“The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.”
― Kurt Vonnegut
Fantastic literature is filled with powerful organizations both noble and sinister, from the Jedi to the Illuminati. But this can often be difficult to replicate in gaming situations. Organizations become either over-generalized and amorphous, or single-issue zealots without nuance.
And while many game systems offer mechanical systems for gauging an organizations influence, resources, and prominence, we are more interested in creating organizations that make sense within your game-worlds. Organizations that can drive storylines and provide reasons fro your players to interact with them.
What makes an organization
As soon as some group separated itself (as “us”) from others (as “them”) society was born. And that at its root is the most basic definition of an organization. All societal groups, from the Clan of the Cave Bear to the Log Cabin Republicans, start from a belief or concept that separates it from all others. We’ll call this Outlook. A second requirement is the overall structure of the group; how to become a member and the overall hierarchy. We’ll call this Order. A final aspect, which is more a reflection of the organization form the outside, is Esteem. This is how society at large views the organization and its members.
These three poles all play on the group as a whole, and each individual member may be more closely aligned with one or another. For example, the Knights of the Round Table were united in the search for the Holy Grail, but Sire Galahad was driven more by Outlook, and King Arthur himself was pressured by Order. It could be said that Sir Lancelot was swayed by Esteem and betrayed his Order by falling in love with Gwuinevere.
As the base, this is probably the easiest aspect to grasp. Deatheaters believed in the preeminence of pure magical families. Jedi follow the Light side of the Force. The Fellowship of the Ring vowed to defeat Sauron.
Because it is so basic, it is also the broadest. Geography, bloodlines, nationality, and religion are all examples of Outlook that could encompass large groups of people. Others are far more specific. Pathfinder’s Twilight Talons are a secret group from one country dedicated to fighting slavery.
Knowing the boundaries (and limits) of Outlook is important in defining a group’s identity. The Bothers of the Leaf are committed to elven identity and protecting their homeland, but are half-elves or females allowed to join?
For good or ill, there is no ‘us’ without a ‘them’. And where this has caused so many problems in our world, conflict in the game world creates drama. And that is good for games.
Its also interesting to note that characters may be born into multiple groups, and these may cause internal conflict. Characters may be pulled between family, country, and philosophy; with multiple groups trying to affect their actions. Not all players embrace this sort of conflict, but it can create compelling interactions.
Outlook will also be reflected in the rules of conduct in an organization. These may be as simple as wearing a blue headband, and as complex as providing sacrifices to feed a dark entity. Outlook can provide a huge gamut of customs and behaviors.
Once a group coalesces around an Outlook, they quickly start developing an Order. Sith are organized around a strict Master-Apprentice relationship. Mercenary groups co-opt military organizations. Religions may follow supernaturally-powerful leaders, but their followers can follow many different forms.
Outlook often impacts Order. Secretive groups closely guard their power, and may have strict initiations. Pirate crews were often participatory democracies, with the Captain only able to issue orders in combat.
Power within the organization might be an indication of status within the Order. Do only mages of the sixth circle have access to certain spells? Or at what rank do the Knights of Solamnia get to wield a dragonlance?
Power within an organization is not always reflected in game-term “power”. The commander of a medieval force was probably a noble, not necessarily the most capable warrior. Or, the Lord Mayor may have been elected because of back-room deals, and not because he is best suited to lead. And, any organization that offers power may attract those who merely want power, and are not driven by the organization’s Outlook.
This aspect is one that organizations may have the least control over— how they are perceived by larger society. Organizations whose Outlook is good and noble usually are well-respected, and those of evil bent are often feared, but this is not always the case.
Some organizations may be secret, and the general populace may not even be aware of them. Their existence may only be in tales to frighten children, or to provide hope to those who have abandoned all else. These organizations may be undermined if their existence became common knowledge, and work to contain any leaks.
Members of this kind of organization will hold secrecy above all else, and have to give their lives to protect the whole.
Others may simply want to protect or enhance public perception of the groups. Chivalric knights (moreso in literature than realty) went to great lengths to defend chivalry. Rival groups might seek to undermine the reputation of a particular organization, and conflicts over perception could bring even good-natured groups to blows.
All of these aspects exercise control over an organization. The priests of Brastagoth may be strictly pacifist, but their leaders could be pressured into supporting a war against the Sea People. Or, the scion of a noble family may have to reject his birthright to defend his oaths. These competing interests can serve to provide color and interest to organizations beyond their core beliefs, and inspire storylines to get your player’s to more deeply interact with your game-world.
Do these constructs give you enough to build intriguing and realistic organizations in your games? Did we overlook an aspect that is crucial to success? Let us know in the comments below:
Spoiler alert: Inside Mesus
We will take a look at how we can apply these ideas to our own bronze age setting, and make public and secret organizations for players to interact with.