Friday Favourite: The Honor System

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 31, 2014

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From September 4, 2011, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: The Honor System.

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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