Social Classes in Your World
Welcome back to the Zurn blog! I was doing some research for the Viking campaign I'm building, and as I took a look at the various cultures that lived in the local region, I realized that laying out the social classes of each culture would help players make their decisions. And as I did cultural research on various social class structures across the ages, I saw a prime opportunity for another blog post that will help our internet algorithm that most people don't talk about, :P
So welcome to a very quick crash course on different types of social structures that you can use to make your world feel different, especially to adventures just passing through. We will first define social classes, and then look at different structures you can use to diversify your societies.
I. What Is a Social Class?
When people refer to "social classes" there are a lot of things we need to consider. In some cultures, your societal ranking determined your political power, as only those of a specific class(es) may have a chance to rule. This is not universally true, though: in some cultures your parentage or upbringing have little to no impact on your rise in political power (military-led cultures being the best example of this).
Second, some see it as an economic indicator: some classes are wealthier and have greater opportunity at power, wealth, advancement, ease, etc. than others. And I'd argue that this is the universal element that we can all agree on, so you'll see a lot of notes below on the economic side of each social class system.
Social classes can also affect occupations: sometimes a person of a given social class cannot become a guard, or artisan, or general, giving opportunities for your players to probe into the "why" behind the culture (and give a reason for why a person might become a raider, viking, adventurer, etc.
Social classes can be done by race or family: a person might be of a specific race and thus be born into a social class, with no way to leave that class (if they choose to stay in that culture). This also raises interesting questions about half-breeds: if you are half orc (the ruling race) and half human (the subservient race), where does that place you? Are you in the one that your father or mother was part of? Are you in a third class below the "pureblood" races? Lots of questions here.
They can also be done by fame: as a person does tasks of notoriety, they gain social standing. The kill system that determines the standing of a person in Trandoshan culture (and religious piety) in the Star Wars universe is a great example of this.
So with this in mind, let's look at different ways you can setup the social classes of your world.
II. Different Social Class Systems
We will start with some of the obvious ones, and then go into some unique ways to build out a social class. First, you can of course setup your social classes based on wealth. So the top tiers of society are comprised of the wealthy, followed by villagers with a house or stall and little more (the "gentry," if you will), followed by the poor: those who have just enough to get by, and typically don't own their own land.
This is useful not only because it is common in our world, but also because it can serve as backstory for your players. Perhaps one of them hailed from this colony, and because their family was poor they decided that they wanted to move up in the world and the only way to do that was to become an adventurer, leaving the realm to earn a fortune through danger and daring.
The second system is a "Might Makes Right" system: while the first system follows the adage, "Whoever has the gold makes the rules," this system follows the adage, "Whoever has the guns gets the gold" (or an applicable adage based on your world's weapon tech level). Here the highest classes of society belong to the fighters and the physically strong, followed by the cunning (whose might comes from guile), followed by the weak.
This is a great system for subverting expectations as it might lead to magic users being second class (or even third class) citizens: your standing could be based on your Strength Score, not your ability to lead/govern well (Lore, Intelligence, etc.), because who says that the person at the top must be Chief Administrator? Much like a military dictatorship, the person at the top might hand off duties of economics, law, and governance to a core of people below him/her on the totem pole.
Related to this format, your family could determine your class standing and/or occupation. Perhaps in your world the Aquitaines are rulers, while the Wallaces are swordsmiths, while the Douglases are farmers. Each family fills their role, regardless of their personal skills and aptitudes. This also creates drama and tension if a new family arrives: in a clan-based society, what happens when a new clan arrives? Drama. And drama is where a roleplay campaign thrives.
Another common one is land ownership, and while this may seem like it's the same as the wealth or might options above, it's really not. In the Eddo Jidai period in Japan, for example, an ashigaru warrior was actually lower in class standing than a serf farmer even though he made more money. Why? Because he did not own land. He lived in a city and served a daimyo, but lacked a plot of land, and thus had a lower social standing (even though he had a higher economic standing) than a farmer who worked a rice patti field and paid the fees for his daimyo to retain the ashigaru.
This makes things very interesting for adventurers, who often do not own land, and if they do it's land that is far away, unknown to those they are talking to. So who are they exactly, and why should we listen to them? Very interesting questions.
The next system is a Platonic system, borrowing from Plato's Republic, where he lays out the three different types of metals and how they are reflected in a good society. The highest metal is gold, and thus the "gold" class is the philosophers who rule over the city, led by a philosopher king. You then have silver, with the "silver" class being the guardians and protectors of the society. And last you have the baser metals, with these "bronze" classes being the workmen who meet the physical needs of the society.
A great example of this system worked out in fantasy (albeit imperfectly) is the Halo Covenant faction. They mix this with a race-based societal system, though that is only partially true as some races within the Covenant do change in societal standing as the story progresses. But for this system you don't need to be "born" into a class: you could be placed into a class based on aptitude or knowledge.
You can also set apart social classes through accent. Do people with more folksy accents rise to the top because it's a singing-centric society, and they like the sound? Do people with more lofty/airy accents rise to the top, with more graveling accents sink to the bottom? Since players don't always do accents for their characters, it makes for an interesting question as the game master asks them what they sound like, not because the game master wants you to do a voice for the character, but literally to determine how villagers treat you? Does it make the party's typical "Charm Cannon" a poor choice to be the party spokesperson? It makes your players think about new things when it comes to NPC interaction, and that's good.
The next system is based around gender. Men and women might fall into different classes in society purely because of their gender. But this is not just "gender roles" as we talk about them today: some societies might form (and have formed in the past) around the bases of gender for practicality and utility. Some Celtic societies in Britain, for example, were politically and economically led by women because if a man went off to war it meant the local polity and economy did not grind to a halt.
You might consider a similar system: do men form the upper class because they have greater strength? Perhaps you have a praying mantis race where the females are larger and stronger, so they form the working class and the fighting class while the males run the economy and serve as politicians. Think of ways that you can make a different element of the society - like gender, eye color, etc. - a unique and interesting trait that defines that culture's social classes.
And finally, the presence of artifacts could determine the social standing of a person in this society. Perhaps those that own the most (or most precious) artifacts have the right to rule, own property, etc., while those with nothing are at their beckon call.
This makes for an interesting setting because artifacts are transitive, capable of changing hands from one person to another. Do you have a thief in your party? He is now a potential agent for social change, empowering people you like and making someone you despise a nobody even though he was the king the day before.
Do you have a mighty warrior in your party? She can now be the kingmaker who leads one artifact holder against another to take what belongs to the one and give it to the other. Does your party cleric have a holy relic? Would they be willing to part with it to lift a family in poverty to a place of wealth and status? There are so many things you can do with this setup because of the transitive nature of artifacts, and suddenly that random object that a person has been carrying around in a backpack becomes a critical element of the story. All because of social class structures.
Social class structures serve as a foil for the protagonist in the story. In a city where might makes right, a warrior is more prized than a priest, but in a town dominated by religious artifacts a lowly friar bearing the teeth of a dead saint is more praised than the wisest wizard. And this gives you a good backdrop for your players to keep your various societies feeling different, helping with immersion and keeping them on their toes. And that is the sign of a good game master.
Until next time,