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?

5 Replies to “Using organizations in your game to ground your PCs.”

  1. One of the key players in my campaign world are the ubiquitous Gilbur Trading Leagues – they’re everywhere there is money to be made, and they’re always hiring! They hire for many reasons – eliminating competition, discrediting local politicians, exploring in search of new commodities or markets, that sort of thing…but, as they have their own mercenary troops, they almost never hire caravan guards.

  2. Since I do a fair amount of non-fantasy gaming there are almost always organizations behind the PCs. For espionage, of course, you have “the agency” in its various forms. Gangbusters provided a number of organizations (the police department, newspaper, a criminal organization, various Federal law enforcement groups). Military gaming has, of course, the military. With my Western games players may start off on their own initially, but they usually gravitated to some kind of organization (outlaw gang, ranch, law enforcement) within a level or two. Even gamblers or prospectors usually ended up with some kind of group or loose organization. Native characters of course had their tribe.

    This carries over to my fantasy stuff as well. I’m very into mimicking social organization as best I can in my games, so PCs will quickly form associations with organizations. They vary from realm to realm, but tend to follow the general outline you laid out.

  3. Perhaps motivation is another useful aspect of organisations? Well for me it is. The character becomes aligned with the organisation’s goals and purpose which adds depth to a character.

    There is also the aspect that organisations whilst appearing to boost a character’s abilities if limited to a locale (think Italian city-states) then all sorts of things happen. Having to travel back to your home base to check in for training etc. Avoiding competing organisations or being detained by one can make life complicated outside your own organisation’s domain.

  4. As a follow up, what type of resources do you allow the PC’s to access from the organization? Also, anyone have PC’s that are royalty or from a wealthy family and have access to considerable wealth?

  5. The 7th Sea game world has a range of secret and not so secret societies, each with their own agenda, that characters may belong to. The Explorers Society is often a source of adventure and can fund entire expeditions and outfit ships.

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