Podcast Episode 24 – Creating Organizations


Episode 24: Learn How to Creating Organizations

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create good and evil organizations, how people join and leave them, what power structures are like, and how to invent history for them.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • What to think about when creating an evil organization
  • What might happen when someone leaves an evil organization
  • What good and evil organizations are like and how to create one
  • Common elements across evil/good groups
  • How to create history for groups and use existing history to create them

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Episode 24 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-four. Today’s topic is about how to create organizations. This includes forces for good and evil, what they have in common, and how someone joins or get expelled. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series..

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Forces for Evil

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So, what do I mean by “organizations?” Well, we’re talking about something like the X-Men or maybe The Knights of the Roundtable, or even Robin Hood and His Merry Men. We could also be talking about a guild, like a wizards’ guild, or maybe even an assassins’ guild. Even the mafia would be an example. Groups like these will exist in our fictional world, but of course, if we don’t invent them, then we’re probably never going to mention them, and we may not even be using them. But they’re still going to be there, and it can add an extra level of belief to our world if we take the time to create these.

Creating organizations is one of the simpler tasks. Let’s first talk about forces for evil. Now, in theory, some groups may not think of themselves as evil, but if you’ve got an assassins’ guild, obviously, these are people going around killing people. So, they may justify that in some way, but they probably have a sense that they’re basically doing a bad thing. Any mafia is likely to be the same where they understand that they are involved in organized crimes of various kinds. Whether that’s money laundering, killing people, bribes or the drug trade.

So, one obvious question for a group that knows it’s doing bad things: Why are they doing that? In the case of something like a mafia, they are, for the most part, trying to enrich themselves at the expense of others and take advantage of laws, loopholes in those laws, or simply circumnavigating them because they don’t feel like obeying those laws because their life is, maybe, not going to be very good if they do follow those laws. Maybe they don’t have economic resources available to them unless they go ahead and commit crimes.

Sometimes a mafia will validate what they’re doing in the sense of building up their own kind. So, for example, if they are from a certain ethnic group, maybe they feel like their ethnic group is being downtrodden and this is their way of getting ahead. One problem with that kind of justification is that its own ethnic group is often the recipient of the bad behavior. This is where you get some bad justifications where people will say something like, “In order to improve things for the most people, someone, somewhere, has to suffer.”

The point here is that if you want to create a group like this, you might try to come up with a justification mindset that they have, but then also show them betraying that, but continuing to do it anyway. Because this is realistic. People do that kind of thing where they are essentially a hypocrite.

When it comes to the crimes that they’re committing, hypocrisy is relatively low on the list of bad things that they are doing. So, it’s not really a deterrent to bad behavior. The way we can use that is if a character is essentially recruited by such an organization with those ideas, and then as they’re becoming a member of the group, they see that group betraying those ideas. As we all know, conflict is the heart of every story, so there’s one way to do that.

Some organizations will have a worldview that is based on religion. So, in order to do this, we’re going to have to have that religion worked out, and preferably a god that it is based on. This is one of the ways where we can use work we’ve already done in our world building. If your world has a god that is considered evil, like a god of greed, then the followers of that religion could be ones who are forming this organization. And even if they’re not particularly religious, they might just be using that as a justification. The thought will usually go along the lines of, “Hey, there’s a god who promotes this and thinks it’s great, and we’re just going ahead and following that god’s word.”

The real motivation for those people will not be to do something centered on greed for the god of greed, but actually for themselves and their own greed. But, of course, they may try to act like they’re not really doing it for themselves, they’re doing it for this deity.

There can also be social reasons for an evil organization. One way of looking at that is to take bullying and elevate that to an even higher level where they feel like they should take advantage of different kinds of people for their own personal gain. In these cases, the group is probably going to target another group that is a rival, or a type of person that they dislike, such as followers of a certain religion. Maybe these are poor people and they are targeting the rich for theft.

In such a scenario, people can often feel justified in what they are doing, and in that sense, they may not feel like they are doing something bad when they actually are. Any group of people that is also being oppressed by a society might form an organization to essentially thumb their nose at the people who are in charge of that society.

What we’re trying to do when we create an evil organization is find some sort of justification or guiding principle that defines their actions. This will not only help us determine what sort of actions they undertake, but it will also help us understand what sort of people are drawn to that organization. What does the group want? How far are they willing to go to get that? What means do they typically employ to achieve that goal? And do they bail themselves out of trouble, or members of their organization, if they get caught? Do they free people from prison or do they just say, “Hey, look, if you get caught, you’re on your own?”

This sort of outlook will really characterize what it’s like to be a member of that organization. Certainly, I would be more attracted to one who showed more loyalty to me and was willing to get me out of trouble. This can also really impact what happens when someone is captured because if you feel like you’ve been abandoned by the group, and you’re being tortured for information about that group, you’re probably more likely to give up that information. The organization may realize that this happens, but instead of showing loyalty, they might actually try to kill someone who is in custody.

Forces for Good

Let’s talk about organizations that are good in nature. Here on Earth, these seem to be few in number, if existing at all, and I suspect one of the reasons is that we have something like the police. That’s who we turn to for certain types of reinforcement of our values. On the other hand, there are a lot of organizations that are interested in promoting a good cause, or one that they feel is a good cause. Some groups promote the ethical treatment of animals, although, for some of us, the way they conduct themselves is not necessarily a good thing, even though they may have a positive goal that they are trying to achieve. There are other organizations that are also interested in protecting animals. There are also environmental groups like Greenpeace. Although, again, some people find their methods offensive, even if their cause is one that they could support.

The trick to creating these for our setting is to think of some pressing issue that is threatening either an economy or something like animals and livestock, or a way of life, or even the health of a planet. Are there organizations that are taking it upon themselves to try to correct these problems? Some of these organizations — in fact, many of them, if we consider them good — are going to follow laws. But, in some places, they may see those laws as a barrier to achieving their end goal. Therefore, they might do things that are illegal or, if not illegal, are kind of questionable. Just as with the forces for evil, we’ve got groups for good that want to achieve something, and their methods might be a problem for some of their members.

In fantasy and science fiction, we can also have groups that have taken it upon themselves to do things that something like a police force is not capable of or willing to do. Any police force, for example, is associated with either a settlement or a sovereign power, and therefore, there is the question of jurisdiction, whereas some groups, these organizations that we’re talking about inventing, can operate across these divisions and not have to worry about them. One interesting side effect of that is they can sometimes run afoul of local laws, getting themselves into trouble even though they are considered a force for good.

That said, one settlement and one sovereign power might have a very different outlook than another. So, they could be seen as good in one place, and as evil in another. This jurisdiction issue is especially interesting in science fiction, where the group could be operating over a whole solar system, or certainly multiple planets, and even bigger areas.

As for ideas on groups that we could create, another one is a group that is going around and collecting dangerous artifacts. This could either be in science fiction or fantasy. If they’re collecting these, then they’re going to need somewhere to store them, and that could be another interesting location in our stetting. We might have another group of warriors who take it upon themselves to show up and stop our bad guys from doing one thing or another. A character like Conan the Barbarian typically does this, but he’s not really doing it on purpose. He is just trying to steal something or enrich himself, and he ends up getting involved in these situations. We could make a character like him be part of a larger organization where he is going around doing this kind of thing on purpose. Of course, we might also have a group of wizards, or even something like from Star Wars — the Jedi.

One advantage to a force for good is that they might have acquired a reputation that allows them to do certain types of things, such as commandeering a vehicle. Why would a settlement or a sovereign power allow this? Well, because they’re doing something that’s supposedly going to help all of mankind or the other species. And they are sacrificing themselves and their livelihood, and they’re not really being paid — or maybe they are being paid. But there are perks to doing this and if there’s something available that’s going to help them do their job, then maybe a sovereign power is willing to let them just commandeer that.

This might be officially policy. Then again, there might be a policy where they are not allowed to do that in certain locations. This sort of deviation is another way to make our setting more believable. It can also cause problems when someone is expecting to be able to commandeer a vehicle and they can’t because of local laws. We may want a justification for that, such as someone having once commandeered a vehicle and causing a huge problem. Therefore, this has now been outlawed. This gives us another event in our history. Or it could just be that the local sovereign power doesn’t really support them, it only kind of sort of supports them and lets them do certain things, but not others, in their jurisdiction.

One point I’m making is that it’s not a good idea to have this organization we are creating be treated the same way everywhere they go. What we might want to do is decide some of things that are typical, and then open up every sovereign power or even settlement file we have and say, in a section we have about this group, “What are they allowed to do here?”

We can either plan that in advance or when we are setting up a story and we are trying to think of obstacles that they might face in one part of the story or another. This is something that we can throw in there and justify it with some minor incident that happened in the past. That said, we don’t necessarily have to explain it.

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Common Elements

Whether a group is good or evil, they are likely to have some common elements. As we were just talking about, they’re going to have a goal of some kind. One of those goals that I alluded to earlier is the controlling of objects. This can be objects in general, those of a specific type, or one very specific object. Naturally, if it’s only going to be one object that they are focused on, their activities are going to be somewhat limited and that object is going to be extremely valuable or powerful. This reminds me of the Indiana Jones movies where, in the first one, there is a group of Nazis, a subgroup, that is trying to get to the Ark of the Covenant. In one of the later movies, they’re trying to get to the Holy Grail.

Now, obviously, the Nazis were trying to do many things, but there was a group of them within that organization that was tasked with something smaller. This is another option that we have. As this example shows, these objects are thought to have not only a religious significance, but supposedly a power that can be conferred to the possessor. In both of those movies, there is a heavy moral element where the evil group is trying to get it, and a good person — in this case, Indiana Jones — is trying to prevent that from happening.

We can also have a group that is trying to prevent something like that from happening, and in fact, in the third movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there is such a group, although I can’t remember the name of them. That group initially tries to kill Indiana Jones before realizing that he is going to help them. If we have a group that is after an object, we should decide what they are going to do if they ever get it and if we are going to allow them to ever possess this. This is the kind of element that we can add to our world and it gives a kind of side story where some of the characters might get involved with that group. I’m also reminded of the Faceless Men from Game of Thrones where audiences became so enamored of the main character that was from that group that they liked having this guy on screen, seeing what he was doing and learning more about that organization.

Eventually, one of the main characters, Arya, actually joins that group for a brief time. If she hadn’t done that, it’s possible that the author could have just written a side book about that organization. That said, that group was not really interested in object control, which is what we were just talking about.

Another potential goal for our organization is the possession of land. Instead of land, it can also be something like a building or a space station. The goal of having this could be something like security for themselves and their people. Naturally, we’re going to want to figure out what is so special about this place that this group covets it. It might have a strategic value. Think of something like a castle that is guarding the entrance to a mountain range. In this case, there would be something in those mountains that is valuable, and whoever controls the castle controls access to it. In other words, possession of a place might be a means to an end. Sometimes religion is a reason for a group to covet an area. We can look no further for inspiration than the Palestinians and the Israelis.

That, of course, calls to mind another type of group, and that is the terrorist organization. Does your world have these, what are they after and what kind of means do they employ? We can probably assume they’re very similar to those here on Earth, and we might just be changing the type of bomb that they are using, from something magical or to a technology that doesn’t actually exist. In order to decide on these land possession goals, we’re going to have to have worked out some of our geography. If we’ve already got a map, we can just look at that and decide what sort of valuable resources are in a given location and decide that there is a group that wants to possess that. This has conflict built into it because a sovereign power or a city might already claim that territory, and there might be other groups that also want it. That can also create enemies for our organization.

In theory, power is another goal for a group, but that is usually a means to an end. And then there might also be the goal of upholding a philosophy or a religion, which we already talked about.

Another common trait for both forces for evil and good is that they will have enemies and friends. As we’ve alluded to, a sovereign power or a settlement can be one of those friends or enemies, but we can also use other groups that we have invented. Now, if this is the first group we’ve invented, then we can’t really set them off against another group yet, but we might start to imagine another group that will be in opposition to this one. Therefore, we can go back and forth, working on both of them at the same time and updating their relationship with each other.

It’s possible that one of these groups can spring up just to oppose the other group, which will also mean that if the first group falls, then the second group will no longer have any reason to exist.

We should also talk about the power structure of our organization. Is it run by one person or is it really kind of by committee, and one person is sort of nominally in charge or are they officially in charge? Instead of calling it a committee, we might want to call it something like the “inner circle,” for example. Within that inner circle, there will be some people who are more influential than others, and this can cause power struggles there, as well.

In fact, this can even be how a group splinters off and forms a subsequent group. There might be people who agree with the mission, but not how they are acting out that mission. So, if we are inventing a group and we can’t decide between two different choices on how they act, we can actually choose both and create these two factions of that organization. As world builders, we have a lot of decisions to make. Sometimes, we feel indecisive, but this is a quick way of getting around that, by using both.

Power can come in different forms. Whether that’s physical, some sort of supernatural or technological might. If you have the biggest ship in science fiction, then maybe you’re the most powerful one. Maybe you don’t have the biggest ship, but you have more of them or you’ve got access to more resources. Maybe you or your crews have personally saved many people who are also in this group now, and those people are loyal to you. Or maybe you have power just because you’re the smartest, the wisest or the most well-informed. Maybe you’ve proven through history that you have better strategies for taking on your enemies and realizing your goals — not only your goals, but the goals of the organization.

At the same time, someone who is doing bad with that sort of thing may find themselves losing power. Unhappy about that, they might be the one who defects and forms another group. We’ve probably all seen organizations that are seemingly ruled by brutality, where the most vicious killer is the one who leads the group. This is certainly an option for us, but obviously, that’s probably not going to be a group that is focused on good deeds. More civilized and good-natured groups tend to favor something more intellectual.

The kinds of organizations that we’re talking about don’t usually have titles the same way that the armed forces do. In that sense, they tend to be less organized and, as a result, we don’t really have to create all of that organization. This is one reason why creating them is a little bit simpler.

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Let’s briefly talk about the history of our organization. We could decide that it’s a new organization, but many of them are going to have some history. If it is new, then there is most likely a very recent event that has triggered their invention. Now, we probably don’t want to invent a recent incident if we don’t actually need one for the world, so this is the kind of scenario where if something has recently happened and we want to leverage that by saying that a group has sprung up in reaction to that incident, then this is a good option. Otherwise, we’re probably going to have an older group.

In order for a group to form, we need multiple individuals who feel the same way about something that has happened, or that they have the same goal in mind. For example, if an event affected the poor, then we might have a group of people from the poor who are good fighters and decide to form a group to go after the perpetrators of that event.

Wars that have happened in the past, and the fall of various cities or kingdoms can be incidents that we can leverage. To do this, we should think about who lost that conflict, and are there people who are leftover from that defeat who still want to do something about it, and form a new organization? It doesn’t have to be war either. It can be any group of people who are affected by something negatively. We can also have incidents that are much smaller than war. We could have a stockpile of magical or technological items that have gone missing and now a group of people have decided to go after them. Something like that could start off as just a mission by a group of people, but it becomes an organization when maybe decades pass and only so many of these things have been acquired. And in the meantime, some of those items are being used in destructive ways, and this causes more people to want to join this group and it becomes a bigger organization as a result.

You can make these up, just as I am doing right now while I’m talking about this. All we really need is an incident and a reaction by a group of people who are bothered by that incident in the same way.


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Joining or Leaving

The last subject I want to talk about is how people join this group or leave it. Exclusivity is something that makes any group more appealing. If this group is expected to do any sort of fighting, using magic or piloting spacecraft, then, obviously, a certain amount of skill with these things is going to be expected. We might want to choose some prerequisites that people must meet, but there probably isn’t going to be some sort of formal testing because that’s the kind of thing we typically see with something like the armed forces, not with a somewhat informal organization.

Instead, we might have one character vouch for someone who wants to join. If that can’t happen, we might have that new person join a group while they’re off doing some sort of mission, and have to prove themselves on that mission. In that scenario, someone else in the group, someone who is trusted, is probably tasked with keeping an eye on that person to prevent them from screwing anything up. So, they may be allowed to accompany them, and they might also be on probation when they do join.

The types of groups that we’re talking about are ones where people go out into the world and they try to accomplish something difficult, whether that’s good or bad. This means having some sort of skillset. A force for good might also want to test the character of someone who is being asked to join. This is where references come into play. Testing character is not the easiest thing to do. In a world with science fiction, we might want the test to take place in a kind of virtual reality to see how they act without actually causing any real harm.

What about leaving a group? In a force for good, you can probably just announce that you are leaving for whatever reason, and you may not even have to explain it. However, a force for evil might not want you to leave because you could tell people about how that organization works, and otherwise spill secrets. This could mean that once you are in, you are in for good unless you are dead — possibly because they killed you. If you know this, then when you’re planning your exit, you might want to fake your death, or somehow stage your disappearance so that nobody knows where to find you. This is an interesting scenario for a character who was bad but who has been redeemed, and now they’ve left and they want to take up a life somewhere, but they can’t live openly because they know someone’s going to come after them. And that seems like a good place to end this episode.


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