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Friday, 18 March 2016

Rules for status


My role-playing group has been using GURPS as our default system for many years now. Third edition was a little kludgy but the overhaul they did with GURPS 4e fixed most of that. Even if you don't use the rules, I recommend the sourcebooks.

One aspect of GURPS that we've rarely had cause to explore are the rules for status. Our Legend characters are reviled mercenaries, our Spartans characters are a law unto themselves, our sci-fi characters zoom through a Mass Effect inspired universe of libertarian laissez-faire chaos, our Ghosts of London characters are misfits who have more intercourse with spirits than with regular society. There hasn't been much call for a skill like Savoir-Faire.

Until now, that is. Tim Savin's 1890s Investigators campaign has us playing a mix of social classes, talking to people rather than fighting them, and so we've been drilling down into how GURPS handles all that.

Not terribly well, is the answer - not even in the GURPS supplement designed expressly for the purpose: Social Engineering. Probably one reason is that there is after all no such thing as a generic status system; every society is different. French writers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries were continually puzzled and horrified at the way social classes mixed in England in a way unthinkable on the continent at that time. Henri Misson de Valbourg made this observation while visiting London in the late 17th century:
If two little boys quarrel in the street, the passengers stop, make a ring around them in a moment, and set them against one another, that they may come to fisticuffs. During the fight the ring of bystanders encourages the combatants with great delight of heart, and never parts them while they fight according to the rules. And these bystanders, are not only other boys, porters and rabble, but all sorts of men of fashion.... The fathers and mothers of the boys let them fight on as well as the rest, and hearten him that gives the ground or has the worst.

These combats are less frequent among grown men than children, but they are not rare. If a coachman has a dispute about his fare with the gentleman that has hired him, and the gentleman offers to fight him to decide the quarrel, the coachman consents with all his heart:the gentleman pulls off his sword, lays it in some shop with his cane, gloves and cravat, and boxes in the manner I have described. If the coachman is soundly drubbed, that goes for payment; but if he is the beater, the beatee must pay the sum for which they quarrelled. I once saw the late Duke of Grafton at fisticuffs in the open street with such a fellow, whom he lambed most horribly. In France, we punish such rascals with our cane, and sometimes with the flat of the sword; but in England this is never practised. They use neither sword nor stick against a man that is unarmed, and if an unfortunate stranger (for an Englishman would never take it into his head) should draw his sword upon one who had none, he'd have a hundred people upon him in a moment.
A bigger problem might be that GURPS is written by Americans. Hold your horses there, I don't mean any insult - simply that it makes perfect sense for an American game designer to just add wealth and social class together to get an overall status number, but in fact an impovershed aristocrat, a rich commoner and an average member of the gentry (all in GURPS terms Status 3) would not be treated as exactly equivalent even in 1970s Britain, much less in 1890.

And then there's what higher statuses actually mean. When I visited Bali in the 1980s you'd meet Brahmins - usually not so well off (because they wouldn't stoop to wheedling cash out of tourists) but on the top rung when it came to status. But high status in late 20th century Bali means a very different thing from high status in mid 18th century France. The same numbers of status levels may separate high from low, but what does that translate to? It all depends on the society - indeed, on the sub-stratum of society you're considering. In War and Peace, Field Marshal Kutuzov has lower status than some of the junior staff officers at court. Even a lieutenant can keep him waiting at a whim. Yet on the field, among his own men, presumably Kutuzov's status is very much the higher.

Status and social class have always been important factors in our Tekumel campaigns. There it matters not only which clan you belong to, but also the status of your lineage within the clan. A comparison might be: is it more prestigious to be a commoner at St Peter's College or head porter at Christ Church? A complex issue. In Tsolyanu, if you join a legion or the civil service, your rank doesn't simply add to social status as it does in GURPS. Rather, your social class determines the rank you are likely to rise to. Any damned fool of the aristocracy can become a junior officer in a medium regiment; after that, further advancement depends on ability and bribes (wealth). But that's Tsolyanu. In other societies, wealth might not count for so much, or might count for more.

13 comments:

  1. I remember that the Savage Worlds supplement "Space 1889 : Red Sands" has Status rules specifically taylored for the Victorian time.

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    1. Searching for Savage Worlds (a system I'm not familiar with) I found this forum:

      https://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?552685-Savage-Worlds-Why-can-t-I-persuade-her-social-combat

      I like the line, "Why not, you know, roleplay?" Certainly I don't want rules that decide the outcome of social interactions. I just want the game system to define where a character is on the social scale - but maybe that's too complex for rules to model. The trouble with "just roleplaying" it is that every player may have a different notion of status. None of the players in my group understand titles and peerages, for example, which is a bit of a liability in a Victorian era campaign!

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    2. I think "social combat" is different. It's combat (but not with Swords or magics) with wits, eloquence, and things like blackmail, seduction. Here, an intrigant, a bard can act on behalf of a more powerful lord (in secret) to weaken the position of the latter's foe. Full rules for social combat are found in the "Quintessential Samurai" and in the "Conan RpG" supllement "Messantia", both by Mongoose in the D20 system.
      To get back to status, I think the best rules, for a medieval society with castes or heavy social degrees were in the 1st edition of "Oriental Adventures", for D&D. It even included a table to determine if you were entitled to some birthrights, and if you had (in)famous ancestry.

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    3. In Tsolyanu, actually injuring or even openly insulting another character is grounds for shamtla (blood money) so players get pretty adroit at indirect slights and barbed witticisms.

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  2. "Why not roleplay it?" Because I'm a fat guy with acne playing an Italian supermodel superspy and I want to go with her seduction ability instead of my own.

    As for status I prefer a general modifier that acknowledges it without getting too detailed. Suppose that an American millionaire, a British Earl, A Russian general and a Vatican Cardinal are all on the Orient Express playing cards and coversing. As a DM you could a half-hour sorting through all the complex ways their status could interact or just assume these men (it's the 1880s and it sucks to have a vagina back then) are all roughly equals.

    On the other hand if you're playing a street urchin shoeshine boy and you want to talk to the Duke of Wellington (if only to tell him his boots have been poisoned) the unequal status situation is going to make it tough on you.

    Figure with any RPG realism has to give way to a bit of simplification or else you'll spend three hours, 45 minutes hashing out comparative modifiers for every 15 minutes of actual play.

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    1. That example shows how status may be defined by the environment and "local rules". All those gentlemen are equal to the extent that they are all in the first-class lounge of the Orient Express. So that's a context in which they can rub shoulders - possibly not so if they were in the Vatican instead.

      And that's all I need from the rules. Will these two characters be in a position to talk to each other, Y/N? I know for example that the 20-year-old Spartans in my Greek campaign are not allowed into the Agora unaccompanied, so they will not find it easy to strike up a conversation with the 35-year-old veteran they'd like to question. The rule only needs to tell us which of two characters is able to decide if there will be a conversation or not. The nuance of the conversation should be role-played.

      As an aside, I don't allow players to take characters of the opposite sex because I've never seen that carried off at all convincingly. Equally, if they can't play out oratory then they shouldn't take an orator. Nothing falls as flat as a player rolling the dice and announcing, "I say something very witty." They should at least attempt the witticism, and be rewarded with a bonus on the dice roll if they do it well.

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  3. Hi Dave I was a commoner at SPC and probably the porters at CC did have higher status, but at least our lowly position meant we weren't invited to any parties featuring pig's heads

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    1. Myself (exhibitioner, Magadelen) I'm certainly far more likely to share a pint with an SPC commoner than the head porter or indeed an SCR member of the House... :-)

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    2. Cheers, Dave ! (Need an icon showing a pint raised in salute )

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    3. OMG I mean Magdalen, of course. Typing on an iPad - oh dear :-)

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    4. Hope that mistake didn't make you feel too maudlin

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  4. Dave did of course mean Magadelen. It should have read 'Executioner, Magadelen', Magadelen being an obscure, still extant chapter of the Templars that the Vatican kept on for those more... discreet killings.

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