Friday, May 24, 2024

How We Lost Faction Play, and Why it is Valuable

 When I was a kid, I taught myself to play Dungeons & Dragons from the Red Box. I have a lot of praise for the design of the Mentzer Basic set: It was the first version of Dungeons & Dragons with a really clear how-to play guide, as well as two introductory adventures played solo in a way that was pretty familiar to a Choose Your Own Adventure addict like me. Castle Mistemere was a pretty clever design as well, giving you the first floor of the dungeon, a map of the second, and mostly a question mark for the third, it eased the Dungeon Master into learning how to play their role; perhaps not as well as Keep on the Borderland, had but it gave you a more methodical approach. 

There was one way adventure with Aleena at the beginning of the book was deeply flawed, however. As a tutorial it was great, even as a piece of fiction it was pretty good. You got attached to Aleena, and then her death broke your heart, especially if you were 6 year old boy at the time...

...But, it also set up the idea that you were going to be playing the hero in a high fantasy narrative. You had an evil sorcerer, on the run, and, if you carried on with the PC you started with, were hunting them. You had a friend to avenge. Castle Mistemere reinforced that by suggesting that Bargle will be placed somewhere in the lower levels of the dungeon as a mastermind. 

This is great Dungeons & Dragons; don't get me wrong. But, unlike Keep in the Borderland, you don't start as a mercenary looking for a quick score. Nor do you start as an escaped prisoner, or a castaway. From the beginning, the introductory adventure and castle Mistemere create the kind of plot are that we now associate with the kind of ""trad" play that was soon thereafter refined by Tracy Hickman in Ravenloft and the Dragonlance saga. In other words, it was a heroic journey,  not a sandbox adventure,

There's anything wrong with the style of play. It dominated the second edition landscape for good reason, but it also meant that some of the wargame he aspects of running a Dominion, and the importance of Faction Play got lost. 

This is definitely point where Keep on the Borderlands was a superior piece: you could play the humanoids against one another, and in time become instrumental in holding together the keep and the Castellan's power base. 

The possibility that your characters could control their own factions, and the possibility that they too could carve out a home for themselves in the wilderness with a small army was baked into KotB in a way that it wasn't in those early Mentzer adventures.. 

And I think that's one of the reasons why ultimately those styles of play fell off. Mentzer Basic was the jumping-off point for new players and one of the most important times in Dungeons & Dragons' growth from 1983 through to 1992 when the Black Box and the Rules Cyclopedia were released (just before they killed the Basic fork outright.)

(The Black Box, by the way, did a great job of introducing the game in that more freewheeling sandbox style. It started with an escape from a goblin prison, and then, asthe PCs slowly build up a reputation, they are fed opportunities with some local dwarves to help them clear out some lost strongholds and mines. The scenario book came with quite a few adventures all played on a flexible battle mat very similar to the one used in hero quest.)

(I honestly don't think enough praise is given to the Black Box for it's clever design. I know a lot of players who started in junior high school with it, and It produced some pretty good players. )

For the first seven or eight years that I played D&D, every person I played with was a player that I taught how to play. When I finally started meeting new players, most of them had been self-taught as well. Most, as nerdy boys who hit their teen years in the early nineties, were huge Dragonlance fans. As well as huge Final Fantasy fans. By the time I was running into other players and other groups, most new players were being taught using the Black Box by GM's who, having been brought up on the Red Box, most of whom wanted to create a plot as driving for their as hunting down and avenging Aleena upon Bargle.. 

This is the original "Munchkin" phenomenon at its heart. Gamers my age came into Dungeons & Dragons through a combination of video games, self-teaching, and Dungeons & Dragons novels. We didn't have the wargaming background, and so a lot of the value of domain level play and faction play was completely lost to us. We were distracted by the desire for a heroic plot, just as the Red Box had taught us.

In the vacuum of a wargame background, bold heroics and monster slaying became the focus of the game. And that style of play ultimately became the core style for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition, which completely neglected faction and domain level play  play except for the optional leadership feat. 

The complete scoundrel and the complete
champion offered solid faction mechanics
  for the first timein thirdedition, right
at the very end of its life cycle.
We didn't see factions get a role in the 3rd edition until Unearthed Arcana and The Planar Handbook. Even then they were mostly vessels for prestige classes. They remained otherwise underdeveloped until a few of of the Complete books and The Player's Handbook II decided that they wanted to make it a bigger portion of the 3e play style. 

And, the Complete books were not really meant to change the play of 3rd edition at all. They were meant to be a play-test for me various ideas they wanted to integrate into the 4th edition they were already developing in secret. The Factions and factions mechanics of 3.5e, like almost everything in the Complete series, were doodles that players were shelling out money to playtest. 

Why We Should Care

I don't think I really came to appreciate how important, and how valuable factions can be to a game, especially when it comes to creating tools that allow the campaign operate itself, rather than requiring constant prep from the gm. 

Approaching Dungeons & Dragons with some of the wargaming elements integrated back into it has really been an eye opener for me. It's truly has made a massive difference of my experience of the Shadows Over Sojenka campaign I'm playing with Stephen Smith every Thursday. In that game, we are playing Blueholme and ostensibly exploring the Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg, although the campaign is certainly drifted away from them. In the background he runs a Braunstein-style war game where players control factions. Because of it, the campaign is forever shifting, and always changing out from under the feet of the player characters in the D&D half of the game. 

You can get a rundown of my experience here. In brief: The campaign world is always shifting, always changing period the politics and the people feel really alive because there's always something going. Steven did not have to create a hero plot line for us period we created one for ourselves when we saw a necromancer flying under the radar of the other player groups and chose to hunt him down. And as a villain he's been exceedingly crafty, because he is in fact, Run by a player whose sole job it is to think for the necromancer and move him towards his goals..

I have found myself deeply invested in what goes on in the setting, Because the game invites me to carve a place in it. I have made profitable relationships with several different factions., And that has allowed me to get resources to succeed as an adventurer in return..

Bringing it Home

But even at home, I have found it really useful. I walk my son 25 minutes to school and 25 minutes back every day. And during that time, we usually play various role-playing scenarios using Square Dungeon as our engine of choice. Which is as close to freestyle gaming as you can get without actually being completely free style. 

These games always use whatever world he's currently fascinated by in video games or cartoons. Right now it is Palworld. And what a great setting that is for running a role playing campaign in! It is rife with rival factions engaged in a violent competition with one another.

During the early parts of play, my son did what you generally do in Palworld, which is coming to conflict with all but one of the sanctions, and eventually have to deal with them retaliating by raiding your base.

Overtime, however, unlike in the video game hw has the freedom and desire to do things like permanently eliminate the factions from play. Once he realized that there were permanent consequences to his actions, and freedom to do things not possible on a PC, he started looking to make a mark on thePalpagos Islands. He started gathering intelligence on the factions. 

He also made friends with NPCs with skills that he had not been developing with his character, eventually creating a small web of business deals and affiliations. While we were free forming it, it became pretty clear that he had reached a level of play where the opportunity for a Dominion was presenting itself. In response, I eventually had a small crew of misfits show up and say they want into the "gang" they saw him creating. At first he wasn't sure he was interested, and sent them on a wild goose chase claiming it was an initiation.

However, once he saw them in action, he suddenly realized that he could be starting his own faction. 

He hired them on and learned quickly about their skills. One was an expert at gathering intelligence and spying. One was extremely sneaky and capable of stealing and planting objects and faction bases, and one was good at pure brute force. 

That's when he started formulating a plan. He stole the concealing uniforms of a couple of the different factions and ran a campaign of false flag operations to put the various factions against one another. He also set up an ambush for the weakest of the local factions - the Rayne Syndicate - capturing half of its membership and arranging for them to be forcibly shipped off the island by the black market. 

Eventually, using sabotage and guile he pitted two of the larger more powerful factions - the Free Pal Alliance and the Brotherhood of the Eternal Pyre -against each other and kept nudging at it until it was all-out  all out war. And while they were busy brawling with each other, he planted evidence that the Syndicate that he'd already been picking off was responsible. This made sense, after all, they were losing membership and influence. 

This culminated in an assault by the other two factors on the third with overwhelming force, driving their leader into hiding, and reducing the numbers of that faction to less Have a full strength..

And gloriously come I didn't have to Prompt him to do any of it.

With a faction eliminated, and a sudden power void on the island, he chose to set up his own tower and start recruiting from the locals, selling them on the idea of forming a militia that will protect them against the predation of the three weakest factions he be picking on, and depending them against oppression from the most powerful faction. 

Many of our recent  sessions have included solidifying his power base, and accepting challenges from locals in the same fashion as the other faction leaders, and spending tons of gold on researching more advanced technology. 

I thought that running a rules light role-playing game based on Palworld would have a pretty limited lifespan. But, once my son got used to the idea of faction play, I no longer had to make up adventuresideas for him.  He turned Palworld into his own Kriegspiel.

Factions are one of several Toys that you can Throw into The sandbox that keeps the player interested in playing in it, and prevents you from having to come up with more structure and activity.  They encourage spontaneous play..