In a friend's game recently he made a point while presenting a group of people that they had servants, not slaves. After the session we were discussing the game, and he asked if there was anything he could have done better in presenting the people the PCs met. We talked a bit about his goals, and it sounded like his hope was to present how these people operated quickly so we could get a sense of how they were similar to what we expected, but also different from other groups with a similar background (incredible amounts of wealth, fashion, the 'elite' of society as it were.)
For this I honed in on the servants. Part of this is my own character has a background of being a slave. They know what it is like. Also, from their background, they will notice if servant is just a slightly better compensated slave or actually deemed a full on person with rights, responsibilities, and treated as such. I mentioned this, that seeing more of how the servants were servants would be a very efficient way to show the character of the people we were working with.
Over the course of the conversation it expanded into needing to be more than just the lady in charge addressing the servants by name - that could just be your 'normal' hyper competent web weaver. But a quick way to show the difference would be to see the unnamed NPCs interacting with the servants, and to see there if they treat the servants like slaves (anyone who works retail knows what I mean here) or as valued members of the team. In specific, the idea came to me, that seeing a servant say 'no' to someone about something reasonable because they were busy, and that no being accepted would be the fastest, strongest indicator of status for the servants.
Saying No Is Power
Power, in a sociological sense, can be defined as the ability for A to get what it wants from B without B being able to do anything about it. If you can get something from a person, how capable they are of preventing you from getting that thing determines how much power over them you have. If they have no grounds for refusal, you have absolute power (in this matter.) If they can slow you down or otherwise stall, you have less power over them. You get the idea.
Because of this, refusing a request is an exertion of power. Someone is trying to get something from you, and you are denying their attempt. You are not expressing power over them, but rather expressing that in this case they do not have power over you.
Building Fantastical Worlds, Societies, and Cultures
As Game Masters we are often building worlds, and with those worlds we build the peoples and cultures in the world. Even if we're running in an established world, we are presenting the people and cultures therein for our gaming tables. The dynamics of social power can be tricky, but they can also be very important. And one fast way to figure out who has power and where, is to answer the question I titled this post with.
"Who can say no, and to whom can they say no to?"
History is full of stories of servants, messengers, and vassals being punished to varying levels of severity for refusing a royal command. Modern life is full of examples of people resigning or being fired because they will not comply with requests or directions given them. The stereotypical middle manager stands on the letter of the law of policy, refusing progress, because it is the only way they can express their power.
Who can say no? Who can they say no to? And why can they say no to them?
The Other Side of Refusal
There is also the other part of no that is good to look at from a narrative and GM perspective. How do people react to being told no? There are lots of pretty ways people use to hide or explain their negative reaction to a no, blaming the reaction not on the 'no' itself but the way the 'no' was given, but that is mostly just that: obfuscation.
PCs in my experience do not like being told no. And when you consider that for a lot of people RPGs are a power fantasy, that makes total sense. You do not feel powerful when you are told no, and if you came to the table to feel powerful that can lead to a "well I'll show them what I can and can't do!" reaction.
Tell your PCs no. See how they react. See who they react that way too.
Put your PCs in a position to tell people no, and have those NPCs react in different ways. The people who respect the no will be seen better than those who take it as an aggression. But some of the most fun, and tense conversation you can have in a game is when an NPC pitches something to the PCs (or vice versa) it is refused, but the conversation goes on politely with both sides knowing that they are now on opposite sides of a coming conflict.
Find out who can say no in your world. Find out how people react to being told no. It is a quick and simple way to show the 'truth' of who a character is, or pretending to be.