Factions & Villains – 3 Reader GM Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1143

Hitting too Close to Home

Let’s dive in with this observation from RPT GM Maja who brings up an interesting point about favourite villain types that mirrors my own experience. Let’s call it the Seinfeld Effect.


If you ask me what villain type gets the most attention, it is the personal type.

My players interact in extreme ways if an NPC shares a weakness with one of the players or flirts with an NPC the PCs protect.

If that character turns out to be overtly evil, they totally go for it.

I found this out when I wanted to create sympathetic NPCs my players would instinctively trust because they would be just like them.

The plan was for them to instantly recognize the NPCs as people like them and then let the NPCs do something neither black nor white and so create a conflict of conscience.

Instead I got super-villain stuff.

They instinctively hated these guys.

Maybe it is the spirit of ambition or that they see them as rivals?

Of course, openly disgusting lunatics work well too. And betrayal. But I wanted to share this with you because it just came as a surprise to me and I want to know if I am onto something or if maybe it’s just me.

West Marches Using Faction Pyramids

RPT GM Martin has excellent ideas on West Marches faction play:

Hey Johnn,

Thanks for the newsletter, a nice read.

While pyramid diagrams are common tools in mapping out factions and intrigue-oriented scenarios, there’s one game to my knowledge that bakes them into the system: the GUMSHOE game Night’s Black Agents, with the concepts of Conspyramids and Vampyramids.

The Conspyramid is exactly what you call a Villain Faction Pyramid. At the top you’ll find vampiric overlords pulling the strings; at the bottom, their many unwitting pawns, such as smuggler rings, corrupt cops taking kickbacks to look the other way, and so on.

The Vampyramid is a more innovative addition: it informs the type of measures the vampiric conspiracy will respond with as PCs start unraveling it. Naturally, those measures increase in intensity as PCs move up the pyramid, from simply monitoring them while they still investigate the lowest layer, to full-force assaults when they get close to the peak.

In a way, what those concepts do is push the dungeon metaphor even further. The Conspyramid is the map of the dungeon (room 1 leading to room 2 leading to room 3 or 4 leading one level below, etc.), and the Vampyramid is the encounter table for each level of the dungeon.

Interestingly, these tools allow running investigation-oriented campaigns with a “floating” roaster of players, as in a more or less open table, West March style, by offering a network of modular sub-investigations.

For example, one week players investigate one “brick” of the pyramid, and in doing so they find clues leading to other bricks, either on the same layer or on the one above. They update their tentative map of the conspiracy accordingly.

Then, when players declare their availability to the next game, they tell the GM what brick they’d like to investigate next so you can focus your prep.

I like intrigue scenarios, but I’ve found them heavily dependent on a committed player team with plenty of common available time slots to play – a rare luxury, unfortunately.

So, here we have a promising workaround.

Anyway, those are just my thoughts after reading your newsletter.

Martin and I then conversed further over email and the topic of GMing one player versus group play in Gumshoe system games came up, which you might find of interest.


First of all, [for one player games] instead of a team of specialized agents you’ve got one versatile badass PC, à la Jason Bourne (or Bruce Wayne, in a way), able to cope with most situations from sifting through obscure reports to interrogating underworld fixers to mingling in upper class events to car chases to gunfights to close combat.

Then there’s a Contacts system: NPCs who can help you out when you’re missing that one useful skill.

The last major difference is the Challenge system, which I’ve written a detailed forum review of.

In a nutshell: you don’t get a dedicated combat mode separate from skill checks.

There’s instead an encompassing resolution mechanic whenever the PC is attempting something where failure is as interesting (meaning, story-driving) as success.

The GM defines a core skill for the Challenge with three possible outcomes:

  • Setback (could be success at a serious cost, or failure with complications)
  • Hold (PC succeeds)
  • Advance (PC succeeds and gets a boon in the process)

And a bunch of useful ancillary skills.

At the end of the day, combat is nothing but a Shooting or Fighting challenge, supplemented by other skills depending on circumstances (such as Athletics).

Just like a car chase would be a Driving challenge where Shooting could be of use.

This system offers much flexibility and ease of improvisation.

I thought Martin had several interesting ideas there for single player games.

First, make an uber character who will be competent in a variety of risky and dangerous situations.

Second, use your NPCs. Introduce a new NPC at least every session. Then use NPCs to shore up PC weaknesses.

Third, focus less on lethality and more on complications, setbacks, and story advancements.

Great advice, thanks Martin!

Add Locations to Your Faction Maps

RPT GM Michael Christensen has a great enhancement to Faction Pyramids:


I tried to work with [Faction Pyramids] on my current campaign faction – the Red Hand – heavily inspired by the Red Hand of Doom.

It feels nice to actually put it to use. I have looked at the pyramid in Night’s Black Agents a lot, but I do feel it lacks locations somehow, or at least it has trouble to stand alone without a companion text explaining such things.

I tried my hand at something similar today before I read your mail.

Remember those many letters I handed out along with the annotated invasion map? I have created a Trello board for my group where I initially created a card for each piece of information that could be gleaned from the letters and what they had been told.

NPCs, Locations, Factions, defeated NPCs and such. Then today I tried to put all those things into a relationship map for them, thinking it might provide them a better overview, also telling them that this might not be the truth, but it’s the most logical constellation given the information they have now.

I thought this was a cool idea from Michael.

Group clusters in your pyramid to apply another layer of information, such as location. Perhaps add another dimension via shading style.

Thanks for the interesting tips, Roleplaying Tips Game Masters! We are bettered by your fun ideas.

Johnn Four