Class and Status in the Phoenix Empire
Though the Lost Province campaign takes place largely in a land beyond the Empire's current borders, the Phoenix Empire is the homeland of many NPCs the party may encounter and, in all likelihood, many of the PCs. The class structure of the Phoenix Empire need not be replicated in the PCs' kingdom – its complexity stems in large part from the Empire's scale – but will colour the expectations and experiences of the NPCs with whom they interact.
The Imperial Household
Ultimate authority in the Empire rests in the hands of the reigning Phoenix Emperor (or Empress) and his household – his spouse, children, a handful of close relatives, and various trusted friends, hand-picked advisers, and favoured consorts. In theory, the Emperor's household is supposed to offer alternative perspectives, moderate his whims, insulate him from malign influences, and generally guide him towards the morally correct course of action. In practice, a weak Emperor may readily become beholden to the whims of his household, with a scheming vizier or domineering spouse wielding true power. Empress Su-Minh is not yet married, though she has several suitors and known consorts, and has been careful not to give the appearance of showing excessive favour to her own noble house, the Fenghwa family, in the selection of her aides and advisers.
Nobles, Priests, and Bureaucrats
Directly below the Imperial household are the 'Three Pillars' of Imperial society: the nobility, the priesthood, and the bureaucracy. Phoenix Emperor Shen-Lun established these three hierarchies with the intent that the ambitions and extremes of each would be reigned in by the other two. At the very top of each 'pillar' is a debating chamber – the Senate, the Spiritual Deliberative, and the Ministerial Deliberative – which functions as an organ of the Imperial government, below which sprawls a complex and many-tiered hierarchy. Each pillar administers its own internal justice, and all three may administer justice to patricians and peasants; members of one hierarchy dissatisfied with a judgement pronounced against them may appeal to another for review (for example, a bureaucrat who feels he has been unjustly punished by a superior may ask a noble patron to intervene). It is also not uncommon for junior members of one pillar to seek advancement in another, such as in the case of minor noble with minimal inheritance prospects seeking acceptance into the bureaucracy or the priesthood. Most land is owned by nobles, who lease it (or are compelled by the Phoenix Throne to lease it) to patricians or the other pillars; the land upon which major cities are built is instead owned by the Phoenix Throne itself.
The patricians are a citizen class of merchants, scholars, artisans, and professionals. Most urban patricians own (or aspire to own) a house, garden, and place of business, while those in rural areas often oversee farms, orchards, or plantations; complex leasing law offers protection to those patricians who build their homes and businesses on land yet owned by nobles. Career soldiers and the skilled staff and retainers of the nobility are also likely to be patricians. Especially successful and wealthy patricians may actually enjoy more comfortable lives than some nobles, and it is not uncommon for the nobility, the priesthood, or the bureaucracy to recruit talented patricians into their ranks.
This class encompasses farmers, labourers, household servants, and those in 'coarse' occupations. Peasants typically lease or rent their accommodations, and those in rural areas are often tenant farmers. Leases and contracts of employment tend to favour patricians and nobles heavily over peasants, though Imperial inspections and the right of appeal mitigate the worst abuses. Peasant levies be called up to serve in provincial armies in times of war, though the details of this arrangement vary from one province to the next.
Slaves and Criminals
At the very bottom of the social order are slaves and criminals – the two groups are broadly considered one and the same. The Empire does not practice lifelong slavery; all enslavement is for a set term, though it is entirely possible for slaves in hazardous occupations to die before their term of enslavement is over. Slavery is one of the three most common punishments for criminal acts, the others two being fines and execution. All slaves are owned by the Empire itself, but Imperial bureaucrats may delegate authority over particular slaves to private individuals, who are said to hold their slaves, rather than to own them. Aside from criminals, captives taken in war are also commonly enslaved. Slaveholders are required by law to treat their slaves fairly – a slave may not be starved, beaten without cause, or killed out of hand, though a slave's opportunities to appeal his mistreatment to a slaveholder's superiors may be rather limited.
Outlaws and the Disenfranchised
Criminals who escape capture and trial are usually declared outlaws – literally, outside of the law and its protections. Outlaws may be killed out of hand, without legal consequence. More often, a person who refuses or fails to perform the duties of his station without committing a specific, criminal act may be reduced in status or disenfranchised. Grossly criminal acts against the disenfranchised – theft, murder, assault – are still punished, but they otherwise have few rights or protections.
Career adventurers do not fit neatly into the Empire's social strata. Those who have not begun to make their reputation may find themselves treated little better than the disenfranchised, widely distrusted and harassed. As they establish their names, they may find themselves received in a manner similar to comfortable patricians, though still lacking some of the protections of that class. Famous adventurers are likely to be courted by the nobility, with the lavish treatment and renown that entails, but would be ill-advised to rebuke such overtures.