World Building 101: Organizing your Organizations

Once you’ve populated your campaign setting with NPCs, ranging from the lowliest stablehand to the mightiest of kings, you may feel you’re ready to move on. If you’re running a short term game meant to last only a couple of sessions, or a campaign focusing on dungeon crawling, then perhaps this is enough, but for those looking for a more involved campaign world there is more to consider. As alluded to previously in this series during the discussion of individual power sources, there are numerous possibilities for organizations that your player characters may wish to ally themselves with, join, or who might oppose the player characters for whatever reason.

Fortunately, defining these organizations is not as complicated as it might at first appear. In many ways you will want to ask the same sorts of questions you would ask when creating an NPC:

  • Who are the members of the organization? How does one become a member? Are there special requirements or rituals to join? Who are the most important members? Who created the group?
  • What does the organization do? What is their stated purpose? Are there special badges or uniforms to proclaim membership, or are they more secretive, preferring signs and passphrases?
  • When do members of the organization meet? Are there special observances, specific meeting times, or are they disorganized or just a general association of like minded individuals?
  • Where is the organization’s home base? Are they active world-wide or only in a particular region? Where can they be found—are there chapterhouses, or do they avoid contact?
  • How does the organization pursue their goals? Are they underhanded and sneaky, or open and forthcoming? Do they actively shape events, or watch and wait from the shadows till the time is right? How are they structured?
  • Why does the organization exist? Are there hidden agendas? Why are they likely to come into contact with the PCs?

Conceivably any group your player characters encounter could have all these questions posed and answered—from the town guard to the local thieves’ guild, from the temples to the most secretive of arcane collectives. However, barring a campaign focusing on specific elements, there is often little reason to flesh out every single organization that exists in your campaign world. The Guild of Coopers in the characters’ hometown is relatively unlikely to have any goals or interests intersecting with the player characters, unless your group has a real thing about barrels—or unless the coopers are being used as a cover for something far more sinister.

An organization may be structured in any number of ways:

Hierarchy: Some organizations form into strict hierarchies, with each successive rank having greater authority and culminating in one overall leader. Military or religious organizations tend be structured in this way, as do monarchical forms of government. The important members to detail in this form of structure are generally those at the top levels dealt with by your campaign. This may not always be the highest level of the organization, however—wide-reaching organizations may have the characters dealing with only the local heads. It’s useful to know who is at the very top, still, but they do not need to be as well detailed as those taking a direct role in the campaign.

Loose Affiliation: Some organizations are not particularly structured or organized into specific ranks. A group of arcane philosophers who share a specific interest might fall into this category, or a gang of bandits operating out of the local woods. There may be a nominal or titular leader in a group of this sort, and other individuals may hold specific offices, but in many cases these positions are more responsibility than authority, or the leader may merely be first among equals. As with a hierarchy, detail should be saved for the most influential members and those directly relating to the campaign. If a secret society of sorcerous sages seeks signs of prophecy, but only one believes the player characters to be agents of the prophecy the organization serves as a whole, the most detail should be spared for that specific member, with brief details at best about other important members.

Cells: An organization divided into cells may or may not answer to higher authorities—often it is an allegiance to a particular cause that unites this kind of group, rather than any obeisance to a specific individual or office. Different groups of worshippers of the same deity, for example, might have completely different rituals and methods for pursuing the goals of their god, but technically they belong to the same group. Outlaws or groups rebelling against tyranny or legitimate government alike may operate in this kind of structure as well, to prevent capture of all the ranking members at once and to compartmentalize information. Often, this structure indicates a need for concealment or a lack of central authority. Typically you can focus the details on those directly encountered by the player characters, especially since disparate cells may have next to nothing in common.

Other structures exist, as well, but the above examples should give an idea of the considerations to bear in mind while creating organizations for your campaign without becoming exhaustive.

As with the details of specific members within an organization, spare your focus for those organizations most likely to become involved as major concerns in your campaign. Religious or arcane organizations are likely choices, as are military or criminal groups—coinciding rather neatly with the kinds of organizations discussed in previous posts. As was also alluded to in those previous discussions, you may wish to give major organizations some sort of specific mechanic—a signature item, feats, or specialized training only available to members. This makes for an excellent way to make the organizations feel distinct and special in your setting, and can be a great hook for adventures as your characters strive to gain membership to the group or seek out powerful items from the group’s past.

Alternately, having signature attacks or gear can make an antagonistic organization feel more coherent—when members of disparate races apply similar tactics or abilities, your players will be able to tell that these guys belong to that group. “I’ve seen that style before, used by warriors in the service of Hulkgar the Bad—these must be his elite assassins!” This kind of feeling can make the players feel like they’re in a living, breathing world—something any world-builder strives to create.

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