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The first and obvious question to consider is the social character of power. In itself, power - the ability to wield authority, control or influence over others - is socially corrosive. Because it rests on domination of others and is unevenly distributed, power generates social imbalances, which in turn breed social instability: these imbalances make those who lack power question the benefits they derive from belonging to groups and orders in which they are ostensibly participants. Thus, to perpetuate power, those who have it need to offer ways to distribute and regulate it. To be sure, in fantastic worlds, certain beings can have much greater individual power than an average member of society in comparison to our own, so that even strength in numbers might not guarantee a mechanism of control over the powerful. But even in fantastic societies, godlike beings require worshipers, which presupposes at least a minimal amount of buy-in by people without power into whatever recognizing the gods' paramountcy.
If distributing and regulating power is demanded by the powerless, who seek some guarantees and assurances of noblesse oblige so that their own interests will be respected to some extent, doing so is also in the interests of the powerful. Even fantastic cosmoi are not typically static, which means that power fluctuates: those who have it today may not have it tomorrow. Those who have it today will therefore do what they need to in order to still have access to the same power tomorrow, or better yet, that their right to that power is recognized as legitimate, so that they will not have to take undue risks to defend it. This means power has to be monopolized, protected and hidden: others have to be kept from acquiring it, from gaining access to knowledge that allows them to possess it. This further means that the powerful will construct laws and norms that prevent others from learning their secrets, punishing those who do so illegally, instituting specialized training techniques and secret societies that conceal the methods of gaining and exercising power, and so on. The idea that middling professions - carpentry, smithing, pottery, etc., are organized into guilds (as is suggested by the existence of the "guild artisan" background), but that warriors, arcanists, priests, and others who wield high levels of power lack their own organizations and orders just boggles the mind.
Power can be protected, monopolized and socialized in a number of different ways. One traditional way is to pass it down within family or clan structures, because real or imputed blood bonds typically create a higher level of trust between people who share power. This method of regulating power usually prevails in environments where a (smaller) group has conquered a (much larger) group of foreigners or outsiders, and maintains its grip on power by maintaining its identity as a distinct ethnicity, or a hereditary aristocracy. Societies that organized power along such lines generally had restrictions against non-aristocrats using weapons (or riding horses), because democratizing control over such implements of power would have led to their own downfall. Learning to protect themselves through techniques of unarmed combat - as was the case with Shaolin monks, for instance - was a 'weapon of the weak' that allowed the lower orders to fit into an existing power structure while generating a new technique of power of their own.
Meritocracy, though it is often seen as somehow fairer than aristocracy, represents another approach to monopolizing power. In societies without deep divisions of ethnicity or estate, some people can still rise to positions of great power and influence either through putting in the hard work of learning techniques of power, or through being born with inordinately large amounts of raw talent (or both). In either case, securing one's right to possess power - economic, political, symbolic, etc. - requires certification at the hands of established meritocrats, who administer systems of examinations and bureaucracies that require demonstrations of accomplishments before one is allowed to rise to the next power level. Examinations and bureaucracies are also schools of a professional ethos - how does one properly practice one's skill, treat those who are not in the know, and behave toward superiors and underlings? Exceptional candidates who are hard to entangle in such administrative boondoggles do crop up from time to time, and do undermine such systems of control, but the point is, meritocrats always try to control them, and, assuming a society does not collapse as a result of being challenged by upstarts, they generally succeed. At best, the upstarts are able to create and institutionalize a new form of power.
|The social order of Latin Christendom|
The lower orders, numerous but subjugated and unorganized, often generated counterelites that challenged the established social order as well. Various "social bandits", including pirates, hejduks, uskoks, Cossacks, and Shaolin monks were not simply outlaw gangs, but groups that shared an ethos and a measure of support from the surrounding populations living within the law. The infamous ninjas were recruited from specific lower-class townships, while many of the Yakuza belonged to the burakumin outcaste, from which tanners, butchers and executioners also hailed. In medieval Russia, the izgoi - a term translated into English as "rogue" - were also members of an outcaste with no legal standing and no right to own property. They were not necessarily criminal, but they were literally outside the law, and dependent on their wits, rather than a master or any kinds of legal protections, for survival.
Some elites may cluster in specific geographic areas. These can include frontier areas dominated by tribal groups with special abilities, marcher elites on the margins of sophisticated (though frequently politically fragmented) empires, as well as merchant elites, which gravitate to commercial emporia that promote cross-border (or cross-wasteland) trade between empires. Though the designation may have been meant a joke, or simply an attempt to formulate real-world political forms in terms of D&D classes, the Companion Set DM's rules characterized a republic (i.e. that form of government that prevails in interstitial commercial emporia) as "a democracy with elected rulers (or thieves)" (Mentzer, 1984, 11). Since then, of course, the term kleptocracy has become commonplace political vocabulary, though for some, it is only a specification of a republic, not its antithesis.
Common classes - fighters, rogues, priests, and possibly certain kinds of magic practitioners - would thus likely overlap with broad estates or castes. The commonality of the basic (or traditional) classes is accounted for by the near-universality of certain types of monopoly control - over violence, over symbolic power, and over the economy - of the imperial or quasi-imperial societies that serve as baseline models for most societies in the fantasy literary genre. Geographically localized elites, on the other hand, would likely represent the less common classes, like barbarians, or specializations within one of the larger classes. Many contemporary classes began as subclasses of the "Big Three" or "Big Four" with functional specializations - armed companions of a ruler or a monastic fighting order (paladins), a military outfit charged with the defense of a frontier (rangers), or a dethroned priesthood (druids). Some of the minor classes - meditative secret societies promoting communal self-defense (monks), or musical confraternities (bards) fit into this mold as well.
Magic, if it exists as a distinct force, would constitute an additional form of power that could be universally monopolized in such societies. However, almost by definition, magic is a superhuman force that people cannot regulate. That may be said for symbols (created by Thoth to represent the thought or speech of Amun, as the Egyptians had it), violence, or love (generated by gods such as Mars and Venus), but magic - the least stable and definable type of power, would have the most destabilizing social effect. Controlling magic would be one of the main functions of social institutions, or goals of social life in general. It was difficult enough to do in actual societies: Ashurbanipal's construction of the Great Library at Nineveh in order to discipline, regulate and professionalize divination has been compared to the Manhattan Project in the extent and importance of the undertaking; but how much more difficult would it be in an environment where magic had a much more visible and dramatic impact? One tactic, also paralleling what actually occurred in history, might involve differentiating divine from arcane magic: whereas divine magic leaves creation largely in the hands of the gods, and places only restorative power (healing, blessing, banishing evil spirits, in extremis - channeling divine wrath) in the hands of their human agents, arcane power is a hack - a mortal appropriation of the basic power of the cosmos. As such, it might be ruled out of court, as it for the most part was in societies dominated by Abrahamic monotheism; regulated at the margins, as was the practice of high magic like theurgy by university-trained intellectuals (at a time when the universities were controlled by the clerical estate); or forced to become handmaidens to imperial rule, as in China, where the shi scholar-administrators occasionally dabbled in alchemy, but only after they were brought under control by the system of imperial examinations, and the imperative to govern society on behalf of the Son of Heaven. A full magocracy might more resemble India - the Brahmin, although ritual specialists (hence priests) were often seen as superior to the gods, and therefore in full control of the creative power of the universe (though such power took purely non-material forms - otherwise it would be polluting); but precisely because it could be conceptualized as a society ruled by magi, access to that class was tightly regulated. It is perhaps no accident that a ruling magical caste is also depicted as essentially impermeable in the (otherwise forgettable) first Dungeons and Dragons film. Perhaps the wizards that rule such societies first take control over the cycle of rebirth upon taking power.
|Varna (caste) in medieval South Asia|
If some arcane casters can be policed by priests (and their divine masters), emperors (and their bureaucracies), literary traditions, and schools, what of those who possess natural magical talent (sorcerers), or those who cut a few corners by making a deal with otherworldly patrons in exchange for future considerations (warlocks)? Surely, as detractors like to point out, here we have two classes that can have no class structure at all, because there is no training, no techniques, and no necessary interaction with others who possess similar skills. Often, there is even no self-awareness and no individual choice about acquiring such powers - it just happens. To my mind, that represents less an inevitable conclusion than a simple failure of imagination. Those born with raw magical talent are typically scions of a magical bloodline, rather than simply freaks of nature (as commoners might think). An obvious course of development would be that a sorcerer turns to discovering her true family history immediately upon learning of her powers. Any social pressure - which is a likely response to individuals being born with raw magic - would almost certainly result in the isolated individual looking for allies - preferably among one's kind: only they understand the character's plight, and can help manage the dangerous aspects of raw magic. It is also quite possible that society would put significant resources into tracking such births magically, in order to eliminate or control all wielders of natural magical talent (the sarcastic suggestion that a society would institute a census to locate individuals in a certain class doesn't actually seem to me to be supercilious - the dominant religion of the Western world is premised upon the existence of a census dividing people into archaic categories, and also the capacity of Magi to be able to locate such miraculous children). Conversely, if sorcerers are descended from gods, they would form a ruling elite, while dominant figures within their bloodlines would act as sorcerer-kings - managing their populations to ensure that specimens with talent would be born in the safest and most propitious environments. As for pact-making warlocks, given their likely rejection of legitimate pathways to power, they would also require networks of support, which they would most likely find among covens or like-minded people contracting with the same entities. All these approaches strike me as more propitious to involving sorcerer or warlock PCs in a setting than simply assuming that they are one of a kind.
It is often objected that if the goal is to implicate PCs in social structures, it can easily be done without involving them as a member of a class: there are so many other options for structures to which PCs can belong to, while class is best left to player interpretation. To me, this makes little sense. Class is by far the greatest source of a character's power, so specially class abilities would be primary loci of social regulation, and developing or managing class powers would occupy a great deal of a character's training. Inventing yet other social categories to take the place of classes would be redundant within the setting, and aesthetically awkward from the point of view of gameplay - a kind of reinvention of the wheel. It is sometimes pointed out that class in the game sense is not the same concept as class in the socioeconomic sense. This is true as far as it goes - not all classes should overlap with broad social orders, but that does not mean that the terms are entirely unrelated in meaning, or that classes cannot denote similar categories. Another common assumption - that placing characters within a preexisting class structure would constitute a trap - is unwarranted if the GM is not being heavy-handed (and a heavy-handed GM presents problems to players across the board, not simply in terms of imposing class structures on them). Within class structures, there is still more than ample room for player agency. Do you like being part of the elite? How well do you fit in with your peers? Are you a rebel against those who trained you? Does your background predispose you toward more than one class (and how would you respond to lobbying from multiple leaders and elites)? Are you on the run because of your talent, despite the fact that members of your bloodline are rulers of your society? Ideals, bonds, flaws, and personal histories can shape answers and approaches to class, instead of obviating them.
The same applies to backgrounds in general. Does having classes eliminate the need for backgrounds? Does it make certain backgrounds necessary counterparts to certain classes? Are all fighters nobles or soldiers, are all rogues criminals or charlatans, are all clerics acolytes, and are all wizards sages? Even if there is a degree of overlap (especially for NPCs), supposing so would again be a failure of imagination. A brawny commoner could have been noticed by the local lord at a young age (e.g. by saving him from drowning), and then trained in the use of weapons, and made part of his armed retinue. A wizard struggling to find tuition for university borrows money from the local loan shark, and, in the absence of collateral, is made to participate in break-ins and eventually integrated into the local gang structure. An aging artisan strives to escape from the pressures of family by entering a monastery. In an extreme case, a captured and enslaved tribesman is trained in the use of arms to protect his master, and then formulates a new approach to being a warrior (with the GM's approval, the GM and the player cooperate to design a Mamluk Fighter archetype, or find one online that the GM deems acceptable for the setting). The existence of other social pressures and mundane lives does not eliminate classes: the wizard running heists for the loan shark still wants to finish her education, and to be deemed legitimate by her wizard peers. Coming from exceptional circumstances and being able to bend the rules are the veritable exceptions that prove the rule, rather than arguments against the rule. And being a leveled cleric in an ecclesiastical institution that includes multiple priests with no discernible ability to cast spells does not mean that mundane priests are the distinct social category in question: star software engineers are more definitive of institutions like Silicon Valley, which exists to provide support for their skill-set, than the vast majority of mediocre ones receiving a wage, whom no one has ever heard of.
It is precisely the relationship between various class mechanics, which are far from a randomly thrown-together "bag" that the "no concrete classes" set somehow reads into the rules that speaks to the social character of class. Members of powerful groups frequently receive training that has no clearcut and immediate advantages to the increasing power in the short term, but that establish legitimacy and create solidarity within the group. For some classes (druids, rogues) these are class languages; for others (wizards), they are texts that organize knowledge into schools, and require extensive study for entry; for others still (monks, clerics) monastic or priestly institutions, or oaths (paladins) that stipulate their responsibility to society at large. For some classes, their various abilities are articulated by disposition toward certain terrains (which are, after all, social settings, too). The people who chafe at these restrictions and "useless" abilities are typically the same people that don't recognize that classes have any social standing. But this gets back to the crux of the issue: should a character's class always be about power projection in any circumstance (and in a parallel fashion, the display of the character's untrammeled individuality)? What is the impact of this approach on the social character of RPGs as a hobby?
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In the concluding part of this essay, I will examine variations of class composition and organization in different settings, and different stages of a character's career.