Walking the Faction Pyramid, Magic Trinkets, Magic Banking

From Christopher Sniezak

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0652

A Brief Word From Johnn

Monster Contest Winners

The Mythic Monsters contest closed in early April and winners were randomly drawn.

Congrats to these RPT readers for trying their hand a mythic monster design:

  • Scott Stokes
  • Michi il Disperso
  • Daniel Gent
  • Jeremy Brown
  • Grumpf

And thanks to Wolfgang Baur for supplying his Design Guides prizes.

RPG Review: David Perry on Game Design

In this quick video, I cover a seminal work for video game design that’s easily portable to tabletop game mastering advice and ideas.

At about 1000 pages, this tome brims with ideas, design advice, tables, lists, and information about game design in general.

But is it worth its weight in gold for tabletop GMs?

Click here to watch my review »

Get some gaming done this week!


Walking the Faction Pyramid, Magic Trinkets, Magic Banking

In RPT#644 I showed you how to use a tool called the Faction Pyramid Technique to create organizations that will drive your plots, adventures, and hexcrawls.

I went beyond the simple goals and structure of an organization and added the unique philosophies, lines, and limits of individual nodes to create specific factions. This time, I’ll touch on the nodes with more detail including changes over time, layers within the factions, and character interaction with the organization as a whole and their individual nodes.

Project Nodes and Triggers

As PCs mess with the pyramid,, the goals of the organization and its nodes might change. You can also plan for other catalysts to tangle with project goals. A project goal is a something a node is working on that has a definitive end point. Creating or building something, learning something, and acquiring something or someone are some general project goals.

Decide how big and impactful you want this project to be. I’ll call this the scope of the project from now on.

Now add a number of check boxes to the node. These check boxes indicate the amount of time and effort it will take to finish the project. The larger the project’s scope, the more boxes you need to add. I like to use a three, five, seven box system for small, medium, and large projects.

Next, come up with triggers for when to check boxes. Here are some options:

  • Each time the PCs try and deal with or mess with a node
  • The end of a session
  • The end of a scenario
  • Every week that passes in game time

Now that you know the scope, decide how the project goal will affect the organization overall. I find this works best by looking at the end goal and writing down the advantages the organization gets from finishing the project. I also look at the scope in terms of check mark boxes.

  • The three-box, small project provides a new advantage to the node and all the nodes connected to it.
  • The five-box, medium project provides a new advantage to the node and all nodes up to two lines away from it.
  • The seven-box, large project gives the advantage to all nodes three connecting lines away from it.

You can also just provide the advantage, if there is one, to the entire organization. A small project provides a minor advantage, a medium project provides a moderate advantage, and a large project provides a major advantage. What defines a minor, moderate and major advantage is based on the organization’s reach, size, and power. Gaining a spell that can put a whole city to sleep for a day could be a major advantage for one kind of organization while it’s a minor one for another.

The Faction Goal Is A Project Too

The last thing to consider is the organization’s overall goal is also a project. Give the organization itself a number of boxes based on the pyramid you’ve constructed. Start with a box for each level of the pyramid and then a box for each project node within the pyramid.

You add one for each project node is because when a project is completed you check off a number of check marks based on the Scope of the project. A small project is worth one check mark, a medium is worth two, and a major is worth three.

Also stick with the same trigger you’re using for the other project nodes to make it easier when you do your pyramid upkeep. The last thing you need to do is decide if you need to add or remove a few boxes from the organization’s goal timer.

There’s no system here. You’ll just need to eyeball your pyramid and the number of boxes, know your group’s pace, and understand the fallout of what happens in the world if the organization achieves their goal. If the game ends when the organization achieves their goal then you might want to add a few boxes.

Now it’s time for an example. Below we have the Black Spider pyramid from RPT#644 The Faction Pyramid Technique.

(click here to embiggen)

Their goal is to control all crime in the city. The Fetus Witch, even though she’s on top of the pyramid, has her own project goal: Discover One of Her Rival’s Bases. While counter to things I’ve said before, this shows the flexibility of the pyramid and her project goal is in service to the Black Spider’s goal. I put five boxes on the project because her rivals are aware of her powers and have taken steps to protect themselves, plus this information will give the Black Spiders a moderate advantage in achieving their goal.

In the previous example, Sigmund Root had the same goal as the Black Spiders: control all crime in the city. In this example we’ll change his goal to setting up a new smuggling enterprise in the north part of the city. This goal requires making deals to get merchants on board to do the smuggling, getting the harbor master and certain other officials in his pocket, and securing the people he can trust to work the docks. It’s a bit of a project and will take business away from the Black Spiders’ rivals while providing an influx of money they can use to buy muscle, equipment, politicians, guild leaders, and whatever else they need.

The Corner Pockets goal is to recruit more talent instead of just keep an eye on it. The bartender and some patrons are members of the Black Spiders, and they’re on the lookout for those new to town who might be interested in becoming part of a rising enterprise in the city. This isn’t a hard one, it just takes time. If they finish their goal they’ll have more human resources.

Support Nodes

You have nodes working towards project goals, but those nodes need support in the means of funding, resources, warm bodies. I call these support nodes. These nodes have already dominated or controlled an area, person, place, thing, or organization and seek to maintain that domination and control to support the organization.

When creating a support node, you need to create what kind of support they can give through the control they have and decide how aware of the situation the node is. The node could be unaware of who they’re giving support to, they could be very aware, or they might just be partially aware. You can also just have the project node support itself, but that makes the node that much more important to the organization.

Harming support nodes harms project nodes. When the PCs mess with support nodes you will remove check marks from the organization’s goal or any of the project nodes, if appropriate. How the nodes interact and the importance of the node to the overall goal are the determining factors for where and how many check-marks are removed. You can use the same scale of small, medium, and large to define the support nodes. By disrupting these nodes you can eliminate one, two, or three check marks from the other nodes in the pyramid.

The best way to decide where to remove check marks from the pyramid is to look at the node the PCs have harmed and start with the nodes connected to it. Find the closest project node and remove a check mark. If you have two equidistant nodes, then remove a check mark from the node that makes the most sense within the game’s fiction or the node that is lowest on the pyramid.


Let’s make the Cut Purses a small support node. They have control of begging and petty pickpocket street crime in the city. With the money they’re collecting, the Black Spider agents at the Corner Pocket have the funds to pay a little more for the muscle they wish to hire to bolster their ranks. Now those pesky PCs come in and beat down the head of the Cut Purses and take him off the streets. The money stops flowing, and because the Cut Purses are a small node a check-mark is removed from The Corner Pockets project track. They can still get there eventually but for the moment they’re stalled out.

The Pyramid Pushes Back

When the PCs harm a node this causes pushback from the organization, possibly starting one of the other nodes on a project to deal with the PCs, or having the organization or nodes closely connected to the harmed node react through violence, threats, bribery, or bargaining. You can have the organization react in a way that makes sense in the game’s fiction, but for those who want a guideline here’s how you can procedurally decide how the organization reacts.

When a node is harmed identify if it was a small, medium, or large node. A small node means only the nodes connected to it can react, a medium node gains the attention of the nodes up to two connections away from it, and a large node gains the attention of the nodes up to three connections away from it. You decide how the nodes react, but here’s an example and a nifty table if you’d like to roll or get some inspiration.


Let’s take a look at the fallout of the PCs harming the Cut Purses. The Cut Purses were a small support node so it only ripples out to the Corner Pocket and Eight Stools. In this case the GM decides the Eight Stools will react by sending one of their newly hired people to learn more about the PCs.The Black Spiders don’t know who the PCs are, just that some upstart adventurers came into the city and dealt with the head of the Cut Purses.

This is Acquire an important thing from the reaction chart, the thing being information. The GM starts a project with one box, the goal bring getting information on the upstart adventurers. The GM also now has an NPC they can use to spy on, or even infiltrate, the group. The next time a check mark needs to be made on projects, the Black Spiders now know a bunch of information about the characters. This knowledge can manifest in the game as mechanical, tactical, or narrative advantages for the Black Spiders depending on the game you are running.

Reaction Chart

RollVerb (d10)Noun (d8)
1Threaten a (Noun)Ally
2Hurt or damage a (Noun)Loved one
3Kidnap or Steal a (Noun)Friend
4Blackmail a (Noun)Important place
5Corrupt or Tempt a (Noun)Important thing
6Ruin the reputation or credibility of a (Noun)Allied organization
7Kill or destroy a (Noun)Member of the group
8Turn a (Noun) against themInnocent
9Befriend or Acquire a (Noun) 
10Uses a (Noun) to (Roll again) 

Floating Nodes

Another kind of node you can have is a floating node. These nodes are not tied to the pyramid but are assets the organization has in reserve. You build them like other nodes and leave them off to the side until you need them. Eventually, they become part of the pyramid structure as the node is connected to whichever part of the pyramid brought them in. It’s just another way to give you a bit of flexibility for your organization.

In the above example, let’s say the asset the Corner Pocket used to spy on the characters isn’t a hire but a troubleshooter of the Black Spiders. This troubleshooter is good at gathering information, handles himself well in a fight, and has a number of connections in the city. But he’s no longer connected to the organization because his last handler was killed. The Black Spiders still know who this spy is though, so someone from the Eight Stools comes to him with the job of spying on the PCs. Now he is connected to the pyramid.

What Does This Give You?

More tools to flesh out the pyramid and a way to have your organizations react to outside influences attacking it. Project nodes give you smaller goals the organization is working towards to finish their larger goal. Support nodes give weight to the other nodes and ways for your PCs to disrupt the pyramid other than attacking project nodes. Time limits put pressure on your PCs to make decisions and let your organization change over time, and floating nodes give you some surprises.

Normally this is where an article would end, but I have one more thing I’d like to discuss concerning using the pyramid.

Revealing the Pyramid

I think you should keep the Pyramid a secret from your players. Half the fun of having this organizational structure in place is letting players discover its depth and scope. Every piece they discover is like another piece of the puzzle falling into place and possibly even a sinking feeling once they realize how far over their heads they’ve gotten.

I do have a couple of ways you can reveal the pyramid. One is to have a cork board, white board, or some virtual version of those to display the pyramid as the PCs discover it. We use Lino for our Nights Black Agents game as an evidence board, but I’ve got a second board where I’m trying to figure out the pyramid.

The drawing part of Google Docs is also good for creating movable shapes and creating these information pyramids. Once you have those tools in place then you can not only reveal the pyramid but change it as the PCs start climbing and harming parts of it.

Another low tech way you can reveal the pyramid is to put the different nodes on sticky notes the players can move around until they figure out how the node fits into the greater overall organization.

These methods make the pyramid a visual experience. When you reveal something important has happened, be it a reaction to the PCs or the completion of one of the organization’s projects, your players will have a prop to help them understand what’s going on better, which means they’re more likely to follow your hooks or to take action without prompting.


The pyramid structure is inspired by “Night’s Black Agents” from Pelgrane Press. The project nodes are an idea I got after reading about project clocks in “Blades in the Dark” from One Seven Designs.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Magic Business and Banking in RPGs

From Jordan Schroeder

I was thinking about side quests and was inspired by Running a Business in RPT#634. Instead of forcing or expecting the party to run a business, I’d like to have a system in place in case they wanted to do so.

One problem I saw was how to enforce contracts when the party walks away for long stretches to explore and adventure. This is my solution (it involves a bit of magic as I’m running a fantasy campaign):

Bound Contracts

When you enter into a Bound Contract, you willingly curse yourself to satisfy the terms of the contract until the contract expires. One can create a Bound Contract and sign it in the absence of the other party because the contract, once signed by at least one party, cannot be changed. Once signed by all parties, a copy of the Bound Contract is automatically created in the Bound Offices so contracts do not get permanently destroyed.

Bound Seals

These are the objects by which Bound Contracts are signed and through which the curse is applied. Only the owner of the seal can use it. They can be owned by an individual or a group of people can collectively own a part of a Seal. The contract is not considered signed by a collective party until the entire Seal is completed by everyone in the group. Each member of the group then is only responsible for their portion of the contract, both positive and negative.

Bound Offices and Banks

Because completed contracts get copied to the Bound Offices, they become the official houses for this documentation as well as a basis for accurate information about the funds available for each account in the Bank. It is then possible for funds to transfer from one account to another automatically as part of the payment terms of the contract. This system of banking also allows for people to use their Bound Seal to create cheques to make payments to individuals.

Bound Curses

If you do not satisfy the terms of the contract, black symbols of a pair of scales appear on your hands and forehead. As time progresses, the symbols turn grey, then white. When grey, you start to lose a sense of personal ambition and get a strong desire to meet your obligations. Once the symbols turn white, you have a short time to satisfy the contract or else turn into a Bound Clerk with a strong desire to seek out a Bound Office to work there.

Bound Clerks

These are individuals who have been cursed to remove all guile, deceit, and ambition. They process contracts and create Bound Contracts and Bound Seals. They also staff the Bound Office. Bound Clerks are identified by the bright white symbol of a pair of scales on their hands and forehead. People can choose to become Bound Clerks and people can be sentenced to be Bound Clerks for serious non-violent and property crimes.

This system handles contract law, a banking system, notaries, credit ratings and reporting, and limited liability companies. The Party can create supply and distribution contracts so they can arrange for the sale and distribution of goods from one area to another and ensure everyone will do what they are supposed to, even if the Party is not around.

This system also allows for lots of side-plots:

  • Bound Clerks would make interesting NPCs: falsely accused people seeking redemption, escorting a new Clerk to the nearest Office.
  • Helping other people satisfy their contracts when they are over-extended or if a disaster occurs.
  • Investigating what happened when, in the middle of an adventure, everyone in the party suddenly gets the black marks.
Graphic of section divider

Easy Spell Trackers

From Joey Mullins

Here are a couple of great tips from a thread in the D&D Next G+ Community about helping players track their spells better.

Next time I see used casino cards or dollar store playing cards I’ll buy up 10 or so decks and hand them out as spell slot cards. Players can discard as they cast spells of the corresponding level.

Some of my players are not the best at keeping track of what gets spent and when. Having stacks of cards with numbers representing spell slot level on them seems like an easy fix.?

From Chris Scott

I have a bunch of old business cards of mine that are now out of date. On the back I write “short rest 1d8” or “spell slot level 2” or “Hellish Rebuke 1 per day”. I keep a hand of potential actions in front of me and play them as I use them. Works great.

From James Ross-Evans

I like to use some old and cheap poker chips I have and write on them. The players love them as they seem a little more tangible and, well, poker chips are cool.

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Magic Item Backgrounds

From Eric Gosselin

I found a way to enhance magic items that works for us. The idea is to add a great background story for the item in question.

Find An Image

First, think of a description or image.

The key of Mann is an iron key with arcane symbols engraved on its pin. The shank is two rods that separate at the pin and join again at its bow (this serves to represent that two separate places can become one). The bow has the symbol of a man standing between the legs of a taller man (to represent perspective and that distance is relative).

Talk about the problem it was created to solve.

The key of Mann was created to solve the problem of a tall man named Magnus Mann. He would never find comfort while traveling. Either the inn’s beds were too small or the furniture gave way under his weight.

Having a little backstory on the creator works well too.

Why Was It Created?

Next, talk about how it solves the problem.

The Key opens a portal to a pocket universe in the form of a room, complete with big bed, big furniture, a fountain (exact replica of a real fountain that acts as a node; quintessence gets channeled here to maintain the pocket universe) etched in correspondence symbols, and a fireplace. If someone else opens the door just after it’s been closed, he will just see the original room, empty.

How Does It Work?

You can add something special about its activation.

The key needs to be turned in a lock and the door handle must be turned exactly a quarter of a turn left for it to open the portal.

Twist It

Then, add one or more twists.

If the key is not attuned to its user first, then no matter how you turn the handle the portal will not open to the room. Instead, it will open into another room anywhere within X miles, probably with dangerous results. A botch could mean the door opens to hell or another plane of existence. The same problems could arise if the handle is not turned just the right way.

Add Gotchas

Finally, add potential complications.

If the original fountain is found and destroyed, the room and its content will be hurled into nothingness and the people present will be expelled from any door with which the key has had an interaction.

There you have it, I used this method and turned mundane objects into items of wonder. Hope this helps.

d20 Magic Trinkets

From Grand DM

  1. A silver ring with the name “Aleena” engraved inside. Stabilizes a wounded or dying person once per week.
  2. A wooden bear toy that screams loudly when in the immediate presence of fire.
  3. A blanket that makes you invisible but only when you are snoring.
  4. A lucky rabbit’s foot with a “Made in Caerbannog” label. +1 AC versus diminutive creatures.
  5. One sock riddled with holes that attracts vermin when worn.
  6. A comb that randomly changes the hair color of anyone using it once per day.
  7. A small obsidian rooster that crows loudly at dawn. Only heard by the current owner.
  8. A picture amulet showing an opalescent blue altar. Provides lighting resistance 1/day underground.
  9. A small demon idol with red crystal eyes that glow when in the presence of reptiles.
  10. An ugly perfume box that releases monster pheromones once per week.
  11. A blank coin that progressively weighs more and more in the vicinity of gold.
  12. A dull spoon engraved with the name Heartseeker. Critical on a 17-20, 1d2 damage.
  13. A pair of obnoxious dragon tooth cufflinks. Wearer compelled to act haughty in public.
  14. A crystal cube with light trapped inside. Squeeze to illuminate a room for 1 round a day.
  15. A rusty old fisherman’s hook that becomes a grappling hook when near water.
  16. An antique wooden box engraved with a forest scene. Fills with chocolate treats once a week.
  17. A strange mechanical eyestalk. If peered through you see twice as far but speak in a staccato delivery with rising inflection for 1 hour.
  18. A tiny skull-themed toy castle with a hinged jawbridge. Inside are 9 miniature mundane weapons that expand to normal size if removed. Can be replaced after a long rest.
  19. A tiny adamantine box of curiously strong mints. Refills every week.
  20. A crumpled piece of parchment with an inked grid. Can be written on and then erased if crumpled again. 1974 charges remain.