Pop Quiz! Name as many factions in Mad Max: Fury Road as you can.
Can you name any? If you’ve seen the movie as many times as I have, then you probably can. However, if you’ve only seen it once or twice, then I seriously doubt it. However, let’s amend that pop quiz a bit.
Describe as many of the factions in Mad Max: Fury Road as you can.
I bet you did better that time. There’s a reason for that. It’s because each faction in Fury Road has a certain number of narratively distinct traits or visually iconic images that define them as a member of their faction. Fury Road does an excellent job of this (though not necessarily perfect), and is a perfect example of how to create narratively distinct factions within a world, which is something that I find is unfortunately lost in many games and RPGs, whether it be D&D or otherwise.
Now, it would be ludicrous for me to go through every faction in the movie and give a rundown on what makes them unique (and I totally didn’t waste a bunch of time doing that in this article’s first draft). Suffice it to say, however, that they all have unique aspects that make them almost immediately recognizable within the movie. The Buzzards drive spiky cars and speak Russian. The Crow Fishers walk around on stilts in the swamp. The Vuvalini ride motorcycles and use sniper rifles. They all have visual and action aspects that inform their character within the context of the film and the greater universe as a whole.
And it’s unfortunate that many RPG products don’t use this to their advantage as well as they could. Too many times, I’ll read an adventure with various goblin, orc, or bandit factions that all feel basically the same. Even when they do differentiate the different factions, it’s usually just by defining them based on racial or monstrous guidelines. Paizo’s The Stolen Lands adventure has, I think, three different factions other than the players, and they basically break down to Bandits, Mites, and Kobolds. The Dragon’s Demand, another of their adventures, has three factions as well. How are they divided? Kobolds, Undead, and Psychic Lovecraftian Man-Bats.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing, by the way. D&D and other similar fantasy RPGs are uniquely suited to this sort of classification of factions, as there is such a wide variety of intelligent monsters to choose from. Faction A can be generic orcs, Faction B can be generic gnolls, and Faction C can be psychic fish from outer space. It’s perfectly sensible to divide them along these lines. The Blackhorn Minotaurs reside in the Eastern Hills, while the Beetleback Goblins present a more immediate threat to the South.
And yet, my favorite new RPG adventure to come out in the last year or two is easily Princes of the Apocalypse. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve barely read the thing and I have no intention of running it as written. I rarely if ever actually run modules I purchase. Instead, I pillage them for ideas for my own games, and Princes has some of the most amazing factions I’ve seen in an RPG product basically ever. If you own a copy, then I encourage you to grab it right now and flip to the last few pages, where you see concept art of the various factions. And if you don’t have a copy, then go ahead and do a quick google image search for Princes of the Apocalypse Cultists.
Holy. Shit. Folks.
Based on these images, we learn so much about these factions. The water cultists wear seaweed and eschew armor. Their water cultists have saw-toothed swords and wield crab-claws as weapons. The earth cultists wear literal rock armor and charge into battle astride giant insects. The air cultists have badass wingsuits (THE coolest mobility item included in ANY video game, by the way, bar none) and float using personal hot air balloons. And the fire cultists? They have their hearts replaced with literal fire and march into combat alongside GODDAMN ROBOTS POWERED BY ELEMENTAL FLAME!
These four cults, which all have awesome, evocative names (the air cultists are called the HOWLING HATRED, guys!), interesting and delineated tactics, and—as we established—their own unique visual flair, are simply amazing.
In concept, at least. In practice, they unfortunately fall short, and their stat blocks don’t carry forth that flavorful nature that they otherwise possess. For example, not a single Howling Hatred cultist has a ranged weapon, and not a one makes use of that AMAZING wingsuit that they have in their picture. What the hell, guys? What the ACTUAL hell!?
And none of the basic Crushing Wave cultists have a swim speed. The named villains do, but not the actual cultists. Seriously? The water guys? The CRUSHING WAVE can’t SWIM? Is that not a bit of an oversight?
Oh well, at least the fire cultists all get fire powers. And the earth cultists all have high ACs and wear rock armor…except for the unarmored monk that somehow found its way into their ranks. What? Oh, and they ride bullettes, rather than giant bugs, which makes more sense, I guess, but is WAY less cool.
What Can We Learn?
Now, it might seem like I’m taking a while to make my point, but that’s because I actually have a couple of points to make. The first is in regards to what these elemental cults, and the various factions of Fury Road, do right. From a purely conceptual standpoint, these groups are incredibly well designed. They’re unique, interesting, and, best of all, cool. They’re all immediately recognizable, and their design informs certain tactics and methodology to their particular brand of madness. It has you asking questions like “WHY do the fire cultists have eternal flames in their chests, in place of hearts?”
And that’s the first thing I want you to take away from this. Rather than using the traditional D&D method of dividing factions entirely along monstrous lines, add a little flair. And when I say a little, I mean a LITTLE. The beauty of a group like the War Boys in Fury Road is that they’re simple. They’re car-worshipping desert-vikings with a penchant for explosives. That’s really it. And they’re the most complex faction in the whole damn movie. Instead of “orc tribe,” maybe it’s “Tribe of Death-worshipping orcs that wear black and wield scythes.” Maybe they have elites called “Executioners” who wear a hood and carry greataxes, and their priests starve themselves to give them a skeletal appearance. Ta-da! You can, of course, flesh them out as much as you want. Maybe their culture includes ritual sacrifice, where the flesh of the sacrificial orc is consumed and their bones are used to craft new weapons and armor. Perhaps they always offer a prayer to Death before they deliver a coup-de-grace to an opponent, and never heal downed allies back to health. These are all little nuances that are important to creating an interesting faction that has depth within your campaign. But the most important thing is to remember which aspects of that faction are front-facing. Which parts do the players get to see? Because those are the parts that you want to remain solid, because if they get muddied by too many intricacies, or if they aren’t visually striking, then they’ll get lost amongst the various other aspects of the campaign.
This is especially important if you, like Fury Road or Princes of the Apocalypse, have various factions using the same monstrous template. If every faction in your game is some variation of Orc, then you want the players to easily identify whether they’re fighting the Bone Blade clan or the Blood Tusks. Because by creating these stark differences, you’re able to add more depth to your campaign and the world in which it takes place.
The second thing I want you to take away from this is that you should be able to do better than Princes of the Apocalypse when it comes to the actual execution of the faction within the game. Having four visually-distinct goblin tribes that are each themed after a different animal is one thing. But if the Gill-blins are functionally the same as the Tree Toads, then it doesn’t matter how much fish or frog iconography you put on their armor and weapons. And if the Vicious Vultures (now they’re just starting to sound like high school sports teams) don’t have SOME method to fly or glide in combat, then there’s really no point in giving them feathery cloaks and glaives that look like vulture beaks. Give your Tree Toads a climb speed and a sticky whip attack. Have the Vicious Vultures attack from on-high using gliders while dropping rocks, and let their feather-cloaks act as parachutes. And when your PCs cross the seemingly-safe river, THAT is when you reveal that the Gill-blins can swim at 30 feet per round and leap out of the water like dolphins.
As I said, THIS is really where I felt that the elemental cultists in Princes fell short. Really, the fact that the Howling Hatred cultists never get to use their wingsuits and not a single one of them has a bow or crossbow in their inventory is unforgivable. Now, you can of course amend that to your liking, but AS WRITTEN, they completely fail at actually utilizing the promised themes. The reason I remember the Rock Riders in Fury Road isn’t because they have particularly cool or interesting appearances. It’s because they never rode their bikes on the sand, choosing instead to jump OVER the war rig and use aerial bomb attacks against the protagonists. If they had simply been War Boys with a different appearance, I might not remember them at all.
What this means is that when you’re designing these sorts of unique factions for your campaigns, you have to deliver on what you promise. Orc Death Cultists should FEEL like death cultists. They shouldn’t fight the same way as your Orc Alchemist tribe, or your Orc Ranger tribe. If they all march into battle the same way, wielding the same weapons and using the same tactics, then you’re just throwing a coat of paint on them.
What this does NOT mean is that you must create unique stat blocks for each and every one of them. All four of your goblin tribes can use the same stat block, if you so choose, but with a differing template on each of them. Gill-blins gain a swim speed and ambush foes, Danger Dogs gain +10 feet of movement and use bite attacks and swarm tactics. It doesn’t matter if they both deal 4 damage with their attack, or if they both have 13 AC and 6 hit points. By differentiating their actual tactics in the game, and giving each of them something unique, you’re able to create interesting foes without actually doing too much work. Though, I will say that making a ton of cool stat blocks definitely appeals to my DM senses.
Putting This Into Practice
So, how do you actually execute this in your game? Are there any tips and tricks? Yes and no. Personally, I’m not going to teach you how to prep your game. Maybe you’re the kind that writes pages and pages of lore, and likes to have it all to reference at the table. Or maybe you just have a few note cards with important events and characters written down. Or maybe you’re like me, and you find yourself in between: a few pertinent paragraphs and a LOT of empty notebooks. Again, I’m not going to teach you how to prep your game. However, if you want some advice on writing down your interesting factions, I’d make sure that you keep just two things in mind: The Talk, and the Walk. AKA, Presentation and Execution.
Presentation: This is where you talk the talk of your faction. Keep note of at least one visually-striking aspect of the faction’s members. They all wear black cloaks with a red flame on the back. Every one of them has replaced their right eye with a piece of jade. Each member has a shaved head and a line of spikes running from their forehead down to the base of their spine. Don’t make it too complicated, but don’t make it too subtle, either. Remember, we want all members of this faction to be recognizable.
Execution: This is where you walk the walk. Not only does your faction have to have a distinct, interesting face, but it has to deliver on the promises that the face makes. If every member of the Scions of the Komodo has sharpened teeth and long claws on their fingers, then they’d better use their teeth and claws as weapons, and they should probably have venomous or diseased spit. Their tactics and equipment should reflect what the players see.
And I think that’s it for today. Hopefully, you found this useful, and you’ll be introducing something more than just “orc tribe” and “hobgoblin army” as factions into your next game.