Monday, June 4, 2012

Class Conscious

Last week I introduced a discussion of the endgame in cape-and-sword roleplaying games, the point in a campaign at which the player characters become authority figures in the game-world, where conflicts transition from the physical to the political and power comes from one's position at least as often as from one's sword arm.

First, let's talk about how that position is measured.

En Garde! - the first cape-and-sword roleplaying game - includes rules for Social Level. An En Garde! character's Social Level is determined by a combination of status points gained or lost each month and positions and titles held by the character.

Drawing from En Garde! as well as Crimson Cutlass, Flashing Blades characters - player and non- - have a Social Rank. The Social Scale in Flashing Blades captures the social stratification of late Renaissance and Early Modern society, reflecting both the traditional position of the warrior nobility and the Church as well as the rise of the new nobility of the professional bureaucracy and military.

Social Rank is determined by a character's starting background and Advantages as well as positions and titles earned through both careers and adventuring. It's possible for a character with the Nobleman background and the Title advantage to begin the campaign as a duke with a Social Rank (SR) of 14, but most characters begin in the range of SR 2 to SR 9. As characters pursue various careers, these ranks increase with promotions. Different careers have different ranges of Social Ranks; frex, a character who starts the game as a sergeant in the Royal Army begins at SR 4 and may rise as high as SR 15, Field Marshal; while a bureaucrat begins at SR 7 and may rise to SR 16, Royal Minister. Interestingly, the career with the potential for the fastest rise - that is, the career with the fewest steps and the largest range between its lowest and highest Social Ranks - is the clergy; a Priest (SR 4) may become a member of a Bishop's Curia (SR 8), then a Bishop (SR 10), then a Prince-Bishop (SR 15), and finally a Cardinal (SR 16). An ambitious character could do far worse than to pursue a career in the Church.

The rules also suggest that characters may pursue more than one career; in fact, in at least one instance, it's expected, as a Soldier may be inducted into a Noble Order for being decorated twice on campaign, giving him the title of chevalier and Social Rank 8. Here's what the rules have to say on multiple careers, and on the impact of wealth on Social Rank.

Social Rank may be higher than indicated on the Social Scale in special circumstances. If the two highest Ranks possessed by a character are equal, count his Social Rank as one higher. A character who is both a Baron and a Magistrate, for example, is Social Rank 11 rather than 10. If four positions are held in one Social Rank, count it as two higher, and so on.

In addition, if a character is excessively wealthy, add one to Social Rank. Excessive wealth is defined as (10,000 L x the character’s normal Social Rank). Thus for a Count to be excessively wealthy, he must have 120,000 L in cash and property.

It is possible, although highly improbable, for a character to reach Social Rank 19 (i.e., by being a Grand Duke, Cardinal, Royal Minister, Royal Order Grandmaster, and Field Marechal, and having excessive wealth amounting to 180,000 L!). If a character reaches this point, however, he might as well be King! In realistic game terms, it should be considered phenomenal (and rare) to reach Social Rank 15 to 16.
The 'campaign turn' in Flashing Blades is one month; the required time commitment of an office, military rank, and so on is measured in months per year. As noted previously, when using the career rules in Flashing Blades, "adventures ought to be mixed in at regular intervals (one or two per game year)," similar to the great Arthurian roleplaying game, Pendragon - indeed, in both Flashing Blades and Pendragon, adventuring can be seen as something that occurs in a player character's downtime from their other responsibilities! Thus it's possible for player character to climb more than one career ladder at a time. Careers in banking or a club are especially suited to this, given the limited time demands placed on a character in these careers. Historically many clergy also held positions in the royal bureaucracy or the law, and a few, like the cardinal de La Valette, served as soldiers.

Balancing careers, both by a single player character and between several player characters in the campaign, requires that the players and the referee are flexible and creative. An adventure may arise out of a player character's career, frex, and other characters may assist, either in their free time or as part of their own careers; the aid rendered by Athos, Porthos, and Aramis to d'Artagnan in his service to the Queen on the matter of her missing jewels is a classic example in cape-and-sword tales. Players may choose to pursue some synchronicity in their careers, to be mutually supportive of one another.

In addition to mesuring the relative position in society of a character, Social Rank also provides a character with influence.
Rank hath privileges. The positions held to gain Social Rank have many powers of their own, but possessing e Social Rank itself grants a character influence. Informal influence cannot be measured in game terms. A person of high Social Rank will be treated with deference and politeness by all. He will be overly praised by his sycophants and overly despised by his enemies.

Sometimes, however, influence may have direct effects on the game, in one of two ways. First, any character may expect informal, polite requests to be granted by those three Social Ranks or more below his own, if he can roll his own Social Rank or below on a D20. Thus a Marquis could ask a small favor of a Baron or a Bishop, and have his request(s) granted on a roll of 13 or less on a D20. Polite requests are defined as those which are easy to grant, and which are of minor significance to the person asked (such as a Magistrate waiving a small fine, a Captain looking after someone in his company, a Baron allowing hunting on his estate, etc.). The possibilities are endless. Polite requests, no matter how polite they may be, will also often be influenced by bribery or reciprocal favors.

In addition, influence of Social Rank may be used, on rare occasions, to force those of lower Social Ranks to perform services which may be difficult or dangerous. Such services may only be requested of one six or more Social Ranks below the character, and may only be asked once per year (unless the character increases his or her Social Rank that year, in which case, he may ask 2 services). Such services may not be outrageous (e.g. asking an NPC to lay down his life for the character, or to give the character large sums of money) and the request must be within the power of the person requested. The person requested has a choice: to grant the request, or to automatically lose one Social Rank himself. A small reward or bribe is almost always offered for such services. Examples of difficult requests might be a Treasurer of a Royal Order bullying a rich merchant to go into an investment with him (perhaps with the lure of possible profits), a Lt. General forcing a townsman to quarter troops in his house, a Grand Duke squeezing a Secretary of a Noble Order to admit him to the Order, etc. Of course, some such requests may be granted through threats or violence, rather than influence.
I like these rules very much, though the degree of deference shown between social levels can be a bit jarring to players raised in our more egalitarian - in principle, if not always in practice - world.

Along similar lines, as an unwritten - so far - house rule for my own campaign, I allow the difference in Social Rank between two characters to modify certain Charm-based skill checks, such as Captaincy and Seduction. I did this using the Social Standing attribute score in Traveller years ago, and Thijs Krijger, moderator of the Flashing Blades Yahoo group, used this in his house rules for mistresses (which are sadly absent from his blog). In some cases, a non-player character in the service of another may use their master's Social Rank, frex, a guard on the gate of the château de Bauchery uses the baron's Social Rank of 12 rather than his own rank of 3 in determining if a Captaincy check will persuade him to stand aside.

The rules for influence are an important part of the endgame. Here we see a glimpse of how characters exert power, as they ask for - or compel - favors from subordinates. A character with a high Social Rank becomes akin to a chess master, identifying where and how to exercise influence to achieve goals. This will become particularly important in discussing how to build and maintain a clientele later on.

Beyond simply increasing in rank as one rises in a career or careers, Social Rank is an expected part of the game's reward system. Here's an example from the Flashing Blades 'adventure path,' An Ambassador's Tale.
Second, each character of Social Rank 4 or above who participated in all five adventures of the campaign, and has successfully completed his mission in each, has performed a great service for the King and realm. If untitled, he will be given the rank of Chevalier. If he is already titled, he will advance by one rank (i.e. from Count to Marquis). Those characters of Social Rank 3 or below will be given a commendation of honor (which will increase their Social Rank by 2 points) and an extra 100 Livres.

Third, each character in the Military or Bureaucracy, or in a Club or Order, may make an immediate roll for opening. If there is an opening, the character will be promoted. Characters in the Cardinal's Guard Company, or in the Clergy will be automatically promoted one rank. Characters who are not associated with any particular branch of government will be allowed to join the Military (in the Cardinal's Guard, as a Sergeant), the Clergy (as a Student of Theology) or the Bureaucracy (as a Bureaucrat) if they wish. A special month must be spent in learning the required skills if the characters are unqualified.

Finally, those characters who wish to, may remain in the service of the Cardinal. This is equivalent to both the Advantage 'Contact' and the Secret 'Secret Loyalty.'
Another unwritten house rule in my game is that a Social Rank bump given as a reward remains until the character reaches that rank as part of the normal progression in his career; frex, a member of a Bishop's Curia who receives a two-rank increase to his Social Standing stays at SR 10 on becoming a Bishop - his position in the Church rose to match his reputation.

Lastly, it's important to remember that a character's Social Rank also determines that character's monthly upkeep. With that in mind, I'm going to pivot to wealth in the next discussion of the cape-and-sword endgame.


  1. That's a really striking set of ideas. I hadn't considered something like that. I'll have to take another look at those rules. I might have to adapt some of that for the class/standing system of a samurai campaign.

    1. Many of the same principles apply, so I think they would be a good fit.

  2. In reading through this, I realized two things about my abortive attempt last year to run Flashing Blades.

    1) I still have no real sense of how to help my players experience social ranks. I could lecture on the subject but to attempt to provide an immersive environment where such things matter...that's out of my comfort zone and experience.

    2) None of my players had the least interest in social advancement or the endgame and, as much as I enjoy a good swashbuckler, that's all I was really interested in.

    On a note probably more germane to your next post, everyone (all my players) got hung up on the vast disparity between income and expenses + taxes + tithes. They found the sheer imbalance paralyzing and didn't want to do anything that might cost money. I've run into this in D&D, but I've usually been able to overcome it. I have no idea how to overcome the Pecuniary Paralysis since the D&D Solution, dangle a treasure-laden dungeon in front of the PCs, doesn't fit the atmosphere, the inspirational source material, or the general incentives of the game.

    I'm reminded in some ways of Top Secret. It's a game I've fallen in love with and would love to run and play...but I've realized I don't run it well because I'm habituated to a paradigm of character incentives that doesn't transfer the way it might, for example, in Traveller.

    Any thoughts, Mike? Or have I just opened a whole 'nother can o' worms?

    1. The issue of wealth and "pecuniary paralysis" - hah! - I'll get into in my next post in a couple of days.

      As far as 'experiencing' Social Ranks, using the difference in Social Rank during skill checks helps - it quickly becomes apparent that those lower on the social scale are more deferential while those higher on the social scale are unimpressed.

      That actually deserves a much more in-depth reply, however - let me get through the endgame posts and I'll come back to that one in a separate post.

    2. No rush, Mike. I really appreciate both your insight and your willingness to share it. I can wait.

      Besides, I'll be at NTRPG Con later this week, so I won't be obsessively checking in again until early next week. :D


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