2017/06/24

OSR: The Three Estates

My setting is semi-medieval. Most of the details are based off 11th through 14th century France, England, Scotland, and Italy. The advice below is tailored for a setting like this. If you've got knights but no muskets, castles but no printing presses, feudal lords but not barbarian warlords, then this advice should apply.

Ideally, the information and rules below will bolt seamlessly on to your existing D&D-like system. It's PC-centric. It features dodgy math and smoothed-out history. "Medieval" and "feudal" are convenient words that cover a thousand variations. I've had to make some adjustments. It's a massive post but it has very few rules. Bring snacks.


Eventually I'm going to create one page "Estate" handouts you can staple to a character sheet.


Overview of the Estates

There are three Estates of the Realm.

1. The First Estate

The Church. The clergy. 

2. The Second Estate
The Nobility. Knights and feudal lords.

3. The Third Estate
Almost everyone else. 

The Monarch and his immediate family in theory sit outside the Estates, but in practice, they can be treated as very high ranked members of the Second Estate. 

Outlaws and criminals sit outside the Estates and the entire feudal structure. People from Foreign Parts are assumed to fit into the structure as well. Mind-bending leaps of logic may be required, but if you are from Foreign Parts and an ally, someone will try to figure out where you should sit. If you have an impressive title and act like a noble, you'll be treated as a member of the Second Estate. If you don't have an impressive title but you have a lot of money, you'll be treated as a high-ranking member of the Third Estate. Otherwise, you are somewhere between the lower Third Estate and Outlaw status.

The First Estate

The Generic Fantasy Religion Hierarchy is a vastly oversimplified list. The Ranks listed are comparable to the Ranks of Nobility in the Second Estate section. A Cardinal, as a "Prince of the Church" ranks equal to or slightly higher than a secular prince.


Rank Title 
13 Archpriest
11 Cardinal
10 Patriarch (in Foreign Parts)
9 Metropolitan/Archbishop
9-2 Bishop Abbot/Abbess
0 Priest Monk/Nun
0 Deacon Initiate


Starting Characters

-Clerics don't exist in my setting so I can safely ignore them. If you have classic D&D Clerics in your setting, they might rank at 1 or 2 and have all the same duties as Priests.

-Paladins, in my setting, are the living will of the Authority, and sit outside the hierarchy. They can only be called to account by the Archpriest, and they answer only to the Authority. This presents a lot of problems. Luckily, Paladins are quite rare. Paladins are under the Outlaw section.

-In theory, anyone can enter the First Estate. You can choose to start as a Deacon or Initiate at character creation unless your class (or GM prevents) it. 

If you are a Deacon: you need to be male, or present as male. The Church is very dogmatic about this. This doesn't need to stop you. During disordered times, most peasants would rather have a female priest than no priest at all, even if it is heretical. You have been ordained by your Bishop. Your bishop is your lord in the feudal sense. You owe them rent, service, and obedience. In return, they will protect you, guide you, and promote you. You can perform minor services and assist a priest in major services.

If you are an Initiate: you have taken holy orders. You promise to obey your Abbot or Abbess, but you do not swear fealty to them. You are not an ordained priest and cannot perform services. You have chosen to separate yourself from the world. Since cloistered retreat makes for poor gaming and group collaboration, you are, for some reason, out in the world. Maybe you were dispatched on a mission. Maybe you ran away. Cloistered orders were often used as prisons for unruly nobles, unwanted sons, and willful daughters. Male initiates are tonsured, producing a very distinctive haircut. Ordained clergy are also tonsured, but only symbolically in most regions, usually by cutting off a few hairs.

Being in the First Estate has many benefits. You are immune to civil justice. You can be tried only by your bishop (or a council of bishops, or the Archpriest if required). You do not need to perform manual labour. You will be taught how to read and write.
At lower ranks (0 to 3) you will be underpaid and miserable. After that, your wealth and prestige increases. There is also no limit on promotion provided you are politically savvy, rich, or exceedingly pious, but you must progress through all the lower ranks first. In disordered times this can take a matter of days. When politics or power is at stake a candidate might be consecrated a deacon, a priest, and a bishop before lunch before taking his seat as a cardinal. For the most part, bishops are nominated by a secular lord and confirmed by other bishops and the local population. The local lord might choose a "spare" heir over any number of long-serving and pious priests.

When he had occupied the bishopric for twenty-two years, he realized that he was seriously ill with jaundice and stone in the kidneys, and he chose Abbot Theodulf as his successor. The King agreed to this, but later on he changed his mind and had Badegisil, Mayor of the Palace, elected instead. Badegisil was tonsured and promoted through the various ranks of the church, so that, when Domnolus died some six weeks later, he could be ordained Bishop.
-Historia Francorum, Gregory of Tours
If you are a deacon, priest, bishop, archbishop, or cardinal, you have a diocese, an area of for which you are responsible. This could be a small village or an entire nation. You may also hold grants of land, donated to you by secular lords in exchange for money, salvation, or political assistance. In theory the land is granted to the Church as a whole, but the local Bishop (or higher) sees to its administration and collects its revenue. Land is very rarely granted to anyone of lower rank, but a particularly fed-up Count might grant a village priest a small farm to prevent his habitual begging.

The church's revenue, whether from donations, tithes, or land, cannot be taxed. This annoys the higher ranks of the Second Estate a great deal. Money also flows away from local dioceses and into the vast structure of the Church. It is often spent unwisely and, almost certainly, uncharitably. 

Great prelates of noble family were as lordly as their lay peers, dressing their retinues in uniform and traveling with squires, clerks, falconers, grooms, messengers, pages, kitchen servants, carters, and porters. 
-A Distant Mirror, Tuchman, Chapter 10.

Income

The values listed cover disposable, salaried, regular income. Taxes are included. The Tax post covers "treasure and substantial gains". You acquire your income from your set wages plus revenue you skim from church land and your donations. The values below take food and other expenses into consideration. You usually do not pay rent. Currency values use this system. A list of services and indulgences you can sell will be posted soon.

Deacon: -1gp per month. You are paid a fixed amount but your basic upkeep far exceeds your wages. You must either live in complete humility, sell your services, or find another way to earn money.


Priest: -4gp per month. Now it's even worse! You are paid a little more than a deacon but your responsibilities are so much greater. 


Bishop: [rank]x100gp of disposable income per month. Things are looking up. You can afford to hire personal servants, commission art, buy horses, and act like a noble.

Initiate: 0gp per month. While you remain cloistered, your basic needs are met. 


Monk/Nun: 0gp per month if devout. 5gp per month if debauched. 10gp per month if utterly corrupt. You get 1/5th if you are out in the world.


Abbot/Abbess: 5gp per month, usually spent on the poor or special projects, if devout. If corrupt, [rank]x100gp of disposable income per month. You get 1/5th if you are out in the world.


Higher Ranks: as the GM sees fit. They are outside the scope of this post. 

Duties, Obligations, and Restrictions

You might have noticed that you don't gain the "Religion" skill for being in the First Estate. This is intentional. In theory, the First Estate is removed from material concerns. Priests, monks, bishops, and nuns should all focus on spiritual obedience, duty, charity, and good works. They should be pure, chaste, and literate. In practice...
Most of all, people minded the unfitness of priests. When a priest could purchase from diocesan authority a license to keep a concubine, how should he have better access to God than the ordinary sinner? Priestly susceptibility was such that when a man confessed adultery, the confessor was not allowed to ask the name of the partner lest he be inclined to take personal advantage of her frailty. 
-A Distant Mirror, Tuchman, Chapter 7
Literacy, dutifulness, and scriptural knowledge varied widely. PCs who are Assassins, Thieves, etc. can still enter the First Estate.

As a deacon or priest you are expected perform or assist with at least one service a week in your diocese, attend feasts, say special prayers, solve peasant troubles, and occasionally follow your lord to war. If you want to leave for an extended period of time, you need to ask you need to ask your superior for permission (and probably send a gift). In a cloistered order, you are expected to perform daily or even hourly prayers, and other tasks such as copying manuscripts, selling beer, or singing hymns. You are also expected to stay cloistered until you die.

Summary of the First Estate

-Most PCs can enter
-Report to your bishop (feudal loyalty), abbot, or abbess (holy contract)
-Bishops are appointed from the ordained clergy by secular leaders
-You get an income and diocese based on your rank
-You can always be promoted
-You are immune to secular justice



The Second Estate

The status of nobility derived from birth and ancestry, but had to be confirmed by “living nobly”—that is, by the sword. A person was noble if born of noble parents and grandparents and so on back to the first armed horseman. In practice the rule was porous and the status fluid and inexact. The one certain criterion was function—namely, the practice of arms. This was the function assigned to the second of the three estates established by God, each with a given task for the good of the whole. The clergy were to pray for all men, the knight to fight for them, and the commoner to work that all might eat. 
-A Distant Mirror, Tuchman, Chapter 7
Imagine you are a warlord. You lead a vast and squabbling nation and take over a bunch of land. You want to keep your lieutenants happy and loyal. To keep them on your side, you grant them land in your name. Your lieutenants have followers, and to keep them happy, they grant their followers land in the lieutenant's name, and so on, in a vast pyramid of land and titles and loyalty. You owe the guy who gave you land military service and rent. He owes his lord military service and rent. The King doesn't owe anybody anything but most of the time he's given away a lot of his land. Fast forward a few centuries and you have feudalism.

Your monthly expenses is the minimum you need to pay to maintain your status. It covers servants (elsewhere), repairs, fancy clothes, tithes, donations, taxes, loans, and ancient ransoms.  1,200x your monthly expense is the minimum amount you can be ransomed for. Cruel enemies might charge 3,600x or more. At least you can be ransomed - everyone else is ransomed in bulk, executed, or recruited. If you capture an enemy Count, for example, you could ransom them for at least 144,000 gp, paid in intervals according to the terms of the ransom. This money doesn't count for XP purposes in my game.

RankTitleMonthly Expenses
12King180 gp
11Sovereign Prince168 gp
11Prince156 gp
10Sovereign Duke156 gp
10Duke144 gp
9Marquis / Earl132 gp
8Count120 gp
7Viscount108 gp
6Baron (Large Barony)96 gp
6Baron (Medium Barony)84 gp
6Baron (Small Barony)72 gp
5Baronet / Knight Bannerette60 gp
4Lord / Manorial Knight48 gp
3Courtier / Household Knight36 gp
2Gentleman24 gp
1Provincial Gentleman / Bastard12 gp


Starting Characters

-If you start as a Knight, follow the guidelines listed in that post. Note that you start at Rank 1 or 2 on the list above. Your class might be a Knight, but your position in the hierarchy is poor. 

Otherwise, you cannot enter the Second Estate as a starting character unless you have a very good reason to do so.

Nobles of the Court, or the professional legal and administrative class, would require a new post and a new game system to discuss. Suffice to say that the monarch has a small core of very high ranked Courtiers around him who are not expected to practice warfare.

Land and Titles

Land is everything. It's the only safe investment. It's power. Land pays your expenses. If you take up a trade to make ends meet you will become a social outcast. Chances are pretty good characters will start with no land, or a few strips of farmland at best. That might not seem like a problem at first, but once expenses start to mount, it will rapidly become a considerable issue. The only real way to get land is to have it given to you by someone of higher status. 

Your revenue comes from your land. People in the Third Estate pay you rent, in coin or in produce. They also work your land for you, generating further profit. Villages pay some extra taxes. Incorporated towns and cities pay you some taxes as well, but are mostly free of direct obligations to you. 

Land and titles can be gifted (not inheritable) or granted (inheritable). If you have no heirs, your lord needs to do someone a favour, or you've displeased them, they can revoke your title and grants at any time and give them to someone else. On your death, gifted titles and land revert to your lord to distribute as he pleases. He might give them to your heirs. Granted titles and land are inherited by your eldest son. If you have no sons, they are inherited by your wife. If you have no wife, by your daughters, eldest to youngest. If none of these apply, or your lord has a good reason to want the land and title back and can press a claim in a higher ranked noble's court, the titles and land go to him. One of the eternal hopes for a young knight is to marry a wealthy and landed heiress. 

Side Note: Yes, this mashes about six different systems together. We're playing a game here, not writing a book on Salic law. There also might be regional variations.

The revenue of the Second Estate, whether from rent, plunder, ransoms, or treasure dug up from tombs (rarely happened in the real world, somewhat more common in an OSR setting) is not taxed. This is not to say that the Second Estate has no costs. Aside from the upkeep listed above, the Second Estate is obliged to pay for soliders and mercenaries, castles, mills, monasteries, bribes, donations, and a thousand other expenses. In simpler times, a feudal lord would be called to war and arrive with his peasant levy, vassals, and knights. In this disordered era, it is much more effective to send money in lieu of troops. The Second Estate also pays sales taxes, though they pay proportionately far less than the Third Estate.

How Much Land and How Many Castles

I'll need another post or three to explain how much revenue land generates and how much castles cost and how much land a Duke has and the average yield of a farm. This would be a lot easier Reverance Pavane would just post his darn rules so I can steal lovingly adapt them. In the meantime, if you really need a system, Adventurer Conqueror King works just fine if you rename everything and tweak the costs.

Ennoblement

Nobles of the Second Estate can gift or grant a noble title to someone in the Third Estate.

Lords (Rank 4) and above can make Knights and Courtiers.
Counts (Rank 8) and above can make Barons. 
Dukes (Rank 10) and above can make Counts, although they will probably need to get their monarch's permission.
Kings and the king's heirs (Rank 11 and 12) can create any rank or revoke any title. They tend not to though.

When you are ennobled you are required to swear fealty to your lord in a solemn ceremony. Your terms of service, expectations, and duties are also set. This also applies when you inherit a title or become eligible to inherit a title. Around Here, most of the time, only men can be given titles and land, mostly for traditional reasons. In Foreign Parts, anything goes.

Titles without land are mostly useless. Making someone a knight but not granting them land might be an honour, but it is also an expensive obligation.The major exception is Courtiers (Rank 3). The Second Estate has a near monopoly on violence, but some members can escape living by the sword and fighting from the saddle. The titles below give their holder a position at court the court of a noble as well as the revenue listed. Phrasing nicked from here. The income listed represents a stipend from your lord, plus minor bribes, gifts, and other perquisites of your role. If your income is less than the expense of your rank (36gp/month) you should gain land to increase your income, take more bribes, or continue adventuring.

Courtier Titles:

Butler
Income: 38gp/month, plus all the wine you can drink
Unlike their later role, medieval butlers were both nobles in their own right and military leaders. The butler of a border castle is responsible for all household staff and provisions. They inspect wine, have unruly servants hang, attack assassins, dictate letters, and generally administer a lord's household. Only large castles or manors require an ennobled butler, but even Barons can maintain them, if their holdings are under threat of siege. 

Household knights are the most common recipients of this title, but anyone could gain the honour and responsibilities. Butlers were rarely given grants of land and were expected to die in service.

Companion/Retainer
Income: 13 to 38gp/month
A companion is a very minor noble attached to a lord or lady, or their heirs. They form part of the noble's retinue. The highest ranked might be the Lady-in-Waiting to a noble's wife or daughter. While this is considered a useful position for noble women (one of the very few available outside of marriage), it would be an extraordinary and prestigious honour for someone to be elevated from the Third Estate to this position. With direct access to power, you could easily catch the eye of a higher ranked noble. A lord might keep a retinue of landless noble friends and advisers. Some Rank as Gentlemen (Rank 2) or even Provincial Gentlemen (Rank 1) in a very low-status court. Retainers are sometimes granted spurious positions (Inspector of the Bridges and Waterways, Keeper of the Lesser Falcons, Mistress of Her Lady's Linen) or simply refereed to as "Sir" or "Lady".

Court Wizard
Income: 36gp/month
Ennobling a wizard is a dangerous step. By nature of their professions, Court Wizards can never shed the stink of the working classes. They have expenses as a noble of Rank 3, but are treated as a noble of Rank 1 for purposes of priority, seating arrangements, and marriage suitability. Becoming a Court Wizard (rather than a Wizard Ordinary or a Hedge Mage) is a great step for any caster, and might lead to their appointment as Steward or Butler. Court Wizards are sometimes gifted land or a tower for their own personal use. As vassals, Court Wizards are bound to their lord, but they are sometimes poached, bought, or traded between courts. Higher ranked nobles might grow jealous of their vassal's court wizard and demand a transfer of loyalty. If captured by your lord's enemies, you will either be executed without delay or released without ransom. Nobody wants to risk angering a wizard.

Herald
Income: 38gp/month
Informal courts are very common, but for a variety of tedious reasons, you need a herald to hold formal court. Since they are expensive to maintain, only Barons (Rank 6) or higher maintain heralds. They handle the administration of court events, establishing precedence, and conducting the court. They are also responsible for conducting tournaments and similar events. They are also used as diplomats between courts and traditionally carry diplomatic immunity. You must be trusted by your lord to the most intimate degree, and be ready to die or be imprisoned for his cause. 

Becoming a herald is very useful for PCs. They can maintain a small retinue, travel widely, and gain the ear of their lord. Options for promotion are limited, but that is true of the Second Estate in general. Usually, this title is given to a loyal knight in lieu of a gift of land.

Sheriff/Sargent 
Income: 30gp/month
You execute legal orders from the King, and preside over law cases where the local courts do not have jurisdiction (such as offenses against the monarch or minor disputes between two lords). You are appointed to this role by the King (in theory), but in practice anyone of Rank 8 or above can ensure your appointment. You are usually gifted land as well. In rare cases your position may be made hereditary. You are not expected to ride to war, but your legal duties and obligations keep you constantly occupied. 

This title is most appropriate for unscrupulous and ambitious PCs. A cunning sheriff could grow very rich on mis-allocated taxes, bribes, and revenues. They also have the ear of the monarch, in theory, and could easily acquire further titles. On the other hand, a wise sheriff could moderate the abuses of the Second Estate and ensure the prosperity of the peasantry.

Steward
Income: 36gp/month, plus a fraction of the land's revenue.
A steward is responsible for managing land in their lord's name, freeing the lord for other duties. Many great nobles own pockets of land isolated from their main estates, acquired by inheritance, grant, violence, or historical coincidence. A steward cannot be placed in charge of a vassal's holding, only the lords own holding. If you are the wife of a noble you are considered to also be his steward.

This title is the pinnacle for characters from the Third Estate, provided they do not own land. You may not be a duke yourself but you are empowered to act in his name and in his interests. Expect rebellions, peasant troubles, famines, plagues, wars, and all the cares of management.

Squire
Income: -
Squires are a special case. They can be created by any knight. Their noble Rank is 0 and they have the most tenuous foothold in the Second Estate, unless the Rank granted to them by their birth is higher. If they are from the Third Estate, their hope is to one day be made a knight. If they were born into the Second Estate, being a squire gives them training, access to court, and something to do to keep them out of trouble. Their monthly expense varies based on the status and rank of their lord. Squires of high-ranked nobles are Companions/Retainers. Squires of low-ranked nobles might be camp followers.

In an emergency, a PC knight can always declare that a younger, male (or visibly male) person is their squire. A suspicious lord might require the "squire" to show some feat of arms or recite a few verses of an oath. 


Duties, Obligations, and Restrictions

From ownership of land and revenues the noble derived the right to exercise authority over all non-nobles of his territory except the clergy and except merchants who were citizens of a free town. The grand seigneur’s authority extended to “high justice,” meaning the power of life or death, while the lesser knight’s was limited to prison, flogging, and other punishments of “low justice.” Its basis and justification remained the duty to protect, as embodied in the lord’s oath to his vassals, which was as binding in theory as theirs to him - and theirs was binding “only so long as the lord keeps his oath.” 
-A Distant Mirror, Tuchman, Chapter 7

To phrase it another way, a land-owning member of the Second Estate typically has the right of "pit and gallows, sake and soke, toll, team, and infangthief." In modern English, "drowning, hanging, finding peasants, hunting peasants, charging peasants for movement or activity, requesting unpaid labour, and executing summary justice". Members of the Second Estate can only be tried in the court of a higher noble. They are rarely executed.

Nobles are obliged to serve their lord in war and in peace, to protect the other Estates, to obey their monarch, to behave chivalrously, and to fight honorably. To a greater or lesser extent, none of those things occur. Women of the Second Estate, while barred from the use of arms (in theory), wield considerable social, political, and financial power. 

When not at war, the life of a low-ranked noble resembles that of his peasant vassals, distinguished perhaps only by a better diet and a larger house. At higher ranks, luxury and idleness have free reign. The wildest fancies can be entertained. 
On occasion, huge pastries were served from which live birds were released to be caught by hawks unleashed in the banquet hall. At the turret of the castle where the lord’s flag flew, a watchman was stationed with a horn to blow at the approach of strangers. He blew also for the hour of rising at sunup or cockcrow, after which matins were chanted by the chaplain, followed by mass in the chapel. In the evening minstrels played [...]. If no concert or performance was scheduled after the evening meal, the company entertained each other with song and conversation, tales of the day’s hunting, “graceful questions” on the conventions of love, and verbal games. In one game the players wrote verses, more or less impolite, on little rolls of parchment, which were passed around and, when read aloud, supposedly revealed the character of the reader. 
-A Distant Mirror, Tuchman, Chapter 11
Since most history books and primary source texts were written by the Second Estate, about the Second Estate, or for the Second Estate, I don't think I need to detail other activities here. Any text will do.

Summary of the Second Estate

-Few PCs can enter
-You are bound to a noble lord of higher rank
-The system relies on layers of feudal obligation.
-The practice of arms must be maintained. You lose your status if you take up a trade.
-Land is very important


The Third Estate

Almost everyone else. Before we start, there are a few quotes you should read.
Like every other group, peasants were diverse, ranging in economic level from half-savage pauper to the proprietor of fields and featherbeds who could hoard money to send his son to the university. The general term for peasant was villein or vilain, which had acquired a pejorative tone, though harmlessly derived from the Latin villa. Neither exactly slave nor entirely free, the villein belonged to the estate of his lord, under obligation to pay rent or work services for use of the land, and in turn to enjoy the right of protection and justice. A serf was someone in personal bondage who belonged by birth to a particular lord, and, so that his children should follow him, was forbidden under a rule called formariage from marrying outside the domain. If he died childless, his house, tools, and any possessions reverted to the lord under the right of morte-main, on the theory that they had only been lent to the serf for his labor in life. Originally he owed, in addition to agriculture, every kind of labor service needed on an estate - repair of roads, bridges, and moats, supply of firewood, care of stables and kennels, blacksmithing, laundering, spinning, weaving, and other crafts for the castle. By the 14th century much of this was done by hired hands and the castle’s needs were supplied by purchase from towns and peddlers, leaving a large part of the peasantry on a rent-paying basis with a certain number of days’ work owed on the lord’s fields. 
[...] 
The upper level of the Third Estate, made up of merchants, manufacturers, lawyers, office-holders, and purveyors to the crown, had nothing left in common with its working-class base except the fact of being non-noble. To overcome that barrier was every bourgeois magnate’s aim. While climbing toward ennoblement and a country estate, he emulated the clothes, customs, and values of the nobles and on arriving shared their tax exemption - no small benefit. 
[...] 
An extraordinary passage from the tale Le Despit au Vilain breathes hatred with an intensity that seems more than mere storytelling. “Tell me, Lord, if you please, by what right or title does a villein eat beef?… And goose, of which they have plenty? And this troubles God. God suffers from it and I too. For they are a sorry lot, these villeins who eat fat goose! Should they eat fish? Rather let them eat thistles and briars, thorns and straw and hay on Sunday and pea-pods on weekdays. They should keep watch without sleep and have trouble always; that is how villeins should live. Yet each day they are full and drunk on the best wines, and in fine clothes. The great expenditures of villeins comes at a high cost, for it is this that destroys and ruins the world. It is they who spoil the common welfare. From the villein comes all unhappiness. Should they eat meat? Rather should they chew grass on the heath with the horned cattle and go naked on all fours.…” These tales were addressed to an upper-class audience. Was this what they wanted to hear, or was it a satire of their attitude? 
In theory, the tiller of the soil and his livestock were immune from pillage and the sword. No reality of medieval life more harshly mocked the theory. Chivalry did not apply outside the knights’ own class. The records tell of peasants crucified, roasted, dragged behind horses by the brigands to extort money. There were preachers who pointed out that the peasant worked unceasingly for all, often overwhelmed by his tasks, and who pleaded for more kindness, but all they could advise the victim was patience, obedience, and resignation.
-A Distant Mirror, Tuchman, Chapter 7
The Third Estate is the broad base of feudal society. Without it, nothing functions. The Third Estate outnumbers the other two estate thousands of times over. It is also extremely diverse and extremely poorly documented. Our primary sources rarely detail the lives of the Third Estate in detail, or, when they do, provide a warped picture at best. Modern surveys are contradictory or very narrowly focused.

For convenience, I'm going to divide the class into 3 sections: The Poor, The Wealthy, and Wizards.

Starting Characters
Your class will give you some information on your background and position. Fighters, for example, start in the Poor Third Estate or as Outlaws. All the classes I use will eventually get a similar writeup.

You need to select a lord or a town. For convenience, I would encourage you to select the same lord or town as at least one other person in the party. The background from your class may push you in one direction or another.
 

The Poor

Chances are pretty good that characters in an RPG come from this section. You wouldn't die in a tomb for gold if you prospects in life weren't awful already. I'm not trying to say that everyone in the Third Estate was miserable, illiterate, foolish, and starving, but if you are in the Poor section, life is not great. You have rights, but they mostly relate to turnips, feast days, and grazing on communal land. You have a right to a trial, but not a fair trial. You are connected to a vast social web of other people of your status. You cannot read or write unless your convince the GM otherwise. Despite your low status, in disordered times, you may rise very high indeed.

Roll 1d4 for your Occupation, or choose one based on the background from your Class. This is your role in life, or it was, before you took up a life of adventuring.


1-2. Farm

Income: 1d10sp per year, 1sp in emergency spending money
You are a serf. Your position and servitude may be hereditary, and you may have a family. You have (or had) a small, one-room cottage, a few strips of land, a small number of cooking implements, two scrawny pigs, and a chicken. You owe hereditary service to your lord and cannot leave his land without being hunted and dragged back. If you work continuously through the spring, summer, and fall, you are able to spend most of the winter comfortably fed and reasonably well housed. Your income represents the money you could scrape together if you had to and your savings at the end of the year. It includes taxes and tithes, but most of your trading takes place in kind (bartered), so you aren't being taxed in cash. If you have left your farm when the game starts, you have 1sp in your pocket.

3. Trade

Income: 2gp per month
You are either a serf and owe labor to your lord, or you work in a town for a guild or a master. In either case, you cannot easily leave your position. Roll on the Table of Professions and gain the profession listed as a Skill. You are an apprentice, a novice, wildly underpaid, or simply denied opportunities to advance. After paying for food, taxes, rent, and tithes, you are left with 1sp per week in discretionary income. You start with 1d10sp. Sailors can fall under this category (if mercantile) or War (if mercenary).

4. War

Income: varies
You are either a peasant soldier raised as part of a feudal levy and accustomed to a life of war, or a professional soldier living in a town or city. You might also be a fallen knight or a wounded mercenary. You earn nothing when not at war. Roll on the Table of Professions, but do not gain the Skill listed. This is what you do (badly) when your pay from the last war runs out. At war, you earn 1gp a week but your pay is always in arrears. You could also be someone who follows wars like a vulture, either to support a soldier or sell goods and services. You start with 1d10sp. If you are not a Fighter, you have a 1-in-10 chance of starting with 1 Camp Follower.


Duties, Obligations, and Restrictions

Members of the Third Estate are required by custom to attend one church service a week. In practice, what information we have suggests the poor attended perhaps one service a month. You are bound to your lord, your land, or your profession. Everything you do is taxed and regulated. Rather than feudal obligation, your obligations are technically manorial (to the lord of your local manor) or contractual (to your guild or employer). You probably do not like your lord, or the Second Estate in general.


“What did he go there for, this Duke of Anjou, down there where he went? He has pillaged and robbed and carried off money to Italy in order to conquer another land. He is dead and damned, and the King St. Louis too, like the others. Filth, filth of a King and a King! We have no King but God. Do you think they got honestly what they have? They tax me and re-tax me and it hurts them that they can’t have everything we own. Why should they take from me what I earn with my needle? I would rather the King and all kings were dead than that my son should be hurt in his little finger.”

-A Distant Mirror, Tuchman Chapter 18. Tuchman's source is Vol. 1 section XXXI of Choix de pièces inédites relatives au règne de Charles VI, a sadly untranslated (as far as I know) but immensely interesting work.

The Rich

Cities and towns earned freedom from arbitrary taxation, land ties, and arbitrary justice by negotiating charters with their lords. Towns were small. 5,000 people form a city. Some of the great centers of the medieval world have populations of 100,000 at most. Towns are walled and guarded. They have an independent justice system for minor crimes and petty disputes. They are governed by a council of guildmasters, rich merchants, or anyone else who turns up to meetings regularly. Reading about town government reminds me of a post-apocalyptic Rotary Club.

If a land-bound serf reached a town and lived in it for a year, the serf's obligation to their lord was cancelled, and they were adopted as a free citizen of the town, in theory swearing fealty to the fief's lord. This didn't apply to serfs within the same fief. Lords encourages serfs from other domains to flee to their towns (to enrich them), but strongly discouraged their own serfs from trying the same. Living in a town for a year was easier said than done, especially if you had no useful trades. Being exiled was a terrible punishment - few villages would let a stranger in, land was too expensive to purchase outright, and guilds were frequently over-filled or poorly governed. 

Artisan guilds have monopolies on most work in a town. Very small towns might have a single guild for all artisans, but most cities and fiefs shared complex and competing guilds. In a city of weavers there might be guilds for wool-spinners, dyers, carders, carters, lathe-builders, and shearers. In theory, guilds were communal organizations, with all members contributing to the common good. Widows would receive pensions, the sick would receive alms, and the church and lord would be enriched by gifts and donations. In practice, especially as guilds and towns grew larger, the upper levels of the guild had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual work of their monopolized industry. A guild magnate who owns a dozen shops and wears fine clothes scorns the common artisan almost as much as the nobles he one day aspires to join.

Merchants guilds were also common. Moving goods from an area of low prices to an area of high prices (arbitrage) was the main object of the merchant, and despite the risks, could be very profitable. In an era before the laws of supply and demand were understood, merchants were seen as predatory creatures, extorting the local population with high prices and reaping the profits while doing no useful work. This view was not entirely wrong.

"Thieves guilds" and "assassins guilds" are not historically supported. Strangely enough, prostitute guilds are well documented in several cities, so feel free to include those. 

Characters cannot start in this section, but by ingratiating themselves with guild leaders, merchants, and artisans they can obtain useful connections and a better life. In this sphere, money is more important than loyalty. It is possible to outright buy your way into a guild, buy land in town, build a workshop, a factory, or a store, and retire comfortably. Since most GMs and most D&D-like systems have solid rules for this kind of interaction, I won't detail it further. 

Income and buildings will be covered in a future post.


Duties, Obligations, and Restrictions

Members of the Third Estate are required by custom to attend one church service a week, and wealthy merchants, unless otherwise occupied, might attend more often, to show off their wealth, status, and piety. While the town might belong to a lord, many of the rich burghers consider themselves free of any feudal control, and fiercely assert their independence if challenged or provoked. Guild obligation, the cares of government, and the constant threat of war, taxes, and poverty loom over the rich of the Third Estate. They are also despised as upstarts and unworthy creatures by the Second Estate and widely chastised for vanity and pride by the First Estate.


Wizards

These notes apply to my setting. Your setting may vary. You could have wizards as an entirely separate estate or move them into the Second or First Estates.

"Chartered" wizards are educated in schools or colleges. Like medieval universities, these schools are raucous and somewhat disreputable places. Classes are very small. Only the greatest universities could boast of more than 100 students. Chartered wizards are reputable and, in most places, the only type anyone is likely to encounter. The Elementalists and the Orthodox schools vie for the honour of "most ancient" and "most widely established". Garden Wizards, Illusionists, and Wizards of the White Hand are also chartered and reputable. 

Lords and towns sponsor promising young students and send them to schools in the larger cities, or pay for their position as an apprentice of a famous wizard. Chivalry forbids a knight or martial member of the Second Estate to take up the practice of sorcery, although more than a few famous knights have dabbled in the practice. The dangers are also immense. Anyone can become a wizard with training, but only the strong-minded survive. Loading spells into your brain can easily result in fatal accidents. Wizard schools are frequently build next to walled graveyards. Some nobles with dozens of children might send a younger son or daughter to be educated as a wizard. By law, they forfeit their inheritance and position in the Second Estate.

Chartered wizards are also educated in languages, history, religion, and music, with varying degrees of success. I distinctly remember (but can't source) a passage that complained of students caring only for "drinking, knife-fighting, gambling, and fornicating." Only knife-fighting seems to have fallen out of fashion in the modern era. In wizard colleges, magical duels are common enough to be proscribed. 


Both the Elementalist and Orthodox schools charge ruinous tuition. Only the richest lords could afford to sponsor a student outright. More commonly, students are given a stipend and forced to take out Wizard Student Loans. Students graduate owing at least 5,000gp. Service in the army of the King (who grants wizard colleges their royal charters) cancels this debt. Nothing else will, not even death. The unfortunate soul of an indebted wizard will be held in purgatory, tormented by spiritual creditors. Some colleges have agreements with local lords or the city around them to take a certain number of students per year or decade.

Roll 1d4 for your Occupation, or choose one based on the background from the Wizard class. I'm going to rewrite the Wizard core class from scratch to more closely match the Knight and Fighter posts. This is your role in life, or it was, before you took up a life of adventuring.

1. War Wizard (or Wizard Ordinary)

Income: varies
At war, you earn 3gp a week but your pay is always in arrears. You are expected to fight with the peasant troops. This is primarily why lords have a serf or two educated as wizards - a single well-placed fireball can turn the tide of a battle. Survival rates are very low. Most war-wizards can cast one or two spells reliably and, feared by enemies and allies alike, often meet ignominious ends. Captured wizards of this rank are executed without delay, released without ransom, or converted into the service of a new lord. When not at war, you are expected to deal with minor magical matters, obey your lord's command or attend to the town council, and quietly starve. You have a stipend of 5sp per month.

2. Hedge Wizard
Income: 3gp per month
You maintain your lord's lands (by removing monsters, dealing with minor magical problems, calming river spirits, or scrying), or you assist with the problems and troubles of a town. In either case, you cannot easily leave your position. You might be known as the "mill-wizard" if you keep the lord's mill turning smoothly, or the "master of Black Lane" if your main duty is to calm or cure the insane. You are held in superstitious awe by Poor Third Estate, who barter with you to solve all kinds of problems. The rest of the world barely notices your existence. After paying for food, taxes, rent, and tithes, you are left with 5sp per month in discretionary income. You may have an exceedingly small house or hut. You start with 2d10sp.

3. Graduate Wizard
Income: 1sp per month
You have remained at a college or under a master to study more deeply than your fellow students. Perhaps you aspire to a teaching position. Your stipend pays for food, taxes, rent, and tithes as long as you work, leaving you with 1sp per month in discretionary income. You rarely sleep, seldom eat, and are exposed to the most terrible magical dangers known to your school. If you survive, your Wizard Student Loans are forgiven. You start with 1d10cp, but you may reroll any one spell from your starting spell list and pick another one. Alternatively, you are still a student, and not a full wizard at all.

4. Personal Wizard
Income: 5sp per month
You are the personal attendant of a knight, noble, guilder, burgher, or warrior. You counsel them on magical, historical, and political matters. You watch their children, water their horses, carry their letters, and answer thousands of questions. Your basic expenses are grudgingly covered. You are not anywhere as prestigious as a court wizard. You might even serve a court wizard as an apprentice. Essentially, you are low level magical IT, and you are often tasked with problems far beyond your capacity. Your lord might task you to assassinate an enemy, turn back a storm, or raise a dead son, and it's your job to figure out how. As a low-level wizard your tasks are almost impossible, but few people will listen to your excuses. Angering someone who can have you executed with a snap of their fingers is not wise. You start with 5sp.

Duties, Obligations, and Restrictions

Wizards are expected to be deferential to all members of the First and Second Estates. It is illegal for them to practice "any of the manners of lordship". History is full of sorcerer-kings and their armies. When wizards rule, law is overturned. Madness and disorder reign supreme. The spiritual health and purity of chartered wizards is closely monitored by the Church. They are also taxed heavily.

Wizards of low means are bound to their lord or town, but they can still travel freely on important business. If a lord believes that the only way to accomplish his goals is to dispatch one of his wizards to Foreign Parts, the wizard is free to go. Most schools accept both male and female students, and their position in society is not unduly influenced by their gender. Their abilities as a spellcaster trump any gender distinctions.

Experienced wizards might become court doctors or trusted assistants. They are often gifted towers or homes. Arch-Mages of colleges and Royal Wizards have one foot in the Second Estate, and are effectively of Rank 5 for the purposes of political clout and Rank 2 for the purposes of marriage and seating arrangements at dinner.



Summary of the Third Estate

-Almost everyone belongs to this estate
-You are probably poor
-Almost everyone in the Second Estate despises you
-You are bound to a noble lord or a town and employer
-You cannot easily leave your profession, land, or obligations
-You are heavily taxed



Outlaws

If you are outside the protections and obligations of the feudal system, you are an outlaw. This does not necessarily mean you are a criminal, but you are outside the law. You are not part of the weave of society.
Because the provisions against leaving one employment for a better were impossible to enforce, penalties were constantly augmented. Violators who could not be caught were declared outlaws—and made lawless by the verdict. Free peasants took to the nomadic life, leaving a fixed abode so that the statute could not be executed against them, roaming from place to place, seeking day work for good wages where they could get it, resorting to thievery or beggary where they could not, breaking the social bond, living in the classic enmity to authority of Robin Hood for the Sheriff of Nottingham.
-A Distant Mirror, Tuchman, Chapter 14

Starting Characters

-Wizards who do not officially exist (Animist Wizards, Drowned Wizards)
-Wizards whose magic is outlawed and banned (Biomancers, Necromancers)
-Paladins, who answer to no one but the Authority
-Thieves on the run
-Races or people from Foreign Parts (Barbarians, etc.)
-Anyone who has abandoned their lord, their oath, or their function

Your class will give you most of your background information. You may be able to slowly integrate into society by seeking employment in a town or finding a lord willing to grant you a tiny plot of land in a village. Some members of this social group, such as Paladins, are respected and even revered.

Income

You have no stable source of income. If you were formerly part of society, roll on the Table of Professions and gain the listed skill. Otherwise, invent a suitable profession or skill and present it to the GM.

Duties, Obligations, and Restrictions

You do not pay taxes or tithes. You owe fealty to no one in the local feudal structure. If you are caught and charged with any criminal offense you are likely to be executed.






Example Character:
Joanna rolls for her character's race and stats. She decides she wants to play a female Fighter. She rolls for the fighter's starting skill and discovers that her character was besieged in a city.

Now she needs to pick an Estate. She has 3 options. She can state that her character is part of the Poor Third Estate and select an occupation (by rolling 1d4or by picking one). She can state that her character is an Outlaw and gain no further benefit. She can also state that her character, despite the risks, is a member of the First Estate.

She decides that her fighter was ordained as a deacon during the siege, to support the Church and comfort the dying. Her diocese is a portion of the city. The other priests and her Bishop know about her but, considering the state of the city and the disorder of the times, have decided not to press the issue. They have made it clear though that she might be better off serving the Authority elsewhere. Her fighter still considers herself a member of the church. Her status in the First Estate is nebulous, but unless she is discovered, she will be treated as a roving priest.

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