A living D&D campaign works better with multiple Factions and Patrons in it. No, not Warlock Patrons. We’ve alluded to a couple of those during the 5e Wampus sessions, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.
The Patrons are NPCs (or maybe not, as we shall see) who are the individual movers and shakers in the campaign world. Monarchs, wizards and witches, barbarian chieftains, wealthy sponsors of expeditions, and so forth. They keep the living game world moving around.
The Factions are the groups that interact and overlap within the campaign. The Duchy of Whoopass, the slavering hordes of goblins on the western steppe, the thieves’ guild (shhh), the churches of note.
Patrons may be people of rank in Factions, or they may be individual wild cards. Regardless of their alignment (big-A or small-A), the Patrons and Factions have goals, and they must pursue them - that’s what keeps things moving and gives the world events for the PCs to stumble into, aid, thwart, or exploit.
|Just one of many quest-givers|
When I was regularly running Wampus Country sessions back in 2011-2015ish, there were definitely some factions and patrons in the game, but probably not as many as there should have been. Or rather, they should’ve been more active. There were plenty of NPC groups - various flavors of tribesmen, for example - that appeared occasionally but did not always have their own motivations and goals that existed and marched forward between on-camera sessions. That was a mistake on my part, and I think it was driven somewhat by the narrower focus of the PC action much of the time, and just having too much going on to apply good discipline to each faction. I was not diligent in saying each month “okay, what are the Black Eagle tribe up to right now?” In part I was able to get by without doing this because I felt very comfortable improvising the answer to that question should a Black Eagle have shown up in the campaign the next week. Improv is good for some things, but having an actual answer from actual faction actions would’ve been far better for the game, its verisimilitude, and the general “embrace the chaos” nature of better play.
In hindsight, that stretch of the campaign would’ve benefitted greatly from using Patrons in the “Chantisonian” mold (a cheeky portmanteau of Chanticleer, the guy who brought this up in the last year or so, and Dave Arneson, who was doing it Braunstein-style from the jump). Check out this explanation of the concept over at BDubs And Dragons. Bottom line is the Patron is an NPC, of whatever power level, that you don’t run yourself as DM, but instead hand off to a player - and probably not a player of a PC in your game to start, although it could be. It's about recruiting some more players to play the movers and shakers of the region.
More players means more chaos. More inputs you can’t predict. There’s a fog of war, of course, since the patrons may not have perfect information (and shouldn’t). There will be actions and counteractions, and friction will be generated that enhances the campaign world and the gameplay. Plus, it’s a fine way to get some people involved in your campaign who otherwise might not have been able to play.
As PCs in your campaign rise in level, they start to seem more like the NPC Patrons - in addition to their own direct effects, they can farm tasks out to other PCs, pit people against one another, and so forth. It sounds so fun, and although it could be argued it adds more DM work to adjudicate things, I suspect it alleviates a completely different kind of DM work, and in the end is a net gain in both efficiency and campaign fun.
One reason we may not have leaned into wide-scope faction play in that phase of Wampus Country was that the world at the time, while not exactly in stasis, certainly wasn’t on the cusp of war or anything like that. Plenty of wilderness to explore, but it did feel too much like peacetimel
On returning to Wampus Country with a new group in late 2020, we placed the action in a different part of the map, where we could indeed be on the cusp of war. Had I added embodied patrons at that point, the sessions would have looked very different than they did. I’m still thinking about where I would add patron play to Wampus Country, but I’m definitely eager to throw some patron players into the mix when I run Gamma World in 2022.
Next time on the blog, we’ll get back to talking about stealing play structures from comic books, but some of this Patron stuff will play into it, so I wanted to be sure to discuss the concept and drop that link first.