Friday, November 10, 2000

A Matter of Honour

by Patrick Brady

Game mechanics are like clothes, we all have our favourites and our pet dislikes, but animosities are aroused when people mistake personal preference for objective truth (except of course when it comes to lime-green shirts, which are of course the work of the devil). It is really not my intention to tell you what to wear or how to game, but I would like to discuss modelling social relationships in a rolegame. The approach will be pragmatic, a description of experience rather than a prescription for anyone but myself.
Many of those experiences come from my Empire of the Petal Throne game (the Hall of Stone campaign), which is now in its tenth year, but the social and psychological models of fantasy worlds are something which I think could be generally more developed than they are. If you think there are better ways to do it, then you're probably right, so when you've perfected your system, test it and write it up. You can compare some of the following with the more sophisticated system in Paul Mason's Outlaws of the Marsh, which is a different line of development from similar roots. The point is that this is an approach which has been field tested, and its continuity is one of its strengths, it works and it has helped me to understand the mechanics of social relationships a little bit better. What follows exists to serve the game, not to be perfect.

A matter of honour
The idea of honour is an important one in many cultures, but in games it is too often modelled as being a psychological problem rather than a reasonable worldview. The most obvious examples are in the point building systems (such as GURPS and Champions) which clearly categorise "Honourable" with "Pyromaniac" and "Berserk". People are lumbered with being honourable, it is implicitly assumed that on balance (even if there may be minor benefits) this is a problem the character has to live with. I think that this is a mistake because it tends to push the group into seeing honour as basically a stick to beat the players with. My preference is for honour to be a link to a life other than our own, characters should be helped and encouraged to think appropriately, as opposed to simply having their character's actions restricted. In a sense, honour should be another place to play, a further dimension for the game rather than a purely personal feature of the character, it should be part of the geography of the world.

Quanta, quanta everywhere...
One of the peculiar conventions of rolegames is that we precisely quantify things, this tendency reached its height in the "twelve million characteristics for every character" approach exemplified by Chivalry and Sorcery and the "this should be a spread sheet not a character sheet" point build games, such as GURPS. Real people do not have such absolute measures of their abilities and some of the things which games treat as important measures are obviously rather arbitrary categories which persist for mainly historical reasons and because we can't think of anything better. Examples of such categories include Dexterity, which seems to be commonly used to refer to everything from hand-eye co-ordination, reflex speed, dancing ability, sense of balance, manual dexterity and how fast you can sprint 100 metres. The idea that you could have such an eclectic aggregate at a specific and precise level is one of the historical oddities of gaming. By the way, intelligence is just a popular superstition.
But we do need systems of measurement and you can classify all systems of measurement into one of four categories, of which two are of immediate interest for gamers. The first type are the nominal systems which allow for categorisation, and such things as gender and character class/occupation/tradition (or whatever euphemism we are using for character class this month) are the obvious examples. The other type are interval systems, using numbers (often integers) to represent a value, and most characteristic schemes fall into this type. What measures we choose will go a long way to defining how the players will interact with the game world.

And that brings me to honour, although not all societies have an explicit honour system, it may be more common than is often recognised. Human groups evolve social systems for the same reasons that they demonstrate aggressive behaviour, it is part of our biology that we do so. There are great differences in expression and some even deny the drive ("this is a classless society") but the interactions, suppressed, denied or misunderstood tend to surface at different times and places. Honour is one of the ways in which the social drive can be channelled, but it exists in numerous variant forms and under different names. For a Goth or a Cyberpunk setting, face is cool and vice versa. In a modern setting, that Columbian drug baron may have a character killed, not because they took his money, but because by doing so they showed him no "respect". Money matters, but respect is crucial. In science fiction games different species are often used to exemplify particular social values, and although "Honour" may not be referred to by name, but themes of correct behaviour and personal loyalty are very common.
So, honour should not be restricted to medieval or oriental cultures, it works in a variety of contexts, A man of honour is not necessarily a likeable man, but he embodies a set of culturally important values, he not only does the right thing, but he avoids doing the wrong thing. His behaviour is therefore quite predictable, once you understand his value system. Those values are not universal constants, they will vary according to the cultural background of the character, they could be courage, honesty, cleverness, loyalty or anything else that the culture glorifies. If you take a look at a societies more successful mythologies, their popular stories, you can often see what they value in a person. For example,

High Noon
"I won't run" - Marshal Kane
The old marshal is a man of honour, he will not run from a fight even though he apparently has no chance of winning. But his refusal puts his deputy and the rest of the town in a situation where they will lose face terribly unless he does run. The Marshal's honour gives him no choice, but it highlights the dishonour of the other townsfolk and denies his deputy the opportunity to gain the respect he so desperately craves.

Star wars
"Your lack of faith disturbs me" - Darth Vader
Vader may not be an obvious candidate for a man of honour, but don't doubt that someone is about to get strangled for his disrespect rather than his lack of religious conviction. Vader identifies with his religion, deny that and you denigrate him. That gets you killed.

The Maltese falcon
"If someone kills your partner, you're expected to do something about it" - Sam Spade.
Spade despises his partner but when that partner is killed, Spade goes after the killer and resists all distractions (even Mary Astor) to fulfil some sort of ideal. Finally he sends his love to the electric chair rather than compromise.

If you live in a culture that values courage above all, then playing chicken on the railway tracks might gain you honour in that culture. The fact that this activity is both stupid and destructive is not the point, its function is to publicise the participants identification with the ideal of courage, not to have any other purpose. So if you attempted the same act in a culture which valued intelligence greatly, doing something as stupid as playing chicken would lead to dishonour. Seen in this light, many forms of apparently deranged behaviour and much posturing are perfectly rational activities. On Tekumel, the violent pyromania that is honourable for a Vimuhla Priest is self-evidently dishonourable for the Priest of Avanthe. Decide who you are, then do the right thing.

The Parallel Economy
Western capitalism uses a nearly universal medium of exchange - Money. The modern idea, that everything has a cash price, should make little sense to any decent Tsolyani. The people of the Five Empires have a different worldview. If capitalism has a single trunk (labelled 'Money') which supports its social system, then Tsolyanu is support by a forest of columns (including 'Rank', 'Honour' and 'Custom' as well as 'Cash'). These are parallel economies and they add depth to relationships in the Five Empires. The currencies of these parallel economies are not completely inter-convertible. It is quite possible to be rich in one and poor in others. So honour can be seen as an economic system rather than a disability, putting it this way should give the players a more intuitive understanding of how they can behave. Each of the pillars of Tsolyani society can be defined in terms of its measures (the cash measures are, of course, already game defined), but this brings us to the mechanics of honour.

Measure for measure
There are two important measures of honour in the Hall of Stone campaign. the first is a characters face rating, this is an interval measure of respect and is rather like a credit rating, it does not wear out but it can be lost or gained. face is not about popularity, it is about your reputation for doing the right thing and the reliability of your behaviour.
Most people exist at a sort of neutral buoyancy, they define the normal level of correct behaviour and therefore define what it is to behave well or badly. So the starting point for face is zero, to gain face is good, to lose it is bad. This is not an absolute scale because it is relative to the norms of a particular society, so the zero point for a Tsolyani is probably higher than for a modern westerner. A higher level of conformity is considered normal by the Tsolyani.
The honourable person moves through his culture like a fish moves through water, the more face he has gained, the easier his passage becomes. A high face rating is therefore rather like being beautiful, it is sufficient in itself to change the way people respond to you. The values of the man of honour are reinforced because they lead to success, he does well by doing the right thing.
Conversely, for the dishonoured the world becomes a harsher place as they are swimming against the tide. It is very important not to confuse this with cultures which value the ideal of the individual or the rebel, a hundred thousand kids dressed like James Dean are all conforming to an ideal of the rebel, which is very different from some actual act of rebellion or dissonance. Attempting to conform to a value of rebelliousness is very different from rebelling against the values of your culture. In a teen culture the dishonoured are the dweebs, the uncool, not the ones in the leather bomber jackets. The dishonoured are never seen as romantic, they are perceived as fools, losers or mad by the surrounding culture. Sometimes they even see themselves that way and the fall from honour can be a long one, especially when it starts to degrade the sense of self.

Face is held in the awareness of the population rather than a vault, so it partially translates to fame. It involves the players in accumulating it, losing it and because it is public it exists externally to the character (see the section on audiovisual whatsits). A person may be dishonoured even though they have done nothing "wrong", all that matters is public perception. It may also have only a tenuous link to legality, if a man attacks your daughter you may be doing "the right thing" by killing him, but in modern Britain you may still go to jail and in Tsolyanu you may be presented with a huge shamtla bill. Honour is also contagious, your level of face may rise or fall due solely to the actions of a relative. The face level of an entire lineage can be altered in this way, as every member will get some fall-out from a major gain/loss of face. The face from social proximity will be a fraction of that gained or lost by the person generating it. For example,

Morusai and Rhan are brothers, and even for lineage mates they are close (in game mechanics the players have agreed a 1/4 relationship). So when Rhan wins a duel in the Hiralakte Arena and gains 4pts of face, Morusai gains 4*1/4=1pt of face as reflected glory. Had Rhan behaved dishonourably then Morusai could have lost face even though he himself had not been directly involved. Relationships can change, but as long as they both gain face, then each is an asset to the other.

This quantifies personal loyalties and relationships, normally people live with the default relationships and this only really becomes an issue if players want to change their relationship with someone. Every cousin in a clanhouse has some relationship with every other, but it is reasonably distant (about 1/20) so it would take a great honour or dishonour for it to directly effect a distant cousin. But, the point of this is that everyone in the clan is linked, however distantly, and great changes in face will spread out through the clan, like ripples on a pond.

"That sonofabitch he show me no respect, I'm gonna kill that sonofabitch ..."
- Al Pacino explaining the honour system in "Scarface".

Arguments between individuals can escalate to minor matters of honour, matters of honour are zero sum games, and can become an important area of conflict for the characters. The first person to back down in such a situation loses face. A matter of honour can start very minor and gradually escalate into something much more serious. So it becomes harder and harder to become "reasonable" as the personal investment increases. For example,

A group of Clan cousins intend to engineer the destruction of a den of thieves and professional gamblers in the slums of Chene Ho. But, they cannot agree on their tactics. Orun hi Kharsan wants to do it one way and Rhan hi Korodu wants to do it another way. They cannot find a compromise and the argument gradually becomes both heated and public. The referee declares that it has become a matter of honour for both men (so, initially 1 point of face is at stake). But, neither Rhan nor Orun is willing to back down, so neither loses face to the other, yet. The matter is gradually escalating and over the course of the next week the stake increases to 2pts of face. The argument is part of the game and leads to quite a bit of roleplaying. Eventually they turn to the Clan elders for arbitration and both get their shot at proving themselves. The one who takes down the opposition is right and can claim an amount of face (from a range given by the referee) from his opponent. Note that this has nothing to do with who is objectively "right", and leads to a race for glory which may not be the best conditions for anyone to achieve their objectives. This is the social dimension to a tactical situation and it's one of the things that make a rolegame different from a skirmish wargame.

Formalising this makes it part of the game rather than simply an argument between two players. This principle also applies between player's characters and NPC and between NPC's. The fear of losing face can be a major motivator. Face can also be lost by neglect and as we use a 3d6 system I classify face into 18pt levels (so 0-18=level one, 19-36= level two and so on). This makes it easy to interpret what characters with large amounts of face can do ("you'd need at least two levels of face to get a sit-down with him") and give a dice roll based on incomplete levels ("you've got one level plus 5pts of face, two levels would be pretty certain so your roll is 5 or less on 3d6). Incomplete levels will also decay with time (roll or -1pt quarterly), but full levels can only be removed by active dishonour.

The second measure of honour used in the Hall of Stone campaign is that of the Favour. Favours are a currency (credits or debits) and an honourable person may have many of both types. Owing favours is in no sense dishonourable and being owed is not inherently honourable, but a dishonourable person will never be offered favours whereas the honourable person will be. Favours are a nominal system, as you either owe a favour to the Temple of Thumis or you don't. A single, well placed favour can be a lifesaver and players tend to remember where they picked them up. So Favours can become both a source of neurosis ("Oh god I still owe the Temple of Sarku don't I") and become a sort of autobiography for the character as the origin and reason for the favours are recorded. Favours are rated for size (from Trivial to Great). Favours are an important enabling device for the players characters as they are a good way to get access to resources in an emergency. Basically if you are willing to owe someone a favour, you can get them to do stuff for you. Favours are particularly useful because they are a tool for the player rather than the referee For example,

Dhala hi Morutess finds herself in a difficult situation in Chene Ho (again !). She needs some sort of backup but none is readily available. Dhala seems to be in a dead end until her player comes up with an interesting suggestion, that she tries to turn an aquaintance with some members of the Legion of Serqu into direct support. The referee points out that they would be doing her a great favour, but the character manages to persuade them on that basis and the plot is driven forward quite dramatically.

Morusai hi Korodu chances upon a Nlyss warband who he may be able to persuade to defect to the Imperium, if he can show them enough gold. Unfortunately Morusai doesn't have that kind of dosh, but he does have some rank in the Imperial bureaucracy and is a Lay-Priest of Karakan, but his status is not that high and the Nlyss frankly couldn't care less. Morusai does not have time to go through channels, this is a once only opportunity. Fortunately, Morusai does have great face, he is known as a man of honour and if he says that he will sort the situation then people tend to believe him. His word is good enough for many people, especially if he already has some rank with them, so he gets a loan from the Temple, some from the local Palace of the Realm and shows the savages something of the glory of the Empire. Even though the cash is reimbursed, Morusai still owes a few favours, but that is more than compensated by the face he gained from bringing a new warband to the defence of the Empire.

So favours can give the initiative back to the player, which is where it should be. They also involve the player in developing the campaign, as in future the character will know where his commitments lie. Instead of having to drop, coerce or cajole characters into future adventures, the seed of the those developments are now part of the character. The player decides where he will look for favours and so has some control over whom he will be indebted to. Being owed favours is also a plot device waiting to happen, rather than have a character develop skills to an insanely high level or collect enough precious metal to fill Switzerland, it means that the character can collect a currency which supports further adventures. If your character has a fortune in gold, then risking his neck any further may seem increasingly implausible, but if the head of the Death Lords and the LAPD both owe him a Favour or two, then his ability to adventure is improved. Translating this situation into cash may actually encourage him to take some further risks so he can make that big score. In short, favours allow the character to be successful without them becoming cash rich.

Favours are actually very flexible (an intelligent player can think of a variety of uses), but they are also localised, so they do not spell death to game balance (an Avanthe scribe who is owed a single Great favour by a High Priest of Sarku may never be in a situation where he can use it and may fervently pray then he never gets to a point where he needs to). A loss of face can be resisted by the special use of a Favour, the Oath. An Oath is a type of Favour, but the recipient is either not designated or it is the person making the oath. This protects you (your honour) by using it (rapidly putting the appropriate currency into your 'account'). For example,

Urutlen has been embarrassed by an unknown poisoner, rather than take the loss of face, he swears that he will owe a Favour to anyone who brings him the name of his enemy. His oath is finely judged to exactly cancel the embarrassment.

Chiringa is slighted by a merchant of the Black Stone Clan. He declares his willingness to duel the entire Clan (a major Oath). This is quite excessive, easily cancelling the embarrassment and bringing a great gain in face for the best dressed killer in Chene Ho.

Other currencies
It is possible to work in other categories of the parallel economy, for example, rank and custom can be given the same treatment as honour. There are also other more marginal dimensions to social inter-action, and the subtle use of threat and bribe can be handled in this way. The smile of a pretty girl may have motivated more activity that history records, and a lot of money is earned to purchase intangibles such as status or even just the ability to live in obscurity. The cost of conformity can be significant.

Audio-visual whatsits
Rolegames are fundamentally verbal forms (the LARPers are an exception and are something different from tabletop gaming). This is the basis for our hobby, but it does have it's limitations when it comes to representing some sorts of social measure. Although it is obviously possible to attempt to convey the social rank, face level etc of a character in normal verbal communication, it is intermittent and it would tend to get in the way. Social measures like honour should be the social property of the group, not something that sits on a character sheet or gets in the way of the game. To this end I use two main types of visual aids.
Firstly there is a face chart, a line graph that traces the rise and fall of the characters face score over time. So everyone can see their position relative to the other characters. The back of the face chart has the public reputation of the character (up to a paragraph each). Some characters have no reputation, but even that is public property. Generally this tends to make players see the value of honour, for more or less the same reason it works in the real world. Even if you're too sensible to be a gloryhound it is nice to know you get respect. The face chart sits in the middle of the gaming table.
Second, there are the badges. The Tsolyani are a very label conscious society, everyone carries their personal heraldry and in my game so do the players. If you've ever put on a mask you'll know the difference in feel it can produce, having physical symbols of membership and allegiance is useful in encouraging identification with the character. Whereas masks are too clumsy and uncomfortable to be useful in a regular game, I do provide every player with the appropriate badges to represent their character's heraldry. So every player can see the allegiances of every other player without having to discuss them or point them out. Just try sitting there with a Ksarul symbol on when all around you is the grey of Lord Thumis and you'll soon find out about the importance of visible allegiance in Tsolyani society. For the group "badging up" is the signal for the roleplaying to begin.

Conclusions ?
Ah ! The trick is to keep the ball in the air, not to reach a conclusion. The approach I've discussed will probably evolve somewhat, and I'm always open to good ideas, but radical change would be missing the point. The player's familiarity with the system is important, it reflects the intuitive understanding that their characters would have. So, these mechanics work and honour can add an important dimension to the game. Try it, you might like it.

This article was originally published in Imazine 27.