Thursday, September 8, 2011

Moving on Up: Social Advancement in the Borderlands

It's been a while since I've peeled back the veil on what's happening with the Hill Cantons: Borderlands sourcebook, in the main because I have (finally) learned my lesson about keeping my trap shut and my fingers flying.

A ton of work has been going on nonetheless. A merry band of beta-testers has been kicking the Seven Hells out of my poor, overworked draft in the playtest arena and the draft is finally settling into fighting shape as the necessary rewrites, clarifications, and elaborations follow in the wake.

One area that has been majorly revamped then revamped again is Chapter 8, the chapter that handles how player characters rise through the ranks of institutions in their home campaign.
Why so much revision? Simple: they hated it.

Not the idea, to a man (and woman), they loved that. They liked the general concept of providing mechanisms and guidelines to give players “entry-level positions” to the supposed endgame at low and mid-levels. They even liked a number of the core concepts about how to implement them.

But they hated my execution—oh, the vanity of our most beloved half-baked notions—which mostly was a series of large-scale mini-game much like the ones found in those classic old warhorses of this kind of game: En Garde, Heroes, and Flashing Blades. In a nutshell each particular institution had a high level of detail and unique mechanics for it's own peculiar advancements, perks, obligations, etc.

Players objections basically boiled down to a. it was too chart-heavy and distracted too much from the traditional core mechanics and play areas of classic D&D; b. that it defined too much of the detail for how institutions worked in people's campaigns (ok this was more mine, an old pet peeve, but it seemed close to some of their own objections) ; and c. most damningly that it felt too much like work and life in the real world. Egads.

So I swung to a different pole and with great, shuddering reluctance cut the lion share of all those many pages down in a sub-system that:
  • provides a more simple and universal system tied closer to traditional D&D concepts.
  • instead of mandating and pre-shaping institutions for GMs, it provides 12 sample templates for them to riff off (one such is at the end of this post). Guidelines, suggestions, and a campaign question check list are provided in the rest of the chapter's text to help their templates to their own unique needs.
  • drops much of the stick in favor of the carrot by removing the rather onerous system of PC obligations (off-season service time, tithes, etc). Thanks to Tavis in particular for pushing me to let this go.

Backstory finished, here is the draft product (with some explanatory paragraphs and examples stripped out, ask away if it is unclear). As always I am an eager beaver for thoughts, feedback, constructive criticism.

Would you use such a system? What would you change or add?

Note while a beta-test draft the following text is copy protected. Any misuse of said text will be promptly followed by the parachuting of a crack team of ninja-suited, wavy-sword-wielding lawyers into your home domicile.

[Excerpt from Chapter 8: Rising Through the Ranks]

Rank and Title
Each institution's hierarchy is divided into progressively influential ranks.

On the surface, ranks are much like the old stand-by of character level—each rank conveys a title, some of which are similar to matching level titles. They are however a power-rating system independent, though influenced by, a character's level.

Unlike levels, characters are not limited to starting at the first rank in a hierarchy and working their way up sequentially—they may attempt to enter an institution's ranks at any point. Note that if the Charisma variant rules [a cleaned up version of this here]are being used that fourth level can automatically enter certain ranks as shown below.

Each rank has a target number--which varies by the type of the institution--that a player must roll over in order to advance. Players can try twice a year, but may only advance once in that year.

The number of dice used is determined by class level and modified by Charisma, inducements, prior-held ranks, and success in actual, in-game sessions.

Levels 1-3 1d6
Levels 4-7 2d6
Levels 8-11 3d6
Levels 12-15 4d6
Levels 16+ 5d6

3-6 -1
7-12 0
13-15 +1
16-17 +2
18 +3

Ranks 1-3, Per 500 gp (or equivalent magic item) +1
Ranks 4-6, Per 1,000 gp (or equivalent magic item) +1
Ranks 7+, Per 2,000 gp (or equivalent magic item) +1

Prior Held Rank (must be in same institution):
Rank 1-3 +1
Rank 4-6 +2
Rank 7+ +3

In-Game Successes
Major Publicly-Recognized Success +1
Minor Success that Benefits Institution +1
Major Success that Benefits Institution +2
Minor Success in Mission Assigned by Institution +2
Major Success in Mission Assigned by Institution +3

Rank has its privileges and characters receive progressively more as they rise.

Note on all charts that characters are entitled and obligated to the perks of all lower ranks—with the exception of political positions (character can only be head of one institution at a time).

Example Template:
The Temple of Law Clergy
Rank Title Target Perks
1 Acolyte 2 Room and board
2 Adept 4 Free access to minor healing magic once a month
3 Priest 7 Head of rural parish, 50 gp income/month
4* Vicar 9 Head of small temple, 150 gp income/month, Free access to clerical spells up to 2nd level/month
5 Curate 12 Head of medium temple, 300 gp income/month
6 Bishop 15 Head of medium temple, 300 gp income/month, Free access to clerical spells up to 4nd level/month
7 Lama 19 Head of large temple, 300 gp income/month, Free access to clerical spells up to 5th level/month
8 Patriarch 23 Stronghold, Collect Domain Taxes
9 High Priest 27 Automatic Ruler Rank of 9

* If CHA rules are being used, fourth level character with CHA 15 and over are entitled to an automatic position here. 


  1. Hmmm ...

    This is tricky. The more involved this advancement game gets, the more this becomes about the separate characters doing things that the rest of the party can't do much to help with.

    Overall I think this system avoids that pitfall and is quite workable. I would be cautious, though, about what's implied by the incomes and benefits. Realistically they would be accompanied by duties and obligations that would cut into the character's freedom to adventure. They ought to be scaled to what the organization is willing to entrust to a known, if valuable, wandering agent.

  2. Since I am one of the beta-critics I suppose I need to chime lol. How you characterize our concerns about the Middle Game, the term you were using for a time, is about right. I felt like it was taking all my attention to keep Galdial moving through the labyrinth of the merchant's guild. It just took up too much of the center stage and sucked away motivations for journeying out into the wilds and dungeons.

    But yeah I did like very much having a way to interact with the campaign setting and having more things laid out for my character to achieve in his intended rise as the Merchant Prince-Lord of Nowhere. I am looking forward to using the new system, the streamlining was a right call! I feel very lucky to be involved with this, really really fun and creative stuff.

  3. From a quick glance, it looks okay, but as is, seems to be firmly seated in meritocracy. There should be room for nepotism, favoritism, aristocracy, and the like, which I think can simply be represrnted by another table of modifiers.

  4. Looks OK and usable. I am very interested in seeing the full thing, specifically guidelines on setting bennies for different organizations.

    One nitpick: I think the Vicar title should rate higher than Curate and Bishop. Maybe bump it up and drop the other two down by one?

  5. Did you ever look at how Bushido did this? Being an FGU game it was a little bit complicated, but worked well enough.

    Curate/Vicar/Priest are a bit woolly as to who outranks whom in medieval church terminology, Chris's ranking works as well as any without getting into the nitty gritty of stipends, cures, oratory chapels and suchlike.

  6. This looks interesting, but there's not enough bribery, corruption and scandal. the more generic the titles used, the easier to convert it over to an already established setting, or to adapt it outwards into a fresh new setting. Just a thought.

  7. The more involved this advancement game gets, the more this becomes about the separate characters doing things that the rest of the party can't do much to help with.

    This was a critical failing of Birthright as it wasn't intention enough how to interface all the domain-level play with the traditional party-as-the-center play. The idea here is to keep much of this activity in the off-adventure season.

    But it tricky as you say, I keep feeling like I need to pull pieces back from the chapters to keep from swamping the game.

    Realistically they would be accompanied by duties and obligations that would cut into the character's freedom to adventure.

    In the last iteration there was a system of rising and specific obligations with each rank. The problem was that it was way too much disincentive to use this system. Instead I am keeping obligations as something vague and more hidden in "off-time".

  8. @DH Boggs
    A very good point. The first system I think modeled better the hurdles and quirks of pre-industrial society better by having it more institution-specific.

    One thing I would like to plug into, but haven't sufficiently thought through its mechanical applications is the Power Index idea you had--that seem to be shaping up to be a nice system of how to get at the various dynamics that can feed advancement. (I would recommend that readers check this out here: )

  9. @Patrick and Bert
    The titles are intentionally modeled on the cleric titles in OD&D and are really place-holders for where a GM could fill change them to fit the setting dress and dynamics of their own world.

    I would certainly change them (and have) to reflect the quirks of my home campaign.

    Bert, bitd we played Bushido for about two weeks. It was a love/hate affair for me at the time and in reality too young at the time (12) to really get my head around it.

    I will definitely try and track down a copy for a reconsider.

    I feel like what it really needs is an oddball colorful table or two that handles mis-steps and other random events.

  10. "I feel like what it really needs is an oddball colorful table or two that handles mis-steps and other random events."
    A Roll for Faux Pas Table? That sounds funny -- and it could work, maybe...

  11. What I was suggesting was not to add back the obligations, but to make the institutions more compatible with adventuring. A cleric who leads a medium-sized temple would have to do a lot of delegating to lead the adventuring lifestyle she takes for granted. Not so much, a Templar in the Order of St. Shinbone, or whatever.

    But if disbelief can be suspended a little, then having a "day job" can be almost like having a mundane identity in the tradition of The Shadow, Dr. Syn, etc. Or perhaps it's a sinecure, and the actual managerial stuff is handled by underlings while the main man goes out on adventures.

    I also think there should be a random table involving both spectacular successes and mishaps, but only if the character tries to play dirty and grease the wheels some.

  12. If you end up looking for a copy of Bushido, keep in mind that it is still available from the publisher.

  13. I like this, it's a lot easier to use than most of the social systems I've used in games. I do agree that there needs to be modifiers for nepotism, bribery etc - with a random table of outcomes e.g. a rival becomes an enemy and thereafter will work against you, giving a negative modifier to subsequent attempts at advancement.

  14. @Roger
    Gotcha Roger the system that was developing under the first iteration had more room for "branches" of each institution with some of the less administrative roads likely being better fits for the adventuring life-style we all know and love. With the scale down that sort of detail and distinction gets a little lost. (Perhaps for the next supplement?)

    I should have also mentioned in the lead-in that the the context for this sub-system is the guidelines I have in Chapter 6 governing the campaign-season/off-season.

    Ideally the 6-10 months of off-season time (which is played between sessions or in a single dedicated session) is where the obligations are hidden mostly off-stage. The campaign season is a bit like a teacher's summer holiday--a long stretch where you are wandering about laying havoc.

    Thanks, that probably saved me a bundle.

    At work now on some fun tables. This is what rocks about open-game design.

  15. I'd probably not use the "advancement"/entrance mechanic, but something like the hierarchy/benefits stuff absolutely has a place in my games.

  16. @Trollsmyth
    Thanks that's useful information. The core idea is plug-and-play modularity.