Using organizations in your game to ground your PCs.

While it might be setting specific, I have always felt that most RPG systems ignore the importance of organizations for starting characters. In Rolemaster, chargen involves skills developed in adolescence and another set of skills in apprenticeship. There is a implied idea that the characters received some sort of systematic training to build the skills that establish their class or profession. But from that point, most games just drop that idea and players immediately become freelance “adventurers” (excluding perhaps Clerics).

In virtually every quasi advanced society, specialized training, knowledge and skills are transmitted through organizations: guilds, schools, associations and religions. Unlike it modernity, you don’t simply graduate with a degree and a specialized education, it’s understood that you have an obligation and loyalty to that organization now and in the future.

These organizations may be secretive or hidden, but most will have wealth, resources and members that give them financial, social or realpolitik power. Perhaps the reluctance to provide low level characters access to these institutions stems from a fear of game imbalance. How can a player enjoy the challenges of low level gaming if they belong to a group that will provide cost of living stipends, equipment and protection? It sort of defeats the purpose of the game?

However, it’s common sense that most player professions had to be the result of organizational training. Maybe a Rogue or Thief learned their skills on the streets, but a teenager isn’t going to get access to a library and learn to become a Mystic or Warlock. So rather than hand wave the issue, I encourage GM’s to embrace the concept of organizations and would offer a few ideas:

Mentors. Even if it’s only intermittent help, a senior member of a players professional organization could be a great mentor. As a mentor, they’ll want the player to learn through success and failure and not just hand them aid and advice; but a mentor can still be the guiding hand the GM often needs to further the plot. Plus the mentor can be the active ingredient in a adventure plotline.

Training. While actively using a skill can be a common sense mechanism for skill rank development, at times, skill advancement will need the input from a tutor or other source to initiate advanced techniques, concepts and abilities. An organization can be the obvious source for continuing education of special skills.

Safety. Am organization will want to protect their members, even initiates and apprentices. When appropriate, this gives players (and maybe the group) a safe haven to rest or avoid an adversary.

Healing. Healing doesn’t just have to be a resource found in a temple, church or even hospital. Many powerful organizations will have other professionals on retainer: healers, astrologers, spies etc. It may cost the player in dues or services, but their organization should be a source for professional services.

Shelter. I travel a lot but I don’t live in a hotel 365 days a year! Is it realistic to assume that adventures either live in a roadside inn or sleep on the ground all the time? Having a room at a “chapter house” or organizational dormitory gives a PC a place to live between adventures and during downtime.

Equipment. Organizations would probably provide basic kit to their lowly members and could provide additional equipment and/or magic items to a PC member for special missions.

Missions. GM’s are always coming up with fairly thin motivations for players and groups to go on an adventure. Organizations make it easy–they are hired or ordered to. No questions asked (and no answers provided!).

NPC Network. Organizations will be made up of a variety of other personalities and members that can be helpful to the player or even be problematic competitors!

Identity. While most players rely on their profession/class to give them identity, being a member of an organization can be more interesting. Organizations don’t need to be demised purely by profession (Thieves Guild, Magician Academy, Fighters Club etc), they can be made up of a variety of class types or have a over arching objective or purpose besides pumping out adventure classes.

What are some ideas for organizations?

  1. Military. Being a soldier is a useful background for a player. Armies don’t just employ soldiers; they need spies, spell-casters, cavalry and almost every type of skill imagined. PC’s would be veterans and probably no longer in the military, but would still have some advantages. A network of soldiers they were friends will; starting kit they take with them, a small stipend or land grant upon retiring, medals or some small fame, fighting or other skills etc.
  2. Militia or Constabulary. Similar to being ex-army, a PC could have been a city guard or policeman. That might give them access to a information network, call in favors from active guards, or given them special knowledge of a city or town.
  3. Criminal Enterprises. Smugglers, pirates, bandits etc are great backgrounds for PCs. These organizations don’t need to be inherently evil and the PC could have been recruited at a young age and given little choice. Ties to a criminal group might be a cool advantage for a PC: fence goods, rumors and tips, access to hard to find items, etc.
  4. Cults. I have a great time with cults; I define them as “un-organized religions” and often don’t even worship an actual God. My cults tend to take more than give to their followers, but they can be a great source of fun and conflict when a player gets into the role-playing aspect.
  5. University/Monastery. Educational organizations are great for removing the looting for profit motive from a player. Instead they are chasing knowledge and this allows me to have a player that is tracking key narrative points and exposition that might be lost on other players. This works especially well with Shadow World and it’s deep history and timeline.

For me, barring a few distinct player background situations, my players are all going to be tied to an organization. What have you used?