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Monday, April 23, 2012

Class, Status, and D&D

It's a topic that has been covered many times, and I'm not going to re-hash it all here. The gist of it is thus:

If your "standard" D&D/fantasy setting is supposed to be a quasi-medieval society, why is it that we don't see more emphasis on things like social class/caste? Where are the serfs? Where are the gentry? Sure, there's always a king to hand out quests, but it seems that the PCs are usually just regular shmoes, not nobles. 

I've been watching season 1 of Game of Thrones via iTunes recently. I also enjoyed the books (so far). One of the things that the books really brought home to me (and the show, to a lesser degree) was just how disparate in Westeros the lives of the powerful are from the masses. Look at the Knight of the Flowers. In one scene of the books he's wearing JEWELED ARMOR. Sure he's a pretty-boy, but that's just wacko! I bet the commoners watching the tilt couldn't wait for a few sapphires to go flying so they could scramble for them.

He and Legolas have "Who's the prettiest?"
pout-offs on alternate Wednesdays.

The levels of wealth that some of the families possess is so far beyond even "comfortable" commoners (like the armorer that employed Gendry) that it's hard to really picture.

This guy can buy and sell the both of us a hundred times over! 
So can the attitude!

Consider this modern-day comparison:

Bill Gates, widely considered the wealthiest man in the world, has a current (at the time of this posting) net worth of approximately $60 Billion (USD). If he were to never make another dime, and started spending a dollar per second, it would take him nearly 2,000 years to go broke.

The "average" American (whatever that means)  has a net worth of around $190,000 (reports vary). At the same rate of spending, Joe Average is broke in a little over two DAYS.

Now, I'm not going on about this to foment an "Occupy King's Landing" movement. I'm just trying to say that I don't know that everyone really considers just HOW rich the rich are. I'm no expert on medieval economics (as I've said before), but the few were definitely better off than the many.

OK! Back on topic!

If you are considering using things like social class in D&D-type gaming, consider to what point or purpose you're doing this:

  1. Is it for historical verisimilitude? 
  2. Are you trying to provide "endgame" motivation to your players? 
  3. Are you attempting to add depth and new challenges to the setting? 
  4. Or are you just trying to screw the PCs over? 
Of the above, 2 & 3 are probably what I consider the "best" reasons. Let's take them in turn, shall we?

Historical Verisimilitude: Yes, Europe in the middle ages was not a very "socially mobile" place. "Realistically", the odds say characters would almost certainly be poor (to start with). If, as GM, you arbitrarily decide that PCs are all "lower class", then how "realistic" is it for them to potentially start with 100s of gold pieces in equipment? And if you limit their gear, do you unfairly weaken the fighting types who depend upon their armor & weapons far more so than the magic-users, thieves, or –albeit to a lesser degree– the clerics? What about demi-humans? They aren't very "realistic." Do you eliminate them as a PC (or NPC)? If not, are they subject to the same rules as humans?

Furthermore, do you limit the equipment based on culture and historic period? YMMV, but it seems like it could be quite a headache to me. Remember, it's not just the cost of an item, but perhaps the society's laws make certain goods and services restricted or out and out illegal. Armored knights might not be crazy about the idea of peasants with crossbows, even if they had enough coin to buy them. Another popular idea is that of certain weapons or equipment denoting status.

Engame Motivation: As was discussed in a previous post, one way to manage character wealth and motivation is to point them at a larger prize than just a nicer set of armor. If the PCs feel the weight of societal pressure keeping them down, they might decide to push back and climb toward the top of the heap. This must be balanced against the "fun factor" i.e. is this something the players enjoy dealing with? Or is it a huge pain in the kiester? 

Depth and Challenge: Tying directly into the previous point. Does including things like an upper class or caste tie in with other aspects of the setting? Does it make things more interesting for the players? Perhaps they go rogue and steal illicit weapons and armor and become outlaws. Or rebels. Maybe they are hedge knights and mercenaries who operate on the fringes of legality? Players whose PCs manage to claw their way up and carve a place for themselves may savor their "victory" all the more.

Screw the PCs: This is almost not worth replying to, but there are some cases where a group enjoys that adversarial dynamic and the players respond to the challenge. Really this is just an extreme of the above point, so it's important for the GM to be fair in the implementation of rules like these. Personally, I don't see a game like that having much staying power, but it takes all kinds.

Various products, both D&D supplements/settings and new game systems, have attempted to deal with this idea in various ways. Having read several of them, I've tended to adopt the stance that a D&D world is more "fantasy" than "medieval," leaving out most of the historical stuff that would –IMO– limit the fun. It's kind of like a renaissance festival, where you see folks dressed up in everything from "tavern wench" to "Jack Sparrow" to "WTF?" It's more of a halloween costume party than historical reenactment.  

Screw it, if a PC in Kelvernia has the gold, he can buy a sword and plate mail. He might need to go to a large town, but no one will stop him because his dad was a turnip farmer. 


  1. Haven't gotten into Game of Thrones yet (book or movie versions), but your post promotes interesting considerations because social class defined the middle ages, yet in most D&D games, it seems to hardly come up.
    The reason not to add social class the way I understand it historically, in my opinion, is that it will actually take a lot of agency away from the players. PCs of lower social classes will have to do as they are told. PCs of noble classes will also usually have to do as they are told unless they are the head of their particular family. I don't think a lot of people were able to just 'wander around having adventures' in those times (well, a few did... but they were usually termed 'outlaws' and hung or beheaded). Maybe 'Landsknecht' types would fit the role of adventurer better, but they are from a historically later period when the nobility was in decline due to the rise of the commerce classes.
    I guess I would go with a 'social class Lite' version, as one might find in Lieber's Fafhrd and Mouser novels. "Adventurers" could be members of an ahistorical class apart, and may have come from any social class before becoming adventurers --- for their counterparts, I would look to fictional characters like hard nosed detectives from Hammet stories, gunfighters and prospectors from the old west, 'hero/adventurer' types from pulp novels like Doc Savage. Most player characters in games I have been involved in seem to resemble Sam Spade more than Lancelot or Aragorn if one thinks about the kind of culture/class they live in.
    Good post!

    1. "The reason not to add social class the way I understand it historically, in my opinion, is that it will actually take a lot of agency away from the players."