Monday, November 18, 2013

Using Guilds and Corporations in Dungeons and Dragons

Today I would like to talk about the differences between Guilds and Corporations, and which one is best to use in a Dungeons and Dragons game. 

If you’re like me then you’ve probably used guilds in your games without giving much thought to their exact nature and only giving lip service to their vaguely imagined purposes. Luckily, Ed Greenwood has been thinking about them for years. 
 “. . . Many cities and city-states . . . have guilds, which are collectives of craft workers or merchants who seek to control local trade in their fields of endeavor. Guilds typically set standards (such as units of measurement, from sizes of garments to how much firewood is in a "cord" and what volume a particular sort of keg holds). They also seek to control or at least influence supplies of goods and services, both by restricting guild membership and seeking to control who can (typically guild members) and can't (usually non-members) engage in a trade, and by controlling imports and exports or influencing governments into doing so (by outright ban or stiff tariffs). Guilds are concerned first and foremost with the welfare of their members, so they tend to try to set prices, either formally or through their control over supply (scarcity driving "what the market will bear" prices up), and their presence results in higher—but more stable—prices. 

"Guilds are inherently useful to a Dungeon Master running a campaign because they can serve as an opposing force to government, and their members aren't necessarily identified by bloodright (as nobles and rival royal families are) and thus easily imprisoned or trained or both. Guilds also can more easily make contacts with outlanders and folk of all walks of life. They are also useful to anyone . . . trying to change any society, because their obvious interests and needs make them easy to manipulate or anticipate. It doesn't take bright wits to figure out how most guilds will react to, say, a scarcity of this raw material or an attempt to change that law governing what the guild does . . .” (Greenwood, The Feather Guilds
Guilds, then, are essentially unions on steroids. That gives us a lot of material to work with because now there is an attitude that we can draw on and a real life mindset that can be incorporated into our games without some imaginary framework that requires a preposterous amount of effort on our parts. We can look at films like Hoffa and Norma Rae for inspiration and can research actual modern unions such as the Teamsters Union and the AFL-CIO Union. 

I like this more complete view of guilds. Prior to this recent understanding of the guilds I had always treated them as trade businesses that were essentially meaningless in my games. As a result they were rarely a focus – hell, until the last couple of years my players hadn’t even asked about local guilds. But with this new understanding of guilds and how they behave I can now use them to my advantage pushing back against other non-player groups’ interests and my players’ interests. 


Corporations are defined by their organized approach to business and their ability to circumvent our individual ownership of the moral consequences of our actions by allow each individual in the corporation to blame their actions on the corporation as a whole; as though it were a living, sentient thing. That's a remarkably terrifying accomplishment for an institution that exists only because we have collectively agreed to believe that it's legitimately there. 

It's rare that corporations make an appearance in Dungeons and Dragons as they're usually associated with games like Paranoia and Shadowrun. However, in doing so many Dungeon Masters are dismissing a powerful tool in their arsenal. Corporations allow for the players to create an associated experience with a powerful non-player organization that will have a major impact on their characters’ financial lives. Corporations provide modern players – who have grown up with a deep seated, and well founded, mistrust of corporations – with a readily identifiable enemy. Non-player Adventuring Groups in league with the Corporation are immediately recognized as evil. The Corporation’s employees are often seen as either the down trodden little guy or as willing participants in an evil plot to undermine the government. And the Corporation’s upper echelon of employees are seen as vile overlords. 

It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed over simply because they are a modern concept. 

Which Do I Use 

When it comes to determining which organization to use, guilds or corporations, the answer will depend more on the situation involved in your current setting and on the purpose you need for the organization to accomplish. If you’re looking for the organization to provide a foil to the most powerful non-player characters in the game and to become a relevant source of information for your players then you need to use the guild. By treating the guild as a modern union you’re more likely to provide the players with the sort of interactions that will elicit the sort of emotional investment in the well-being and plight of the non-player characters that is so difficult to create in game. On the other hand, if your goal is to provide the players with an organization that can be used to confront them and counter their own movements, without involving either a government or religious cult, then you’re going to want to use the corporation. 

That’s all for today, but later I’m going to be writing about the difference between a Complex Corporation and a Simple Corporation in your Dungeons and Dragons game. Hope to see you then.


  1. I think it is easier to imagine a corporation in a modern setting because corporations have the law behind them. Companies like Pentex are rampant in modern and futuristic settings.
    Reading Tolkien and D&D style books typically only show guilds and their relationship to the world.

    Using corporations in a fantasy setting like D&D sounds great, plus there has to be plenty of plotlines where the city states come head to head directly with the corporation.

    1. I think that the biggest reason why we use guilds over corporations is through a perverted sense of tradition. It's like why most of us won't use guns in our rpgs because we are under the mistaken belief that the early games never did - which is so darned wrong as people like Arneson were using freaking tanks and spaceships in their games!

  2. As someone who's put a fair amount of time into studying historical guilds and who doesn't have a deep-seated or particularly well-founded mistrust of corporations, I don't particularly disagree with your characterization of either, but I don't think it picks out the really relevant differences either.

    The key to a guild, much like a union, is that everyone does the job. The people who work for the blacksmiths' guild, with a few exceptions like clerks, are probably all blacksmiths. They share a fundamental understanding of what it is to do the job, usually entirely independently of each other. The mob comparison is apt, because trade guilds would collaborate to fix prices and negotiate with local governments, and woe to the guild member who stepped out of line. Guild leaders have to make a point of appearing to do the same things as their low level counterparts because their ability to lead depends on the respect of those below them.

    Corporations come in a couple of forms, but are essentially ventures. They exist to do a thing. The Hudson Bay Company was chartered to explore and help colonize Canada, for instance. People in corporations don't always do the same thing as everyone else, but everything they do serves the venture. If you're Google that means being a programmers, salesperson, lawyer, or delivering the office mail. If you're an ancient corporation, that might mean processing shipping records, finding investors, or even sailing the trading ships. The leaders are appointed by charter, not elected, so they're not beholden to the people below them in the way that guild leaders are.

    I think these differences give rise to a lot of ways to involve the PCs. A corporation's venture might conflict with their agenda, or they might embroil themselves in a dispute over guild leadership. Both forces serve to provide pushback against other political forces like the church and the nobility.

    It's a really fun thing to think about, and I might write a post on it next month. Thanks for provoking the thought, this is definitely going in Saturday's roundup on


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