Storytelling, Tabletop and Pop Culture
This week we’re digging into one of my favorite parts of fantasy faiths: factions. In the real world there are basically no truly monolithic religions. Just about every religion has sects, denominations, branches, schools, families etc. that differ substantially enough on a topic that they had to make some institutional distance from one another.
Now a fantasy faith where the divine can make itself known in indisputable ways might be one of the only exceptions to this concept but unless a deity is incredibly active, chances are good that there are at least a few different factions. These factions are a wonderful source of tension, roleplay and plot hooks. Followers of Evil divinity v. Followers of Good divinity can be bland and overused. If you want to really dig into some interesting theological conflict, put your religious characters in competition and dispute with folks they almost agree with but differ on some critical point.
What happens when a deity has both Chaotic Good and Lawful Good followers? Or conflict between moderates who want slow, measured change and firebrand revolutionaries who want it today at any cost? The best factions will share some common origin but branch hard over a specific issue (and then keep diverging from there). Have your Paladin be challenged for upholding injustice through law abiding inaction. Let your Cleric be called out for supporting violence (even with good intentions). Conflicting visions of the good can be just as compelling and make ensuing intrigue and even violence all the more complicated
If you’ve been following along, one of the best ways to mix up a faction is to take a previous or subsequent topic (history, practices, politics etc.) and choose one major difference for each of the various factions. This will help you give them both familiarity and strangeness to build on. From that starting point, think of how that change would ripple through the faith to create something slightly different.
Fractures and Factions
Below are some big categories your factions might fall into:
1. Orthodoxy. Your faith has a hardline orthodox sect. What changes are they resisting? Do they distinguish themselves in some way in appearance or practice from other factions? How do they exert their power? What advantages do they have?
2. Heresy. Your faith has a heretical offshoot. What major point of doctrine do they disagree on? How do other factions treat them? Who are their leaders? Who are they recruiting to join them? How have they separated themselves from the institutions and communities of the rest of the faith?
3. Elite. Your faith has an influential group of leaders. What do they have in common? How do they communicate? What are they trying to do with their influence? Who opposes them or what issues are they facing?
4. Reformation A reform faction is gaining steam within your faith. What do they want to change? What methods are they using? Are they seeking gradual or sudden change? Are they using the institutions of the faith or trying to provoke change from without?
5. Layfolk. Your faith has a large faction of common practitioners who exert a broad influence over the institutions. How do they differ from the other factions? What are their priorities? How do they organize and communicate?
6. Militants. A violent, militant branch is forming among members of your faith. Why are they so committed? What are their priorities? What event or issue instigated them?
You can build a whole campaign just around the interplay of these factions. What if the heroes are named "the chosen ones" by one faction but another disagrees? Maybe they're beloved by one group and loathed by the others. Maybe one faction is seeking to destabilize a kingdom for a good reason but is inadvertently weakening the kingdom's ability to fend off a demonic incursion. Putting well meaning folks in complex conflict with each other is a big part of creating an interesting sandbox for players to make decisions in.
Hopefully you're seeing your fantasy faith really start to take shape. How do religious factions work in your campaign? What are your favorite stories of faction conflict? Let us know in the comments!
Hi! I'm Colby. DM, Nerd, IRL Cleric and Writer.