Organizational Thinking (part two)

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.


11 responses

  1. Thanks for the recognition within good company. We all seem to be on the same page here.

    The “problem” with organizations is that PCs should not be required to belong to one – unlike NPCs who are required. (Again, reference AD&D 1e if I need a scholarly cf.) I use mentors in my game, which is more of a one-to-one relationship than an individual-to-organisation model. There is more flexibility there and the vignettes of that relationship hardly shanghai the PCs into action.

    Now a thief’s and an assassin’s guild are different because of their organisational evil alignments. And PCs playing such characters will generally (remember, the thief class is not necessarily predisposed to “evil” unlike the assassin class) understand what it means to have their alignment thrown back at them. But PCs can be used and use the the guilds whereas NPC will be working within the stereotype. A PC can use the guild for training and the guild provides the training to “keep an eye” on the PC. Vignettes of downtime can also serve to influence the player into believing an ideology, a rumour or whatever else might serve the organisation’s goals. Sometimes the goal will be aligned with the PC’s. Other times, the guild just wants an actor that can be easily disavowed.

    Fetch-me/do-me-a-favour quests are the least interesting in creating player engrossment in the game, IMHO. There is an underlying threat of quid pro quo (FROM THE DM). I imagine this can be a source of conflict at the table between player and DM. The DM who works to influence a player’s thinking through contact with the organisation is simply representing the organisation – and unless it is a description of the PC’s sensual environment (smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing), whatever the DM says MUST BE suspect. NPCs, including organisations, all have independent agendas. That’s the simulacra of the world.

    Likewise, the same for competing organisations within the world.

    Offers of membership to a guild might best be un-offered by the DM. Showing the benefits of the guild brotherhood – like any secret fraternity for that matter – could entice PCs but, IMHO, until the agenda of the guild is firmly established in the players’ minds, it is better for the group to have the PCs seek out guild membership as individuals and to allow the guild to let these PCs use their facilities for their own purposes. (Pay the guild for the equipment and training!!)

    This might answer some of Kevin’s concerns. Forming guilds around “world messages” and doing so only as the guilds are required is a way to get out of doing work for nothing.

    I should say I do not use published modules or worlds but create details from whole cloth, starting with the nucleus of the Players+PCs knowledge in a fantasy setting of my design. This lets me off the hook from having an encyclopedic reference library in my head or getting caught in retcon discussions.

    What I do may not work in a historically correct world or within a published setting where players already have an predefined idea of an organisations agendas. If DM information does not jibe with player expectations, problems will ensue.

    1. > The “problem” with organizations is that PCs should not be required to belong to one

      I disagree. And I think part of the problem stems from the definition of Organization being too small in scope.

      The “problem” with organizations and group memberships is that PCs should not be required to belong to one, they should be required to explain where they fit in, and are members of many – or face the daunting task of explaining why they’re an oddity.

      Just a quick 3-minute, off-the-top-of-my-head, brainstorm of various groups and organizations an individual would likely be a member generated this list:

      Family / Friends
      Church / Religion
      Social / Class
      Extra Curricular / Hobby / Sports / Fraternal
      Work / Role-based/Business and Trade Guilds, Groups and Organizations
      Ethnicity / Race
      Country / Region / City / Neighborhood
      Political Party / Affiliation

      Now not everyone will be a member of all, but regardless of time period and genre, most will be members of many.

      Each group provides various benefits which can be used as both carrot and stick without being overhanded or artificially mechanical in any way.

      Some will provide a contact, some a boost to a skill perhaps, some may even simply mean a character knows how to function in a given setting without drawing attention.

      At times the Group may call upon the individual to perform a service, or forbid the same. At others another member may call upon the character for advice or support.

      That’s how I think Organizations and Groups should be viewed.

    2. @Creative Cowboy
      I’m not a fan of “everything the DM says must be suspect.” I’m assuming that you mean that as the DM talking in terms of the leaders of the organizations. But when a DM is “in character” I feel like it’s okay for the DM to let an NPC lie. When a DM is talking directly to the PCs, I don’t want them to lie.

      And while I don’t think a PC should be “forced” to join an organization, if a campaign — up front — is centered around a group (like my Star Wars example) then a player knows what they are getting into when the campaign is proposed.

      I like it. I consider that an important point that is often overlooked… the value of all of those connections should be more important than it usually is in games.

      1. @morrisonn We’re reading each other well. The DM needs an in-game motivation to lie but that reason may not be apparent to the players. The motivation should become apparent with investigation and progress the story arc. I am talking about “DM as NPC” lies, half-truths and simple misinformation. A DM can also be truthful in such situations (goes without saying).

        Addressing PCs/players with descriptions of the sensual world requires honesty as the default. That said, two traveling 1st level characters (one evil, one good) randomly encountered 3 Sprites in my game. That is a shitty random encounter if it can only lead to battle but it needs no ECL to make it fun. I lied to the good character about his (helpless, arrow struck) sleeping evil friend when the Sprites cast Confuse on him. I described the evil guy as a threatening Constrictor Snake and urgently asked for initiative. The good guy removed himself from the danger rather than strike the snake/evil PC. Clever! (I am not obliged to make the good PC do anything or to make the evil character/snake chase the good PC.).

        This combat became role-play as the Sprites, realising the PCs were no match, dialogued with the good guy. Had I simply TOLD the PC you attack the evil PC (as it says in the book) the whole game would have been less than optimally engrossing.

        “Organisations” are just larger NPCs.

        @Kevin, I poorly mixed my terms (player) “group” and (“Larger NPC”) “organisation.” I did not mean for the two words to be interchangeable.

        That said, you’re describing player-driven back-story (a la Central Casting) whereas I am describing DM-driven story… world. [Now I hesitate to use the term story because, for me, story is what happens around the PCs and not a PC railroad (my “story”: economy, politics, governments, weather, original reason for the dungeon ruin construction, the story behind the fetch quest, the story of the guild and its guild leader, etc.) I am not certain what to call “my” story? Setting? World?] So with the caveat that I am not referring to the ultimate DM sin, forcing players to operate within my novel, I refer to DM-driven story where the organizations exist apart from the PCs and certain game-structure organizations are guaranteed to exist from the start: guilds, national and neighbouring international governments, military, etc. These are not organizations I ask the players to give me. This is structure needed to prevent a sandbox from becoming a sand pile.

        I am not a fan of creating an artificial player group affiliation (resulting in an organization itself) but I would rather the players themselves, during the game, come to terms with playing their PCs together with each other. I also play with strangers (migrant expatriates). But we take for granted my opinions do not de-legitimize what works for anyone else. These are just my opinions from personal experience.

  2. As abstract mechanics, a means of making organizations function in play, both HeroQuest and Legends of Angleterre have systems I like and I’ve been meaning to lift, especially the next time I do a samurai game (with different levels of membership: clan, family, school, offices, etc). HQ has the group building a community- which offers resources to draw on, can be built up and can suffer if the players overtax that. That, IIRC, assumes a community the whole group belongs to.

    LoA on the other hand has the group membership offer different kinds of mechanical bonuses, like aspects. Players cna use those for benefits in situations, gain a stunt -like effect, or even call of them for training or special access. But each organization also has “plot stress” boxes. As you call on these organizations for assistance, you mark off a box. Eventually when you have marked all the boxes, some plot crisis will arise in the organization, which you can adventure to fix (clearing the boxes) or leave be. That’s a nice way to handle almost a relationship mapping set of mechanics.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions. I’ll see if I can track down a copy of either of those to read through. The LoA seems to be a little too “gamey” for me, but I say that not having seen it, so maybe it will be more what I’m looking for.

  3. @CreativeCowboy

    Sorry about misinterpreting your stance. I see now where you were coming from.

  4. @CC

    Yeah, I see where you’re coming from. I agree. We’re on the same page there.

    The one thing I have tried, over time, is not “forcing” the PCs to be a group — but I have tried to give them all a common tie (depending on the campaign) like sharing a previous mentor, or something similar.

    That has been my answer to the problem of getting a party to stay together when it doesn’t make sense for them to anymore… you know, the problem of, “okay, we saved the town, great, now I have my own stuff to do, see you guys later…” I find this problem crops up in games like D&D a lot where there is the “wandering adventurer” vibe as the default condition. Some players don’t willingly move past that.

    I really like your statement, “Organizations are just larger NPCs.” I’m going to have to think about that for a while but as soon as I read it I had a “Huh, that’s a thing!” kind of moment.


  5. You’re quite welcome. I am flattered if I have made a positive contribution. It gives me a good feeling.

    One thing I would like to read on about is definining the terms for game world story. As I mentioned, that term gets me into so much trouble with my group of gamers. I get the feeling many of them fear railroading GMs, and my use of the term story serves to set their gears in motion. Meanwhile, and for a very long time, I was completely innocent of the connotation and argued for the denotation of the word until I realised it’s not people with English as a second language that have a hardship with the DM using the term “story” but it is me, myself.

  6. That’s interesting too. I’m a DM who is definitely frustrated by the casual use of the word, “railroad” whenever the DM does something the players don’t like. I’m also sick to death of hearing how the DM is the bad guy. That said, I do hear you on how the use of some words just ruins the conversation even before it gets started. I’ll spend some time thinking about this and see if I can’t get a post up addressing story next week.

    Thanks again.

  7. I’m perfectly fine with PC’s being forced into groups, even for many mundane things like family and social class, because an endless stream of orphaned no past murder hobos quickly becomes old.

    For me though, I find that building groups, especially believable and enticing ones, is the hardest portion of world building and at times the most time consuming. Many times I have limited time to prepare for a game and many others I have players that just aren’t interested in a in-game organization so they often fall by the wayside. I love the idea but without proper time saving tools or good old fashioned time I don’t see Organizations being a mainstay in my games.

    The Jedi Order / Rebel alliance is a good point, if world-spanning organizations with easy to perceive morals and common history are baked into the game setting it solves a lot of problem. Unfortunately I think this kind of dynamic is limited to licensed games as everyone is already familiar with the mythos.

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