To make it clear, this is an idea separate from experience. Experience systems in roleplaying games tend to be a way that the character learns from the events they participate in, they may gain knowledge from overcoming a monster or they may improve their skills by repetitive use. Experience is a measure of how a character develops within themselves, renown and prestige systems are ways in which the character is perceived by the community around them.
In many games, the two are intrinsically interlinked. An adventurer in old-school D&D gradually fights enough monsters and overcomes enough encounters, through this time they become known in the local community and when they develop enough power there comes a time when followers flock to them and eventually they might even build a castle or stronghold of their own.
But the paradigm starts to crumble with characters like assassins who try to remain as secretive as possible, or rangers and barbarians who live far from the eyes of the civilised world.
There have been a few games that have deliberately kept the two ideas separate. One system measures the growth within the individual, and another system measures their standing within the community.
From my experience, the most elegant system for separately tracking renown and experience can be found in White Wolf’s Werewolf the Apocalypse. In this game every characters has a defined role within their pack, and every pack has a defined role within the greater society of their local community. Different characters are expected to do different things to keep things running smoothly. The warriors are expected to fight, the mystics are expected to deal with the spirits, the peacekeepers are expected to resolve disputes. Beyond these specific ideals, the wider community are expected to uphold the laws of their people, they are expected never to become corrupted by the dark forces destroying the world, and they are expected to give their all in the face of overwhelming odds.
Experience in Werewolf is pretty linear. If you survive a session you gain a point, if you do well for purposes of story or overcoming dramatic odds you gain a point, you might gain a point for other reasons determined by the GM. Accumulate enough of these points over a number of sessions and you can buy increases to your attributes and abilities, or you might be able to buy special supernatural gifts (more about gifts later).
Renown is in a state of flux, and it is divided into three types: Glory, Honour and Wisdom. Vanquishing monsters and raging against the horrors of the world are glorious actions. Working together and doing things according to tradition are honourable actions. Using the tricks at your disposal or communing with the spirits are wise actions. Different actions are worth different amounts. This means that there are actions of lesser glory and actions of greater glory. The more extravagant your actions the more renown you gain.
But renown can also be lost. Running from battle may result in lost glory, betraying someone may cause a loss of honour, and acting in a foolhardy manner may incur a loss of wisdom.
With this in mind, a single action may increase one form of renown while reducing another. Sacrificing a holy relic to vanquish a foe for the greater good may incur a gain of glory, and a loss of wisdom or honour.
In this game, the more renown you accumulate the more known you are for your deeds. If a warrior earns enough glory they may increase ranks (they also need to have some honour and wisdom to do this, but their focus is to be glorious in battle). There is nothing to stop a warrior from being sneaky, playing the role of the peacemaker, or even dealing with spirits…but as a warrior they are expected to fight, this is their place in society. A warrior who earns ranks through their prestige gains access to better gifts. The spirits respect those who know their place in the order of things.
The Hengeyokai books for Werewolf describe an Asian court of assorted shapeshifting animals, and they expand the notion of renown even further. In this variant setting, characters can pursue the renown that is important to their own animal type, or the renown that is respected by the court. Either path of renown gives specific benefits; and there is also the complication that choosing one side over the other gives a clear indication of your character’s political leanings. I’d love to play a more in-depth campaign for this setting, but I just haven’t had the chance.
There can be an interesting reflection of real life in this system. I’ve seen it played out in the tabletop version of the game, and the many years I was involved in a live action campaign (starting as a lowly cub and gradually working my way up to the role of Sydney’s alpha). The concepts of privilege and caste can be deconstructed with it.
A character who comes from good stock may have connections willing speak of his deeds, exaggerating his virtues and downplaying his vices. Such a character may rapidly gain renown while earning experience at the typical rate. Another character may come from the wrong side of the tracks, she might earn experience just as quickly but might find it hard to get her actions recognised among the community. In this example, he might quickly rise to a place of prominence despite not having the experience or power to really make wise decisions for the community, she might hate the system for putting her down (or she might choose to stir rebellion, or simply act as a lowly figure of power away from the community spotlight).
Characters can play to stereotypes in this system. A warrior can be a fierce fighter who rushes honourably into the fray. Doing so will earn them renown according to the will of the community and the spirits. Such a character will find it easy to gain the ranks necessary to become a true hero. But they can just as easily play against stereotypes. A peacemaker might prefer to deal with the spirits, annoyed by the social position bestowed by the timing of their birth. These characters may find it harder to quickly ascend the ranks; but when they finally do arrive, they become a more rounded and potentially more dangerous individual.
A system of renown also allows for some tricks that heighten the tension in storytelling.
The character who once had a great deal of renown, but who has lost his ranks due to a serious mistake (he still has the powers granted by his previous rank, but is no longer spoken about openly).
The character who has spent time in the wilderness away from the politics of rank and renown, no one knows what she has learned, and formally she is of low rank…but she could have anything up her sleeve.
The character who wants to die, he rushes into battle against terrible opponents only to survive, gain renown and become more powerful in the eyes of his community. Yet still he just wants to die in glorious battle.
You don’t need to get as complex as these ideas, but by applying a simple renown system over the existing experience system found in most RPGs, the storytelling potential increases exponentially.
One of the biggest disadvantages of a renown system is the added book-keeping involved. No longer are you merely tracking the linear growth according the accomplished deeds, now you are tracking the influence these deeds have on the community, and the notoriety gained by the individuals who performed them. Reducing the renown system to a single type, such as “fame”, might solve some of the book-keeping issues. But reducing it in this way cuts away some of the interesting richness and complexity derived from achieving different sorts of prestige for different types of action.
The other disadvantage comes in the knowledge of what gains renown, and what causes its loss. In the various editions of Werewolf, renown has gone from a small table of ideas (with other renown accruing deeds defined by the GM), to a huge table covering several pages. While this may add richness to a setting, it also brings those annoying moments when people go running to the book and start rummaging through the tables to start cross referencing mechanisms…which generally slows down the game. And while this may be just one of my pet peeves, I’ve seen it cause issues in all sorts of gaming groups.
There are lots of ways that you could integrate a renown system into a game. Perhaps allowing those characters with higher renown to gain some kind of advantage depending on the type of renown they had earned. You don’t need to make the more renowned characters able to access more powerful supernatural effects, you could easily apply it to more mundane situations.
A character known for dealing fairly might get a better price in the markets.
A character known for being more mystical might draw a stronger response (positive or negative) from the local clergy.
A more fearsome character might be able to scare away opponents in battle (simply by virtue of their reputation).
These ideas can really be used to drive the themes of a game. The risk is throwing in too many options and diluting those themes. Keep the renown linked to the ideas you want the story to tell, frame the renown accruing actions toward events that you’d like to see in play, and make the renown losing actions important as decisions the characters might have to face.
In theory, a good system of renown could be an interesting counterpart to a morality system. But instead of something focused inward to the characters beliefs, it is something focused outward between the characters actions and the outside world.