Saturday, February 28, 2009

Mask of the Emperor - Mayhem and Torture!

[Cross-posted at the Forge ( under the handle "Abkajud". Before I begin, any terms you don't recognize, or find confusing, can be defined by asking me and/or going to and searching for the term]

So I think I just had the best RPG session of my life. I was reading the infamous 2006 "brain damage" thread at the Forge today, at least the first three pages, and I was pondering some of Ron's ideas as I walked into this session, in particular thinking about how my players have some mild signs that they have been behavior-trained by mainstream RPGs. Thankfully, no question, these guys know how to build tension, know how to throw Bangs into the story (they've done this at least as often as I have, if not more!), and they are very, very good at being spontaneously creative.

First, some logistics and such: we played two half-sessions, one from 3-4:45 pm, and the other from about 8-10:45pm (just wrapped up, actually). My player Katie has a broken foot, so we played in her dorm. Between the sessions, I went to pick up my partner from work, had dinner with Victor and some other co-op folks, and then we came back for more! Victor is playing Kaizo, the Herald of House Minomoto (a psychic slave-servant for that family). Katie is playing Aiden, an Outcast-class pickpocket who ran away from her parents, Lord and Lady Mermens (rivals of the Minomotos) and ekes out a living with a traveling acting troupe.

A quick play-script (or whatever those are called):
The setting - an Asiatic feudal fantasy land, specifically in the heart of the Empire, just outside the capital city, at Lord Minomoto's fortress.
The action (session 3, the latest one, only) - Aiden, the thief, has gotten her actor friends into a world of trouble: when she stole the purse of Kaizo, the Herald, the actors were arrested while helping her get away clean. They ended up here in the fortress outside the city, and Aiden has come to grovel on their behalf. Kaizo, sensing an opportunity to make the most of the situation, offers to bring her on as an under-the-table agent of the Minomotos, with the promise that her labors would convince Lord Minomoto to free her friends. She went so far as to burn down a rival House's dye-shop for the lord's financial gain, in order to prove her enthusiasm.
But that didn't work - after laughing in her face about her predicament, his Lordship said he was going to let them all go free, but only after he'd branded each of her friends a thief, quite literally. Aiden took matters into her own hands: she convinced a couple of guards to help her, men who were disgusted with the punishment their lord had handed down, and they staged a prison break.
In the middle of branding the fourth (and last) of the actors, the jailer got a brazier of coals kicked in his face, and Aiden took a borrowed sword and cut on him til he backed away sobbing. She did the same to another guard, and then had her soldier-ally take Kaizo the Herald hostage; with that bargaining chip, she got the last of the guards to let the actors go, and they made for the main hall of the fortress. While they went, Kaizo used his powers to tell his lord and master what was happening, and Aiden had little warning of what was coming next.
Up there, Lord Minomoto and nine soldiers awaited them. He barked orders to surround them, so Aiden threatened to kill Kaizo if they were not set free. In response, Minomoto, sensing an impasse, harangued Kaizo for so shamefully allowing himself to be captured. Stricken with guilt, Kaizo threw himself on the knife of his captor, and everyone stared, horrified, while Minomoto screamed for a doctor.
When the doctor arrived, Aiden and the actors took him hostage too. Helpless, with his prized Herald bleeding from the throat, the lord let them all go. They stole horses and a wagon, and sped down the road towards the city.

Whew! This was the most intense, exhilarating session I've had since middle school, if not the best one ever! The system worked beautifully - combat was smooth and made sense, as did the wound system (Kaizo's The Way [martial arts] and Self-Discipline [self-control and dexterity) were damaged by his throat wound), and we got to use Interrupts so two combatants could tussle between more finessed fighting (Self-Discipline plus Banditry [dirty fighting, in this context]) and brutish hacking and slashing (Strength plus Banditry).

The best part of all of this - all three sessions we've had so far have been quite powerful, and it really feels like the mechanics (especially the Challenge system) add to the tension! The system inherently uses Conflict Rez and Fortune in the Middle (with teeth! You can spend temporary Infamy or Honor before or after your roll, PC's choice), and it's paid off amazingly - whether we have a foot-chase, or an argument, or even some sword-fighting, the system builds the tension really helps us to focus on what's at stake in the moment and in the scene. That simple, little phrase, "So what's at stake is...", has proven to be a Frankensteinian bolt of lighting into the heart of my game design.

Interaction around the table - Katie was a lot more talkative than Victor, no question. The only part of that that concerned me was that Victor wasn't talking a whole lot. In a couple of distracted, the-plot-is-paused moments, I asked him if he was enjoying himself, and if he knew that he (and Katie) are always free to challenge me, the ref, on things I say, and free to jump in or say "Well, I would like to..." whenever they want. He said he knew, and that I shouldn't worry; he was playing a more passive character, one who follows orders and generally talks things out (and Kaizo is always so proper and polite!), so this was all intentional. At other times, I checked in with both of them at once, to remind them (and myself) that I'm here to help keep conflict moving forward, but they drive it with their choices; they shouldn't look to me for cues or where to go next unless they literally ask "So what's happening?" Most of the time, though, I only had to remind them of their general options to cure any lag that started to develop.

Really aggressive scene-framing helped a ton, to the point where I was saying, "Okay, this scene is ending now, so we can go to...!", but with the understanding that Victor and Katie could always interject with "Wait, I want to go back and...". A couple of times, such as when Aiden (Katie) kicked a tripod full of hot coals in the jailer's face, or when Kaizo (Victor) hesitated before throwing himself on that knife, the player would pause first, thinking. I'd ask them what was wrong, and I'd get "Well, there's this thing I was thinking of trying." Each time, I encouraged them to explain it, reacted immediately with "That's so awesome! Go for it, please!", and then they did it. The climactic turning points (Aiden charging in, Kaizo almost killing himself) also got to incorporate the more dangerous resolution methods: the Blood Challenge (Aiden, vs. the prison guards) and the lethal To the Death! Challenge (since TtD! wounds are way bigger than Blood Challenge wounds, Victor said he would be willing to risk PC death to make the wound more dramatic).
I had a couple of moments in which I had an urge to do things a bit differently, and had to wrestle with myself a bit: once, I wanted to get the PCs' verbal sparring match (between one another) to incorporate a dice roll, as the social skill system is so fun, but since it was two players doing all the work, I figured we had all the Credibility we needed to make it work. The dice would have been extraneous, so we didn't use them.
But when there were arguments between a player and an NPC, we absolutely used the dice! Simple Challenges are a good, relatively pain-free way to have some back-and-forth in a social or physical challenge, without risking injury or death, but they still provide some rising tension and give a good payoff when one person says, "I give up," or "I relent" (if they're winning).
It was wonderful having players, who were used to mainstream games, take so readily and immediately to the Techniques I was employing here. It made me incredibly hopeful about the game (even more so, that is) and did a whole lot to help us find that pay-off we were looking for. Also: it was kind of odd to be wielding a Narrativist agenda (we explicitly discussed stuff like theme and Premise before and between sessions) and thinking "This is it?" Granted, whenever somebody said, "Wow, the dice rolling makes it better!" I knew intensely that this was how I could address Premise, how I could use Fortune, rather than Drama, to have an exciting story.
Fortune really was better than Drama, and I have a feeling that Karma might have been lacking something, too - all three of us imbue dice rolls with authority and Credibility, so to use them in the middle of verbally describing a conflict helped, as I said above, to jack up the adrenaline around the situation. In the past, when I've used pure Drama to resolve combat, it was kind of flat and uninspired. The same is true (times two!) for social conflict, which I've rarely seen done with much grace or excitement. Granted, most systems I've encountered that distinguished social and physical conflict don't even begin to break out of Task Resolution-style, um, resolution (I realize now that's partly where D&D players start having all those debates about what you can and cannot simulate in Fortune mechanics).
Only one real rule-change idea came up the entire session: previously, I had it so that when you spend temporary Honor, you get two dice to do something crazy, fucked up, or shocking. I won't go into why it made sense to spend Honor for that; suffice it to say that when Katie wanted to spend temporary Infamy (Honor's fucked-up evil twin) and I was trying to use the ass-backwards logic of the previous sentence to determine what that would "mean", I said (and wrote) "The hell with it! It's useless!"
So, now, spending Honor means embracing nobility, virtue, sacrifice, and so on, really living the imperial virtues; each point you spend merits two dice; you can choose to spend them before or after you roll. Spending Infamy means you do something fucked up, shocking, or just generally fearsome, and spending Infamy works the same otherwise as spending Honor.
Victor brought up a good question: he was concerned, I think, that spending Honor or Infamy points after rolling was too powerful, or gave an unfair advantage - why would anyone ever spend Honor/Infamy before they roll? Personally, I think it simply messed around with his notion of what a dice roll was supposed to resolve. Given that, I pointed out to him that if your opponent has such a big margin on you that those two (or whatever) potential successes wouldn't turn the tide, he decided that wasn't such a big deal. I feel like I didn't quite understand his question, though, but that's okay - I'm sure he'll read this and talk to me about it soon enough!
Somewhat sadly, we're going to have to slow down our every-other-day play schedule for a while, as Victor's girlfriend is coming here to California from Spain (he is also from Spain). She'll be staying with him, and he'll be hanging out with her a lot, but I convinced him that two-hour sessions (like the first two were, actually) would be fine for me and demonstrably fun for all three of us (Katie, not the girlfriend). I don't think his girlfriend is an RPer, and that's okay; we'll be nice and conscientious of why she's here and how far she came to be here, and it should all work out fine.
One last thing - the president of our student co-operative walked by Katie's window and saw us playing, and decided to come say hi. His second question (after, "Is this the game?") was "Where's the board?" We chuckled about that ^_^ Before he came around to the door and entered Katie's hall, we did a quick check-in, which Katie initiated: she wasn't okay with Chris observing us without any prior discussion. I worked that into our chat a couple of minutes after his arrival, explaining that I was very excited by the prospect of him joining us at some point, but as one of my players wanted to have prior notice first, we would talk about it and let him know before we played again.

Amazing. Damned amazing. Five stars.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Modding my game - or how I made White Wolf games more fun for me to play

When Ron Edwards started adapting Sorcerer to give it new facets, to flesh out parts of it that needed a little lovin', I was amazed. Sorcerer itself isn't the most exciting game to me, and I think I'm not quite "there" as far as appreciating Sword 'n Sorcery fiction the way Ron does; but that isn't the point. The point is that it's way cool to see somebody take their idea and then say, "Oh, you know, it could also do this!"

Brilliant! [as a brief aside, I'll be updating the Rulebook posts in the next few days to reflect recent changes and new ideas]

So, the thing I keep turning over in my head is, well, now that I have Narrativism down cold, more or less, AND I have a game design that focuses heavily on encouraging Narrativist play, it's suddenly occurring to me that I could make Mask of the Emperor adaptations of mainstream RPGs. That's a really exciting prospect to me! These would not be commercially available, at least not for money, and depending on copyright laws, I might just keep them to myself or post them as Mere Conjecture on this blog if I couldn't print up something that had, say, White Wolf Co. material as its blatantly obvious inspiration.

What I've given more serious thought to, so far, is pretty much just Exalted. That was a game that seemed to promise a set of rules that'd make me feel like a mighty hero; instead, the labyrinthine system for kewl powerz and the Official Setting pustules all over the thing made me back away slowly, watching for sudden movements.
That being said, I think I'm going to plug in a few tweaks to MotE and make a version that incorporates Solars, Abyssals, Lunars, Dragon-Blooded, and Sidereals. Once I get my thoughts organized, I'll post that here. It shouldn't be too hard, given that a lot of elements of MotE (the Craft skill, in particular) were inspired by playing Exalted and wishing it could be something more.

Another setting idea that could/would work with these rules, with adaptations, is Tsarist (or Stalinist) Russia. The intense ideological litmus-testing there, combined with the fixation of both culture-eras on a powerful central figurehead, would make for a pretty sweet take on MotE, in my opinion.

Oh, and I am loving the hell out of the Prince of Nothing series, by R. Scott Bakker. They're awesome, 95% of the time, and I highly recommend those books. I'm 2/3 of the way through the 2nd installment, The Warrior Prophet. I mention this because, hey, they kick ass, and because I keep imagining the characters rolling for social conflict resolution; people jockey for position, they bicker, and it actually has an impact on the storyline! How cool is that? It could well be that I've read this sort of thing before, and only now do I have this lens of perspective that helps me focus in on it, but yeah - Prince of Nothing could make another sweet mod for MotE, although it'd require a lot more adaptation than either of the two ideas listed above. I think. Mainly, because it's a fantasy world with a very different situation than the implied default of MotE, I might have a tough time doing it. But the emphasis on reputation, credibility (especially for the Mandate! Wow!), and social conflict with teeth makes it ripe with possibility.

The irony of modding Bakker's work is that, so the story goes, he adapted the novels from a D&D campaign he took part in some years ago.

Thass all for now!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mask of the Emperor - dice rolling and experience

The "lose a roll to advance" idea below is something I haven't put into play yet, and for that matter, I have no idea if advancement is even going to be covered by the final rules. Most games have some kind of experience, or character advancement, and because that's been around for so long, some people expect it.

I ran a game of Changeling: the Lost that was intentionally only going to last about three months, and no more; one of my players complained once he realized that this was going to happen, and ended up quitting because the game wouldn't last as long as he would have wanted it to. In my defense, the game was going to end because I was moving across the country (Virginia to California), and I've internet play a total of twice, with poor results, so I decided I'd much rather end the game with a decisive, exciting finish, rather than end up with a weak echo of the awesome sessions we were having. I wanted it to end on a strong note, and we did, but I ended up losing a player in the process because character advancement (in terms of skills and the like) was not going to happen.

It's a nod to "realism", I think, one of the holy grails of Simulationist play. It doesn't have to be, of course, and in the below example, I'm attempting to encourage players to have "second act" big, fat failures on occasion, something they can rebound from and be all the more triumphant when they save the day. I suppose I don't want to be handing out more skill points every session, but in this post at the Forge, I'm considering bumping the size of the dice I use and putting in pluses and minuses to dice, which would increase the flexibility of PC options somewhat. I'll figure it out; we play again in 3 days.

And now, the last bit of the rulebook for Mask of the Emperor.

Dice Rolling 101
- Rule #1: never pick up the dice unless something interesting and/or important is at stake on this roll. It's not that MotE characters never trip, lace their boots wrong, or walk into doors, but it's not important enough to drag the dice mechanics into it. For that matter, remember: something has to be at stake in the roll. Even if something really interesting or important is happening, you don't have to roll for it if the whole group is cool with the outcome being assured. That's the point of dice: to settle these disputes over who shot first, so to speak.
- Rule #2: pick up the dice when a PC or NPC thinks aloud, "I really want to...". This is a cue for the g.m. and the players to encourage the person to do something about getting what they want. The expressed intent sets up the stakes: if you win the Challenge, you get what you (the player!) want, and if you lose it, something else, related, happens, not necessarily just the opposite.
- Rule #3: Fortune in the Middle. This is a technique in which you declare your intent, roll the dice, and then keep narrating, using the player/gm's intent and the dice result as guides to what happened. If the g.m. tends to be the one to pick up the tab here and say "So I think this happens...", that's cool, but it's equally cool for the players to say, "My Emperor, how about...?" Keep it open, let no idea go unheard.

Experience and Development
- You might find yourself in a situation in which the honorable thing to do is actually pretty stupid, given the practical considerations. You might think, "Why on earth am I doing this? Is this really worth another temporary Honor point?" Maybe, maybe not; but to tempt you into chancing it, I've devised an experience system.
- It's pretty straightforward: any time you do something ridiculous, dangerous (socially or physically), and in accordance with your deeply-held beliefs, and you lose, put a token or a chit or something next to the skill you used in that Challenge (or the stat, if you didn't have a skill in your dice pool). At the end of the session, bring up that little stunt you pulled associated with that stat or skill; if at least one other player or the g.m. gushes about how awesome that was, turn the chit into an extra die for that trait; limit this to only once in a while, but if you really can get people to be that amazed with you, why the Hell not? On the other hand, if you do something like this and you win, well, that's its own reward, isn't it?
- Breaking past the 5-point limit on stats and skills is quite difficult and rare, but not impossible. For one thing, your character is a major protagonist in this story, so why not take a shot, right? To temporarily exceed the 5-point limit on one of your traits, get a Sorcerer to channel a spell onto you. To permanently increase a trait past 5, it should probably be at 5 already, and then you'll need to consult a god, major spirit, or some such other entity and work out a bargain. This could very well become a character's story in its own right, if only for a while: hark to the tale of the skillful, humble sword-smith who yearned to be the very greatest in all the land, who bargained with a fiery god of metalworking for the power he sought! Good stuff.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Mask of the Emperor - rules for honor


- You get your first Honor die at character creation, if your PC is Honorable. This counts as both a temporary and a permanent Honor die. Your effective Honor rating at any time is equal to the number of temporary Honor dice you have left, and as you spend or lose them (see below), they can be restored at the end of each session or at the end of the tale (series of sessions).

- For Honor to be used in play (gains, losses, and dice pools), you must have a Respectful Audience, i.e. observers who agree with and/or are living under the Emperor’s rule. A Boorish Audience, one of hardened criminals in some hidden lair, or backward foreigners, or monks, or in the absence of observation, precludes the chance to do anything worthy of gaining or losing Honor. In addition, you cannot use your Honor dice in this situation. I know, harsh, right? Take an observer with you, if you must; that’ll be enough, but don’t get him killed. Otherwise, who will witness your greatness?

- You can lose Honor dice temporarily by being trounced in a Simple Challenge in front of a Respectful Audience (bystanders who are in thrall to conventional mores); this can happen regardless of the Honor/Dishonor/Aloof status of the person who kicks your ass; if you’re Honorable, you’re supposed to be the be-all and end-all, so the Audience are thinking “Why’d you lose?”.

- You can lose Honor dice permanently through Dishonor Challenges: if you are caught out doing some shameful thing, and someone wants to make it stick, follow the rules for a To the Death! challenge, except that the person who “dies” is subject to the loss of a permanent Honor die instead of actually being killed by shame. The loss of your last permanent Honor die reduces you to zero-Honor status (see below), which is a very vulnerable state; the last few shreds of your credibility could be swept away, or they could be woven together to form a whole new fabric. Only play can determine what happens next!

- Gaining temporary Honor: at the end of each session, starting with the youngest player’s character, vote on each PC as a group to determine if that PC did something (before a Respectful Audience) to firmly prove his respectability and/or strongly serve the Empire’s goals. Each vote that passes unanimously (only the players vote; the GM facilitates) grants that PC a temporary Honor die. PCs who do not get a favorable vote don’t lose anything, as this could reflect neutral or unremarkable behavior, but if they’ve done anything to deserve to lose Honor, this fact should be considered in play next session.

- A Dishonorable or Aloof character can be moved to Honorable status by a favorable Honor vote, but only with a) that player’s specific desire and consent and b) some rethinking of the character concept (meh, this could be an intentional move. Who am I to judge?). When at “zero Honor”, a PC can gain and lose temporary Honor dice, but if he loses a single Dishonor Challenge, he goes back to Dishonorable status again. Try not to do anything too scandalous until you’ve won another Honor Vote, which will give you an actual Honor die.

- You can spend a temporary Honor die to add two dice to your current dice pool. The upshot of this is that you do something fairly reprehensible to get what you're after; if you're so desperate as to spend multiple temporary Honor on a Challenge, you're going to look like a pretty terrible person when the dust settles. This happens even if you fail, and drives play into a new direction as a result of your ruthlessness. If you're doing something like Craft, where it's not readily apparent how you could fold a paper crane dishonorably, then consider two things: 1) maybe you're shockingly rude to others during the project, or 2) in a longer-term project, there are bits of downtime in which you're a jerk to all and sundry. Or you build the new "thunder weapon" using human blood as lubricant, or something. Be horrible. Speaking of which, a zero-Honor character could throw away his last shred of respectability for two more dice on a roll, if he really wants to. Go for the gusto!

- Heralds: every Noble House has at least one. They're psychic slaves, right? What does that mean? Well, no one is allowed to approach the Emperor or get anywhere near him, except for the Heralds, who are mystically incapable of violence. If you want to try and get past that with a little Sorcery, consider that the Emperor Himself created the mystic pact that affects the Heralds in this way, and good luck (no, really, try it. Who am I to stop you from doing something crazy and awesome?).

In game terms, whenever a Dishonor Challenge is called, it takes place before the Emperor, because it's the Glorious Godlike One who gives the go-ahead on major things like permanent loss of Honor. At this point, the PCs (or PC and NPC) involved in the Challenge tap into their House Heralds (if they have them), and the Herald's minds open up like blooming flowers to the will of their masters. They are incapable of independent action or speech (though they can still think, presumably, and the master might be able to hear that), becoming empty shells for their masters to fill with their words. They literally speak their masters' minds during the back-and-forth of a Dishonor Challenge, using the social/mental skills and stats of their masters to see who triumphs. Yes, this is a little creepy.

- Dishonor Challenge: works just like a To the Death! Challenge, except the individual who runs out of dice first doesn't die; he loses a permanent Honor die. If this reduces someone's permanent Honor to zero, then he's at zero-Honor, obviously (see above) and had better not do anything else to disgrace himself, lest he slip into Dishonor. Dishonor is never permanent, but you have to be really commendable for two sessions in a row (well, no major screw-ups, anyway) to pull yourself out of it again, and if you got here through play (as opposed to it being your opening status), I can see it being quite a challenge indeed. But hey, maybe you don't care at this point.

Mask of the Emperor - resolution

General Rules – these are the application for the ideas presented above.

Types of challenges – the order of challenges presented here is comparable to high or low stakes in a hand of poker. An interrupt contest is like a poker hand with no ante; you play it just to see who wins, and nothing else. A simple challenge is like playing with ante, but not for keeps; blood challenges are like playing for real money, and To the Death! challenges are like a sort of lightning-round elimination-challenge. Keep this in mind when declaring challenges, and that the players should always consent to the stakes, or set them directly. For that matter, and this is very important: a player can always turn “on” cancelled-out successes, which turns ties into fairly bloody affairs instead of simple zero-sum whiffs. If a tie operates as normal, however, something interesting should happen; you should never pick up the dice unless something dramatic is going to come of it.

Interrupt – a simple stat+skill+Honor contested roll against the opponent, whatever that opponent might be. Success only has in-game, drama-based consequences; nothing involving dice or points. Not that this is small or anything, but you are constrained from dishonoring, wounding, or killing anybody in this way. Also, you can declare an Interrupt in response to anybody making a roll for anything in your presence, even if it doesn’t directly affect you. Interrupts are both quick and easy contests AND an opportunity to engage somebody who’s not interacting with you. By nature, Interrupts are low-stakes operation: your points aren’t at risk, and neither are theirs.

  • Example: a saboteur is scaling the castle wall, and they’re in range of your bow. So you initiate an Interrupt to use your Self-Mastery (plus Honor, poss.) against their Strength or Self-Mastery to see if you can get their attention. The limitation here is that injury and death are off the table for resolution: you can spook them so they fall off the wall into the bough of a tree, or the moat, or maybe they just cry out in terror and alert someone to their presence, but you have to rely on further actions (or those of others) to actually shame or kill someone.

  • Example: a bushi is giving a rousing speech to his sworn soldiers. An agent of his rival has managed to make his way into the meeting hall, and is going to carefully plant a seed of doubt among the soldiers. The bushi rolls Wit + Propriety to call upon his men in terms of their duty and responsibilities; the agent rolls Wit + Face to point out how rigid and self-entitled the bushi’s words sound. But the agent must be careful: he’s got to just disrupt or question his “lord”, not actually antagonize him, lest he get dragged into a Challenge with more at stake. Asking something like “what will the Emperor say?” or “but what of our truce with [whoever]?” would probably suffice.

A good use of Interrupts is to force an adversary to beat you instead of his current opponent in a conflict resolution. This both draws you into the situation and may make life more difficult for your opponent.

Simple Challenge – a series of rounds in which you attempt to dominate your opponent within the confines of the type of contest (social, physical, etc.). Moderate stakes: each time you win a round of a Simple Challenge, your opponent loses one die of your choosing from a stat or skill he used in the round, until the end of the scene. If you lose a round, you lose a die instead, of the other player’s choice. Ends when the winner of a round decides to end the Challenge, or when one person runs out of dice entirely. After each round of dice-rolling, use narration to determine how this affects the situation; keep the winner’s margin of success in mind, and have each round “piggy-back” onto the results of the previous round’s play events. The time frame for each round is highly flexible. The narrative results of each round cannot include killing or wounding your opponent.

  • Example: two bushi are engaged in a Duel, using Self-Mastery and Dueling (plus Honor). Bushi A wins a round with two more successes than Bushi B. B drops a die in Self-Mastery and then, in play terms, is driven back a couple of feet by A’s furious advance. Say there’s a wall a few feet back, and after three more rounds of merciless blows, A has driven B up against the wall, where he can scarcely defend himself. If A’s player relents at this point, Drama could have this mean that A offers B the opportunity to surrender. If A keeps going, until B is totally out of dice, then Drama immediately takes over, and B’s sword is knocked from his hand, his helm from his head, and he’s kneeling on the ground with A’s sword to his throat. But neither player is really injured, and A will have to initiate a new Challenge to slit B open, even though he’s clearly got the advantage.

  • Example: two lords are arguing over a new Imperial edict, using Wit and Propriety plus Honor. Each time Lord B wins a round, his opponent’s argument (in play description) gets a little more feeble, a little more desperate. A sudden rebound from Lord A might mean a flash of insight and a devastating rebuttal to Lord B’s cocky, self-assured rant. When this does happen, it spooks Lord B into thinking he might get trounced by his opponent if he’s not careful, so he goes ahead and suggests they end the Challenge, conceding that Lord A has made a solid point. Lord A will probably agree, seeing as he’s already down a few points and is more likely to lose than his suddenly-cautious rival.

Blood Challenge – the gloves come off for this one. Similar to a Simple Challenge in that you can wear your opponent down, Blood Challenges differ in that you can actually wound your adversary, but of course this opens you up to injury as well. [This might be uneven, but it highlights the different stakes between physical and social Blood Challenges; death is forever, after all] Each round of a Blood Challenge results in the loser ticking off a point from all stats and skills (except Honor), making a note of it in some sort of Wounded box on his sheet. Be sure to say “[# of points lost] – fight with Bushi A” or “[points lost] – insulted by Herald C in front of the Emperor”. These points stay where they are until, through narration/Drama, the character’s wounds have been patched up and healed again; this may take considerable downtime, but I leave the time-frame up to you.

  • Example: since a Blood Challenge is basically a Simple Challenge with the stakes turned up, no new examples are needed. But remember that you can wound someone socially – the ego of your typical MotE character is so fragile and prickly that insults, put-downs, and catcalls really can rattle him so much he can’t think straight or keep his hands steady. [Note: recovery from social wounds will happen at a different rate entirely from physical wounds. Sometimes Heralds, courtiers, and politicians are so horribly shamed by argument or suchlike that they retreat to their private quarters for days, or even withdraw from public life for a few months (like that one Roman senator guy with the shit dumped on his head).]

To the Death! – it helps if you say this phrase with a flourish somewhere in your announcement of a To the Death! contest. It’s more fun that way. This is the sort of contest in which you can actually, yes, kill your opponent. Rather than striking to wound, you’re striking to kill. Obviously. Also obvious is that this is limited to physical contests only; Dishonor Challenges (detailed below) are the social equivalent, kinda. [This means it’s actually much easier to kill someone than to destroy their reputation, as you can generally lose only one Honor at a time. It also means that a weaker warrior could still chip away at his opponent in some manner without resorting to violence.] When you roll for a round of To the Death!, you compare successes and then the loser gets wounded for a number of points equal to the margin of success. When you go right for the neck, or the heart, and you manage to strike a lucky blow, things can end pretty quickly.

Keep in mind that Honorable characters will want to hoard as many dice as possible for this kind of contest, so they don’t die, and this also means that they probably won’t ever initiate a To the Death! contest in front of an Honor-less audience.

Very, very important: only PCs can initiate To the Death! contests. While it’s acceptable for PCs to be put at risk for injury or such without getting that ball rolling, only a player can decide when he’s willing to risk death.

Interrupts, revisited – so Interrupts might seem like small potatoes. And they are, but a potato between the eyes can still hurt like Hell, or something. Anyway, Interrupts can be used at any time in free play, just to foil or block someone from accomplishing something, as well as being an active but low-risk approach to an obstacle; they’re also what you use against inanimate objects or forces of pure circumstance, too (picking a lock, bashing a door down, devising an escape plan, etc.). Whenever possible, though, challenges should be between sentient beings (usually humans, but you never know). You need to change the nature of something in your surroundings? Do it with an Interrupt. This use of Interrupts doesn’t/shouldn’t happen very often, as you aren’t exactly going dungeon-crawling or anything like that. Still, if it comes up, Interrupts are what you use for that.

Now, onto the meat to go with these potatoes: Interrupts permit you to change the nature of a contest, essentially shutting down a Simple or Blood Challenge or a To the Death! contest and, if you wish, replacing it with your own, provided you are able to overcome your opponent’s dice pool currently in use with a dice pool of your choosing. That’s how you switch up the challenge and put it on your terms; once you’ve Interrupted it, you can either narrate out the switch to a different kind of conflict (a brawl gives way to trading insults, for instance) or you can just use it to keep the same dice pools but downgrade the risk of the situation.

Also: this is how you protect or play goalie for your fellows in a conflict; to keep your archer-sniper from getting attacked up in the tall tower overlooking the square, you could use an Interrupt to incite the foe into attacking you instead. For that matter, the simple matter of running up the stairs into the belfry is, thanks to your Interrupt, now a matter of rolling to see if the foe can break away from you and get up there before you can cripple him or pin him with your sword.

Mask of the Emperor - stats and skills, plus sorcery rules

Choose stats – these are your basic capabilities, or general-use traits in the event of a challenge not covered by skills. You have ten points to spend on your four stats, and any stats you leave at zero will merit an additional point you can spend on other things. However, your stats are constrained to a maximum of five points; going beyond that requires divine (or sorcerous) intervention, and will mark you as inhuman in some way. I recommend only achieving 6+ ratings in stats through game play, not at character creation; those are whole stories right there! Practically speaking, a rating of two is average for a reasonably physically and mentally healthy individual; a rating of five crests the limits of human potential. A rating of one is below average, while a rating of zero means a desperate lack of aptitude in that area of ability for some reason. If you take a zero, ask yourself: why is that? What does that mean for my character? Society is shallow, and those with obvious major blemishes in mind or body will not be treated with as much respect as those who are seen as more “whole”.

Strength – physical might, toughness, and wherewithal. Tolerating the effects of disease, injury, and fatigue all fall under this category; active applications of strength, leverage, or sheer brawn are covered by Strength as well. In social challenges, you might use Strength to intimidate or to show off.

Dexterity– agility, reflexes, and willpower. This measures how in-control of your body you are, how readily you can make it do what you wish it to. Dodging, withstanding torture, aiming an arrow, and most artistic efforts fall under Dexterity. When it’s very, very important that you choose your words with care or face reprisal, Dexterity could be used for that, as well.

Wit – quick thinking, mainly. How on-the-ball are you? How much reasoning capacity do you possess, and how quickly can you summon it up? In more physical situations, this also might be an indicator of how well you can anticipate an opponent’s moves, down to the blow-by-blow of a swordfight or alternately at what spot you think he might ambush you.

Wisdom– your education and general life-experience. Wisdom is honed by direct experience, in the classroom or in life, and it’s applied to situations where you have a few moments at least to stop and think. It also serves as a measure of how much knowledge you have at your command, what life-lessons and book-lessons you can bring to bear against an obstacle. It’s a stretch, but you could say that tactics, military strategy, and reading tracks on the ground could all be covered by Wisdom, in addition to social applications like the way a lover’s quarrel is going to go, or your favorite Go strategy. In conflict, it's how much information you bring to the table, not how quickly you can blurt it out.

  1. Choose skills – skills are things that you have trained in, a mix of social and physical fields of ability that focus and refine the broader strokes of your Stats. Consult your role’s list of skills (in the role's description) to determine how many points can go where; you get eight points to spend in total, but you can only spend a single point on skills outside the list related to your chosen role [maximum of 5, as with stats; again, only supernatural efforts can raise a skill above 5, but that could make for a sweet adventure] Keep in mind that you can use physical skills for mental or social challenges, and vice versa; they’re labeled as they are to give you a general idea of what they’re intended for, and if you want to twist them in another direction, you’ll have to flex your creative muscles.

Physical Skills

Dueling – ritualized sword fighting, a gentleman’s way of settling disputes through violence. Affronts to one’s honor or reputation might be settled in this way. The main point is this: Dueling is a method of declaring a challenge to another warrior of rank and then fighting him to prove you’re in the right. Social sniping is another way to get your point across, but to rely solely on gossip and argument is considered cowardly. You must use swords to do this, or it’s not Dueling.

Craft – decide whether you want to make beautiful things or useful things. From there, this skill reflects how quickly and effectively you can create what you want. This can be any kind of engineering, invention, craftsmanship, or artistic medium, and as such there’s a whole slew of things to choose from when deciding what your character might be able to make. The most Honorable use of Craft is sword-smithing for a bushi patron, or secondarily creating a suit of lacquered armor (helm-mask optional); these are the sorts of things a bushi would pass down through the generations. This skill can also apply to problem-solving, and not just through engineering; maybe all the crying child needs to coax the truth out of her is a beautiful origami cricket to play with.

Banditry – the entire gamut of illicit or unsporting behavior, from larceny to dirty fighting to sneaking around and hiding. When you want to use a fighting skill of some kind, but can’t Duel your opponent, this could be what you use instead. However, if you don’t want to be blatantly dishonorable in front of bystanders, simply use the relevant stat(s) instead, sans skill dice. Setting an ambush, running a scam on someone, or suchlike; all these things are uses for Banditry. Keep in mind that you use just Stat+Honor for a "neutral" fighting dice pool; Banditry only comes up when you're sneaky or disreputable in your tactics.

The Way – the monastic martial art form, emphasizing punches, kicks, throws, holds, and improvised weapons (farm implements, for instance). It’s not particularly Honorable to use this skill, nor is it Dishonorable. But for Honorable practitioners, it’s taken as a sign of eccentricity and even seditious leanings towards a classless society and sympathy for the plight of the peasants.

Social/Mental Skills

Face – appealing to someone’s emotions, either by schmoozing and acting chummy, or by getting in their face and barking orders. Considered mildly Dishonorable and an indicator of a certain weakness of moral fiber.

Propriety – appealing to someone’s sense of duty, obligation, and honor, by invoking the authority of law, rank, the Emperor, and so on. Makes you seem like a cold fish to those outside the Court and the aristocracy, and decidedly very “political”. Perfectly Honorable, however.

Philosophy – appealing to reason, logic, and intellectual insights. Also commonly thought of as a way to cut through the petty egotism of traditional courtly language. Peasants and other illiterates will still think you’re talking over their heads if you do this, but at least you’re assuming they’re your equals.

Command – the ability to lead a household, an army, a staff, maybe a cow-herd … the ability to mobilize people (or animals) and get them to act as a group, toward a common purpose. Your area of influence using Command is based, initially, on what kind of character you have, but in theory, you could use this skill as a general or a swineherd and, provided your minions would actually listen to you, it’ll turn out that you know what you’re doing.

Sorcery – the dark arts. [Important: this skill has no maximum value] Unlike other skills, Sorcery works on a spell-based system (as you might expect). Each time you use Sorcery, you’re crafting a spell, which can occur immediately, trigger at a later time, be channeled onto someone else, or be affixed to another being. The number of dice the spell is considered to have is equal to the number of successes rolled when you initially cast the spell. The exception is channeling, wherein the caster rolls Sorcery + (appropriate stat, the value belonging to the sorcerer if it’s mental/social and to the recipient if it’s physical).

Sorcerers can have a number of spells “waiting” at one time up to their Sorcery value; spells placed on other characters become their own property and are beyond the caster’s immediate control, so do not count towards this limit. Beyond that, the sorcerer is concentrating hard to keep them all in place, tapping into eldritch mental reserves; he can remove existing spells at a whim if they are fixed to him or to a physical location, in order to free himself to cast again. When a sorcerer is killed, all his active spells are destroyed; this does not necessarily destroy magically-created wonders, treasures, or monstrosities, but if the sorcerer was channeling the thing to keep it in existence, it will definitely collapse into its base elements.

Spells affixed to specific objects, animals, or persons, rather than the sorcerer himself or a spot on the ground, are tougher to remove, although they do not can be removed by a successful Sorcery+(appropriate stat) check, using the number of dice rolled to cast the spell initially as the opposing dice pool. It takes effort to undo magic once it’s left the sorcerer’s grip altogether; take care with that. Note: any sorcerer can accomplish this feat, so a lesser sorcerer’s works can be brushed aside with ease by a mightier spell-caster.

Immediate use – this is when Sorcery functions pretty much like any other skill. Use it to respond to any challenge you wish, and it may function as any skill; the only real difference is that it’s obviously a product of sorcery. If Sorcery mimics Craft to create a bridge across a chasm, it’ll be made of humming purple light with muttering inky faces in it, or something. Unsettling.

Triggering – when something in particular happens (the spot’s touched by the light of the full moon, or blood, or a footstep) or when a certain point in time is reached (often, daybreak or nightfall; gotta be thematic, so no time bombs), the spell takes effect. Its effect is equivalent to the caster being present and using a skill, even if, strictly speaking, it’s a bit of a stretch to call a blast of fire a use of Banditry, or to call hallucinations of a thousand biting bugs a use of Face. If you have a hard time figuring out which skill to say it mimics, decide which skill the target should use to oppose it. If you want to layer more successes into this spell than the initial roll provided, you can roll again some agreed-upon amount of time later; this simulates an extended ritual that gets the full force of your power imbued into the recipient [maximum # of successes = your Sorcery value; if this feels limiting, take note that Sorcery is not for dabblers].

Channeling – the sorcerer continually concentrates to keep a particular spell “open” on someone else, so that the target can use the caster’s Sorcery skill-value to replace one stat or skill. Once the channeling begins, the caster and the recipient don’t have to be in the same room together, or in fact very close by at all, but while this is going on, the caster is constantly centering his mind on keeping the spell going. Only one-word responses, haphazard stumbling about, and maintenance on active spells is possible while this happens. If disrupted, the sorcerer would probably use Self-Discipline + Sorcery to see if he can keep going, but it’s up to you if the situation seems to merit something else.

Affixed – this allows the caster to tie a charge of mystic power directly to some chosen person, animal, or object. You can do an extended ritual when affixing a spell, like in a triggering, but remember that it’ll be that much harder to remove, should things go awry. The spell gives a bonus equal to the number of successes [no greater than the caster’s Sorcery value] to the chosen skill or stat, or to the opposing pool against a chosen skill or stat (if you can’t come up with an old trunk’s Self-Discipline, for instance, or a white elk’s Wisdom). Each time the chosen stat or skill comes up, and the spell-recipient loses the challenge, take one point away from the spell. Each point-loss might be fairly obvious, as the spell’s bizarre energies crackle and strain. The last point’s loss could be a bit more dramatic, with a small thunderclap and a haze in the air, or some such.

Mask of the Emperor - intro and classes

Mask of the Emperor!

A game of honor, imperial glory, and servility

For fun and color, I’ll go ahead and use the term “The Emperor” to refer to the game master and “tale” to refer to the campaign (or a series of sessions, if this is new to you). You could call each session a “chapter”, if you like, but the whole text is already filled with the more general term, it’s less confusing, and it comes up less often.

The point of all this: Mask of the Emperor posits a culture in which real, tangible power comes about from currying the favor of the Emperor Himself; as such, those whom He does not find pleasing must do without this power, and there are some who find the very idea of fulfilling His whims to be degrading, or limiting, or at odds with a virtuous life. There are the honorable, and then there is everyone else. Who are you, how do you feel about all this, and why? That is what we try to figure out in every play session.

A few words on the setting: the Glorious Godlike Emperor sits ensconced upon His throne, at the center of His court, hearing the pleas of the great Noble Houses. But He does not listen directly, nor does He share His thoughts with His subjects; that falls to the Heralds, slaves and non-persons so attuned to the powers of the mind that they can open themselves to the wishes of their House masters and to the Emperor Himself. Beyond the court lie the Noble Houses, the Fallen Houses, noble and peasant, wise monk and awful sorcerer. Further beyond lie foreign lands in the clutches of barbarians; they know nothing of honor, and sully themselves in heathen practices, but they, too, might enter the Emperor's good graces, should they so aspire.

Players in Mask of the Emperor must ask themselves: will I curry the Emperor's favor, and be rewarded with His highest honors? Will I tread the opposite path, the way of foul sorceries? Do I care about power; is it important to me? Proud bushi, inhuman Heralds, blasphemous wizards, and common criminals all hold different answers to these questions, different ideas about their world. What do you think?

Character Creation

  1. Choose a category for your PC: Honorable, Dishonorable, or Aloof.

Honorable characters are just that: they are from respectable families, or are employed by such people, and the Emperor gives them higher respect and praise than anyone because of this. In game terms, Honorable characters have access to temporary and permanent Honor dice, which mean that your good reputation will grant you tangible results in play. But if you’re caught doing something disgraceful, it could get taken away! Watch out: in some places, like the criminal underground, the Imperial frontier, or the depths of a monastery, Honor doesn’t function. The people around you have to appreciate the meaning of the Emperor’s favor for that power to make manifest.

Dishonorable characters come in two basic varieties: imperial subjects who have sullied themselves, and dirty foreigners. Whether you are a criminal or a member of a disgraced Noble Household, it matters not – you must demonstrate your willingness to serve the Empire if you ever wish to re-enter the Emperor’s good graces and make a worthy name for yourself. If you are a foreigner, one of the Hairy Barbarians, you must prove that your race is not a handicap when it comes to virtue and good conduct. In game terms, Dishonorable characters are unable to gain any Honor dice whatsoever until they do something the Emperor would find commendable. Once they do that, they can become Honorable characters. On the other hand, if you’re never Honorable to begin with, it can’t be taken away from you; just saying.

Aloof characters are either deliberately neutral, removed from all the petty squabbling over the Emperor’s approval, or they are so bizarre and arcane in their behavior that they are completely off the radar. This includes monks and sorcerers, respectively. It also includes Heralds, the Emperor’s personal retinue of psychic courtier-slaves. They’re excluded from Honor because of their incredibly menial status, which is explained in greater detail below.

  1. Choose a role, based on your choice in #1.

Honorable choices: Bushi, Sage, Artisan, Courtier

Bushi – a warrior-aristocrat. Equally the courtly gentleman and ruthless swordsman and general, bushis are expected to honorably lead and support their Noble House in both war and diplomacy. They can only fight honorably with swords, specifically swords forged for noble combat; anything less is shameful. (Role skills: Command, Propriety, Dueling)

Sage – a retired bushi. Their days in the court and on the battlefield are over, so these Honored Grandfathers (as any respectable-looking old man might be called) spend their time in contemplation and artistic endeavors. They practice katas, stylized swordplay rituals, to keep their bodies and their minds honed. They are revered, but sometimes ignored, as well. Alternately, sages could be odd-duck noble children who prefer poetry and the kata to courtly intrigue and battlefield glory. (Role skills: Philosophy, Craft, Dueling)

Artisan – a craftsman or specialist. What Noble House could function without scores of such workers, constantly honing their craft for the greater good of the House? Most artisans fall into one of two camps: those who make useful things and those who make beautiful things. This is not a constraint on character ability so much as it is a rough guide to deciding what your character’s on about. (Role skills: Craft, Command, Propriety)

Courtier – a noble who is dedicated to courtly life. There’s a place for generals and warriors, but the aristocracy is more than just the Emperor’s army. They provide the social life of the Empire as well, and seek ways to resolve conflict without bloodshed. The courtly life is not without its pitfalls, however, and many courtiers work not for the betterment of the Empire but simply their own fortunes (or those of their House). (Role skills: Face, Propriety, Command)

Dishonorable choices: Hairy Barbarian, Outlaw, Outcast

Hairy Barbarian – a scraggly savage from beyond the Empire. They are found by the score on the battlefield, but Hairy Barbarians aren’t always the enemy. They’re simply outsiders, which puts them in a vulnerable position, but they also have some degree of social license to be as coarse, vulgar, and hairy (of course) as they please. There are some among them who decide to serve the Empire; these worthy few are the reason behind the Imperial attitude of “crude and useful beats polite and purposeless”. They have strange clothes, customs, gods, and ethics; these should be up to the play group to determine, but I advise playing the name of this role to the hilt if you need some inspiration. (Role skills: Banditry, Face, Command)

Outlaw – any criminal, of any kind. You can be a rebel, a burglar, a thug, a political revolutionary, a vagabond, whatever you want. A good question to ask yourself is, “What did my character do to become an outlaw?” In the intensely authoritarian society of the Empire, this is not a claim to fame, but a liability. Of course, on the flip-side, just because you broke the law doesn’t make you an evil person, and brings up questions about the whole idea of “just law”. Were you framed? Are you an Asiatic Robin Hood? Are you urban or rural? A citizen or a foreigner? Solo or organized? Most importantly: do you feel that you have an agenda or purpose beyond your own enrichment? (Role skills: Banditry, Face, Craft)

Outcast – a disgraced member of a Noble House or a member of a disgraced Noble House. Are you a black sheep or is your whole flock a different color? Something happened to alienate you or you and your House from society, and now you have to live with that. What happened to you, exactly? You’re still afforded the minimum deference befitting noblemen, but it’s hollow and formal, at best. Aside from that, you correspond roughly to one of the Honorable character roles, in terms of your concept. (Role skills: Dueling, Face, Command)

Aloof choices: Monk, Sorcerer, Herald

Monk – or nun, if you prefer. The religion of the Empire is purposefully undefined; in general, it’s up to the play group to figure out the particulars of practice and belief. But one certainty is this: the monastic traditions of the Empire go beyond the stuffy, egotistical pseudo-ethics of the nobility; they strive, as many peasants do, to live out holy virtues free from concerns over power and respectability. Monks and nuns are permitted the same sort of directness and brutal honesty afforded to sages, but it does not sully them to act upon it freely; they’re able to truly speak as they wish, and no one can mock them for it without mocking the institution they represent. They can also defend themselves using any means they wish, wielding a complex martial art known as The Way, which emphasizes improvisation, pugilism, and turning an opponent’s force against him. Monks are outside the considerations of Honor, but they are bound by the rules of their order; to violate these rules too freely and too gravely is to risk expulsion! Be sure to come up with a few rules, if you like; nothin' fancy or unique, necessarily, just a few expectations for all members. (Role skills: The Way, Philosophy; choose between Craft and Command)

Sorcerer – the Glorious, Godlike Emperor imbues all worthy subjects with the mystic power of His favor and prestige; this manifests in the form of Honor. But what if you don’t want any part of that system? There are ways, black Arts, forbidden practices that you can indulge in to amass personal power without being accountable to anyone. That is sorcery. Rules for how sorcery works, compared to other skills, is explained elsewhere in some moderate detail. The actual powers you possess can take any form you wish, and are described by you, the player, as a particular dice-rolling challenge resolves; devil-worship, communing with spirits, powers of the elements… it’s up to you. Remember this: in the eyes of the people, you’re usurping the role of both Heaven and of the Glorious Emperor; if you’re seen publicly using sorcery, don’t expect to make any friends, and a lynch mob might just form to do something about you. (Role skills: Sorcery, Face, Craft)

Herald – the psychic slaves of the Noble Houses and the Emperor. They exist to serve as proxies and mouthpieces for their masters during Dishonor Challenges, but when not at court, they have limited lives of their own. They are considered non-persons by society, and are not subject to the rules of decorum and reputation, but their absolute loyalty is imperative. They are forbidden to ever use violence, and violating this law will very likely result in the death or castration of the Herald in question; however, they are protected by the power of the House they serve, or that of the Emperor Himself. Their heads are shaved, with a single long braid running down the back or side; they also bear a large, colorful tattoo just above their foreheads that indicates the affiliation of their masters. Heralds can be as rude, callous, and loose-tongued as they wish towards peasants, labor-slaves, and other menials, but more for the power of their masters than any actual respect afforded them personally. Important: Heralds know their master’s mind, and are able to directly voice the words of their masters at a moment’s notice; this makes them suitable proxies for Dishonor Challenges. The play group should decide if they have any free will of their own while channeling their masters: are they simply an amplification device in this state, or do their masters’ words appear in their minds for them to then deliver? (Role skills: Face, Command*, Propriety)

*=consider the marginal status of Heralds when deciding how they use this skill. While peasants and foreigners might follow a Herald who has some good ideas, bushi and other Honorable characters might sooner roll around in the gutter than submit to the orders of a Herald. They are lowly, indeed, in the eyes of the nobility.

Inaugural Address

This is a blog I'm putting together to talk, mainly, about roleplaying games. In particular, I'll be using this space to talk about my work-in-progress RPG, Mask of the Emperor. I'll be cross-posting gaming-related entries from my Livejournal account here, as well.

Um, that's all.