Deep World Building Using The Estates Method
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1050
A beloved RPG, Ars Magica, splits its setting into three estates: the Church, the Nobles, and the Commonfolk.
Wizards are outcasts. Hunted, exiled, or slain for blasphemies and politics.
Players run Magi in the Mythic Europe setting. Forced to hide and handle a delicate power balance between the three estates, play becomes strategic and deeper.
What happens if a Noble tries to ally with a Magi? Does the Church and Commonfolk hear about that? What’s their reaction. Uh oh, here comes the torches and pitchforks. Followed by some inquisition.
The backstory of the milieu can offer such interesting themes and crucibles. A deeper context like this adds awesome GMing moments.
Let’s model Ars Magica. Let’s layer The Estates onto our milieu for deeper gameplay.
Step 1: Pick Three Estates
Three positions in any fracas forms a triangle dynamic. Two against one, or one against one with changing sides (I’m looking at you, Mr. Orwell).
But Ars Magica gives us the fourth estate — an outlier who upsets the status quo.
So let us define four estates, starting with the three public estates in Step 1.
For my Hobo Princes campaign in The Badlands area of Duskfall, I’m going with:
- Bartolome the Sage
- The Guilds
If still stuck, here are some ideas:
- Stone, Rain, Light, Blood, Fire
- The Prophecy, Clan Chiefs, Horse Lords
- Elves, Dwarves, Halflings
- The Bankers, Kings, The Old Gods
- Birthright, Magic, Wealth
Step 2: Rock, Scissors, Paper
Why was your triangle in equilibrium before?
What kept each side in check from eradicating the other?
In The Badlands, Pantheon beats Bartolome the Sage who beats The Guilds who beats Pantheon.
At minimum, we need one detail on how each side could have beaten one opponent.
- Pantheon: Miracles
- Bartolome the Sage: His Nekkanti mercenary army
- The Guilds: Greed erodes faith
You could follow a different formula:
- Two against one
- All have the same power and resources in equal measure
In Step 2, we want at least a hook or idea of why each side is still in the fight and capable.
If we make one side too weak, then we’ve got bad logic and world building. Why hasn’t the weak side been eliminated before now?
A simple detail noted for each faction about their strength, advantage, or how they’ve survived this long will solve our world design problem here.
Step 3: Choose The Fourth Estate
Next, choose a hidden estate. An outcast, secret, or new force to upset your milieu’s equilibrium.
What catalyst enters the picture to break the status quo and causes the milieu to erupt in conflict?
At the meta game level, it’s the characters. They are special, though. They have the power to break the status quo or create equilibrium.
So don’t make PCs the Fourth Estate unless gameplay puts them into that position.
For The Badlands, I’m going with The Kouzelnik, the mafia of mages.
Give your milieu an equilibrium-breaking fourth estate.
- A cult or religion
- A character class
- A character or NPC race or culture
- A technology
Step 4: Inception With Factions
In the last step, we repeat Steps 1-3 once for each Estate to create minor estates we’ll call Factions.
That will give you:
- 4 Estates
- 4×4 = 16 Factions
But if we try running 16 Factions in equilibrium ye ol’ brain breaks.
So we simplify.
Factions stick within their own Estates except for key story moments.
This means when you use Loopy Planning to create Next Moves, each Faction only interacts within their estate except for special plot points that turn into memorable gameplay and pivotal story moments.
Example: Duskfall Estates & Factions
- High Priests (Miracles)
- Inquisitors (Above the Law)
- Rogue Princes, Akako, Ansurius, Ricmar (Thugs)
- Outlier: The Athot (New Magic)
- Bartolome the Sage
- Sky Reavers, aarakocran knights (Might)
- Shhhhk, kenku thieves’ guild (Underworld)
- Tch, kenku rebels (Terrorism)
- Outlier: Orcus (Undead)
- The Guilds
- The Aguarey, a watersellers guild (Wealth)
- The Diamante, gemners guild — magical services and currency exchange (Gem Magic)
- The Ruin Seekers, tomb robbers (Relics)
- Outlier: Ogremach (Earth Magic)
- The Kouzelnik
- The Rada, a mage council (Magic, Wealth, Law)
- Mage Hunters (Above the Law)
- Relic Hunters (Relics)
- Outlier: The Inquisition (Pantheon)
You can see twists emerge from details above.
The Kouzelnik Inquisition are secret Pantheon agents.
The Diamante offer magical services but the Kouzelnik want to control all magic.
Bartolome is a good person. But the Factions who support him and enable his plans? They don’t look so good to me….
The Athot ally with Pantheon. But their backstory involves discovering new arcane magic, which puts them at odds with the Inquisitors and the Kouzelnik.
These twists become baked-in Estate Conflicts ripe for plotting.
Remember my Estate Rock, Scissors, Paper?
- Pantheon: Miracles
- Bartolome the Sage: Army
- The Guilds: Wealth
- Kouzelnik: Magic
Those represent contributions from the top Factions.
Again, hierarchies are up to you. They offer excellent plot structures.
Try It Yourself
So that’s the Estates Method.
Add social, geopolitical, and power layers to your milieu with Estates.
Give each Estate several Factions in the same fashion for depth.
Factions clash across Estates in exciting story moments and encounters.
Your milieu becomes a powder keg burning with tension and drama.
Who will become allies of the characters? Who will become enemies?
Will conflict destroy the land? Or can players become a healing force of equilibrium?
Follow the four steps to get a fast outline of your Estates and Factions:
- Step 1: Pick Three Estates
- Step 2: Rock, Scissors, Paper
- Step 3: Choose The Fourth Estate
- Step 4: Inception With Factions
Try it out and let me know what you think of the Estates Method.