Thursday 22 July 2021


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I know, I've probably been talking about Magic: the Gathering too much this past week or so. But this time it actually applies to RPGs.

Scrap recently wrote a post about applying some of MTG's design philosophy to faction systems, and it's a great read. It got me thinking about it from a slightly different angle.

First I need to talk about an element of Magic's design that I haven't really touched on yet. The fabled Colour Pie that gives its five colours their identity, both thematic and mechanical. Red cards should feel a certain way, and Green cards should feel different, and then you might get a Red-Green card that feels like both. In addition, and some would argue more importantly, there are certain things that each colour of card absolutely should not be able to do. 

It's really a form of niche protection, and while that isn't something I focus in on too hard on the mechanical side of my games, I think it's something I'd like to explore more in terms of setting design.

While the five colours don't strictly represent factions in MTG (they're a different-but-related thing), there are a few ways I think approaching elements of your setting in the same way would have some positive effects. For this example we could be talking factions, but also key locations, deities in a pantheon, looming threats on the world. Any set of big elements in your world. 

1: Dividing attention evenly between elements.

Imagine a parallel universe where Games Workshop laid out their own colour pie equivalent for the factions of the WH40k universe. Let's say Imperium, Chaos, Xenos. It doesn't even have to be five. 

You could still explore specific factions within each slice of the pie, but they'd be united through a set of common thematic and mechanical elements. Maybe Chaos, being so closely tied to the warp, are the only pie-slice that can deep strike onto the battlefield. You can explore the space between the slices, so Genestealer Cults clearly exist between Imperium and Xenos. 

But even more appealing is the idea that equal development time would go on each faction. Is this whole thing an excuse for me to complain about there being no new Eldar or Tyranid models for years, while Marines are showered with new releases? Hmm. 

They sort of went this way with their Age of Sigmar factions, and while I don't love that setting I think it's spawned some interesting new ideas in among the questionable ones.

But we're not multinational corporations selling miniatures, so I think this is more of a way to challenge yourself to spread your creative energy between the different parts of your world, rather than leaving some lacking. Which leads to... 

2: Ensuring each element has a strength that makes them interesting.

I sort of default to making my world a bit rubbish, so I'd appreciate having a reminder that each of these elements should have their own strength. They should have weaknesses alongside them, of course, but if we're designing five cities then there should be something that makes each of them a compelling place to visit. It can be a total shithole, but if it's the only place that has any sort of magical healing then the players are going to end up there at some point.

And let that strength project out into the world and deny the other elements of your setting. If you're giving one faction a military focus, then consider trimming back or even outright removing military components from the other elements of your pie. It's one thing to make one city-state a strong military force, but another to combine that with the fact that half of your city-states don't have an army at all. 

3: Keeping the fans happy.

I'm not immersed enough in the fanbase to know if this is something that MTG manages more often than not.

But it sort of links in to that old Apocalypse World thing calling for the GM to "be a fan of the characters". 

But instead, be a fan of each element of your world, or at least imagine that each element has a set of fans that you want to please.

The MTG team has to design a new set so that there's something for every colour to be excited about. They can't really just release a set that focuses in on Blue and White, because the Red, Black, and Green players will be left out. Now, most players don't restrict themselves to one colour, but that actually means they have to try even harder to make every colour appealing. If Blue gets nothing good in this set then you're not just pissing off the Blue players, but the Blue-Red, Blue-Green, Blue-Black etc.

What's the point in all this? Think back to my earlier point about the WH40k setting. Of course it's vastly popular, but there's a lot of dissatisfaction where it feels like GW just doesn't care about huge chunks of their world. Eldar are an inconvenience to them, a faction that they think won't sell as well as a new type of Space Marine, but it's a faction that has its fans. Aside from making them unhappy, I feel like it has a negative effect even on those that aren't especially interested in Eldar. It makes the universe feel smaller, less diverse, with dusty old elements that feel out of place alongside the current areas of focus.   

There's merit to having blank space left on the map, but not when it's just because the ink has faded. 


  1. FFG sort of did the 40k faction wheel pie thing with the 40k conquest LCG. Each card pack cycle had a main focus faction and a couple of side cards added in for the other factions.

  2. This is interesting. I am going to try to incorporate this into my worldbuilding.

  3. I do wish GW would put more focus on the other factions... I get why they don't, but still. But to the main point, this is excellent world building advice! I'll definitely keep it in mind as I build out my own worlds.