Series Info...Playing with History #5:

Social Class

by Michael Karlin
April 2, 2003

“We of the sinking middle class... may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches.” — George Orwell

Social class is a mostly perceived phenomenon whereby people, whether explicitly or not, are ranked above or below one another based on different factors. This is an interesting segway from the subsection on anachronisms, because social class is a concept universal to history. It was an issue when time started, and it continues to be an issue today. What differs is the way in which social class has manifested itself. When choosing a historical epoch, keep in mind the social class structure. Having too little class mobility - or the ability to go up or down in social hierarchy - may incur the frustration of your player base. Realistically, players won't pay money to be someone's slave month after month. This is not to say that social mobility should be easy per se, just that it should be a challenge that is possible for players to attain provided a certain amount of time and effort is given.

In this article I will review various archetypes of social class that can be applied to an online RPG, review the pros and cons, and talk a little about what we plan to do in Glory of the Nile.

Social Class

This list is not going to be exhaustive. As well, social class is an evolving, dynamic structure, so it will be imperfect.

In an associational system, social class is achieved by affiliation with a group, be it political or otherwise. This is most noticeable in games that take place in Marxist-Leninist systems, where membership in the Communist Party means effectively (though not explicitly) rising in social class.

Social hierarchy may be determined by ethnicity, though the actual application of this is difficult to pull off. As this was the basis of the Nazi "New Order," applying this to your game might be overly controversial, and might bring more migraines then benefits. There was an ethnic hierarchy in the Ottoman Empire, and loosely in the Soviet Union. If you really want to apply aspects of ethnic hierarchy into your game, my suggestion is to have your setting take place in more ancient cultures, when ethnic relations were viewed differently. Furthermore, make any ethnic hierarchy surmountable, or at least compensate greatly for the lack of gameplay options.

Inherent social class is when some people are elevated over others because of something invisible and intrinsic with their being. Most often this is familial relationship, but sometimes it is an aspect more otherworldly, like the Lamas of Tibet. In Tibet, reincarnated Lamas (upper echelon of monks) were found by spiritual means by other Lamas. Lamas were regarded as of a higher spiritual - therefore social - plane of existence. It is extremely difficult to become socially mobile in this system, as you usually have to marry into it. However, it social class in an inherent system can also be granted or removed by one much higher in stature than you. In the case of the Tibetan Lamas, or reincarnated inheritance of social standing, social mobility to their level was impossible. Socioeconomics (see below) can bypass this partially, but hardly to a fulfilling extent.

In the strictest sense, this is social class as determined by how much money or equivalent you possess. This is much like the system most capitalist countries have (with a bit of technocracy to boot), and was developed much later. However, aspects of socioeconomics enter into most other systems. Even Renaissance France, which did have a fairly rigid inherent social structure, had its bourgeoisie: a group without inherent class but separated from the peasantry because of their enormous wealth.

In reality, this means a government ruled by experts, but in game terms I associate it with the ability to gain or lose social stature by one's profession alone, and not necessarily by the monetary compensation they receive for this job. A notably talented bard may make a significant amount of wealth because of his or her proficiencies, but will still be viewed as roguish because of that profession. The same goes for say, a moneylender. Castle Marrach is a mix between Inherent and Technocratic, meaning that you can mix and match in order to find a preferable gameplay solution.

Mixing and Matching

Reaching your preferred social class structure will be a process of taking a wallop of one and a dab of another. Balancing one over the other is easy once you have your gameplay in mind. If you have a moneyless economy like Marrach, a socioeconomic class structure will detract from gameplay, because it makes an intrinsically immaterial game material.

Glory of the Nile has a very mixed class structure system based mostly on a mix between inherent, socioeconomic, and technocratic. The inherent factors are few and blatantly obvious: Pharaoh is a god and you are not, therefore listen or be punished (if you're caught). However, beneath him and the Royal Family, it's fair game. You will find it a lot less stratified than Castle Marrach, as there are no inherent ranks your character can climb. At that point it becomes mainly socioeconomic and technocratic. Noble families are only that way because a) they are rich, or b) they have a position that affords them great power of another sort. This way, while a PC will never be Pharaoh, rising as far as nobility is a distinct possibility in Thebes. However, it is important to note that we will be incorporating certain aspects of ethnic social hierarchy to the degree that a player wishes. The character creation script will allow you to select your ethnic group. Choosing to play an ethnic Egyptian allows you to avoid any ethnic strains. Certain ethnicities, such as Nubians, will come with minor but easily surmountable issues attached. Playing a Libyan is a whole different story... but a very rewarding roleplay experience.

The social structure you choose is important because it defines the methods characters will advance and develop. It is one of the many variables that sets the opportunities available for a character. Make sure that you invest a lot of time researching the social structure of your desired region and era. It will pay off.

In two weeks: the concept of winning and losing in a historical context.

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