Fairness tends to be the core principle of any point-buy character creation system. You give every player the same number of points, and so long as the game is well designed each character will be equally capable; or at least appropriately capable for the choices that the player has made.
The scholar-athlete may be a strong, well rounded character, but he cannot out study the pure scholar or out perform the pure athlete. It’s not a perfect model, but it is ultimately fair – especially for characters at the beginning of their career.
And if someone want’s to give up a little of their competence in order to play an upper class twit who has been promoted past their capabilities, that’s entirely in keeping with the system.
However, if the game is set in a meritocracy – things can get ugly fast. If you reward great accomplishment with a noticeable promotion, the player who bought status is going to wonder why they invested so many resources in an advantage that can be wiped out on a whim.
Conversely, status always trumps accomplishment, there’s a very good chance that you’ll end up in a bidding war – with each player creating ever more incompetent characters in order to get the points necessary to buy better and better status. And it gets even worse if you require players to pay experience to gain a promotion, as you have essentially created a world where higher status must (by necessity) equate to less ability.
Authority Off Limits
One solution is to place Authority off-limits. This is basically what In Nomine does. Starting characters are barred from taking Distinctions and Words (which is kind of a pity, since it eliminates a whole category of adventure).
It is still possible to buy Corporeal status, but everyone knows it’s temporary and don’t reflect a character’s Celestial standing.
This approach breaks down in “veteran” campaigns when the premise of inexperience has been removed. However, the In Nomine approach does bring up another solution.
Split Status and Authority
One of the main problems with purchased authority is that it is inherently self-defeating. The very act of paying for your rank makes you less likely to be able to keep it or seek further promotion. The trick is to therefore give the ‘paid’ status valuable in ways beyond just the authority it grants.
You could, for example, create certain competency requirements for any position of authority – and reduce them for anyone character who has paid for status. At the beginning of the game, the difference would be academic, but as the game progressed the character who had spent more on status would be able to move more freely between jobs because the requirements are relaxed, while the character with authority alone would have to decide between staying in their area of specialty, developing a whole new skill set, or advancing their status in order to open up more lateral mobility.
Embrace the Divine Right of Kings
There is another approach. Burning Wheel typically gives characters with higher social standing more skills and resources. Because anyone could chose to be a noble, this can be argued to be fair from a character creation standpoint – and because nobles are given more skills and traits, their advancement is clearly justified.
Of course, not everyone believes that those in high position have really done more to deserve it…