The comments on my last post about Organizations in RPGs generated a lot of internal dialogue. I’ve been really thinking about how organizations play in to the game experience for a few weeks now. Groups, cliques, organizations, whatever you want to call them, are a central feature in some romantic fantasy. The main character is often joining or becoming a part of a group of some sort. That group is often important to the world in some way and membership becomes a big part of the stories.
The comments on the last post seemed to indicate a desire and enjoyment (it is a small sample size) on everyone’s part about having defined and useful groups as part of their games but set out quite a few of the problems that occur based on using groups.
Of course, one issue is the that a member of group has obligations to that group. If you are a member of the Knights of the Eidolon then you can probably expect them to have an agenda and they’ll want you to tow the line sometimes — to do your part. And a GM can use that to create adventures and plot hooks but perhaps, I can understand the feeling that maybe the other PCs will be less interested in the Knights’ agenda and maybe don’t want to get drawn into it.
Kevin from KORPG gave a great list of reasons that groups seem to be problematic (which I’ll quote):
1. It’ll prove to be seen by the GM as utilized too often as a crutch.
2. It’ll be used too forcefully by the GM as a stick.
3. It’ll not used at all (either by the player or the GM) and seen as a waste.
I think that this is a good list and covers the main problems well. If I’m a GM and I see my player “running to the organization” to solve every problem then I’ll probably want to do something about it — and simply having the organization demand more of the PC isn’t really the answer in a game where only one PC is invested in the organization. That just returns us to the obligation problem.
Using the organization as a stick doesn’t really sit well with me as a GM so I’d never even considered it but I can see how membership in a monolithic organization like a powerful thieves’ guild could easily be used to abuse players… A “don’t get on the guild’s bad side” kind of thing. Of course, even as I write that I can see how it could be spun in a useful direction in a game but I see how it could be abused too.
And of course, the problem of the organization just disappearing is always present. In a game it can be difficult to balance everyone’s needs and a single PC who wants to make their group membership a big part of the game might feel disappointed when multiple sessions go by with the group just kind of absent.
All of these problems seem to speak to a consistent issue — and one of my top three things I always think about as a gamer — Balance. And I don’t mean mechanical balance. I mean, balance in what you do at the table. The GM should be striving to make the players’ choices matter, the players shouldn’t abuse the advantage joining a group gives just because, that kind of balance.
Runeslinger also brings up a good point about how to get organizations to really fit in… and that is to have them be integral parts of the game itself… All for One, for example, has Musketeers. My thought is always about how Star Wars games make it so easy by having groups like the Rebel Alliance and the Jedi Order. It’s a good example of a game that has great options for the PCs baked right into the basic world. I can say to a group, “hey, let’s run a Rebel Alliance game” and everyone has a sense of what to expect.
Kevin’s point about being part of a family in his Darkwood game also brought to mind the campaign specific traits in the Pathfinder Adventure Paths. Many of these are meant to tie players into the campaign and can relate them to people and groups in the game. He also brought up an idea I’ve been kicking around too, that of offering PCs some sort of “bonus points” or something similar for adding linkages to to other PCs during character creation. I’ve been thinking about ways to implement something like this but without pushing the problem too far in the direction of making it about getting the bonus… something I’m not fond of.
And I am a big fan of in-game organizations. I think they do add a lot in the way of investment in the game world (thanks CreativeCowboy). It seems to me that in any game that will have any sort of politics you just need factions and organizations. And of course, as Middle Aged DM put it, I’m a much bigger fan of the idea of organizations and having no mechanics around them, just using the groups as part of the play experience. That would be ideal.
Now I suppose it’s back to the drawing board and I’ll have to figure out where I want to strike the balance for a romantic fantasy game.