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Making Good Factions (For Your Dungeon)

 Hello. Today we will be diving into yet another aspect of dungeoncraft: factions. I feel like it's pretty well known among the OSR community that your dungeon should have factions, but rarely do I hear what a faction should be aside from a group of people with matching uniforms/aesthetics. So, today I will give criteria for what I find makes a good faction. Like the last post, this can also be a fine jumping-off point for making your own dungeon from scratch, as groups of people can define a place just as well as what people say about a place.

Factions, like people, need homes. They cannot exist in a vacuum, and need a backdrop (in this case, a dungeon) for their antics. Additionally, this setting backdrop can further reinforce faction themes or give you inspiration for further factions.

For this example, I will use the basic structure of the dungeon I implied in my last post. For those who don't want to read that post: the surface is the ruins of a keep, the first level is a set of dungeons which houses now-undead prisoners, the second level is a wizard's alchemical laboratory which is nestled deep within a set of subterranean caves and tunnels, and the third level is a set of overgrown catacombs which is the final resting place for an ancient wizard and their familiars.

With the setting established, let us begin.

Art by Konstantin Vavilov

Before we get to the specifics, I feel that it is important to define what makes a good faction. I believe a good faction is comprised of three specific things:

  • An aesthetic. Be general so you can have some wiggle-room to make unique faction members, but be sure to be weird enough to have them stick in the player's heads. For instance, a group of roving skeleton guards is a workable aesthetic, but it becomes much more memorable if they have cast-iron helmets that look like fish heads. This is all to say, blend general and specific elements to get a unique result players will remember.
  • A hierarchy of power. Factions are made of people, and people have varying amounts of influence. Defining a leader or two, their relation to their grunts, and how they hold power above their grunts is often enough to cement a leader. Although, you can get bonus points if you bend the faction's aesthetic in a unique way so they stand out among the crowd. Additionally, when people gain power, they begin to form goals of their own beyond the rest of the group. Giving a leader ulterior motives or other goals that the rest of the faction is not interested in/does not know about/must be kept a secret can lead to more intrigue.
  • A goal. Something to ground them in the location (in our case, the dungeon) they are meddling with. Again, I feel as if having factions/NPCs with goals is often talked about in the OSR, but rarely with good examples given. Since a goal defines a faction's actions and reasons for staying in the dungeon, I will go to extra lengths to define good goals. They are:
    • Not a means to an end. As vague as this sounds, it is important, because it is quite common to put "power" or "wealth" as a faction's goal in many adventures/dungeons. "Power" or "wealth" is not a goal, they are instead means to achieve a goal. Instead of just stating these means as a goal in and of themselves, we must step into the shoes of our faction we're making and get a little strange.
    • Proactive. Reactive goals (like "guard the vault", etc) give you very little wiggle-room for intrigue and interest. For example, a reactive goal would be for a group of elves to "guard the forest" This gives them little action to do aside from sitting around and maybe picking off the occasional outsider. If you want to make this a proactive goal, first ask yourself if the elves want to achieve their protection of the forest destructively or constructively. For instance, a destructive (yet proactive) goal would be to "kill all non-elves in the nearby industrial city of Littleplume". Meanwhile, a constructive goal would be to "build a great wall around the forest," Both of these more proactive goals give the elves specific outlets to achieve their goals, and are more unique than to simply "acquire power/wealth" You can essentially roll up means with an end to create a more dynamic goal for a faction.
    • Self-serving. There are rarely completely morally good/bad goals in factions. Do not be afraid to have factions with conflicting goals. If two factions have the same goal, consider rolling them into one faction for simplification.

While this sounds quite complicated, on paper it can be distilled into a few short snippets for each faction. When making your own factions and relationship maps, remember that you can always go over it again and use these bullets like a checklist, reworking the base idea that you had until it satisfies you.

Now, I want to take you through a process I'm using to generate my own factions and the relationships they have with each other/the environment. Remember, the basic setting I'm using is a dungeon. The surface is a ruined keep. The first level is a prison filled with undead, the second is an alchemical lab in a cave, the third is a set of catacombs that serve as the resting place for a mage and their familiars. 

I first begin ruining a blank piece of paper with the central setting, the dungeon. I split this into levels because factions can have relationships to (or goals towards) different environments, as well as each other. In the case of dungeons, I like to think of each level as a house for a family, and each level is an uncomfortable neighbor with each other. 

Next, I list out the main body of the factions, or the grunts, just sticking to a general concept, name, and look. I then like to go down the bullet points like a checklist, first making sure that each faction has an aesthetic before leaders or concrete goals. I also list the reasons why these factions currently dwell in these areas of the dungeon. This may or may not be necessary to (for instance, if it's a more beastly faction, it may be harder to say the purpose they live there aside from "it's their habitat), but I find that it can be useful to elaborate on the faction's relationship with the environment.

After this, I tackle the next item on the checklist, the faction leaders/notables. For these, I just try to add what the grunts of the faction would logically have as a leader. For instance, guards without a noble to oversee them would be strange. Wizardly pets without an owner would also be strange. Etc. I also attempt to bend the faction's aesthetic by either amplifying it or altering it (but not altering it to be unrecognizable) so when players see these notables, they can safely assume that they belong to their respective factions and are people of importance. Additionally, I add more relationships between the grunts and their leaders, along with leaders and other leaders that I can think of at the moment. If you cannot come up with relationships between different leaders, think about how you would respond to said leader given the circumstances. For instance, if I was Veroy the Green I'd feel uncomfortable with Sir Nic the Bold burying himself in my set of catacombs, and would have a negative relationship with him.

Once this is done, we get to the last main part of the factioncraft, the goals. Here, I give each main faction its own real-estate on the page. Then I will give each faction a general goal or two, and later I will give leaders their own motivations in the dungeon rooms. Feel free to get more specific during this part of the process, as now you should have somewhat of an idea of what each faction gen

Step 5 is optional, but I like it. Basically, just add some short complicating factions. These complicating factions are largely just grunts, and occupy a smaller area than main factions. Don't feel the need to give them some grand ambitions like the other factions. You can essentially treat these as bands of rival adventurers that may live inside of the dungeon and making life a mess for the rest of the inhabitants.

And that concludes this post. Compared to the last post, I think that it would likely be harder to use this method of mapping factions as a direct way to make a dungeon. The gears turn much easier if you have a very broad idea of what you want, and you can start with some really bold and interesting foundations if you use the rumor generation method of dungeon ideation. I think I find having a set number of principles to stick to when making a faction is the most useful, as compared to the overall mapping of the factions and their relations. This dungeon project is still undergoing massive amounts of work, so don't take anything you've seen here as something you will see in the final draft. I hope you found this helpful!


  1. This is a great article - thanks for laying it out. I am going to try a straight test of this (for a dungeon) and adapt this to generating factions in a solar system and see where I get to.

    Inspiring stuff - thank you!


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