GURPS 101: Guest Blogger GEF talks Social Traits Part 1 of 4

This is a guest blog column by Geoffrey Fagan. He doesn’t have a blog himself, but participated regularly in the GURPS Forums under the username GEF.
Social Traits
GURPS addresses social
traits in its game mechanics, comprehensively, in a couple of ways: Those
traits that establish existing relationships, and “Reaction Modifiers” that
affect the formation of new ones. No matter how great your PC is on paper, the
real secret to “power” gaming is your ability to influence the plot, and to do
that, you need to have some traction in the setting. That’s what social traits
get you.  
Part I: Clout
GURPS has 3 traits
that address social standing: Rank, Status, and Social Regard/Stigma. If you
have any of these traits, you have a “place in society” that defines existing
relationships with many other people. If you are part of an organization, you
have Rank…even if it’s just Rank 0, and even low Rank defines your character,
be he a private in the army, journeyman of the Coopers’ Guild. The decision to
make a character with Rank will guide your choices with respect to attributes,
skills, talents, and other traits, usually including a duty. If you have any
rank at all, you can request that the resources of your organization be
allocated to your purposes (roll Administration), and the higher your Rank, the
more of those resources fall under your direct command. In addition, Rank
provides a reaction modifier within your organization, even for member outside
your direct chain of command. For 5 points, a level of Rank means that up to a
dozen people take orders from you; now tell me again how HT is undercosted! For
10 points, Rank 2 comes with a free level of Status. Remember that you pay for
Rank you can actually use; if the sergeant really runs the platoon, then his
Rank advantage equals what a lieutenant should theoretically have, while his
boss only has Courtesy Rank!
Status attends power,
which is why you get some free with Rank and Wealth, but you can be powerful in
other ways, perhaps a mighty wizard. The source of power is a separate
advantage, but Status represents the perks, which are setting-dependent but
should include partial exemption from his society’s Control Rating and always
includes reduced social friction: Higher Status means your character has more
time to be productive. He calls on the mayor and walks right in; other folks
have to wait, even if they had an appointment. Perhaps it’s less formal, and he
gets face time with the mayor on a golf course, which helps explain why Status
comes encumbered with a higher Cost of Living. The cost is warranted though,
because Status also counts as a Reaction Modifier. Likewise,
negative Status increases social friction, but the benefit is a reduced Cost of
Living. [Note: It is possible to have Status derived from someone else’s power,
perhaps parents, but then you’d still have a Patron on your character sheet. In
a setting where Status is determined by birth, such as one with a caste system
or hereditary nobility, then Status effectively includes Rank and costs 10
points per level.]
Social Regard is like
a little bump in Status that doesn’t increase Cost of Living. It’s mainly a
reaction modifier, but based on group affiliation rather than personal
reputation. Doctors may be high Status individuals because of their skills, but
if they’re more respected than other professionals, then they have Social
Regard, too. They’re members of an exclusive club with small but concrete benefits,
be they formal or informal, again campaign-dependent, and an obligation to act
in a manner that won’t result in censure by their peers. Social Stigma is the
negative version of Social Regard, but it still makes you a member of a group.
There’s always demand for capable members of a stigmatized group, and there’s
always a benefit when recruiting fellow members from your group (specifically
called out for Minorities), whether you’re forming the Ladies’ Historical
Society (when ladies are Second-Class Citizens) or the 42nd Street
Gang (when the predominant ethnicity along 42nd St is a
Minority and/or Outlaws).
Remember, having low
Status or a Stigma doesn’t preclude you from wielding wealth and influence, but
it may require you to do so from the shadows.
If the usual laws
don’t apply to you, then you have Immunity, Legal Enforcement Power, or
Security Clearance. What all of these advantages have in common is that they
can be revoked by others, so the PC must exercise good judgment in their
utilization, or else produce such good results that his superiors will excuse
Immunity amounts to
easing of social friction (a lot), so if you already have high Status, you
shouldn’t have to pay for Immunity separately. Suppose your campaign takes
place in Eastland, and your character is the ambassador from Westland. Back in
Westland, he’s a high Status individual, so take that as a perk equivalent to
Courtesy Rank. Here in Eastland, nobody cares about barbarian honors, but the
ambassador still has diplomatic Immunity.
Similarly, Security
Clearance is one of the benefits of Rank; take the advantage only if you have
no Rank, or if your clearance exceeds that nominally associated with your Rank.
A good example is the civilian contractor working on a secret weapon; since he
has no Military Rank, he needs Security Clearance. Having one is a good way to
get in on the action, or to get more intel once the action starts.

Legal Enforcement
Power is not normally an automatic benefit for Rank and Status. If a medieval
knight has the low justice (ability to punish criminals from the lower
classes), then he should pay for Legal Enforcement Power in addition to Rank,
Status, and Wealth. It gives adventurers a right to interrogate people and even
shoot them, things they’ll probably want to do.

2 thoughts on “GURPS 101: Guest Blogger GEF talks Social Traits Part 1 of 4

  1. Thank you very much for this awesome description of the most important social traits. It will be very useful to me as a GM, and to convince my players that points in social traits aren't wasted.

    Unfortunately because we roleplay most social encounters and de-emphasize dice rolls, the bonuses social traits give in play are less visible than bonuses in dice-heavy combat. Because of this most of my players will only buy social traits when forced to buy it by the GM (me) to fit their character concept.

    Hopefully your overview will help them understand that social traits sometimes are worth their points (at least to the players who like to do the talking, I have no illusions that it will change the preferences of our groups pit fighter, but I didn't exactly force him to buy status either)

    …and its only part 1 of 4, NICE

    (Repost to fix some spelling mistakes)

  2. I can't believe I forgot to call out Clerical Investiture, but then it's just a variant of Social Regard. Thanks for the kind words, Mathis. I've addressed reaction rolls in part 3, but of course you can and should handle many reactions just through roleplay. Setting-dependent, as I noted. Just be sure that movie stars get the star treatment, and shiftless vagabonds don't. If a vagabond can get an audience with the Duke, then of course there's no reason for social advantages. The simple fact is that powerful people are dangerous, society will offer them a seat at the table, as its protectors, but if they turn that down, then their biographies will read a lot like Billy the Kid's. But this article's about social traits, not just advantages. A place in society is an important plot hook, be it high or low. After all, nobles can order the servants about, but he won't be privy to their gossip.

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