Thursday, August 10, 2006


Frazer Payne 1999

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Wayland's Smithy

by Dave Morris (draft)

Wayland's Smithy - by Dave Morris (draft)

"Slieve Gua, craggy and black wolf-den:
In its clefts the wind howls,
In its denes the wolves wail.

"Autumn on Slieve Gua: and the angry
Brown deer bells, and herons
Croak across Slieve Gua's crags."
- Translated from the original Irish

A curious encounter with the unworldly Lady of Baptismal and a chance to carouse in a great mead hall are preludes to a perilous subterranean expedition. The characters are searching for a strange blue ore, with which they mean to forge fine swords. Without the guidance of the Lady, they are likely to fare badly.
The adventure was set across the boundaries of Albion and Cornumbria in the world of Legend. A historically-inspired game would place it in the Welsh borders.

To fit the adventure into your own campaign the usual work will be necessary; this section is a quick guide to what is needed.
The quest is for a strange blue ore, which is known variously as faerie steel, Cornumbrian steel or other names. The party are already committed to this objective, and further they know that the steel is to be found at the Giant's Quarry.

ST 13
DX 14
IQ 12
HT 11
Acute taste/smell +1
Absolute direction
Night vision
Toughness +1
Sword 15
Shield 14
Dance 14
Lyre 14
Bard 14
Brawling 14
Javelin 12

The group have recently acquired a travelling companion called Silvius. In our own game, Silvius was a recruit. He might alternatively be a guide or simply a wanderer who has fallen in with the crowd for safety.
At one point in the scenario, the party may have cause to cross swords with a certain Queen Medbh and her entourage. In our own game, the characters had already encountered the Queen at the Fay Bridge Tourney and had cause to like and respect her. In your own game, the part of the Queen could be taken by a local lord, by bandits and brigands, by a merchant and his bodyguards, or marauding double-trolls: whatever fits. But be warned: with a prior connection, the encounter is likely to hold more interest.

The route to Cornumbria takes them past Wistren Wood. Silvius says that he was brought up near here, at the house of the Lady of Baptismarl, and invites them to drop in on her.
(If they ask, Silvius tells them he is a cottar by birth who was sent to work as the Lady's servant. She more or less adopted him so that in a way he has almost a freeman's status. However, lacking money, he must work as a mercenary.)

The House of the Lady of Baptismarl
The house is south-facing, set at the top of a meadow with the woods behind. A low stone wall with a wooden gate runs in front of it. The house itself has two squat towers flanking a low eaved building with a massive grey-tiled roof. The remarkable thing is how ancient and weathered it is - most stone buildings are relatively new. The only stones they would have seen as weathered as this are on Selentine ruins, or in churchyards.
Silvius points to a high wall at the west end of the house. "Through that gate is a field where we can put our horses."
An archway in the wall leads through to a field bordered at the back by another high wall. There is a lichen-spotted terrace of uneven flagstones, but the iron gate to the garden at the back of the house is closed. (If anyone looks through, they see the dark bay windows of the parlour, and a thin strip of overgrown garden before the woods begin.)
Anyone seeing to the horses should make an awareness roll; if successful, he notices someone watching briefly from an upper window. He also notes that one of the horses is limping slightly, and on a successful check on Animal Handling will realise the need to slow their pace in future.
The porch is a cold vault of stone. Silvius knocks and waits. The door is opened by a thin servant in a dusty velvet jerkin "Master Silvius!" he says in a reedy voice.
"Brabano," says Silvius. "I have friends with me."

The interior of the house is panelled in dark wood. A tapestry of faded colours dominates the far wall, depicting a feast in a Classical garden. The windows are narrow, leaded lights with more lead than glass. A long table with strong benches fills the centre of the hall. In the grate, a fire flickers weakly, giving little warmth.
Silvius speaks to Brabano, who goes upstairs. "We'll sleep here if that's all right," says Silvius. "No doubt the Lady will have little stomach for our rough ways, though hopefully she might join us a while at supper."

The Woods
At the back of the house, the woods begin almost immediately. The ground there descends into a gully, forming a deep cleft lined with moss.
Characters can climb down. It is +3 to begin with, but then gets rapidly steeper and the moss is waterlogged and treacherous, whereupon it becomes -2. (Remember that encumbrance is a negative modifier.)
Anyone falling is likely to bang between the rocky sides of the crevice, taking 1-3 falls for 3-6 yards each.
At the bottom is a murky stagnant ditch with a cloud of mosquitoes hanging around it. The water is barely a foot deep. In the muck at the bottom are rotted bones - the remains, it would seem, of several bodies.

Supper is newly-brewed ale (fruity, deceptively strong) and vegetable stew. Characters well used to hearty fare may be disgruntled at how little there is to eat.

The Lady
Viola, the Lady of Baptismarl, comes down the stairs at supper. It may be her perfume they notice first: jasmine and rose.
She is not young - perhaps thirty-five, but of a physical type that cannot seem old. She is delicate, willowy, with a pale white face fringed by long raven-black hair bound by a silver circlet with a purple gem. The only signs of age are a few grey hairs and perhaps a slight tightness at the edge of the eyes, or in the painful slimness of her hands. Otherwise she could be a girl of eighteen.
Her voice is quiet, husky with a trace of music in her accent that suggests old Cornumbrian stock. She does not sit long in the hall, as she is sure they will want to speak of manly matters.
If any impresses her by his gentleness of character - perhaps in kindly treatment of the horses - then later she will send her servant to ask him to come to her chamber.

A Delegation
It is suppertime (6 o'clock). Everyone gets a Hearing roll at -4 to detect that someone is outside.
It is a delegation of peasants from the village: Holdan, Gerris and Marie. Silvius knows them. Marie says that some of the men returning from the tourney passed this way and took her daughter, Miriam.

The Kidnappers
It is Queen Mebdh and her men, who are camped on the outskirts of the wood some three miles away - the smoke from their campfires is visible in the dusk, just along the valley.
Note: In your own game you should substitute a suitable adversary.
Their camp is enclosed by walls of green cloth set on posts - a tent without a roof. Torches flare and crackle in the night air. At the entrance stands a guard. From inside come the laughter of the men, the occasional frightened cry from the kidnapped girl.
Mebdh's two dogs are alert to intruders and will hear intruders coming in the sides of the enclosure on a 15 or less. She also has two servants (Stealth 14, Camouflage 14, Vision 15) who will take turns hidden at the outskirts of the wood and will use bird calls to signal those inside if they see intruders.

Cornumbrian Warriors
ST 14
DX 14
IQ 9
HT 13
High pain threshold
Toughness 1
Combat Reflexes
Spear 16 (1d6+3 thrust, 2d6+2 swing)
Brawling 16
Staff 15
Discus 16 (1d6+1)

The warriors have scale armour (PD3 DR4) but only the guard is likely to be wearing it.

The Night
The Lady of Baptismarl may invite one of the characters to her bed. If he complies, he experiences an hour of surprising passion, but at midnight she tells him he must leave.
If anyone gets up in the night, he may hear the sounds of lovemaking, but the servant sits on the quarter-landing with a candle and will not allow him to go up.

The Morning
If the Lady made love to one of the company, she sends for him at breakfast. Her windows are shuttered; she lies in deep darkness. "As so often these days, I am not well enough to come down. Wish your comrades God speed."
She asks him to carry a basket to the far side of the wood, where he must plant the apple that he will find in the basket beneath the tallest tree.
Note: if anyone eats the red apple they will give birth to a bonny child out of their navel.
"If you go to the giant's quarry, I have this advice," she adds: "When you have his ore, take seven men to Wayland's stone at midnight. Wait for a raven to come with a thistle in its beak."

The Mead Hall
Into Cornumbria, they travel across high ridges between ice-blue lakes. At the hall of a chieftain called King Manach, they hear of a quarry that only the druids go to, enclosed within a great ring of earth.
Manach's son, Dionet, is headstrong and may issue challenges to members of the company. Essentially these are friendly challenges, within the terms of rough hospitality of a fighting men’s hall. The king’s sword-thane, Ambrin, guards all war gear and ensures that steel is not drawn within the hall.

Lynch's Challenge
This wager combines speed and the capacity to quaff strong ale. Taking a full mead horn - the contents can vary, but should be good red wine, or warm clear bitter, or a honey mead. the challenge is to slap the table and then seize the horn before it spills. Then drink a measure, slap the table twice and regain grip on the horn. Continue rhythmically and with increasing numbers of beats until the horn - which should be replenished as necessary - is spilled.

Kal's Challenge
The opponents nominate seconds, who turn their backs on the proceedings. Then each contestant is in turn to try to approach as nearly as possible to the other's second, without being heard.
If the challenge is too easy, it can be repeated with a scattering of straw on the hard earth floor.

Clovis's Challenge
Clovis suggests leaping over the head of the harpist sitting cross legged on the table; if this proves simple, the harpist can be seated on a low stool on the table top, or even to stand tall.

Is any character’s eye drawn to the king’s daughter, Taileh? She is beautiful indeed. A just-ripe source of trouble, perhaps.

The Giant's Quarry
The quarry lies further over windswept moors, a remote spot visible for miles around because of the massive perimeter dyke. This is 30 feet high and half a mile across. The characters climb to the crest and are greeted by a spectacular sight: a chalk giant with a cavern for a mouth.
They descend... Glassy, specular glimmers. A chittering sound, like hives of bees. It is a cavern full of roosting bats.
Somehow they must pass the cavern (the giant’s brain-pan) without a sound. For, if disturbed, the bats erupt out of the giant's mouth. Those in the way will be carried to the druids, unless a luck roll of some kind is made. Then, later, a druid will come bearing back the heads of those who were lost.
Descending, they find an underground river. They need to dive, swim on and on and on (perhaps using air from a bladder) and eventually reach an inner cave. This is a prodigious feat, requiring great strength and stamina. (Characters can hold breath for HTx3 if hyperventilating, + ST in rounds, doubling the time underwater if they have a bag of air; a swimming roll is needed to avoid losing some of the air.)
In the inner cave is a giant's face, in limestone that has run like wax. His teeth are blue boulders of faerie iron ore.
How to get back? The best route is to crawl into the giant's mouth. A sink-hole leads up to the surface via the giant’s navel, through which is how they could winch out some boulders.
If a druid brought the severed heads of their friends, those unfortunates will return to claim their heads in the night-time.

The Sidhe Forge
What the Lady of Baptismarl called "Wayland's stone" is locally called "Govan's anvil."
The anvil, or smithy, is a rock within a henge. Ravens come with mistletoe (the Afterworld), pine cone (Unseelie Court), and thistle (Seelie Court). Best to wait for the third raven - all will provide a means to forge the faerie ore into swords, but only the gifts of the Seelie Court are wholly to be trusted.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Cantorbridge chapel

Monday, September 10, 2001

Review - Necronomicon

Necronomicon - Neal Stephenson
It is with some justice that I can claim to be fairly objective about this book. I read it coming from Neal Stephenson’s earlier title, Snow Crash, an accessible scifi in the vein of an updated William Gibson novel. It glitters with linguistic talent and big guns, and I like each of those equally well. Necronomicon, however, is rather a different kind of story. Firstly, it is Dickensian in length, weighing in at 900+ pages. And secondly, it is not set in the near future at all, but rather in the WWII period and in the present day. Thirdly, instead of featuring big guns, it largely features cryptanalysis, hacking, and quasi-historical war stories. I dislike all novels of Dickensian length- except Dickens. This, coupled with my enthusiasm for it to be like Snow Crash made me likely to be critical of its failure to live up to either Dickens or his earlier work.
So why am I going to rave about the book? Well, there are only three reasons to read it. The characters, the plot and the ideas. The characters are drawn deftly and swiftly, seeming in many cases to be familiar stereotypes (the burly marine sergeant, the geeky overweight hacker &c.) We are eased into them in this way and they seem to occupy a space between ideas and reality; not fully individualized, so as to be part of the book’s scheme of ideas. Nevertheless, like much else in the novel, this early typical quality is deceptive, and we quickly find there are complexities and depth to the characters which realizes them engagingly. Deeper characterization is partly achieved through the ease with which the narrator picks up the idiom and style of the main character. Thus the tone and moral observations thrown in by the never-very-objective narrator shift from gung-ho pragmatism when telling Bobby Shaftoe’s life in USMC, to theoretical digressions on the possible mathematical patterns evident in everyday life events when telling Waterhouse’s life as a cryptanalyst.
Like Snow Crash, Necronomicon reeks of talent with language. Neal Stephenson seems to revel in the command he has over it, and in its power to play with multiple meanings and shifts in tone. He dives into each sentence and tells it extremely, never content with dull descriptive terms or everyday familiar perceptions. Links are forged between things and ideas in the metaphoric energies of the text, just as the characters are continually finding links between symbols, mathematical patterns, words, events and political machinations. This parallellism extends to the structure of the novel as well. The chapters leap around from event to event, plot line to plot line (there are at least four), and shuttle between the two time zones. At the same time the plot gives us layer upon layer of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy. The reader will find themselves trying to find out what is going on, struggling to keep up with the data flow. This is, of course, good practice in the thriller genre, but in a book about encryption and secrets it places us all the closer to the characters; we share their experience at some level.
- Tim Savin

Friday, August 10, 2001

Review - Prince with the Silver Hand

Prince with the Silver Hand - Michael Moorcock

"Corum is thy name and ye shall be slain by a brother…"
Corum had begun to believe in the old woman’s powers but now he found himself smiling. "Slain I might be, old woman, but not by a brother. I have no brother."
"Ye have many brothers, prince. I see them all. Proud champions all. Great heroes."
Corum felt his heart begin to beat faster and there was a tightness in his stomach. He said hastily: "No brothers, old woman. None."
- Michael Moorcock, Prince with the Silver Hand

Much of what is enjoyable about the last century’s fantasies comes from their basis in earlier folklore. But what is it that is so resonant? Conversely, something important is missing from the dross written about medieval Disneyland landscapes - sadly, not the page count, nor the sales figures. And whatever is missing from them is present in abundance in this second sequence of Corum books. It is a quirky trilogy, full of clichés and magical plot items, and with chunks ripped bleeding from Celtic myth, mixed liberally with out-takes from the Monster Manual, and served fast and hot by an insouciant Moorcock.And yet The Prince with the Silver Hand is a lot of fun to read, and is a very powerful piece of writing. Moorcock adds a layer of grotesque detail, and an edge of cold logic, to source material which is often enjoyably vague and whimsical. The effect is to modernise the Irish myths – not a soft-focus, Autumn Twilight modernity, but a harsh low-fi contemporary cruelty.Moorcock’s usual preoccupation with philosophical musings does not detract from the feeling that the characters are of their time, not of ours. Corum is a doomed hero who goes about his business like a virtuoso. He laughs, loves, forms firm friendships, and is always in desperate straits as the blood starts flying. He shares certain qualities with some of Moorcock’s other champions: his sword is cursed and he is, of course, a tool of fate. Unlike Elric, he’s no whinger. His brooding misery does not prevent him assuming his preordained role with style.Celtic themes and motifs are used, ignored or adapted as appropriate: as a result the stories are resonant, but keep their power to surprise. Strongest of all is the prophecy of Corum’s death: both Corum and the reader believe in it, but how is it to come about? Each chapter brings a new channel through which the prophecy could be fulfilled. Each time, Corum recognises the possibility. And yet, the end of the book is a complete surprise – and shockingly cruel.This book is a great read, and it is full of gaming ideas. Corum is one of Moorcock’s greatest creations, and reading the "Prince with the Silver Hand" is the most fun you’ll have this side of Von Bek.
- Tim Harford

Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Dragon Warriors II - A Conversation

Dave Morris, Paul Mason, Tim Harford

TH: The trend throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s was towards more rational, logical, modular and universal systems. The idea was to provide a simple but realistic means of resolving the usual game questions about combat, success rolls, and so on. Some did fairly well at this task, others didn't.Along the way, something was lost. Perhaps the problem was with the idea of "realism". Different games have their own reality. A system like GURPS, for example, is necessarily atheistic. Characters are defined in 20th century terms, and GURPS handles fate, luck, magic and so on rather clunkily. It's just a patch, and in a "universal" system it's hard to see any other way of doing that.In DW, we need to capture the spirit of the time and the place and build it into the rules from the ground up. Heroes can wrestle with giants because they have great spirits. Hannibal could freeze a man into an ice statue, not because he was a sorceror, but because he was Hannibal. "My strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure," should be in the rules from the start, not as a "Pure of Heart" advantage (gives x10 ST).The best example of this, for me, was the Judge Dredd system. It was simple, it was stripped down, it gave everybody a special angle or talent, and it captured perfectly the "reality" that an unarmed Judge can take out a dozen thugs with tommyguns any day of the week. That's the advantage of a focussed system done well.

DM: Or another example from Robin of Sherwood... Little John is wrestling with a stranger. It's an edgy situation, a "friendly" match but not very friendly, as they don't know who the guy is and they may very well rob him later. Then, angered by something or other, the stranger suddenly lifts Little John clear of the ground and throws him down. A conclusive victory (and very effective visually, as I recall, because of the sun behind them as the stranger lifts LJ aloft). Everyone sees this and, stunned, they go down on their knees, now recognizing the stranger as Richard the Lionheart.At the time, we talked about this kind of thing being represented by "myth levels". If I'm myth level 10 and you're myth level 0, you will not beat me in a fight even if you do have a much higher weapon skill.It's back again to the idea that characters must be able to affect the narrative directly.

PM: What's the 'narrative'? I think it's dangerous to refer to characters affecting the narrative, because it seems to get people thinking in terms of manipulating their characters to make a story, which is different to immersing yourself in the character in the setting, and trusting in natural human processes to sort a narrative out of what happens.

DM: I agree with you wholeheartedly. Instead of "affect the narrative", I should have said "characters affect reality". - sorcerors and notable or mythic types especially. In fact, one thing we could say is that there is no difference (as Tim pointed out with the Hannibal example) between a mythically important character and a wizard. They can achieve the same results, even if apparently by different means. So maybe all magic-using characters start at at least Myth Level 2?

PM: Might it not be best to start off by talking about the spirit of thetime and place, using whatever metaphors and references we can, before even startingto consider mechanics? To build up some kind of corpus of things we want the game to do before thinking of how to design rules that encourage those things to happen?

DM: Agreed. Design should always begin with a feature-based description of the end product you'd like to have. Then we can start thinking about the way to achieve it.


TH: If you look at the sources of inspiration for games like Dragon Warriors, you find that it doesn't work the way it does in games. The effects are arbitrary, the limitations whimsical. Some great sorcerors never seem to cast a spell, while others never cast the same one twice. To a certain extent that's inevitable: a storyteller can be creative and never needs to explain. A game designer is supposed to produce some kind of logic behind everything, for the sake of simplicity if nothing else. The lazy way out is to delegate all responsibility to the referee and players. That's fine as far as it goes: they have far more responsibility for having a good time than any game designer. But professional (!) pride urges me to provide some framework to help this creativity, and to provide boundaries which are there to guide rather than constrain.

DM: RPG designers have been trying since 1975 or whenever to create a set of rules from which dramatically satisfying results will emerge. Obviously this isn't working - for instance, applying D&D experience rules to an online RPG like Ultima has just meant the unbridled massacre of new player-characters for their experience value. Taking Legend: we know we would like a world that is very like the Middle Ages but with a delicate flavouring of magic. But DW1 played by the books would not deliver that world. Possibly we could get better results from rules that dictate the end result, not the way it's achieved, as in Maelstrom. The SFX is left to the player and GM to agree.Eg, a wizard can exert an effect limited by distance, duration, and area, the degree of deviation from reality, and the degree to which other people's wills oppose the effect. The last factor means assigning points from each person's will into what they care about... eg, say my will is directed 30% into preserving my own life, 30% into immediate family, 20% into my lord, 10% into my church, 10% into friends. Churches end up very well defended from magic because lots of people care about them, even if only marginally. Subtle use of magic is encouraged - I might wait until you are sleeping, and your will is weaker, or I might find ways to distort your senses so as to trick you into walking off a cliff instead of zapping you directly. Or I might undermine your reputation with illusions so that friends and family gradually turn against you, thus stripping you of your defences. (The way Mastermind manipulated Phoenix in The X-Men, for those comic fans amongst us!)

PM: There is another consideration: there's little point in reinventing the wheel. It's unlikely that Dragon Warriors 2 can be the same game Dragon Warriors 1 was, in the sense that it won't be a mass market paperback converting gamebook readers into role-players. Rather, I would suggest, it might be best to approach it for what it really is: the game intelligent Dragon Warriors would want to be playing, 15 years down the line.Thus the magic system should be an attempt to do something that hasn't been done before: create a magic system that actually feels like magic.Of the previously published magic systems, I still have a soft spot for C&S, simply because it managed to be genuinely arcane. But even if that approach had not already been bagsed (and duplicated, by Ars Magica), it would still not quite fit the Legend that Dave described. As I understand it, DW magic should be more Mabinogion than Paracelsus.So it might be worth to start off by bouncing around general ideas about the nature of this 'framework'. Does it involve 'spells', for example, or is it going to involve a more freeform set of magical 'skills'? Is there going to be any effort spent on 'play-balance' for magic, whether that be out-of-setting (mechanical) or in-setting (folkloric defences and so on).Another important issue: how homogeneous is it going to be, system-wise? Is there going to be the feeling that magic is pretty much the same however you learn, it, with only the decoration different? or will there be radically different systems to reflect a sense of diversity?That's assuming there are any 'systems', of course.

TH: (I like the idea as magic as a battle of collective wills. It seems to capture a great deal.)Homogeneity is to be avoided. I see a world containing magical creatures - faries and sandestins, for example. They have their own ways of casting magic, which need not be transparent in the rules. Human magicians can bargain with them, or try simply to compel them to service. So that's one way to command magic: by proxy. But I could also imagine a highly doctinaire school which depends very much on ritual and on discovered spells. Here, the very rigidity of the spell system is an advantage: it emphasises rote learning. But such tricks as the "Imp-Spring Twinkle-Toe" seem another way to power; and the use of magical paraphanalia one more again. This doesn't seem to be a problem. I wouldn't want to see an attempt to break this down into "character classes". I picture the "average" wizard in haphazard pursuit of magic in any form.We need to make the following concession to play balance: characters of equal myth level should be on a reasonably even footing. So a Myth 4 knight won't be overly troubled by the emnity of a Myth 2 sorceror - unless the knight is unwary, of course. Incidentally, I hate the nomenclature but love the concept of Myth Levels.

DM: Again, I fully agree. I'm using this nomenclature just as a "developer interface". And yes, a Myth 4 knight is of course on a par with a Myth 4 sorc. That is tautological - it's the very thing that Myth levels define - eg, can this jumped-up little git really beat Captain Kirk? Of course not.

RGL: Magic that feels "like magic" is quite a subjective term, but to me it suggests a slightly more spiritual or academic approach than the exoteric "press this button for fireball" spell system like AD&D. In order for magic to be truly mystical, it needs a cosmology behind it. This doesn't have to be a defined "spirit world" as in White Wolf's Mage... it's more of a system of approach. The best model for magic are the real spiritual systems of the Kabbalah and other esoteric doctrines. The human body is the lowest, most base entity in the heirarchy of the human existence, and married to it is the soul, which (very) roughly equates to the personality and individual consciousness of the body. The soul is then a vehicle for the spirit, which is the "higher man", the divine spark within a human. (To the more learned scholars out there: please forgive my bumbling through the halls of the arcanum, I'm still learning).Okay, metaphysics aside, what you have is this: the Spirit of a mortal is their true nature on the higher Spiritual plane of existence. Magicians are able to work their magic through their awareness of thier higher selves. This is a concept prevelent in all sorts of spiritual teaching, from Hindu Akasha to Hermetic lore and Shamanism (in its broadest sense, encompassing systems such as Wicca and Scandanavian myth). In order to make it useful as a conceptual tool in the game, the "higher self" should have a set of statistics that are analogous to the "mortal self" on Earth - for example (picking a much used stat template) the higher self's Fire, Earth, Air and Water translate to the mortal man's Social, Physical, Mental and Magical skills respectively. The upshot is this: as the mortal man's Myth statusincreases, it increases one or more of the higher man's stats. Those Higher abilities might then be interpreted on the Earthly plane as incredible fighting prowess (Earth), the ability to sway enormous bodies of men and reduce a man to a quivering wreck with a glance (Fire), etc. This is not a particularly new idea: Runequest included the shaman's Fetch in its rules for Spirit Magic; Mage has the Avatar; Nephilim made use of elemental "Ka". I don't think that any of these games used the concept in quite the same way, however. The whole "Mythical Warrior" game is in many ways about both player and character ego, and the "higher man" literally is the Ego.

PM: This also matches some of the early thoughts on the I Ching. Some writers argued that the oracle directly connected with a higher, simplified plane, and because the higher plane was simpler than our own, interactions between cause and effect were more amenable to comprehension and control. Thus, although the I Ching tends to be regarded as a means of fortune telling, to early Chinese theorists it was far more than that: more like poking around with the motherboard of existence. An adept was supposed to be able to use the I Ching to effect changes in reality.All of which suggests that this higher (Platonic?) plane may be a useful concept, if only by analogy, for the working of magic. How, if at all, does it relate to Faerie?
It would be nice if not handled directly. In other words, a high 'Earth' score doesn't just represent ludicrous brute strength, but the capacity to affect 'Earth' on the higher plane... which will in turn end up affecting the lower plane, in the same way that the 'myth levels' that have been discussed before do.Thus, a very strong enemy will be able to beat a weaker (but higher myth level) character if the contest is narrow down to the purely physical. The latter's advantage would be, however, that their higher myth level enables them to find other ways of winning. This can be rationalised (within the game) in metaphysical terms as being the exercise of a higher, Platonic, potential. It also seems to represent the 'genre'.

DM: I just watched Chinese Ghost Story 2 and was reminded that it was one of the inspirational sources for the myth level concept. The sword-wielding general in it is no sorceror, but he is able to hold his own (briefly) against an invisible demon by dint of sheer skill.One idea might be that myth level lets you use the wrong skill for the job and still somehow get an effect.

PM: I like that idea: presumably myth level is also useful in carrying on after one's limbs have been hacked off?The danger here is of ending up with something that appears very similar to Feng Shui's genre convention of 'mooks' (whatever the hell that means) and 'named characters'.On a very trivial level of course, myth level was something that original D&D level was supposed to represent. I also incorporate the 'use any skill to defend against magic' in Outlaws, but without tying it to myth level (which doesn't exist in Outlaws, except insofar as Heroes tend to have higher skills.

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.