Using status in RPGs

This is a work-in-progress for a piece I’m writing on GMing Hârn games. I think there’s enough general applicability for other games to do put the current draft out (every game uses status, even if it doesn’t use a feudal heirarchy).

Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe has had me thinking more deeply about status and how to use it. Ilkka Leskelä made some valuable comments on an earlier draft.

Social status is an important part of Hârnic societies. Everyone has a place in the pecking order, and those closer to the bottom have different challenges to those near the top.

In the most obvious example, a noble is higher up the pecking order than a peasant, but status is, of course, relative. Unless he’s a king, even a noble character will have people further up the pecking order than him, and beggars are lower than a peasant. A younger person may be expected to defer to an older person of otherwise equal status. An apprentice is subordinate to a master, who is in turn subordinate to his guild.

Organised religions have status too. Most Hârnic churches have a hierarchy, and how status plays out within them varies with that religion’s theology. Laranians and Agrikans both believe in social stratification, but Laranians stress a superior’s responsibilities whereas Agrikans stress his (or her) rights. In some churches, a character’s status outside the church may be of importance; in others it may not be (it’s easy to think of a noble Laranian priest having more clout than a common-born priest, even if they share the same rank in the church; Peonians tend to be less concerned with birthrights).

Playing someone who fits into a particular role in society, be it high or low, is great fun. It’s even more fun when status varies, either in particular circumstances (a noble youth expects obedience from subordinates, yet must defer to his father, his uncle and their liege lords) or through changing the character’s core status itself (a yeoman is knighted for bravery, a legionary is promoted, an apprentice becomes a master, a trader becomes rich, a noble’s family falls out of favour, a freeman is forced into serfdom).

It can be great fun to work around status to achieve an objective, or to use perceived status to your advantage – think of the way TV detective Columbo lulls high-status suspects into lapses though his bumbling humbleness (it’s a formula that’s been re-used more recently for another TV detective: Monk).

Playing status can stress either positive or negative qualities of the relative rank (or some of each, in the hands of a good player).

Examples (you can come up with plenty more):

High status (positive traits): Responsible, encouraging, trusting, mentor, compassionate, motivator, protector, just, supportive, natural leader, decisive, inclusive, encouraging, respectful, dignified, confident.

High status (negative traits): Arrogant, domineering, bullying, vainglorious, dictatorial, patronising, vain, contemptuous, demanding, abusive, inconsiderate, pushy, disinterested, inconsistent, weak, conceited, picky, pompous, credit-taking, precious, selfish, plays favourites, stickler, martinet, proud.

Low status (positive traits): Loyal, polite, respectful, good follower, dutiful, willing, faithful, honest, reliable, trustworthy.

Low status (negative traits): Sullen, insolent, bolshy, disrespectful, shirker, toady, disloyal, hanger-on, unwilling, barrack-room lawyer, yes-man.

It’s very rare, of course, that someone will be all good or all bad. A generally positive high status individual may have a bad trait or two. And sometimes it’s a matter of degree – the strength of the trait.

How someone behaves with their peers (or how they behave towards superiors or inferiors in front of their peers) may differ from their usual traits. For instance, someone may bully their servants mercilessly, yet wish to be though a good master by their friends, so treat servants well in public (a keen observer may see the truth in the servants’ reaction). And someone who’s a good follower (with positive low status traits) may be a terrible leader (negative high status traits), and vice versa.

Hârnic societies, being mostly feudal in nature, are not as mobile as our modern societies. Birth, lineage, count for much. But it can happen. An unfree serf might save (or take risks) enough to buy his freedom. A baron might be disinherited. A freelance knight may win a fief, or a yeoman win knighthood. Just because such incidents are rare in the background of the campaign doesn’t mean they can’t happen to the heroes.

Political games are built almost entirely on status – more particularly on changing status, either of the PCs themselves, or promoting an ally or liege or by bringing an enemy down.

Status can also make a great challenge; an enemy of considerably higher status than the PCs may be very difficult to confront directly without grave consequences (yes, the baron may be up to no good, but if you cut him down, you’ll answer to the law).

For more details on status in games, and mannerisms to use while playing in high or low status modes, I recommend Graham Walmsley’s excellent game-advice book Play Unsafe (read my review of the book here).

Yet such games are not for everyone. Fortunately, there are a few ways to avoid dealing too much with status issues without simply ignoring them (although ignoring them is certainly an option; just assume adventurers are a special case who can move among high and low with ease).

One way is to put the player’s characters outside the normal range of society. They may be foreigners, outlaws, travellers or the like. In general, strangers are likely to be frowned upon by locals, but it does become easier to fake a status to suit the current needs if you’re unknown. The characters may hold a special position as agents of a nobleman, a king or an organisation such as a guild or temple.

Another option is to spend as much game time as possible away from society, exploring ruins in the wilderness or adventuring among barbarian tribes.

Perhaps the most Hârnic solution is to offer the player characters a way to earn some immunity from normal status issues. Winning the favour of a nobleman gives a character a great deal of liberty among that noble’s subjects (which may extend to an entire kingdom in the case of a king), and some degree of respect among the noble’s peers. This applies even if the characters never call the favour in.

How you handle status is something you should discuss with players before starting the game; using it extensively is likely to appeal more to simulationist or storytelling groups, and is likely to annoy groups who prefer to treat roleplaying as a game.


“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know – and how well you know them.” Hand in glove with the issue of status is the issue of the PCs social networks. In a world with as much detail and social emphasis as Hârn, a character’s friends, allies, relatives, enemies, patrons and contacts can be very important. Having the ear of the baron is an extremely useful asset (and hence earning it in play can be more valuable reward than a pouch of silver).

Some characters (particularly powerful, popular or wealthy ones) have broad networks. Others, especially those who haven’t travelled much or have little influence, have narrower ones. Those who have lost their position may have very limited networks (nobody loves you when you’re down and out). Only outsiders lack any kind of network at all, and even they are likely to being building one in play.

Like status, a character’s contact network is only of any real use in civilised lands where he or she can access it. Having the ear of the baron is of no consequence if you’re deep in the wilderness many miles away from his court.

Most games (HârnMaster includes) don’t offer many (or any) mechanics for determining the usefulness of networks. Some games, such as Hero System or GURPS, allow players to buy them for their characters as an advantage. Others represent them as a skill. Pendragon and HeroQuest make them an important part of character generation.

Regardless of whether the system supports social networks or no, some thought about how to handle them is worthwhile, even if it’s just part of a character’s background.

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