Cabals, Guilds, And Secret Societies: Local Power Groups

In an earlier column, I mentioned that I called small, informal groups of merchants, mages, or shippers (both caravan masters and seacaptains) covertly working together “cabals.” (As opposed to overt, public groupings, which were guilds, orders, and costers, respectively.)

That column was about “power groups”—farflung, numerous, and powerful organizations (now, in the 5th edition of the game, known as “factions,” that Player Characters are encouraged to belong to in Adventurers League play). Some of these power groups (the Harpers, the Zhentarim, the Cult of the Dragon, and the Lords’ Alliance, if you’re keeping score) have always been driving forces in the Realms, even before Dungeons & DragonsR existed, and I was penning fiction largely for my own entertainment (oh, my Dad and his friends at work that he passed copies of my first faltering tales or fiction fragments around to “got a kick out of them,” but to tell truth, I’d have written them even if my Dad had flung them down in disgust).

Not only were they the lifeblood of early stories and many of my “home” Realms campaign adventures (circa 1978), they were great fun; I gave them badges and both public and secret aims, and set them up as “third party powers” (against rulers and the priesthoods), with formidable monsters (dragons and their servitors, orc hordes, serpent folk, doppelgangers infiltrating everywhere, liches and their servitors, and beholder groups) forming a fourth set of political meddlers.

The strivings against each other of these various groups gave me enough going on at all times to generate a feeling of the Realms being alive before any Player Character adventurer took a single step out the door to start their careers of adventuring.

Yet setting up those local monster groups (lesser undead serving a greater undead in a ruined castle, or handfuls of doppelgangers working under mind flayers alongside cloakers or other beasties) brought me right back to thinking about the foes who featured in many of my earliest tales of the Realms (the exploits of Mirt the Moneylender, wheezing his way along the Sword Coast): cabals, in particular small local groups of merchants. As the Sword Coast cities Mirt was, er, flourishing in were all ports, shippers were often involved—and as merchants often want an edge against rival merchants or rapaciously-taxing authorities (more than a few rulers weren’t above swordpoint “confiscations” when merchants had stores of something they wanted), and wizards quite often need coin to pursue magical researches or just to eat, wizards were often part of these cabals, too.

The difference between cabals and power groups is a matter of numbers, reach, and power (the Arcane Brotherhood, for example, is a cabal that by virtue of how powerful its members are, and how continent-wide their activities long ago became, that I now firmly classify as a power group). And although power groups are a lot of fun and their widespread nature makes them very deployable in the hands of a Dungeon Master (a Zhentarim spy, for example, can be almost anywhere, including deep down in Undermountain or in a frigid frontier mine north of the Moonsea), it is the small, local cabals that are far more useful in play. Particularly for low-level characters in the hands of novice players, when they’re starting out and you don’t want them to doom themselves quite yet. (Dooms chosen are one thing; dooms unwittingly stumbled into are a lot less fun for everyone. Which should be a motto for many in real-world politics, but I digress.)

Cabals, formal local merchants’ guilds (especially in towns and smaller cities), and small, local secret societies (which may or may not pretend to be a cult, worshipping a shunned, ‘dead,’ or secret god, or may offer members a chance at wealth, or nobility, or the benefits of magic) can be the building blocks of many an adventure. Properly placed to begin with, they can generate nigh-endless sequel adventures in response to whatever dealings Player Characters have with them, becoming recurring foes or allies or “tricksy local complications.” In one of my library mini-campaigns, PCs were hired as adventurers by a cabal of merchants to spy on a rival cabal of traders and to infiltrate a secret society to learn the society’s intentions towards the cabal’s members; the PCs decided to both plunder the wealth of the secret society (it was being sponsored by nobles trying to blacken the reputations of the Obarskyrs and to bring more fellow nobles into alliances with wealthy Sembians interested in buying many Cormyrean land holdings and city buildings, and marrying into Cormyrean noble families) and to try to rise to positions of power and influence within in. They also took a hard look at the cabal hiring them, and the rival cabal they’d been hired to watch, and started deciding who they would aid and how they would try to steer both cabals, by what information they shared and which tiny acts of sabotage they performed, to bring about a Suzail—and ultimately, a Cormyr—more to their liking. It was some time before they realized how close a watch the War Wizards kept on nobles’ intrigues in the Forest Kingdom, and even longer before they saw just how much Vangerdahast was manipulating them. The mini-campaign ended with some PCs dying in a fight with War Wizards, some fleeing through a gate that took them to the Ghost Holds (ruined, overgrown mansions in Battledale), and two being rescued from Vangey’s clutches by Elminster and Storm, who wanted to recruit them for a Harper mission (in other words, take them into another library mini-campaign with a different location and theme). The mini-campaign was fun for everyone, and despite running for thirteen once-a-week three-hour-long game sessions, no PC ever set foot in a “dungeon.”

Time and again, when using these cabals—which at their simplest are three or four merchants or shopkeepers quietly working together, perhaps using their sons and daughters as spies and fetch-and-carry errand-runners—it became clear that monsters may have the “wow” factor of being exotic and physically menacing, the most formidable foes for most human PCs in the Realms are . . . human NPCs in the Realms.

And the feuds and squabbles between rival cabals provide ample opportunities not just for the PC party of adventurers to get hired (as guards or a strike force to do something shady or violent), but for pratfalls and at-the-gaming-table amusement as various NPCs brawl or try to sabotage each other’s business ventures or revels or business meetings, and cause mayhem the PCs witness, get caught up in, or gleefully exploit.

Cabal members may be elderly, fat, cowardly, “terribly respectable,” or otherwise unwilling or unable to do their own fighting or dirty work, so they may have already hired other adventurers to be their bodyguards or even to spy on the PCs they hire, and things can get very tangled and complicated (which of course, equals fun!).

Although these small local cabals are generally a handful of NPCs strong at most, and the DM usually has a fair idea of what they were formed to accomplish and how formidable they are upon their conception, some of them may be kept largely mysterious from the Player Characters, so that if a cabal becomes a PC foe, they have to do a lot of digging to make sure they know the entire roster of the cabal (and can stop looking over their shoulders for reprisals from an unknown quarter).

As with the “quiet kingpins” I discussed in another column, it can sometimes be more useful to the DM to construct these NPCs initially not as blocks of stats (age, gender, level, skills, alignment, et al) but as lists of aims. For example, “X wants to corner all exports of clams from Place A, and thwart Y in Y’s planned domination of wagonmaking and wagon repair in Place A. To do this, X will hire the PCs to do thus-and-so, and will try to prevent Y hiring them for anything.” Over time, as these lists take shape and gain depth, the stats of X can be derived from them and tailored to them. This process won’t work for a DM who expects the PCs to soon be fighting X directly . . . but then, that’s not the game we’re playing here, and for that sort of gameplay, longterm foes and complex intrigues and machinations will be of lesser use and enjoyment.

And don’t discount the use of local buffoons by cabals: would-be adventurers and fops and accident-prone wannabe dashing heroes who get hired or manipulated into attacking PCs or crashing into the middle of PC adventuring activities at cross purposes. Why shouldn’t cabal members derive some gleeful entertainment?

Some of the cabals I put into the Realms are ruthless and very, very good at keeping low profiles—but manipulate clumsier, louder, more public cabals on a constant basis to do their dirty work for them. Some nobles are sinister and coldly calculating indeed, and see the wastrel younger sons of rival nobles as expendable idiots who can best be put to use distracting the authorities with antics and feeble rebellions and drunken vandalism—while far more dangerous treason, assassinations, or wholesale thefts or importations of weapons and magic take place unnoticed behind all the flamboyant noise of the idiot dupes.

And the only sort of idiot dupes better than wastrel young nobles are unwitting outlander Player Character adventurers . . .

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