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?
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.
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.