Violetta Daviau

A blogging roleplayer in Second Life

Playing as/with poor characters

DISCLAIMER: The RP Guides are free to share! I just demand that my Name (Violetta Daviau) keeps in the NCs / Copies and is being mentioned as creator. The classes and guides are not to not be altered.


Poverty is scarcity, dearth, or the state of one who lacks a certain amount of material possessions or money. Absolute poverty or destitution refers to the deprivation of basic human needs, which commonly includes food, water, sanitation, clothing, shelter, health care and education. Relative poverty is defined contextually as economic inequality in the location or society in which people live.
~ Wikipedia

Approaching that in a scientific way, e.g. Maslow’s pyramid of needs, everyone faces the following needs:
physical needs (air, food&drink, shelter, clothing, sex)
security (safety, finances, health)
friendship & love

Bringing that together so, we find that the factors given for poverty (lack of “food, water, sanitation, clothing, shelter, health care and education”) can near all be found in the area of physical needs, the most basic ones.

Effects of poverty in look & feel

Poverty, absolute as well as relative, has an effect: The lack of things. While a person can of course chose for themselves to be poor, which might be called “intended relative poverty” (e.g. eremites, tribal natives and savages that want to stay in their ancestor’s home and levels, etc.) and hence actively abstain from things, these things have the common attribute of being needed to cover needs, fill requirements of either getting to the relative level of the compared society or to a level of being able to see a category of Maslow’s pyramid as covered and completed.

As relative and self chosen relative poverty is more defined by others, this guide will focus more on absolute poverty as base of discussion. Being poor because one is not able to buy a Ferrarri car or eat solely Sacher torte, lobster and caviar is another philosophical discussion anways. This guide regards poverty so as lack of “food, water, sanitation, clothing, shelter, health care and education”, or, as reducuction, as lack of “food, water, sanitation, clothing, shelter” because health care and education can be rather seen as risks for the future (missing health care means financial ruin only if becoming sick, missing education only poses a risk when losing the job).

As in everything poverty cannot be seen as black or white, not like “either one has all or nothing”, topic. Having nothing, i.e. no food/water/etc. at all, with shelter and clothing susbtituting each other to an extend. That means usually to not have a poor person, but a dead person.

As for roleplay poverty has effects on a character:

While poverty has usually the attribute of being longer term (the time between lunch and dinner does not stand for poverty) and hence the characteristic of being difficult to escape, it also has visual effects on a person, some of which being caused by the global physical state of said poor person.

So a poor person maybe cannot eat regularly, and is hence very meager and weak. Lack of clothing needs not mean that the poor person runs around naked, but maybe in shredded/ripped, old, dirty, maybe even makeshift clothing. Lack of sanitation would stand for a dirty body, uncared for hair, lack of makeup, in extremes a poor health, lice, bad smell. Lack of shelter will indicate the choice of sleeping stead and carried along belongings (if there are any remaining, or gathered/scavenged) and maybe, especially in times of hard weather conditions (winter, snow/sand storms, extreme heat) or places (sewers, garbage dumps, junk yards) also a rather bad health condition.

Poverty as a chance for roleplay

In roleplay surroundings, it is easy and comfortable to play a rich person, especially a selfish rich person. One can effort all one wants, not only in terms of gear but also in the means of accepting or not certain missions and work assignments. One can bribe one’s way to what one needs, meets the most makeup-beauties and inheriting rich and mighty princes, can hire thugs and minions for the dirty works.

A poor person cannot do that all. A poor person has to face all challenges themselves likely, has to work hard to get support, needs to undergo maybe even ugly or humiliating works to overcome even “sub-challenges” (e.g. you need to buy a certain potion from a mage, and he will only sell it to you if you fish his daughter’s engagement ring from the deep sewers). A poor person will have to gain that cool sword-of-megadeath first, will likely have to learn more by himself than the rich who just hires the best trainers. The poor person has to care far more for covering those basic physical needs aside of the main subject of the current adventure or phase of life.

For some people that might appear cumbersome to play out, maybe because they cannot imagine that such could be fun, maybe because they really only have little time to play. Nevertheless, as in any aspect of life, the more obstacles one overcomes to reach a goal, the more rewarding will this success be, and maybe, seen ex-post, the way to reach it will have been far more thrilling, gritty, challenging – will have had far more interaction, fun workarounds. And also here counts: Neither earth nor Rome was build in a day, neither has an adventure to be passed in an hour.

The touchy topic of dealing with the poor

In our real life we often wish that it would be nice if we ourselves were able to eradicate all poverty on earth (while of course assuring that we stay at least on level with the new non-poor, or are better of). A big chunk of our western world morals point into that direction. Yet in real we are not, we walk past a beggar without giving him a donation, we plan but never do take a godparenthood/sponsorship of a poor child in Africa or Asia, we do not open when we see Caritas ring the bell on christmas evening asking for donations. Not always at least.
And we at times feel bad about that. Many so want to play the savior and redeemer in their roleplay. Their knight always saves every maid in need, every slightest breach of – in real our real life target morals, not those of our displayed character’s – morals will get persued, retaliated, or at least we side with the victim even if it is not present at a given time. We are holy, saints, we are white knights in shining armor, angels, guardian angels or even revenging arch angels with flaming swords, we are the shining buoy of light in the ocean of darkness, we are the epitome of what we do not manage in real life. And we enjoy it! WE enjoy it!

But do the others?

First and foremost, aside of outright griefers in roleplaying games, those above mentioned defacto roles are a sign of inexperienced players (lack of experience is not a bad thing itself!), a sign for mixing IC (“in character”, i.e. the displayed character related perceptions/actions) and OOC (“out of character”, i.e. the player/typist related perceptions/actions). They act as they would would wish act in our modern world where they have modern world surroundings and conditions – if they could.
But a knight in a King Arthur time, a dwarf in a Lord of the Rings setting, a slaver on Gor, and an urchin in a post apocalyptic or dark urban area, have a totally different reality that they do not only compete with any current moment, but which has also formed their mindset and believes. Our earthen age of enlightenment (late 17th- and 18th-century Europe, emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition) has not happened for them or has even been forgotten. A medieval peasant thinks to know that there is a god able to strike lightning into his rear for whatever stupid fails just as much we know today in RL that the earth is round. The aristocrate from Gondor (Lord of the Rings) may consider that he deserves his high rank, power and financial possibilites from ancient divine right, that the beggar deserves his poor fate, just as we in our real world think that a bankrobber (of our money) deserves prison. In short: letting one’s character act like its plyaer would like to be able to act in our real world when it comes to morals, often bears the risk of displaying that role wrongly – and that stands for the lack of roleplay experience.

Again: But do the others?

Usually it seems that characters who are displayed as plausible, authentic to the roleplay genre defining lore and rules, are enjoyed the most by others. Players of those characters accept the challenges their role brings with it (the beggar in the ballroom and also the shining knight in the sewers), and give other people a feeling of meeting such a person like in a movie even. You indeed see a picture of that knight/beggar/smith/etc. in their surroundings in front of your inner eye. That immersion is the fun in roleplay for many players. But not only Today, also Tomorrow!

That means for the poor person…?

A player may chose to play a shining rich and politically powerful white knight, who, out of OOC-respect by other players and the game master about that player enjoying that role so much, will never lose his rank/wealth, will never experience that deep fall to the bottom. If he does fall, he will likely be able to stand up one or two adventures later and the player is back in their comfort zone. An example aside the shining knight might be the Gorean or Arabian slave hunter who falls into slavery themselves – at max for a limited amount of time before they get free again, while the lore of his genre might tell that getting out of slavery is near impossible and hence usually permanent. That slaver will soon regain rank and honor anyways.

Poor… person…?

Exactly. What about the poor person? The player of a poor person? Could that player not have actively chosen this aspect for their character just like the wealthy white knight, wanting to experience it in roleplay, face the challenges?
One challenge of poverty, of playing poverty, is to play the wish to get out of it, but for some reason never managing it. One who actively chose to play a poor either wants to play the development to becoming the rich king of kings or wants their character to stay poor. For those last ones, every coin they get beyond what covers their basic needs is a challenge. They will add weaknesses to their character like alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling addiction, to just have ways of getting rid of excessive income again, they do not want to find a dragon hoard at the end of the play or will play to be too weak to carry much of it away.

Especially though if such players have their character meet a white knight who comes with their modern earth dream morals, the charity angels of the realms of chaos, who tend to invent money and other means of helping that poor out of thin air, their joy of the roleplay will soon vanish entirely. How can they play a plausible poor who works damn hard for any bite of bread and any strap of cloth to cover, if those super rich who never even play to go collect taxes, who never work or only play to administer their wealth, hide it from thieves or likewise pump them full with money, clothes, free sanitation, let them eat with them in their palaces etc.?

In short: if a player choses to play a poor character, his wish is to be respected and rewarded with plausible play – just as the wish of the player opting to play the rich/shiny knight.

Another aspect is to play a poor person but blending out all effects this poverty implies: To say my character is poor, but never having any means of needs for money, food, shelter, clothes etc. means to display that character bad roleplay. Also to claim being poor but then ignore the things that lead to their poverty is similar implausible roleplay. The professional dancer who breaks their ankles with permanent pain and damage to explain their poverty and still dances better than anyone else, the beggar that invites others to drink in a bar where else also the rich dine, the bar maid in the lowly harbor gin palace who sees no need for any income are not poor… but implausble and hence displayed/roleplayed bad.

How to do it better – Consistent Fade to Black (cFTB)

Fade to black (“FTB”) is in roleplay a concept to not play out a certain scene but acknowledge that it happened and accept the results of it. That can be done both for negatively intense scenes, e.g. rape, mutilation, murder of one’s own char – which means the player does not play out how his character is being victimized, but acknowleges that it had happened and accepts the result (the character WAS raped, WAS mutilated/killed, DOES fear/hate the other now). It also can be done for e.g. subjectively non-entertaining and repetitive scenes (e.g. daily work, daily meals and the other end of the metabolism, sleeping, etc.) or for any other scene.
FTB does – to stress that again – not mean to skip a scene and make it not having happened nor to reduce the results on only the positive sides.

Also though, FTB has a strong risk of turning things and play inconsitant, implausible. If one focuses so strong on player controlled character (PC, as opposed to NPC, “Non-Player-Characters”) interaction that one, as e.g. merchant, tells one’s wife in the evening: “It was a bad day – I sold only one roll of linen” or the like because only one other player had visited and bought something but one still pretends to be so ultra rich to buy her (IC non-faked wealth) the most expensive dresses and most noble horses, it shows a strong lack of roleplay skills. The character just is not displayed plausibly.
Instead so one might let one’s character say: “It was a mediocre day, cost covering really, sold only twenty rolls of linen” (one of which to a PC, the rest to FTB’ed NPCs).

This applies for every interaction and independent of who brings up an item: If the one or the other displays something, e.g. finance related (taxes, fees, sales, etc.), the other should, to stay consistent neither ignore that nor totally negate it, but put realistic thought into the topic – briefly – and react accordingly. That means, more precise, that a rich that tells he gets e.g. income of a certain public source, the poor might tell that he does not, that he maybe (cFTB’ed) had asked and is for a certain reason not eligible to get money from that source. Vice versa, if the poor tells he cannot effort a certain fee and hence cannot get certain benefits, the rich should not claim that such a fee is not existant (because the player had never thought of such a detail), but rather tell that his income is high enough to effort it without issues.
Especially in financial surroundings – to relate this chapter more to the guide’s topic – one can assume that nothing in the world, in any world, is for free.

Relative poverty

Finally an excursion to relative poverty within roleplay surroundings.

Depending on the genre some roles can be seen as poor relative to others. E.g. Panther Girls in Gor compared to civilized caste people, cannibals compared to missionaries, orcs compared to elves, the beer brewer compared to the trade guild leader, etc.. Basically near every tribal/savage society compared to a civilized and science/trade supported society. Also in temporal mixed genres one may see relative poverty of medieval knights compared to modern stock exchange brokers.
This relative poverty means not that the respective poor, i.e. the cannibal or the knight, starve, but only that they are not as wealthy as the other, and partly even it might be self chosen relative poverty (e.g. the panther girl).

It is very important in this context to define what might be a valid comparison or benchmark for poverty. Every King of every fantasy realm might be well poor if his gold is transfered 1:1 into our world, but in his world he considers himself not even relatively poor but absolutely rich, and also relatively as his wealth might surpass such of any other king on his world. OK, as far as purchasing power / value of money elaborations this guide will not go.

Relative poverty is a matter of what the poor person’s status is compared to. That does not only count for the individual but also for the entire roleplay genre. E.g. if a ruleset states that the inhabitants of a city in the roleplay genre’s world are poor – and not claiming absolutely poor – it means that they are poor in relation to other places of that very roleplay genre’s world, not in comparison to our modern western world (which would render likely a community of high elfs in their romantic groves poor in comparison). It means they are poor in comparison to what in that given world counts as rich (e.g. having a few gold pieces or a horse) and not compared to what in comparison to what counts as rich in our real life world (e.g. a Ferrarri car, a villa, a few million US$ and a yacht). So to speak: from owning a horse to owning nothing is a far shorter way than from owning a yacht to owning nothing.

So to understand how poor a person in that genre’s city is in terms of absolute poverty, one has to apply the correct base of comparison for relative poverty and to understand the default average level of covered needs (see: Maslow), e.g. if the average of society has a just basic stable food supply, the poor of that world will likely starve – with all it means.