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.