The Honor System

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 14, 2011

What do mafia hit men, Wild West gunslingers, Japanese samurai and the Knights of the Round Table have in common? They all work under a code of honor. Despite the danger, brutality and violent nature of their jobs, each of these examples has a strict code that helps them define what actions they are willing (and not willing) to do to get the job done.

Aside from alignment, most PCs don’t have any strict code that dictates their actions; although in previous editions of D&D the Paladin did have this restriction. Now it comes down to the player running the character. The only honor your character has is that which you instil in him. Honor, however, is certainly subjective. Two players who play their PC with an honor code are likely to have some differing opinions on what is allowed and what is not.

A common aspect in the code of honor is that women, children and innocent bystanders are usually exempt from any part of an ongoing conflict. If you’ve got a beef with a local merchant you won’t kidnap or harm his family as leverage. His business might be fair game, but his son or grandfather is not to be harmed. Assassins generally have a similar code; remember Leon’s motto in the movie the Professional: “No women, no kids.”

Before this discussion on honor in D&D goes any further I think it’s important to clarify that I’m not suggesting even for a second that we introduce any kind of formal honor-based mechanics into the game. I know that in previous editions of D&D (particularly in Oriental Adventures) there was an actual mechanic for tracking honor. In my opinion this is a level of complexity and bookkeeping that is unnecessary.

When playing a PC who believes in a code of honor, simply have that code come through in the role-playing. When a player does decide that he wants his character to live and operate under a moral code or honor system, what exactly should that entail? The next step is to set up some guidelines and boundaries. What will this character do or not do based on what his honor allows. For example, Batman won’t kill. However, just about anything and everything else is on the table when it comes to getting the job done. He won’t hesitate to break laws for the greater good or torture suspects to get information.

The guidelines you set for your PC can be very broad or very specific, depending on how important this code is to the character himself. If you do feel the need to be specific remember that it is possible to go too far. Helping the weak, especially women, is a good example of what your honor demands. But refusing to fight a female is probably taking things a step too far. The Japanese samurai depicted in movies often have very rigid codes of honor. The advantage in these settings is that everybody plays by the same rules.

This week while attending the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) I saw a samurai movie called The Sword Identity that really got me thinking about using honor into D&D. In this film two samurai warriors infiltrate an enemy’s stronghold and then announce their presence even though they gained access to the inner fortress undetected. They reveal that they want to face off against the four martial arts masters in charge of the fortress. The masters send wave after wave of soldiers to fight the samurai as a way to determine their abilities. After each wave of combat ends, the masters always let the samurai catch their breath and rest before sending in more opponents. At night they let the samurai sleep without fear of being attacked. Later in the film when one of the samurai is fighting one of the masters he loses his weapon. Rather than face his opponent while armed, the master drops his weapons in order to make the combat fair. This is a great example of strict adherence to an honor code.

In D&D the general idea during combat is to defeat (kill) all of the monsters. Even when the opponents are intelligent humanoids the players will more often than not still fight to kill. I’m always reminding players that even though the combat had a purpose it could be argued that they just murdered these people.

So if the objective is to defeat all the monsters wouldn’t you want to do anything and everything to gain an advantage? Why fight fair at all. By levelling the playing field you stand a much greater chance of losing. Yet some codes of honor limit attacks where one side has a clear advantage over the other. This might be more difficult to assess if the party is fighting a dragon, but if they’re up against a nearly equal number of opponents then it’s a lot more likely that you could try to determine which PCs are most suited to battle which opponents. Having the Wizard cast a burst spell that affects a few melee combatants might seem dishonourable.

It’s unlikely that the monsters you face in D&D will have any concept of honor nor will they be willing to play by your rules. The idea that monsters won’t attack PCs while they’re asleep in the dungeon is ludicrous. If the monster can find you, it’s going to attack you. Expecting anything else is foolish. However, you may want to take the high road. Just because the monsters won’t show you this courtesy doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t extend it to them. If a monster is knocked prone maybe you let it get up or crawl away without taking advantage of it in such a lesser position. It’s all in how you choose to include honor in your PC’s actions and role-playing.

I’ll admit that any adherence to an honor code by a PC will make things more difficult during combat. It will however make for a lot of very interesting role-playing. Can the honourable PC convince his comrades to abide be some or all of his beliefs? What happens when they’re not interested? What happens if they agree to his rules and then break them as soon as they become inconvenient? And what of the honor-bound PC himself. What happens if he breaks his own code whether intentionally or by accident? How will that dishonourable act affect the way the PC behaves.

I see honor as having a lot of potential in D&D, as long as it’s used on the periphery of the regular rules. Use it, like alignment or a character theme, to help guide role-playing and shape a character’s personality. Try to keep it out of the combat elements of the game or you’re asking for trouble. A players who chooses to give his character a moral code or set of rules to live by should have opportunities to enforce those rules and face some problems where breaking those rules will present an easier solution to a problem.

Have you even played a character (besides a Paladin) that had an honor code? What kind of rules did that PC follow? Did it affect the game in a positive or negative way? Do you see honor as being useful or is it just something that will end up screwing characters in the end?

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1 shimmertook September 14, 2011 at 10:32 am

Interesting questions, but I agree that if you have a player waving his honor in the air and allowing a bugbear the extra opportunity to escape without taking a swing, even though that bugbear is female but was 5 seconds ago swinging a massive morningstar in his friend’s face, things could get uncomfortable at the table.

Luckily there are a handful of good options out there for adding honorable favor to the mix. One of my players intends to take the Life Singer paragon path which, though it does have attacks, it does not have attacks that deal damage and all the features encourage the use of actions that do not have to do with attacks or damage. The path is out to encourage peace and not war, but as a player it is inevitable that, due to the nature of the game, one side will most likely end up dead. Hopefully there will be plenty of options to give the player a way to make a combat successful without killing all of the enemies, a topic much talked about lately, but even if not, the mechanics themselves have the pacifying and honorable qualities to them so that the player can play them out however they like.

2 Alphastream September 14, 2011 at 10:42 am

Kara-Tur month is nearly here for DDI… maybe, just maybe, there is something about Bushido in it…

Beyond that, it could be fun to introduce some sort of honor challenge into an ongoing campaign. An NPC could challenge the PCs to behave honorably. The DM might track honor gains and losses in the background as PCs end up facing moral dilemmas such as the ones you presented. At the end, the NPC could be revealed as a bad guy and the result would factor into the fight.

In a true Asian setting I like how Legend of the Five Rings uses Honor, Status, and Glory. The rankings impact how you interact with NPCs, such as whether you must do what someone says or whether it is ok to punish another samurai. It can be a very good system for a Kara-Tur game.

3 Alton September 14, 2011 at 10:42 am

I am currently playing a morally ambiguous rogue (scoundral). Background yadda… His goal is to kill the aspects of Orcus and maybe Orcus himself.

You are right that combat and killing is unavoidable. My group only wants to kill the creatures. With good reason. On a few occasions, we have tried to knock some NPC out and question that person. Module did not call for the NPC to survive, so he managed to “teleport” away just like that to not reveal any more information. We all know how it goes.

I find it takes a lot of practice as a DM to be able to juggle all the alignments, the NPC’s and to be able to make them believable if taken in this situation.

4 Captain DM September 14, 2011 at 10:45 am

Other than thieve’s guilds and the occasional recurring character, the honor system seems more of a responsibility of the players to implement than the DM to monitor. I could see working with honorable characters in situations with setups similar to what BioWare puts in their games.

To be honest, when it comes to battles, I always reinforce whether or not the PCs actually killed their opponents or if they’re merely unconscious. I think it makes the experience more real to them to think, “Wow, I just killed three townsmen because they got drunk and shoved me around.” It’s a fantasy game, sure, and most people are fairly desensitized nowadays, but it’s all in the description. I think murdering things versus eliminating threats is just as big a choice to make as anything else, and it plays into the honor system. After all, “honor system” is another way of saying “personal set of morals,”

5 Pedro Rodrigues September 14, 2011 at 11:49 am
6 Alphastream September 14, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Captain_DM, that depends. If we are just talking about a single PC, then yeah, it is a personal code. But it can also be a societal one. The intersection between personal code and society is the most interesting aspect in my book. You can mix it up a fair bit.

The heroes defeat the orcs only to find a note asking them to protect their treasure… and inside the back room is an orc infant. You can really have all sorts of fun with that. Maybe the whole fight starts with one big orc (later revealed to be the dad) asking the PCs to leave, and trying to explain his “way of life”. When they don’t, he challenges a single PC to single combat… but the orc is an elite. What does the party do? Do they accept? If they do, how do they react when the orc beats their challenger? If they kill them, only to find a back room with books on self-improvement and journals about trying to be better and an orc infant… how do they react? And what about when they leave to find the town sage has ridden all day to tell them about the prophecy of the orc champion that will save the kingdom?

7 The Id DM September 14, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Very interesting article!

I am currently playing a Dragonborn Rogue, which is a bit of a mismatch regarding Honor. He is devoted to his heritage, but was separated form his clan and learned to “make ends meet” with the talents that he had available. Our campaign isn’t strongly RP-focused, but a recent interaction brought his Honor into question.

When faced with insurmountable odds, he chose to do all he could to save an ally and fight a very powerful monster alone. He eventually had to surrender, which is something he is completely against. But when faced with death or surrender, practically won out.

It makes me think about Honor in the game I DM. The party is currently in the process of uncovering a doppelganger plot. The villains could be just “bad guys” to kill or it could turn into a more complicated story. It gives me some food for thought!

8 Svafa September 14, 2011 at 6:08 pm

As a DM I usually have the NPCs react to the PCs based partly on their reputation. PCs who quickly jump to fighting and have no qualms with slaughtering their opponents, especially opponents who surrendered or had no hope of winning, quickly find that their reputation is not earning them any friends. I’m careful not to over do it and to keep it within the scope of the NPCs’ possible knowledge, but it’s fairly easy to reason that a band of characters leaving a trail of blood from town to town will be the subject of many rumours (and may even earn them respect with one NPC, while earning loathing from another). Some of my players have occasionally played along as well and purposefully nursed their reputation, to which I might reward story bonuses on Intimidate checks or similar.

I also do my best to give my players options and make it obvious that they have options. I’ve played in games where the only course was to kill and found I don’t really care for that mentality.

9 The Id DM September 14, 2011 at 6:12 pm


I have played around with that idea as well. I wrote an in-game newspaper and one of the articles was an editorial decrying the group of “heroes” because they were leaving a wake of destruction. It created some fun moments in the game. Here is a link to the newsletter I created if you or anyone else is curious:

10 Sunyaku September 14, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Personally, I thoroughly endorse the idea that intelligent monsters have their own unique cultural codes of honor/ethics, which players can either honor or exploit, depending on the situation. In my campaign, essentially every creature that is available in the builder for player characters is not “necessarily” evil in all situations.

11 Kiel Chenier September 14, 2011 at 11:42 pm

I love the idea of an honor system tying NPCs, villains, and PCs together.

I get the impression most D&D players won’t, or don’t.

When one’s expressed purpose is to just dick about in a fantasy world, killing monsters and eating pizza, while getting ‘fat lootz’, honor seems to be very low on the priorities scale.

The idea of honor being a real up-holdable thing is tantalizing, but I feel it might not gel with most rough ‘n tumble adventuring PCs and their fluctuating levels of morality.

I can only hope I get to implement something like this in the future.

12 Swordgleam September 16, 2011 at 12:46 am

My most honorable character causes the most problems, since being honorable makes her unpredictable. (Much like the Pirates quote, “You can always trust an honest man to be dishonest. It’s the honest ones you have to watch out for.”)

At one point the party’s assassin was a ghost, and a witch tried to help her “move on.” The rest of the party was not okay with this and the witch and my character had an altercation. Later, we came across an amulet that trapped ghosts.

The next time we saw the witch my character handed the amulet to the witch and said, “Here, you probably have a better idea of how to break this than I do.” The DM later told me that was the only possible thing I could have done to prevent a fight with the witch (which the DM had apparently been looking forward to). I didn’t hand over the amulet to try and avoid a fight – it just clearly was the right thing to do.

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