Who would you rather play a game with: Gary Gygax or Matt Mercer?
Blogger, podcaster, author, and marketing guru Seth Godin, of Akimbo fame, regularly speaks about the importance of Status Roles (“who’s up and who’s down?”) and Affiliation (“who’s in and who’s out?”) when explaining human behaviour. It seems to me that this is a great way to think about your player characters in a roleplaying game.
Status is the question of who is up and who is down in the social order. One way to think about it is to ask, “Who eats first?” In a fantasy roleplaying game, the player characters traditionally start out with no real status as adventurers in a faux-medieval world who are out to make a name for themselves. Of course, over the years people have placed their starting characters at varying places in the social pecking order, including creating nobles.
One of the cool things I noticed in my Mystamyr campaign was the effect upon the players when they first began to draw the attention of the authorities in Anminster. Initially, the Lord’s Chamberlain was hostile and we had some fascinating scenes in which the players tried to display their worthiness – or superiority, even – to the high born. When they were called before the Lord and finally persuaded him they might be useful, there was a palpable sense of achievement. Their status had risen and they had a mission to do for their new patron.
Affiliation is the question of who is in and who is out of the community. We each have multiple affiliations, ranging from community memberships through to ideological positions, and we are careful to signal to others which groups we identify with. Again, this is an interesting aspect to consider in a fantasy roleplaying game as players can be encouraged to wear emblems of affiliation, speak about their memberships, and seek to gain entry to exclusive groups. Being recognised as a Thieves’ Guild member or Magus of the High Tower can have significance in a fantasy campaign.
I don’t think I’ve made enough of this basic human desire for status and affiliation in my games. I tend to see the player characters as outside of the social order and merely visitors to the towns they hang around inside. Instead, I think beginning with zero status and no membership – a highly vulnerable position – is desirable because it encourages the players to choose which affiliations they wish to foster on their way to gaining status in the game world.
Early situations might include gaining basic affiliations: the thief must choose one of the guilds and prove themselves worthy of membership; the wizard will need to find a patron who is willing to take on an apprentice and train them; the warrior will need to find a place within the local militia and win the trust of the town sheriff. You get the idea.
Once players earn some affiliation, they also gain a little bit of status. Earning higher status can become a focus for players should they choose to seek it. This moves the game beyond treasure hunting and monster slaying, introducing the beginnings of social roleplaying and basic politicking. It’s a good basis for a longer-term campaign which will also provide numerous opportunities for interesting situations.
Just keep asking yourself the same two questions: given what is going on, “Who is up and who is down? Who is in and who is out?” Status and affiliation seem like a great way to enrich any campaign.