RPG Design – Offices

   Most of us agree that people SHOULD be able to do their jobs.

   The belief that people wouldn’t have a job unless they were competent to handle it is still around, despite the everyday experience of encountering people who have been promoted beyond their competence, were hired by nepotism, or are simply being overwhelmed by excessive workloads.

   The belief that jobs confer the ability to handle them has pretty much fallen by the wayside, although it’s last fading traces appear in religious contexts – in notions like “god gives the strength to bear his burdens” or in the idea that someone attempting to translate a religious text will be inspired to produce a correct translation, regardless of their level of competence.

   Classically, it was fairly commonly assumed that jobs and official appointments often DID come with special powers – and not just the authority to approve certain requests or to order subordinates around.

   Perhaps the most familiar example of that comes from various current and historical religions, where religious rituals performed by an initiate are believed to possess power regardless of the moral worth, spiritual powers (or lack thereof), or true understanding of the ritualist. The office carries with it the ability to expel spirits, forgive transgressions, bless festivals, or whatever.

   Appointed Knights, Crusaders, Jaguar Warriors, and members of similar military orders were – in various times and places – believed to gain protection from evil magic, enhanced personal abilities, the power to discern the truth and execute true justice, or the power to strike down evil spirits with physical attacks.

   Being guided through a spirit-vision and being initiated as a shaman was often believed to grant both the power to communicate with spirits and some authority over them.

   Now, in most role-playing games, the people of the world can be roughly divided into three basic categories:

  • The normal people – kids, farmers and crafters, and all the other people with ordinary jobs, no special abilities, and (by their preference) lives which are low-risk and only exciting enough to add a little spice. Most of the people in any large setting are going to be normal people. No game master has the time to detail them all and without the normal people the player characters will have no one to stand out from, impress, or rescue.
  • The people with special jobs – the Sheriff in the dinosaurs-out-west adventure, the local Priest in the evil-specter-in-the-village scenario, the local noble who needs to hire the characters to do something he can’t do himself. These people aren’t as exceptional as the player-characters, and there still is never going to be time to detail all of them – but they should be competent in their roles WITHOUT taking the spotlight off the player characters. These are games, and watching the NPC’s do things is boring.
  • The Player-Characters and the Major Opposition. The people who have fully-developed character sheets, exotic skills and abilities, and lives so exciting that any normal person would have a nervous breakdown within a month.

   Now, the normal people really don’t need much in the way of game mechanics. You may need to remember their exotic racial abilities or some such, and you need an idea of their average abilities to make sure that your world makes sense – but just how much better the 2’rd best basket weaver in town is compared to the 3’nd best really isn’t likely to have a big impact.

   Pretty much every game includes a detailed system for the player characters and major opponents. After all, they’re the usual focus of the games.

   Quite a lot of games fail to cover the third category – relatively normal people who happen to have special jobs – at all adequately, and virtually none of them cover the notion of jobs coming with inherent special powers. That’s a pity, because primary characters are rare – and the people in this category will make up most of the support network for them characters, determine a lot of the background social structures and tone of the world, and make enjoyable secondary characters. Putting the abilities into a neat office package makes life a lot easier for the game master.

   To function properly in a game setting, the powers of an office:

  • Need to be exclusive. It’s abusive to let one character hold a bunch of power-bestowing offices.
  • Need to be bestowed by some sort of higher authority, organization, or power. Letting people pick up and drop, or self-bestow, offices is pretty silly.
  • Need to only be available in limited numbers. Otherwise, if offices were actually useful, everyone would have one.
  • Need to come with drawbacks and responsibilities – ideally, the kind of thing that normal people won’t mind taking on, but which footloose adventurer’s will find restricting enough to refrain from simply using their already-superior abilities to grab convenient offices.
  • Need to be relatively weak. We want to make normal people competent within a limited field, not to overshadow the primary characters.

   There are a variety of ways to implement that in various game systems. In Eclipse, that’s handled with the Dominion ability, which allows characters to draw on the power of whatever domain or organization they head up and to return part of that power to individuals.

  • Since an individual can only be attuned to one such power source at a time, they’re automatically exclusive.
  • Since the power comes from the organization or social group, and is focused through it’s head, they’re always associated with an organization or social group – and the person focusing that power can’t use it on himself or herself; he or she already has dominion-based powers which will absorb the power expended on such an attempt.
  • Require the expenditure of Dominion Points to bestow. Since Dominion points are a strictly limited resource, and have many other uses, offices are necessarily bestowed sparingly.
  • Automatically come with drawbacks, such as responsibilities, a need to be available (rather than off adventuring), and a reliance on the group that bestows them.
  • Only provide fifteen character points worth of abilities – a substantial benefit to a normal person, but of little note to a high- or even mid-level adventurer.

   For a sample offices under that system, let’s consider the Village Priest. This fellow may be faithful enough, but discharging most of the duties of a classic priest – regardless of the religion involved – revolve around being able to use the right rituals, being able to handle the locals, and implying the backing of both your religious hierarchy and of the gods.

   A Village Priest typically gets:

  • Obligations/must be on-call to perform various religious rituals for his or her fellows.
  • Showman/every priest knows that their authority depends on being impressive.
  • Vows/must obey his or her religious superiors.
  • Occult Ritual, Specialized in the Rites of his or her faith (3 CP). While anyone can perform such rituals, only a Priest – or more powerful occultist – can actually get them to work.
  • Privilege/priestly authority (3 CP). In areas touching on their god, no wise man ignores the dictates of a priest. In consequence, priests invariably get support form the people in the area, whether in the form of glad donations, grudging tithes, labor, or special privileges.
  • Privilege/may intercede with the higher powers on behalf of others, asking for forgiveness for various transgressions, for the removal of misfortune, and for similar benefits – including the use of their power for tasks such as casting out evil spirits.
  • Favors/from his or her church (3 CP). As part of a hierarchy, the Village Priest can call on higher authorities – and possibly even divine powers – occasionally for minor favors.
  • +3 Diplomacy, Specialized in Religious Applications – appealing to gods, offering prayers, and influencing people about religious and related matters for double effect (+6, 3 CP). Whether inspired or simply backed by the religious authorities, Village Priests exert a strong influence.

   Now, the Village Priest will probably still want a decent knowledge of his or her religion, and some knowledge of the appropriate rituals – but anyone who wants to be a Village Priest really should already have those. He or she can perform healings and exorcisms, bless flocks and fields, and erect barriers against evil spirits – but only through rituals. That’s useful, and the characters may well find themselves in need of the services of a Village Priest regularly, but it’s never going to overshadow the more immediate abilities of an adventurer.

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