In the published Realms today, particularly if you participate in organized play at conventions or hobby shops, you will encounter “factions” such as the Harpers and the Zhentarim. The Harpers and the Zhents first appeared in my fledgling Realms tales back in the 1960s (yes, before anyone had thought of a game called Dungeons & Dragons), but back then I called them “power groups.”
To me, “factions” were strictly political, such as opposed groups of nobles and courtiers at Court in Suzail, or vying for power and particular laws and policies in the City of Splendors (and equivalents around every throne or civic rulership, all across the Realms).
And small, informal groups of merchants or wizards or shippers covertly working together were “cabals.” (The formal equivalents were guilds, orders, and costers, respectively.)
There were also “secret societies,” which were cabals with passphrases, secret handshakes, badges or sigils, strange rituals, secrecy, and usually a nefarious purpose (even if it was only to separate the gullible from their coins). If they had a religious tone or overall devotion, they were “cults.” The Cult of the Dragon, for example, serves, venerates, and at its highest levels cynically exploits dracoliches.
“Power groups” were the larger shadowy groups that weren’t religious orders (outside courts and temples, usually encountered as paladins) or firmly under the control of a ruler or rulers (many of whom had their own “secret police” under various prosaic or cryptic names). The Zhentarim may have ostensibly begun as an order of wizards vying to rule Zhentil Keep (through an alliance with a faction—ahem—within the Moonsea-area priests of Bane, and secretly with local beholders who sought to influence humans, with an eye to subverting rulers and through them eventually enslaving their peoples), but it rapidly, having secured control of the Keep (just as Waterdeep is informally “the Deep” to many in the Realms, in daily speech, Zhentil Keep is “the Keep,” and in 1969 I crafted a Diplomacy-region-style, Rail-Baron-build-lines-like trading and politics game, Waterdeep vs. Zhentil Keep creating trade routes and subverting locales between the Sword Coast and the Sea of Fallen Stars, entitled “Keep and Deep,” that my Dad and I played a time or two, tinkering with the rules as we went), became an organization seeking to establish and control the shortest, fastest trade route to take the smelted ores of the cold north-of-Moonsea wilderlands to the Sword Coast, and bring the myriad trade goods (notably textiles and exotic foods and drinkables) of the Sword Coast trading ports back the other way; wizards seeking to easily become rich. This immediately grew into a continent-spanning and beyond organization to influence trade, politics, arcane magic use, and the influence of other churches everywhere, making coin through monopolies (and near-monopolies) and price-fixing, through undercutting competitors in long-distance shipping, through covert spellcasting for fees, through providing protection and security, and by means of blackmailing “protection” racketeering.
In this, the Zhentarim followed the classic model of power groups, seen in both the real world and the Realms: organizations that begin for a specific, narrow purpose, often local and with limited (“exclusive”) membership, morph into farflung, many-tentacled concerns that dabble or meddle in many things, one arm sometimes at odds with another. Over time, these power groups pursue many aims, and often endure vicious internal power struggles, until the survival and pre-eminence of the group seems to take precedence over everything else.
In the Realms and in any other real or invented setting, such power groups become story generators or plot enhancers: everything that happens, from hurricanes to assassinations to plagues or crop failures, evokes a reaction from power groups seeking to exploit or advance their aims, or at least influence outcomes (in some cases, simply to see how swiftly and successfully they can influence matters, or to thwart or smear a competing power group!). The agents of one power group often clash with the agents of another, complicating events and often—particularly when laws are going to be broken or scapegoats and “plausible deniability” are desired—hiring adventurers (PCs) to act for them.
In the “home” Realms campaign and the various library short-term sub-campaigns I’ve run, any backbone plot centered on the Player Characters has always been complicated and sometimes swamped or sharply deflected in unforeseen directions by the many, many unfolding subplots, often initiated by PC sidelines (the need to get weapons or armor repaired, or the desire to rent a place to live or a stable stall) but driven by power group, political faction, and cabal involvement (“meddlings” is the blunter term).
The impossibility, due to lack of time and the unfamiliarity with them of the players sitting around the table, of including these immersive, interlocking, many-fold subplots in a single, limited-time Realmsplay session is why I just can’t impart the full “feel” of the Realms at a game I run at a convention. Those must remain simple, single-plot adventures, without PC wanderings to see and chat with local rustics or “the usual suspects” (local shopkeepers, officials, entrepreneurs and gossips) and so gain tidbits of lore and rumor, slowly over time, to impart local color and the ongoing news and sweep of life, and so get ideas of opportunities to adventure or make money, and glimmers and suspicions of what other movers-and-shakers are up to. And without time to portray the intrigue and covert actions (from assassinations, thefts, and arson to bribery and misinformation or truthful forewarning) of interested power groups.
As with occult horror and mystery/spy/espionage roleplaying situations, individual players have differing tastes when it comes to how uncertain they prefer things to be; some love a mystery and are excited by betrayals and digging through lies to find truths, and others simply hate not being able to trust the ground they stand on, and want clear-cut, known foes they can defy and hit out at. Playing in a darker, grimmer, falser setting than one’s own real life situation may not feel like entertainment, and may be something you want to run from. I understand and respect that; heavy intrigue and battling shadowy, large, powerful organizations, either blatant or covert, may not be for everyone, so how much I include of power group, faction, or cabal activities in play with a given group of players “depends.”
In many cases, power groups can remain distant (or even wholly uninvolved), and still provide interest and influence PC decisions; players sitting at the gaming table, speaking in character, may well say things like “But if the flow of tomatoes drops sharply, the Zhents will inevitably . . .” or “We can’t kill the Duke, because the Harpers . . .”
Small-scale local cabals (such as the shopkeepers in a three-shop wayside hamlet covertly agreeing not to directly compete with each other, by specializing in the wares they sell and services they offer) are far more widespread than large-scale power groups, and PCs in a given locale may find them just as fierce or deadly as opponents or impediments; they are often far more useful and “deployable” for DMs in particular play situations than the large-scale power groups. However, one very interesting play element, easily introduced by inadvertent PC eavesdropping on a covert meeting, is a large-scale power group infiltrating or subverting a local cabal—usually by paying a formidable cabal member—to influence or outright use them.
In one Realms sub-campaign, PCs were stealthily exploring one of the “Battle Holds” of Battledale (the overgrown, long-abandoned ruins of grand fortified mansions that stand in the forest west of Essembra) by night, trying to creep up on brigands who’d raided their camp a few nights earlier, when they overheard a Zhent agent taking the report of an Essembran merchant who dominated a local cabal. This greatly interested the PCs, because they’d befriended and were doing business with another merchant of Essembra whom they strongly suspected was also in this cabal—and whom they were certain would be aghast and furious to learn the Zhentarim were calling the shots, as he detested “all thieving, officious, sly double-dealing Zhents!” So they set about trying to enlighten their merchant friend without precipitating open fury on his part that would make the head of the cabal decide a swift dagger-thrust might be the wisest immediate solution to the problem.
As one of the players remarked, while departing after play was done for the night, “That was far more interesting than swording a few brigands for a handful of coins and their daggers from down their boots.”
And I find all power groups and their machinations fit that sentiment aptly, every time.