Social Standing in Traveller
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue.
Like D&D, Traveller has long had a ‘dump stat’1 , and that stat is, of course, Social Standing. Granted, as with D&D, this is only true in games where referees allow players to place their stat rolls as desired. Regardless, unless a character has a particularly high Social Standing (11+), resulting in him or her being a noble, this stat will rarely affect the plot of a scenario or campaign, at least insofar as I have personally observed. The reason for this, I suspect, is largely cultural.
In modern western civilization, going back to before Traveller was first published and continuing through to today, Social Standing has been largely downplayed and, to some extent, even inverted, the notion of the self-made man taking moral superiority over that of the inheritor. This is probably due to the observation that adversity tends to build character, whereas privilege tends to dismantle it. This cultural preference has even bled into science fiction, with a character like Han Solo in Star Wars (1977), a smuggler, murderer, and all-around scoundrel, is represented as performing heroic deeds, obtaining recognition and rank, and even winning a princess’s love (albeit only after she calls him “scruffy-looking” and engages in some mild incestuous foreplay).
In any case, where were we? Oh, right… the self-made man.
Even though social class certainly exists in western culture (and, indeed, in all human cultures), there’s been so much cultural push-back that GDW’s inclusion of it in Traveller, making it one of the six primary character attributes, no less, seems highly improbable. It is, therefore, one of those design decisions that deserves further scrutiny, and because it’s long been such a ‘dump stat’, it deserves to be fleshed out and fashioned into something of consequence, something that cannot be so easily ignored.
According to Marc Miller, “We picked Social Standing partly because I wanted a Nobility characteristic, and that worked instead of D&D’s Charisma. I was also influenced by Frank Chadwick’s En Garde, which had Social Standing as the 6th characteristic.”2
GDW’s definition of Social Standing, however, seemed to impose a certain degree of inalterability, despite the fact that a character’s Social Standing score could fluctuate slightly during character generation:
“Social Standing, notes the social class and level of society from which the character (and his family) comes.”
—Traveller Book 1: Characters and Combat (1977).
This definition continued into MegaTraveller (1987) and, in a slightly abbreviated form, into Marc Miller’s Traveller (T4) (1996), although Social Standing was dropped in favor of Charisma in Traveller: The New Era (1993) and was redefined in the Mongoose edition (2008) as being, quite simply, “A character’s place in society.”
Whether or not it can be modified is actually quite important, as Traveller suffers from a lack of character advancement compared with most other RPGs. Indeed, increasing the power and abilities of one’s character has arguably been central to the popularity of D&D. Conversely, in Traveller, advancing the power of one’s character is mainly confined to acquiring wealth and, possibly, a noble patent. Therefore, if advancing a character’s Social Standing isn’t feasible, then it’s arguable that there’s simply no such thing as character advancement in Traveller.
Fortunately, even before the Mongoose edition, most Traveller referees played under the assumption that Social Standing was an individual trait that could be modified in the course of play. And this, of course, fit perfectly with the self-made man ethos that was undergirded both by the socioeconomic mobility inherent to western capitalism, particularly during a time of technological innovation, and by the cultural values being inculcated by popular media.
As to be expected, most of what has been written about Social Standing in Traveller concerns only those character with a particularly high score or those who are forced to deal with them. In short, we’re talking about the nobility: knights, barons, counts and so forth. These titles conjure images of fairy tale lords and ladies, and for those with some knowledge of history, of dark times, times of oppression and cruelty.
Including hereditary nobles in a futuristic setting could have been an indictment of humanity, except that GDW didn’t paint the Imperium as an evil institution. Rather, the empire was portrayed, by and large, as a force for good and even freedom. It, after all, kept the scourge of WMD at bay, and, for the most part, it kept its hands off its member worlds, allowing them, with few guardrails, to take whatever divergent social evolutionary paths they might fancy. One could argue (and I have) that this is all flat-out lunacy (not that such a civilization couldn’t exist, but that humans seem particularly ill-equipped to pull it off), but for better or worse, it became the established Traveller setting.
The obvious question, thus, is how do we make such a setting believable? After all, if each of these worlds is able to experiment with different forms of government and different ways of thinking about how the moral authority of political institutions is properly derived, how do we get all these different people from different planetary societies to swear allegiance to the Emperor and the Imperium for which he stands?
Obviously, one would need various mechanisms of social control. As luck would have it, the Chinese Communist Party has recently invented just such a mechanism: the social credit system3. The way it works in China is that every person starts with a thousand points, and then their point total can go up or down according to their behavior. A traffic violation or writing a bad check costs a person ten points. Posting something on the Internet that’s negative about the government or teaching a class without government approval costs fifty.4 Social credit scores have a real effect on people’s lives, as they determine who has access to education, health care, employment opportunities, financial services, public assistance, and even public transportation. Imagine everything that a government does. Now imagine that the officials all have access to a blacklist, and they’re instructed to treat the people on that blacklist differently from everyone else. That, in a nutshell, is China, and the reason they do it is because it works. It keeps a lid on political dissent. Almost certainly, the Imperium would be using a similar strategy.
Of course, the Imperium is so large that it’s almost always a mistake to talk about it in general terms. Hence, the details of the Imperial social credit system will vary from one subsector to the next, and on many worlds, it might be entirely ignored, perhaps due to ideological reasons or because the oppression is so brutal that its implementation would be needlessly redundant. Regardless, it’s worth outlining in broad terms what such a system might look like on a typical Imperial world.5
|Social Categories and Effects|
|AAA||1000+||Gentry & Qualification for Squirehood.|
|AA||950-999||Priority access to managerial and security opportunities.|
|A+||900-949||Priority access to government employment opportunities.|
|A||850-899||May be used as a model in government publicity campaigns.|
|A-||800-849||Priority access to government services begins here.|
|B+||750-799||Loss of managerial and security opportunities.|
|B||700-749||Loss of ability to qualify for government subsidized loans.|
|B-||650-699||Loss of government employment opportunities.|
|C+||600-649||Loss of access to public universities & higher education subsidies.|
|C||550-599||Loss of access to public community colleges & trade school subsidies.|
|C-||500-549||Loss of access to public hospitals & health care subsidies.|
|D+||450-499||Probation. Titles Revoked.|
|D||400-449||“Double-Secret Probation”6. Frequent surprise visits from the police.|
|D-||350-399||Loss of access to public transportation.|
|F||0-349||Public Blacklist, often resulting in loss of job, dwelling, and bank account and/or referral to a public or private reformatory.|
Explanations of Practical Effects:
- The terms gentleman, gentlewoman, gentleperson, gentlesophont, gentlebeing, and gentry have meant different things at different points in history. At certain times and in certain societies they have referred to the nobility or to members of the upper economic echelon. At other times, they have been abused as essentially meaningless honorifics. However, in most parts of the Imperium and specifically in polite society, these terms refer solely to people with a AAA social credit rating (1000 points and above).
- The squirehood is a sort of proto-knighthood for people who wish to attach themselves permanently to a particular noble or noble family. It’s essentially a lifetime contract working directly for the nobility. Typically, one cannot qualify for such a position without first being a gentlesophont.
- Public employment comes in two tiers. The lower tier refers to getting in the door of a public sector, non-military workplace. The higher tier refers to getting into a management position or one that requires a basic security clearance. A+ and AA ratings both have priority access to government jobs, but only AA ratings have priority access to management or security positions. So, for example, with a social credit score of 700, one barely qualifies for non-military, public sector employment. On some worlds, even the smallest infraction causing an individual to dip into the 600s can cost a public sector worker their job, whereas on others, depending on the severity of the infraction and the employee’s relationship with management, extra-credit duty may be offered in order to help the employee work their way back up to the minimum social credit score necessary for them to retain their position. The precise nature of this extra-credit duty, of course, varies widely. Note that all of this refers to non-military employment. Each military branch (army, navy, etc.), level (Imperial, Subsector, Planetary, etc.) and MOS has its own credit score requirements, and this is often in flux depending on recruitment needs.
- Publicity Campaigns:
- The Imperium and subsidiary governments typically use citizens who rate a solid A and above as models in their propaganda. By accepting a rating of A or above, the citizen automatically gives the government permission to use him or her in this way and therefore must comply with any requests for cooperation from the ministry of public information and other related departments. Failure to do so results in the individual being kicked back to a credit score of 800, and thereafter, the top score they may attain is 849.
- Once sometime dips into the 400s, they’ll be assigned a probation officer who they’ll have to confer with on a regular basis so long as they remain in the 400s. At the probation department’s option, or by local law, the individual may be prohibited from having certain items (such as weapons) or from engaging in certain behaviors that would otherwise be legal (such as staying out late at night, consuming legal intoxicants, being in proximity to certain people, etc.).
- Revocation of Titles:
- Once someone’s score falls below 500, they immediately lose any titles, certifications, or degrees they might possess. Educational credentials and military honors are expunged. Likewise, noble patents are referred to the scrutiny of a high court for possible revocation. Of course, in the case of particularly wealthy or well-connected individuals, there will often be a legal fight to prevent this cascade of consequences or to reinstate their titles after the social credit storm has been weathered.
- Double-Secret Probation:
- When someone’s score falls into the low 400s, law enforcement starts crawling up their ass. On some worlds, they can’t pick their own nose without the discarded booger ending up in their permanent record. Of course, getting mouthy with the cops and/or public surveillance authority only makes things worse.
- Public Blacklist:
- Many worlds have a publicly-accessible list with the names and identifying characteristics of people who should, under no circumstance, be trusted by anyone. Once an individual is put on this list, they’re effectively an outcast within their own society. Few people will be willing to do business with, much less employ, them. They might as well pitch a tent out in the wilderness, because society is essentially done with them.
- Some worlds place their Class-F’s into public or private reformatories. On some worlds this is offered as a way for repentant blacklisters to earn their way back into society. However, on many worlds, institutionalization is mandatory. Reformatories vary so widely that it’s impossible to describe them in any general way. Some are embedded within communities where regular people live and work so that the inmates appear no different from anyone else, while others are the result of what would happen if a concentration camp and an insane asylum got together and had a baby.
On most worlds, young people, at the age of majority, inherit the average of the scores of their parents modified by any merits or demerits that carry over from their lives as juveniles (on some worlds, juvenile records are wiped clean at the age of majority). The reason this is done is not to punish the children for the sins of the parents but rather to provide an incentive for the parents to lead exemplary lives. Although it is often a lengthy and expensive process, young people can seek to emancipate themselves from a parent with a particularly low social credit score in order to attach themselves solely to (and thus inherit the score of) their preferred parent.
Wards of the state typically start with 750 points as modified by applicable juvenile merits and demerits. There are also worlds where all young people start with 750 points, regardless of the social credit scores of their parents.
For PCs, take your Social Standing score as the hundreds digit and roll percentile dice to determine the other two digits. For example, a character with a social standing of 5 would roll percentile dice, resulting in an initial social credit score of 500-599. Note that young people at the low end of the social credit spectrum often have no public sector opportunities other than military enlistment.
Merits and Demerits:
Every world has its own set of laws and its own local agency to administer their social credit system, and while the social credit agencies of different worlds typically share information, their interpretations of that information may not necessarily coincide. As a result, people may have different social credit scores on different worlds. This, of course, is where a person’s world of citizenship becomes extremely important, as it is these social credit bureaus of individual worlds that report their citizen’s social credit scores to the subsector governments.
In some cases, especially for political crimes, the subsector duke may hold worlds to a certain minimum standard, say by mandating that certain types of infractions must result in some minimum number of demerits. If the population of a particular world is becoming unruly, the duke or count may increase the social credit penalties associated with of expressing dissent.
Of course, the social credit system is not merely used to curb political dissent. It’s used to reduce undesirable behavior of any stripe, including everything from tax evasion to jaywalking, and while blacklisting is used for the worst offenders, public shaming for even minor offenses, such as jaywalking, helps set the tone, reminding people that the government is watching.
Two lists follow, common favorable behaviors (’merits’) to the left, and common unfavorable behaviors (’demerits’) to the right.
|Common Example Merits|
|Donating an organ (e.g., kidney) to a non-family member||+100|
|Receiving an award recognized by the
(example: MCUF: +50; MCG: +100; SEH: +150)
|+50 to +150|
|Military service (per term):
as officer of flag rank
(Dishonorable discharge negates this benefit)
|Assisting the police in resolving an important matter||+20|
|Winning a prestigious academic or athletic award||+10 to +30|
|Reporting illegal conduct||+10|
|Helping to resolve a dispute between neighbors||+10|
|Returning lost valuables in excess of Cr10,000||+10|
|Affirmatively cooperating with police in an investigation||+5|
|Affirmatively assisting the government with
(Value depends on magnitude of assistance. Many governments maintain an ‘army’ of network ‘trolls’ who attack critics and support whatever the government happens to be saying at any particular moment)
|+1 to +5|
|Common Example Demerits|
(Enforcement is highly dependent on jurisdiction; on many worlds, virtually everyone is doing this to some extent, and on some it may be organized by the tax officials themselves)
|-20 to -100|
|Hosting an unapproved class, ceremony, or gathering||-50|
|Criticizing the government or sending information critical of the government over a publicly-accessible network||-50|
|Sharing information or opinions critical of the government with a private group||-30|
|Creating a bureaucratic nuisance through the petitioning process (People have the right to petition various agencies and courts to seek redress if they feel they’ve been wronged by a particular public authority; however, there is a proper level and methodby which to petition a governmental entity to address some grievance, and people who take the petitioning process too far can be penalized with social credit demerits in order to discourage such behavior. On some worlds, lawyers may purchase ‘social credit insurance’ to protect themselves from disciplinary boards, but after too many infractions, they may lose the ability to purchase more.)||-10 to -50|
|Refusing to cooperate with police||-20|
|Doing something that requires a public apology||-10 to -30|
|Overdrawing (overdrafting) an account||-10|
|Any fine of Cr500-Cr2,000||-10|
|Parking Violation or Traffic Violation||-5 to -10|
|Doing an unauthorized renovation||-5 to -10|
|Creating a minor nuisance||-5|
Familial Transitivity and Separation:
Depending on the social credit ordinances in force in a particular jurisdiction, certain merits and demerits may be partially transitive to family or even friends. In cases where this applies, it’s important to count the degrees of familial separation between an individual and various family members. One does this simply by counting the number of hops between two members of a family tree.
So, for example, there’s only one degree of separation between parent and child. There are two degrees of separation between full-siblings or between grandparent and grandchild. There are three degrees between uncle/aunt and nephew/niece as well as between great-grandparent and great-grandchild. There are four degrees between first cousins. This is typically where the counting ends, except for non-familial associations (friends in-person or friends on social media), where there are often considered to be five degrees of separation.
If someone wins some honor that is recognized by the interstellar community or they commit some crime, particularly a political crime, such as undermining the government through public criticism, not only do they gain or lose social credit points themselves, but so do their familial (and in some cases non-familial) relations. This is usually determined by some formula built into the social credit code, such as p=d/(n+1), where p is the penalty imposed on the relation, d is the demerit value imposed on the offender, and n represents the number of degrees of separation between the two individuals.
So, for example, if you defame the government on social media, not only could you face a fifty-point demerit, but your parents and children could each lose twenty-five points, your siblings, grandparents, and grandchildren could each lose sixteen points, your uncles, aunts, nephews, and nieces could each lose twelve points, and your first cousins could each lose ten. Likewise, all the people who voluntarily associate with you on an ongoing basis, whether in person or on social media, could each lose eight points if they don’t immediately unfriend and cease associating with you. On many worlds, this can even include employers who don’t fire you within a certain established period of time.
Obviously, these rules aren’t in place to punish all these people, although there is an argument to be made that parents are to some extent responsible for the lack of self-control of their children. Regardless, the real reason these rules exist is to create sufficient social pressure, both inside and outside of families, that people won’t dare step out of line. Whatever dissent that exists will be kept to a mere, under-the-breath mumble, and so life and society will be able to go on harmoniously, without the turmoil and violence that is part and parcel of less well-managed societies.
One unfortunate consequence of familial transitivity in the social credit codes is the necessity of instituting a process of formal familial partition or separation. Such separations occur when one or more family members petition a social credit bureau or bureaus to recognize that a de facto separation has occurred so that their social credit scores will no longer be affected by the misdeeds of a certain family member who they know to have a penchant for criminal behavior and/or political activism. The rules regarding such separations are often quite stringent, forbidding gifts, communication, and even physical proximity, even for important family functions such as funerals and the like. In short, it’s not to be taken lightly, but unfortunately, it’s a step many families take when dealing with an individual who continually negatively impacts the social credit scores of everyone else in the family.
In many such cases, one or more parents may opt to stand by their delinquent child like the captain of a sinking ship. This often results in a familial partition with the parent(s) and child on one side and the rest of the family on the other. More often, however, the entire family disowns the offender en masse, resulting in the black sheep becoming a formal outcast. Such individuals, depending on their psychological fragility, have been known to resort to suicide. This, of course, is all very tragic, but one can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.7
The Social Elite:
The 1st edition of Classic Traveller (1977) doesn’t say much about the nobility except to note that a high social standing (11+) allows the use of a noble title. The 2nd edition (1981) adds to this, stating that “a noble may have some ancestral lands or fiefs, and may actually have some ruling power.” But this is all at the referee’s discretion and isn’t required in order for nobles to use titles distinguishing themselves as a member of the nobility.
Many an article has been written with an eye toward overturning this proclamation8Traveller enthusiasts have concluded that it’s awfully strange there being a bunch of knights and barons running around without any real power. Indeed, one will roll 11+ on 2d6 over 8% of the time (1 in 12 throws). Applying this rule to NPCs and noting that planetary populations can rise into the billions, one cannot help but imagine millions of creditless nobles sponging off public assistance and turning tricks on the side. Indeed, given the character generation rules, such a sight should be commonplace, and so many have taken exception, proposing that instead of merely having titles, nobles should have fiefs, income, retainers, and some actual power., as many
Of course, this could unbalance the game. A noble character could literally lord himself over all the others, so it makes a certain amount of sense to confine nobles with actual power to the role of NPCs, to single-player campaigns, or to multiplayer campaigns where all the PCs are nobles of roughly equal standing. Since the second and third options are both unusual situations (most campaigns are multiplayer and involve different types of characters), it seems worthwhile to redesign the nobility with an eye toward implementing the first option, putting actual power just out of reach, or at least making it much harder to obtain.
To illustrate how this can be achieved, consider the following social rankings:
|Alternative Social Rankings|
|A (10)||Gentlebeing (may use the honorific Gentle, Gentleman, etc., as in Gentlewoman Jane Smyth, although it is usually only used in exceedingly formal situations, as to use it in an informal situation is considered snobbish)9|
|B (11)||Squire (may use the honorific Squire or Esquire, although the same comments as for ’Gentle’ apply)|
|C (12)||Beneficiary or Secondary Heir (may use the honorific Sir or Lady; note that there are often a vast multiplicity of secondary heirs, so titles are often dispensed with except in formal situations)|
|D (13)||Heir Apparent or Heir Presumptive (may use the honorific First Sir, First Lady, Prince, or Princess)10|
|E (14)||Knight11(Knights from the high nobility and those of genuine rank—i.e., those with fiefs—may use the honorific Lord/Dame; fiefless knights use the honorific Sir/Lady, but they have a much lower Social Standing)12|
So instead of the nobility starting at a Social Standing of 11, under such a revised system, they would start at 14, which isn’t to say that attaining such a score is entirely out of reach. It’s just much harder. Granted, if a character does reach such a social status during character generation, they should probably be rewarded with a small fief that provides some income, but along with that, they should have worries, something that has long been suggested in various articles and elsewhere in the Traveller literature.
As for fiefless nobles, honor and rank nobles of the administrative subtype13exist in most regions of the Imperium, and for the most part, this isn’t a great problem, because such patents are non-hereditary. They expire when the individual dies. However, when it comes to defunct hereditary patents, there are regions where the high nobility refuses to recognize their validity, and in many subsectors, those who continue to use their honorific as though it is some irrevocable birthright are arguably guilty of sumption, although the penalty for this varies widely.
The reason it’s illegal is because this practice, most common in decadent societies, reduces the grandeur of actual nobles, reducing their ability to inspire awe in the masses. In short, noble titles are valuable only because they are rare and have actual meaning, and to allow their continued use by has-been families who have long been ousted or who have mismanaged their estates into ruin, undermines the very fabric of the Imperium and, thus, cannot be tolerated.
Clark Timmins writes (A&E #542, p.48):
“If you have an encounter, you expect it to be significant. And that’s the real problem, right there. Because when you do have an encounter, you treat it as significant. There is no way the game master is going to spend the time to run you through an encounter with a ‘Person, nondescript, uninteresting, insignificant’. So, the GM doesn't know the NPCs name or appearance? Ha! That’s a ruse to fool you into turning your back. The GM tells you flat out ‘it’s just a random farmer plowing a random field.’ Ha! Obviously that farmer must be tortured for information and that field must be excavated completely. Still nothing? Even more proof we're not looking hard enough!” (…) “What we want to roleplay are the exciting bits that happen in between the long, dry spells. Thus, the dual space/time scales used allow us to play fun games. But, alas, the perverse consequence is that any (and every) time the game drops into the ‘micro’ space/time scale, the event is deemed significant. Whether it is or not.”
It’s true that not all random encounters are going to end up being crucial or even beneficial to the plot of an RPG scenario or campaign. Indeed, many may be little more than annoying distractions. But the benefits of using random encounters is that they can help get the creative juices flowing and lead to surprises.
What you want to do as GM (IMHO) is provide the PC(s) with multiple options. Let the PC(s) choose which encounters to sidestep and which to investigate. In this way, you’re demonstrating that there are no railroad tracks, only multiple creative springboards.
Once the PC(s) realize he, she, or they can take charge of the plot like the author(s) of a novel rather than merely following along like readers, they’ll be more likely to “buy in” to the story and allow themselves to experience that quality of “immersion” that one finds in the very best campaigns.
Having said all that, I totally agree with you. Some random encounters are gonna be duds.