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Faith and Steel: A Warrior's Manifesto

Honor, Duty, and other things that will make you Dead

by Steve Bergeron
Nov 25,2002


Honor, Duty, and other things that will make you Dead

"Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die"

-Alfred Lord Tennyson
From "The Charge of the Light Brigade" They suffered 1/3 KIA in a single attack

This week we are talking about rules. No, not the rules of the various game systems out there. I mean the rules that your character will set upon himself and, in the end, either live or die by them. These 'rules' are usually given other names by those who employ them; names like honour, loyalty, integrity, duty, and courage. They are words people use to describe why they do all the crazy things that define who they are. So, what rules does your character follow, if any?

"England expects that every man will do his duty."

-Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson...KIA

Duty is an odd concept, but is essential to any warrior. To put it simply, a duty is a task that 'must' be done despite what one wants to do or any negative consequences attached to the task. Often what drives a warrior to learn his trade in the first place is a sense of duty to his family/tribe/town/Sovereign/country. But where does this sense of duty, or obligation, come from? Well, there are many answers to that question.

Some warriors take up the trade to protect others in their society, or to protect every aspect of their society. This implies that they believe that their society is "right" and "just" and they agree with it and are willing to fight and die to protect it, or at least some of the people in it. Other warriors join military organizations for the paycheck, 3 meals a day, and the roof to sleep under. These warriors see doing their duty as simply earning their pay. They know that failure to do their duty will result in negative consequences that are quite uncomfortable. Other warriors do their duty simply out of fear. These are the levees, conscripts, and draftees that fight only because they will be thrown in prison or killed if they don't. There are other reasons that warriors follow the suicidal orders they are sometimes given, such a need for revenge, a real enjoyment of the horrors of battle, or maybe even some sort of bizarre addiction to danger.

For RPG characters, a sense of duty can dictate many actions that they might take. It may explain why a warrior works to protect the rest of the party in the first place, or works with the party because it is in the best interest of his king/god/family/stock broker. Perhaps the nastiest trick that a GM can pull on a dutiful warrior character is to set up duties for the character to perform for those on high (the aforementioned king/god/family/stockbroker) that conflict with the party in some way. These can be anything from mere inconveniences to outright betrayal of the party. Finally, it is possible for a warrior character to have no real sense of duty at all. Maybe he just fights for the thrill, or he is using the party and plans to betray them as soon as they are no longer useful. A character with no sense of duty or obligation is just as interesting as a duty-bound character. All you need is a half-decent reason for your character to be one way or another and just run with it.

"My honor is my life."

-Sturm Brightblade...KIA

Defining honour (Canadian spelling from here on in folks) is kind of like trying to represent the earth on a flat map. We know what it's supposed to be, but no matter how hard we try the result is always distorted or skewed in some way. One of the dictionary's many definitions for honour is "a keen sense of ethical conduct." This is probably the definition that Sturm meant in the above quote. But his keen sense of ethical conduct did not save him from his rather bloody end.

So where did this honour stuff come from in the first place and why does it keep getting people killed? Well, it's hard to say exactly where honour came from, but in the military sense, it was brought into existence some time in early history to separate battle from murder. Remember those rules that I was talking about earlier? Well, honour is a collection of rules that govern personal conduct before, during, and after combat, that ensure that battle is "fair," or at least give it the illusion of being so. As long as a warrior follows all of the rules that comprise honourable conduct for his society, he will be esteemed for his actions, but if he breaks the rules he will be reviled as a coward, murderer, or even a traitor.

So, what are the rules that comprise honour? Well, that depends on where you come from. If you are a feudal samurai, your honour is based on unflinching obedience and complete devotion to your lord. If you are a medieval knight, you can look to the code of chivalry, and if you're a modern day American military officer you need not look any further than the West Point "Honor Code" which reads: I will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do. A little digging in any military history book can unearth what was perceived to be honourable conduct for nearly any soldier in any army that ever took the field of battle.

Taking it to RPG characters, how honourable is your character? Does he have an extensive honour code governing his every action, or does he simply follow a gut instinct? Maybe he believes there's no honour in battle at all and does whatever he must to survive? Or maybe he was honourable once and has since fallen from grace, and is now seeking redemption. Perhaps he is an amoral mercenary who does whatever he can to win, but never fails to fulfill a contract to the exact specifications that are laid out such as in the recent movie "the Transporter."

In some games, a code of honour is a disadvantage that your character can take to gain bonuses elsewhere, take the code by all means, (and add those extra points to boost that all important 'dodge' skill) but be sure to stick to it. Many have died over small disputes of honour, and you should defend yours to the death. Death is perhaps the one thing that all codes of honour have in common: they're all worth dying for. It's too bad that they're so strict sometimes that they get their practitioners unnecessarily killed.

"I've never seen a paladin that wasn't 'Lawful Stupid'"

-Random Gamer - referring to all of those pillars of goodness that charged the dragon

Courage and bravery are very similar to ignorance and stupidity, i.e. they tend to make you dead. But what courage and bravery are really about is overcoming fear. Unlike the lofty ideals of honour and duty, fear is easy to define: it's the body's natural reaction to perceived danger and its desperate attempt to save your ass. There is no such thing as a fearless person. I will say that again in all caps just to emphasize it. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A FEARLESS PERSON. Someone who is 'fearless' in the face of danger is really just overcoming whatever fears they may have. Acting despite fear is the basis of courage. Even the most reluctant warrior has to have the courage to fight, but history and fiction is crammed to the hilt with examples of those who overcompensated their fear by being brave to the point of reckless.

Balancing caution and bravery should be a major concern for any warrior character. Knowing when to fall back is as important as knowing when to charge. Unfortunately it is an art that few players have mastered and I fear few ever will. Maybe it will happen that some day players will know the limits of their characters and choose their battles wisely. But until then, paladins will charge dragons, combat patrols will run into obvious ambushes, and pilots will attack enemy fleets knowing they can win the war single-handedly. And they'll all die...

"HONOUR? What do you know of honour? You hide behind steel and wood and strap yourself to your horse! You are a coward and now dare to whine for mercy! The only mercy I will grant you is a quick death."

-Thrag, the column's resident barbarian, speaking to Ser Waldric Vraiment, who died soon after from natural causes. (as one naturally dies from being cut in half by an axe.)

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What do you think?

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  • Downtime by Steve Bergeron, 26feb03
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