Thursday, June 5, 2014

Hazards of PvP: Rankism

According to wikipedia, rankism can take many forms, including
  • exploiting one's position within a hierarchy to secure unwarranted advantages and benefits (e.g. massive corporate bonuses);
  • abusing a position of power ;
  • using rank as a shield to get away with insulting or humiliating others with impunity;
  • using rank to maintain a position of power long after it can be justified;
  • exporting the rank achieved in one sphere of activity to claim superior value as a person;
  • exploiting rank that is illegitimately acquired or held (as in situations resting on specious distinctions of social rank, such as racism, sexism, or classism).
This sounds like an important part of most PvP political games where some form of corruption is expected and anticipated.  Unlike other political PvP tactics, this one holds fewer risks as it rarely targets a specific individual as the victim and thus can often encourage those negatively affected to bond together to subvert the power of the authority figures, even if not to outright challenge it.

Of course, rankism can still have challenging side effects, such as when the player's needs dominate those of the characters.  While your average high ranked character shouldn't be throwing themselves into harm's way, generally most players will be motivated to do exactly that and therefore those characters with rank get to go out on all the missions, know all of the in-game secrets required to find those missions and otherwise be able to get to do all of the exciting grunt work on top of being in charge of all the wheeling and dealing.  This can lead to those at the bottom of the hierarchy to miss out entirely on nearly every aspect of the game which leads to a poorer game for them.

On the other hand, if rankism is played in-game as it would be in real life with those of higher ranked holding executive control and managerial oversight, then rankism can work out quite well, with players of more action-oriented 'grunts' enjoying their side of the game while griping about the arrogance of the wheeler dealers who dominate in the political, social and potentially intellectual sides of the game.

Unfortunately this form of rankism generally isn't very common because players naturally don't want to limit themselves to only one half of the experience.  Such players also may not realise (though some do), that their in character rank is allowing them to dominate the game to such an extent, especially if they don't sit back and think about their choice's repercussions.

In games where higher ranked characters also have more experience points (such as due to a vampire's age), those players are doubly encouraged to do everything themselves as they are better positioned to succeed.  It may even seem like a foolish, selfish and cruel thing, to send weaker novices in their place against a dangerous enemy.  Most games have a canonical reason why they should send the novices (i.e. vampires selfishly protect their own unlives at all costs) but this can be more easily ignored when a player's own enjoyment is at stake.

This isn't to say that most players actively seek to push others out of the game, or even that they are indifferent to such effects, more that sufficient temptation can make self-justifying bastards out of us all, especially if no one has pointed out the risks to us in the first place.  Therefore in a PvP LARP it is important to ground such status *in* sticking to your own purview and providing IC and OOC checks against single players being able to do all things all the time while simultaneously preventing other player's access. 

The easier we make it for players to know what they should be doing, remember what they should be doing, and rewarding them for doing what they should be doing, the better off the game will be.  And by "we", I mean all of us ... players, cast, crew, GMs and organisers included.


  1. Interesting one. It strikes me that things like Star Trek and indeed Star Wars are a pretty good example of the problem - the ranking officers end up doing everything of interest, from planning to political negotiation to flying the ship to analysing crucial data to first contact to boarding actions to... well, you get the idea. When you actually think about this, it's basically mad, but it works in TV because you can focus on a small number of named characters.

    The point about pushing people out of the fun is a good one. Ranking is also quite odd, on reflection. Games tend to model highly skilled PCs acquiring rank and power as they level, whereas in real life this isn't how it works. A large proportion of prestigious people either inherit a position or get there through a kind of attrition. Promotion to high rank tends to involve having, and honing, management and political skills rather than those suited to lower-rank assignments, and these high-rank skills get practiced while the others are neglected or get outdated. There's only a handful of people in an organisation who are both highly respected for their skills, and able to use that respect to exert power - usually technical specialists, in my experience. I suspect a large part of the reason is that games really don't tend to have skill atrophy.

    Arthur had an idea for this situation that I quite liked, of each player running 2 PCs (one titled officer and one grunt) so they can always participate in both ends of the spectrum.

    1. This is a great idea in a tabletop but doesn't work so well in a Theatre Style LARP where you need major Storytelling assistance for any "Away" mission. I do like the idea of such a dual focused campaign, though, for smaller LARPs and tabletops with quite the ensemble cast!

      You have a good point about "skill point atrophy". I don't even know a single rules system that reliably and easily allows you to move skill points about to reflect skills that have atrophied and ones that have become well-used.

      Of course, in political games like Vampire this becomes more of a problem because vampires canonically are predators who permanently 'unlock' magical abilities and who are meant to be physically stagnant (which isn't quite true as their strength, dexterity etc. can increase with use but do not decrease with disuse which is also interesting).

      Ah, the design choices of roleplaying games....

    2. True enough, a big LARP is going to be enough work anyway without lots of switching - and it'd cause problems if people want to run two scenes simultaneously that require both characters.

      I'm not sure why atrophy doesn't come up much, considering so many games assume a fair spread of in-game time. D&D's or Traveller's 's aging system is about the only substantial thing I can call to mind, but that still assumes your actual skill doesn't change. In reality, I know I've already lost skills I picked up a few years ago and stopped using.

      I think it may be partly that games tend to want you to just get better at stuff because that intuitively seems more fun than getting good at a different range of stuff. And in fairness, you can learn a fair amount of new stuff without much loss of previous skills, it just gets increasingly hard to juggle things and avoid getting rusty.

      I might do a post about this sometime, because I think it's interesting.

    3. Look forward to the post. Be sure to toss the link in here!

    4. Will do! It's mostly done, I think, but emigration is sort of knocking me for six right now.

    5. Hope emigration is sorted out now. Thanks for the links!

    6. Well, I'm here and recovered from jetlag, so that's a start! Feeding myself is still proving tricky as I try to work out what everything is...

    7. I'm in south Japan for the next six months :) After that I need to replan.