Playing High and Low Status
Status transactions are a part of your daily life, whether you realize it or not. Once you learn to look for them, you’ll start seeing them all around you – especially when two strangers interact. Watching, for instance, people take orders at a fast food chain can be an enlightening and entertaining experience for seeing different kinds of status play in action.
I’m getting ahead of myself. What do I mean by status here, in this context?How is it useful to us when creating characters in Dungeons and Dragons?
Riding the See-Saw
In his book, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, Keith Johnstone describes the give and take of status transactions between people as a see-saw. When one person takes on a low status, they raise those around them. Similarly, taking on a high status lowers the status of others in the interaction.
The party finds themselves holding audience with a powerful king, a figure who is accustomed to holding the highest status in the room. No matter how well renowned or respected these adventurers may be, to the king they’re just mercenaries with delusions of grandeur at best and dangerous at worst. The party will likely need to take on a lower status to avoid trouble or conflict in this interaction, properly bowing to the king and using his title to acknowledge his authority. If they walk in and try to overtly take high status by refusing to bow or calling the king by his first name, they are effectively lowering the status of the king – which is not likely to end well!
The same party may then make their way to a local bar, where stories of their deeds have reached the people and they are treated with extreme reverence. The very same people that were forced to wear low status before suddenly have high status thrust upon them, as they are uplifted by all their fans peppering them with attention and praise.
For an improviser, being aware of these changes in status can inform your character choices and give you something to fall back on when you aren’t sure what to do next. When in doubt, you can play your status in the scene. The same is true for those of us applying these lessons to our Dungeons and Dragons games!
High Status vs. Low Status
How do you play these different levels of status? The good news is you already do this all the time. Take some time to think about the status interactions taking place in your day to day life, and you’ll find many of these answers on your own.
By nature, status is something we wear but are not usually aware of. It is communicated not just through words, but mostly through body language and action. The interaction is almost entirely subconscious. You may realize that you tend to listen when someone speaks, but you don’t know what about them demands your attention. We like to think of this as an “indefinable” element, but the secret is it is absolutely measurable and replicable. Actors have known this for ages. It’s just difficult to train yourself to wear a status you don’t own.
How do you fake it? Here’s a good start:
High status tends towards stillness and decisiveness in movement. A high status person holds eye contact, doesn’t look back when eye contact is broken, stands or sits upright, holds their head still when they speak, expects others to move from their path when they walk, and so on. True high status does not have to fight for it, they own it.
Low status tends towards motion and indecisiveness. A low status person will break eye contact when someone looks at them, perhaps even steal a surreptitious second glance as they look away. They move and gesticulate when they speak. When we wear low status, we often visibly hunch in posture to make ourselves look smaller and less threatening. Want to see low status in action? Watch a comedy routine. The best comedians are masters of status play, especially when it comes to taking on low status to uplift the audience. Why do you think monarchs liked to keep the jester around?
It’s not so simple or binary in practice, of course. Typically high status people find themselves forced into low status positions. Two high status individuals meet and neither are willing to back down from their perch. Low status individuals try to pretend at high status but can’t quite pull it off. Finding the shades of those two colors reveals an incredible range of possibilities from scene to scene, and gives you plenty of meat to create dramatic situations.
Status and Power
In practice, status usually comes from position and power in human interactions. The examples I listed above demonstrate this interplay; it’s usually clear who holds the power in a given scene, and that person tends to own the high status if they choose to. A king adopting low status in their own throne room, for instance, should be an intentional choice. They have the power there, they have the high status by default.
In most situations where someone clearly should be holding the higher status, it is an overt threat to that status if you attempt to adopt one higher than them. Meeting high status with high status when you don’t have the power in a situation doesn’t usually work well. You can maintain a high status demeanor, but only if you acknowledge the authority of the other high status person in the room.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t take or hold the power in a scene as a low status character. Low status can be played with cunning; trying to misbehave without the master catching on. Low status power usually takes the form of trickery, and involves misleading the less intelligent, crafty, or worldly high status character. When done right, a low status character can play the high status character like a harp – acknowledging their supposed dominance while secretly undermining it.
Using Status in Game
Bringing it back home to Dungeons and Dragons: how can we use this in our games?
Knowing what status your character tends to rely on in social interactions tells you a lot about them, and gives you a direction when you aren’t sure what your character would do next. Playing a stuck-up Paladin absolutely sure of their righteousness? Default to high status, even and especially when it gets you into trouble. Know what you want and go directly for it. Tricksy roguish type? You’re going to be playing low status most the time to keep those around you off guard. Look for covert ways to get what you want without direct confrontation.
This is especially useful for Dungeon Masters. When you’re improvising a character on the fly, defining their status in the scene already does most of the work for you in making the interaction play out believably. When you’re ready to have some fun with the idea, start seeing what happens when you flip that status on its head during the scene. Play the shopkeeper as a proud, high status individual who desperately needs to make this sale to the party to keep their business afloat, and watch the status flip slowly as it looks more and more like the party might leave without buying.
Changes in status can lead to great comedy and drama; knowing how to manipulate this dynamic in your characters and scenes is an invaluable tool for any role-player.