Netflyer Oxford University Role Playing Games Society
Netflyer 32


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No Sects Please, Weíre British

Many RPGs, especially medieval RPGs, feature some sort of social caste system in their background. It is one of the simplest ways in which to impart a sense of order and civilisation to the reader/player. More to the point, people like such systems as they reinforce the feudal atmosphere and allow players to play both with and against stereotype, promoting interesting social situations and good role-playing.

Why is it then, when it comes to Live Action (LA) games, that social class structures are so bland and unconvincing? Iíve played in many such a game where the nobility are far from respected, as surely they should be. In fact, the nobility arenít even despised - much worse, they tend on the whole to be ignored! Titles have no meaning in games like this, and the only way to make your character respected is to make them feared, by making them powerful (and as a result, so many NPCs must be made super-powerful by their GMs in order to get them noticed by the players).

Problems with Authority

The reasons I can see are this: in the first case, role-players have an unrealistic view of authority. They will query the orders of their superiors when in the real world they would be carried out without question; they will see the nobility as incompetent and to be ridiculed, selfish and to be deposed, or evil and to be overthrown, but never benign and to be trusted. If you were to display that kind of contempt for your boss in real life you would be on the fast track to unemployment.

Secondly, because all characters are created with equality in mind, the players assume that all characters have the same right to a voice. That is wrong. All players have the same right to enjoy the role-playing game, but for characters there are certain cultural conventions which should not be ignored. In a King's court, a lowly peasant would have no right to speak under any circumstances, just as a lowly engineer in a company would not speak up at a meeting of the board of directors.

I can think of plenty of instances in the Society Game where a caste system has not been enforced because it would be an "unfair" restriction on player freedom of speech, and a couple of times when a caste system was integral to the game and was thought of as deeply unfair! Some of you may remember the first Pantheon game; this was a game where the players were newly awakened gods of a pantheon, where prestige/power/worship was a deciding factor in how far up the table you were allowed to sit. The head of the pantheon had carte blanche to order anyone below him to shut up! More to the point, people at the low end of the table were unable to hear what was going on at the high end. You can see how players could be irritated by such treatment, yet I think that it was a pretty good model of how a king's court would function. The difference with a king's court, though, is that the subjects know their place and do not expect the right to speak out of turn.

This brings me to the third problem, which is cross-caste fraternisation. Put simply, talking to and befriending people who are of a different social rank to your own. Taking the example of Imagister I, the forerunner to the current game, the action centred on "Old" Taeorn, which was a city built with four tiers. The uppermost tier were the nobility, the second the mercantile, the third the gentry and the fourth the peasantry. The sewage and waste from the first tier ran down into the second, the waste of which ran into the third and so forth (you get the idea). The city had remained with the tiers segregated for generations, and social exchange between the tiers was rare and restricted to one tier up or down - no way was a nobleman going to be seen on the fourth tier. More to the point, each tier fraternised with its own kind. A nobleman in the peasant's tier would be no more welcome than a serf in the first. However, once the characters were placed together in a room to exchange views on the Cataclysm, this convention was forgotten and nobility were quite happy to work alongside commoners digging ditches in the muddy fields and helping out plague victims.

In the real world people socialise on the whole with people of their own age, status and income bracket, and people from the lower classes shut out those from the upper just as much as the upper ignore the lower. In a company, managers fraternise with each other and not with the shop floor, and vice versa - and ne'er the twain shall meet.

RPG - Anarchy?

The simple solution to this problem is this: do not play games where the characters come from different cultural or social backgrounds. Whilst sticking to this rule will cut down on a lot of hassle that the GM has to contend with, it hardly tackles the problem head on.

A more satisfying solution can be found by observing the following rule, that the only times in which rich mingle with poor are when the latter is in the service of the former. In other words, if you are a serf in the service of a Lord, your only contact with the upper classes would be with that Lord. It would be distinctly improper to go directly up to another Lord by oneself, for whatever reason - the serf would have to go to the servant of the other Lord (the servant being of the same social standing, and therefore conversation would be permitted).

Because of the problem with perception of equality, characters who are restricted in this way are few and far between because no role-player wants to put themselves in a disadvantageous position such as being of low status in a high-status environment. At least, not for free; such characters do appear in games like GURPS where choosing a disadvantage warrants compensation in the form of an advantage or additional skill. What is required is an attitude adjustment. Playing a toady to another character is an advantage, not a disadvantage, because it pre-establishes a role for both master and servant. When applied to Live Action format it creates a multitude of benefits within the game and can conceivably cut down on GM hassles, too.

Let's Play Master And Servant

The advantages to the player in electing to serve another PC are that they gain a PC patron. A master-servant relationship is not one-sided, and if a master mistreats his underlings they may become disloyal - or if freelance (i.e. mercenary) they might start working for an opponent. More significantly, a servant is part of the master's household and property, and any assault on the servant is an attack on the master. A servant who has his nose bloodied in a brawl with a yokel might be permitted by his master to take a dozen men-at-arms down to the village the following night and string said yokel up. A servant who is attacked by men from a rival barony might initiate a feud between baronies, lest the master lose face from the insult levelled at his estate.

This creates all sorts of interesting live role-playing opportunities for insults and interaction. If a servant insults another, so what? But if a servant insults a Baron, then that Baron might demand of the master that his servant be punished. And if a Baron insults the servant, the master might take offence and demand an apology (to him, not his servant!). Then there are the formal social conventions mentioned above; communications between Barons who do not know each other would probably be conducted through their servants.

Troupe-Style Live Role-playing

The idea of grouping players into clans of nobility and their servants would be one way for GMs to tackle the problem of vast numbers of players within the game. However, under the current format of the Society Game, which just uses one room for the entire game, having the majority of the players being unable to raise their voice in the meetings by virtue of being underlings would not make for a very satisfying game.

Since I have used a medieval scenario to illustrate this idea, we can expand on the model by considering the environment in which the players would meet in game; almost certainly a secure, neutral castle. This castle would be more than just one room, and whilst the nobles were meeting to discuss important political matters, the servants would be down in the courtyard or dining hall waiting for their masters and socialising. They would probably sit around, play card games or gamble, and drink ale whilst swapping tales and rumours.

This allows for an interesting two-tier game. Whilst the masters are upstairs debating the fate of nations the impact of their decisions would be realised downstairs on a personal level. Over the past couple of years, two factions of Live gamers have emerged - the ones who want a chaotic, informal session where one conducts all business on a one-to-one level, and the others (usually the older players) who would go for a more formalised meeting. This system could cater for both. On the negative side it would require two rooms and need the GMs to write a script for both and supervise both, but on the positive it would reduce the number of people which the GM body had to handle at one time.

There are a few other features which also present themselves - some out of necessity and others as interesting additions. A brief list follows:

  • The "upstairs-downstairs" system must be there from Day 1. In the past, when characters have tried to impose order on a "meeting" during the game, it has rarely worked.
  • A small number of Clans, all (or nearly all) known of from the beginning. Players are allocated a Clan by the GMs rather than choosing one themselves. That way they are free to make what they will of their own fiefdom with impunity rather than trying to fall into some stereotype.
  • Each person has rank within the Clan. This is scaled universally so that underlings from different Baronies can treat each other with the appropriate contempt!
  • Each subordinate affects total Clan Prestige and image. If an underling disgraces his Lord in public, then that Lord might have no recourse but to punish them in public!
  • Clan colours are a must, as they add massively to the presence of the Clan. Lords might wear sashes, underlings would wear badges or scarves, etc.
  • Clan wealth is shared by Lord and subjects according to rank - the Lord gets highest share, but the whole clan benefits from individual efforts to increase clan prestige
  • Subordinates can defect or even be sold! Underlings have few personal rights, and could be used for bargaining purposes. They could defect to another Lord, however a subordinate who is known to be disloyal would not become employed subsequently, becoming persona-non-grata and out of the game (or an NPC)
  • Peasants would hear about local developments first - if an army were about to storm the castle, for instance. Also, following the suggestions above, any visitor to the castle would see the servants' quarter first, and from there would request of the appropriate servant an audience with their master.
  • The PC split of numbers would be about 1/3 nobility to 2/3rds peasantry. Although only a few people would get to be Lord of the manor, there would be additional opportunities to play the sons, wives, cousins or court advisors to the Lord.

Final Insults

I explained this concept to a friend, whose remarks were mostly positive; however, she did describe it as potentially "unwieldy". I prefer to think more optimistically and call it "GM and plot intensive", in other words it needs a strong plot to generate events for the PCs to keep them interested, as well as tight planning for each session.

This article was specifically concerned about portraying a class system within a Live Action game, but Iíd like to extend the field to role-playing games in general and how a master-servant relationship between to or more players can enhance the game. If you think about it, most peopleís careers involve working within a group to achieve a common goal, and in any group there has to be a leader and subordinates. Such a view can and should be applied, formally or informally, to any PC party.

There are opportunities for playing against type as well, in the style of Jeeves and Wooster, the incompetent noble and their capable servant. Then there are people for whom the whole role-playing experience is simply to be dumped on by your superiors or forces you cannot control and try to get through the trauma. Playing a subordinate is enjoyable because fate throws up situations which you must triumph over, because your Lordís problems are your own, whether or not you want them. You will always have someone to interact with as an underling. In the current Society Games where the "less motivated" players are often milling about during games watching other people whiz around grabbing the GM every five minutes, deliberately attaching oneself to another player could mean getting an awful lot more out of the game. In the same way that some people have the drive to start their own business whilst others will work for someone else all their lives, some people in a game will naturally be loners - but they are certainly in the minority. After all role-playing is a sociable pastime, so who wants to socialise on their own?

Ralph Lovegrove