Vow of Honor, by Ben Dutter

Vow of Honor is a digest-sized roleplaying game, available from DriveThruRPG in hardcover and softcover print versions (usually $45 and $25, $40 and $20 as I write this) and PDF (usually $12, currently $10). It’s written by Ben Dutter, edited by Joshua Yearsley, has layout and graphic design by Philip Gessert, and includes art by Markus Lovadina, Lee Che, Winston Lew, and Stephen Garrett Rusk. It’s 260 pages long, with chapter-level bookmarks (and additional depth in the odds-and-ends material at the back).

This is a lovely game both physically and in its contents. It’s gorgeous, with great page design, illustrations that are simple but rich and appealing in both black and white and color, beautiful typography, the whole deal. And it’s another of those relatively rare games that’s very strongly about people doing the right thing in the midst of difficult situations.

The Setting

The player characters in Vow of Honor are Arbiters, members of the Order of Fasann, an institution apart from any local government or other authority dedicated to applying its tenets of honor—compassion, commitment, purity, righteousness, and understanding—to help the people around them. They live on, or rather in, Sasara, which is…not exactly a world.

Vow of Honor is set in the distant future. Sasara is a manufactured place, built as the crowning glory of humanity’s spacefaring days, now long passed. People live in Sasara’s interior, where the horizon rises gently in the distance and the skies have constantly shifting, glowing clouds instead of sun or stars. The civilization of Sasara’s builders has long since gone, and, as the game explains:

The majority of Sasarans live along the Spine; a strip of land roughly 2,000 kilometers wide, stretching away north to south. It is here where crops can grow and trees can be felled, and its climate is tranquil enough to be tolerable.

To the distant east and west lie the Void Lands. There, strange plants flourish, and glassy craters fill its fields and forests; twisted obelisks of unknown materials stand silent vigil, and evil energies and caustic gases fill the air. Brave explorers have attempted to conquer the Void Lands many times, but not one has succeeded.

In the nifty tradition of a bunch of good far-future settings, including Tekumel in the RPG world, the people of Sasara are on the far side of a whole lot of intermingling, and show it. They’re pretty much all tan to dark-skinned, with dark hair and eyes, and no contemporary ethnicity has survived. (I do think the game misses an opportunity here to cultivate a wide-ranging diversity of uncommon appearances. Convergence of features does happen, but so does fresh radiation out into new combinations.)

Life is hard on Sasara for most people most of the time. It’s simply not feasible to maintain a lot of industrialization—unlike some big artificial structures like the Ringworld or Rama, it has miles of earth and rock, but the mineral concentrations aren’t there and the infrastructure that industry takes isn’t there even if they were. So there’s room for local innovation, but overall, life continues in seldom-changing broad strokes. People make the moral compromises and transgressions that survival on the margins requires, and there’s seldom the physical, mental, or social free space in which to dream of things going better. The mysterious Forebears are long gone, strange things fill the world wherever people can’t keep up a constant guard, and that’s just how it is.

Into this situation comes the Order of Fasann, and the player characters.

The Order’s members commit themselves to advancing the cause of Honor, defined with five tenets: commitment, compassion, purity (including freedom from physical, mental, and spiritual corruption, and seeking the best possible from oneself and others), righteousness (the pursuit of what is just, good, and noble), and understanding. The Order’s many Enclaves train promising teens and young adults (and sometimes older people in the wake of life changes) to seek out and respond to Dishonor, the negation of these tenets, and to help the people and lands around them.

The Order’s vision of Honor is all-encompassing: it’s equally appropriate for Arbiters to deal with blighted, infertile farms and pastures, with monsters haunting ruins and roads people need to use, with civic corruption, and with family strife. Cruelty, infidelity to one’s commitments, dishonesty, hate mongering, and ignorance are all aspects of Dishonor, all deserving of Arbiters’ efforts to cure them.

There’s a lot of supporting detail for all of this, which I’m eliding so that I don’t end up just copying the whole game. It’s kinda tempting, though: Vow of Honor is rich in well-chosen, useful details. Take the section on settlements:

A typical Sasaran settlement is extremely well fortified, well masoned, and very small. Sasara’s violent weather precludes working with weak materials, and the bloodthirsty beasts and demons stalking its wilds ensure that any settlement intended to last will build a high and powerful wall.

Most Sasaran cities are several days’ journey away from one another, enabling them to pull upon large areas of wilderness and natural resources without starving or constantly going to war. Several settlements have grown into seats of power, defendable against any invader, surrounded by lush and fertile lands, with well-built walls and edifices.

However, many other towns and villages aren’t so lucky. It isn’t uncommon for you, as an Arbiter, to travel to a town you’ve known for several years to be prosperous, only to arrive and find it burnt to the ground, or destroyed under a new basin of water—or, worse, you discover that its population was forced into slavery, or savaged or eaten by adabhuta.

Well-established settlements and cities invariably have an Enclave. Many have a Church of Creation, a place of congregation for those who believe in the holy omnipotence of the Creators.

In a simple view, most Sasaran cities are similar to Earth’s cities from the fourteenth to fifteenth century in southern and eastern Europe, northern Africa, the Indus River Valley, and the Middle East: their structures are built with stone, clay, brick, columns, tiles, and mosaics. Most are masterfully crafted, and some are accented with scavenged materials and technology from Forebear ruins. The wealthiest and most powerful Sasarans often build decadent and powerful castles and palaces, well stocked with the relics of the previous age.

Like I said: useful. In just a few paragraphs, we get historical references, a sense of stable norms and common kinds of threat to them, some ideas about what would constitute a bad situation that locals would like to fix, the whole deal. It goes like that throughout, on each subject from clothing to exotic creatures from future lineages.

The Pedagogy

That is to say, the theory and practice of teaching as Dutter’s carried it out in Vow of Honor. I said in Google+ comments as I was reading that I wanted to talk about this particular topic, and I still do.

Vow of Honor is a little weaker than I’d like in infrastructure, if that’s the word I want. There’s no index, and the table of contents and bookmarks have only chapter-level entries. But it’s still quite easy to find particular topics and their substance. Every single section gets a recap: boxed text with a border and color that set it very strongly off from the main body of the book, which summarizes the most important points. Game terms get repeated to build familiarity, and descriptions are expressed in slightly different terms than they were in the preceding exposition. You can flip through a chapter, just looking at those, and very quickly get to the thing you’re looking for.

It’s a basic principle of teaching: tell your students what you’re going to tell them, tell it to them, and tell them what you told them. Among other things, game books very much are works of instruction, conveying information that includes both data and views about the data. But, to put it mildly, a lot of gaming authors aren’t especially good at putting their info out in ways that work with how people actually learn things. Dutter’s recaps do the job as well as any game book I can ever recall reading.

If you’re interested in good instruction via game book, Vow of Honor is worth a look even if the setting and system don’t do much for you.

The Spirit of the Game

I love it when a game offers up rules that work very well for the particular setting it presents and that also cover a whole spread of other related cases. I find myself a little short for useful terminology here, because it’s not exactly a matter of genre but of a specific approach to a kind of challenge that can occur in many genres. The Arbiters are people committed to doing a broad spectrum of good deeds in the midst of a difficult world. Their moral challenges aren’t really much different from the one Raymond Chandler proposes in “The Simple Art of Murder”:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

Look at the Tenets of Honor the Arbiters swear to uphold: Compassion. Commitment. Purity. Righteousness. Understanding. All there.

All of which is to say that as a rules system, Vow of Honor would work fine in milieus other than the fascinating default of Sasara.

The Game

Vow of Honor uses a straightforward d6 dice pool system. You roll one or more d6s, and see whether each is a success depending on your character’s relevant skill level—if they’re just barely trained at all, only 6s are successes, while if they’re exemplary in that skill, 3-6s are all successes. Complications ensue, of course. 🙂

Each character has ratings in eight skills: Awareness, Coordination, Influence, Knowledge, Logic, Might, Resistance, and Stealth. The rating in each is Poor (6+ to succeed on a roll), Average (5-6 to succeed), Good (4-6 to succeed), or Exemplary (3-6). There’s a standard skill array—one exemplary, one good, five average, one poor—and some alternatives in the book for different mixes of focus and diversity in aptitude. You also pick a talent, a special thing your character is good at that cuts across the standard skill lines and gives you a bonus die to roll when it applies; examples in the book include Smooth Talker and Tracker.

Challenges, whether tasks to perform or enemies to overcome, come with Difficulty, Threshold, and Severity. Difficulty is the number of successes you need to roll to win. Threshold is a property of long, ongoing challenges: when you roll that many successes, the difficulty goes down by 1. If a test is Difficulty 3, Threshold 2, for instance, it takes a total of 9 successes to beat: 3 to reduce it to Difficulty 3, Threshold 1, 3 more to reduce it to Difficulty 3, Threshold 0, and then 3 more to beat what’s left of it. Severity is the enemy’s skill level: your character has to earn that many successes with whatever means of resistance they’re using. It’s also the level of harm  your character faces for failing. The details depend on the kind of challenge, with guidelines for level and duration of injury, short- and long-term penalties to affected skills, and so on.

(Vow of Honor is one of the games where only the players roll. What would otherwise be the GM rolling for NPCs’ efforts is handled by players rolling to resist enemy Severity.)

Your character has a pool of Honor Dice, or HD, which you can spend for bonuses on individual rolls. Unsurprisingly, they earn HD by acting in accord with the tenets of honor, and lose them by acting dishonorably. You usually spend HD in a straightforward “I’m also rolling this die” way, and aiming for successes with the threshold set by your character’s skill level for that particular challenge. But it’s possible to get more out of an HD.

In addition to their skills and starting talent, your character begins play oathsworn to two of the five tenets of honor. Each tenet you choose gives your character a pick from two benefits. If they’re oathsworn to Understanding, for instance, you can decided whether HD they spend on efforts to learn, understand, empathize, or deduce provide automatic successes, or whether they can spend an HD to automatically know the difficulty, threshold, and severity for a particular task or enemy.

Character advancement depends on upholding the whole spectrum of honor. When your character’s upheld each of the five tenets in a notable, significant way, they earn an advance, which you can spend to improve a skill or to add or improve a talent. Acting significantly against any of the tenet costs your character HD, and three major violations make your character stained with regard to that tenet. It takes an act of significant sacrifice to remove the stain and recover the ability to make further progress.

I could go on—it’s a good system—but there is a quick start document, so I’ll settle for linking to that. It’s not just that it’s a solid, simple but very flexible system, but that the book shows how to use it in a  whole bunch of different ways, with generous discussion of examples and possibilities, and keeping it all very much a coherent whole.

Summary

I really like this game and am really looking forward to putting it to play.

Vow of Honor, by Ben Dutter

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