Project Update: Ostravia and Social Combat

Ostravia is a game set in 1202 near the geographical intersection of Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia/Moravia (modern day Czech Republic), and as such it has to consider several political structures, namely the fact that there really is a fair degree of social stratification in European society at this time. While it makes no claims to be incredibly solidly researched, Ostravia does care a fair degree about providing an authentic feel, and some of that is managing the social environment as such.

The political structure of Ostravia is based off of those of the Holy Roman Empire, with a Noble, Church, Peasantry distinction; though the Russian four estates are a pretty valid construct with regards to Ostravian politics in that there is a separate distinction between nobility, clergy, and peasants in Ostravian society (which is not urban/rural to an extent to distinguish between city peasants and farming peasants except for the note that skilled laborers demand more respect than a cart-pusher would).

Mechanically, this system is reflected in Influence, Power, and Legitimacy, which are gained and lost primarily through narrative means (outside of character creation, at least, which allows players to choose to focus heavily on mechanically crafting their characters using a simple category-delineated point-buy system).

Influence is, quite strictly, social status. It is used to determine when certain things can be rolled for, and when leveraged against a target character’s Power, applies modifiers to a character’s social interactions (an influential noble or cleric will gain a bonus against a peasant, unless they’re so sniveling that they can’t exert their authority effectively). Much as seen with Pope Gregory VII and Henry VI, the church exerts much more influence in Ostravia than do the nobility, although the nobility have the power to back up their demands.

Power is a counterbalance to influence. It is essentially a defense against which all social combat actions must be weighed. Per our prior example, Henry VI essentially outsmarted Gregory VII by begging penance early, preventing a loss of face by showing Gregory devotion at Canossa, in a way that did not allow his excommunication to heavily impact his long-term political standing because of its brevity. Because he had the resources to appear very pious, Henry could make the claims and beat his chest and get his pardon, even though he was probably not particularly amused by Gregory’s actions. Power is also important because it reflects the nature of the feudal economy. Yes, in theory, there were agreements to work out how things worked, but the ability of someone to pull strings and get what they wanted when they wanted it was, with exception to hugely successful merchants (who we see typically emerge after Ostravia’s timeline, at least in that corner of Europe), not actually based on money but rather on social influence, with the exact range of reasons going from “divine right” to “if you don’t give me that it’ll be a shame that your barn caught fire.”. As Ostravia is a Gothic fantasy, rather than a chivalric one, attempting to make good on these demands is wholly possible and acceptable within the context of society, as we would likely have seen in a historical perspective.

Legitimacy is essentially the validity of any identity assigned to a character. It’s a pool that characters lose from before they suffer a loss of Social health (to prevent penalties from accruing too quickly), but also determines how likely a character is to be able to launch a social attack against another. If a character has few claims to their social status and rank, they will be incapable of protecting it.

Mechanically, this system uses a Persona, which functions a lot like how weapons and armor do in combat. By abstracting the system to this degree it’s possible to have something that feels more legitimate, and still allow the use of skills for success and failure based tests. Just as it’s possible to do target shooting, it’s possible to convince someone of something, but that doesn’t necessarily have a social impact on them. Social combat is essentially a long chain of events, and encourages scheming, long-term planning, and the actual social impact of the outcomes rather than encouraging short-term thinking. However, it also relies upon a degree of networking; a fake Persona (i.e. peasants masquerading as knights) can be used, with some personal risk, and contacts can be used (e.g. being the king’s messenger) to gain Influence, Legitimacy, or Power exclusively for the sake of carrying out social combat actions.

What this means is that the means of losing and gaining social status are in and of themselves potential goals for characters; being given a title by the Regent will confer both Influence and Power, but it is a process that requires convincing the Regent to grant a title. It’s a case where ABACUS’s mechanics are designed to create a system that is both very abstract and narrative friendly but allow for a direct mechanical function; if you don’t want to focus on the social narrative of your Ostravia campaign, you need only use the mechanical elements (i.e. using Power to acquire gear, or using Influence to get support for a military action).

In addition, it makes social combat more cerebral; if you can make a claim for assistance in court and get a bunch of support from the nobles, you can then accomplish narrative goals in an abstract manner, but doing so is more than just a roll for a speech. If the GM desires, it can be a long harrowing process of getting there, waiting through bureaucratic lines and queues, and then presenting one’s case, fending off a personal attack, and then finally managing to place the onus on someone important to complete your objective.

All of this, I believe, can fit into a system that is comprehensive without becoming crushingly complex and lengthy, but that’s a topic for another day; for now it is important merely to announce that they will function in a comprehensive and engaging manner, rather than merely a toss of the dice (though some social actions may require only that).

Ostravia’s systems are perhaps most inspired by L5R, with its honor system, but focus more on an European fantasy context in which honor is proclaimed by all but actually upheld by worryingly few. It’s a very grim setting, and its inhabitants are aware of that; the context of the Fourth Crusade is confronting almost everyone in the know with the fact that their society is not very upstanding. I think it’ll be an interesting and unique application of the ABACUS system, especially when one considers that it’s in part a reaction to years of combat-focused and capitalism-focused games that overlook core societal drives and provide something offered in few other games. I’m not going to compare Ostravia’s theoretical end quality to Eclipse Phase, but the reputation system that it uses (albeit in a somewhat iffy manner) could perhaps be said to be a better analogy to Ostravia than traditional systems are, though as part of ABACUS’s core focus dating back to Orchestra’s core conception it attempts to flesh out social and economic narratives as much as combat, while Eclipse Phase really remains (in my opinion) focused on combat and exploration.

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