Factions 1 Review – Organizations in Genesys from Keith Kappel

Let’s be blunt: things have been very quiet on the Genesys front lately. The switch from Fantasy Flight Games to EDGE Studio has not exactly hit the ground running, although in fairness a lot of that can be attributed to disruption caused by the pandemic. Still,  that means that aside from promises and rumors – good money says Twilight Imperium will be the next IP tapped for the system – there’s been nothing coming out . . . except what’s found in the Genesys Foundry.

Player characters often find themselves interacting with much larger groups, organizations, and factions – but how does a character actually gain prestige and support in such groups? Sure, many games can handle that narratively, but what if you want something crunchier? Out of the Foundry and the mind of FFG-veteran Keith Ryan Kappel comes Factions 1, a Faction Talent Supplement for Genesys!

While we haven’t previously worked with Mr. Kappel directly per se, there have been a fair number of products he’s worked on reviewed here at CHG, and a fair few more that have been either used right here or featured in something else we looked at. Plus he was my GM for Legends of the Five Rings at the last PAX Unplugged. Suffice to say that when Factions 1 landed on my desk, expectations were pretty good. There are no guarantees, though, so let’s see what we’ve got!

Chapter 1: The Rules

Whether they’re an actual member of one, working for or against one, or just interacting with one in passing, player characters often have a fair bit of screentime with organizations and factions larger than their own party, from adventuring guilds to entire governments. Obviously a fair bit of that is going to be narrative, but what Factions 1 wants to offer are options for mechanically representing – and benefiting from – factions that the characters are involved with.

When a character or party joins a faction, they can work their way up the ranks by purchasing ‘talent-like’ titles, which have both a narrative impact and a mechanical benefit (we’ll get more into those next chapter). Titles within a faction are ranked 1-5, and share their XP cost with actual Talents – 5 XP for a Rank 1 Title up to 25 XP for a Rank 5 Title – as well as the requirement that you have to have bought a lower-ranked Title in order to buy a higher-ranked one.

However, where the rules for Talents get left behind is that the titles don’t follow the pyramid rules; you don’t need to have two Rank 1s in order to get a Rank 2, and titles don’t take up spots on the Talent pyramid (or in a specialization tree, if you’re pulling those from the Player’s Guide). I asked Kappel why he took this route and what he thought doing so brought to the table, and got some interesting words on keeping game design succinct in the bargain.

“Yeah I waffled on that a bit. It’s just one sentence in the book but it can have major changes! Ultimately I came down on the side of wanting people to be able to climb the ranks at the speed of plot rather than the speed of mechanics. So there is a line in there about the GM sort of deciding when its ok to buy a rank.

Basically I wanted to encourage using the stuff in the product. Rather than put players to choosing between it and all the other great talents. And while it could throw balance potentially over time, if every player is using it, it shouldn’t matter too much. But yeah, particularly in those tier 4 or 5 spots, I didn’t want someone to feel like they shouldn’t advance because there’s a talent they want instead.

Looking backward I probably should have just outlined the pros and cons of each and let GMs decide. But I feel like most would pick the safety of the pyramid, which I think in most cases is the wrong call. And then I’d probably want to add more guidance in case you’re using spec trees. So it’d probably be a half page to a page instead of the sentence or two it is. One thing about writing RPG stuff, there’s always a longer way to do it.”

There are a few dials and switches in this particular machine that can be fiddled with beyond the base mechanic. First is the aforementioned idea that the GM may want the purchasing of titles to be controlled by a narrative gate: you have to actually do things for the faction in order to climb the ranks, rather than just using XP gained from crushing unrelated Minions. Speaking of XP, while regular old XP is fine for the purchasing of titles – representing the character putting time and effort into the faction – there is an optional rule for Faction XP. Gained at the rate of 1 Faction XP for, basically, doing their ‘job’ well and 2-4 XP for achieving the faction’s goals at ‘significant risk or extra effort’, this special resource only interacts with the faction mechanic.

I’m going to express an opinion: if you’re using Factions 1, use the Faction XP option. It feeds right back into what Kappel said about wanting players to actually choose to purchase titles – if a Rank 5 Title is competing with the Dedication Talent, it is a very rare player indeed who is going to choose the title. Using this optional rule prevents characters from being too XP-starved and from abandoning the faction mechanic, and furthermore offers another way for the GM to reward the characters.

Most of the rest of the fiddly bits have to do with Faction XP. You may want to give credit where credit is due when only a single player helped a faction, leading to characters climbing faction ranks at different paces – and it’s also a good idea to encourage characters to pursue different factions, so that they’re diversified. You could have characters lose Faction XP if they act against a faction’s interests, effectively creating a type of reputation system (help Faction A against B, gain XP for A  and lose XP for B). That feeds into another optional rule, where characters might suffer setback dice on social checks as well as narrative consequences if their Faction XP goes into the negative. Finally, some titles allow for the requisitioning of items, but if that’s not on the table Faction XP could be temporarily exchanged for equipment – don’t lose the stuff, or you might not get your XP safety deposit back.

Oh, one last thing: the GM might find it useful to have adversaries benefit from title abilities as well, so keep that in mind when you’re building them – unlike with players, though, you should probably only let them use the benefit of a single title, as opposed to all of the ranks they’ve ‘earned’.

Chapter 2 and 4: Sample General and Specific Factions

Nonsequential chapters! Ahhhh! Well that’s because both of these chapters are about looking at actual factions and what they do once you’ve passed the narrative gate/spent (Faction) XP to start climbing the ranks. Chapter 2 brings five factions that have their serial numbers filed off. Some of their flavor text might change, and there could be a few genre-based tweaks to make,  but in general (heheh) they can be dropped into any campaign that would feature such a faction: Corporate, Criminal, Government Agency, Military, and Social. Chapter 4 then gives us some more specific examples, and I’ll be doing some comparison in a bit.

Very important for every faction is that they have goals, things they actually want and problems they want to avoid, which will be the things the players interact with in order to advance with – or antagonize – said faction. A Corporate faction wants profits, so they’re going to be looking for characters to deal with competition and make deals. A Social faction is going to want to build connections and raise funds for whatever causes they support. Then they have the actual titles. A Government faction consists of Contractors, Consultants, Agents, Assistant Deputy Directors, and Deputy Directors. A Criminal faction has members who are Associates, Made, Caporegimes, Underbosses, and Consiglieres.

Title abilities can vary quite a bit. Looking at the Military faction, Rank 1 Privates can add an automatic success when involved in a social check to obey a legal order. A Rank 3 Sergeant can add 2 Advantage to attacks against a target within medium range using Ranged Flanking, provided some allied NPCs are also within medium range. A Rank 5 Captain can spend a Story Point once per session to call in an Air Strike, rolling Intellect!Gunnery to drop some vehicle-scale damage on a target. On the Corporate side of things, a Rank 1 Contractor can suffer strain to borrow an item from the corporation up to rarity 5. A Rank 3 Manager can Invoke Brand during a Charm/Coercion/Deception/Negotiation check once per encounter, adding a boost die when they invoke their corporation’s name. A Rank 5 Vice President can spend a Story Point once per session to have a personal assistant pick up a person/item, deliver a message, or even make a check.

As a reminder, every Rank also has access to the abilities of the lower ranks too, so climbing the ranks brings quite a bit to the table.

Chapter 4 give us three more specific examples: the High-Risk Operation Division of the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, the Order of the Pure Stone (a dwarven monastic order of sorts), and the United States Navy. The generic Military faction and the Navy provide the easiest comparison between a general faction and a specific one. A Rank 1 Sailor can suffer 1 Strain while assisting with Athletics/Mechanics/Operating checks to add one Success and one Advantage to the roll instead of a Boost die. A Rank 3 Leading Petty Officer can use their Lifetime of Training once per session to use their ranks in Leadership instead of their ranks in another skill for a check. A Rank 5 Master Chief can Lift Morale by making Leadership checks that allow allies to ignore the effects of a Critical Injury for a turn.

As we can see, the United States Navy is definitely a Military faction, and operates within that framework – working with others in the faction is paramount. But the Navy focuses a lot more on leadership and assistance, while the generic Military is centered on combat (and ranged, ground-based combat at that).

So how do you get from a general faction to a specific one?

Chapter 3: Create Your Own Faction

Step One: define your faction! Remember, for ability diversity reasons you don’t want a faction to be one all the members of the party will belong to outright. Ironically, the example that Factions 1 uses is the Navy, saying that if the entire campaign is focused on an aircraft carrier the Navy wouldn’t be a good fit; you’d want one for the pilots, one for the crew, maybe another for officers, perhaps another for a SEAL team. If the PCs are each from a different service background, though, then the Navy would do just fine.

Once you’ve figured out how broad/large v. narrow/specific your faction is, you’ll want to define the structure of it. Who’s in charge, how is it managed, what kind of goals does it have and how does it prefer to pursue them?

Step Two: faction titles! Some factions are going to have pretty natural title names, military ones come to mind with their ranks, religious ones have positions, so those will be easy, but you really just need to pick out names that will be thematically appropriate and evocative for your faction. While there will be mechanical abilities attached to the titles, you also want them to be narratively important. A Private is just a grunt, but has a lot of support and probably doesn’t have to worry much about gear. A Captain has a lot of responsibility, and also has an entire unit of soldiers under their command. You also don’t want to make the titles too powerful – Rank 5 of a religious faction shouldn’t be, you know, god. First of all, the narrative implications won’t match up with the mechanical facts. Second of all, this system assumes you’re working as part of a faction, not running the thing. Rank 5 has a lot of “clout and power”, but should still have someone they need to answer to.

Step Three: faction abilities! You’re going to want the ability to have a thematic and fun name, and you’re going to want it to line up with the title it’s attached to. As for actual abilities, the advice given is to try and keep them level with Talents of the same Tier – Rank 1 to Tier 1, Rank 5 to Tier 5, etc. You might want to revisit the advice for creating Talents from the core rulebook (pgs. 194-196).

Five Ranks worth of Sample Abilities are provided, with five different types, that can be used to assemble a faction. Broadly speaking they involve using your faction’s reputation, getting material support, interacting with other members of the faction, getting support on checks, and benefiting from the presence of faction members.

There’s some pretty good advice and a few dials and switches for modifying factions/abilities to get the result you want. For instance, you may want to have fewer or more than five titles, and might want to fiddle around with the XP costs, particularly if a Rank 5-grade ability is actually only three ranks up the chain. You may want to move abilities up and down the rank system, which can be dealt with by increasing or loosening the restrictions on use – the example given is turning a once per encounter Rank 2 ability into a once per session or Story Point Rank 1 ability.

Personally, I find myself in the unenviable position of not having an immediate use for Factions 1 . . . because it would have been extremely useful in a campaign that just ended. I can’t quite picture in my head how everything would have worked, I wasn’t the GM, but I can definitely say that Caita would have gained quite a bit of Faction XP with the Alethi Nobility . . . before that whole cascade of assassinations and other mistakes that went down would have sent that faction’s XP spiraling into the negative, forcing Caita to start earning Faction XP with the Ghostbloods in order to gain herself the ability to lay low and the resources needed to operate in disguise. When I mentioned how I wished we’d had this on hand, and how it could’ve been dropped into the game pretty easily all things considered, Kappel had this to say:

“I’m trying to make stuff people can bolt onto their game in progress. Rather than stuff where you need to drop everything and run a new game of my thing.”

The last question I actually asked was the first one that came to mind before I even got past the title: Factions 1 certainly implies a series, so of course I asked Kappel what we could expect in the future.

“I’m working on Factions 2 with fellow pro Christopher Hunt as we speak, it’ll have a totally different take/way to include factions in your game. And I suppose eventually we’ll get to a faction management system.

I guess I’ll say the product is Android themed instead of generic Genesys, which might give a hint to how its different. But the rest will have to wait!”

Factions 1 lets players climb the ranks of the organizations that matter to their characters while rewarding them in a new way, tying them further into the narrative of the world they exist in, and granting them further abilities to make them more capable and (ideally) unique within their party. On the GM’s side of things, there’s a whole set of new hooks for the old tacklebox, and a good amount of flexibility within the mechanic to deliver the desired experience to the players.

I’ll be looking for a way to use this supplement in a campaign of my own . . . and I’ll definitely be pointing my GM towards it for Season 2 of that recently-finished campaign (Mark, check your messages).

Thanks to Keith Ryan Kappel for sending us a copy of Factions 1 to review, as well as talking with me about the supplement!

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