Asheron’s Call launched with a variation on what we would now call guilds. (The system has changed over time, and a version appeared in Asheron’s Call 2.) It was an “allegiance” system based on “patrons” and “vassals.” Throw out your existing ideas of how guilds work and start fresh for this history lesson.
(Some of these mechanics may have changed since I stopped playing.)
Any player can swear allegiance to any other player of equal or higher level. The person swearing allegiance is the vassal and the recipient is the patron. When the vassal earns experience, extra experience is generated for the patron (not taken away from the vassal, just bonus). It is not a bonanza for the patron, although having multiple active vassals could lead to leveling while just standing there. Experience is similarly passed upwards to your patron’s patron, all the way to the top person who has no patron, the “monarch.” As far as game mechanics go, that’s it; the rest of the system comes from secondary and social effects.
There is an implication that the patron owes something to the vassal. Not all patrons do much, and not all vassals are worth much, but there is a social expectation that you owe something for the experience you are receiving. On the other hand, you could also see this as your reward for time spent in guild leadership. While you are organizing events, recruiting people, moderating disputes, etc., you are not out there killing monsters and leveling. This “pays for” that time. In practice, this is not enormously far from how it has (had) worked in-game. Newer players get assistance and pay for it in patronage experience.
(I’m switching to past tense, since I’m talking about my experience. I feel old.)
There is an obvious mechanical advantage to maximizing the gain from allegiances. Some groups of friends would pick one to be at the top of the pyramid, perhaps the one who played the least. There were some high profile fallings-out when very active players got tired of someone else leveling off their work and getting a “monarch” title to boot. A mercenary take came from “experience chains”: once the mechanics were fully mapped, allegiances formed based on the maximum conservation and sharing of experience earned and passed. You could productively level yourself by power-leveling someone several steps down the chain from you, both in terms of immediate pass-through and how much more this person can now earn on his/her own. This led to some of the highest level groups in the early years, and if you were a part of an experience chain, you knew you were with like-minded people who were all about hardcore leveling and optimization.
One effect of this was to wrap in rewards for recruiting your friends. It’s a pyramid scheme. I recruit you because I want the free experience you will generate for me. You recruit your friends. Get all your friends to play — we will be the biggest, most powerful guild in the game! In practice, this was not a huge draw, as may be suggested by Asheron’s Call’s place as the third of three in its MMO generation. Patronage had both mechanical and social problems as a recruitment mechanism.
Mechanically, new players were worth jack. Asheron’s Call had a soft cap for experience points, so you could always use more, but you could reach the point where it took billions of xp to earn one point of anything. A level 20 character had earned about one million xp total. If my next point of War Magic costs more than you will earn in the next 20 levels, and you only pass up a moderate percentage of that anyway, you have nothing to offer me. A level 1 vassal has something to offer to a level 4 patron, and a level 80 to a level 100, but the veterans have no incentive to recruit newbies; even if you are playing the long game, most newbies will abandon you before the investment pays off.
Socially, the ties of obligation led to much heartache. Some people were quite happy; vassals competed for who could pass up the most xp this week, or monarchs took support roles to help their folks advance. Other allegiances dissolved or exploded as entitlement, ingratitude, and differing expectations led to conflict. You always deserve more; you are never given enough honor or treasure. Why isn’t this patron doing more for the experience you pass up? Why does this vassal think I owe him something for the trickle of experience? Doesn’t (either) he see how much I am doing for him and getting jack in return? Those experience chains were often the most harmonious because they had explicit contracts so everyone had the same expectations.
A social element was that the name of your patron and monarch were visible whenever anyone examined you. Before you recruit this guy, are you willing to put your name on his back if he engages in bad behavior? Allegiances were most commonly identified by their monarchs. It was not just that your guild had a bad name; you get a bad name if you have bad people in your monarchy. You have someone to call if some jerk is kill-stealing, although you may need to jump straight to the monarch since his patron is his friend, whose patron is an alt from that first character, who is sworn to an alt from that second account, or maybe they tied in a third friend, and you can see how it became difficult for some monarchs to find rotten eggs, dead branches, and other mixed metaphors.