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Friday 24 November 2023

A sense of shame

These rules for enhancing Tsolyáni role-playing with rules for loss of face were originally published in The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder issue 4 (spring 1995). The rules can be used with Tirikélu or any other Tékumel roleplaying systems

Tsolyáni culture strongly values honourable behaviour. Ignoring this aspect of the culture in role-playing means that the game becomes little more than D&D with interesting monsters. These new rules help encourage players to act more like real Tsolyáni. Players are given the choice: observe the Tsolyáni code of honour and get to the top of the heap, or disregard it and remain a free agent.

The rules measure any blemish against a character as Discredits. Too many Discredits will hinder promotions, and may even result in the character losing rank and social prestige. A new attribute, Honour, is introduced. Characters with high Honour are often forced to act whenever they acquire Discredit; characters with low Honour have more freedom of choice, but may find themselves passed over for promotions.


A character’s Honour attribute is rolled for on 2D10. (Players can just decide their own Honour score.) Honour indicates the degree to which the character feels obligated to act according to the unwritten code of correct behaviour that pervades Tsolyáni life.

A character with high Honour finds it difficult to compromise their ideals of duty and propriety. They are likely to take offence at any remark that might cause himthem to lose face. A character with low Honour is what 20th Century psychologists call "unscripted": a person motivated by free will rather than by the sense of shame and duty that forces the actions of most Tsolyáni.

Having low Honour does not necessarily mean that the character is a scoundrel. He or she might indeed be a Machiavellian schemer hiding behind a facade of noble action, but they could just as easily be simply amoral. Such a one could be an enlightened Adept of Dra, for example.

Stung into action

An unmodified Honour check is made whenever a character incurs a Discredit. If the 2D10 roll is less than or equal to Honour, the character is obliged to settle the Discredit (for example by duelling one who has insulted him). A roll higher than Honour leaves the character free to accept the Discredit without being forced to take action.

Players are free to settle Discredit burdens voluntarily without making an Honour check. If they do this they have the option to increase or decrease their Honour score by 1. This represents the fact that the Honour check indicates the character’s careful weighing-up of the exact limits of his required behaviour. A person who acts without this careful consideration is demonstrating that he is a free agent whose actions are not necessarily dictated by the need for public respect.

Burden of duty

Any duty carries with it a Discredit, the value of the Discredit indicating the loss of face the character will suffer if he fails in the duty.

Example: Lieutenant Vajra hiMichashin is ordered by her captain to carry a message past enemy lines, but she stumbles into an ambush and loses the message while retreating. Vajra makes an Honour check. Success means she must suffer the full weight of the Discredit burden. A failed check means her lack of honour allows her to ignore the shame. (She may still be punished for her failure, but that is a separate matter. The Honour check merely determines if she personally feels compelled to atone for it.)

Discredit where it’s due

A Discredit is any burden of obligation, and one who allows himself to build up a large debt of Discredit will lose the respect of others. This is no slight matter in a society as status-conscious and bound by tradition as Tsolyánu. A lord who has a large Discredit and does nothing about it will find his retainers drifting away. A merchant will lose his customers. A priest may lose the favour of the gods.

If a character receives a very large Discredit (25 points or more) from a single action and then fails to discharge it, they may feel obliged to "do the decent thing"—either resigning or (in extreme cases) sacrificing themselves to the gods. The character can avoid this by failing an Honour check.

Example: Shazir and Khiro are told by their clan elders to escort a clan-cousin from another city and see that no harm comes to him. Unfortunately, while passing through a forest their group is attacked by Dzor and the man is killed.

Both must make Honour checks. Shazir’s Honour is 12 and, rolling 7 on 2D10, his check is successful. He immediately incurs a Discredit of 25 points value. If he is not excused by his clan elders, Shazir will have to lose his life to atone for the shame of having failed in his duty.

Khiro’s Honour is 4 and he rolls a 6. A narrow scrape, but he manages to find some loophole that lets him squirm out of having to immolate himself. He must still tally the 25 point Discredit on his character sheet. The disgrace is such that he is automatically demoted from 10th to 9th social Circle, as a 10th Circle character must not have an outstanding Discredit of more than 20 points. Still, as he notes the preparations for Shazir’s sacrifice to Vimuhla, Khiro reflects inwardly that life without honour is better than honour without life.

Discredit values

When a character incurs a Discredit, the referee should tell them the value of the Discredit based on the guidelines given in the table. The maximum Discredit a character can safely have at any one time depends on their Circle. If they go above this maximum they will find it difficult to hold their head up among their peers. Their influence will decline and they may even be demoted within their profession. No one in Tsolyánu has respect for a man or woman who does not repay their Discredit.

The following sections provide guidelines for you to determine Discredit penalties. You may also decide to enforce smaller Discredit penalties for minor matters, and these can often act as a spur to move the game-action along when players are being a little sluggish.

When two actions conflict and a character is liable to incur a Discredit either way, the proper course is to undertake the action with the larger potentional Discredit. The other action then incurs no Discredit. This is because the character has behaved correctly, and no-one can think ill of him because he was forced into a dilemma. (If ordered by your fathers to refuse a challenge to duel, for instance, you should obey; there is no Discredit penalty for refusing the challenge in this case.) This only applies if both sides of the dilemma are publicly known, though. Discredit represents public shame, and even a character who behaves correctly must accept a Discredit if the reasons for his action are not clear to others.

For most Tsolyáni the paramount duty is one’s duty to family. Bringing the family into disrepute or causing the death of a relative incurs a Discredit of 25-30 points. Failing to defend the family or avenge a relative’s murder incurs a Discredit of 20-25 points. Taking no action when your family is insulted brings a Discredit of 1-25 points (depending on the source and severity of the insult). Disobeying the heads of family incurs a Discredit of 10-15 points. In all cases the heads of family can grant a dispensation which absolves the character of any Discredit.

Next comes duty to the clan. Discredit values for transgressions against clan-cousins of other lineages are 90% of the values given above for family.

A character who joins a legion or temple is expected to give the same loyalty to his superiors that he or she would give their lineage elders. In practice, however, the moral imperative is not quite so strong. Discredit values for transgressing against one’s superiors in the army, priesthood or bureaucracy are about 75% of those listed above for family. Large undischarged Discredit in these circumstances will result in dismissal from the legion, temple or Palace.

Characters are not very likely to receive a direct command from the Emperor, but it could happen. The Emperor’s command should be treated as carrying a potential Discredit just 1 or 2 points less than the command of one’s clan elders or liege lord. A powerful lord could thus countermand an Imperial order given directly to a vassal, but would be uncomfortable if he received the order himself.


It is tremendously important to Tsolyáni that they avoid losing face in front of others. Any disgrace that falls upon a character’s good name, or the name of his family, must be avenged.

When you insult someone, you place a Discredit on them that can only be removed by a payment of Shamtla or a duel. If you succeed in an Etiquette check (with a modifier of -1 to -5, depending on the insult) then the other person has no redress and cannot demand Shamtla. They can challenge you to a duel, but you are perfectly within your rights to refuse. If you fail the Etiquette check, on the other hand, you cannot legitimately refuse Shamtla or a duel without taking a 10 point Discredit yourself.

Wiping the slate clean

It is possible to reduce your accumulated Discredit by outstanding actions that bring strong public approval. Such actions include great bravery, making a good marriage, lavish spending on a family banquet, etc. The referee will permit such actions to reduce accumulated Discredit by 1 to 5 points.

How soon they forget

A character’s accumulated Discredit is reduced by 1 point in any month in which the character has not gained any further Discredit.

Thursday 16 November 2023

When life gives you limes...

Few people have done more to keep the gamebook flame burning than Stuart Lloyd, whose blog Lloyd of Gamebooks continues to feature top-notch news, ideas and design tips. And once a year the cherry on the cake is the Lindenbaum Prize, a competition that Stuart co-runs with Peter Agapov of Augmented Reality Adventure Games to find the new gamebooks pushing the medium forward into fresh territory.

Everything you need to know about this year's Lindenbaum Prize is right here. Entries open on December 6 and run through to February 20. Better get planning.

Friday 10 November 2023

A chill down the spine, not a slap in the face

How do you create a sense of jeopardy without punishing the players?

They’re approaching the archenemy’s sanctum; the stakes are high. You want them to feel like they’re in genuine danger. Let’s say one of them wields the magic sword Doomstream. Here’s the bad way to handle it: ‘Doomstream explodes into a thousand pieces.’

In theory you’ve increased the danger, but all you’ll have achieved in practice is pissing off the player. A better way: ‘You try to draw Doomstream, but the blade won’t leave the scabbard.’

The PC: ‘Is it some sorcery that pervades this realm? Or is Doomstream frightened to face our foe?’

‘Who can say?’

This kind of jeopardy is good because there’s mystery, it has story repercussions (the PC has a whole range of favourite tactics based on fighting with Doomstream; now they have to rethink everything), and as a bonus it doesn’t leave the player feeling hacked off.

A referee might be tempted to emphasize the danger by whittling away at the player-characters: ‘For every hour you spend in the Petrified Forest you’re losing 100 experience points.’ Or permanent stat loss, or drain of charges in magic items. Those are all just ways of punishing the players, though. The referee can always take away hard-won gains, but good luck if you think the players’ reaction to that will be ‘this is a cruel and dangerous place’ rather than ‘you’re a dick’.

I’ve seen cases where the referee has set up a terrifying end-of-season style showdown, then when they see that all the players survived it they thought they’d better underline how close a shave it was: ‘When you get home you realize you’ve all lost a level.’ Again, that’s just punishing them retrospectively for being lucky or resourceful. It's only jeopardy if the players feel it in the moment.

You definitely want to get your players out of their comfort zone. Have reversals and revelations that upend everything they thought they knew. Perhaps an ally turns out to be a foe. Perhaps what they have been told seems to be a lie. Have they made plans? Have things change so those plans need to be quickly and radically revised -- and the clock's ticking. If they rely on standard tactics and weapons, make sure those can't be used. But use good narrative reasons, not punishments. Losing hit points is mechanically tedious, not dramatic and daunting.

Jeopardy needs to create story consequences. A change of circumstances, like a legendary sword refusing to be drawn, that force them to rethink any plans they’ve made. A loved one in peril, an innocent abducted, a quandary where they must choose between friendship and duty. Those are all narrative threats that increase the tension, and most importantly they are calls to step up and be a hero – or not. The player gets to react to the jeopardy, not simply come away bearing the scars.

And then you have the opportunity for a reversal from the All Is Lost moment – the kidnapped child is rescued, the alienated friends are reconciled, and Doomstream is coaxed from its scabbard just in time to blaze its glory in the face of the Dark Lord. Those are the adventures your players will talk about for years to come.

Friday 3 November 2023

Prophecy or blind fate?

I'm always dubious of prophecies. In real life, they're usually incorrect and/or useless. The way they're used in fantasy, the prophecy is often a lazy narrative device that feels like it's more about telling than showing. It's even more obtrusive, though, when prophecies occur in realistic fiction. Recently I was watching The North Water, based on a novel by Ian McGuire, about characters on an 1850s whaling ship that makes the Pequod look like the Love Boat. One of the characters, Otto, is given to vatic pronouncements and one day tells the other sailors that he's had a dream in which they all die except for Sumner, the ship's surgeon, who will survive after being "swallowed by a bear".

If somebody said that to you in the real world you'd know they were the sort of wearying crank who insists on recounting their dreams, and you could safely disregard any possibility of it coming true. But in a novel or TV drama you know for a fact it will come true because a prophecy is equivalent to the author inserting a plotting note several chapters early.

This could be why I'm unimpressed by many so-called narrative games, if by that they mean they're trying to replicate the way things work in a storytelling universe. I like realistic universes (whether or not they contain magic is not relevant) because the stories that emerge from them are far more unusual. In short, they are better at narrative.

The North Water is a first-rate TV drama (in the first four episodes) especially for showing how compelling characters don't need to be likeable, but inserting that prophetic dream can't help but break the suspension of disbelief, because you know that everything will have to unfold the way Otto foretold, and that's easy for the writer to achieve because it's a cheat. The prophecy is like the author whispering semi-spoilers in your ear -- telling not showing, you see. He or she can't expect a pat on the back for signalling in advance how the plot will turn out and then arranging things so that it does just that. (Especially when you can see two episodes ahead that it's going to be a Luke-in-the-tauntaun moment.)

Incidentally The North Water is also worth watching as a cautionary tale of the over-authored story problems that Sarwat Chadda warned about in a recent post. The first four episodes are very powerful: atmospheric character-driven drama, like The Sea Wolf meets Moby-Dick. The last episode, after the prophecy has been fulfilled, disintegrates into mechanical thriller-style plotting, led astray by the literary conceit of the book ("can a civilized man find his bear spirit and so kill the force-of-nature uncivilized man?"). Stop after episode 4 and watch the end of Blade Runner instead, that's my advice.

Some player groups like their game worlds to be arranged as if guided by a storyteller. Others prefer the sense of a dispassionate universe where Fate doesn't have its finger on the scales. You'll know which kind of roleplayer you are, and if you're finding that you chafe at some campaigns it could be because you're in the wrong kind of universe.