Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Organizations - They don't always have to be big

So, in my recent Angel binge, I got to thinking. Why do most NPC Organizations in RPG’s always have such a large scope? Sure, sometimes you run into other adventuring parties when you play stuff like D&D, but you don’t often see organizations in adventures that don’t have a whole bunch of members.

Big organizations are a pain in the butt to engineer and create. I always get hung up, when I’m writing about the Knightly Order of Whatever, or the Wizard’s School of Something-or-Other. There are so many different power structures involved in all levels of a fantasy or even a sci-fi organization that it gets really confusing and difficult to manage. I think if you work with something smaller, you can get just about the same impact, with much less fuss. In a recent post about worldbuilding I talked about the differences between working on the Macro level vs. working on the Micro level when it comes to creating a campaign setting. You can look at organization development in pretty much the same way.

If you start building an organization on the micro level, you can work a lot faster and get things done more quickly.

Start with who the founding members of that organization were. Was there a strong central member of the organization, or was the organization put together as a group effort? Then, ask yourself the very basic question. What is the organization’s purpose? Naming is something that comes really easily once you figure out these core elements to any organization. Take for example the show Angel, which I mentioned above (yea, I really dig that show). Angel Investigations is a group founded by Angel, a vampire with a soul, who fights for justice and is dedicated to helping the helpless. This organization has several key members, or had several key member over the course of the show’s run. You have your founding members – Cordelia and Doyle, but some characters die and some new ones join up. Doyle gets killed off in season 1, but over the other seasons, Wesley Windom Pryce, Charles Gunn, and Winefred Burkle join up. Lorn, a demon, does as well. Some other supporting characters, allies if you will, join up to help the organization in their goals, but they never make it into the full cast of heroes.

Think of building an organization in RPG’s like you would build an organization like this and think of it like you would a TV show. That organization, before it becomes the legendary thing that it might very well someday be, has to develop before it gets told about in the history books of whatever realm or world you are playing in. So, start with the basics and work from there.

I’m working on something similar in my current D&D setting.

In Buzzard’s Berth, the city I’m working on now for my setting, I am developing a bunch of small-large size organization that work in the city; these organizations are factions if you will, which the players might be able to align themselves with if they think they are up to it. For example, one of these organizations, the Sons of Adelbrom is a group of brigands and bandits, but is led by a fiendish overlord. Given my previous advice, with this group, I started small – the founder, Adelbrom is a Tiefling Swordmage and specializes in all kinds of nasty hexes. He has, in his company, his “sons” who are his chief lieutenants, but are also act as his eyes and ears within Buzzard’s Berth. They are the face for the organization and range in specialization from Wizard to Rogue to Cleric. They provide consult with him on a variety of issues. These “sons” also each command groups of bandits and thieves who attack caravans and the steam trains and bring in revenue for the thieves guild.

You don’t need to think big when figuring out the organization. Just think about the core of that organization and everything else comes with it. I started at the micro level and its size just grew with tiem. I’ve got lots more notes about the organization here and I’ll probably let them come out either on the blog or on Obsidian Portal, where I do most of my campaign management as time goes on.


  1. This is good advice and would seem to make building intrigue/political adventures much more plausible and actually easier once the organizations exist with their various aims and values all competing with one another.

  2. Way back when I played (and GMed) way too much Shadowrun, we were always setting up small organization and businesses to try and maximize our effectiveness.

  3. This is true when GMing a story but its also true when writing a book, or coming up with any fictional group in a story setting. Starting with core details allows you to create real, living, expandable organizations which seem more dimensional to the players.

  4. @Joseph - you are absolutely right. This stands just as true for writing stories for a book as it does for a roleplaying game. Always try to start small and work you way up when dealing with characters and organizations. How they change might end up suprising you.