Thursday, October 28, 2021

Faction Procedures + Dolmenwood Example

Sandboxes tend to imply factions, but faction play is sometimes a boogeyman for open world games. Should it be subtle, just a thought? Should it be a tracked rubric of needs and wants, like a private rumor table with bonuses? Should it be a complex system of rolls and resources, like a solitaire Matrix game the referee plays behind the screen on off-hours? Well, it ought to be something if merely to add some variability to whatever sociopolitical forces prop up the flavor of the setting. 

Stars Without Number is often the poster child for robust faction play, and for good reason. Multiple spreads from that big book are spent detailing what and how many resources any faction has, its stats (typically reach, cash, influence, brute force, etc), and the various tags that allow it to flex various faction moves on other factions who are also using faction moves against yet more factions. It's robust, yes. It's also rather crunchy for my taste. Resources and stats and tags are tied to numbers which influence rolls which limit or expand the scope of possible actions... If you want to spend an evening setting up the big players in a space opera and roll dice back and forth to generate a whole sector's worth of complex action and intrigue, look no further than SWN's approach. A lot of brainfuel, but hold up, Kevin Crawford, you've developed an entire minigame here.

Somewhere more in the sweet spot for my taste is Mausritter's setup. Personally, I prefer a tiny bit more detail on each faction write-up and its derivative elements, but this is a solid foundation. You have the following full procedure (copied from the free PDF for clarity):

Go play Mausritter.

So, you have the faction, its resources, and its goals, as well as a simple pass/fail check between sessions to determine how things shake out in the world. Factions can be as large or small as you like, so long as they represent an entity that has enough influence to warp the context per its machinations. Resources, rather than the cumbersome tags and numbers and modifiers of SWN, are simple narrative phrases, just enough to encapulate a snapshot of what's actionable without bogging it down. Also note the sage point made that as goals are made known and worked towards, hints about them show up in rumor tables or NPCs, allowing both for engagement and transparent information. In short, a thing does a thing using a thing and maybe moves a step or two closer to achieving a thing. But all of those things are simple, tangible, and immediately actionable. Works for me.

What is missing, however, is a churn element that rides behind it all. Call it random events, call it sudden intrusion, call it regional effects. Whatever. I am reminded of my first-ever exposure to "random events" when I played the original 1993 Master of Orion, to date one of my favorite-ever video games and an exemplar of 4X. There are only a few random events in the game, like "new colony finds ancient tech" or "solar flare incinerates moonbase," but one that was always a bit nuts was when either the SPACE CRYSTAL or SPACE AMOEBA invaded the galaxy and just started steamrolling the whole game map. Always a shocking and nerve-wracking race to either avoid or defeat the thing (or hope it annihilates your rivals). 

Go play Master of Orion.

So let's add three types of random events: Ecological, Political, and Weird. These are to taste, of course, according to setting. Ecological events could be volcanic eruption, flood, or pending nova. Political events could be assassination, coup, or invasion. Weird events could be a new magic node, the falling of a demonic star, or a rogue EMP wave. You get the idea. Come up with short lists for each, and assume that whatever results occur, they are not tied to other current factions and their resources or goals (though they may affect them, certainly!). These are dark horse elements in the world.

Assuming ten or so factions with three goals each at any given time, let's leverage faction rolls to see if a random event occurs. To determine random events, roll 1d20 after completing a faction turn. For each faction which did not progress any goals, subtract 1 from the d20 roll. A random event occurs if the result is 6 or below. Then roll 1d6 to determine which kind of event happens (Ecological [1-2], Political [3-4], or Weird [5-6]). From there, roll on that individual table to see what happens. Flavor to taste and insert into the game world as is fitting. Unless the same random event is plausible more than once, remove it and add a new event on the appropriate table. If you're using fewer factions, scale down the random event die (d20 => d12, etc).

As a closing note, going through the process of setting up factions (as I will do below) brings so much clarity to you as referee over the game world. Having to figure out some short- and long-term goals for each faction, who they are in relation to others, and what sorts of resources they bring to bear do a lot of unwitting heavy lifting for you as you figure out the ins and outs of your sandbox or broader adventure context. It's game prep for free, and it keeps paying dividends every time you go back to check off a box or pencil in a new goal or resource.


While there are many actors in the Dolmenwood setting, I've identified ten major factions which have enough persistent influence and resources to be major players in the sandbox. As such, I've identified them below, along with the Mausritter-adjacent treatment. Note that these are my write-ups for my live home game, personalized for that table's instance of the setting, and are neither fully representative of official Dolmenwood "canon" nor any of my online games. As always, plunder as is useful to you.

1. The Church of the One True God 
Seat of religious power in the Wood. More a cult of saints than a traditional monotheism.


- Dozens of specialized clerical and monastic orders, all playing to different strengths
- Singular authority over religious business, miracles, obligations, and observances
- Close, time-honored ties with the Duchy of Brackenwold and its influence

[][] Expel undead saturation around Fort Vulgar using a cadre of St. Signis' Lichwards
[][][] Locate the lost shrines of St. Justus and St. Foggarty
[][][][] Secure the Abbey of St. Clewyd to begin purification and reconstruction

2. The Cold Prince
Lord of Frost Elves and former dictator of the Wood. Currently banished to Frigia in Fairy.

- Tremendous, nigh-eternal fairy power through magic, land, and personnel
- Deft subtlety and cunning among agents sent far afield to realms and planes
- Glamours, trinkets, artifacts, and spells able to tempt mortals

[] Establish an agent in Dolmenwood to act as trusted "quest-giver" to locals
[][][][] Setup embassies with the Lady of Midnight and Queen Abyssinia
[][][][][] Locate a stable entrance into a Fairy Road leading to the Mortal Plane

3. The Drune
Occult cabal of sorcerers most in touch with the geomantic leylines and magic of the Wood.


- Unparalleled access to potent arcane knowledge and ancient rites
- Their mere name and rumored presence frightens the rest of the Wood
- Fell means of binding flesh, soul, and matter to their control

[] Setup active sentry around the Twice-Wreathed Door to limit Fairy traffic
[][][] Acquire one ton of troll fat for use in wicker golem enhancement
[][][][][] Discern how to reawaken Gheillough at the bottom of Lake Longmere

4. Duke Thespian III at Castle Brackenwold
Secular seat of power in the Dolmenwood frontier. All other lesser nobles are his vassals.


- Ease of resupply and support from the extended human kingdom across the Tithelands
- Quickly-rallied knights, men-at-arms, and specialty personnel from vassals
- Largest concentration of wealth and natural goods in the Wood

[] Levy new taxes to develop a supplementary militia around Prigwort
[][] Send an envoy to treat with Ygraine and discuss "the oubliette"
[][] Root out isolated Drune cottagers near Bigwitt Manor

5. Lesser Noble Houses*
Several, both human and goatish, subserviant to Brackenwold but each with their own aims.


- Local autonomy with regional support from Brackenwold
- Tightly-knit communities formed around local keeps and hamlets
- The ear and respect of the common man in their purview

[][][] (Lord Edwin Guillefer) Establish public market trade with the Goblin King in Fairy
[][][] (Lady Theatrice Harrowmoor) Construct palisades against the encroaching Nagwood
[][][][] (Lord Simeone Murkin) Kill Lord Harald Nodlock and conquer House Nodlock 

6. Lord Gryphius Malbleat at Redwraith Manor
Uncompromising sadist, dashing aesthete, and occult dabbler. Effective ruler of Lankshorn.


- Alchemists, minor sorcerers, and an extensive occult library
- Pursuasive influence over regional Church officers
- Trade authority over the main arteries of the High Wold

[][][] Uncover the latent power within the nearby haunt, Castle Kolton
[][][][] Tap into a local stone circle to spy on Atanuwë using old arcana
[][][][][] Assasinate Lord Simeone Murkin at Kolstoke Keep and blame it on Ramius

7. Lord Shadgore Ramius at Castle Everdusk
Keen strategist, respected commander, and wise counselor. Older half-brother of Malbleat.


- A standing army rivaled only by Brackenwold
- Knowledgable hunters and loremasters in the High Wold
- Large political clout within and without the Wood

[][] Host a seasonal retreat for Brackenwold to curry favor
[][][] Cultivate programs to improve Lankshorn under his name
[][][][][] Topple one of the Drunic Summerstones of Chell and blame it on Malbleat

8. The Nag-Lord, Atanuwë
Absurd demigod of chaos, shapeshifter, and manipulator. Patron of unicorns and waste.


- Depraved, but skillful, servitors in all population centers
- Subtle control (and corruption) of leyline magic
- Large cadres of twisted goatfolk, the crookhorns

[][][] Sire a new atacorn and send it to Fairy
[][][][] Shut down a Prigwort brewery for laughs
[][][][][] Murder and reanimate a court priest of the Church

9. The Witches
Secretive sect of women bound into arcane communion with the ancient gods of the Wood.


- The oldest magic in the Wood
- Contact with other planes of existence
- Eyes and ears everywhere

[][] Silence local religious suspicion of witchcraft
[][][] Eliminate an encroaching crookhorn general 
[][][][][] Determine location of a second Mirror of Embala (one of three found)

10. Ygraine Mordlin, the Sorceress
Ertswhile witch now of her own demense. Powerful patron of many fairies, secrets, and lore.


- Arcana and knowledge from the witches (learned) and Drune (stolen)
- Strong relationships with unattached fairies and mercenaries
- Sole access to Phandwryl, the hidden fifth nodal stone of the ley line, Ywyr

[][][] Establish the Wood's premier historical collection
[][][][][] Assess the corruption of Lake Longmere
[][][][][] Formalize pact with the Duke Who Cherishes Dreams

*While this is a catch-all category, I see some actors (like Lady Harrowmoor [human] and Lord Murkin [goat]) as more prominent than their lesser peers, but not as much as, say, Brackenwold, Ramius, and Malbleat.



  1. The Upper Hemeth floods, disturbing Lake Longmere and all points northwest. Fishermen around the Lac find strange squids and chunks of half-floating black stone, smooth on all sides.
  2. A forest fire rips through the woods between Dreg and Lankshorn, as well as igniting a good bit of peat in Hag's Addle. A few dozen cottagers are displaced and a fell stone is revealed in the ash.
  3. After days of loud moaning, the bicorne southwest of Lankshorn attracts a mate from west of Kolstoke Keep. The two are spotted mating and spawning offspring faster than should be possible.
  4. The largest towering fungi around Orbswallow begin to ambulate, dragging sloughs of decay and airborne mushroom funk out of Mulchgrove to the Aldweald on an unwavering path directly towards Prigwort.
  5. Rain ceases to fall over the Tithelands for a month. Castle Brackenwold and High Hankle slip into a recursive supply chain crisis and the farmers in the fields, hungry and without work, harry trade.
  6. Unseasonal snowfall blankets the Dwelmfurgh and out across the center of the Ardweald. Panic sets in as commoners won't stop associating the grasp of winter with the pending return of the Cold Prince.


  1. Toll officers and their hangers-on throw off the rule of Brackenwold and setup Fort Vulgar as an independent garrison town. Extortion of local travellers quickly sets in and becomes a constant problem for trade.
  2. Bishop Jospher Sanguine is murdered in broad daylight within Castle Brackenwold. Witch hunts, both literal and figurative, run rampant in the duchy while petty squabbles delay new leadership in the Church.
  3. Dozens of brigands, sellswords, and rogues flood in from the Tablelands, quickly taking up residence in Drigbolton and transforming the sleepy hamlet into a hive of scum and villainly rivalling Dreg.
  4. Urged by his new wife, Baron Hogwarsh whips High Hankle into new heights of order and vigil. Lords Ramius and Malbleat are belittled by Hogwarsh's authoritative push into the High Wold. Rumors say Baroness Hogwarsh is a witch!
  5. A freelance adventuring party, "Victorious Secret," sets up shop in Meagre's Reach, transforming the bizarre bumpkin village into a hub of activity, profit, and rumor-mongering. Mercenary companies are frustrated by their success.
  6. The every-so-often hunting party under Duke Mai-Fleur decides not to leave Dolmenwood following their last foray near Mulchgrove. The Duke declares that the eastern half of the Wood now belongs to him as private property.


  1. A new drug, "Goblin Mung," becomes very popular across the Wood. Production and refinement of other reagents and alchemical substances halts as this new "cure all" and mild hallucinogen supplants all competitors.
  2.  Dozens of riding horses across the Wood transform into oversized black unicorns with hulking musculature. They impale their handlers and nearby innocents, then race off to the northern forests with a keening, maniacal cry.
  3. The entire town of Odd disappears. No one notices. What people do notice, however, is when it reappears a week later on the roof of Duke Thespian's residence in Castle Brackenwold. Assumptions point to fairy mischief.
  4. For four days the sun does not set over Prigwort. The rest of the Wood proceeds normally, but once the moon finally reappears over the city, many locals begin acting like wild animals, while many wild animals begin acting like locals.
  5. Following a convergence of two constellations, Ardbeg's Crook and Donager, a curious, hollow monolith appears within the fungal forests of Mulchgrove. Local moss dwarves who enter it do not exit again, leaving many concerned.
  6. Fire falls in a searing pillar from the night sky into Lake Longmere. When it departs at daybreak, a huge marble-like egg hangs twenty feet above the water's surface, inscribed all over with patterns of snakeskin, fangs, and slit eyes.


  1. Thanks for this, just started a Dolmenwood campaign and haven't gotten around to writing up factions yet.

  2. Hi!
    Thanks for the cool article!
    Can I translate it into Russian and publish it in my ttrpg blog?

    1. Definitely! Just attribute me and add a link back to this page.

    2. I will definitely do so!

  3. This is great, just so I get the process straight:

    1) Every season you progress the goals tracker for each faction. Do you make any kind of roll for these or you just determine that if 3 seasons pass without PC intervention (or some other factor) that the Nag Lord sires a new atacorn (for example)>

    2) Once you have progressed the tracker, you check for random events and implement them.

    Is this the basic flow?

    Thanks for this, this is excellent way of doing it. I've tried retrofitting the Stars version but it gets out of hand pretty fast.