Friday, October 5, 2012

On Honor: L5R Homebrew Planning (Three)

I've been working on the mechanics for our next campaign, an adaptation of L5R to the homebrew we've been playing for a number of years. That's Action Cards, our rules-light system using aspects like FATE. In it each player has an individual and unique deck of cards representing their character. Normally I might have stuck with the base L5R system, but the group has become accustomed to AC and requested that we use it. More about the group's choice for campaign can be found here.

I've posted earlier about this design process:
The New Dragon: L5R Campaign Planning (Post One)
The New Dragon: Building the Family (Post Two)

I want to consider the role of honor in a samurai game. Honor’s an abstract concept, one of many within the setting. If you want to emulate a samurai and pseudo-samurai setting you have to take these into consideration. Well, for the most part; I assume a purely Ronin game might not use these concepts as much. But things like status, glory, reputation, and honor usually appear in these kinds of games, so I want to look at them. I’m leaving out some abstractions, like ki, chi, insight. Those usually reflect levels and more mechanical aspects of the game, like combat. Some games conflate different terms, so let me start by setting up those:

Status/Rank: Status is conferred on a character. It represents social rank and position. In a samurai game, most PCs will be of a standard bushi class. Some games have different ranks depending on the relative strength and pull of the family. You could simulate this with different advantages or disadvantages during character creation. But let’s assume that the PCs have a standard samurai class status. There are a couple of axes you can measure status from there. One the one hand, there’s the hierarchy of status. People above and below the character’s rank. Above’s probably the most important, so characters with an Office or Position, belonging to the Inner Circle, etc. will be of that higher status. Players will probably aspire to raise their status by obtaining a position, or less obviously, marrying into a better family. On the other hand, there’s positional status based on type- for example in most samurai games with read the status of a shugenja, monk, or courtier as slightly different. They have a parallel rank to the classic bushi samurai, but they possess distinct obligations and behaviors.

How Does This Come Into Play? So most often, status is used for patronage and obstacles. A higher status person sends orders down to the PC or the players try to curry the favor of someone in a particular position. It is also used to demonstrate the difficulty of acting against someone- saying an enemy has a higher status indicates a greater challenge. They have greater access to resources, can call in favors, or the punishment for crossing them will be severe. This is most often a meta-conceit, built into the narrative rather than mechanical.

Some games include a ranked list of status levels (GURPS, Bushido, for example). Status, in play, is generally fixed, rather than being incremental (i.e. slowly accruing status over time). I imagine an increase in status coming as a reward for service, rather than something players can buy. The real question is how status modifies things like social combat. If two characters have differing levels of status, but exist in the same strata, then the character with the higher rank has an advantage. If we went to tested social combat, I’d give them a circumstance benefit, bonus stress, resistance, higher damage or the like. Perhaps if we wanted to formalize it, the higher status person could pick their bennies in the situation. Say they had a two-step advantage; they could pick more social damage and social “armor.” On the one hand, that’s especially cool in a setting which has courtiers. On the other, it adds some more complexity. However, there come times when social rank doesn’t matter- for example when dealing with people outside of one’s strata- peasants may not be subject to the same social forces as samurai. So should those relations be ignored? I’m not sure, that’s complicated and subjective which makes me leery of codifying those mechanics.

Reputation: In some systems, reputation is read as repute- in which case it works as Glory (below). In some systems players can obtain a specific reputation, used as a modifier for reaction rolls in certain situations. “Master of the Invisible Strike,” “Hero of the Battle of Fallen Timbers,” or “Backstabbing Drunken Oaf.” Obviously, if needed, these can be handled as aspects in a FATE game.

How Does This Come Into Play? In most games I’ve seen players purchase these kinds of things at the start. They then have to remember to bring them in. In a FATE game, reputation aspects fit into the standard play mode. So a player can invoke the reputation for a positive effect or the GM for a trouble effect. Of course that assumes a kind of fixed and hard-wired approach. In GURPS for example, you pay points for a reputation. In FATE, a reputation aspect takes up one of your slots. A way to make this more flexible is to borrow Legends of Anglerre’s concept of plot stress. Essentially, these represent aspects a player can use for a little while. In LoA, an aspect with plot stress can be used a certain number of times before it generates a problem- a story event or something which needs to be done. For example, if someone has “Sheriff of Highgate” as an aspect- after a certain number of uses, problems would arise at Highgate which need to be solved. Here a reputation could be gained, for good or ill. If traded on, then the player marks a box on it. Once the boxes associated with it have been used up then the rep has lost its power. The player has to do something to reestablish it or do something to create a new rep to replace it.

Glory/Fame: Some games use the concept of accumulated fame- often from battles. This provides a Glory rank, showing how famous a character is compared to another. Fame can be gained for battles, artisanal creations, and legendary actions. Some schools, like the Ikoma Bards, particularly work with manipulating fame and glory. Glory’s an external trait- which has to have witnesses and be spread around. The weird thing about glory is that it gets read as a “stat” in many samurai games. But effectively it is a kind of status rank, gained in play.

How Does This Come Into Play? To focus on the way I want to use this, acts which would generate glory and fame can create a reputation as I mentioned above. These would be temporary aspects with plot stress- as they’re used, they get worn out. Eventually you can no longer invoke your fame (or notoriety) for effect.

Honor: This is the key abstraction for a samurai campaign. Honor generally represents an internal attitude- a reflection of sense of self. Some games read it a little more like Glory, but generally it is about a character’s adherence to a code- and it can rise or fall regardless of witnesses. So how do different games present honor:
  • Resistance: Honor can be used as a test to resist temptations or compels. In some cases this is a testable trait. In others, it might require the spend of an honor resource to avoid the effect.
  • Level: Honor is a measure of the worth or experience of a character. In the case of worth, it offers a way of judging NPCs and the like. In some games, like Bushido, certain honor minimums are necessary for leveling. So in that game system, all high level characters have high honor totals. 

  • Reactions: Honor can be used as a modifier for interactions. High honor people can gain a benefit, and low honor people, a penalty. 

  • Visibility: In some systems, samurai can make a test to judge the relative or absolute honor of a target. These kinds of games often present an option for sneaky people to conceal or falsify their honor. So we might have actual vs. apparent honor. 
  • Bonus: Situational bonuses- often tied to special abilities. For example, a duelist might be able to substitute their honor rating or value for another trait.
  • Measurable: Honor systems usually have a score- sometimes ranks, and sometimes point accumulations. These can change over time. 
  • Relativity: Different roles assign differing values to virtues and therefore gain or lose honor differently. In L5R those are based on Clan values. But it can also be modified by the role of a character. It also can be based on the level of a character’s honor. It is easier for a high honor person to fall- they find themselves tested constantly. It is also harder for them to advance. On the other hand, it is more difficult for a low honor person to fall, since they’re already towards the bottom. If a group of varying honor levels gains honor for an action, high honor people may not gain as much as others. 
  • Outside of Combat: Actions adhering to the bushido virtues without resorting to the sword can gain honor. Diplomatic actions, artistic creations, or demonstrations of skill can impact this.
  • Reward: Honor systems often reward good behavior of some kinds. L5R offers a mechanic where the differing values of the clans affect the level of those rewards. Reward systems often require not just good behavior, but that behavior in the face of a challenge. Sacrifice and difficulty impact the reward. Some have it as a role-playing award. Honor rewards may be used to keep play in line- by affirming things which fit. 
  • Punishment: The flip side is that honor can also be used to punish bad behavior. This can also be intended to keep play in line. Play which violates the bushido code merits a drop. This particular aspect is tough to handle. It requires adjudicating a player’s personal decisions and morality. Nearly all of the rules I’ve seen talk about being careful when assigning losses. That’s striking- and suggests that there may be a fundamental flaw to that. You could take that in a couple of ways- one might be that the idea of penalties itself doesn’t work at the table. Another might be that gamers are babies and should learn to suck it up. Yet another might be that games need a set of mechanics to replace the subjectivity of these kinds of decisions. I’m not sure where I fall on this- but the difficulties and glossed over problem of legislated morality in rpgs is something for another day. 

How Does This Come Into Play? Very differently, depending on the system. My goal is to come up with an Honor system that works within our FATE-influenced homebrew system. I have an idea I’m working through that I’m not entirely sure about yet. Here’s the basic form.

Each player chooses three of the seven bushido virtues to be key to their identity- one primary and two secondary. The primary virtue of their family must be one of those three. (Optional (?): each player can set one virtue as least important).

Players begin each session with a standard Fate Pool of five points. Some of those Fate points are actually Honor Points, based on the character’s starting honor rank. PC’s will start at an Honor of two, unless they choose an advantage/disadvantage.

In this system, these points can always be spent for one of four effects. The first three of these require the character invoke an aspect:
  • Gain a bonus
  • Take a redraw
  • Change something about a scene
  • Activate a power or advantage. 
Honor points can work like that, but also have some additional potential benefits:
  • Utilize a bushido virtue special ability. Each virtue would have a once per scene (session?) ability a player could spend an Honor Point to invoke. Players would only have access to the three virtues they chose during character creation. 
  • Resist a compel: if the GM or another player compels the player based on an aspect, they can resist by spending a point of honor. 
  • Mental Stress: perhaps players could reduce mental damage or remove a mental consequence by spending a point of Honor (i.e. versus fear or torture).*Relative levels of current honor could serve as a bonus in social situations? 
  • Other benefits? I don’t want to go too crazy with this. 
We would mark the two kinds of points in a player’s pool with distinct markers- black (fate) and white (honor).

During play, when a player does something worthy of increasing their honor, they can convert a standard fate point to an honor point. To do so, they have to have a fate point available in their pool. The GM then trades out that black marker for a white one. On the other hand, if the player commits an action worthy of dishonor, the GM will remove an honor point from the player’s pool.

Players can increase their honor level if at the end of a session, they have double their starting number of honor points available. So to go from an Honor 2 samurai to an Honor 3 samurai, you have to end a session with four Honor points in your pool. To go from 3 to 4 requires having six in your pool- which means that you have to carefully gain some points, take actions to convert them, and not spend any. It does mean that it is easier to climb from lower levels to higher, which makes sense as it is a PC-aimed system.

On the other hand, if a player takes a dishonorable action or fails a test of honor (through a compel for example) and has no honor points in their pool, they will drop down one honor level. This makes sense game-wise, but I’m not sure if it balances the upper and lower- it makes it easier for lower honor characters to drop. Perhaps something about a deficit- if you’re Honor Five, run out of honor points and take a hit, then you drop. But if you’re honor 3, let’s say, you can take up to three hits before falling.

Still thinking about this.

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