts and the minions and followers under their sway and presents them as one simple stat block. It is a good way of tracking the PC’s ability to affect your game at a campaign level. So, for example, say you want to determine the consequences of your last session when the PCs smashed their way into a faction’s base and reduced it to rubble. How much damage did they inflict on the faction overall? Well, simply have their player faction make an attack and role some damage. This works especially well if you are using a level game, as you can easily increase the player faction character’s level to match the increase in PC level. Between adventures, you could let the PCs choose downtime actions for the player faction character. Say they want to keep an eye out for cultist activities in their home town. Then have their player faction character make a perception check against the stealth check of the faction concerned.

You may not want the extra work that comes with that last idea, but hopefully I’ve convinced you that presenting factions as characters works as a concept and brings good things to your game. I’m going to keep working on it and hopefully report back some time on what else I’ve discovered.

[1] I’ve just picked up the latest free version of the ‘Stars without Number‘ roleplaying game and I think it is pretty cool. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. It was the jumping off point for this article.