A few weeks ago, I sketched out a few historical lower/lowest classes, in part one. This week I’ll add a few more examples–but more briefly and with a little more discussion about what you can do with them.
An example of transition: Louisiana
Louisiana had three eras of slavery. Initially, under French rule, the Code Noir was responsible for setting the limits and customs of slavery. The original Code Noir was empire wide, but locals attempted to modify it for local conditions. [This often involved making the nominal penalties much worse, giving the masters more bargaining room.]
When the Spanish took over Louisiana, changes to French law rolled out slowly, but were brought into conformance with Spanish Law. Even though the day-to-day practice was very similar under both systems, theoretical and positioning concerns riled local slave-owners up, and led to several governing crises. The Spanish governors were subject to different degrees of “capture” by the local elite, mostly depending on how thoroughly they intermarried and founded business partnerships with the locals.
Late in the Spanish period, vastly more slaves were shipped to Louisiana. This had a more dramatic effect than the legal underpinnings; the local, creole or hybrid culture, with its common language was swamped by a flood of new slaves direct from Africa. The declining price of slaves had the ironic side effect of allowing the existing slaves to purchase replacements and buy their freedom more cheaply, enlarging the free black community dramatically.
Later, rebellion swept Saint-Domingue, which had an immediate chilling effect on slave sales–for fear of importing a firebrand who would spark local slave uprisings. To counter this, restrictions on slaves from the Caribbean were prohibited, restricting slave trading to locals and ships direct from Africa.
When Louisiana was preparing for admission to the US, the law and customs underlying slavery were renegotiated again. In this case, the local governor earned the support of the locals by combining the most draconian slave code elements of the various states . They particularly leaned on South Carolina’s slave codes, but also included the most controlling elements of the French and other codes that amplified the slave-owner’s control. (The 1806 Black Code.)
Slavery In Your Game
Many of your players will crusade against slavery and the cruelest forms of serfdom. You can encourage this focus on righting terrible wrongs; if they do their work publicly, they’ll acquire a reputation very quickly.
In most slave holding cultures, anxiety about slave rebellion was constant among the owner-class, as was a desperate need to prove themselves superior by “research”, law, or other justification. Abolitionists can make an excellent foil for a society relying on slavery; militant intervention (such as John Brown’s raid) can upend–or unsettle–slaveholders. Of course, outside intervention isn’t required; most slave holding colonies suffered slave rebellions in the century before the American Revolution.
Throughout the colonial period, indentured servants were the majority of the non-slave immigrants. In many ways, this system was a lot like a loan (for the sea voyage) with barter (years of labor) instead of financial terms. For the cash strapped poor, this could get them out of their dead end situation and into a much more competitive labor pool.
Medieval cities drew serfs by promising freedom from prior obligations–a year and a day in the city broke the old bonds. Similarly, in the early medieval period, Eastern European terms were more generous to lure population into their more heavily forested, less developed lands. (Poland oppressed the Jews less than Western Europe during the 14th century, which encouraged their immigration to Poland.)
In your game, your players may be reluctant to convert their hard won gold pieces into high wages to develop their duchies. Perhaps lowering their barriers will encourage migration to their enlightened cities… and get them kicked out of noble circles for their heretical beliefs.
More modern lower classes
Subsistence farming: Common in every era, from ancient history through today, subsistence farmers often result from land that’s been stripped of nutrients or divided among too many hands too many times. Their lives are often so precarious (they’re one bad harvest from starvation) that working in a sweatshop is a step up.
Sharecropping An exchange, where the share cropper provides labor on another’s land, and they split the harvest. This splits the risks, but the share cropper is encouraged to work hard, since he gets a proportion of the profit. Subject to abuse, via crop liens.
Company Towns are similar to sharecropping, in that everything is owned by the company. Wages are often advanced as loans, workers were required to adhere to moral codes and live in company provided housing.
Industrial Revolution and Gilded Age Factory Workers toiled long hours for low wages. The resulting poverty was used by pre-civil war southerners to illustrate the mean conditions their critics provided their own workers.
Guest Workers are foreign, allowed to work under strict conditions. Oil work throughout the middle east is commonly done by fellow Islamics from poorer nations. Similarly, the US had the Bracero Program to bring in Mexican guest workers during the second world war. Because these workers are not citizens, they do not have the full rights under the law.
Illegal Immigration results in similar employment conditions to guest workers, and when things go well there is little difference. Under legal programs (like guest work), abuses can be reported and contracts upheld; when the worker is subject to deportation, the law is less available as a tool to force employers to abide by their end of the bargain.
The Trafficked: Despite a legal prohibition on slavery, powerful locals may have slaves. These people are often smuggled to their destination, since if discovered, victims of human trafficking can be legally freed. This can be used to create very emotional stories that are particularly suited to modern crusades, heroic law enforcement story-lines, and “ripped from the headlines” adventures.
In science fiction, many historical and modern class structures return–sometimes heavily disguised, sometimes as a combination creating a unique feel, and at other times essentially identical to historical classes. Dangerous mining can be a “company town” situation, particularly for larger colonies; the miners might work hours reminiscent of the gilded age–including a lack of protections; such dangerous work might be limited to criminal labor; or this mining might even create a type of indentured servitude, being a way to master skills and get into space, where opportunity is available again.
Science fiction is very broad; for cyberpunk, many of the early novels centered around shanty dwelling heroes in a grimy dystopia. Others imagine a much brighter future; by Star Trek: The Next Generation, most want is easily addressed by replicators.
In Your Game
I hope that some of these conditions and workers make their way into your games. There are many, many other forms of poverty and social separation; Africa, Asian, and Bronze Age examples are particularly fruitful places to investigate cultures that will feel very different from those I’ve sketched in these two articles. Read the comments of the last article for excellent examples from Russia and Ireland, Prison, Debt-labor, and Jewish slavery. Muad Mouse has great advice for incorporating these humble people into even jet-setting games.
If you have examples you’d like to share, I’d love to read them!
Something that may also occur when PCs attempt to liberate slaves – when offered their freedom, they may not want it. In a hostile world, it’s safer to be property than prey. Property has an owner with a vested interest in its continued profitable existence. Hungry people with no employment are often considered vermin by those with power. So property is maintained, and vermin are driven off or exterminated (see also: vagrancy laws, workhouse). The intent of giving freed slaves “40 acres and a mule” was to give them the means to remain free.
I’m reading Impeached right now, about Andrew Johnson’s presidency post civil war. The existence and necessity of a freedman’s bureau or its equivalent is quite clear. I agree that “liberating” slaves then moving on without ensuring they have tools to survive their liberation is good in a dramatic sense only.
Depending on how high your campaign’s pessimism dial is set, having everyone cheer on being freed could break the sense of the world that you’ve built together.
I was thinking more along the lines of “you break it, you bought it”. With apologies to L. Sprague de Camp, how *does* a questing knight explain the bevy of nubile slave girls following him around like lost puppies (especially to the Lady whose favor graces his lance)? A freed slave may also be a very loyal henchman, and nothing says you can’t pay him. In certain times and places, slaves were often prisoners of war who were sometimes very important back home – getting the Earl of Shrewsbury home from the Holy Land might be an interesting hook.