Good stories need conflicts and rivaling factions, so you want to create a solid roster of factions for your fantasy world. Protagonists, antagonists, heroes, antiheroes, alliances, and organizations. What do the White Council of the Dresden Files, the Great Host of the Alliance of Middle-Earth, the Death Eaters of Harry Potter, the Avengers of the Marvel Universe, the races and factions of Warcraft, or the Black Company of Glen Cook’s novels have in common? These factions populate their fantasy worlds and are key to their stories, and you want to do the same for your fantasy world.
The following survey may serve as a template to create your own list of factions. Working through this list should give your characters potential allies and enemies and push your world to the edge in no time, or perhaps root a character of your own. The headings are kept generic, but with a few examples for each faction. Your factions should, of course, have proper names.
A checklist if you will. Let’s get started.
The Alliance of All Free Folk
The Alliance of all Free Folk represents everything good, lawful, and civilized in the world, self-proclaimed or otherwise. This can be an alliance between species or nations, or both. The ideals of the alliance are freedom, prosperity, and the security of its people. The alliance can be organized by a good king in the most powerful kingdom, the wise and beautiful elven queen, or someone in between.
The Alliance represents good in a good vs. evil story. The story may stay true to this dualistic conflict or become muddled by shades of grey as the story progress. Who gets to define who’s good, lawful, and civilized in your world is an entirely different matter as history written by the victors and truth is defined by the powerful. This may be the seeds of discord and actually the heart of your story.
Examples are the White Council of Middle-Earth, the Alliance of Azeroth, the Lord’s Alliance of the Forgotten Realms, or perhaps the Avengers in the Marvel Universe.
The Horde is the disorganized army of uncivilized folk from outside the civilized lands, and further definition depends on species and leadership. The faction is a convenient representation of evil against the Alliance above.
The Horde may be an alliance of savage brutes who seek to destroy the free folk, or band together for mutual protection from the “free folk,” depending on whom you ask.
The Horde may be barbarian tribes, with “barbarian” as defined by the established lands. The word “barbarian” is derived from a term on folks who do not speak Greek, and the Romans used the word for many tribes outside the imperial border. Which probably means most of the readers of this blog are barbarians.
The faction may be defined by species, for instance, orcs and goblins from the wilds, seemingly bent on the destruction of civilization. This Horde could be refugees from a collapsing world, as in the World of Warcraft, or an alliance of necessity against self-righteous folk who considers them lesser people or even monsters.
The Horde leadership is as diverse as the hordes themselves, varying from ambitious tribal chieftains to dark lords like Sauron.
The Ministers of State
The government, being a proper parliament or a council of royal advisers, is a powerful faction, or multiple factions in fantasy stories.
The Royal Advisers. The Small Council. They are the group that surrounds the nation’s leader, carry out orders, do research, and offer advice. Some also undoubtedly both bask in the glory of the monarch and misuse the resources of the nation of their own needs.
The members can have formalized tasks and act as ministers of the government, they can be a vaguer group of influential individuals or both. Positions like royal treasurer, royal assassin, or admiral of the fleet sure have a ring to them. Admittance into this circle can be based on merits, wealth, or both.
The Sword of the Crown is a more fleshed out example.
Obvious examples for pop culture is the Small Council in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, or perhaps the Imperial Advisors, the ghoulish geezers who hung around the Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars.
Real world examples includes just about any news report or Machiavelli.
The Noble House
The Noble House is becoming a fantasy trope comparable to, say, elves or swords, as discussed previously. Some would say it is overdone, and the claim is not without merit.
However, the main attraction of the noble house as a faction is that it focuses on people with power. People with the tools to do terrible things, which makes them worthy protagonists. The noble house is thus suitable for very relatable human stories.
George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is a fantasy juggernaut, with historical precedence in the War of the Roses, the Roman Empire, and medieval Italy or Japan, just to name a few, so it is a fantasy trope hard to ignore.
The idea of rivaling noble houses has been featured in roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons for a long time. The noble houses of Waterdeep and Cormyr in the Forgotten Realms predate George R.R. Martin with a decade, so the trope does not begin with A Game of Thrones.
The Knight Order
The Knight Orders are elite militaristic organizations defined by their founding and original purpose, the romantic notion of a chivalric code, and later how true the order has stayed to its origins. You can look at the knights are heroic and loyal defenders of the people, or perhaps heavy cavalry with delusions of grandeur. Both may apply.
The Royal Knights serve the nation and its ruling family, like King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, the Purple Dragons in the Forgotten Realms, or the knights of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.
Religious knights serve the church directly and may rival the royal knights and even the royal house itself, as was the case with the Knights Templars with their potent mix of martial prowess, religious devotion, and financial power.
The Grey Wardens of Thedas is a knight order, despite not using the term, dedicated to preparing for and battling future blights. The Wardens’ role is recognized by the nations of Thedas, the order operates outside the power structure of individual countries, and the order has the right of conscription. The Wardens funding is unclear in the games.
The Church of Light
The Church of Light claims to represent all that is good in the world and offer protection against the Darkness. Light and Darkness can be real manifestations of good and evil in your world, and the followers of each dogma certainly have reason to claim this is the case.
The Church of Light claims the moral high ground and may be successful if they deliver on the promises, or at least instill enough fear of the darkness. The church is a good candidate for a monotheistic religion. Light is a universal concept and easily corrupted to create good stories. Corrupted faith and heresy are topics with lots of potentials.
I have previously discussed writing fantasy religions and the potential for heretic beliefs more thoroughly.
The Templars of Light
The faithful may say they are in the hands of their god and need no other protection, but that may not necessarily be true. Faith can be fickle at swordpoint, so the Templars of Light is the military arm of the Church of Light. An army keeps a healthy fear of God in the masses. The Templars worship the same god and should, in theory, be loyal to the tenets of the god and offer protection for the church and the faithful.
Depending on how the word of the God of Light in interpreted, the Templars may also be an instrument of conquest and oppression. The Templars may also have their own opinion about how the word of god is to be interpreted. Other factions, like the worldly rulers, may feel threatened by factions that both claim the moral high ground and with military power to back it up. As they should, because power is fickle.
The history of the real-world knight templars should offer plenty of inspiration for your fictional order of knights.
The Church of Darkness
The Church of Darkness is the antithesis of the Church of Light and is perhaps the enemy of civilization and goodness. This darkness can be real, as in an actual opposing force if the gods represent real power. The darkness can be a fallen angel, a slumbering elder one, or a natural opposite force to light from the creation of the world. If your world includes that sort of thing.
The fallen angel is an interesting one, as Lucifer was a light bringer in pre-Christianity, and is another excellent example of religions distorting past myths and beliefs. There is also Tolkien’s Melkor.
The darkness can also be by choice, as a rallying point for all those oppressed by the established religion. Dissidents and outcasts choose darkness as an expression of freedom from the established norms of society.
The Servants of the Shadow
The darkness has servants just as light. The servants may be more interesting than the source, as the servants carry out the will of the darkness, and may appear more frequently in your story. The Death Eaters ambushed Harry Potter, the Ring Wraiths searched the Shire for the One Ring, and the stormtroopers certainly had more screen time than the Emperor in Star Wars.
The servants are the pawns and weaker than the master, and the lesser battles in the war focus on pawns. Exploiting weakness, instilling doubt. Some servants may change side or otherwise betray the master. Pawns may be unwilling servants, and their tragedy will add depth to the story.
The Followers of the Old Gods
People change with time, and history changes religion. Religions have a past, and something always preceded the current dominant belief systems. The old faiths will reflect the early society just like today’s faith reflect today.
The old gods are likely to focus more on the natural world than today’s gods. Weather and crops are essential to an agricultural society, while more vague concepts like souls and salvation require slightly more time on your hands.
The old gods will be more local if communications were less advanced, and there will be more overlapping deities. Better connections will merge beliefs, so Zeus, Odin, and Jupiter are likely to merge into one god, or one will oust the other two.
The opposite may also be true. Perhaps the old world was more advanced and then collapsed. Religions are likely to fragment into competing interpretations of the faith, or new gods will emerge.
The transition between beliefs are usually violent, and the dominant faith may brand old faiths as heresy or outright evil. This will quickly escalate and corrupt initially good intentions.
The Druid Circle
The Druid Circle may be the practitioners of the Old Gods, perhaps a relic of old ways, and may experience a resurgence if modern practices and beliefs fail. Maybe older and apparently simpler ways were better. Alternatively, the druids follow nature spirits, nature itself, or elemental forces other than gods created in man’s image.
Druids are more diverse than often portrayed. Druids too feel the lure of power as leaders in their society, and nature can be many things. Death, disease, decay, and poisons are all part of the natural world and life cycle. Some dark druids may be evil, and there are also blight druids who corrupt nature in addition to being evil.
What lengths would a druid go to fight competing beliefs systems? Some “civilized” religions may see the druids as uncivilized and perhaps evil? The druids will fight back, and some will use every weapon at their disposal, just like anyone else. A druid who decides to fight civilization should be a dangerous adversary.
The Emerald Enclave from the Forgotten Realms sides with nature, although the enclave appears to be good-natured. I once had an Emerald Enclave druid lich as a villain, which was loads of fun. That was before the faction’s promotion to a major player. I imagine it would be even more fun today.
A guild of merchants or craftsmen is another, perhaps easily overlooked, fantasy faction. Supplying goods and services is an honest way of making a living, often organized in a company, and some would say it is human nature to get better deals if you can. The guild can get well paid as they control a specific service, and wealth means power. Soon the guild needs security to protect that power and wealth, and soon you need political contacts, alliances, and perhaps spies and assassins. The needs of the guild can escalate very quickly.
The guild is attractive because it is mundane and keeps the story grounded. See for instance the are real-world examples of companies with power that rival nations: the banks of Venice influenced the Christian pope and the crusades, and the East India Company ruled India for more than a century.
You can take this one step further in fantasy settings with exotics skills and even materials. The Spicing Guild of Dune held power that rivaled the Emperor. Pyromancers of King’s Landing turned the War of the Five Kings in A Game of Thrones. The Medean Bank in Vanai was a significant player in the Dagger and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham.
Organizing guilds are how the common folk organizes and improve their station until the wealthy move in and take control.
The Sellsword Company
Fighting for money is as old as the concepts of weapons and payment. Mercenaries are critical ingredients to fantasy stories, as threats or deciding factors in conflicts, while also providing a grounded soldier’s perspective on whatever goes on. A dry-witty practical soldier can be just what your story needs, as proven repeatedly by Bronn from George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.
There are many excellent fantasy books featuring soldiers. Fictional sellsword companies include Glen Cook’s Black Company, the story of Monza Murcatto in Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, and the armies of Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont. There is also Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksennarion.
I have touched on the subject of the way of sellswords in a previous post.
The Thieves’ Guild
Any civilization consisting of more than three people will inevitably include elements of organized crime, sometimes represented by thieves’ guilds in fantasy.
The Thieves’ Guild is an association of thieves, often led by a Master Thief, usually backed by a few trusted supporters and bodyguards. Senior guild members often include few specialists like priests and mages, a couple of veterans, a few bodyguards and enforcers. The ordinary members are usually organized in specialized crews, like burglary, extortion, prostitution, smugglers, and sometimes also assassinations.
Reading up on crime families may give some ideas for your world, or perhaps watching a season of the Sopranos.
Favorite examples from roleplaying games include the Shadow Thieves of Amn from the Forgotten Realms.
Examples from fantasy fiction include the guild for Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, the Mockers of Krondor in the Raymond E. Fiest’s the Riftwar Saga.
The Gentlemen Bastards of Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora series is perhaps technically a gang, not a guild, but is certainly an enjoyable read.
The Assassins’ Guild
Somewhere between the Sellsword Company and the Assassin’s Guild is the assassins’ guild, and somehow the assassins often surpass both regarding prestige and glamour. Assassins have a role in the intricacies of large cities and sometimes organize in guilds to control the competition and secure mutual safety.
The assassins’ guilds rely on exceptional skill, discretion, and intimidation, and are allowed to operate in plain sight as long there is plausible deniability and relative safety for those in power.
Anyone determined to take on the guild must be powerful, determined and strike fast, or easily be killed themselves.
Fictional assassins include R.A. Salvatore’s Artemis Entreri, Brent Weeks’ Night Angel series, and, of course, you have Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork Assassin’s Guild.
The Slavers’ Guild
Slavers’ Guilds are wealthy organizations that trade in lives, sometimes captured by the guild, or bought from raiders or other slave owners. The guild is little more than brigands in lands where slavery is illegal, while they are powerhouse financial institutions in countries slavery is legal.
The slavers commit one of the basest of crimes. Slavers do not end lives, they steal them, and there are fates worse than death. Some slaves are worked to death, while others live out their lives in degradation in brothels, or end up as sacrifices for vile cults. More commonly, perhaps, the slaves end in callous households with people pretending kindness and superiority.
The Slavers’ Guild, like the Assassins’ Guild, is a cousin of the Thieves’ Guild, with two notable differences. First, the slavers often operate over great distances, like across borders, and require better logistics and more substantial investments up front. Second, the primary customer of the Slavers’ Guild is often governments or is at least accepted (implicit or otherwise) by the government.
There are plenty of real-world references to read up on.
The Elven Court
The Elven Court is a place of grace, magic, splendor, and beauty. The court can also be a place of danger and callous indifference to the short-lived races. Or both.
The Elven Court is the seat of power for the rulers of the elves, other fey folks, and by extension their servants, agents, and allies, which makes the court a faction as well. The Elven Court has deep roots in magic, the supernatural, nature, and possibly other worlds. Some of these roots may go to darker magic and a more primordial world.
Prominent examples are the House of Elrond and the Lorien, both with may be argued are organizations as well as places.
There is also the Seelie and Unseelie Courts of real-world myth, which may have inspired the fey in Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books.
The Vampire Coven
A vampire coven, or sometimes referred to as vampire clan, are organizations around one or more vampires, including vampiric progeny and human servants.
Vampire clans have both practical and mythological sides. The practical is power, where the lesser vampires are servants to carry out the will of the master vampire, whatever that may be. A vampire has several vulnerabilities, and organizing a clan is a way to protect against mortal threats. The mythological side is mysterious blood relations and the origins of vampirism itself, being a supernatural curse, destiny, or something similar.
Usually, there is a master vampire and its brood, like Dracula and his brides, or the Master of Sunnydale and his servants from the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Anyone who feels vampires is done should perhaps give the source another shot. Dracula, the old count himself, do not feel trite or tired despite the countless variants in the century since Bram Stoker’s book was released in 1897 – or at least see the 1992 movie. The motivation of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel is unclear, while Francis Ford Coppola’s interpretation seemed to be that the old vampire wished to see the modern world. Dracula’s clan would be the brides in his castle in Transylvania, with the potential new recruits in Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra, and human servants both in Transylvania and England.
The Théâtre des Vampires in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976) is a similar arrangement where a coven of vampires stick together for protection and out of boredom under the seemingly reluctant leadership of Armand.
Other examples include the Vampire Courts Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels, and obviously the vampire clans of Vampire: the Masquerade.
The Mage Guild
An esoteric society arcane spellcasters is an interesting faction and certainly a powerful one. The mage guild is per definition an association of skilled arcane practitioners, but the mages’ unique skills may require the guild to be so much more. The mage guild can easily rival the rulers, or enforce a powerful monopoly on key aspects of society. Alternatively, the guild becomes an arm of the rulers’ power base, like a separate branch of the military. The guild can be vilified and become a threat to society.
You can draw on several arcane societies for your mage guilds. Obviously, there are the five wizards of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and the magic society of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
The Spicing Guild of Frank Herbert’s Dune has several features that resemble a mage guild, notably its unique abilities and power within society, and is a template for a mighty guild with strange powers. There is so much potential.
There are the War-Wizards of Cormyr, in Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms, who does precisely this. They provide intelligence, security, and act as a branch of the army. They are very much the backbone of the kingdom in Greenwood’s books.
Another great example is the Unseen University from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
Real-world institutions like old universities, like the Trinity College in Dublin or the University of Oxford, that easily can be imagined with wizards.
Much of the appeal of the mage guild is that wizards are great characters. Arcane practitioners are just people like the rest of us. Despite their power and intellect, there is also pride, vanity, shortsightedness, and incompetence, as in any other organization. News bulletins show us daily the foolishness and vanity of smart people who should know better, and there is no reason to expect otherwise from a wizard.
The Elder God Cult
There are older forces in the universe than mankind, dark entities from beyond the stars, or perhaps the threshold of this world. Some seers and arcane practitioners have glimpsed these entities in their visions and realized the scope of this horror, and madmen have founded dark cults around their obscure texts.
Although these alien gods may be beyond good and evil, the cultists are certainly evil as they hasten the apocalypse at the tentacles of their horrid masters.
The source of this trope is of course H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Both men were certainly products of their time, but their impact of fantasy fiction is undeniable.
The Demon Cult
Why would anyone join a demon cult? It would be madness, surely. Demons are bent on destruction, cares nothing for human servants and allies, and will destroy anyone in their way, friend or foe. So why are there demon cults? The answer is simple, the cultists either think they can control the demons, or the demons are not recognized for what they are.
Thus, demon cults come in all sorts of varieties. Secret societies, pirate crews, bloodthirsty sellsword companies, heretic congregations, and secretive old families with unusually mean grandmothers. Anything you can imagine. The cult’s primary agenda is never to open the gates and let out the demons, it is always some other agenda, and the demons supplies power while they wait for the corruption to overtake the cultists and they lose control.
The demon lord is rising. You know this, as previously discussed.
The Devil Cult
The devil cult is similar to demon cults, just more alluring and potentially more dangerous. It is more alluring become some believe devils will honor their bargains, so you do not have to be powerful to successfully deal with a devil, it is sufficient to be clever, and fools believe they can outwit devils all the time. It is more dangerous because devils play a longer game, do more damage over time, and are harder to stop.
Devils can always argue they are the lesser evil. They supply order and safety. The devils may charge a high cost but may lead to believe it is worth it, or the cost will be paid by others. Devils offer a bargain, and the art of the deal is finding the right price. Anyone who underestimates the cost is easy prey for the devils.
The Witches’ Coven
Witches and warlocks – practitioners of witchcraft – are fantasy staples, although they defy strict definition. Witches range from the devil worship accused by medieval Christians to modern paganism and druidism.
I found myself at a loss of good examples beyond Baba Yaga and the traditional fairytale roots, and could initially only come up with Anne Rice and Terry Pratchett.
There is, of course, the roleplaying game classes in Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder RPG, and probably others, where the witches form pacts with supernatural entities of all sorts.
The Death Cult
The God of the Dead can be many things, and the same goes for the Followers of the God of the Dead. Death is a fact of life. The God of the Dead, much like a neutral and caring undertaker, is the deity that oversees the procedures of this sad fact.
Most societies have someone trained to take care of those who have passed on, from the humblest gravedigger to the engineers who designed the pyramids (little grey aliens undoubtedly). Most people who venerate, if not worship, the God of the Dead are not “cultists” at all, just ordinary folks of gives death it’s proper due.
There are also individuals who willfully seek to end lives prematurely, causing pain and suffering instead of providing relief. Some may require dead bodies, some for illegal but otherwise mundane medical examinations, while others seek to raise armies of the dead to conquer the society of the living.
Necromancers are wizards and sometimes priests of focus on spell involving bodies, both dead and living, and souls. By extension, some specialize in constructing creatures from bones and body parts, or the power of blood. Some necromancers, sometimes called White Necromancers, seek knowledge of the bodies, death, and the afterlife to provide healing. Repair broken bones, mend damaged organs and cure disease. A Necromancers’ Cabal is a specialized mage guild of necromancers.
So How Do You Use This?
Keep in in mind that factions – organizations – are gatherings of people. People are, by default, irrational, vain, petty, romantic, kind-hearted, mean, and evil. Not all people are everything, and certainly not at the same time, but we all are a little bit of each sometimes. You cannot trust factions. They do not behave as they are supposed to. Use that for your story.
- Creating a Fantasy Setting
- Creating Fantasy Names and Languages
- Writing Fantasy Timelines
- Writing Fantasy Religions
- Write Fantasy Noble Houses
The Reading List
The following includes affiliate links.
Fantasy fiction factions is a broad topic, and I have regretted attempting to tackle it more than once while writing this. Here is only a handful of semi-random reading suggestions based on the factions mentioned above.
First off, what is a guild? Check out History for Fantasy Writers: Craft Guilds by E.L. Skip Knox.
The Chargers of Dragon Age: Inquisition is one of the more interesting mercenary companies around, and the same goes for their captain The Iron Bull. Check out The Temptation of Hassrad: The Demands of the Qun, Angela D. Mitchell’s excellent analysis of The Bull.
The Shadow Thieves appeared prominently in the classic computer RPG Baldur’s Gate II and numerous gaming products, like Waterdeep: the City of Splendors and the Lands of Intrigue.
The oldest reference to the Emerald Enclave is possibly Jim Butler’s The Vilhon Reach (1996).
I made a couple of tweets during and after I put together this checklist. Anyone interested will find the links below:
Informal survey: Which is the most exciting fantasy world faction? What other factions excite you, and why? Feel free to comment and retweet.#DnD #amwritingfantasy
— Paul W (@palwwrites) June 20, 2019