Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post authored by Ben Dutter who’s RPG Vow of Honor is currently on Kickstarter.
I’ve always been intrigued by the honorable warrior. When I was about four or five years old, I was sitting on the couch while my older brother was flipping through the channels (he was about twelve at the time), and then he stopped. “Oh cool, Star Wars,” he said and flipped the remote into the basket stuffed full of TV Guides.
I’d never seen Star Wars before, I was too little to really comprehend any aspect of it before this point anyway. But on that old tube TV on a Saturday morning, I saw an epic duel between good and evil, a father and son, right and wrong. I saw the pain and horror on Luke’s face when he was confronted with the horrible truth, and decided to leap to his death rather than betray his principles.
I’ll never forget that moment – seeing something so visceral and clear. One guy was a hero, one guy was a villain, and even though the hero lost, he did the right thing. The honorable thing. My brother later remarked that he’d never seen me sit so still and quiet for so long, and that weekend we marathoned through all three of the original trilogy. Pretty much ever since that moment – Luke and Vader’s sabers crossing in the misty chambers of Bespin – I was enthralled with the concept of good vs evil, honor vs oppression. It undoubtedly shaped my life, encouraged me to become an avid reader, science fiction and fantasy fan, and eventually play roleplaying games.
When I was about seven, after months of begging and pleading and annoying him, my brother agreed to DM a game of D&D for me. My first character was a Cleric, the closest thing I could get to a Jedi (so I thought at the time). By then, I was quite enamored with all manner of scifi and fantasy, but Star Wars was always my favorite. That first session of rolling dice and saving the village (playing a good guy) got me hooked, and I’ve been playing RPGs ever since. Fast forward fifteen years, and I was designing my first RPG system – a hack of D&D (of course.) Like most fantasy heartbreakers, it was naive and quaint and tried to “fix” too many things. It was just for my friends, and we loved it and worked on it together for hours and hours, right up until D&D 4e came out. That was what caused me to go looking into new games, and what opened the indie RPG world to me. I tried my hand at a few new game designs, new mechanics, unique settings, that sort of thing, but nothing ever really clicked for me. The closest I got was during my development of Forge of Valor, a game that I tried to Kickstart earlier in 2014 (which was unsuccessful.) I learned from FoV’s failure that my attempts up to that point were too broad, too amateurish, too generic to really entice anyone.
I started from scratch, built a game from the ground up to achieve one thing: play as a good guy. I wanted a system that was laser focused on that struggle between good vs evil, honor vs dishonor. I’d matured over two decades, but that image of Luke and Vader’s duel in Episode V struck too deep of a chord for me to let go. And so, I converted one of my favorite settings I’d been developing for a comic series, and hammered away on the system. That game became Vow of Honor. In Vow of Honor, you play as an Arbiter – a member of the Order of Fasann – sworn to uphold the Tenets of Honor. Part Jedi, part knight, part Samurai, and part Watchdog from Dogs in the Vineyard, Arbiters are the amalgamation of everything that I think defines someone who’s good and noble and just.
I’d always been disenfranchised with the various alignment systems in other games (except for a few exceptions), and knew I had to fully integrate the concept of honor into every aspect of the game’s design rather than tack it on. Enter the Honor Dice system. Essentially, the core of Vow of Honor is pretty simple – a d6 dice pool (like so many other games) with a success target number based on the character’s Skill (the better your skill, the lower your TN). What made it unique and integrated with the game’s theme and concept was that the number of dice rolled was dependent on the character’s alignment to their code of ethics. Behave honorably – you get more dice. Behave dishonorably – you lose dice. Those dice can be spent (the player’s choice, not the GM) to improve any roll, converting a potentially winless scenario into one in which the hero triumphs. Everything else added to the system is layered and interlocked with this principle, there to support and refine the experience (and to differentiate the characters.)
Defining what “honor” meant took some time, but I was ravenous in my research and writing. Eventually I’d codified and simplified every fictional, historical, or mythological honor code I could find, and came up with these five simple Tenets: Commitment, Compassion, Purity, Righteousness, and Understanding. It was these Tenets that Arbiters were bound to – and what I could use as mechanical leverage for the GM and players to determine what was “good” and what was “bad.” In order to create the tone and theme I was aiming for – I had to design a setting that would make sense for this type of Order to have evolved naturally, and to become an important symbol to the locals. Sasara had already formed in my mind for some time (a massive space station planet, the third era of society after a major cataclysmic event, long forgotten technology reverted to medieval uses, cold pragmatism, dangerous beasts, etc) – but when coming up with what the characters could be, Arbiters were the clear answer.
The setting’s focus on reacting to and forming the Arbiters, and their Order of Fasann, flowed naturally from there. Before I knew it, I’d written tens of thousands of words on the setting, the Order, the Tenets of Honor, the Doctrine of Fasann, on and on. After sacrificing a lot of elements that I loved (but just didn’t fit with the game) I had a first “final” draft of Vow of Honor. That draft can be read here.
And now it is about 50% funded in the first few days of its Kickstarter campaign – I have people excited and enthralled with the concept of Arbiters – and I’ll get to make that very personal and very deep experience real for a lot of players. I couldn’t be more proud or excited.