7 Ways To Roleplay Factions Better

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1068

How do you run and portray factions in your campaign? Are your factions full of life and rich gameplay? Or are they vague mentions in your world?

You can tell how well a faction gets roleplayed by how much interest your players show in interacting with the group.

For example, three signs players don’t care about your faction of NPCs:

  • The characters shrug after a faction encounter and return to other matters
  • The PCs don’t try to learn more about that faction
  • The party don’t seek the faction out

The worst is when your players don’t take the faction into account when making plans.

The faction might as well have been invisible and zero prep time spent on it, for all the good it’s doing your campaign.

But herein lies our opportunity. These signals show we can roleplay our faction better so it matters to the players and milieu.

The benefits for using factions are legion. But before we receive those benefits, we gotta make our factions matter.

Here are seven great ways to give your faction more personality, flavour, and gravitas.

Give Your Faction a Uniform

Characters must see and identify faction members when they get involved in encounters.

Visibility and repeated encounters with faction members make these NPCs stick out in players’ minds.

Every time you have faction members appear in your game, make sure they’re out in full uniform, regalia, colour, and paraphernalia.

Give Your Faction an Ideology

Beliefs are strong and manifest when no proof exists.

Watch with humour as players try to use logic and rational thought with faction members who stick to their ideals no matter what evidence or reasonable argument is offered.

Such an encounter is guaranteed to get memorable reactions out of your players.

Give Your Faction Symbols

Icons dig into our brains. We are visual creatures, and symbols and symbolism reach into our subconscious and pull out visceral reactions.

Give your faction a symbol and make it part of their uniform, locations, and key items.

For example, there’s an awesome classic adventure where evil priests use tentacle wands. Is it Descent Into the Depths of the Earth? I can’t remember.

This faction fought the characters several times. And the wands had such a distinctive appearance, and such terrible effects, that my players, Chuck and Chris, grew to hate and fear those wands. They would not even use the wands when acquired, the loathing was so great.

These became a symbol, and soon all faction members wore a badge of that wand shape.

This made Chuck and Chris pretty much instantly attack any NPC who wore that symbol. Talk about the power of symbolism.

Give Your Faction Signature Moves

Leave evidence of faction involvement. Get into your players’ heads with signs the faction is behind an event, has been to this location already, or is one step ahead of the characters.

In my upcoming faction guide, I talk about Moves, which are a simple mechanic inspired by Dungeon World for making quick and easy faction plans that drive gameplay for you.

When considering a faction’s Moves, design one that’s unique and styled so it becomes a Signature Move.

Make this your faction’s calling card and watch how it draws players like moths to a delayed fireball.

Give Your Faction a Clear Mission and Visible Progress

Clarity of a faction’s goal helps you portray the group. It also helps players understand the faction and decide what to do about it.

For example, if players come to understand the guards’ goal is to keep the peace and protect citizens, they can roleplay to that.

Sometimes I fall into the trap of running guards as police, lawyers, judge, and jury at the same time.

But when I portray these NPCs with a clear mission of keeping the peace, and players see that, encounters and tactics become more interesting.

Factions must also make progress towards their mission, and that progress must be visible. When players see how a faction’s end game grows near — an impending doom in some cases — it makes them more aware, and possibly fearful, of the faction’s presence in your campaign.

Respond to Events

Make your factions dynamic. Have them make Moves in reaction to events in your milieu.

If you don’t have time to prep and run faction responses to things happening in your world, then focus on responding to PC actions.

In the best case, factions put new obstacles and constraints before the party as part of your story’s rising action.

The vice squeezes harder due to faction involvement as players get closer to their goal. And that vice is one of the party’s making.

For example, the PCs must now dodge guards, evade the Kouzelnik mage mafia, survive Dust Men assassination attempts, and find the MacGuffin before Cult of Doom spies do, all as a result of previous session antics and interactions with these factions.

Change the World

I’ve saved the best for last.

We want the heroes to have an impact. They save the world, make the world a better place, make life better, and champion other fantastic boons.

If your players change your world, they’ll be so excited. It’s the mark of an excellent campaign.

But what if the faction changes the world too?

Now we’ve got a delicious conflict.

Your players will feel rivalry at best and enmity at worst for the NPCs who steal the spotlight, counter their moves, and foil the PCs’ dreams.

Surely a faction that changes the world will get your players’ attention and make them react.

This is good gaming!

Tweak A Faction Today

So there we are. Seven ways to roleplay factions better.

Think about your campaign and find a faction that’s underperforming its role as villain, foil, or trickster.

Go through the list of roleplay ideas above and pick one thing. All you need to start this dice rolling is one tweak.

It’ll take two minutes to make a difference in your campaign.

If you have more time, add more tweaks from the list until you’ve got a killer story piece built up for next session.