For today’s article, I’m reaching back into my memories of the mental processes that I employed to construct the Orcish Society in my Fumanor Campaign, and generalizing them, because it works for any society in any game – heck, I’ve just been applying the same basic principles to 27th-century Scotland for my Dr Who campaign.
Because these processes are simple and yet profound, this might be a relatively short article but it will still pack a wallop in terms of significance.
At the heart of the process is a core concept that I have been trumpeting loudly and regularly for many years – Iteration. This essentially means doing the same thing, or sequence of things, repeatedly. I won’t go into too much detail because (a) it should become obvious during the course of the article, and (b) I’ve already covered the subject in Top-Down Design, Domino Theory, and Iteration: The Magic Bullets of Creation.
Iteration essentially means devising a process, that loops back on itself. Anyone designing such a process for a computer program knows that one of the critical decisions that need to made is what will trigger exiting the process. There are essentially two possibilities, both very similar:
- Perform Process until the exit trigger condition is achieved;
- Perform Process until a list of subjects is completely processed.
The first is the more general one, and when performed by humans, it permits an abstract trigger, such as the results being “good enough for the required purpose”. The second is more specific, and requires the generation of the list in advance, possibly by means of another example of the first. This is the methodology that I use when constructing a society for an RPG.
1. Foundation: Leadership
I always start by deciding what the type of society is, and in particular, how leaders are selected (Refer Pulling That Lever: The Selection Of Leaders In RPG Societies for the most common approaches).
That gives me a lead on who the actual Leader currently is; I’ll make any notes that come to mind on that subject, but don’t commit to a final personality profile at this point.
2. Factions Within Society
Next, I generate a list of all the different factions within the society. A good starting point is Johnn’s series on City Government Power Bases, but that series is incomplete in my book; once the Essential Pulp Reference Library series is complete, I have Johnn’s permission to extend it. He’s listed 9, I expect to extend that list to 21. So it’s just a starting point, at least right now. Note that I only list the important ones; the rest form a final group, a coalition of minor forces.
At the moment, these factions are nothing more than a 1- or 2-word title – “Wizard’s Guild”, “Merchant’s Guild”, “Builder’s Union”, “Military Command”, “Church”. It’s too early to develop any significant information about them, though I will (of course) jot down any ideas for future reference.
Also note that I don’t number the list at this point; there are several other steps to go through first.
3. Natural Rivals
Step three is to go through the resulting list looking for any factions that would be natural rivals, given the circumstances, adjusting the sequence to place these sequentially and making notes as necessary.
4. Faction Strength
Step four is to go through the resulting list estimating how powerful each of the factions will be within the social structure. I classify each into one of three categories, A, B, or C.
- A means that the faction can exert influence over matters outside their direct area of responsibility within the society.
- B means that the faction can exert influence only over matters within their direct area of responsibility (and any related matters) and may be overruled by an ‘A’ faction. ‘B’ factions often wield their most powerful influences indirectly.
- C means that the faction can exert influence only over matters within their direct area of responsibility within the society and that this influence is strongly limited, and may be overruled by ‘A’ or ‘B’ factions.
5. Assess Rivalry Balances
I pay special attention to the natural rivalries that I have identified, and the relative power of the factions. There are six possible combinations: AA, AB, AC, BA, BB, BC, CA, CB, and CC. But, when you look more closely, several of these are the same – BA and AB are the identical, for example; the factions are simply listed the other way around.
- AA This rivalry will be a central feature of the society and its administration.
- AB The ‘B’ faction will need to attract an ally of roughly equal significance in order to achieve parity within society to its rival, and may need to compromise its priorities to achieve that alliance; where such compromise is not necessary, the objectives and principles of the allied group will need to be accepted and added to those of the B faction. If such an alliance is not possible, the B faction will control only those matters directly related to their function within society if (or perhaps when)they are opposed by the A faction.
- AC The ‘C’ faction can’t do much more than complain or provide nuisance value to the ‘A’ faction, except in matters strongly related to their social function, and even those will probably be compromised by the A faction.
- BB This rivalry will be a minor feature of the society, and the objectives and principles of the two factions will often be subordinated to other priorities. To exert dominance over their rivals, a faction will need to demonstrate a confluence of interests with a more powerful faction, but this will be on an issue-by-issue/case-by-case basis.
- BC A weak influence vs an even weaker influence, it will be rare for this rivalry to matter very much within the society. Both will be dominated by more important issues and priorities. As with the AB rivalry discussed earlier, the C will need to ally itself with at least two other factions of equal strength to itself in order to balance the influence of the B faction.
- CC This rivalry is constantly overshadowed by more significant influences which provide the context for the struggle between the rivals. It will be unusual for either faction to be significant within the society.
6. List three things about each faction.
I do this in a separate document, but that’s up to you. This step may involve quite a bit of brainstorming; you want to identify the distinguishing traits or characteristics of the faction, the things that make them different from every other faction. This could be an objective, or a philosophy, or a motivation, or a favorite tactic to influence things ‘their way’. They need to be commensurate with their Authority Level. They should not be things like where the headquarters are located or anything like that. If a significant NPC has already been developed and introduced into the campaign then their name may be listed as one of the things provided that you can also make a supplementary notation as to how typical they are of the faction and how their opinions (etc) differ from the typical.
I will also tend to eschew things like symbolism at this point; what they wear, or the banner they operate under, is not significant to defining their role within the society.
If I need to brainstorm, I will usually use either the The Backstory Boxes – Directed Creativity approach, or one of the methods described in The Characterization Puzzle series (part 1 introduces the series, parts 2-4 offer three different techniques, and part 5 talks about how to choose between them).
The more creative and inspired you can be during this phase of the process, the better, but don’t bog yourself down in too much detail at this point!
7. Construct Necessary Alliances
Alliances come about in one of four ways:
- Doctrinal Resonance is when two factions want similar things, or both factions achieve their objectives as a result of one broad social policy.
- Factional Balance is when two factions have goals or ambitions that don’t conflict, permitting them to unite against a faction that would otherwise dominate them. These needs were noted in earlier steps, but – to recap – two B factions make one A faction, and three C factions make one B faction. A coalition of six C factions are NOT enough to make an A faction, however, as it can be confidently assumed that there would be sufficient disparity of interests within such a coalition that at least 1/3 of them would be opposed to any particular measure; you need eight C factions to equal one A faction, and that’s extremely unlikely. They would tend to splinter into two B faction equivalents and a couple of independents.
- Manipulation But the unlikely can happen, especially if someone is pulling strings to play one force off against the other. This might be the leader of the society, or some advisor behind the throne, or even a B faction exerting indirect influence in such a way that their hands (overtly) stay clean. I usually refer to such alliances as Arranged Alliances.
- Historical Relationships Finally, relationships can and do often linger long after the confluence of interests that created them ceases to apply.
Where you have a two-member alliance balancing a single faction, that’s a “simple” alliance. Where you have a multi-member alliance balancing a single faction, that’s a “compound” alliance.
Most societies are naturally self-balancing over time unless the leader of the society chooses otherwise. Even if the leader elevates a particular faction to “A+” influence – a Cleric or Devout Believer or even a Fanatic in a Theocracy, for example – the rest of the society will tend to self-balance.
There is a set sequence in which I create alliances, based on the likelihood of them forming and the likelihood that they will be stable enough to continue to exist beyond a single-issue confluence of desires/intents. This sequence is:
- Simple Alliances based on Doctrinal Resonance – i.e. “Natural Allies”
- Simple Alliances based on Factional Balance – i.e. “Allies Of Convenience”
- If I have identified a manipulator who is likely to be responsible for a Simple Arranged Alliance, I look for such an alliance.
- If I have created sufficient History of the Community/Nation/Race to identify a reasonable (simple) Historical Alliance, I look for such an alliance.
- Compound Alliances based on Doctrinal Resonance – i.e. “Natural Allies” – these are much rarer, but the possibility needs to be excluded before continuing.
- Compound Alliances based on Factional Balance – i.e. “Allies Of Convenience” – these are far more likely because they are matters of pragmatic political calculation.
- If I have identified a manipulator who is likely to be responsible for a Compound Arranged Alliance, I look for such an alliance.
- If I have created sufficient History of the Community/Nation/Race to identify a reasonable Compound Historical Alliance, I look for such an alliance.
- Now things are getting desperate. I either have to create a Manipulator to satisfy possibilities 3 or 7, or enough history to justify a ‘yes’ to possibilities 4 or 8.
Additional Notes on Arranged Alliances
It’s important to note that these alliances were rejected as “Natural Alliances” and as “Allies Of Convenience” (indicating that the groups not only have little or nothing in common, but actually oppose each other on at least one issue or group of issues.
There are two subtypes of Arranged Alliances that result: Stable and Unstable.
Stable Arranged Alliances indicate that the alliance has been in coalition long enough for some mechanism to have been established between the members of the alliance for the resolution of these conflicts on a case-by-case basis. This can’t be simply the more influential faction overruling smaller ones. There will also need to be some mechanism for the discharge of tensions between the members that could drive a wedge between them. As in (5) above, these are rare, but need to be excluded first because there is someone manipulating the society/politics to create an “unnatural” situation.
Unstable Arranged Alliances are those in which the two members simply go their separate ways, or even link up with other allies, when matters on which they disagree arise, but otherwise present a united front against the faction that they are balancing. This results in what can euphemistically be described as “robust political debate”!
I avoid unstable arranged alliances as much as I can because, even though they may be more realistic, they are a lot more complicated to administrate as a GM.
The GM needs to make notes on the “touchy subjects” and how the “usual politics” changes when they become significant.
Additional Notes on Historical Alliances
Historical Alliances suffer from the same problems as Arranged Alliances. The implication is that at some point in history, one of the other types of alliance was possible despite any areas of disagreement. You saw this sort of thing happening in World War II Britain, when political differences were less important than the survival of the nation, and is far more likely to occur in a Meritocracy. Then, something changed to bring those differences to the fore, either for the first time or once again, but the spirit of cooperation created by the legacy arrangement lasted long enough for a resolution mechanism to be agreed upon (Stable) or for the allies to agree to disagree on a particular subject (Unstable), just like Arranged Alliances.
Once again, the GM needs to record the details.
8. Keyword Policy List
With the ‘necessary’ alliances defined and structured, the GM needs to create a list of subjects upon which the society will have made decisions. These should be based on both the titles of the factions and on the issues that are relevant to each faction; it’s hard to say how many items will be on that list. “Defense” might be an item; “Military Preparedness” might or might not be a separate item. “Urban Planning” might be an item. “Strictness of Law” might be an item. “Law Enforcement” is likely to be a completely separate item.
9. Policy Trends
For each item on the Policy Lists, you have three choices: More, Neutral, or Less. More indicates a higher priority in terms of attention and budget, less indicates a lower priority. For each faction (treating alliances as a single faction), work out where that faction stands – do they back More, Neutral, or Less?
Once you know where they stand, record their “vote” according to their Influence level – A, B, or C, then move on to the next faction. The easiest way is to turn the Keyword Policy List into a table with one column for the keyword and one for each of the three choices.
You will end up with something like this:
Note that these represent the normal state of affairs – in emergency situations, for example when the community is actually under threat or being invaded, priorities might be very different!
I find it convenient to convert this string of factional positions into numbers. Count 1 for each C, 3 for each B, and 6 for each A. The positions given above for “defense” (and I note that I have, through habit, used the British spelling and not the American) translate to “More: 23, Neutral 18, Less 19”.
Subtracting the “Less” from the “More” enables the table of policies to be sorted according to the priority placed on them by the society. In the case of the example, that would be “4” – a number that is meaningless in isolation, but that is very meaningful relative to all the other spending priorities.
When any proposal to increase expenditure on defenses is proposed, unless there is a clear indication of urgency, or the increase is very modest, the neutrals can be expected to vote against the measure, as will the “Less”. In our example, that’s 23 yes, 37 no.
If there is a clear indication of a possible threat, the neutrals would probably swing to the ‘yes’ camp, resulting in a vote of 41 yes to 19 no.
On any vote to reduce military expenditure in peacetime, the neutrals would tend to vote against the measure, in temporary alliance with the dead-set opposed “more” camp unless the proposal was to reduce it back to previous peace-time levels. Those votes are 41 no 19 yes and 23 no 37 yes, respectively.
Thus, this simple analysis begins to provide a feeling not only for the state of military preparedness of the population’s defenses, but of the history and narrative that surrounds them – slightly more readiness than strictly necessary, quick to ramp up when threatened and falling back once the threat has passed. Equipment is as archaic as it can be without actually posing a threat to the protection of society, save perhaps for a couple of elite units. Nevertheless, there is a slow trend for military readiness to increase.
Coupling these policy trends with the sequence of priorities gives you a sense of the trade-offs within the society. Everything on the list tends to steal a little budget share from everything below it in peacetime. When a threat arises, the first places to lose funding – sometimes up to 50%, sometimes to 100% are the places lower on the list, while those higher on the list – where the real money is – tend to be reduced by a little.
More to the point, you gain a sense of how political change takes place, what the social dynamics are, the conflicts within the society, the impact of social legacies from previous emergencies, and a tool by which any proposal or problem response can be estimated.
Using this tool, and the sorted list of policies, I will generally write a 1-paragraph summary of the society at this point, followed by a paragraph detailing the normal politics and another on how they respond to emergency situations. This is the start of my written summary of the nation/race/community.
10. Factional Hierarchy Revisited
Using the information at hand, a revised sequence of factional influences can now be produced – if defense is at the top of the priority list, for example, then even if an individual faction other than the military have a greater influence, the military are effectively the top of the tree. So the next step is to revise that hierarchy of factions accordingly, grouping allies together, and noting the balance with respect to oppositions.
11. Factional & Alliance Descriptions
I then add a brief paragraph to my description of the nation/race/community describing each of these factions and factional groups, their philosophies, policies, and ambitions, their allies and their (internal) enemies.
If I’m doing this long-hand, I leave as much space as I have used in between each of these paragraphs; if I’m doing it electronically, a couple of blank line will suffice.
12. Factional Leadership
Those empty spaces are to contain information about the current factional leadership and its effects on the politics and society. So far, we’ve been dealing with broad historical forces and generalities; but in the real world, individuals make a big difference. Willingness to compromise, personal priorities, fanaticism, shortsightedness, and corruption are all individual factors that can have a big influence. This is also where the GM gets to twist the “status quo” to make the place/people more interesting. Is the current leader of the military faction a stiff-necked martinet who is vastly unpopular (though eminently qualified)? Is he a paper-pusher who achieved his position by bureaucracy and internal politics within the faction rather than competence? Is he particularly charismatic, or particularly warlike? Does he feel the need to prove himself? Is he overconfident or cautious? Or perhaps a drunken fool whose position is fragile?
Or perhaps some new “influence” has wormed its way into the political structure – one that doesn’t have the nation’s best interests at heart. This could be anything from the fanatical head of a secret society to a foreign agent.
If there is a singular leader, does he have authoritarian capability? If so, his personal opinions will hold sway, no matter what the consensus of the court might be.
PCs don’t interact with historical and social generalities; they interact with individuals. And there can be a world of difference between someone’s official position and their personal opinions.
Having someone rail against the PCs and their proposals and everything they stand for and implying that their very presence stains the ground beneath their feet (because that’s the policy position he’s required to take) and then pulling every string he can reach (behind the scenes) to assist them makes for great roleplay.
“General X is an old fool whose ideas are as antiquated as the displays in the Military Museum, but he keeps the Trade Guilds off-balance, so I can’t dismiss him. You will need to work around his tactical failures and overly-conservative strategies – without actually disobeying him, mind, because he can order you hung if you do.”
“I may be the Patriarch Of The High Church of Antioch The Holy but that doesn’t mean that I’m not a reasonable man, and I quite enjoy a good cup of tea in amiable society.” – that’s a line of dialogue (as best I can remember it) from my actual Fumanor campaign.
An example (in brief)
Let’s look at Orcs for a moment. I decided that their leadership was militaristic in nature, and tribal in structure. The two great factions of their society are the hunters/soldiers and the church, who are the “Keepers of Tradition” – and neither trusts the other as far as they could throw a hill giant – in times of peace. The third most influential faction are the women, who network amongst themselves to play these two factions off against each other, manipulating both. Everyone else in Orcish society is a C group.
If a PC approaches an Orc Tribe with a proposal, as soon as one of the two main factions indicates a tendency one way or the other, their opposition will denounce it and take up the opposing position – unless the safety of the Tribe is at stake. The servants will listen to the two groups debate and then report back to the wives, who will coordinate a groundswell of opinion one way or the other, and especially the Fist Wife, mate of the Tribe’s Leader.
The women cook the food that feeds the tribe, wash and make the clothes, and educate the young in the fundamentals of Orcish society. The Priests are the repositories of tradition, the keepers of knowledge, and the splitters of hairs; the Military are the fighters, builders, artisans, and hunters.
The wives are slow to make up their minds, but as powerful as a flash flood when they do, raising arguments to undermine the faction they disagree with and providing their mates (and especially the Tribe’s leader) with insights that support the position they agree with, usually in the form of pointed questions that the other side don’t want to answer. You have to speak with the Leader, but it’s the servants – treated as little more than slaves, as part of the furniture, by the males – who you have to convince.
The individual steps are simple, if a little repetitive. This is a process, not a shortcut. But it doesn’t take too long to implement, and gives the structural outlines of a culture.
Finishing polish then comes from the Distilled Cultural Essence series.
How long does it take? Well, that depends on your creativity, to some extent, but half an hour should be enough to adequately define all but the most complex of societies, and perhaps another half-hour to populate the chief positions with individuals. The yield is rich characterization of the society producing game-play that can last for hours. That’s a pretty sweet deal, in terms of return on time invested.