“Help, Help, I’m being Oppressed!” Rights And Privileges In A Campaign Setting
From Jeremey Davis
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #182
I was at a RenFest this past weekend when one of the lords had a peasant accosted who was wearing finery above his station. That got me to thinking about class warfare in general, and this is what rolled out of my head.
There will come a time in most campaigns where our heroes will be able to ride into any town, burnished mail shining, weapons jingling, adorned with amulets and rings galore. Then the town guard will promptly surround. Are they authorized to carry those weapons? Have they paid taxes on their finery? Are they lords that they dare ride horses through the town square? You see, to the players their characters are heroes, but to the nobles of a city these new arrivals are lowborn mercenaries at best, criminals and thieves at worst.
In most settings, from fantasy to sci-fi, there exist members of an establishment who jealously guard their position in society. They have rights and privileges not accorded the common masses, whether through law, custom, or tradition. This can be a racial majority, gender group, ruling caste, class of nobility, political faction, nationality, writ-holding citizens, or any other group of easily categorized people. If the adventuring party finds themselves in the group of the “have-nots,” many interesting situations can arise.
Arms & Armor
The most obvious way an adventuring party stands out is that (usually) they are armed and dangerous. At times in parts of medieval Europe and Asia, it was a crime for a commoner to own a sword. In colonial America, slaves were not permitted to bear arms without the express written permission of their masters. Several oppressive regimes of the 20th century made confiscating all civilian firearms a high priority when they established power.
Even in modern democracies, privately owned firearms are regulated and military hardware is restricted to government forces.What this means is that a party with weapons can expect to be harassed by guards and security personnel, subjected to fines for lacking permits and fees to acquire said permits, or even have their weapons confiscated and be arrested as criminals.
Clothing & Jewelry
It was common throughout the late medieval world for strict laws to govern the dress of the different classes. In England, sumptuary laws prohibited the masses from wearing such things as clothing dyed violet, silk and velvet, or gold and silver trim. In Japan, common men could not wear stockings, and common women were forbidden jewelry of ivory or tortoise shell.
During ancient times, women in some parts of the Middle East only veiled themselves if they were married or if they were noble, symbolizing their unapproachable status.Party members who dress above their station might be taxed for their excesses. Depending on the situation, they might also find themselves ridiculed or forced to alter their dress.
There is a long-standing tradition of those in power being able to compel those of lesser station to do their bidding. Often they are well within their legal right to do so. In the Roman Empire, any non-citizen could be expected to carry the load of a legionnaire for one mile without pay. A medieval commoner, even though a free man, could be forced to join a public work party to build roads or bridges.
During the colonial period, soldiers of the British Empire could billet in any private home. The War of 1812 was largely started because of the British practice of forcibly pressing civilians into service of the Imperial Navy.With many adventurers being strong limbed and healthy, they would be prime candidates for impressed service. “You there, we need a set of strong shoulders and don’t tarry!”
Even something as simple as what a person could or could not eat was often regulated by social norms or class distinctions. This could be direct, such as feudal Japan, where a commoner might be permitted to eat rice, but not roasted fish. Or it could be indirect, such as in Europe, where to poach on the lord’s land could mean death.On a similar note, religious differences could also play a part in the foods that are consumed.
For the Muslims and the Jews, only a non-believer would consume pork, and in many ancient religions only the priests could consume the food offered in the temple.What this means for the heroes is that what they choose to eat could mean anything from public scorn and ridicule, to death for feasting on the victuals of god or king.
In the event of any crime, the treatment one could expect varies greatly based on one’s station in life. Where a nobleman in medieval Europe could expect some form of trial by his peers, a common man could expect justice dispensed at the hands of the local lord. If the actual offense was by a commoner upon a noble, the noble was well within his rights to administer punishment on the spot. A feudal samurai could slay a peasant for merely offending him, and probably get away with it.
Even in the modern age, where the wealthy can buy a team of experienced legal experts, one can argue that justice favors the powerful.Failing to respect your betters can often be painful or fatal in most societies where there are massive class distinctions. Even if the party has done nothing wrong, the rule of law will often be on the side of the establishment.
Religion, Education, & Magic
Class distinctions reach into almost all aspects of life. Outside of religious orders and private tutoring, a woman could not expect a formal education in medieval Europe. Christian nobles sat in a special place when attending mass. Jews divided themselves by gender when attending synagogue.
In several religions, only the priests could enter certain parts of the temple.In a campaign this could be made even more severe. It could be punishable for a commoner to be literate, or for one not of noble blood to practice magic. Being ignorant of local religious practices would be very little defense if the party transgresses.
Wealth & Power
In modern times, money is almost synonymous with power. However, although the gap between “old money” and “new money” has narrowed, it still exists. The historical roots for this stem back to when the European nobility were the only ones with money. Privilege and wealth went hand in hand.Eventually, with the rise of the merchant class, common families found themselves with a great deal of wealth. At the same time, noble families fallen on hard times were often living with no more wealth than the title of their name.
Thus threatened, the nobility began the first traditions of the “old money” noble families excluding the “new money” commoners from their circles of power and influence.Since a successful party will often acquire a great deal of wealth, many assume that the rules of social strata no longer apply to them. Often times they will be right. The local barkeep doesn’t care where you got your gold. If you spend like a noble, you’re noble enough for him. On the other hand, walking into the palace in your finest will not always guarantee an audience if you are of common blood.
Also, the local nobility might see it in their best interest to “teach a lesson” to those who would dare to buy their titles. Of course, in some places you might be expected to buy your title outright. That choice is entirely up to the GM.
Social orders exist for a reason. This can be a detailed and well thought out background as to why the customs developed the way they did or the simple explanation of “that’s how it’s always been.” Either way, the system resists change. If the party goes around flaunting their station, they are bound to run afoul of the authorities. Aggravate enough of the powers that be and the party had better be prepared to fight the entire system. Viva la Revolution!
Whatever the setting, it is possible to let the social structure of the game world have an impact on the player characters. If they are noble (or citizens, or of the Enlighten Caste), it may involve letting them have the privileges mentioned above. If they are common (or non- citizens, or Bandit Caste), they should occasionally feel their lack of status. Unless your theme is one of oppression and revolution, it is usually enough to use the social system as a backdrop to add flavor to the campaign. Adding those extra details can lead to a number of possible encounter and role-playing ideas.
A Brief Word
Email Thrashed, Please Try Again
This week’s issue is a little late because my email’s been down since Friday night. I’m not sure what the problem was, and service still seems to be erratic. If you sent me an email in the last three or four days, please resend and double-check that the new message hasn’t bounced either. I’m sure everything will be running smoothly again very soon.
“Help, Help, I’m being Oppressed!”
Nothing like a Monty Python quote to start an article, is there?
I think you’ll like Jeremey’s article this week. It provides some great, pithy advice for both players and GMs about all the implications of how people are *supposed* to behave in complex societies. You should be able to mine this article endlessly for adventure cultural quirks, adventure hooks, and ways to get into trouble. Enjoy!
John C. Feltz
“It’s a GAME MECHANIC, not reality!”
“If you’re a DM and running a D&D game,
you should have this book. Period.”
~Monte Cook, from his first perfect 10 review
A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe has been praised like no other d20 supplement. Its content is up for three ENnies awards, including Best Setting Supplement. Pick up your copy today at www.exp.citymax.com or www.rpgmall.comand you’ll agree: it is simply the best.
PT GAMES, INC. RELEASES RUINED KEEP
We are pleased to announce the release of Ruined Keep, an adventure of 7th-9th Level. Set in the Kingdom of Paleon, Ruined Keep is the follow-up to Goblin Cave. Check out our website for more information on Ruined Keep or for a free web enhancement containing information about our Philosophy based campaign in the World of Terra as well information on upcoming releases.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Great Tracking Article
I’ve been reading your newsletter for about a year now, and I have to say I love it, so I am happy that I can make a small contribution.
The January 2003 edition of Smithsonian magazine has a great article on the “Shadow Wolves” of the Arizona State Police Department. They are a group of Native American trackers who specialize in finding drug traffickers sneaking shipments across the Arizona deserts. The article goes into great detail about how they manage to track men across vast, seemingly unremarkable wasteland, and can be a great source of color for any ranger/tracker PC or NPCs.
Hope you find it as useful as I have.
More on DM’s Screens
I’ve always found the standard screens much too tall. I make my own out of large cardstock paper and reduce the height to about 6 inches (15 centimeters). This allows me to hide things and also get a clear view of the battlemap without standing up.
Other gimmicks I use:
- Attach a small piece of paper with paper clips, facing me, with any PC skills that I roll in secret (search, spot, hide….) as well as flat footed armor class and will saves. This way I can describe events according to a roll without first asking the dead giveaway “what’s your Will save?”
- I like to cut a flap in the bottom of the screen large enough to allow dice to roll through. This allows players to roll the “secret” rolls themselves. The player announces he is searching or whatever and rolls the die through the flap, out of his vision, I add the skill mod and we go from there. Every player likes to roll for his PC’s fate, and this allows the player to put their own mojo on the roll while still concealing the result.
(Editor’s note: Wow, cool, I love this one! A doggie-door for your dice!)
Some Good PDA RPG Utilities
Gamers Die Roller
(Also available here are ACE Dice Roller & ACE XP Calc)
Loaded Dice (designed to increase variation)
Two Websites For RPG Names
From Julia Pope
Here are a couple of website you might want to check out.
The first is:
The philosophy of the page is a bit nutty, but it contains about 500,000 names subdivided into categories (mostly cultures). This is very convenient – you can pick a culture for each society in your game and find plenty of consistent names for NPCs.
The second page is:
It is basically a whole lot of links. I mostly use the ones in the Heritage section, which has info on how names are constructed in different cultures. I especially use it for last names.
Anyway, hope these are of interest. Keep up the good work!