Thursday, 23 July 2015

Using status mechanics to keep characters involved

Another day, another riff on Shannon. Shannon's post is quite specific, being about status in LARPS, and specifically a possible implementation for one of her own games. Inevitably, mine will be a general post about character status with no specific application in any of the games I'm not running.

Let me also point out that I think Shannon's solution seems absolutely fine.

One particular strength is that because it's reliant on rules and spends (rather than randomisation) it gives players a lot of control, and avoids rules causing silly results. If it's not practical to delegate the work, you can't delegate it (and hence, you have some incentive to find reasons why it's not practical...); you can only spend so much effort digging dirt on lower-status individuals, otherwise everyone will start thinking you're weird. And it's pretty simple!

It also limits players to a certain number of questions, for example, which means they can't just get around the restrictions by repeatedly asking questions about a high-status person until they get a good roll.

The reason I'm going to play with randomizer-based mechanical solutions is because I want to know whether, and how, it could work.

Status in the approximately-real world

So, status, how does that work?

Games and genres will vary in how far they mimic reality, as well as what "status" actually means, but here are some thing we might expect from high- and low-status characters:

  • High-status characters can tell low-status characters what to do. There will be intersecting influences based on affiliation and the game world: even lowest-status characters tend to be tied to specific factions or superiors. Outcomes will depend partly on what kinds of status exist (social status only? faction status? authoritative status?) and their interactions. Often low-status characters comply with commands from higher-status characters simply because it makes life easier, even if they aren't technically obliged to comply; unless you think your boss will back you up, you're asking for trouble. If factions are a major issue, though, low-status characters may revel in Computer Says No.
  • High-status characters can easily obtain information about low-status characters, because their status permits them to openly ask questions and expect answers, as well as actively monitoring them or setting others to do so.
  • High-status characters delegate many tasks to others. These include:
    • mundane and "low-skilled" (often very skilled) tasks which they do not want or seem like a suboptimal use of their time
    • tasks they cannot personally accomplish because they lack the specific skills, or are needed elsewhere
    • tasks that are unpleasant, dangerous, undignified or otherwise undesirable
    • tasks that seem like a poisoned chalice, so subordinates can take any blame and resentment that arises
    • tasks that they wish to fail for political reasons, so they can accomplish their aims by ensuring failure, while avoiding personal blame
    • tasks they think will provide valuable experience to a subordinate, either to make them more useful to the superior, or to give a favoured subordinate a chance at promotion
  • High-status characters cannot typically use lack of authority to wash their hands of a situation
  • High-status characters are more politically-aware and have to consider the political implications of their actions
  • High-status characters fear failure, because any failure can weaken their political position, and they have a long way to fall. This depends on the culture of the organization: the more backstabbing and intrafaction politics occurs, the stronger this motivation. Many try to distance themselves from failure, hanging subordinates or ex-allies out to dry if necessary.
  • High-status characters are noteworthy, and therefore people tend to notice what they're doing. For subordinates, this might help them ensure they don't get caught unawares by a visit, or better understand their boss' motivations, or prepare for trouble if things seem to be going badly. Broad information on their movements and activities is often easy to get.
  • High-status characters may form small power blocs in the upper echelons, but they also tend to find themselves in a power struggle. This group has authority to make decisions and shape the organisation in the way they prefer, which means there is a lot to compete for even in an amiable group. In a divided group, rivals and enemies may be happy to undermine someone. Leaking information about them can be an effective way to do this.
  • High-status characters are typically somewhat protected from consequences by their status. This ranges from "can kill low-status people on a whim" to "law officers are slightly deferential towards them" or "let's just shuffle them into a job where they can't do any harm". Of course, in some cases high status is precarious due to intense competition.
  • It's typically very difficult for low-status characters to challenge a high-status character's judgement or actions.
  • It's typically very difficult for low-status characters to bring home consequences to a high-status character, either due to personal power, resources, or legal/procedural discrimination.
  • Low-status characters often learn considerable information about their superiors. Depending on the setting, information may be valuable or simply juicy conversation-fodder. There are many kinds:
    • personal musings shared with a trusted subordinate
    • information overheard, noted from paperwork left lying around, and otherwise picked up deliberately or otherwise.
    • inferences drawn from a superior's mood and behaviour
    • inferences drawn from orders given, priorities and preoccupations
  • Low-status characters are of limited interest, so their movements tend to be ignored.
  • Low-status characters find it difficult to obtain specific information about their superiors. They cannot open question them or pry into their affairs. Doing so covertly causes problems if they are discovered. Polite interest and a listening ear are often the most effective options.
  • Low-status characters can upwards-delegate certain problems, whether benevolently, for their own protection, or to cause problems for superiors. This is particularly true when dealing with other high-status characters.
  • Low-status characters may be engaged in a struggle for promotion, but they may also have allies. Low-status people often form an unofficial mutual protection network, seeing themselves as working together to keep the high-ups off their back. As such, they may be able to conceal secrets or rely on mutual support.
  • Low-status characters are vulnerable; they can't rely on powerful social networks, money or legal clout to protect them from problems. They are often scapegoats, subject to punishment, dimissal or being handed over to the law/rival gang/soul-eating monster. Some high-status characters enjoy ruling the roost and keeping underlings in a state of terror. On the other hand, there's little pragmatic incentive for higher-status characters to target them, and in some cases their very unimportance lets them get off lightly.
  • It's typically easy for high-status characters to force consequences on a low-status character, unless they can find another high-status character to back them up for some reason.

Mechanics and status

There are also some mechanical considerations. In most games, skills don't atrophy, but accumulate. This tends to mean that older characters have both more status (earned through their activities) and more ability. Even though in theory most of their time is now spend politicking, shuffling paperwork and managing their underlines, in practice they are at least as good at shooting people as they ever were, and quite possibly better because they earned enough XP to pick up some really cool powers that, let's be honest, are primarily about combat.

Let me lazily, self-indulgently quote myself:

Why send an army to fight the orcs when you could take them on single-handed without all those (human) deaths? Or better, intimidate them into surrender, because which of them will take you on? Why let an underling do a job that matters to you when you could do it better AND claim the credit personally AND make sure nobody's double-crossing you?

This is the basis of Shannon's post: trying to leverage status so that high-status characters will not hog all the actual gameplay to themselves. The basic mechanics of many games actually make this weirdly immoral (see above), and potentially inefficient. The delegation aspect of status becomes particularly important here. On the other hand, you want at least some players to aim for status, because that's what the narrative wants - you don't want a situation where everyone IC refuses to give up the dirty, dangerous jobs and get a cushy role at court because OOC there's no motivation to get promoted if that results in not getting to play the game any more.

To be honest, my response to this sort of thing is partly "so use eroding skills to make high-status characters ineffective at the things low-status characters do", but that's not quite fair. That would discourage players from gaining status, or make them incompetent at their new jobs because they insist on carrying on with the "fun parts" of the game. The high-end stuff is also supposed to be a "fun part". It's just different.

What do we want?

So any status mechanics would be trying to aim for some collection of these outcomes:

  • Status makes it easier to delegate tasks to individuals of lower status
  • Status makes it easier to stay informed, good for both managing and politicking; in particular, it makes it easy to demand information from lower-status characters
  • Status protects characters from consequences to some extent
  • Status increases the risk that problems can be bumped up from subordinates
  • Status makes characters more gossip-worthy, making secrecy more difficult
  • Status makes characters juicier targets

Off the top of my head, it seems like the simplest thing would be to have a Status modifier that applies to certain tasks. Roll + Status to find out about a character, and so on. There's another thing going on, though: how do you handle delegation and stuff?

These are very subjective matters, so it's hard to do these mechanically. How do you determine which tasks are appropriate for delegation? How do you measure which tasks are important enough to be upward-delegated, without getting a clip round the earhole for wasting the boss' time?

Let’s assume that simulation isn’t a major concern here. Nobody will be upset if the Archduke doesn’t delegate the photocopying to an underling (because the underling has no particular interest in doing the photocopying), even though that’s the sort of thing people tend to delegate. Gamewise, if the Archduke would like to personally carry out a mission (be that an assassination or a meeting), and none of their underlings feels an urge to do that mission, there is no obvious advantage in mechanics forcing a person who wants to do it to delegate it to someone who doesn’t want to do it.

I’d say we’re looking at two major angles here.

Angle one is out-of-character conflict of interest, specifically involvement. If an underling player feels that they’re not getting enough opportunity to be involved, they could request delegation. We then have a conflict between two players who both want to do the fun mission. Of course, one possibility is that both participate. However, you could also use a Delegation roll to determine whether or not the task is delegated. A similar roll would apply when an underling wishes to push a problem up to their superior, and they want to avoid it. The roll doesn’t necessarily have to force a result, but it provides a useful guideline for players. The players would then need to come up with convincing roleplaying reasons why the normal practice wasn’t followed.

The other angle is in emphasising the different factors that face high-status and low-status characters. A high-status character should always be paying attention to politics and strategic aims, and this may mean it’s unwise for them to personally head up a mission. They should be achieving more than they could do in person through judicious use of underlings’ talents. They should be aware of rivals and ambitious underlings who’d like their jobs. A low-status character should expect to handle dirty jobs that carry risks, have limited control over their activities, and be subject to a certain amount of arbitrary authority. These are the sorts of reasons that cause people to seek status (for safety and authority), and to complain about having it. We want there to be good reasons both to seek higher status and to avoid it.

This is a kind of metagame thing: it helps make player decisions line up with character decisions. If their character would want to avoid bureaucracy and politics and stick to grunt work, they shouldn’t seek status, and vice versa. If characters can reap all the benefits of high status while also spending all their time doing the exciting adventurous things that low-status characters do, and the game expects player characters with varying levels of status, you may end up with dissatisfaction from the low-status players.

In many games, an additional factor is survival. High-status characters are often more powerful, and potentially much older (Vampire et al). One of the incentives to seek status is that it helps you to maintain that power, and to stay alive. If you can expect to live a few hundred years, there is good reason to try and get away from the dirty, dangerous jobs by climbing the ladder. High status may also offer power and resources that further increase your life expectancy: a high-status vampire may get lots of blood, gaining additional supernatural power that makes them harder to kill and helps them survive dangerous situations. On the flip side, this kind of stark discrepancy between low- and high-status life provides a very strong incentive for low-status characters to take short-term risks for the sake of status.

Similar effects can apply in other genres, of course: poor peasants sign up to fight orcs, because their life expectancy and conditions are already terrible. If you expect to die in a factory accident anyway, being killed by orcs doesn’t seem so bad, and you might be given a captaincy and end up in a cushy job. Worth a shot!

We may also want some consequences to come into play. If an underling constantly passes things on to the boss that don’t really need their attention, they can expect trouble. There isn’t any obvious counterpoint for superiors, though. In practice, if a superior keeps personally handling things their subordinates could deal with, they run into problems. Other work is neglected; subordinates may sit idle and start getting into mischief. More importantly, perhaps, they usually end up losing respect because they’re not behaving as expected. It may be seen as micromanaging, or as inappropriate for one of their station, or simply as inefficiency and a sign of poor management. Informal respect can easily be lost this way, but in some cases official status can be lost too.

Delegation and Guilt

Hmm, you know what this is reminding me of? The White Wolf Conscience-type rules.

This kind of system would aim to give you a springboard for roleplaying. Let’s say that when an interesting task comes up (i.e. one that a superior and an inferior are both interested in, and it’s not preposterous for either to do it) a Status roll is required for delegation. Arbitrarily, let’s say that a Status roll is some kind of roll-with-modifiers deal: if you equal or beat your Status you can cheerfully do the task yourself; if you roll lower, you really feel like you should delegate this task. It might be a contested roll, but it's not important right now.

I'm going to use "fail" to mean "roll under your Status, so you feel the need to delegate this task even though you'd sort of like to do it yourself".

Modifiers would depend on the game and genre, but they might include:

  • How risky is this task? High-status people usually either avoid risk, or are considered too valuable to endanger.
  • How prestigious is this task? Low-prestige tasks encourage delegation.
  • Will you or your faction be embarrassed, or your interests compromised, if anyone finds out you were involved in this task?
  • Who would you rather took the blame for any consequences, yourself or a subordinate? This will vary by character. Consequences may also vary by seniority, so this is a flexible modifier.
  • Do you have a strong personal reason to do this task yourself?
  • Is this the sort of task you would want to do?
  • Is it important to you that the task is successful? The direction of this modifier here depends on the next point...
  • Are you better suited to the task than the interested subordinate? Doing a task which a subordinate could do better is not very sensible.
  • Do you in fact have time to handle this? This is partly a practical issue, but also discourages high-status characters from trying to do everything themselves. The more they try to take on, the harder it becomes.

Someone with a very high Status would feel a strong pressure to delegate many tasks – it doesn’t matter whether this is from personal inclination, a sense of appropriacy, or simply being busy. If they fail a roll, they delegate the work. They might feel good about this (because it allows them to concentrate on More Important Things) or champ at the bit (because they’d really rather be out there Fighting The Good/Bad/Chaotic Fight).

You might allow a character to insist on taking the task anyway. I'd expect the player to provide good in-character reasons to do so - OOC fun isn't good enough.* You'd also want this to have appropriate consequences. For a start, doing so means their character knows perfectly well that they should have delegated it, and feels bad about it.

The exact nature of the bad is up for grabs, though, and should depend on what factors are in play. Maybe they feel embarrassed about micromanaging but simply can't help it. Maybe they know they're not the hotshot they once were, but pride wins out, and now pride and fear and shame are fighting over them. Maybe they know they're too close to the issue to handle it professionally, but standing by would be unbearable. From a more selfish angle, maybe they know it's weakening their authority, but the opportunity to show up a rival, take down a foe in person, or claim the glory for themselves is too much.

* It seems somewhat reasonable that a strong in-character motivation might override even a strong feeling that you should delegate a task to a subordinate. Maybe you simply don't trust them to do this important task correctly. Maybe you really love this particular kind of task and just can't let it go. Maybe you want to show the other lords/managers/elders (or society in general) that you still have the knack when you choose to use it. Maybe you care about your subordinates and would rather take responsibility/bullets yourself if this all falls apart.

On the other hand, a strong out-of-character motivation is what we're trying to limit here. It doesn't matter how much Jo Nerd wants to take part in the cool demon-banishing expedition, her character is a busy senior official who has no particular aptitude for demonology and not at all expendable. She failed that roll and she's not going.

Consequences might include immediate roleplay ones: other characters (including their own seniors) rebuke them, they lose respect from their peers, or they lose track of their other work. You should also make sure that appropriate fallout manifests. If Lord Ichablood is found personally burgling his neighbour's manor, that's going to make social waves, whereas using an underling would have offered plausible deniability. If Lady Ichablood whips up a marvellous feast for the party, people might be impressed, but they'll also be aghast that she's doing servants' work. Subordinates themselves may become contemptuous of a superior who does tasks considered beneath them; servants think it's unseemly, junior staff just think their boss is inefficient and bad at management.

I'd be sure to try and play up the effects of status itself. Social expectations are important. If a Rank Seven mage or century-old vampire goes cavorting around like a novice, you can be an archmage or elder is going to have a serious talk with them about dignity, being a good example, acting your age, and so on. In many games these high-ups can't actually do anything about the cavorter's rank, because it's about game-mechanical power, but they have social pull and can use it if the character keeps acting up. This is particularly true if their actions have political ramifications.

Passing the roll means there's no problem here. Perhaps this kid has no idea how to handle this kind of task. Maybe it's time to show you still have your mojo. Maybe the good and bad simply balance out - pragmatically speaking, it would indeed be sensible to let the underling handle this, but they're getting too pushy, so quietly remind them who calls the shots. Maybe this is basically part of your job, and you're the best one to deal with it. Maybe it's political, and that calls for a personal touch. Maybe it's personal.

Bear in mind, though, that having both characters deal with an issue is a perfectly reasonable compromise some of the time.

Upwards delegation

At other times, a character might want to push a problem to a higher-status character. This might be a servant running to their master, a mobster asking a mob boss to take charge of a problem, or a junior staffer saying they'll fetch the manager when a problem customer arrives. In a less direct hierarchy, a junior mage might petition a senior for help. But what if the senior's player doesn't want to accept it?

I'd be inclined to use a similar mechanic as normal delegation, but with adjusted modifiers. Basically, you're asking whether the senior character feels compelled to take over the issue despite their reservations, and whether the junior character is able to pass off the task despite pressure to handle it themselves. Here, things like a task being low-status and politically awkward will help the senior character to fend it off.

Information superhighway

I think in terms of keeping tabs on characters, a fairly simple Status modifier would be the way I'd go.

Lady Ichablood wants to know what Miss Vaughan has been doing. Because there's a fairly strong hierarchy and social convention in the setting*, she can simply quiz Miss Vaughan about her movements. This is rather nosy, but socially acceptable, and Miss Vaughan has limited ability to evade her questions. It's possible, but difficult: many options would work, but have nasty social consequences for poor Miss Vaughan. Outright lying is an option, if she's good at it, but Lady Ichablood may have other sources of information.

See: Pride and Prejudice and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

How this translates is, Lady Ichablood can use her Status (or preferably, the difference in their status) as a positive modifier when she tries to get information out of Miss Vaughan. She can use the same rule when finding out information about Miss Vaughan from others, such as servants or acquaintances.

However, Lady Ichablood's status isn't always helpful. Miss Vaughan is low-status, which means people don't pay her movements much attention. Picking up general gossip about Miss Vaughan will be relatively difficult.

In contrast, Lady Ichablood is so important that everyone talks about her. It's easy to find out which places she frequents, who she talks to, her general opinions on all kinds of things, and quite a lot of information about her comings and goings. Even if she tries to be discreet, others are likely to notice her. She can attempt actual secrecy, but the downside is that if she's noticed trying to be secretive, people will be even more interested!

It's difficult for Miss Vaughan to find out specifics of Lady Ichablood, though. She can't demand answers from the Lady herself, and many people will refuse to divulge details about such a prestigious person to a mere Miss. The difference in their statuses produces a penalty for Miss Vaughan.

I'd have this modifier left up to the participants to decide. It's tough to lay down specific rules that aren't very long or overly-strict. As a very simple example, getting information from a professional informant shouldn't use the same modifiers as just asking around town.

General status

Status effects also include things like bossing people around in general. This can be complicated, in games as in life. Where are the lines of authority? Do you need to obey an elder vampire of another bloodline? Can the boss of another department tell you to make coffee, and would your boss back you up if you refused? If you're a general commoner, can a general noble give you orders?

I'm basically minded to leave this to the players. Implementing mechanics for handling whether or not you unwillingly obey the instructions of a senior out of general fear and desire for a quiet life just sounds messy. I think the only thing here is, players should try not to take advantage by always flouting authority, if the setting sets out that hierarchy is important. If you're playing a serious feudal game and the peasants keep thumbing their noses at passing lords, they're genuinely doing it wrong. You don't want the lords needing to constantly exert their authority by having player characters clapped in the stocks, or senior demons administering beatings to insolent juniors to keep them in line. At that point, the juniors' players will probably be annoyed, even though they left the seniors few options. If hierarchy is a thing in a game, people should respect its importance and use judgement. When they do go against it, it should be significant.

For what it's worth, I think there are some strong limits on what you can do statuswise in a game. You can't really replicate the soft power associated with status. Seniors rarely need to exert their authority actively; it has a strong chilling effect on many potential disagreements, challenges or requests. Even in a work situation, where bosses have mostly bureaucratic power, a hint of opposition from an autocratic boss can end a conversation. Where a senior has legal or physical authority, there's more reason to fear them.

Players rarely have to deal with any of this, not least because other players may not be great at acting out the attitude of a powerful senior who can also cut your legs off if they want, but certainly avoiding any significant harm. This means it's much easier to be disrespectful and arrogant - D&D characters cheeking kings is a known problem. You can't really mechanise that sort of thing, though, you just need to rely on players taking the setting seriously.

No comments:

Post a Comment