I’m kicking around the concept of a little frontier town campaign in my head. In my mind one of the exciting parts of this style of game is exploration, and one of the fun old school exploration features is finding unexpected, and often uneasy allies in dangerous terrain. However, allies can be dangerous to a “taming the wilderness” style game because they provide pockets of safety and extra resources, and too much of either can derail the sense of unknown, danger, and isolation that are essential to the game.
In light of this line of thinking, I’ve thought about what a group of allies needs to have and needs to NOT have to fit into this type of game better. I’ve already superficially covered this topic and provided a template for NPC organizations. Think of what follows as addenda that are worth thinking about for a few minutes. Your allies should have:
- Limited Scope – If your ally is a massive, powerful, resource rich organization why are they your allies? What do you bring to the table and why do they need you? Why are there still problems outside their door that need solving? This is the same type of issue that crops up a lot in zero-to-hero save the world type of games (and MMOs). Why is Benny the level 58 Paladin recruiting your bedraggled group of level 1s to secure the McGuffin and not going and getting it himself? Giving groups limited resources and manpower and keeping them stretched thin means that there’s an incentive for them to team up, to trade and to ask for help. It also means that they can’t afford to help out for free which means more potential for negotiations, swapping favors, and adventure. You can think of this in terms of the four economic factors of production: land (natural resources), labor (people), capital (money, equipment, and facilities), and entrepreneurship (the driving force to assemble the other three into a finished product). Allies should be short on at least one of these, if not several or all of them.
- Conflict Potential – Even the best of allies don’t agree about everything and often both sides are just waiting for a chance to stab each other in the back. This can take any number of forms, but maintaining safe and friendly relations with allies should take work. This could be as simple as politely observing the local customs or as dangerous as spiking all the doors and windows shut in your inn room to keep thieves and slavers out. Spend a few moments considering what the two groups really think of each other and what concessions or precautions characters should take in dealing with their allies. An old school example of this kind of ally are the duergar. Their cities provide an opportunity to resupply, re-equip and rest in the underdark, but these evil dwarves are sure to take advantage of any opportunity presented to them by their allies.
- Goals – Two allies might have joint goals but they’re just as likely to have goals that run at cross purposes or that are completely unrelated to one another. Ally goals that aren’t counter productive to their own are excellent opportunities for the PCs to keep their allies happy with them. Opposing goals create tense situations and opportunities for negotiations and other role-play. A lot of ally goals probably deal with shoring up the problems of missing resources discussed above. Others might deal with all sorts of strange things especially if the ally is very different or alien. Of course allies may also ask for help with counter productive goals. This might lead to a very tense situation when they are refused or an even more tense one if the help is provided without knowing the eventual goal. Of course if allies ever become foes over these goals it can lead to some interesting hard choices for characters. Whose side do they support or can they broker some kind of compromise?