The Faction Pyramid Technique
From Christopher Sniezak
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #644
As a companion piece to last week’s great article by John Large about factions, today we’re gonna get into organizations and factions because you can’t have factions without organizations. Why? Glad you asked.
- An organization is a group of persons organized for a particular purpose.
- A faction is a group or clique within a larger organization, or the like.
And I’m going to show you the Pyramid Technique to help you run factions in your games.
Let’s talk about organizations first, since there is a lot their to use in your games.
Organizations Have Goals
Organizations have a particular purpose, be it the acquisition of power, protection of the realm, destruction of another organization. This gives you some overall guidance for your organizations, and the NPCs within them, when they take action.
So the first thing you should do is write out a goal for your organization.
In The Dracula Dossier RPG by Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder Hanaran and published by Pelgrane Press, project Edom is a secret British government program with the goal of recruiting vampire assets for the British government to use as weapons to further and protect Britain’s interests.
As the GM for this game, any actions I take on behalf of Edom would be for the previous reasons, such as:
Dracula made a bit of a mess in London leaving a few dead bodies laying around that would arouse suspicion of something amiss. Edom would send a clean-up crew to contain the situation and possibly, probably errantly, get on Drac’s good side, while also keeping the local law enforcement ignorant of the situation thus keeping them safe and docile.
Now how do you make this actionable by your players?
You make sure whatever goal you have for the organization opposes at some level the goals of the players.
In our example, players are burnt spies trying to uncover a vampire plot. Edom wants a vampire to use to protect the realm, and players want to stop a vampire conspiracy. That creates a conflict of interests that puts players and Edom at odds with one another.
Organizations Have Structures
An organization is a group of people. When you have groups you need leadership and structure to achieve your goals. This means different people in the organization have different jobs and sub-goals. The best way I’ve seen to organize this for play is called Nodes.
A node is a part of the organization that does something to help the faction achieve their goals.
You can build your nodes in any way you want, but a functional way to do so is the pyramid structure. This is how one would design a thriller game in the vein of Taken or other Thriller styled movies where you work the organization until you get to the top.
Climb The Pyramid
The pyramid gives you choices on where to start your players, which provides them options and you fallbacks when the players don’t do exactly what you would expect as they climb their way to the top of the pyramid.
This structure also gives you nodes you can bring in to cause the players trouble as a reaction when they reach certain levels of the pyramid.
Let’s get away from Edom and look at a thieves’ guild. The thieves’ guild is called the Black Spiders. Their goal is to control all the crime in the city. Here’s their pyramid:
- Level one, at the top, you have a dark witch and her son running the show from an abandoned tannery.
- Level two has the Eight Stools, a bar where a lot of black market deals go down, and Sigmund Root, a wererat who runs the protection rackets for the Black Spiders.
- Level three has the cut purses of the city run by a halfling named Pater Yew, The Corner Pocket, a tavern where adventurers hang out and the black spiders keep tabs on the talent in town, and Jameson Kern. Jameson is part of the mayor’s inner circle and influences him at times to the benefit of the Black Spiders.
If we look at the image we can see the connections. If you want your players to deal with the thieves’ guild you can give them a lead that starts them at one of the level 3 nodes of the pyramid and then let them make their way up. A cutpurse could lead to the Eight Stools, which leads to Sigmund Root, which points to the Fetus Witch at the Tannery. And that’s just one path that could be taken.
Take a node and have it react to the players moving up the pyramid. When PCs have hit Eight Stools, you have Jameson Kern at one level below in the pyramid use his influence to have an arrest warrant put out for the PCs. Now you have a little heat on the players while they’re trying to find Sigmund Root.
You can make the pyramid and the idea of how the organization will respond as big as you like. Also, each node isn’t just a single scene. It could be a whole session or several sessions to deal with a particular node. Though it could also just be one scene if you choose.
It also doesn’t have to be a pyramid structure, either. You can use four nodes at each level if you wanted, or have more than one point of leadership. Maybe they’re even at opposite sides of your structure. But this version means the campaign or scenario will end once the players have reached the top of the pyramid, providing an end point for play.
So we know what an organization is and at least one way to build them – with the pyramid. So how do factions fit into this?
Because factions are a group or clique within an organization, that means they’re pursuing the same or a similar goal. But how do we distinguish a faction in a useable way at the table?
Philosophies, lines, and limits.
Philosophies, Lines, & Limits
Something I didn’t mention about organizations are philosophies. It’s the way they operate and what they’re willing to do and give up to accomplish their goals.
Think about a group of extremists who are so dedicated to their cause they’ll give their lives for it. A mobster is willing to commit crime to further the Mafia’s goals. And a band of knights believes in justice before the law so they arrest those evil-doers they come across and bring them to judges for a trial.
This leads to lines and limits that are the things an organization is willing or unwilling to do to accomplish their goals.
To use this idea at the table, write a few lines about what an organization believes and is willing to do and not do underneath the goal. These are your quick reference Philosophies and Lines & Limits.
If you have a faction within the group, then you’ll have the same goal but the Philosophy, Lines, and Limits will differ. This creates places for conflict within an organization the players could exploit.
Here’s how I would use it in my notes:
The Black Spiders
Goal: Control all the crime in the city
Philosophy: The ends justify the means
Lines & Limits:
- Will die rather than face the Fetus Witch’s wrath
- Have no problem killing anyone not part of the Black Spiders
Goal: Control all the crime in the city
Philosophy: The flow of money is what matters, killing is bad for business
Lines & Limits:
- Won’t die for the Black Spiders
- Doesn’t like killing unless he has no choice
So you have a bunch of tools to help you create organizations that will let you create factions within those organizations: Nodes, The Pyramid, Philosophies, Lines & Limits. Let’s talk now about how to apply them.
By changing the Philosophies, Lines & Limits of a Node within an organization you can create a faction. You can also create a faction by building a second organization and giving them the same goal.
Two thieves’ guilds fighting for control of the crime in the city are essentially two rival factions fighting for the same goal. You just have more pieces to play with depending on how many Nodes you decide to put in each organization.
Once you’ve built them both, you then have a bunch of information and NPCs for the players to interact with. Then your players can choose who to throw in with, or they can just play one side against the other.
A third type of faction use is if the factions have goals that are similar but not the same. Think of the MacGuffin race. There are two other groups racing to find a hidden temple in addition to the PCs. The Red group wants a cup in the temple, but the Blue group wants a book from the same place. All the PCs want the cup while a single PC also wants the book. Meantime, there is the Green group that wants to keep the location of the temple hidden.
Just look at the goals of your organizations and create similar but different ones from each other.
You can scale the ideas I just presented up or down, to larger or smaller units, and the tools still work. You can apply the Philosophy, Lines, & Limits to NPCs, small groups, companies, countries, planets, and galaxies. The Pyramid and Nodes work the same way. You just pick the scale and apply the tools.
Well, these are some techniques on organizations and factions. This stuff on the Pyramid and Nodes is a bit of a deconstruction and rebuild from Night’s Black Agents, Ken Hite’s Vampire Spy Thriller game. I highly recommend that game just to learn a lot of this stuff more in depth.
The fractal idea comes from the Bronze Rule of the Fate RPG, which is an excellent game and has a lot of great ideas you can apply to other games. Philosophies, Lines, & Limits is a tool developed from Aspects from Fate, beliefs from Burning Wheel, the Drama System, and things I’ve seen in a few other games. All those places are good spots for further reading if you’re interested in the ideas presented here.
DMing Monsters: Plants, Slimes, Molds, Jellies, Puddings
From Jesse C. Cohoon
Most DMs don’t have many encounters with plant monsters, slimes, molds, and puddings. These creatures are often relegated to things players stumble into like traps, side quests, and areas of heavy overgrowth. But with a few simple solutions, they can take the spotlight.
Problem #1 They’re Immobile
Just because in real life these types of things are immobile doesn’t mean the plants in your game need to be, like how Pokémon combines plants and animals, but the resulting creature is counted as a plant.
It could also be they’re normally unmoving, but like the Venus flytrap, with the slightest brush up against them they attack.
This can happen in a variety of ways. For instance:
- Vines could reach out and attempt to entangle, strangle, or lash at victims. They could strike like a snake. They could enter their victim, causing problems.
- Flowers could produce controlling spores or pheromones that cause other monsters to protect them.
- Plants could have the ability to sense nearby prey and launch razor sharp poisonous leaves or volleys of thorns at passers-by, the effect of which are paralytic.
- Combine them with creatures that complement their strengths, while helping to eliminate their weaknesses.
- Give them additional, unique locomotive abilities such as flight, digging, swimming, or climbing.
- Allow them to take over and control other creatures.
Problem #2 They’re Uninteresting
“Normal” plants might seem uninteresting because you’re not thinking about everything they can be used for. Consider the following:
- Provide shelter, food, clothing, or armor
- Provide transportation (vines for swinging, wood for making boats and wagons)
- Provide medicines and poisons
- Provide means of defense (weapons) or traps
Take one of these ideas and turn it into a major plot point by twisting it. Maybe a monster or animal is able to take advantage of the plant’s abilities, such as a troll wearing dangerous vines as armor with little detriment to themselves.
Another reason why plants might seem uninteresting is you are not familiar with what’s out there. In the natural world, there are many of species of plants that, with some adaptation, could be used for your campaign:
- 12 Bizarre Real-Life Plants That Look Like Sci-Fi Alien Monsters
- 22 Insanely Cool Conversation-Piece Plants For Your Garden
- Six Of The World’s Strangest Plants
- Top 20 Most Interesting Plants of the World
- 15 Rare, Exotic & Amazing Plant Species
Slimes & Molds
Instead of using these types of hazards as is, change them up. They could be quasi-elemental in nature, having the vulnerabilities of the opposite element. Or capture them to use as a tool, such as a garbage disposal for the sewers, etching metal, or as an explosive substitute. If rendered inert, it could be a food source, grease/lubricant, or fertilizer.
Slimes and molds could also be weaponized. Special catapults could fling slimes at the enemy.
Problem #3 You Can’t Do Much With Them
This complaint is a few wrapped up in one:
They’re Too Easily Defeated
Change the circumstances the players encounter. Plants could release caustic fluids that damage the characters, or make the ground slippery, super-sticky, or flammable.
In the case of slimes and molds, make some have a built-in immunity to their normal weakness, and now it’s up to the players to find how to defeat this new challenge.
Their Tactics Are Too Simple
Change up their tactics. Give the plants a rudimentary intelligence, a goal (other than food), and the ability to perform it.
For instance, you might give the plant monsters the goal of keeping the characters out of a vulnerable location. In the case of slimes and molds, if they form a symbiosis, they have the strengths of both types while having the weaknesses of neither.
They Can’t Be Used As The Main Boss
Give the plant monster excellent senses and intelligence so it can plan strategies, see the character’s actions and adapt. Also give it more health so it’s tougher.
In the case of a boss, you need to give them a goal the players will want to defeat. For instance, a plant monster might have the goal of wiping out civilization in an area. It uses its allies as convenient pawns to carry its wishes out. The villain controls minions with a tendril it puts in them. The ally gets additional abilities, while the plant monster gets needed intelligence, can be in multiple places at once, and knows when his ally is defeated.
In the case of slimes and molds, a giant one may not be immune to its normal weaknesses, but might take a lot less damage from it.
Portraying Plant Monsters
In a tropical environment that is vine-covered, they would be invisible. The characters can’t tell vines that are attacking them from the unanimated kind. Attacking vines can also easily trip characters.
Giant Venus Flytraps And Other “Attacking” Plants
Characters can find themselves being a snack for these giant mouths.
Sometimes these plants will clog the pipes of the city (think piranha plants in the Mario Brothers video games) emerging to attack and withdrawing into the pipe’s safety.
These creatures can transport themselves through shrubbery. A good tactic to use with them would be to appear, attack, teleport away, and repeat at irregular intervals.
Because it can change shape, it could simply replace the innocuous-looking groomed shrub that is there until it attacks.
Keep in mind poison doesn’t always need to damage. Sometimes it can do stat damage, paralyze, cause hallucinations, and change a person’s mentality. Remember the field of poppies that caused the main characters to fall asleep in the Wizard of Oz.
When facing plants with poisonous abilities, be sure players have a chance to stock up on antidotes and cure poison spells.
Sometimes the entire forest is out to get you. Playing an animated forest or fungal community that works against the players would involve shaping paths, hindering, and harassing the characters.
Barring that, the creature will try to start picking off the characters one by one or separating them in the dense undergrowth so they are less able to combine their tactics to attack the plants effectively.
d12 Reasons Why Plant Monsters And Slimes Might Exist
From Jesse C. Cohoon
|1||Science Experiment Gone Awry||The monsters were created by a botanist who was experimenting in cross-pollination of plants. In addition to the characteristics of the parent plants, some other recessive gene normally dormant becomes activated. In the case of a greenhouse full of such plant monsters, perhaps whatever affected one of the plants spread to all the others. Alternatively, a scientist could be mixing chemicals that cause an explosion. To save his life he jumps into the swamp. This is essentially the way some versions of Swamp Thing came to be.In the case of slimes and molds, they might have been a chemist’s experiment gone awry, a result of bio-organic magics doing something unintended, or the result of a spell being cast a on something else that produces them as a byproduct.|
|2||Evil Magic||Effluent from temples of sacrifice, the remnants of undead, or magic from evil artifacts seeps into the ground where plants grow. The longer the magic has a chance to seep into the ground, the stronger and more resilient such plant monsters will become.|
|3||Druidic Magic Gone Awry||A druid animated plants to help defend him against intruders of the grove. But when he died, the magic remained and kept the plants animated. Now it’s assimilating other plants and animating more plants on its own.In the case of slimes and molds, the druid might see the forces of nature as agents of decay and destruction, and so he uses his magic to create and develop things that support his paradigm.|
|4||Divine Magic||To create the world, the creator god used these plant monsters to help grow plants in rapid order, and they were never recalled. There may be consequences in destroying these creatures.|
|5||Dumping Ground/Sewers||Over time, a landfill gets all sorts of things that don’t belong, from worn out magic items, to potions that didn’t turn out right, to chemicals from the local tanneries, to smelting waste that all combined to make something nasty. For slimes and molds, all the rotting refuse materials could create them naturally.|
|6||Holy Protectors||A deity has concentrated the grounds. For many years the grounds were tended to by the priests. After some time, people fell away from the faith. To keep the site protected, the deity has created these plant monsters to protect the site. For slimes and molds, they might be the result of unholy magic and are associated with gods of undeath, corruption, or violence.|
|7||Protection From The Outside World||A xenophobic group might animate plants to protect them from the outside world, hoping the plants will discourage or eliminate any threats.|
|8||Tests Of Worthiness||Sometimes a group will create animated plants to test those who would contact them. If you can’t defeat the plant monsters, you have no business talking with them.|
|9||Curse||If someone or some group has been cursed, they could be turned into plant beings, slimes, or molds. The process to turn into such probably is a slow one, and if caught in time, might be reversed with appropriate magic.|
|10||Infection||This is the case that happens with vegepigmies, and with the Infected in the video game The Last Of Us. For an infection to be the cause, the cause would have to get past a creature’s immune system, be highly contagious, and be resistant to curing through normal means. If there is a cure, it might be obscure, dangerous to find, or not worth the cost.|
|11||Mis-Worded Wish||A jerk-ass genie or other creature of immense power that grants wishes gives someone what they wished for in a way they hadn’t anticipated by turning them into a plant monster, slime, or mold.|
|12||Natural Selection/Evolution||“Nature abhors a vacuum” is the saying. If there is a gap somewhere in the natural scheme of things, plant monsters, slimes, and molds may come about to fill that void.|
d12 Plant Adventure & Encounter Seeds
From Jesse C. Cohoon
|1||Dangerous Greenhouse||An enemy has escaped into a greenhouse where there are many plant monster lurking amongst the innocuous ones. The NPC’s presence doesn’t incite an attack for whatever reason, but the PCs would.|
|2||Vine Covered Temple||The characters are told to go to an evil temple that holds an artifact. For many years the temple has remained abandoned. Unfortunately for the characters, the evil has seeped into the vines. The plants are sneaky and try to trip, steal, and blind PCs at bad times, such as during fights with other creatures. The vines will form paths to guide the PCs to other dangers. Eventually, the vines will attack outright, near hazards such as ledges and acid pools.|
|3||Well Groomed Garden||The characters are trying to infiltrate an estate of a noble. Guard slimes trained not to attack anyone who is with the master of the property patrol the grounds. A living topiary or a shambling mound would also be among the sculpted shrubbery.|
|4||Elven Grounds||Despite their love of nature and their control over it, elves are not liked by all plants. These trees, originally changed by elven magic into beautiful and useful structures, were warped into evil treants by eons of being mistreated, and are now out for blood. They are indistinguishable from normal trees in the forest.|
|5||Sewers||Moist, dark environments that have plenty of prey are excellent places for slimes and molds to grow. While chasing someone who stole something in a city, the PCs stumble into one of these nasty substances, which are allowed to inhabit the sewers to cut down on waste.|
|6||Temple To The Thunder God||High in the mountains, this temple sits in the center of a maelstrom. It contains the secrets of weather magic, which the PCs need to save a village from a drought. The temple, long since abandoned, has shambling mounds as its protectors. They are able to walk on the wind and telepathically communicate with each other.|
|7||Avalanche Pass||The PCs are tasked with obtaining a sample of a rare herb that thrives in cold to cure a sickness the King’s daughter has. The problem is the pass is encircled by shrieking plants that may cause an avalanche if disturbed.|
|8||Lizardmen Monastery||One of the PCs, a monk, wishes to learn the incredible powers of the monastery. But to see their leader, they must undergo a series of tests in which the entire environment is out to defeat them. If they can win through to their goal, the PC will be taught.|
|9||Desert Temple||The characters are tasked with finding out about a long-dead cult of desert dwellers. Priests wanting to protect their temple from people who would defile it made these cacti-like plant monsters to protect it, which they do with their needle-covered bodies, grappling their prey and drinking their blood to weaken them so they cannot escape.|
|10||Volcano Lair||One of the PCs, a magic user, wishes to create a new fire spell. According to their research, the fire flower the spell requires as a component grows in volcanic ash, and a fire troll and his petrified-wood treants have claimed the volcano as their home.|
|11||Cliffside Dangers||The PCs are climbing a cliff, tasked with reaching the Abbey of the ‘Leap of the Clouds.’ Unfortunately, the cliff is home to a plant that shrieks loudly, causing birds to attack the climbers. The plant also produces a cloud of irritating pollen that causes choking and sneezing.|
|12||Cherry Blossom Princess’ Audience||People have been seeing a beautiful princess in a Japanese style garden wearing traditional garb, but who disappears in a cloud of cherry blossom petals if a visitor gets too close. The PCs are tasked at finding out what is going on. The cherry blossom trees are really a plant monster, and the girl is a disguised yokai. The yokai feeds off the wonderment of those who watch this happening, and the plant monster gets the body after she’s done with it.|