Once again, we’re digging into the massive well of Ask Angry questions to see if we can’t squeeze 5,000 words out of an interesting question. This week, let’s write an honor system for D&D!
Rafael B. asks:
Angry-sama, this is about the honor score optional rule. and about a certain dilemma I’m experiencing.
The DMG suggests an honor score (pg. 264) “if your campaign involves cultures where a rigid code of honor is part of daily life”. But the way this option is presented, I believe it’s as dumb as having a “goodness score” that the player uses to “know how to be good” (if you do see any value on the optional rule, please correct me). Now, I’m confident that I am able to come up with something better, even if it’s just deciding that every player has one extra alignment: honored/dishonored. But I would really like to give some mechanical advantage for honored players. I have already some ideas on how to do that, but I would appreciate your opinion.
First of all, I don’t know what -sama means. I thought I was Angry Senpai. In fact, I know that’s what I am. And I’m Kawaii as F$&% (thanks @shazzbaa).
Second of all, ugh. I hate digging into the D&D 5E rulebooks. Especially the DMG. I mean, the PHB, at least, is arranged like every PHB ever. You can flip through pretty quickly to find s$&% if you need to. But the DMG is an utter f$&%ing mess. Holy crap. How did they decide how to organize that? I swear, they must have dropped all of the pages on the way to the printer and then put them back in a random order. I mean, thanks for the page number and all. It would help if the f$&%ing D&D page numbers weren’t practically invisible. OR JUST MISSING FROM SOME PAGES!
Okay, okay… found it… reading… expecting garbage… okay… okay… wow. This, actually, isn’t… bad. Holy crap. Let’s talk about this system and why you might or might not want to use it.
Oops… wait. Some of it is bad. Holy crap. Did they get really close to a good mechanic here.
For those of you who don’t want to be bothered trying to find this s$&% in the book, let me explain it.
Basically, the DMG suggests adding a seventh ability score: Honor. And basically using it like any other ability score. When the player attempts an action where the primary determiner of the outcome would be their honor, they roll 1d20 and add their Honor modifier and then compare the result to a fixed Difficulty Class. If the result is greater than or equal to the DC, the check succeeds. Otherwise, the check fails. Honor can also be used for Saving Throws to avoid effects based on Honor. Unlike other Ability Scores though, you can’t simply put points into Honor when you gain Ability Score increases. Instead, the GM can award or imposes Honor changes based on your actions in play.
And, you know what? If I stopped there, this would be the basis for a pretty amazing Honor system. Depending on how you decide to work Honor. In fact, it’s pretty well balanced. At this point, I’m going to get the hell away from the book for a second and talk about how and why this system might work and might work well. And then we can talk about how D&D f$&%s it up and why its weirdly out of place in D&D anyway.
So, when would you use Honor? I mean, when would I use Honor if I decided to use this ability score approach. Well, it’s essentially a specialized form of Charisma. Essentially, in any situation wherein Honor matters, the Honor modifier replaces the Charisma modifier (and this actually gives me kind of a neat idea for a way to do ability scores in a different way, I hope I remember it). If you’re Persuading your Lord to give you support or trying to negotiate a settlement between two rivals or whatever, your Honor score is going to be the primary determining factor. In point of fact, your Honor score could basically be seen as a limiting factor for your Charisma modifier. No matter how personable you are, if the subject of your conversation CARES about Honor, you will not get the full benefit of your Charisma modifier.
In fact, that might be the best way to think about it. At the GMs discretion, whenever a PC makes a check in which Honor is going to overshadow anything else, the Honor modifier LIMITS the modifier they use. If your Charisma modifier is a +3 but your Honor modifier is a +0, you only get a +0 when you try to convince a Samurai you’re innocent of whatever crime you’re being accused of. But, if your honor is HIGHER than your Ability modifier, in most tests, it doesn’t matter.
In that respect, Honor becomes an interesting mechanic in itself. The PCs could attack the Honor of a foe by spreading rumors and sowing discord using Charisma (Persuasion) (H) or Charisma (Performance) (H) checks. The (H) marker would denote a check that is limited by someone’s Honor modifier. And it doesn’t just have to be a Charisma check, either. Imagine a highly renowned, aristocratic Arcane College. The PCs want to do some research there on an ancient magical rite and the GM has them make an Intelligence (Arcana) check over the course of a day of researching, studying, and consulting experts. Because Honor affects how the scholars will treat the PCs and what access to what materials they’d be given, that could be limited by Honor.
Likewise, a Saving Throw could be used to avoid the effects of insults, slights, and negative actions. That is, whenever your action COULD cause you to lose Honor, you might make a Saving Throw to avoid the actual Honor loss. After all, a very Honorable person’s reputation can survive a minor transgression. In this case, the actual Honor modifier would be used. So, the higher, the better. Unlike tests where Honor simply LIMITS a modifier, in Saving Throws, the actual modifier is always used.
Saving Throws could also be used to avoid “guilt by association.” For example, say a PC’s family does something terrible off camera. That PC could make a saving throw to avoid an honor hit. Likewise, if a member of the party commits a transgression, the rest of the party might have to make Saving Throws to avoid getting tarred with the same brush as their dishonorable friend. And that leads itself to an interesting possibility for some light conflict within the party.
See? That’d be pretty cool, right? Well, except for a couple of problems you might have already spotted that we’ll come back to in a minute. Don’t worry, I spotted them too. The problem is that the DMG instead decides to avoid the coolest ideas about this mechanic and instead go the dumba$& route. Here’s the problem with the DMG. Instead of recognizing all of those possibilities, it simply stops at “use Honor in place of Charisma” some of the time. And it ADDS this idea that Honor represents your understanding of the honor code. Thus, PCs can use Honor checks to know if things are honorable or read the honor of other people. More egregious, if a PC is going to do something that will result in an Honor loss, the PC should get a Saving Throw to get a warning from the GM.
Eh… honestly, that s$&% is kind of bulls$&%. I’d ignore all of that crap. Instead, as a GM, if you WANT an honor system, you’d better spell out an honor code. That is, you need to determine the basic rules of Honor in your society. You don’t need a goddamned table with exact points or anything like that. Instead, you need a simple list of rules like “treat your superiors with respect” and “be honest, just, and merciful” and “do not strike a foe unawares and do not strike a helpless individual” and so on. Spell out your honor code, let the players decide how to interpret it, and play the game. You can always warn a player about a dishonorable action and they can decide to take the chance on the Honor hit or not.
Anyway, enough of that. Let’s take the basics of the Honor Ability Score that we’ve got so far and see if we can’t make the system more interesting.
First of all, Honor is a special Ability Score. Why is it an Ability Score? Well, because, in most societies that follow rigid honor codes, Honor derives from social class or caste. You’re born into your honor. Just like you’re born with a certain potential Strength, Constitution, and Intellect. And that’s interesting enough. If you follow the rules in the DMG (264) for determining Honor, you’d be okay.
But, it also stands to reason that certain character generation choices might affect Honor. For example, certain backgrounds (like Noble) lend themselves to high Honor, others (like Artisan or Soldier) lend themselves to medium Honor, and still others (like Criminal or Urchin) imply low Honor. Since background is part career and part accident of birth, you could set a starting Honor for each background. Nobles start with 15 Honor, Urchins and Criminals with 8 Honor, and so on. Classes and Races could provide modifiers. Paladins and Clerics would have +2 Honor. Rogues and Bards might have -2. And you could use those Honor scores for races, classes, and backgrounds to say something about the values of the society. In a magocratic meritocracy, nobles would have less honor than scholars and wizards would have more than fighters. In a militaristic theocracy where magic is shunned, soldiers and paladins would be the most honorable. And so on.
Now, you might ask about how all of this might balance out. Well…
There’s a reason I suggest Honor as a LIMITING mechanic most of the time. That is Charisma (Persuasion) (H) is a Charisma (Persuasion) check where you only use your Honor modifier if it’s LESS than your Charisma modifier. And that reason is so that you can f$&% around with Honor numbers without fear of breaking the game. It’s a form of encapsulation. What does that mean? It means we’re limiting how much the Honor mechanic effects anything OUTSIDE of the Honor mechanic. Honor limits non-Honor rolls, but it has no other effect. However, Honor Saving Throws prevent Honor loss, so they don’t need a limit. They stay inside the Honor rules.
The problem is, there’s no reason to maintain good Honor beyond your basic ability scores in such a system. And that’s a problem because there needs to be a reward for playing an Honorable character. So, we can allow players to LEVERAGE their Honor. That is, in some cases, we can allow players to make checks using their Honor directly.
Leveraging Honor is kind of like throwing your weight around. Say you’re negotiating with someone who cares about Honor and it’s not going your way. You’re rolling Charisma (Persuasion) (H) rolls (limited by your Honor modifier) and the person just isn’t listening. And let’s say now you just want to say “do you know who I am? How dare you say no to me? You OWE me your respect!”
A PC can leverage their Honor on any (H) check. This can allow them to reroll a check OR make a check with advantage (if they decide to roll before the check or after). You can pick the specific rule you like better or allow both options. When a PC leverages their Honor, they gain Advantage on the check. BUT, they then have to make an Honor Saving Throw against their target’s Honor Save DC (DC 8 + Proficiency Bonus + Honor Modifier). On a failure, they LOSE a point of Honor or two points of Honor if the target has a higher Honor score than them. You can see what this mechanic is doing. It’s using Honor as a sort of social capital. It’ll always work in the moment. But the target is going to spread the word that you threw your weight around. And if the target has a higher station than you, it’s going to hurt more.
You can also allow PCs to Leverage their Honor to call in some kind of favor or accomplish something based purely on Honor. Like getting an invitation to a Lord’s dinner party or getting a discount on something expensive or getting loaned some mercenaries or whatever. And, if you’re also going to use hirelings, henchmen, and mercenaries, Honor should work there as well. And leveraging Honor can get hirelings and servants to do things they might otherwise refuse to do.
And there you go. That’s an interesting mechanic. See, most players don’t have to care about their Honor as long as it isn’t too low. But the players who want to play the Honor game can get an advantage.
Now, the thing to keep in mind about all of this is that Honor isn’t some mystical force that surrounds the PC like an aura. Instead, honor is based entirely on reputation. That is, if a character has never heard of the PC and doesn’t recognize them, Honor won’t matter worth a damn. So, basically, the Honor stat shouldn’t represent actual Honor. Instead, it should measure the public perception of the character. Basically, it’s not a measure of their Honor, it’s a measure of their Reputation. How do you handle this? Well, Honor increases and decreases don’t occur when the PC does something Honorable or Dishonorable. Instead, they occur when those acts become public knowledge, connected with the PC’s name or description. If a PC stabs someone in the back and leaves them to die, it doesn’t actually reduce their Honor unless there was a witness who can spread the word.
This rule creates another set of ways for the PCs to interact with the Honor system. They can hide their crimes. Or they can even try to spread false information about their actions. They can attempt to use deception to pump up their Honor. Or to spread false information about their enemies. And, again, this should all interact with the Ability Check and Skill system. A PC might spend a day trying to discredit a rival with a Charisma (Persuasion) (H) check. And if they are found to be spreading false information, an Honor Saving Throw might be required to avoid becoming dishonored themselves. As a GM, you’re going to have to be open to the idea of players using the Honor system. That doesn’t mean they have to know all of the numbers and rules, mind you. Just that they will want to take actions to interact with it.
And that brings us around to the question of how people know the Honor of someone they’ve never heard of. Well, if the players pay attention to the Honor system, they can make guesses. A high-ranking noble who is also a member of the church can be expected to have a high degree of Honor in an aristocratic theocracy and the players should err on the side of assuming such a figure is Honorable. Otherwise, they might find themselves committing horrible transgressions and bringing Dishonor on themselves.
Now, as for the PCs, you can keep things simple by assuming that the Honor score is public knowledge and the PCs are famous enough by name, description, and deed that anyone who cares about Honor knows them. That won’t break anything and it’s a safe assumption. But, if you want to add a layer of complexity, try this on: NPCs will use the same cues to make assumptions about the PCs. That is, before the PCs introduce themselves, if they are wearing the clothing of the nobility and the garb of the church, most NPCs should assume they are highly Honorable.
Thus, you can give each PC a Base Honor and an Actual Honor. The Base Honor is their score based purely on visual and social cues that others would pick up on. Basically, it’s the starting Honor for their class, race, and background assuming they don’t try to hide anything. Actual Honor is Base Honor modified by actions and that’s what counts when someone knows who the PC is.
For example, a noble paladin might have a Base Honor of 16 (+3) based on being a noble and a paladin. If no one recognizes the individual, but the paladin is wearing a signet ring, vestments, and other indicators of rank and privilege, the paladin effectively has an Honor of 16 (+3). But, say, he is accused of cowardice and his name has been slandered and his Actual Honor is only 11 (+0). As long as he doesn’t introduce himself or get recognized, his Honor for (H) checks is 16 (+3). But people who know his reputation and recognize him will force him to use his Actual Honor of 11.
And THAT opens up some interesting possibilities. PCs might be able to bluff or disguise their way to a higher Base Honor score. A ninja might disguise herself as a church scion and function with an effective Base Honor of 16. Of course, she’d have to make some Charisma (Deception) (H) checks, but, interestingly, they’d probably have to include the Honor she is PRETENDING to have since doubting the Honor of an honorable figure is risky.
But that depends on how complicated you want the system to get.
You could even include rolls for NPCs to recognize the PCs. Basically, make a baseline Intelligence (History) check for the NPC. The DC number should be 12 – Proficiency Bonus of the PC – Honor Modifier. Always SUBTRACT the Honor modifier, whether it is positive OR negative. Someone with a 5 (-3) Honor is as recognizable as someone with a 16 (+3) Honor. How did I hit that formula? Well, it’s the opposite of a Saving Throw DC. And it works out that 1st level PC with no substantial fame has a DC of 10 to be recognized. If you want it to be harder to recognize such a PC, make it 17 – Proficiency Bonus of the PC – Honor Modifier. Keying it to Proficiency Bonus scales it with Experience Level on the assumption that higher level PCs just get more famous because of their deeds.
Now, what IS interesting is that this Honor system is basically just a Reputation system with a moral code attached. It’s kind of funny because you compared it to a goodness score as a way to dismiss this method as kind of silly. But, honestly, it’s actually a really good system if you want Reputation to be important. And, depending on your world, you can make other interesting mechanics based on the same system. For example, you could just replace Honor with Fame or Reputation for a more generic (non-Asian) feel that would work well in an age of heroes doing heroic things. Hell, a Viking or Germanic setting could use that sort of system given the number of skalds running around composing ballads about great heroes.
Basically, this mechanic is a useful one for any sort of “Social Power” mechanic.
But, beyond that, you could even use it for a more supernatural effect. For example, in a world where the gods meddle in the affairs of mortals (like Greek Mythology), call the score Glory. Allow the PCs to Leverage their Glory and claim advantage on any check by appealing to the gods (with the consequences of a failed save being a more serious loss of glory). If you wanted to go even further with such a mechanic, you could use Glory as the stat for divine spellcasting in such a world. Or you could create spells that could read someone’s Glory. And actions like making offerings to the gods and offending the gods would affect Glory. Sure, it wouldn’t be used as a limiting modifier the way Reputation or Honor would be. But you could probably find other mechanics to hang off of it instead.
In a horror game, the same mechanic could be used for Sanity or Corruption. And, in those cases, it WOULD be useful as a limiting modifier if there are subtle (or not so subtle) visual or supernatural cues about someone’s Corruption.
Anyway, I realize this is a little garbled and incomplete, but I hope somewhere in there is a useful mechanic for you. Actually, I KNOW there is. Because I’m a f$&%ing genius. I hope you’re able to use it, is what I mean. Actually, that’s a lie. I really don’t care if you use it or not. It’s not MY game. But let me address the other question you asked.
Rafael B. also asks:
And now, the question I believe is really important here (sorry for leaving it to the end: How do I know my game actually lacks something? How do I recognize the difference between it really needing something (a class, a race, a specific honor mechanic, anything) and when I just WANT my game to need it (or when I really believe it needs, but I’m wrong) so I can put it in there?
Wow… just wow. This question is kind of f$&%ed up. I mean, I get what you’re TRYING to ask. But wow. There’s a majorly FLAWED assumption at the heart of this game. So, let’s get this straight: most games don’t NEED anything. I mean, let me take this gem from the rest of your e-mail as a perfect example.
I believe the answer should be obvious, but it still took me an awful long time to realize I was keeping the elves as a playable race just because it was easy, not because I really wanted them.
Notice how you didn’t say your game NEEDED elves or DIDN’T NEED elves. You said you didn’t really want them. And that’s the thing. When it comes to games, there isn’t really ANYTHING you can, strictly speaking, say is NEEDED. Do you really think any D&D game NEEDS elves? Or dwarves? Or dragonborn? Or any races? Race could totally NOT be a thing in D&D and the game would function fine.
The thing is, it’s kind of dangerous to hold your ideas to too high a standard as far as NEED goes. If you have a neat idea or inspiration and immediately shoot it down as “does my game NEED this,” you’re never going to end up exploring or experimenting.
There’s all sorts of good reasons to add something to your game. Some things help say something important about the world, like an honor system. Some things provide hooks to hang other things off and drive different ways of playing the game, again, like an honor system. Some things help encourage a certain theme or tone. Some things are just fun to play with. Some things get added just for s$&%s and giggles. And all of that is fine. It’s perfectly okay to add something to your game just because it seems like it will be fun. Fun is WHY we f$&%ing play games! Look, you should have a reason to add something to the game. But the reason doesn’t have to be noble or high minded. It just has to be A reason.
Now, that isn’t to say that you shouldn’t hold stuff to any standards at all. I’m just saying you shouldn’t reject an idea just because you’re not sure you need it. Or rip an option out of the game just because it doesn’t seem necessary. Be willing to take an idea that seems good or fun or just one that you want to explore and run with it.
But remember that “run with it” doesn’t mean just cram it into your game wholesale and call it a day. As we did above with the honor system, you want to refine the system and think about the effect it’s going to have on the game. And, usually, that comes down to a balancing act between depth and complexity.
Depth is a very vague, general word. How “deep” is the play experience? It’s hard to define, but, basically it comes down to how much stuff is going on the game? How many different experiences can the game lead to? How many different ways can the game engage you? How many different ways can you engage with the game? How many different outcomes are there? Tic-Tac-Toe is not a very deep game. Basically, it offers a very straightforward, singular game experience and almost always ends in a tie. Chess is deeper. A table-top RPG is a very deep experience.
The Honor system above adds a lot to the game. It helps define the societies of the world and tells something about what they think is important. It gives context to actions and storylines and it provides character motivations. It enhances the interactions the players have with the NPCs. And it provides them options for interacting with the world and the characters in it. It ties the gameplay mechanics and the story of the world together. In that respect, it’s a very deep mechanic.
But every element you add to the game adds a bit of complexity to the game as well. Complexity refers to what it takes to make the game work. How much you have to keep track of. How hard the game is to learn. How many moving pieces it has. How many rules you have to remember. And so on.
The thing is, complexity and depth are not the same thing. Every bit of complexity makes the game harder to play and run. But depth generally makes the gameplay experience more interesting. You can think of complexity as the price you have to pay to add depth to the game. And THAT is how you want to evaluate a mechanic.
A racial option – an elf, say – doesn’t add a lot of complexity to the game. But they do add some depth simply by being another thing in the world that you can tell stories with. Or that players can play with. Or play as. Or interact with. Whatever. Racial options are pretty low cost in terms of complexity.
That said, there is still SOME complexity. And, depending on how you run your world, it might be more than you prefer. Me? I write backstories for the world and the races in it. I tend to rewrite the racial flavor to fit my world. And that means that making a space for any race means a bit more complexity than a standard D&D game where players just take options out of the book and the GM just runs in a by-the-book world. So, if I have nothing interesting to do with that race, it isn’t worth even that amount of complexity. And that’s why gnomes don’t exist in the Angryverse.
Now, the Honor system does add some complexity. But it also adds a lot of depth to the game. And I – personally – think the payoff for your setting is worth it. But, when I wrote that mechanic… err… when I refined the mechanic from the raw ore that WotC provided and got rid of the slag, I already had an eye on the depth/complexity equation. And you always should.
As you begin writing a new mechanic, you should think about what it’s adding to the game and how complex it is. By itself, Honor as a limiting mechanic for Charisma checks just isn’t interesting enough to warrant a whole extra Ability Score with different rules. But adding in the “Leveraging” mechanic makes it much more interesting. At the same time, limiting its’ use to only specific interactions which we can flag with an (H) and keeping the mechanics fairly simple (by using existing mechanics as our baseline) helps keep the complexity cost down. Ultimately, as you build a mechanic, you want to maximize the depth of play and minimize the complexity.
That’s also why I mentioned that the whole “Base Honor/Actual Honor” system might be a little bit too much for your game. Because I can’t decide your tolerance for complexity. Or your group’s. I can only spell out the option and say “I think this makes the mechanic even deeper, but I’m not sure the complexity is worth it FOR YOU.”
In the end, when all is said and done, you always want to look over your mechanic and say “what is this adding to the game” and “how complex is this” and “is the one worth the other.” If you look at something and immediately say “I don’t feel like tracking all of this,” it’s probably too complex.
But you’re also never going to know FOR SURE until you actually put the mechanic into play and see how it shakes out at the table. And, personally, my motto is “dare to fail gloriously.” Be brave, shove a new mechanic into the game and see how it fits. You can always roll it back if it doesn’t work. But you won’t discover anything awesome if you interrogate yourself about how “necessary” any option actually is.