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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #393

Have Fun With Factions


This Week's Tips Summarized 

Have Fun With Factions

  1. Public "Shell" Information
  2. Connections And Agendas
  3. Faction Details
  4. Secret Information
  5. Hooks And Inspiration
  6. Blob Chart Finishing Touches
  7. Use Your Factions

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Indoor Mapping Tips
  2. Create The Appearance Of Choice
  3. Another Chess Game Idea
  4. Player Handout Ideas And Tip Request

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

Happy GM's Day from Expeditious Retreat Press

March fo(u)rth to GM's Day with Expeditious Retreat Press. You can find all our e-titles 25% off at, the publisher cooperative, through March 9th. Pick up something special for the person behind the screen at your gaming table, and feel free to sneak a little something for yourself while you're at it.

Happy GM's Day from Expeditious Retreat Press

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

HTML Coder and Web Programmer Help Request

I need some HTML/CSS help, and some PHP/MySQL help. A few web pages at the site need markup, and there are also a couple of small PHP and MySQL projects I could really use help with.

If you have some spare time and knowledge of HTML & CSS, or PHP & MySQL, please ping me. This would be volunteer help, but if you enjoy web content development and RPGs, hopefully it won't seem like work. :P

5 Room Dungeons Volume 13 Now Available

The next volume of 5 Room Dungeons contest entries is now ready for download. Featured in this volume:

  1. The Wizard's Challenge
    by Thewizard63
  2. Drop of Blood in the Bucket
    by mrcelophane
  3. Temple of the Four Elements
    by Nathan Wells
  4. Random 5 Rooms Dungeon Generator
    by Davide Quatrini
  5. Promised Aid
    by Jonas Dorn

Download (PDF 1 MB)

Previous 5 Room Dungeons

Please fit a game into your schedule this week.


Johnn Four,

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City of Stormreach

City of Stormreach explores the most important frontier city of Xen'drik, where opportunity and peril walk hand-in-hand. The book builds on the plots and characters featured in Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, the exciting MMORPG produced by Atari and Turbine, and introduces new adversaries and new locations to explore.

It describes the shadowy ruins, sinister organizations, and treasure-laden dungeons that make Stormreach such an appealing destination for player characters. In addition to providing Dungeon Masters with a richly detailed city for their Xen'drik based campaigns, this supplement presents information on the movers and shakers of Stormreach, ready- to-use adversaries, adventure hooks, and location maps.

City of Stormreach at RPG Shop

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Have Fun With Factions  

Here's a bit of help for GMs who get bogged down in campaign creation: don't sweat the small stuff. Economise your creative energies to avoid nasty pitfalls.

An example of this is factions. When I create a campaign world, I know a big part of it will be the interplay between the various groups (guilds, noble houses, political and religious sects, and so on). My players will be creatively unpredictable, and often downright sneaky, in the ways they handle challenges of the game world. If I force them to follow a linear plot or timeline, they'll feel oppressed, and might balk.

Factions let me create dynamic situations that are easy to plan but give my players great gaming freedom.

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1. Public "Shell" Information 

To optimize planning and player choice, a method I've developed over the years is to have "shell" presentations of what is *publicly* known about each major faction. Players use this information to decide who and how to approach. Once I know they are interested in such-and-such a group (or guild, mercenary band, religious movement, etc.) I can flesh out minimal details behind the public fa├žade, creating the NPCs only when necessary.


  • This saves spending unnecessary time on creating NPCs who'll never be used.
  • You can have dozens of different factions displayed and interacting without much planning time investment.
  • A little cut-and-paste and name-replacement on little-used factions gives you material for future campaigns.
  • The players are free to explore the gameworld at will.


  • Sometimes players will have a rush of inspiration and dash off to contact an NPC in one of your shell factions. You'll have to improvise the encounter, or delay it until the next session (especially if it's a combat encounter) to give you time to prepare.
  • Sometimes players get it wrong and let a major menace develop unhindered.

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2. Connections And Agendas 

Create a "blob chart" of the 15-20 top organisations, with just their names inside circles ("blobs") and arrows to/from other organisations. Along the arrows, write 2-5 words about the relationship or why the factions are connected. For example, "Rivals for Silk Market," "Secret allies against X," "Secretly controls..."

Quick tips:

  • You don't have to cover all the categories of the needs of the people of your game world.
  • Just list the biggest factions.
  • Not every faction needs to link to all the others.
  • Just note down the exceptional stuff and assume normal relations elsewhere.
  • Factions do have their own objectives and agendas, and if the players don't interfere, some of them will achieve these objectives. This can have strong effects on the game world, and thus on the players' plans.

Faction gameplay gives a stronger feel of a Weltenspiel - a living, evolving game world, in which the players are moving around and affecting what they can, which affects them in it turn.

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3. Craft Faction Details 

The level of definition I use for a shell faction is as follows:

  • The faction's type and title. Noble house, temple, minor family, mercenary group, guild, etc.
  • Their source of revenues/influence
  • A brief history (5-10 lines) of the faction
  • A gallery of images of the most influential NPCs (one line of five, thumbnail-sized images)
  • A short summary of the most influential NPCs: a) Titular head of the faction b) His/her right-hand man c) The three most (in)famous people of the faction
  • A brief note on their public status (e.g. level of royal approval) and why
  • Known rivals (and why, if publicly known)
  • Known allies (and why, if publicly known)
  • Their projects
  • 5+ rumours: at least 1-2 per NPC cited above, plus 1 per project. Projects and rivals are often closely linked.

This faction overview should fit onto two sides of a page, with room to spare. If it doesn't, edit it down. Don't drown your players in prose or information overload.

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4. Secret Information 

On a separate sheet I note down the truth about the NPCs, rather than the publicly known (and often wrong or twisted) stuff I hand out to the players. This includes the numbers of the rumours that are true (I may change my mind about which are and which aren't later), and so forth.

If I'm feeling exceptionally creative I might add a few more (mostly true) rumours and the difficulty threshold that a PC must roll to find out each of each.

I also note the true head of the faction (and/or his rivals). This sometimes involves notes on a few important NPCs about whom the public doesn't know.

Again, keep it short and sweet and expand only when needed. Often, this information is so simple I can just file it in my memory and move swiftly onwards.

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5. Hooks And Inspiration 

Each NPC should have one publicly known thing that makes them stand out - a "hook" players can easily remember. For example, a mage is known to have created four inch tall silver golems to hunt down the rats in her noble house's library.

Attach a secret or a rumour to the hook.


  • Those silver golems are really to spy on guests via the ventilation network!
  • The rats in the house have eaten so many magic scrolls in the library that they can only be killed with silver weapons!

Let your sense of fun feed your imagination. Also, if you've found a good image for your NPC, you can let the details in the image dictate the description of the NPC and their hook.

Stuck for inspiration for the main characters in the faction? Pick out five images at random and build the descriptions and their personalities from the images. It's much easier to do this than to dig for the perfect image to match the specific traits you've written down.

Life is surprising in its variety, and this will help you simulate that and avoid being repetitive. For example, a pale, huge-eyed waif in black leather is head of a warrior house? Wow, there's a story behind *that*, no doubt about it.

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6. Blob Chart Finishing Touches 

Revisit the blob chart after finishing the faction shells and add any new relationships between factions that the rumours you created might have suggested. A "publicly known relationships" blob chart might be useful for the players, for example.

A few (and I do mean a few - avoid information overload) colour-coded symbols/numbers on the GM's version can help gamemasters visualise their Weltenspiel's interactions. For example, symbols signifying the real levels of royal approval and sources of revenue/influence.

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7. Use Your Factions 

Have the PCs run across the NPCs from time to time, in the pursuit of their different agendas. This is an easy way of coming up with role-playing encounters that stimulate player paranoia and desire to be "in the know."

If the GM needs to let the players hear of a particular event, it's fairly easy to pick a NPC whose name can be given as responsible for the event. The far-off rumbling of events is a great way to foreshadow changes that the GM intends to include later on in the campaign.

* * *

Have fun with your factions. That's what they're there for.

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7 Piece Ugly Dice Set

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Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to - thanks!

1. Indoor Mapping Tips 

From: Neil Faulkner via the GMMastery Yahoo! Group

  1. Rooms of related function are liable to be close together. So, the pantry will be next to the kitchen, and the kitchen won't be far from the main dining area. Likewise, the armoury will be close to the barracks.
  2. Accessibility is related to the number of people needing to get to a particular room and the quantity of goods liable to move into or out of it.

    Storage areas, therefore, tend to have large doors and be on the ground floor. (A storage area higher up is probably for all those things no one actually uses but no one wants to throw away either.)

    The main hall of a castle will have several exits. The lord's private chambers will likely have only one (or two if you include the obligatory secret escape tunnel).
  3. Persons of prestige will have more space in their living quarters, more privacy, and better security. They are also likely to be further away from drains, middens, and other unsavoury parts of the household.

History throws up certain factors specific to particular periods and cultures. Terry Jones, for example, notes in his (excellent) monograph on Chaucer's Knight that the rise of mercenarism in the 14th Century forced a change of castle design. Guards' quarters had no direct connection with the lord's rooms, because the guards could no longer be trusted. He includes a plan of Doune Castle to illustrate that very point.

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2. Create The Appearance Of Choice 

From: Syd Halterman

As mentioned in Issue #94, the PCs will always go the other way from what you planned or do the unexpected. What I tend to do is use the age old philosophy of "all roads lead the same place."

I am running a series of pre-written adventures (3E D&D) and each one builds slightly on the previous ones. The last adventure in the series will culminate in many old names and items coming together.

Invariably, when one of the adventures is complete, there is some 'null time' where the characters will create magic items, or invest in material components for powerful spells, or even work on their poetry recitation skills. But when it's time to head toward the next adventure, it always comes to this:

"There are 3 roads out of town. One to the East, one to the Northwest, and one to the South, which is the way to come into town. Which way do you go?"

After they decide, I simply let the terrain lead them to the appropriate adventure and throw in some pre-made 'random' encounters (which lately have truly been 'random') along the way.

So, even though the players in my campaign know that I have all the modules in order, it still seems as though they are choosing their own path.

I also thought I'd share a couple of the "unexpected" things the PCs have done during game sessions.

In one adventure, they were hired by the captain of the guard of a particular town to find his daughter's cat. I figured they would go around the town asking people if they had seen a cat that looks like (insert description). I had even placed commoners with clues and other things to direct them to the underground tunnels where the cat was going (and the adventure was set). I figured there would be one whole game session just trying to find where the cat was.

Much to my surprise, the next morning, the cleric cast a speak with animals spell and talked to the cats behind the inn where the PCs were staying. Most of the cats ran because they were startled by the cleric, but a couple stayed and were able (despite their low Intelligence) to understand that the cleric was looking for a particular cat and tell him where the cat went.

So, in a matter of 10 minutes, the party had bypassed a whole day's worth of game session and were onto the main portion of the adventure. I gave them a full XP award for ingenuity and a bonus for the role-playing while talking with the cats.

This just proves that the PCs will *always* think of something you don't.

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3. Another Chess Game Idea 

From: Monstah

My GM set up a grid, a little larger than a chess one. He asked us to choose two players from the group (which was rather large) to play the game. The other players would be the pieces. I was one of the chosen players.

The pieces were actually our miniatures. Movement was based on class. Fighters had to walk two squares and attack an adjacent block (no more, no less). Wizards could walk 3, or cast.

Can't remember them all, but it ran along these lines. The enemy side was composed of monsters (including a small dragon), a fighter, and a wizard. Each side had a statue with 80HP that was the king piece.

The goal was to destroy the opponent's statue or the whole team. (Killed players would respawn with 1HP after the game was over.) A twist, however: players did not know these rules. We just told them where to go and what to do, and they deduced it themselves. (The fighter was a bit puzzled when we asked him to attack thin air a couple times.)

Each player had one chance of "rebelling" and doing whatever he wanted instead of the order, but he did not know that either. Any subsequent rebelling would cause damage to our statue. They also knew a few rules that the two of us playing the game did not (and still don't).

Oh yes, we won. The GM forgot that the statue was a prone target. Never underestimate a dwarven fighter with power attack and an battle axe. ;)

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4. Player Handout Ideas And Tip Request 

From: redchin

I think a good article idea would be "Designing Player Handouts - things to keep in mind." It could include advice on materials used for construction, types, the purpose of player handouts, timing, tips and tricks using them.

For example, I could see each player being handed a puzzle piece and having to put them all together to make a key.

Or, building a fantasy art library, and how to organize it (so that you can pull appropriate pieces to plug into an adventure and be able to show players).

Or, a section on designing journals. (How to make them look old, how to get cheap materials, good fonts to use that look like handwriting, etc.)

In some cases, a player handout could be a reference work the party's brain is always consulting for more information. (Imagine a datapad (PDA) full of alienology facts, or an ancient-looking tome of tactics useful against beholders.) Some handouts may be constantly referenced, and may need greater care in construction.

Anyway, I'd love to read this article, because I'm big on player handouts. It really helps players to stay in character.

[Readers: does anyone have an itch to write an article about player handout construction, designing journals, or general player handout tips? If so, drop me an e-mail and I'll reserve your chosen topic for you.]

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Johnn Four's GM Guide Books 

In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have written several GM tips and advice books to inspire your games and to make GMing easier and fun:

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants - new

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG's most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice as well, plus several generators and tables

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

GM Mastery: NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.