Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Make War, Not Lore: Creating a War and Factions for your Adventures

It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of blogging about it.  -Sun Tzu, almost

In a recent world-famous blogpost, we concluded that mass bloodshed and strife is a lighthearted, pleasant pastime for all involved. And while any power metal album artist or teacher-cum-author can invent a cool battle, it takes a bit more work to create the whole war. Luckily for you, I happen to be an authority on seeming like an authority. 

What is it good for?

The first question I hear Future You ask is "Do I need to put work into the ongoing war in my game?" Well, my now-hypothetical friend, War (the bold choice of term I'm gonna use in this post to refer to ongoing mass conflicts) certainly doesn't need any degree of detailing if you don't want any. You can absolutely say "Yeah, there's a war" and leave it that, to act as no more than a vague backdrop, a setting element that only comes up when necessary or appropriate. And you wouldn't be wrong to do so - stars know you don't need any more overlong blogposts telling you what to do with your hobby.  However, there's a few benefits to going the extra mile, if you so choose.

The most obvious gain is made when you actually sit down, get a drink, and really contemplate the war before it even starts. "The fierce southern conqueror's army" is a fine tagline for a playset or cereal box; but once you know who this conqueror is, what makes them so fierce, what people from the south are like, and what kind of army they've got, you'll have a great foundation to work with. If you want this force to be a recurring feature of your game, detailing them beyond "soldiers wearing red" will pay off in the long run. 

It'll also give you a lot of material to improv off of. An ongoing war will interfere with your game as much or as little as you want, but if you set up the groundwork, you'll never be caught with your warpants down. Need more detail about an area? It'll be easy to figure out how the war affected it. Need an encounter on the spot? You already know what kind of enemy forces are in this area. Need some instant drama? War is a permanently-taught bowstring, ready to deliver a high-impact load of drama right into your face. 

Most importantly, though, war's just a good backdrop for storytelling. endless stories and media feature war as a major element of them, because huge conflicts are innately dramatic and important events. Players could be soldiers themselves, they could be rebels fighting against an occupation, or they might be outsiders trying to finish an important job in the middle of it all. Loveable allies, hated enemies, respected rivals, cloak and dagger shenanigans, exciting battles, bitter tragedy, and countless stories of struggle, triumph and loss - All organically happening because you sat down and did some prep. And what's wrong with doing a little more prep? Huh? Absolutely nothing 

To repeat what I've said before: prep what you need, do more only if you enjoy doing so. The intent of this post is not to give you a checklist of details you need to have written down, but to inspire you to think of your factions and war in ways that help create fun narratives and good gameplay. Find your battle-muse and figure out how much forethought works for you. 

And if you find yourself not clicking with this type of prep, don't fret - you can simply go look through our world's own rich history (and fiction), find a war you like, change some names around, and just have a grand old time.

The Greeks knew how to throw a hell of a war. 

The Core of a War

Nothing can match war in its infinite variety, except for maybe Love (being the only other craft where all's fair). However, no matter what your conflict concept is, there's a few features common to all wars. 

Every war features two or more Factions, all of whom have Motivations, which drives them towards their Goals. Or, if you prefer - the who, the why, and the what. To start, we just need a basic outline. Keep each of the following down to one or two sentences, tops; we've got plenty of time to get bogged down in details later. 


All drama involves characters, and war is no different; it just so happens that some of those characters are thousands-strong military organizations. Since it's hard to have good motivation and goals without knowing who they belong to, let's start at Factions. 

While most of this post might have a military-vs-military slant, that doesn't mean that your war needs to be a war. Your factions might be bickering nobles of a single realm, rival guilds of a great city-state, feuding great houses vying for power in a star-spanning imperium, biker gangs fighting for the top spot on the great highway, the turf war between local subdivisions of monolithic megacorporations, or whatever else. Also, as might already be obvious, your factions need not by symmetrical. Gang versus Corp, Guild versus Noble, Empire vs. Rebellion - War is often between very different groups, and these differences make for even more fun opportunities.

The only thing that a faction needs to be war-viable is a Force, troops and weapons that allow it to exert its will; and Advantages, the non-force edge that contributes to its staying power. Both of these are important, and lacking in one can be compensated for with strength in the other. This is why we can have conflicts such as Empire vs. Rebellion - While the Empire's countless armies and resources grant them a vastly superior Force, the Rebellion can put up a fight because it has Advantages like operating from hidden bases in enemy territory, or spies who can get critical information. 
How could any rebels possibly beat this much force with nothing but some mere information? 


Individual warrior-poets at the front might contemplate the futility of it all, but the top brass should have a pretty good idea why they're committing significant time and resources to the war. And the people that have this motivation are called Leaders.

Leaders are the people, creatures and constructs that have found themselves at the top of their hierarchy. These individuals are the ones who have decided that there will be war, and they have the means to make their Force put that decision into practice. Leaders come in many varieties, and a faction can have one leader or many, but discussing the nature of what makes a leader is beyond the scope of this post. 

Once we know what the faction is and understand what its leaders are, we can deduce why they're in this war. Leaders want something out of this war, their desired result of the conflict - peace, conquest, subjugation, vengeance, safety, absolute power. Only the truly monstrous go to war to completely eradicate all opposition, and no matter what convoluted cinematic justification you give, "killing everyone" just doesn't make for an interesting villain; not to mention that it makes the final outcome less interesting, because the only outcomes possible become "we're all dead" or "we survived", with the nuance being how many died. 

A story where the bad guys have less irreversible aims makes it possible to continue the game under the rule of evil. Adventures can still happen in a world dominated by the conqueror, and if you want to get particularly tricky, the new regime might even have some positive aspects and followers within the populace. So, always try to make it so that, no matter who wins, the universe will continue and there's room for new stories - even if those stories will take place in an apocalyptic wasteland.  

(Note: it might be thematically appropriate for your faction to not have any true "leaders". It could be an undead horde, an alien hivemind, or AI-controlled machine swarm, lacking true individuals to be leaders. But even if you don't have any identifiable head honchos, you can still make an "imaginary" one - just treat the whole faction as a single character. They're still trying to accomplish something, after all; even if for this type of faction it's usually unquestioning taking of resources.) 
"Information? I sincerely doubt they can use information to stop my nefarious plans."


Whereas the motive is the desired outcome of the war, the goal is the specific steps to reach that outcome. And usually, this goal is going to be at least partially military, or we wouldn't be starting a war.

A faction might seek to capture and secure certain territories, or certain assets within those territories. The goal might be to take a single extremely important location or object from the opposition, either because the attackers need to have it, or they need the defenders to not have it. Goals can also be more abstract, such as reducing an opponent's influence in a region. 

Unless your name is Raynor or Arthas, you don't win a war by killing every single enemy and blowing up every single structure they have. You 'win' by accomplishing your objectives, while preventing the other guys from fulfilling their own. These goals might involve killing a specific enemy or blowing up a particular structure, but only because this fulfils your motives. There's still going to be plenty of death and destruction, as a consequence of your opponent trying to stop you. 

This isn't my grand Art Of War-deconstructing post just yet, but as long-time friend of the blog Sun Tzu once posted: 
Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.
With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.
So, the best way to defeat your opponent is to capture their assets and remove their ability to fight, with minimal direct conflict. This is why, even when an opponent's goal isn't to destroy your leaders or to disable your power centers, you still defend both. If your force is unable to function as a force, your opponent no impediment and can accomplish any goals they desire. 

If this is starting to get a little too Military Theory for you, don't worry; All you need to remember is that war is won either by completing your goals and blocking your opponents' attempts to accomplish theirs, or by making your opponents unable or unwilling to fight back anymore. And a faction worth any amount of salt will go into war with its main goals in mind. 
Oh no, m' hubris! 

Once we know Who is doing What, and Why, our outline is ready and we can start to color in the blanks.

Tone: the Crayons of War 

…But before we can start exerting our artistic creativity, we need to pick which colored pencils we'll be using. While war stories can be stretched wide, even wider than this coloring book metaphor, our narrative will look much better when we have a palette in mind. 

Tone is one of those abstract notions in fiction, but when I say tone (and thus create the objective definition), I'm talking about the emotions you're trying to convey with your story. Tone isn't so much about what exactly happens, but rather how what happens is presented. 

You can think the tone as the "camerawork" of your war. A battle is a battle, but what parts do we zoom in on? We could pan onto the triumphant charge on the enemy stronghold, overcoming an entrenched position with sheer guts and morale. We could focus on a specific fight, the exhilarating, panicked struggle as two small squads try to overcome the other. We could somberly look at the wounded soldier, a blood stain spreading below him as he clutches a photo of a loved one. We can show the inside of the command tent, the tension in the air as officers try to keep their cool and make split-second decisions that could make or break the war. We could show the colossal war machine stomping outside, as its powerful weapons cut a swathe through the overwhelmed enemy battle line. Or, we could simply zoom in on a lone hero, hanging off the underside of a moving vehicle, trying to stop the villain from getting away as the battle rages on around them.  

All of these things could be happening in any given battle. What we focus on, and in what proportion, will be our game's tone. Typically you'll pick one or two "main" emotions for your war, with some additional stuff thrown in for texture. A desperate struggle for survival against an overwhelming foe might be the default mode, but by throwing in some tonally different moments - a spirited last stand, an upset victory by an outnumbered force, a moment of mercy or humanity from the conqueror - your war becomes so much more engrossing and organic, and moves  away from being a meatgrinder. As long as we don't overdo it, or painfully contradict the tone we've already established, variety is great.

It's also important to note that tone changes based on whose eyes you're seeing through. One side's grueling death march might be a glorious, honorable conquest for their opponent. How your factions perceive and describe the war is an excellent tool for showing the differences between them. This is also why it's important to have some notion of your desired tone before starting, for we cannot have a meaningful campaign if loose tonal guidelines are not adhered to. 

You might not settle on the tone just based on your outline, which is fine! You might even decide to completely eschew this kind of thing, and I wouldn't blame you for your misguided-but-all-too-human instinct to avoid prep work. But chances are that as you create a conflict, you've already got an idea of how it will appear in your game, and consequently what tone it'll convey; focusing on it a bit more just makes it easier to really crystallize the feeling you want your war to have. 
I tried very hard to work a "tone's made by instruments of war" joke in there, but I've failed you, reader.

Start of War

Even if your game will take place during the later parts of a war, it's still good to think about what started it. I've been told (by people who actually play these games instead of writing sanctimonious blogs about them) that a backstory is a pretty good source of hooks and ideas. 

Sinking relationships

How do your factions, and more importantly their leaders, feel about each other? Outside of bad video game AI with a "declare war on first contact" policy, or factions that were formed explicitly to oppose someone, our game pieces will have some sort of history. Even in the previous example, a newly-formed faction would still have leaders, with their own storied pasts and reasons for forming that faction.

Most factions will have a long and varied past, with relationships that developed, shifted, decayed, and so on. We don't have to detail the entirety of these histories if we don't want to - the only important part is the one just before the war started. Were things tense? Did it seem peaceful? Were the factions just recovering from another war? Knowing this kind of information helps us set the stage and determine what people's dispositions will be. 

The Incident

While it's unlikely that two peace-loving neighbors will suddenly develop the urge to remove each other's eyeballs, even hated rivals tend to keep their knives sheathed until something gives them a reason to draw. Most wars have an inciting incident, an event that ignited the fires of conflict. Having a good incident can give us good ideas for motivations and goals, as well as a bit insight into our leaders and their personality.

Our incident can be related to the aforementioned history and relationship between factions. When factions are already at odds with each other, something as simple as a petty officer's itchy trigger finger - and the ensuing firefight between two small patrols - could set off the chain of events. This type of incident is more appropriate for "smaller" factions, such as local criminal syndicates or guilds; but some of the greatest falls were started with a single domino falling. 

However, larger factions will typically need a bigger domino to fall before they decide to mobilize. The assassination of an important leader is a common one, as are other aggressive acts - attacks on trade routes, hostile takeovers, threats against their border, or just good old threat-making in general.   

The incident doesn't always have to be external, either. War might be the result of a conqueror's rise to power, or by some internal crisis which is used as justification for aggressive expansion. Devilishly devious despots might intentionally cause such crises in their target's turbulent territories, forcing the victim to declare a war which they're sure to lose. 

For almost all of these, the unifying factor is losing something, or the threat of losing something: Losing people, losing territory, losing resources, losing support, losing status, losing face. If you want your faction to feel compelled into war, the most reliable way is to give them something they their people - and especially their leaders - are unwilling to accept the loss of.

Sending the pontiff over to talk shit is a classic move. Never underestimate the power of papal put-downs.  

Faction Refraction 

 Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. - Sun Tzu, a third and final time
Our warring factions are something that our players are likely to see a lot of. This being the case, we should slap on a healthy heap of distinguishing details, both to make them identifiable and give them an identity. 

Factions tend to be big. Even a small gang of street toughs can be intimidating to flesh out, never mind whole nations or empires. The reliable old GM's trick here is to write down all the important stuff, and only detail the rest when it becomes important. What's the important stuff? Only the reliable old GM can be sure, but it's usually the details you need to run the game. After you have established the Devil, you can easily make the Details to put him in.  

The Faction Premise

To start us off, we should have a snappy one-sentence description of what our faction is. "Ancient technologically advanced interstellar empire", "Peaceful tropical fish kingdom", "forgotten enclave of banished criminals". This factional subtitle doesn't have to fully encapsulate what makes your faction unique and interesting, it's just to have a baseline to make the rest of the faction from. A majority of our later creations should sprout from this premise, whether they adhere absolutely or diverge dramatically. 

We should also take a minute to envision the average member of our faction; the first person you'll see when walking down the faction's streets. This Average Joan will act as the tree trunk from which all our more specific subgroups and branches will sprout, and better help us understand our faction's culture. How does this person live? How do they feel about their faction? Why are they a part of it? What do they believe, desire, fear, love, hate? 

Our default description and stereotypical citizen also give us an idea of how others will see our faction. Why would another faction declare war on this one? Do they hate monarchy? Do they consider peace-lovers weak? Do they think that the citizen's lifestyle or beliefs are abhorrent? Do they just really hate tropical fishpeople? 
These details can also be used to flesh out bonds and mutual understanding between factions, of course - but mutual understanding doesn't start wars, now does it? 
Mutual understanding and respect? As a reason for war? Odd, but I respect it.

The Force

When we understand what a faction looks like, we will understand their fighters; the warriors, their tools and their methods, are created by their culture. This isn't simply a matter taking our Average Joan and giving her a faction-appropriate helmet - creating the factional forces is our opportunity to shape the war itself. 

Soldiers and Weapons

The ideology and traditions of the culture are reflected in their soldiers. If our faction is moral and romantic, this is reflected in their force: every soldier is important, treated morally, and taught to treat their opponents the same way. On the flipside, an indifferent (or extreme) faction might treat its soldiers as nothing more than tools; the army exists to give their life for whatever the faction's goals are. Does the faction believe in rewarding success, or punishing failure?

A proud and honorable faction would have a force to match, with dedicated warriors striving to become legendary figures, and could treat war as ritual or sport as much as conflict. Calculating or jingoistic leaders might breed this fierce loyalty in their militaries even without a preexisting warrior culture, giving their military a fierce microculture and self-importance to make them more willing to sacrifice themselves for their leaders. Other cultures, often defending factions, might be reluctant to send their people to war, and their soldiers draw morale from love for their home more than any love for leaders or war itself.  

The training and equipment of soldiers is also reflective of their faction's status and outlook. Valued soldiers, from warrior cultures or those with small populations, might receive extensive martial training and specialized equipment unique to their culture. More populous or poor factions will typically have much poorer equipment, and will focus their training on things like obedience, courage and selflessness. Some factions will have different castes of warrior, with different degrees of cultural respect and assigned resources.

Factions with unique tools will have soldiers that are trained to use them effectively; lifelong enemies of those factions will train in how to combat those tools. Even straight-forward weapons can help distinguish factions: jagged and poisoned blades can indicate a less humane attitude as opposed to regular straight blades; and even laser guns can be distinguished, such as the difference between the simple, efficient phaser and the vicious, painful disintegrator. Soldier attitudes will usually match the "feeling" of their equipment. 

Strategies soldiers use in battle are similarly varied, based on their equipment and the type of war. Good armor and direct-fire weapons will mean a preference for frontal assaults, especially if backed up by assault vehicles or artillery support. Close-range weapons are cheaper and easier to make deadly, so factions on a budget will prefer guerilla tactics and employ terrain, ambushes and speed to outmaneuver, divide and conquer stronger foes. Specialist weapons and units such as skirmishers, snipers or sappers are all great ways to further give your force identity, just remember that a battle force is supported by specialists, not composed entirely out of them. 

None of these are strict guidelines that must be adhered to; not every honor-obsessed warrior culture has to be the Klingons. The point of all this is that, if your party's first contact with a faction is meeting the lone soldier Joan, they'll immediately have an idea of what kind of faction they're dealing with.  
You don't need to understand strategy or tactics, you just need to understand people. And their guns.


If your game's technology level allows for them, vehicles are an extension of the roles that soldiers would play. They're bigger, require different tools to take out, and can carry heavier guns and equipment. Vehicles also tend to be designed for specific combat roles, and a faction's tactical preference can be expressed here; having a vehicle fleet consisting of  mostly tanks and assault vehicles tells us about the faction, as would having vast fleets of armored troop transports designed for maximum safety. 
How the soldiers treat their vehicles is also an expression of culture. Well maintained, lovingly decorated machines of war, and rickety deathtraps on the verge of explosion, tell two different tales about the relationship between man and machine. Things get even trickier if technology (or magic) is so advanced that vehicles have an intelligence of their own, since a vehicle being a "person" creates a whole extra dimension for storytelling with how a culture treats its artificial combatants. Don't even get me started on robotic soldiers.¹

Your faction might even have an iconic vehicle, the design and use of which are strong tools for identity. Titanic siege weapons, lumbering war mechs and moon-sized space stations are big, powerful weapons that imply dominance, as well as a disregard for collateral damage. Small-but-potent fighter ships or rapid response medical buggies might indicate a faction that values the individualism soldiers and values their lives. An iconic vehicle might have many variant models to indicate a versatile platform, or it might have a single universal design that indicates quality engineering (or stubborn refusal to adapt).  

A classic asymmetry is to give only one of the warring factions vehicles. This way you can create a sharper asymmetry between how the sides might conduct battle; The tactics employed by the vehicle-using faction to take advantage of their unique tools, and the instruments and techniques used by the other side to combat their opponent's machines. 
"But what if they blow this one up, too?" "There's no way, unless they have some sort of iconic vehicle to do it with." 

Strategy and Tactics

For those of you who don't spend entirely too much time arguing with nerds, and so don't know the difference: Strategy refers to the big-picture goals and overarching plans, while Tactics refers to the specific methodology and steps taken to fulfill those plans. Planning to divert an enemy's main force so you can strike at his ammo stockpiles is strategy, telling your mounted raiders exactly where and how to sneak past said main force is tactics. Clear? Good.

A force's strategy is formed, like everything else, by how that faction views war, its enemy, and its own force. A moral faction might hesitate about bombing of civilian-operated factories, as would one that wishes to preserve those resources and manpower. A crueler leader might go straight for the atomic option, if they think they can get away with it.² Massive frontal assaults and endless onslaughts of troops are costly for both sides, and are usually only employed by the callous or the desperate. 

If they believe that they're stronger, factions might bide their time and methodically work towards their victory, or might push their advantage and make bolder moves for their goals. Factions that know they're weaker might fight defensively and only take battles where they can even the playing field, or they might force costly all-in battles in an attempt to cause critical damage to key targets and force opponents to back off. A leader might form very different plans depending on their perception of who's winning. 

While strategies tend to be rigid by necessity (it's hard to wage a war when you change your overarching objective every couple of minutes), tactics can be firm and flexible. Soldiers will often be trained in general protocol for waging war - as well as specific techniques for storming a building, for example, or how to assault a tank - but these often evolve as the war does, becoming better adapted to the tactics and tools of their opponents. Relying on heavily armored troops to hold chokepoints is a great tactic, until the enemy realizes you're doing this and starts deploying more ranged weapons or equipping troops with firebombs. 

The longer a war goes, the more intricate the arms race becomes. Early on, generalist units supported by situationally-appropriate specialists will be the battlefield default. After a while, the factions will have become familiar with each other's tools, and will start deploying weapons made specifically to counter those tools. Soon counter-countermeasures are developed, as well as advancements in the existing tech that make them less vulnerable to the existing countermeasures. That last one is important - we didn't stop using tanks when anti-armor guns became commonplace, we started making tanks with technology that make them resilient to those guns, such as sloped armor. A successful (and interesting) force will both create new tools and update the old.
What's the difference between regular maps and military ones? Budget.

Heroes and Villains 

Your leaders are the (in)human face of your faction, and usually its forces, too. No army is led by destiny or zeitgeist; you need people calling the shots. 

Leaders are also your gateway to truly spicing up a war, as their individual natures will shape the flow of the conflict. Like all NPCs, leaders can be as varied as the cosmic rays that bombard my exospheric residence, and ideally just as intense. You need to be an exceptional individual to become the leader of a faction, so feel free to make your leaders as outlandish and memorable as appropriate - you want them to leave an impression. If your players can see a battle and recognize it as the handiwork of a specific general, you've utterly succeeded at involving them in the war.

The Leader of Leaders

Most militaries, as well as other war-capable organizations, are hierarchies. This means that there's someone at the top. The empire has an emperor, the guild has a guildmaster, and the Evil Warriors have Skeletor. The Head Leader is usually the leader most associated with their faction; the name that allies praise and enemies curse. 

The big cheese's exact military role will usually align with their narrative role. If they're actively involved in the struggle, they'll make at least some contribution to it. They might form the faction's main strategy, and they'll definitely play a big role in running the war as it progresses. Depending on their faction's attitude and culture, they might even be riding at the front of the army, donned in the most expensive armor available as they lead the charge and inspire their troops; this is especially appropriate for smaller factions and ones heavily reliant on their leadership for guidance. This also becomes much rarer as ranged weapons become commonplace among troops - factions with frontline leaders in the age of sniper rifles are typically short-lived. 

The main leader might also take a more passive role in the war; they might have been the one to make the declaration of war, but they leave the execution to their underlings. These are the bureaucrats and politicians, the nobles and CEOs; they sit at the top and consider the war through the lens of public opinion, financial prospects, the will of the gods, and whatever other justification they have given themselves. While the active type of supreme commander would be actively participating and working with their troops, the passive is usually operating from the shadows, maintaining their machinations from a safe distance, if they're even paying attention to the war at all. 

Whichever the case, your main leader's influence should be felt (proportionally) far and wide. Whether they're personally the ideal symbols of their cause, or just creating the symbols their faction will rally under, you want the head honcho to be a Big Deal, and to be treated as such. The bigness of this deal is a function of the scale of the faction. Humbler faction's leaders might get gifts from locals, parties thrown in their honor, and have the highest quality materials saved just for them. On the opposite side of the size slider, statues of the leader are built, settlements and landmarks are named after them, their very name is invoked as a good luck charm. The exact nature of this influence - and whether these things are done out of fear, to suck up, or out of genuine admiration - is up to you. 
In trying times, only the greatest of leaders get chairs.

Generals and Lieutenants

Unless you're dealing with very small factions, you're going to have a second in command, as well as a third, and so fourth. We'll call these Generals, because I say so. 

Whereas your top leader has the burden of a faction on their shoulders, the generals have the luxury of leeway. They're still important, sometimes they're even the ones really calling the shots; but because they're not at the very top, they pursue their own agendas in addition to serving the faction, rather than the faction being made to serve their agendas.

The roles of the general can be many. They almost always have some degree of military authority, but they might also be in charge of logistics and trade, research, espionage and policing, defense and construction, diplomacy, exploration, and more. If your faction is on the small side, your lower number of generals will likely wear multiple hats, which provides opportunity for friction when certain positions are seen as more valuable or prestigious than others. In very large factions, you might have multiple generals functioning in the same "department" at once, which is its own opportunity for rivalry and intrigue. 

For personalities, you want a wide variety; ones which can play off each other as well as off the faction itself. Generals might be straight as an arrow, or as crooked as a boomerang. They might be sycophantic lickspittles doing anything to keep their post, or they might be plotting to become Caliph in the place of the Caliph  They might hold the faction in the highest regard, or they might be treating it as a stepping stone in their skyrocketing career. They could be fanatically devoted to the point of detriment, or they might be dissidents trying to bring it all from the inside. 

As you create these generals, think about their relationships. There's no way that these characters won't have strong feelings about each other, positive or negative. Just remember to not overcomplicate things - unless your players will personally be involved in these intrigues and the campaign will focus on court drama, try to keep these relationships simple and clear. The head of the military hates the scientist because of the latter's use of soldiers in experiments. The twins, navy and airforce generals, are viciously competitive for the affection of their father, the emperor. The spymaster is blindly in love with the trademaster, who uses this to their advantage. Further details can be added as necessary, but your initial relationship network should be easy to read.

While you shouldn't try to pair every general off with an opposite (this isn't a sitcom), having that type of conflict can make for great dynamics that can ripple through the entire faction, and create situations that both give the faction depth and create interesting gameplay. The experimental Super-soldiers are fielded, and the traditionalist general is unhappy their influence on his troops. The sibling rivalry could result in ever-more daring and costly deployments that exhaust soldiers and put a strain on resources. The "neutral" merchant convoys somehow always manage to avoid conflict and set up shop in the most profitable locations. If you can't think up a good way for a relationship to impact the war at large, you might want to consider a more tumulus bond. There's nothing wrong with good old Mutual Understanding And Respect, once in a while; but we're trying to set up a deep well to draw fresh, cool storywater from - and drama comes from conflict. 

Lieutenants? That's just a general at a smaller scale. When players are interacting with a specific fraction of a given faction's overall force, that faction force fraction might be commanded by a lieutenant. We'd usually only introduce lieutenants for truly large wars, where all our generals might be somewhere far, too far to personally be involved in our local events. In that case, we'd have the lieutenant as the "active" leader of the local force, the one whose personality and methodology is most directly seen, while the general's influence is felt as a strong-but-subtle force. The General is the one who created the Dune Raider corps for attacking vulnerable positions, and the Lieutenant is the one commanding their company to instead help the local population and evacuate them ahead of the incoming main force. If your war isn't big enough to reasonably support them, simply don't use lieutenants and have your generals closer to the action.
If you don't think that a general's personality and relationships would impact their military campaigns, how do you explain stopping mid-battle to pose for a portrait?

Locations and Strongholds

Factions are made of people, and most people occupy physical space. The consequence of this is that these physical spaces sometimes matter to those people. 

Locations are places that are important to one or more factions. It could be the scene of a famous battle, a structure or landmark of great spiritual importance, a vital strategic position, or something as simple as the seat of government. 

Locations are usually going to be the backdrop to whatever's happening in them, but that doesn't mean the location isn't important. A heroic general's last stand in an ancient fortress would look a lot different if they were doing it in the middle of an open field. A force might be helped or disadvantaged by the location - there's a reason tanks are only reluctantly used in urban warfare. 

As the war progresses, locations will be undoubtedly change - strongholds will fall, settlements get occupied or fortified, and sites becomes generally ravaged by the war around them. Setting up specific locations to visit can be a big part of reinforcing tone. A once-peaceful shrine getting torn up in battle can really be a downer moment, while its stoic defense might be a bittersweet triumph. Visiting a village can be a refreshing moment of normalcy as residents keep their heads up and do their best to keep their lives going, or it can be a harrowing experience in how easily a stable life can be uprooted and destroyed. How a faction treats locations is an expression of their character as anything else; there's a big difference between seeing the elven forests occupied, cut down for materials, or just burned down.  

A location might also contain a legendary artifact of lost power, or the secret to banishing the lich king, or the truth about the rightful heir to the throne. I don't need to tell you how to use this type of location, as it's likely you've already got a pretty good idea about how to have adventurers go to a place to find a thing. But consider, if you will, how they might interact with the war. Might players need to do their searching in the middle of a heated siege? Or do they need to get behind enemy lines in order to even get to the location? Or might they be accompanied by an unfriendly faction's soldiers, letting the adventurers do all the archeology and then just strolling in to take the prize for themselves? 

Don't fret too much about establishing big detailed maps right away - war tends to take place over some pretty large areas, and it's pretty easy to add appropriate locations midway through the game. It's not like your players are going to feel cheated if you tell them that there's a big castle they've never heard of before this point. 
Yes, that was always there. No, I don't know how you missed it either. 

Image and Appearance

When I say appearance, I'm not just talking about flags, color schemes and fancy helmets (although those are important too). Image is the message that your faction is sending to everyone else, the identity they project into the world. 

Image can be described as the "public-facing" version of the other stuff we've talked about. A faction might be known for its influence, its infamy, its purpose or its recent actions. It could be known by its force, its unique appearance or attitude, the vehicles they use, the tactics and weapons they employ. A faction might be known for its leaders, with a particular figure whose name is loved or feared across the land, whose deeds have impacted the world many times already, or who is said to be the hero (or villain) of destiny. Why, it might even be famous for a location - your faction might be known for having its capital city inside of a hollow mountain, or for being the home of a great structure that's important to the whole setting.

How does this help our game? It helps us understand people's perception, what others most associate our faction with. It's also often what preconceptions are based on, which may or may not benefit the faction. If a faction's known for its ruthless berserker troops, its image as a mighty foe, as someone to be feared and respected, will benefit. It will also not help the faction pass as a convincing neutral peace-loving entity.

This also brings up how the faction wants to be perceived. Factions might have any number of diplomatic, economic, or military reasons to want a specific image.  A faction might want to look more dangerous than it is to keep itself safe from attack, or to downplay its strength to lower its neighbor's guard. They might make concentrated efforts to attract allies and workers through displays of wealth, or they might keep a low profile to avoid the ire of competitors. Often, factions that treats their people poorly will make an effort to conceal this fact - no dictator wishes to be perceived as one, and most rulers would like to be seen as benevolent.  And even the genuinely successful might enhance the truth a little to make them seem more appealing as partners or allies. 

Of course, for extra complications and fun, not everyone will have the same opinion of a faction. While one faction might very much believe the stated peaceful intent of our Berserker Kingdom, another might be more interested in the brutal warrior caste than their recent charity work. Even then, the second faction could find the trickery despicable, or might actually respect the manipulative façade. There are as many ways to interpret a faction's image as there are other factions, and it's pretty likely at least some of them can justify a declaration of war.
Poverty? Stray dog problem? No, no, that's just how our philosophers prefer things!

A Quick Aside about Scale

This might dismay some of you, but size matters. When you're setting up your setting, contemplate the numbers. Are your warring factions operating at a similar scale? Are you perhaps overdoing the number of people involved for the type of game you want to have? 

Now, I know your headache all too well: scale is something extremely difficult to eyeball for a lot of us. How the heck should I know how big a kingdom should be? How many people is an army, and how much bigger can one army be than an other before things become ridiculous? How difficult is it to maintain and defend supply routes that span hundreds of lightyears? 

If you want true hard numbers, then you're gonna have to do some research on how big these things are in the real world (when appropriate) and go off of that. The other extreme would be to just fully abstract it and give no thought to numbers, since they're not important for the story. The useful answer for running a game, however, lies in the middle - and the truth is that the comparative extremes of your factions should match your game's desired tone and level of realism. 

If you want a very rough guideline, your warring factions raw manpowers should be within 2 powers of 10 of one another. That is, if you want to embrace the "empire vs rebellion" schtick, or a similar underdog story, the empire having 500,000 soldiers (ballpark it, friends), a rebellion that totals 5,000 fighters would be able to remain a serious threat as long as they fought smart and maximized every advantage they possibly could (though even so the odds would be overwhelmingly against them).  Any more lopsided than that and things get ridiculous; unless they have a comically disproportionate technological or magical advantage, 500 fighters cannot win out against an enemy that can deploy a thousand troops for every one of theirs. And at that point you've got a whole different set of problems. 
How are we supposed to defeat the entire Roman Empire with a single Galaxy-class starship?

That was a little short, wasn't it?  

Plot twist: this was just part one! We've gotten the setup and factions out of the way, so in the next post, I'll talk about the real meaty parts of ongoing conflict. Stay tuned, planetbound listeners! 


[1]: Okay fine you twisted my arm. Robot soldiers are cool, but should be used wisely, for a couple of reasons. First off, robots are not people (unless they are in your game, in which case never mind), and consequently they're not subject to the personal drama that is the core of war narratives. Second, one side having robot soldiers and the other not having them raises a lot of issues, both moral and practical, that you might not want to have to deal with. They also share an issue with clone soldiers, in that they simply make a less personable enemy; faceless hordes are generally only good as tools of the cartooniest villains, and it threatens to lock you out of a lot of the good faction stuff like culture and personalities (yes, I've seen Deep Space Nine, I know clones can be more complex if we want them to be, but if everyone's playing against the trope then nobody's playing against the trope). All of this said, I'm not saying you should never introduce mass-produced soldiers into your campaign - just be ready for the specific challenges that come with the territory. 
[2]:  Even the cruelest conqueror understands that escalating to deadlier weapon causes your opponent to respond in kind; thermonuclear destruction tend to only be good for your story if you've really been wanting to run a postapoc campaign . It's also typical for societies to frown on the usage of particularly evil tools, such as biological weapons or planet-destroying lasers; those should typically be reserved for only the most abominable and inhuman, and even then used sparingly... if for no reason other than it making for a narratively unsatisfying enemy to fight. If someone's truly threatening to use tools like this, either they can't be stopped (in which case why even have the war campaign) or they'll get collectively attacked by everyone else (which isn't really a compelling story to tell, despite what certain major franchise films might have you believe).     

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