Monday 15 November 2021

Upstairs, Downstairs: d20 Power Relations

You know what makes for good drama? Unequal power relations!

You know what makes for even better drama? Power relations that are not what they appear to be!

Gerard ter Borch, Young Woman with a Maid (c. 1650)

Next time you introduce two NPCs, make clear that one of them is higher status than the other. This can be obvious (noble and servant, employer and employee, lord and villein, officer and soldier, teacher and student) or more subtle (two members of the same guild, community, regiment, or family, one of whom is just slightly senior to the other), but it's something that they're both acutely aware of, and it inflects every interaction between the two of them. 

Then roll 1d20 on this table to find out what the relationship between them really is!

  1. Exactly what it seems to be. The high-status NPC is in charge, and the low-status NPC respects their authority.
  2. Creepily extreme. The high-status NPC makes all the decisions, and the low-status NPC obeys instantly and without question, having apparently reduced themselves to a mere instrument of their superior's will. 
  3. One-sided. The low-status NPC is sycophantically devoted to the high-status NPC, to an extent that obviously makes them uncomfortable, and keeps making desperate attempts to prove the extent of their loyalty.
  4. Emptily theatrical. They make an enormous show of performative authority on one side and performative deference on the other, but anyone paying attention will notice they both actually just seem to do whatever they want. 
  5. Performatively informal. The high-status NPC makes a big performance over being the low-status NPC's friend, treating them as an equal, etc, but in practise they expect their authority to be accepted without question. 
  6. Erotically charged. The pair of them seem to be enjoying this whole 'giving and taking orders' thing a bit too much, in ways that may make people speculate about exactly what goes on between them behind closed doors.
  7. Founded on lies. The high-status NPC is actually the lower-status of the pair, and is trading on some kind of falsehood (e.g. forged qualifications, fake titles) to invert the power relationship that would otherwise exist between them. 50% chance the other NPC has started to suspect that something weird is going on. Obviously they'd be furious if they learned the truth. 
  8. Overt dependency. The high-status NPC makes a show of calling all the shots, but it's blatantly obvious that all the real decisions are being made by the low-status NPC. 
  9. Puppet show. In public the high-status NPC appears to be in charge, but actually the low-status NPC wields all the real power, either through some external hold (e.g. blackmail) or just through sheer force of personality. Their 'superior' would never dare to do anything that went against their wishes. (50% chance that the high-status NPC is actually OK with this state of affairs; 50% chance they resent it bitterly.)
  10. Covert subversion. The high-status NPC makes all the decisions, and the low-status NPC pretends to obey, but secretly tries to undermine and sabotage them at every opportunity. 
  11. Overt subversion. The high-status NPC makes all the decisions, but the low-status NPC openly mocks and defies them at every chance they get. 
  12. Covert equality. The two NPCs go through a charade of authority and submission in public, but actually regard one another as trusted equals and genuinely seek one another's input and guidance, though they may need to conceal this due to the status difference between them.
  13. Stiffly formal. The two NPCs have a very clear understanding of the exact nature and limits of their duties to one another, and scrupulously observe these at all times, making a great show of observing their obligations to one another to the letter without exceeding them.
  14. Founded on love. The two NPCs genuinely love one another, romantically or otherwise, though depending on the status difference between them they may need to keep this secret.
  15. Founded on fear. The low-status NPC only obeys the high-status NPC out of fear of punishment. If they can safely get away with disobeying them without consequences then they will happily do so.
  16. Founded on self-interest. The low-status NPC serves the high-status NPC only because they currently believe it to be in their best interests to do so, and will desert them in a heartbeat if a better opportunity comes along.
  17. Founded on abuse. The high-status NPC ensures the subservience of the low-status NPC through physical and emotional cruelty. The low-status NPC hates them bitterly, but is too beaten down to resist them unless they're absolutely sure they'll get away with it.
  18. Chronic misunderstanding. The low-status NPC is apparently loyal to the high-status NPC, but somehow manages to comically misunderstand almost every order and instruction they are given. (50% chance this is a campaign of passive resistance on the part of the low-status NPC; 50% chance they really are just that dim.)
  19. It's complicated. While the overall status difference between the two NPCs is clear, there is one significant area of life in which the low-status NPC is actually higher status than the high-status NPC, and can expect to be treated as such. (E.g. higher educational attainment, higher professional standing, higher religious status, higher military rank.) 50% chance the high-status NPC acknowledges and respects this; 50% chance they're furious about having to defer to someone they normally regard as an inferior. 
  20. Masquerade. The two NPCs have swapped places, with the low-status NPC pretending to be high-status, and vice versa - there may be a good reason for this, e.g. fear that an assassination attempt may be imminent, or it may just be a random whim of the high-status NPC. Neither is performing their assumed social role very convincingly. 50% chance the low-status NPC is still loyal to the high-status NPC despite their apparent role reversal; 50% chance they're scheming how to make their change in status permanent.


  1. It's funny how to us these are hilarious tongue-in-cheek dramas that write themselves, but in eras that actually gave us these plots every single one would've been a bone-chilling tale of abject social nightmare.

    Either way, brilliant post as always. Blimey if ATWC is not the best OSR blog of them all.

    1. whats still funny is i completely agree with you, but also these things are still abject social nightmares just in different ways and under different circumstances.

      the fact that its so universal is a testament to the quality of yhe table, good job joe

  2. Good stuff! I particularly like how several of these could apply to different interpretations or iterations of several different famous duos. How many of these do Jeeves and Wooster tick off? (4, 8, 9, 14, and 19 at least, in my opinion.) Pinky and the Brain? Holmes and Watson, Doyle canon? Blackadder III and Baldrick?

  3. Great for something like Ghastly Affairs!!!

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Seeing how I wrote an entire novel exploring just this sort of power dynamics, it's a very good summary. I'd add the case of a character willingly (and genuinely) following / obeying the other due to an inferiority complex. And the case where the two must act according to status due to circumstances, but the higher-status character genuinely owes a debt of gratitude to the other. I'm sure there must be more!

  5. Hi!
    Thanks for the cool article!
    Can I translate it into Russian and publish it in my ttrpg blog?

    1. Sure - by all means! Just include a link back to the original version.

  6. A good post Joseph, also twenty episodes of Frazier and/or Blackadder

  7. Hi Joseph! This is an attempt at getting in touch re: publishing some of your old posts in the upcoming issue of KNOCK! magazine (this is us in case you're not familiar: Can you send me an email to knockmag [hat] pm [doubt] me so I can explain the deets, incl. payment and stuff to you?