Monday, September 16, 2019

Social Standing and Class Consciousness

It seems that I am on a quest to make Social Standing a more important aspect of Traveller. Not sure why this is. I tend to play and write more plot-heavy and action-driven games, and have never gotten a PC into a 'comedy of manners' type situation. Pride and Prejudice is a great novel, but not a good model to base a Science Fiction adventure upon. (If you think I'm wrong, please do comment and explain your idea.) But as I look back across my now five years of writing posts for this blog, I see that I've spent some time trying to integrate Social Standing (SOC) into my favorite game.

Some players may consider SOC a 'dump stat'. I don't. I think it deserves its place in the UPP, because it can tell a player some interesting things about the PC. In the hands of an experienced player, SOC can be a useful tool in the arsenal for getting things done.

What's All This About Class Consciousness?

I assume in my TU that each planet has a mostly unified culture, even if the governments are not unified. There is not one monolithic 'Galactic Culture' or even an 'Imperial Culture'. Planets are like islands. Most residents don't ever leave, and don't ever interact directly with folks from somewhere else. This results in planet-based cultures.

Some cultures rate highly on what is known as the 'Power Distance' scale. These are socially stratified or 'class conscious' cultures. It matters what class you come from, and you stick with 'your people'.

In such cultures, those of lower social standing do not mix or interact much with people of higher standing. In a circumstance where people of different standings must interact, those of the lower class will defer to the upper. What the upper class types say is what goes. In many cases, the lower class people are not even consulted or considered in the decisions. Victorian Britain or modern India are both familiar examples of class conscious societies.
Guess who's not getting his way?

The higher SOC your character has, the more relative social power he can command. Those PCs with low SOC will need to use more indirect means of getting what they want. In a High PD culture, the character with the higher SOC gets a +2 DM (+3 if Noble) to the Reaction throw in a social interaction, including NPCs trying to influence the PCs.

This cuts across cultural lines. Characters from a High PD culture (like the Talaveran Empire) can recognize other Upper Class people. A visitor to a High PD world that is evidently of High SOC can get the same kind of deference by insisting on it. Or they can disguise their SOC to avoid notice.

The other end of the spectrum is cultures with Low Power Distance. People of high and low SOC interact and mix in business and society without much deference or calling out of social differences. The United States is (mostly) a low power distance culture. In these cultures, just having a high SOC will not necessarily get you what you want, and nobody's going to bow and scrape. Reaction throws are not affected by a difference in SOC. Some folk with low SOC will treat a PC with High SOC better, and some will treat them worse. Some cultures might strongly object to someone insisting that they are due any respect because of high SOC, and react accordingly.

PCs with Streetwise and Liaison can get advanced notice of the culture that they're going to visit.  

How can you tell what kind of culture you're in for when your PC visits a new world? At least a hint of it can come from the world's Government code. The various government types are at least suggestive of the relative power distance of that world.

Code Type Power Distance
0 No government Low
1 Company/Corporation High
2 Participating Democracy Low
3 Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy High
4 Representative Democracy Low
5 Feudal Technocracy High
6 Captive government High (on the captor's side)
7 Balkanization ???
8 Civil Service Bureaucracy Middle
9 Impersonal Bureaucracy Middle
A Charismatic Dictator High
B Non Charismatic Dictator High
C Charismatic Oligarchy High
D Religious Dictatorship High

To vary it up, the Referee rolls 1D6 and consults the table below to get the culture's power distance. Governments in the Low category get a DM -2. Those in High get a +2.

Throw Power Distance
0         Low
1         Low
2         Low
3         Middle
4         Middle
5         Middle
6         High
7         High
8         High

Related to this is the way people of the same class interact. In the Talaveran Empire, there are hereditary nobles. Sometimes citizens are elevated to Knight or Baron for their contributions or achievements. Socially, there is still a difference between those who are elevated to nobility, and those who were born to it.
Someone didn't get invited to The Club

Because of this, any PC who starts off with Noble rank (SOC B or C) gets for free the pseudo-skill Savoir-Faire. Either you have it, or you don't. What this means is that the PC is familiar with the way Imperial Nobles do things. They know the manners and customs and how to tell Who's Who. As such, their social interactions with other Nobles is dependent upon the player's skill and the PC's social skills.

Elevated Nobles, or non-Nobles who try to mix in Noble Circles do not get Savoir-Faire. Such PCs get a -2 DM on the Reaction table when attempting to conduct business or pleasure with other Nobles. In short, either you're in The Club, or you're Not. Yes, this amounts to snobbery on the part of Hereditary Nobles. Are you surprised?

I read this quote in an article from Atlantic Monthly, "The Birth of the New American Aristocracy". Maybe America's a bit more High PD than I would like to think.

"Money may be the measure of wealth, but it is far from the only form of it. Family, friends, social networks, personal health, culture, education, and even location are all ways of being rich, too. These nonfinancial forms of wealth, as it turns out, aren’t simply perks of membership in our aristocracy. They define us. We are the people of good family, good health, good schools, good neighborhoods and good jobs."

There is a difference between approaching High SOC folks with What You Want, and getting accepted as a Member of the High SOC group.

Social Standing: Pixabay
Night Life: Pixabay


  1. Two comments. One, I think comedy of manners works very well in SF. See the Maijstral series by Walter Jon Williams.

    And two, you want each planet to have it's own culture, independent of those in other planets. Then it would follow that Travellers, ie PCs, will all be "lowest rung" of the social ladder on every planet they visit, therefore completely nullifying that SOC stat. You mention Imperial nobles and savoir faire though, so apparently you see those PCs still able to carry their stat advantage from planet to planet. Fine, I suppose, but I don't think I'd really enjoy playing a non-noble in that campaign.

  2. Your Grace,
    I will look for the series that you suggest. Thank you!

    My setting of Holtzmann's Corridor is outside of the Empire, but there are lots of bits of Imperial influence scattered around. It's not wise for the locals to despise or mistreat a visiting Imperial - he might call for the Marines. Also, not all societies will consider off-worlders to be at the lowest rung. Low PD cultures will be more open and possibly friendly. Also there is a difference between trading or doing business across cultures and trying to become part of another culture. You are right, though, that a visiting Noble character would have an easier time of it. Money greases a lot of wheels.