I have a few factions in mind from various nations/cities in my world and even a couple that span the continent. I am having trouble with depth. The groups I have feel shallow and overly simplified.

I am looking for a process to facilitate creating groups/organizations that are sufficiently complex and provide an interesting human interaction mini-verse.

Essentially I am looking for someone who has done this to provide guidance on their method of creating groups, with a suggested traits list or what aspects should be considered/included in any group as well as how to integrate them naturally into the world.

If you were to to write up a biography for an organization what would it include?

Some example secret societies that I have looked at for reference:

  • Templar Order
  • Masons
  • Thieve's guild (standard fantasy fare)
  • Assassin's guild (think Assassins Creed)
  • 1
    What level of secrecy are you looking for? Membership secret? just don't broadcast? or are there secrets only the members can know but membership is obvious like a trade guild? – bowlturner Jan 20 '15 at 21:38
  • Helpful background material: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kraken_(novel) – RBarryYoung Jan 20 '15 at 22:33
  • I don't think the Thieves' Guild is especially secret, as they are rather strictly regulated and are obligated to keep the number of thefts at a socially acceptable level. – KSmarts Jan 20 '15 at 22:48
  • the Templar was not a secret organization – Vincent Jan 21 '15 at 15:35
  • @Vincent Some aspects maybe, or at least the modern fictional version of them...If it is distracting from the point I can take it out. – James Jan 21 '15 at 16:08
up vote 13 down vote accepted

Think about the way these organizations are created in the real world:

  1. One or more people come up with an idea.
  2. They rally others to their idea.
  3. They create a formal mission statement around the idea.
  4. They form an organization to help further the mission.
  5. As the organization grows, they create a set of rules and policies that govern the members and how they are allowed to participate.
  6. A hierarchy is usually created to give the organization structure (along with its rules and policies).
  7. The organization continues to redefine its mission.

Now, think about how these steps came about for organizations as diverse as:

  • League of Nations
  • Nazi Party
  • ACLU
  • Church of Scientology
  • PETA
  • American Medical Association

Hopefully, thinking about these organizations in the context of the formative stages will help give you some insight into your fictional organizations.

The depth of any organization is not just because it has a mission statement, or because it is widespread; it is because it is made up of people who believe in the mission of the organization, and want to help make it better.


Now, on to creation!

To create an organization, first create a character who has an idea. Now, think your way through the challenges that this character would have to overcome to foster this idea and create an organization.

Don't create an organization from the top down. And don't directly base it off of an existing organization. Instead, look to that organizations founder(s), and see what happened when they put their idea in motion.

For example: a thieves guild.

Why create a thieves guild? Well, John Everytheif had a vision. He was tired of thieves stealing from one another. From thieves poaching on each others' territory. So, John decided to create an organization to protect this.

Now that we have the who and the why, we need to explain the how. Is John a powerful and influential thief, and so he was trying to protect his own territory? Was he a lowly thief that had to go against the big guys? In John's story, you could look to drug cartels as influence.


The point is that any deep, well thought through organization should have a story of its own. And generally, that's a story worth telling.

  • "John decided to create an organization to protect this." seems oversimplified. It would be more like "John and two fellow thieves agree not to poach each other, not to 'work' on each other's zone and to meet every friday to work together in the city center". After that, other thieves join, John is elected King of the thieves and so on. – Envite Jan 22 '15 at 12:36
  • @Envite The example was intentionally simple. The point was a quick example that showed people and motivation. And some organizations really do form that way. But if you look at the general schema I present, you'd see that your example fits right in. – Nick2253 Jan 22 '15 at 15:04

I generally find it important to lay out a few things for any organization, secret or not: what are their motivations for existing, how do they interact with the rest of the world, how did they form, and how did their history help shape who they are today?

The main thing is to avoid a cookie cutter organization that isn't tied to its surroundings. If your organization could be removed from the context you want to put it in and placed somewhere else without modifying any of the background of your story, it's probably not a well though out organization.

Consider the Templars, for example. On a surface level, they're an order of holy knights. However, their story is deeply ingrained into the history of the Crusades and of middle-ages Catholicism. They were created as a result of banditry and highway robbery targeting pilgrims, and gained support from Bernard of Clairvaux, which led to them being held in high esteem by both the Catholic church and European aristocracy. Their status as a popular charity during the middle ages led to great wealth and power.

Wealth and power and a mission to protect pilgrims put the knights in an ideal position to safeguard the possessions of pilgrims in their fortresses, which led to their becoming a prominent bank.

Another 'secret' organization worth looking at is the Sicilian Mafia in new your. Again, they have a reason for existing (to effectively commit more crime), relations with both their fellow criminal organizations as well as the countries of Italy and the United States, and a rich history which roots their origins as 'protectors' in post-feudal Sicily when the government was too weak to enforce contracts between a vastly increased number of landowners and social turmoil was leading to an increase in crime.

These details give the mafia a reason for existing, as well as contextualizing why they ally with which other groups.

It's also important to note that, for both the Templars and the Sicilian Mafia, their existence was strongly tied to the historical context in which they formed. They did not arise from the ether at some point in history at the behest of a powerful individual, but rather were reactions to the social conditions of their day and age. These origins give them a reason for existing, though their origins don't fully define them as their interactions with other groups through their history constantly change them, or, in the case of the Templars, destroy them.

A couple of questions when creating groups:

  • Their goals : Why do they exist ? They serve an ideal, a religion, another organization. They exist to control the commerce (Thieve guild), to protect the frontier and avoid chaos (military orders).

  • Membership: Who can join, how do we join : is there a ritual of passage?, responsibilities of the members, do they have special rules? do they have a proof of membership (object, handshake), do they receive something for their membership (equipment as in Assassin's Creed), how do they behave among each other vs the outside world, do they have rituals/holidays/prayers ... Do they have secrets?, Is there a sanctions for disrespecting the organization/failing an important task? Can a member loose it's membership ? without dying ?

  • Structure of the organization: the have only one base, the organization exists in different area throughout the region, the organization is established in different countries. Is there a central authority in relation with the local branch or are they all relatively autonomous? If there is a centralized organization: how does it work? How are decisions taken and by whom ? who leads the organization and the local branches? How are leaders chosen?

  • How are they financed ? It could be the patronage form the local lord , the aristocracy, money taken as a tax form the population and redistributed secretly. It could be the financial support form the clergy or another third party organization that is not secret. A thieve guild might set a monopoly on every shops in the city and they collect tax, like the mafia if you want : a protection tax, or a pay or we will burn your house tax. Most military orders were granted holdings where they could tax the population to finance their military efforts. Many religious order also produce goods by themselves.

  • Interactions with their surroundings: An organization could have a public face and a private one, each with different objectives. A powerful military order like the Templar order as it is described in Assassin's Creed is that kind of two faces organization. the organization might become perverted or corrupted over time and the goals have changed.

Very often secret societies come about from a fairly specific set of circumstances, roughly along these lines:

  • A Parent Organisation - in many cases they arise out of religions, but they could also rise out of craft guilds, armies ( or army regiments ) or even government departments.
  • Someone with a vision Secret societies tend to have a fairly simple vision or goal that they seek to perpetuate or carry out. Often it is to take the teachings of the parent organisation further, but occasionally it is to subvert it or otherwise change it to their own ends. This vision usually starts either with a single charismatic individual or with a small group who share the same ideals.
  • Secrecy versus popularity There is a continuum of secrecy and popularity- once everyone knows about an organisation they can hardly claim to be secret. If they are too closely guarded a secret then unless the members are very influential or the goal is very easily achieved they are unlikely to be able to recruit enough members to endure and probably are more a plot than an actual secret society. This also relates to membership and recruitment- how you ensure that you only get people who are truly committed and avoid being infiltrated by those who oppose the society's goals and how you ensure the society's goals endure until they are achieved are questions that the founders of the society need to answer.
  • Keeping existence hidden - People love a secret, they will actively seek them out and puzzle over them ( for a great take on this and how people think of secret societies in general you could read Foucaults Pendulum - but it is heavy going ) so the biggest secret your society needs to hide if they really want to stay in the shadows is that there is a secret at all.

This article is more geared towards role-playing games, but it can be useful for getting a simple outline started when one encounters a writing block or needs a simple history of a guild.

Basically, you take a deck of cards, and the article has tables that match the card draws. This covers a simple creation motivation to general events in the guild's history. Guilds made through this have a basic 'alignment' of if they support the government, if they are rich or poor, if they are large or small, and a few things they are doing right now. You can extrapolate a great deal from these beginning details if you want too. For example, if a guild is small and doesn't support the government, you can extrapolate that it is secretive and persecuted by governmental agents.

This is useful tool for getting a quick, basic framework of a guild.

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