Whenever I read through a splatbook and read something like this:

“The righteous order of the God of light is dedicated to eliminating evil throughout the land. The clerics and paladins of the order travel the roads and seek out the undead, the unrighteous, and those who work in the name of darkness.

The members of this order start at rank…”


Black Sheep CC 2.0 by PetronasI always wonder a bit if the organization being depicted really, actually exists how it is written. In the real world, we hear about corruption cases, embezzling, and failures to match the mission statement from plenty of big corporations, governments, and non-profits or charities. When I read something about an organization, country, or any group made up of multiple people, I wonder if they really do all adhere to the tenets that the setting books put forth for them.

Sure, the writing for an element like that is meant to showcase an idea, rather than an actual, realistic entity, but I like a little bit of realism and grey area in my gaming worlds. And not all writing in games falls to this flaw, there are many examples of writing that gets into the nuances of a group. White Wolf books are just one example and whenever you have a very focused splatbook, details and nuances usually come out.

If you don’t have that space, as a writer, the word limits can often cause you to provide a very brief overview of a group. You focus on the idea the organization holds in the world, but not all of their secrets and details can come out. Their prevailing theme needs to shine brightest. However, as a Game Master you are free to add in as much nitty gritty detail as you want. Usually, it only takes a brief suggestion that the group is more nuanced than the writeup makes it. So, the next time you are presenting an organization or group in your game, think about what elements might vary from the write up. Things like:

  • The group of paladins met on the road who shake you down for a tithe for their ‘protection’ and blessing. They aren’t actually corrupt according to the organization, it is just a practice they have to fund their traveling warriors who actually do deal with bigger problems.
  • The nature loving druid who cuts deals with a logging company to clear out only specific forest so he can tend the forest over the long haul. (Think of how fires clear out dead brush so new things can grow.)
  • The shadowrun megacorp that, on the surface, looks as corrupt as any other, but actually does work to keep the balance and counteract truly shady deals. The runners they fund and stock market deception they engage in is all about keeping things even and preventing it from skewing too far from stability.
  • The evil galactic army that is rampaging through the far flung colonies and raiding each and every planet for resources and people. Though they may be categorized as vicious raiders by the authorities, they aren’t bloodthirsty. They are the remnants of a planet destroyed in a war. They are making raids, but they target colonies unlikely to survive. They offer the colonists the chance to join with their fleet, but will steal supplies with force so they can survive until they find a planet that can house them. Though not strictly good, they are fighting for survival in a very primitive way.
  • The secret paranormal protection society that hunts down monsters like vampires, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night. Though they are working to protect humanity, they are funded by people who want to hold arcane power. None of this is secret amongst the organization. It’s how they are effective, by harnessing the forbidden. They know they mess with dark forces, they know they have the potential to be a bigger threat than the creatures they kill, but they act as a nuclear deterrent in the supernatural world and that is what keeps the peace, not the day to day operations.
  • Another take on the paranormal hunting group, individuals who come up against an organization that captures and tortures paranormal entities may consider them to be cruel, but this is how research is done. What harms the new type of monster that is eating people? Silver doesn’t work, the only way to find out is to test on a live subject. The field teams of the group may not want to do business this way, but they understand the necessity of the science team and its extreme measures, since that is what keeps them alive during engagements.

An organizations write up in a splat book might be detailed or scant, but it is always good to remember that few groups are ever as clear and straightforward as they appear to be. We can add in those details ourselves if they aren’t present, we just have to remember to do so.

What nuances have you added to your homebrewed organizations that go against the public image they are known by? What organizations or entities from published books felt too strict and sanitized and what elements of complexity or elements that went against type would you add to them to make them more realistic?

12 replies
  1. Troy E. Taylor
    Troy E. Taylor says:

    Nothing so defined as you’ve spelled out here. But in an Age of Worms campaign we ran I had two agents of Fharlanghn appear from time to time. They were supposed to help travelers and all that, as their god dictated, and they did that, in their fashion. But the NPCs were really the deity’s free agents who never truly worked for anyone’s interests but their own, and so were opposed to the big bad in their own way. But the campaign dissolved before their duplicity was discovered or came in conflict with the party.

  2. MuadMouse
    MuadMouse says:

    Very nice ideas in your list there!

    I end up making all organizations in my games more complex than their appearances would suggest. When I come up with an organization, or am presented with one by a player or a game book, the first thing I do is look hard at their mission statement for ambiguities and ask myself, “what sorts of sincere radicals does this group attract and produce?” Then I can toss these individuals with rival interpretations at the PCs and watch the fun unfold!

    The majority of NPCs I create this way are sincere in their belief that they’re doing the right thing. Hypocrites are always unsympathetic, which is why the only role I have for them is as allies for the PCs. 🙂

  3. Svafa
    Svafa says:

    I’ve a Hobgoblin mercenary group built from a former group of slavers who were led by a known evil cultist. They get a lot of grief and suspicion directed their way, but the new leadership is genuinely trying to set their past wrong right, and even engages in a good deal of pro bono work. Granted, said pro bono work, and many of their other assignments, are aimed toward improving their image, but it’s not with a malicious intent.

    I’ve another mercenary group that’s well established and partnered with a powerful trading house. The two are essentially fronts for a foreign army and recruit members who prove trustworthy. There’s also a bit of devil worship among the higher ups, though they see it as an unfairly repressed religion. I mean, sure they summon supernatural beings to aid them, but their reputation for humanoid sacrifice and blood oaths is largely unfounded. The fact those supernatural beings are actually evil is mostly overlooked in-setting due to a focus more on perspective and culture than a strict alignment system, and the lord of the nine hells has fantastic pr.

  4. Kenny Norris
    Kenny Norris says:

    I guess I know why most people don’t add depth to groups. But I agree that depth can make the groups more fun to run into, join, or fight against.

    What about the member of the order who helps you fight other members of the order because they don’t believe in the same thing…

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      That is some excellent seeding for a backstory. The order of paladins is corrupt, your PC is the one fighting against that to regain the glory of the order in the eyes of the people.

  5. John Fredericks
    John Fredericks says:

    I had a couple of bad guys come back, claiming they were reformed and needed help from the party.

    And they were reformed. That was the fun part. My players were still in the “major distrust” mode.

    Good article John, keep them coming.

  6. Mark Gurv
    Mark Gurv says:

    So rarely are things what they appear to be. I don’t think my players expect every church to be entirely pure. They know the evil emperor has some justification that makes sense to him and his followers. I try to keep paranoia under control and most of the time players trust paladins until they learn something otherwise.

    In my game I’ve taken the cliché “The church opposes arcane magic, teaching that it has diabolic origins” and done something different: made it the truth! The church actually has it right! Magic was introduced by devils in order to corrupt mortals, perverting the world drastically from the Creator’s Divine Plan. The twist is that the forces of good must fight fire with fire. Those same witch-hunting religions have secret orders of spellcasters who use the same magic they condemn in an attempt to restore the world.

  7. Blackjack
    Blackjack says:

    Excellent article about building realistic organizations… but why limit it to NPCs? In my campaign setting I do the same with the organizations the PCs belong to!

    For example, one of my players’ clerics belongs to a faith that is roughly “neutral good”. The church preaches the value of common decency, building community, engaging in honest commerce, and protecting travelers. Within this collection of teachings are room for different philosophical approaches.

    These differences were laid bare when the players’ homeland was threatened by a hostile foreign power. One branch of the faith sought to protect people from the terrible price of war and thus advocated concession! The other branch argued that being ruled by the foreign power, which wasn’t evil overall but had a couple cultural practices that seemed evil, would be worse than the pain and suffering and destruction of war.

    The PC’s first reaction to this emerging schism was disbelief. He firmly sided with the latter camp and could barely even speak to his colleagues on the other side. Over time, he built alliances inside and outside his church, and through strength and perseverance helped his camp “win” by getting clerics who shared his philosophy promoted to leadership roles within the church.

    Bottom line: this seeming nuance of organizational behavior became, first, a significant roleplaying challenge and later a major story arc within the campaign.

  8. Redcrow
    Redcrow says:

    I also regularly create intrigue within groups the PCs belong to. Not only is it ripe with adventure seeds, but it has the added benefit of making things personal for the PCs involved with the group. Also, tying it into a larger campaign at just the right moment can create some wonderful plot twists.

  9. Maerlius
    Maerlius says:

    I’ve started a re-write of the Age of Worms campaign and the players will find that their most valuable allies won’t be the Harpers. That organisation is undergoing some internal strife. Instead, the players will find themselves with a choice of unlikely allies – a lich, the Raven Queen cult (4e gods in a Pathfinder/FR campaign), and the Zhentarim. The first and third are traditionally “completely bad” but they have their own logical motives which puts them in a better light. Likewise, the members of the “probably Neutral but not very pleasant” cult of the death goddess have their good reasons.

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