The Care and Feeding of d20 Fantasy Factions
I’m moved to write about factions and how they have developed and shaped various d20 fantasy settings over the years. Now, here’s the trick . . . this is largely filtered through my own lens. That means the order in which I have encountered these things, and the degree to which I have taken them to heart, is largely shaped by my perspective. That means that I was exposed to a little bit of Mystara/The Known World in the Expert Set, and whatever I picked up from the early Dragonlance novels, but from a game setting perspective, my first real “hit” of factions came from the Forgotten Realms setting.
What is a Faction
Technically, you can’t really play a roleplaying game without encountering a faction, because a faction is a group of like-minded individuals that have a common goal. A group of monsters in a dungeon that work together are a faction. A group of bandits that rob people on a given stretch of road are a faction.
What I’m looking at here are more complex political entities. These are groups that don’t just want to survive or to gain wealth, but have a specific procedure for doing these things, and may have interests beyond basic survival and enrichment.
- A kingdom or a nation will be a faction, insofar as they have agents looking to promote their interests
- Noble houses will be a faction, insofar as they promote the wellbeing of the house and advance house goals
- A guild will be a faction, in that it will have some specific ideas about how members operate, and how to maintain the power and influence of that guild
These are common factions that exist in just about any fantasy setting that start to develop any kind of basic structure.
Certain settings have other factions beyond the obvious. The Circle of Eight are an extra-national group of wizards that influence continental politics in the World of Greyhawk. The Scarlet Brotherhood are an extra-national organization seeking to reassert Suel superiority in the same setting. They have agents that could appear in various places throughout the setting to promote a goal.
The first time in my Dungeons & Dragons hobby experience that I really noticed factions and how they drive a setting, however, was reading through the Forgotten Realms setting. Just from interacting with the Old Grey Boxed set, several factions jumped out at me:
- The Zhentarim (expansionist merchants that weren’t above using military and magic means to expand territory)
- The Harpers (a generally good clandestine organization that was against over centralization of power or tyrannical expressions of the same)
- The Red Wizards of Thay (an organization that ruled a country, but had far ranging interests beyond that country, consolidating their supremacy of magic)
- The War Wizards of Cormyr (an official branch of the government that magically protected the country in a manner more like an intelligence agency or secret police)
- The Cult of the Dragon (a far-ranging organization trying to bring about a very specific apocalypse, involving undead dragons)
There were more, especially once you started adding on resources like FR1 Waterdeep and the North, or FR5 The Savage Frontier, but the point is, you didn’t need to be in Berdusk to run into the Harpers. You didn’t need to be in Zhentil Keep to run into the Zhentarim. You didn’t need to be anywhere near Thay to run into a Red Wizard.
It was also clear that while “standard” D&D adventuring was the norm in the Forgotten Realms (to the point that there is an adventuring subculture in the setting), many normal D&D adventures were flavored by meddling from these factions. Recover an ancient Netherese artifact from a lost tomb in the Dalelands? The Zhentarim, the Red Wizards, and the War Wizards might all zero in on you as soon as the artifact isn’t shielded by the tomb where it was located.
To me, this kind of “factional complication” is what made the Realms unique. You could take a normal D&D dungeon crawl, and that would work fine, but when you get back into a city, you might end up dealing with all kinds of NPCs that get into your business. And they are well defined aspects of the setting, not just factions you make up yourself. They have their own history, agenda, and means of doing business. Even your random encounters during an adventure might have you cross paths with agents of one of these factions.
Another formative element of these factions is that regardless of the goals and motivations of a given faction, interaction with a faction may not be cut and dried. A Cormyrean War Wizard may come from what is called, in game terms, a “lawful good” nation, but they may not want you to remember you found that thing you found, and are more than willing to erase your memory of the last year or so to make their nation more secure. The Zhentarim or the Red Wizards might pay a good price for something you pass on, and if you don’t seem too dangerous, they might just pay you and let you go (don’t think too hard about what they do with what you sold them). The Harpers may be setting up an elaborate political web, and your safety may not be what they worry about when they are thinking of “the greater good.”
In the Realms, some adventuring companies almost come across as factions unto themselves. They make a name for themselves. They specialize in certain kinds of adventures. They may have their own goals and standard operating procedures. They have their own distinct names and exploits. Mercenary companies aren’t anonymous organizations, but essentially adventuring companies writ large.
I point this out because in my early experience in the Realms, if your adventuring company is a mini-faction learning what they are “about,” interacting with larger factions is part of what defines your group. Joining those factions aren’t so much why those factions exist.
Some of the earliest Realms novels reinforced this mindset. Shandril’s life is complicated by her exposure to the Zhentarim, the Cult of the Dragon, agents of Cormyr, and the Harpers. Alias is attempting to define who she is while dealing with the backlash of Harper machinations. The Companions of the Hall must deal with an ousted member of the Hosttower of the Arcane as he attempts to rebuild his reputation. The template was “us” against “them,” or “us” warily accepting the help of “them” while still retaining who “we” are.
Then The Harpers novels came out.
Let me say, for the record, some of my favorite Forgotten Realms novels are part of this series. Especially if we’re talking about Elaine Cunningham’s novels featuring Danilo Thann and Arilyn Moonblade. However, the paradigm presented in these novels shifted the perspective from “us” being the adventuring company, and “them” being the factions, to “us” being a “good” faction, and “them” usually being an “evil” faction.
There are Forgotten Realms based adventuring companies that stand for something. The Knights of Myth Drannor are all about that, as are the Companions of the Hall. But the narrative in those stories is that you have a group of friends that come together because they believe in something, not because they are agents of an existing power.
Framing the Harpers as an active, “good” power to which protagonists belong, shifted the feeling of the group in the setting. It wasn’t an external group that wanted to do good but may not have the best interest of the adventurers at heart, but instead was an aspirational group for good heroes.
Beyond the Realms
I’m not an expert on every setting that has ever existed in D&D. I’m a dabbler, not a scholar. But I think it’s interesting to look at some of the other settings that came along in the 2e era at this point, and to see how factions were utilized.
- Spelljammer created some “extra-territorial” organizations, which made sense, because those organizations created continuity between the wide-ranging settings the PCs may encounter while exploring. You may be in a strange crystal sphere far from where you have ever been, but if you run into an elven ship, it’s likely to be affiliated with the Elven Armada. Even the planar churches presented in the setting had an “extra-territorial” feel, as they existed so that some power from the plane being venerated was likely to be present in a new region that was being explored.
- Eventually this continuity was replaced with transplanting setting specific elements widely across disparate crystal spheres, which I think was a mistake compared to the setting specific continuity afforded by the natively developed faction, but that’s a tale for another day.
- Dark Sun also included important factions that facilitated play between different cities and environments. Trading houses were important, and the Veiled Alliance was a means of both allowing for better access to magic, while also policing the action of arcane spellcasters.
- Probably the biggest example of factions in all of D&D is Planescape, with its philosophy-based factions. This was fundamental to an adventurer’s understanding of Sigil. People with similar philosophies banded together, and many of these groups had adopted an official standing in the city, doing jobs that aligned with their faction.
That said, there is a shift from early Forgotten Realms or even Spelljammer philosophy, in that instead of just providing continuity and setting details, later D&D factions were designed with an eye towards player characters joining these factions. The Veiled Alliance was a resource for player character mages. Trading houses may help keep adventurers from being conscripted in the next city over.
When it comes to Planescape, I will admit, I wasn’t invested in the setting long enough to see if this feeling evolved, but what struck me about the initial presentation of the factions is that the Free League existed to give you a faction to explicitly join, when you didn’t want to join any other faction.
For a lot of D&D settings, factions were external forces like the Scarlet Brotherhood or the Red Wizards of Thay, they were functional access points to setting investment for player characters.
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here, but I as long as I’m talking about the evolving roles of factions in the Forgotten Realms setting, I wanted to take a look at the 3rd edition expression of the setting, and some of the shifts that happened, that may have had more effect than was evident at the time. I know from my own perspective, I didn’t really think about all of this until after the era faded.
- The Red Wizards became a vaguely malevolent, but mainly capitalist institution in 3e, giving an explanation for the boom in directly buying magic items that was an assumed property of the game at that point in time.
- Some of the final products of 2nd edition introduced the Harper Schism, which reduced the power of that organization, and the Manshoon Wars, which put a big dent in Zhentarim power. Neither group was gone, but both were flavored with a decrease in general influence. Also, with the death of King Azoun in Cormyr, the Purple Dragons and the War Wizards went from “Eastern Heartlands meddlers” to inward facing organizations trying to fix Cormyr itself.
- The Shadovar were introduced as a new faction, but this wasn’t “one faction among many” or even “a complicating factor.” The Shadovar were presented as THE villains of the setting. They were based out of one location, so they were faction and nation, and they were directly affiliated with a specific goddess, so they were faction, nation, and church. In addition, they had their OWN POWER SOURCE for magic, so they didn’t have to play by the meta-rules of the setting.
The Shadovar felt less like a group that “may also be interested in this thing,” and more like a group that was “actually behind the thing in the first place.” While that’s true at times of all of the existing factions, this felt like the constant setting of the Shadovar.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t other factions that rose up during this time. The lycanthropic focused People of the Black Blood showed up from time to time, as an example. I just felt the Shadovar’s . . . well, shadow, loomed over everything, and made other factions feel like “mini bosses” in the setting.
Across the Multiverse
The third edition era also saw the creation of Eberron. I’m not going to act as if I’m an expert on this setting at all, but Eberron has a ton of local, specialized factions, and does a great job of presenting these as vaguely benevolent or malevolent, because the setting was already working to disentangle absolutes from alignments.
One trend that Eberron carried over from settings in 2nd edition that revolved around factions, however, were player facing, widely-operating factions. The Dragonmarked Houses are extra-national organizations that are relevant across the entire setting, and the setting provided mechanics for a character to come from one of these houses, complete with a magical tattoo that granted thematic powers.
One of the excellent design elements that went into Dragonmarks and the Dragonmarked Houses, however, is the fact that it allowed characters to decide if they wanted to be agents of that house, disenfranchised members, or downright rebellious characters. The faction was important, but the position of the character was still wide open.
When 4th edition D&D rolled around, factions took a bit of a hit in the Forgotten Realms. The Harpers were (temporarily) wiped out, in order to frame the heroes as having no one to upstage them (and, no one to complicate their lives or give them aid, either, but that’s just nuance at this point).
- The Zhentarim was largely just the Church of Bane, since Fzoul Chembryl was the Exarch of Bane, and fully in charge of the organization.
- The Shadovar continued to be major villains, even stepping up and taking over Sembia and reviving more Netherese cities.
- When Asmodeus was framed as a new deity for the setting, the Asmodai emerged as another religion-based faction.
- The Abolethic Sovereignty also showed up that this time as a wandering nation of aberrations ruled over by the titular monsters.
There were a lot of factional groups mentioned in different sections of the campaign guide, but given the changed nature of the Realms during this era, those regional bad actors didn’t feel like they were going to spread their influence outside of the region that detailed them.
While you can definitely still get some mileage out of these factions, there was more of a functional, thematic nature to these factions. Devils and cultists were Asmodai, Shadow creatures were Shadovar, aberrations were Abolethic Sovereignty. The Zhentarim kind of survived as a more political entity, but also by consolidating it with the Church of Bane, it was still very “Banecentric.”
While this felt like a move back towards the original Realms concept of “adventurers are their own thing,” it also marked all of the factions as something to strive against. In the early Realms, you may not have been able to 100% trust the Harpers to have your back if the greater good was at stake, but you could count on them when your interests aligned. That still exists in 4e Realms, but it’s much more regionally focused.
Some noteworthy things happened in some D&D adjacent games around this time (and a little later). Taking these one at a time, we’ll look at Pathfinder first.
Pathfinder Organized Play made the very smart decisions, from a framing perspective, of assuming that everyone belonged to an organization that could assign them missions, so that everyone had buy in right from the start. That introduced one multi-national faction from the start, the Pathfinder Society.
In additional to the regional threats that the Pathfinders would face, there was also an oppositional force to the Pathfinders, the Aspis Consortium. If the Pathfinders were an organization of Indiana Joneses, the Aspis Consortium was an organization of Belloqs.
In addition to belonging to the Pathfinder society, each PC was assumed to be part of another faction. These factions weren’t discreet organizations (at first), they were national affiliations, from the nations that surrounded the city of Absalom, where the Pathfinders are based.
All of this was very smart design, because it gave the PCs a reason to travel the setting, it gave them faction missions that helped flesh out the setting by giving them faction goals that reinforced the personality of the various nations, and it gave them an outside force to strive against, regardless of personal perspective. All of that said, it is firmly in the “factions are for the benefit of PCs and membership” school of design.
13th Age, another d20 level based fantasy game, also introduced factions from a different point of view. The game has Icons, big important NPCs, and the player characters have either a positive, negative, or conflicted relationship with these NPCs. Based on affiliation scores, PCs can roll to see of their affiliations or opposition grants them a benefit during the course of the game.
Because these are big character concepts, like the Emperor of the Dragon Empire, or the Queen of Elves, these affiliation scores may not be due to a direct connection to the Icon themselves, but also to the organizations that support that Icon. You might be the Queen’s niece, or you may have been a member of her personal entourage of spies, but either way, you have an affiliation with her.
One thing that the 13th Age expression of this idea seemed to “get” better than the Forgotten Realms redesign of 4th edition, was that big, important NPCs don’t need to be assumed to outshine the PCs just because they exist. They might be the ones that the big NPC counts on to get things done, while they go about their important duties. While there is much talk of people wondering why Elminster doesn’t fix a problem in the Realms, when framed in this manner, nobody expects the Archmage to show up and fix a simple issue in the Dragon Empire. He’s doing ICONIC things.
A Quick Glance Back at Golarion
While I was much more invested in the earlier seasons of Pathfinder Society Organized Play, I was largely removed from it when the developments I’m about to mention came into play. Essentially, factions expanded from national affiliations, to sub-groups within the Pathfinder Society. Factions expanded so that you might actually be a double agent within the Pathfinder Society, or someone that wasn’t just acting in your nations interests as well as being a Pathfinder, but also portraying someone that was leveraging the Pathfinder Society to use their resources to perform goals outside of their historical goals.
Given that characters were still expected to have a faction, this meant that while players weren’t meant to get into player versus player conflict, more factions were in direct opposition to one another due to more explicitly oppositional goals of some of these new factions.
The Realms, 5th Edition, and Adventurers League
It was obvious from some of the “multi-edition” adventures that appeared as part of the D&D Next playtest that the Red Wizards were being positioned as an active, opposition force in the 5e Realms material. This had started with Szass Tam’s consolidation of power in 4th edition, but 5e material saw Red Wizards very active far from home, on the Sword Coast.
The fiction leading up to 5e Forgotten Realms didn’t destroy the Shadovar completely, but it did destroy their cities and scattered them, making them clearly not “the” villains of the setting for the current edition.
The 5e Forgotten Realms seemed to be doing as much as it could to “reset” the world to be like what it was 100 years in its past. New 4e nations largely (but not completely) disappeared. Nations that disappeared in the Spellplague returned. NPCs thought dead were discovered to be alive. And factions that had been damaged or shuffled off screen were reorganized and returned to prominence.
- The Harpers weren’t completely destroyed
- The Zhentarim isn’t just the military arm of the Church of Bane
- The Emerald Enclave, formerly a regional power group out of the Vilhon Reach, now operated in the Sword Coast North as well
- The Lord’s Alliance, a kind of UN of city states in the Sword Coast North, was now expanding membership and sending agents out to new places
- The Order of the Gauntlet was added to the mix, a group of undead hating, good alignment loving adventurers
These new factions were built to be player facing and featured prominently in Adventurers League organized play. They were mentioned in the Dungeon Masters Guide, with guidelines on how to accumulate Renown and gain ranks (with the benefits changing a little from season to season). Different adventures might have secret missions for various factions.
While this marked a return to prominence of extra-national power groups in the Forgotten Realms, the implementation didn’t always land. When written into non-Adventurers League hardcover adventures, the factions largely appeared to give a slightly faction flavored reason to participate in the adventure, and occasionally to hand out a quest that wasn’t directly related to the ongoing storyline (why worry about giants rampaging across the North when you can have your agents deliver a message for you to make sure they go to a specific town?).
The other problem that arose came from the tenor that some of the Adventurers League faction missions created. In earlier versions of the rules, both the Zhentarim and the Lord’s Alliance allowed for Lawful Evil characters, although the Zhentarim was considered “a little” more nefarious than the Lord’s Alliance.
The Zhentarim, since it was now rebuilt as a recognizable, but player facing organization, was now framed as a group that legitimately provided mercenaries and muscle for hire, and illegitimately, was a continent spanning thieves’ guild. The problem is, over decades of D&D tropes, a thieves’ guild doesn’t really equate to “evil,” just, “roguish and criminal.”
Faction missions for the Lord’s Alliance sometimes hit much harder than Zhentarim missions. Lord’s Alliance agents were expected to ruin the lives of political enemies, or even to assassinate (or at least not save) certain individuals. The Zhentarim missions, in contrast, often involved informing people where they could find a good fence or dropping off a stolen item. Lots of “networking” happened in Zhentarim missions, that didn’t seem all that sinister.
The Zhentarim, which used to want to control all Heartlands merchant organization, and also, while we’re at it, take over the world if the opportunity presents itself, now just felt like a really big mercenary company that dabbled in running a macro-thieves’ guild. They felt less like the “evil option” for factions, than they did “the faction that won’t kick you out for being evil.”
When players of different factions online attempted to shape the narrative of Adventurer’s League storylines by rallying the factions to come together to oppose the Red Wizard’s influence in the Moonsea region, the official AL answer was an adventure whose canonical ending was the Red Wizards winning and using the power of plot to make it clear that the factions didn’t matter all that much.
Other Factions, Sneaking In
While the “big” factions identified for player use have, ironically, had less of an impact on the 5e Realms, some of the older factions have started to creep back into some of the more Realms focused adventures that have been released.
For example, the Kraken Society features in one chapter of Storm King’s Thunder, Breagan D’aerthe, Jarlaxle’s underdark band of mercenaries, makes a few appearances, especially in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, as does the Xanathar’s Thieves’ Guild. The Hosttower of the Arcane rears its head again in Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frost Maiden, and the Flaming Fist, a mercenary company turned branch of Baldur’s Gate government shows up in Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus.
There are also some nods to “non-quest giving” player facing adventure entanglements, via Artus Cimber’s Harper status in Tomb of Annihilation, or the appearance of one of Manshoon’s clones in another adventure.
That said, 5e’s implementation of factions as a setting element seems to suffer a bit from using the Pathfinder Society model, by not fully committing to the concept of factions having an actual impact.
It makes sense that individual agents of a nation might follow those agendas, without seeing other agents of that nation in an adventure. If you wanted to see what Andoran or Cheliax were up to as nations, that was portrayed in non-Pathfinder Society adventures or Adventure Paths. But if you wanted to see what the Harpers or the Zhentarim were up to outside of Adventurers League, there was a problem. Even in the hardcover adventures, the player facing factions are rarely proactive. They tend to exist, and they even hand outside quests that often don’t even seem to interact with the main thread of the hardcover adventure.
The Harpers, Lord’s Alliance, Zhentarim, Order of the Gauntlet, and Emerald Enclave largely exist passively, sometimes offering favors to their members in a crisis, but only if they take a side-quest that doesn’t directly do anything to address an ongoing threat to the Sword Coast.
The one faction that seems to have an ongoing, malevolent presence in the setting is the Red Wizards of Thay, but that’s largely confined to Adventurers League content. In fact, when asked about the Red Wizards in a Lore You Should Know segment, Chris Perkins seemed to indicate that canonically, that AL stuff hasn’t really happened, and the Red Wizards haven’t really been all that active after the D&D Next adventures.
Adventurers League never required characters to have a faction, but most of the earlier seasons made it clear that, since you were effectively getting benefits if you were a member of a faction, with nothing to replace it if you weren’t part of a faction, it was better to join up.
The last few seasons have changed this. Characters can still gain renown and benefits without joining a faction, and they gain slightly different options if they are part of one faction or another.
The most recent document allows for a wider range of less detailed, existing factions in the setting, such as the aforementioned Breagan D’aerthe, only excluding the Red Wizards of Thay or overtly evil organizations. This means that, at least in Adventurer’s League, you might see more adventuring parties that don’t just have the “big five” factions represented, or you may have adventuring parties not overtly interested in factions.
Ideally, I wish the factions would have been given mechanical weight in a different manner. For example, I would have loved to have seen a system of favors for different factions, which allowed for favors or contacts in different groups, which didn’t force a character to join that organization when they interact with it.
I would love to see more “factions complicating a straightforward adventure” worked into adventures. I would like to see offers and counter offers for player characters performing jobs, allowing them to figure out who they wanted to align themselves with based on what’s best for them, and how their entanglements are likely to come back to bite them later, especially if such things could be detailed as mechanized or delineated options.
I would love to see some input on how to run those groups where most of the organization are adventurers without any specific entanglements, but that one person is very idealistic, and joins the Harpers, making life harder for the rest of the group, or they used to work for the Zhentarim, and they “keep dragging me back in.”
Waterdeep Dragon Heist did a much better job of presenting a wide range of side jobs that characters might be given than other adventures, ironically in the same season where Adventurers League started to downplay the importance of factions (which has no bearing on non-AL games, obviously).
I would love to see some kind of meta-rules that allowed the party to accept a faction based complication in order to get a longer term benefit, with some built out options for a wide range of factions.
The Greater Good
I know that Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything is going to expand the patron section found in Eberron: Rising from the Last War, and that patrons and factions kind of mesh with one another well.
Looking at a few other products right now, I would love to see the following detailed for different factions:
- Traits, Bonds, Flaws, and Goals that members can “borrow” for roleplaying or inspiration
- Rules for what contacts in the organization provide for a character
- Quantified favors that PCs can earn and “spend” with a faction
- Rank benefits that function outside of organized play
- “Negative rank” and the effects of rival factions the PCs may have crossed
- Rules for “invoking” faction trouble in exchange for a future benefit
- Details on sub-factions within the factions, with similar details as provided for the main faction
I would love to see more quantified rules that would allow player characters to choose to invoke a connection or rivalry with a faction, rather than leaving the heavy lifting of interacting with the faction entirely to the DM.
I think having these kinds of quantified faction rules wouldn’t just benefit the Forgotten Realms, but would help flesh out interacting with settings that also have strong factions, like Dark Sun, Spelljammer, or especially Planescape.