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Reality Shift Part 2 – The Haves & Have-Nots

Written by Bill - Published on April 30, 2010
Haves & Have-Nots

Haves & Have-Nots

In “Reality Shift Part 1”, I introduced the Reality Shift concept.  Simply put, a reality shift is just a conscious agreement among the DM and players to suspend their disbelief and accept that the game world is a different reality from our own.  In this reality, magic, incredible powers, character classes, etc, are an integral part of the world our characters have lived in their entire lives.  Their whole society is built on, through, and around these things.

If as DMs, we recognize this beforehand and build it into our worlds, we can run a game that is more immersive because it is more logically consistent.  The things that erode our suspension of disbelief aren’t the differences from our own reality – those things are the whole reason we play these crazy games.  It’s the logical inconsistencies that create a cognitive dissonance that erodes it.  Think back to when you were a little kid: if you played with both your Lego men and GI Joe guys at the same time, wasn’t it always just a little bit harder to imagine what was going on?  The next few RS posts will be focused on the big picture game world differences that will help you avoid that kung fu grip vs. detachable torso dilemma.

Entrenched Elitism

The first major impact of the reality shift I’ll discuss is social dichotomy.  Unlike previous editions, 4th Edition D&D draws a bright line between characters / creatures with hit dice and those without.[1] Socially speaking, the vast majority of humans, the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, would be minions.  They don’t become more powerful with time, they’re not much good in a fight, and they really, really need the help and protection of PCs and NPCs from the horrible monsters that surround them.  These people would, of course, be fairly easily dominated by anyone or anything with a few hit dice to swing around.  This is why, in a reality shifted campaign world, gone are the days of the helpless 0-level noble cowering while the heroic PCs defend his castle.

Unless under a regime with a very robust rule of law, say in a very civilized empire that equals or exceeds the level of development of the Roman Empire at its height, anyone with any political pretensions will need to be able to protect himself.  No ruling family with a desire for any sort of legacy will allow its youth to grow up without intensive training in one of the PC classes, or at the very least, enough to net that person the status of a multi-hit dice non-classed NPC.  The more politically chaotic a society is, the more important such training becomes.

The result is likely to be a caste system divided into at least two tiers.  Most likely, four tiers will result:

–          Rulers.  In most cases this will be either hereditary or meritocratic nobility with the resources to train and equip followers and family members.  In high development areas, there may be an extensive network of privileged relatives to the actual ruler belonging to this tier.  In less developed areas, the ruling tier will consist of only a very few families or even individuals.  In areas with no established order of governmental legitimacy, there will be no ruling tier and the strongest will wield power until defeated.

–          Thanes.  These are the classed characters who make up the upper levels of the rulers’ retainers.  Unlike hereditary nobles and aristocrats, thanes in the upper class of a reality shifted D&D world would hold their status in part due to their abilities.  In most societies, these individuals would be born into this class, but their position within it would be based on their power more than their bloodline.  Thus, they’re more akin to Viking thanes than to other European nobility.  Depending on the level of development and political system, this tier will include anywhere between a few members, to a whole organized level of society.  PC adventurers and other freelancers will belong to this tier by virtue of their demonstrated abilities, but in most societies, cultural pressures in favor of orderly service to a ruler will relegate unattached adventurers to the lower reaches of the tier – they will seem to the more respectable thanes to be more like tramps and vagabonds than true cohorts.

–          Tradesmen.  These individuals possess valuable skills which net them a certain degree of respect.  Whether merchants, tradesmen, or even non-classed multi-HP NPC henchmen, this tier gets the day-to-day work done.  PCs may originate from it, but as soon as their abilities manifest, they will rise above and become socially separate in many ways.  Most professional soldiers will be tradesmen.

–          Peasants.  The minion workers who perform the bulk of unskilled and low-skilled labor.  They are largely faceless, unnoticed by the vast majority of the upper tiers.  Only the tradesmen who oversee them will even be familiar with them – Rulers and Thanes will generally even avoid interacting with Peasants in more developed societies.

These tiers are far from exclusive or exhaustive, but the level of a society’s development will be easy to describe in terms of these four.  A very developed, Roman-style empire, for example, would have very distinct lines separating these tiers into hardened castes.  A barbarian tribe would likely have them, too, however: the chieftain and his family (and maybe a rival clan with an equally strong bloodline) are the ruling tier, the best warriors and sorcerers make up the retainer tier, most of the rest of the tribe are tradesmen (multi-HP hunters, etc), and any slaves the tribe holds would occupy the peasant tier.   The tiers do overlap – a powerful tradesman warrior may be temporarily stronger than weaker thanes.

Rulers will need skills of their own, but due to political legitimacy and tradition, in many societies rulers will command much more powerful thanes.  Thus, the baron’s 1st level fighter son might lose in a fight to the grizzled sergeant of the guards today, but he’ll quickly surpass him after just a little practical experience.  The Captain of the Guards, on the other hand, is likelier to be a mid to high level fighter who will stay out of the young man’s league until he retires or dies (unless the baron’s son becomes an adventurer and gets the faster experience accrual associated with greater risk).

I’ll let the commentors decide what I’ll cover next week.  Would you rather hear about the impact of the combat system and healing; the impact of the class system on manpower and hirelings; or the beginning of the discussion on what it means to have different humanoid species?

[1] For those playing other editions / games: this concept can still work for you.  Just think about the specific rules of your system and ask yourself what impact they would have on a reality founded on (not modeled by) them.

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14 Responses to “Reality Shift Part 2 – The Haves & Have-Nots”
  1. Elderon Analas says:

    Oh, I want to hear about the different humanoid species. As Half-Dragons fall into this catagory and I want to hear what you have to say about them and other races and such. But, I also want to hear what you got on classes and hirelings (I have several collecting my tribute as I speak) and I want to know how this will affect their um, “servitude” I don’t want a revolt on my paws.

    Ok, thought it over. I want to hear about the class system and hirelings. This is very interesting to me and my domain. Keep up the quality writing and the best of luck to you and yours. May the dragon gods smile upon you as you walk the path of life.

    Your scaly friend,
    Elderon Analas

  2. Aaron says:

    I want to hear about the impact of the class system on manpower and hirelings. This is really good stuff :)

  3. kocho says:

    definitely the class system and hirelings, it’s the central part of your character in lots of game systems, much more so than your race (normally)

  4. Wayfinder says:

    The problem with all this is that it’s utterly impossible to suspend disbelief using 4E no matter what you do. Oh, you can ignore the DMG, ignore CLs and all that stuff, but then you probably aren’t playing 4E and you might as well pick up another title that at least reflects not just reality but rational common sense a whole lot better.

    4E, as written per the DMG and PHB, is designed to force interdependency among the party by allowing no one class to cover much of the capabilties of any other class, and the encounters are all supposed to be handicapped based squarely on the make-up of the PC party. This means if someone in the party falls in combat, the party is severely hampered in ways that, invariably (if you’ve played the published adventures), forces the party to either retreat or end up cut to ribbons eventually. I’m not saying this never happened in previous edition, it’s just that in previous editions classes were never this interdependent with one another for their very survival and success.

    So, what’s the point? Well, this is the Combat Dynamic Paradigm of 4E. It’s not enough just to be a Fighter in 4E, you got to have a balanced group backing him up. So if you’re a noble and you want your offspring to be a PC Class rather than the expendable contrivance known as the Minion, you got to make sure he’s got a group with him of other PC Classes who rarely ever leave his or her side.

    There is good news. According to the rules, you can be fairly sure that each PC will be competant in their class, meaning they don’t have to roll up their stats. In fact, it encourages them not to. Because heaven forbid that the guy who wants to fight alongside you as a fighter put his high stats in his Charisma and Wisdom, where they will do him and the party the least amount of good. Which means everyone is a Pro-From-Dover. There are no Frodos or Merries or Pippens in 4E.

    In combat, like in life, people do what works. And in a paradigm where combat only succeeds with interdependant teams and rarely does so with singular heroes (no Audie Murphy’s or Alvin York’s in 4E) because every encounter is designed for the PC party.

    What I’m saying is that is that it’s the paradigm that’s utterly wrong and unrealistic. In a 4E world, if it were consistant, NPCs would be forcing their offspring to become PC classes if they could afford to do so, but only after they got grouped up according to a good balance. I imagine Matchmakers going about the kingdoms looking for prospective candidates to match up parties with.

    “Oh, he’s going to be a Cleric? Well, Sir Ambrose’s son Phillip is a Fighter! Now if I can find a Warlock or a Rogue or something they might be in business!”

    “Matchmaker matchmaker find me a match! Find me a find! Catch me a Catch!” (Fiddler on the Roof – For those of you who spent your time pining over Hannah Montana to see what a good musical looks like.)

    The point is that in in reality, or even something partly resembling reality with a dose of common sense, is never tailored for a group of people, and doesn’t care if your group is balanced. Also, groups are hardly as interdependant as 4E would like them to be. They’re also not entirely as competant at everything needed for a specific “role;” occassionally you run into someone who’s a bit clumsy, maybe a bit weak in the arms or something, but they’ve got guts (or not…cowards make cool characters too).

    Also, people try to learn what other the people do, in case their friends become incapacitated or is somehow unable to perform their job. 4E does allow “multi-classing,” but let’s face it, it’s a joke compared to the previous editions, and it’s a joke by design.

    As a result, the paradigm is much different in reality. We develop ourselves for competence and a greater degree of self-dependency than 4E would like, because it’s usually better to depend on oneself rather than be a burden others have to bear.

  5. gull2112 says:

    Wayfinder, I respectfully and categorically disagree with every one of your points, but like arguing politics, no one is going to change anyone’s opinion. I’ll simply say that in any previous addition, party balance was important, it just wasn’t as formalized. My current party has no rogue type, hey have a warlock who spends a few more resources on thieving type skills. Guess what? They are not hamstrung. They have been in situations where the defender went down, did that cost them the encounter? Hardly, but it upped the tension as the ranger stepped up to the plate and (literally and figuratively) and got severely pounded, but it was a fun battle.
    I have a player who had a cool character concept that revolved around a halfling fighter that used a shield offensively as well as defensively. In 3E it wouldn’t have worked very well. He was in a pathfinder campaign where it also didn’t work very well, but 4E comes along and suddenly it becomes a very doable, as well as full flavored option.
    I never get the “railroaded” argument with 4E, it allows for much greater flexibility IMHO.

  6. Fishercatt says:

    Let’s keep hearing about the societal works before putting anything into it. When describing a country you first talk about it’s leaders and social structure, not how well someone can take a hit.

    4e is Neverwinter Nights on paper. It’s impractical to compare to the other versions. It’s like comparing the movie “American Graffiti” to “Empire Strikes Back” because they’re both directed by the Lucas. The best part of 4e is its information accessibility and Character Builder.

  7. Bill Burke says:

    Thanks for the comments all.

    On the “4e vs” line of comment: I”d really like to avoid having this turn into yet another tedious forum for arguing the relative merits of 4e. Some people like it, some people don’t – so be it.

    Reality Shift is intended as a system / setting / genre neutral concept to help DM / GMs run more fun games. I use examples from 4e because that what I’ve used most recently – I could pull out 1e AD&D, old school Shadowron, GURPS, or even the whole slew of Steve Jackson / Palladium games I used to run, but I think the references would be lost on most folks.

    With all that said, I appreciate any feedback on the RS concept – I’m posting it here to share it, but also to get your help in improving it.


  8. Elderon Analas says:

    YAY AD&D. That’s what i play. I have the PHB and the DMG, but i have yet to find the MM. I want to see what Gary (May his soul rest in peace) thought about dragons back then.

    I too don’t want to be a part of this debate over editions. It is just petty squabbling and will never accomplish anything more than make new enemies, or at least people that don’t like you, so yeah, new enemies.

    On a more serious note. I would like to point out that, if I were to get into this fight. Not a single one of you would survive. But, I don’t want to get involved as I said already. Though I would like if the arguing stopped. It is quite irritating to my ears, and I don’t like that.[menacing leer, and a low growl] We’re all here to have fun and talk about adventures and have fun, not argue over editions and such. This is a place of peace. If you want a reference, treat it with the respect that you would a monastery or a church, or wherever it is you worship.

    But all I really want to say is that we shouldn’t be fighting we should be having fun, if you want to fight anything, why not me I mean isn’t it your nature to fight dragons? It always seems like every time I walk up to the tavern, hail the owner and ask for a couple kegs of beer. That I immediately have swords held to my throat and demands and threats being shouted at me. All I want is to have my beer and possibly engage in a nice conversation, not fight. I mean that’s why I come here as well. To get away from all the fighting, not get into more.

    Your slightly upset dragon friend,
    Elderon Analas

  9. Wayfinder says:

    Well, if you’re going to talk about realism in a game, then how a game approaches it is important.

    @ Gull2112, I’m afraid I get that kind of response from people who often haven’t considered just what 4E is as compared to other editions, or even other RPGs. 4E is not an RPG. It’s a board-game with some RP elements. Nothing more.

    I submit that you aren’t hamstrung. What I mean by a balanced party according to 4E isn’t about simply what a Rogue or a Warlock can do out of combat, but what a Rogue does in combat. A “balanced party,” according to the 4E (ahem) DMG, is a party of five that consists of a Defender, a Leader, a Striker, and a Controller, and maybe one additional Defender. Both the Rogue and the Warlock are what? They’re called Strikers, and you really haven’t lost much if you substitute a Warlock with a Rogue or vice-versa combat-wise. Watch what happens when you lose that Warlock.

    Try this – have someone run a published adventure for 4E. Then, in the middle of the adventure, insist on separating the party. Find a reason to do so, and watch what happens.

    In other published adventures, this wasn’t really so much an issue. You could be separated, but the adventures weren’t comprised of every encounter built for the “balanced” party. In fact, in AD&D, I don’t think they really cared half as much as 4E if the party was balanced or not. Getting separated was almost a given in many published adventures and you simply made the best of things. Sometimes, if you were smart, you’d even triumph over some enemies single-handedly. Not in the board-game world of 4E, I’m afraid.

    I realize that the rest of you don’t want another edition rant, but if you’re going to talk about bringing realism into a game, 4E has got to be addressed as to why it’s just not possible to do in that paradigm unless you utterly disregard the rules as written,and if you have to do that, you might as well find another game. Because now you’re just playing Dungeons and Dragons for the name alone, not for the quality of the product.

    It’s like how some people just refuse to abandon Palladium games. They’re horrible. If you want a paradigm that’s as worse as 4E, if not more so, try Rifts. It’s a munchkin’s wet dream! Heck, try Robotech; that’s a managerial nightmare with characters (both PCs and NPCs) with upwards of 6 attacks per round! I knew a few people who just couldn’t see how terrible the systems were, but loved Robotech, Rifts, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so much that they were willing to do anything to make the games work. It’s like loving a terrible car for the good looks and styling.

  10. Elderon Analas says:

    In AD&D it was fine if the party got separated because, unlike the new editions everyone operated on their own time. I’ll put it this way. The party starts on day 1. The cleric goes off to a far off temple to seek advice from his god and to do holy stuff. The rest of the party stays behind. Two of them, the rouge and the fighter sit around town for oh, lets say 4 days. While the wizard and the paladin go into a dungeon. they spend 2 days inside it and return after killing the great monster inside and return after the 3rd day with their treasure. They spend a few days spending their money and resting after their adventure. all this started on day one. Now the clerics journey takes 24 days round trip. he makes it back to town on day 25. The fighter and rouge go into the now empty dungeon to find nothing. they are just now on day 5. The wizard and paladin are on day 10. and the cleric is on day 25.
    see where this can get confusing.
    now the cleric has the choice of waiting for the others to catch up temporally, or he can continue on his divergent time line. and the fighter and rouge have first actions because they are the farthest behind, but nothing says they have to meet back up. they all could just scatter in the four winds, but I’m about done now. I have to go collect tribute today and and won’t be back for awhile. If you are confused great, if not. great. if anyone has questions I’ll try to answer them but right now I’m very busy. sorry i couldn’t explain it better.


  11. Dave says:

    You’ve been making some good points in your Reality Shift series. If I remember, I’ll be asking my D&D group to think about these things the next time we start a campaign.

    A lot of people won’t like the idea of giving every noble a bunch of class levels, but will at the same time want them to not die if they get hit by a stray arrow. Another approach that tends to get overlooked has to do with how people think of minions. Everyone I’ve talked to assumes that a minion is *dead* when it takes damage. This doesn’t have to be the case. To me, a minion has 1 HP because it only takes one hit to take it out of the fight. For unimportant goons, yeah, they’re dead. But for important non-combatant NPCs this could mean that they’ve fallen unconscious or chose to retreat off the map after getting hit. I suggest this as an option that can be used in addition to the ideas you’ve presented.

  12. Bill Burke says:


    Great idea – a cowardly minion could just easily curl into a ball and cower after that one hit as die.


  13. Elderon Analas says:

    @Dave & Bill
    I like the idea that minions don’t die so easily, and that nobles will now not be so hard to protect (or harder to capture in my case). I mean I have lost too much of my gold because of my poor minions and their inability to take a hit. (I really need to get something better than a bunch of goblins.) Ok, sorry for going off topic there. I have nothing very pertinent to say on your comments other than I think they are really good and that I look forward to trying to use them in my campaign.
    I hope to put these into effect in my campaign I’ll be starting soon, hope it works out. I’m working on plot line and main story encounters right now. The rest just gets filled in with improv. I’ll let you guys know how it turns out.

    Wer auraj ir,
    Elderon Analas

  14. Tourq says:

    A lot of times, if it ever becomes an issue, I just say that there is a 50% chance that any given “downed” minion is actually dead. Those that aren’t are either unconscious or cowering.


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