Netflyer Oxford University Role Playing Games Society
Netflyer 32

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Favours and Face - Social Interaction in games

Many ideas in this article appeared in a superb piece by Patrick Brady in Imazine 27 (available at the Panurgic Publishing website).

I'd like to begin, as always, by opposing the current OURPGSoc orthodoxy. The written doctrine may be different, but custom and practice within the society tell us that:

  • Good role playing is about establishing a unique and original personality;
  • Inasmuch as this personality involves any principled behaviour, this principled behaviour is practically insane;
  • Any kind of book-keeping on this point is a pathetic regression to role-playing in the 1970s.

If I might nail the following three heresies to the door of the Pusey Room:

  • Good role playing is about fitting a character into a social milieu, rather than establishing a unique personality;
  • Honourable behaviour is smart, rather than being some (admirable) psychosis;
  • It is well worth having a written system for keeping track of social manoeuvrings.

Such a system has a great deal to add to many styles of role-playing game, from the serious explorations of historical or fictional societies, such as Tirikelu, Outlaws of the Water Margin, and Pendragon to powergaming hack-and-slays such as Feng Shui, Vampire and AD&D.
Humans are social animals, and the social vacuum in which most games operate is artificial. To be sure, the characters that players create are often misfits. But this is often the only option open to players in a game without real social interaction. Even social rebels tend to have their own culture: they must conform to the ethos of the rebellion. A player who really insists on playing a character without a place in society should come to realise what a difficult road her character must travel.

What is Honour?
Honour is not about making the characters behave irrationally. People who are seen to behave admirably actually do rather well from their sense of right and wrong. People trust them, confide in them, and applaud them. They are likely to have more friends in a tight spot. They will be offered good positions. Their opinions will be treated with respect. Such things are not easy to obtain through pretence-although it is always possible.
There are two aspects to a sense of honour: firstly, the way that the character behaves; secondly, the way others react to that. Most role-playing games have emphasised the first aspect. However, any decent player can handle her own character's behaviour: it is the second aspect, that of social reaction, which is the more interesting and with which the players and referee may need more help. Honour is most interestingly about relationships.

Why bother with social interaction?
Well, only an article for a role-playing magazine would need a section with this title. Dungeon bashes are all very well, a little like computer games. Certainly they are more enjoyable than adolescent navel-gazing. But a game with genuine, realistic and evocative social relationships is better than either-it's almost like the real thing.
Patrick argues that a system of honour is "a link to a life other than our own", and this strikes at the heart of the matter.
Picture "a life other than our own": a truly different society. Is it interestingly different because some of its denizens have pointy hats, pointy ears or pointy teeth? No. Let's get more sophisticated: now the ones with pointy hats cackle, the ones with pointy ears sing and like trees, and the ones with pointy teeth "represent the darkness that is part of the human condition we call life". It is interestingly different now? Still "no"? Why?
What really makes a society different is the way that the individuals interact with each other. What is the hierarchy? Is social mobility possible? How does one gain influence? What is the most important virtue? Is it expected that people will possess that virtue?

Role playing for real
In a recent article ["Team Games" - Nightflyer 30] I argued that the dominant games of the 1990s-with unbalanced, angst-ridden psychopaths stabbing each other in the back or simply posing around in shades-do not represent progress towards mature role-playing. Growing up is about becoming increasingly accomplished in interactions with other people.
A mature game can have all the joys of a childish one-which is one reason why we play games at all-but will also include genuine relationships. Role playing for real is not about creating a spectacular individual, but about placing your character in a web of social interaction.
A real obstacle to making this work is the burden placed on the referee. Games become distorted because the strain of keeping track of the reactions of half the population of the game world to the other half is just too much without a simple system. Imagine a game of Pendragon in which full account was taken of politics and intrigue, as well as shiny nutters charging around on big horses. Imagine a game of Vampire in which hierarchy, boons and subtle influence replaced violent[1] coalitions and brooding.

No matter how sophisticated the award of skills and material belongings, the drawbacks inherent in such a system are famous. Perhaps this is why many of the games in which I have played recently have abandoned any idea of character advancement. But this is a shame.
In the real world, most advancement is social advancement: people acquire friends and allies and establish a reputation. The same is true for a game world. The game advantages of social advancement over self- or material advancement are clear. Social advancement leads to adventures rather than making them redundant; social advancement creates friends to protect, enemies to oppose, responsibilities to honour and a reputation to defend. For these reasons, the most enjoyable long-term campaigns will often involve social advancement as the major vehicle for character progress.

Keeping track of face and favours-a system
The aim so far has been to convince you that honourable behaviour is an important part of characterisation; that it is worth taking time and effort to model; that it is more importantly about social relationships than individual behaviour; and that it should spring naturally from the player rather than being imposed in a heavy-handed way.

"Face" is the social standing of a character. A character with high face commands respect and influence; but how is face acquired?

Face as a zero-sum game
Patrick modelled matters of honour as zero-sum games: whatever I gain, my opponent loses. It's not always like that in reality but it makes a surprisingly good place to start.

Ichabod Woundwort and Nathaniel the Pink are at a garden party when their argument over a fine point of theology begins to attract attention. All eyes are on them as they hold forth and the players and referee suggest that the debate has become a matter of honour, worth a point of face. If Ichabod backs down, he will lose a point of face and Nathaniel will gain one, and vice versa. And, indeed, Ichabod begins to suspect that he is having the worst of it: he bluffs, suggesting that perhaps Nathaniel would care to do some further reading before he shows his ignorance in public. Unfortunately, Nathaniel calls the bluff and recalls that Professor Stapleton-Chesterton is in the town that very night, and perhaps might be willing to illuminate the benighted Mr Woundwort. The stakes have been raised and the matter is now worth two points of face. Woundwort draws himself up to his full height (6'5"), and towering over the soft pink silks of Nathaniel, suggests that Nathaniel's insolent behaviour would best be refuted on the Pont Disputante at dawn. The matter is now worth four points of face, which the timorous Nathaniel is perfectly willing to sacrifice in exchange for his continued existence...

In a sense, face is always a zero-sum game, because people will be measured relative to others. Face should be defined relative to the rest of society: most people will have face of zero.
But there are more interesting effects of viewing face as a zero-sum game.

  • Zero-sum games are necessarily about conflict, and conflict is inherently interesting. For several reasons-variety is an important one-it is useful to have sources of conflict other than plain combat. In a realistic game, it is doubly useful to have sources of conflict which have a low fatality rate.
  • Zero-sum games don't actually create anything. If I can only get ahead at the expense of others, inflation in character advancement is unlikely to set in. The referee can arrange for characters to lose face, and it tends to be a much more exciting and meaningful process than having their money stolen or their levels drained by AD&D undead.
  • I lied when I said zero-sum games don't create anything. They create losers who are still hanging around looking for revenge. Which is nice.

Games of partial common interest
It is not clear from Patrick's article whether he intends face always to be the reward in a zero-sum game. It's clear that in most social systems, this is not always the case. The key insight is that face is often at stake in a situation where what other people do affects you, and what you do affects them[2]. (This kind of situation is what game theory was designed to analyse, incidentally.) This kind of interactive-in the best sense of the word-experience is inherently much more interesting than a treasure haul or a hack for experience points.

The finest knight in all Europe, Sir Iridel de Montaigne, is challenged in the Fay Bridge Tourney by Jenk Pigswiller, an aspiring squire and general all-round nobody.

  • If de Montaigne refuses the challenge, it might be argued that both he and Pigswiller will lose a little face. De Montaigne will certainly not gain face for refusing the challenge, but a derisive refusal will probably lose him very little respect. Pigswiller might gain face for having the courage to make a challenge, but this will most likely be outweighed by the humiliation of being turned down.
  • If de Montaigne accepts the challenge and wins, he will probably gain no face at all, but Pigswiller (if he lives) may gain face for a courageous stand.
  • If de Montaigne accepts the challenge and loses, he will suffer tremendous loss of face-probably even more than Pigswiller will gain, because de Montaigne has so much to lose.

It is only partially true that what Pigswiller gains, de Montaigne will lose. Both could lose out, and both could gain. But this does not mean that they are playing a game of pure common interest.

What is to be admired?
"Tell me, Merlin-which is the most important of the knightly virtues?"
"The most important? Let me see... Why, Truth, of course. Always, Truth..."


Nothing has been said of what is an admirable quality. This is because it varies between societies. Some value truth, some justice, some strength, some beauty and some compassion. This is one of the ways in which societies are distinguished from each other-but note that it is a rare society which finds no particular qualities admirable [3].

Reflected Glory
Patrick's conception of Face includes an idea that an individual can gain or lose face because of what her family, friends or allies may do. However, I think his suggested mechanism for handling this seems impractical, and suggest an alternative.
For the purposes of keeping book, Face should have two components: Personal Face and Reflected Glory. Personal Face incorporates only the respect given to an individual because of his achievements and position. Reflected glory incorporates only the Personal Face of others, with whom the individual is associated. Face is simply the sum of Personal Face and Reflected Glory.
The idea behind this separation is to prevent complicated "feedback" calculations: if I am associated with A and I gain face, then he gains face, and his clan gain face, which includes B, with whom I am associated-so do I gain face? Of course not; so my achievement represents an increase in my Personal Face, and so an increase in the Reflected Glory of my associates. My Reflected Glory does not alter, because my allies have received no increase in Personal Face[4].
The number of different types of Face can multiply as much as seems useful. I think that three is usually the appropriate maximum: Personal Face, Clan Face (to represent the shared achievements of a Clan, Family, Political Group, etc.) and Associate Face (to represent the particular standing of an individuals close friends, patrons and servants).
The weighting of Personal Face vs. Reflected Glory will obviously depend on social opinions as to the relative importance of family / birth / affiliation / individual accomplishment.

How does it feel to be on your own?
We've already seen that honourable values are not psychological ailments: they are sensible ways to approach the world, and they are reinforced because they lead to success.
The world is a very harsh place for those who have been dishonoured: and this is not just true in a culture where honour is clearly of importance, such as Japan or Arthurian Cornwall. It is true in the apparently individualistic society of 1990s Britain: consider how homeless people are isolated from a social system which values wealth. They are outcasts from society, and cannot easily obtain help, assistance, a job; society can accommodate beggars only as part of a dependency culture-we can fund shelters and soup kitchens but cannot easily re-integrate social outcasts.
By contrast, respect and influence automatically accrue to Doctors, Members of Parliament, television "personalities". The lives of those with the right clothes, the right credit cards, and the right accent, are made easier every day in ways which are almost imperceptible, but very important.

Being Two-Faced
"If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?

-Abraham Lincoln

A person who is respected in some circles may not be so respected in others. To an extent this is just something to be role-played, but often it will be worth formalising. An individual may be respected in the business world because of his entrepreneurial brilliance, in high society because of his beautiful world, smart looks and flawless charm, and in the Mafia because of his ruthlessness towards his enemies and his fair dealing with his friends. It will not be enough to say that Don Corleone has high Face-he has Credibility (business), Status (society) and Respect (Mafia). The referee must decide whether a system of multiple social currencies, all partly convertible, is worth the additional complexity. My intuition is that it will only be worthwhile in a very complicated society and a campaign which is based very heavily on politics and social manoeuvring.

A favour is a record of a particular social transaction. Simply note on your character sheet those to whom you owe favours, and those who owe you favours.
Favours then become a record of the history of the game, and an important link between the character and the rest of the world: this is important. There is a certain style of fiction in which the lone hero appears on the scene with no history and no reputation: he deals with the local crisis and then vanishes as suddenly as he appeared. Westerns (and variants such as Yojimbo and Kung Fu) are common in their use of this cliché. Stories like this make popular game ideas because they fit nicely with the vacuous nature of much interaction in games, but they are relatively rare in fiction because they tend to be rather unsatisfying. (It is interesting to note that in the outstanding film in the genre, Yojimbo, the eponymous hero derives his power (in part) from the fact that he is the only one in the village who stands outside the influence of the powerful social relationships, and the only one who can manipulate them to his own ends.)

Favours and Adventures
Favours can be handed out as a reward for a job well done, but unlike the usual rewards in games, they lead to more adventures.
Favours allow the referee to be more strict with characters. In a game of social isolation, the referee must leave the characters a margin of error or it is likely that they will put a foot wrong and be killed. In a game of social interaction, the referee can punish mistakes by having a powerful NPC save the characters from trouble; instead of being a tedious deus ex machina, this rescue can be more trouble than it is worth. The individual who saves the party need not be remotely interested in their welfare, simply in holding power over them. He may even have engineered their trouble in order to give himself the opportunity of indebting them to him.
When characters come to cash in their own favours, they may find that this leads to further adventure. Favours cannot simply be redeemed for cash or property: they can only be claimed at the appropriate time. This, in itself, may encourage more risk taking: characters may decide to use the favours as insurance while undertaking some dangerous exploit. (If the Chief of Police owed me a favour, I'd be tempted to try a little burglary, knowing that if I was caught, crucial evidence might go missing.)
Not only does the trouble of cashing in favours encourage more adventuring, it also embroils the characters further in a web of social intrigue. The etiquette of claiming back favours may be complex.
Of course, because favours are not readily redeemable for cash, it is possible for a successful individual to accumulate many favours without the game becoming unbalanced. What would he do with such credit? Favours are, after all, a form of debt-and it is also possible that a man who is owed too much may find his debtors would not be sorry to see him vanish...

Patrick suggests using vows as a way of granting favours "in abstract". If I vow to reward the person who gives me the identity of the unknown stranger who covered my cyberjack with superglue, I am, in effect, promising a favour to all-comers. Patrick suggests that this may prevent a loss of face. Of course, there is another effect, which is to encourage people to come forward: I promise that I will regard their help as a favour, which I will repay.
The most enjoyable kind of vow is that given thoughtlessly, with unknown or unconsidered and terrible consequences: the vow to kill the first thing I see when I arrive at home, or to give to Merlin the child I get with Ygraine. This is a well-trodden area, but for good reasons.

Favours and face
Nobody is forcing you to honour a favour. But if you refuse to pay back a favour, the likely result is a loss of face. And depending on how society works, having high face may excuse one from ever bothering to pay back favours: or it may make it imperative that they are paid back as soon as possible, and in generous measure.


Visual Aids
Patrick's own game is set in a world which is highly conscious of face. To keep the awareness of Face always at the forefront of players' minds, he has each player wear a heraldic symbol on a badge, which represents the character's clan: in the centre of the table he has a chart showing the Face of each character. In a heraldic society this works very well.

Holding the Mirror Up
In other backgrounds, Face may be less obvious. However, the referee can ensure that when she plays NPCs, their reactions to characters reflect the respect the character commands. The characters with high Face will receive the respect and attention of others, and if the players are playing well, the interactions within the party will reflect this as well. This is no bad thing; most of us are not such competent role players that we don't need a little guidance from time to time from a sensible rules system.

Face-Based Magic

The Power of Honour
Hollywood fantasies have the same predictability as Tolkien and his Disneyfied successors. We know that the Dark Knight will, in the end, be defeated by the end of the film. His lack of honour has doomed him in a universe with enormous moral power.
The Irish legends are strong on this theme; Fionn MacCumhail was saved from a fairy by one of his men. His companion, seeing that the rest of the Fianna were hypnotised by an illusory banquet, broke the spell by insulting the host[5].
Not every universe has moral content, but it's worth considering for a wide variety of games. As always, running counter to expectations can be very powerful: a cyberpunk game where the good guys triumph because their hearts are pure is as surprising as a Tolkienesque romp full of dung and rape and meaningless death.

Facing down the spirits
"I mean, what have you actually achieved with your life?"
"Achieved? I was only President of the whole Galaxy, man!"

-Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

If you wish to sup with the Devil, use a long spoon, and make sure your name is on the guest list.
Many of the most interesting magic systems require negotiation with spirits to get anything done. Whether the spirits respect earthly face or have their own rules of etiquette is a matter to be determined; what is certain is that a good system for keeping track of one's spiritual standing is indispensable. Those who can figure out how it works are similarly indispensable...

Tim Harford

1 Especially when one considers the terrible destructive power of a vampire, and the longevity they will enjoy absent violent death. Why on earth would vampires wish to fight each other when they could resolve their disputes in more subtle ways?
2 This kind of situation is precisely the one analysed by game theory. However, game theory has, for a long time, studied problems other than zero-sum games.
3 Dom Camus reported a conversation with Tony Rickey which seems worth repeating: "The Japanese are obsessed with honour because, in fact, their society is full of dishonourable behaviour. His theory is that the personal qualities that any society most admires will always be those which are scarce within that society."
4 Dom Camus has observed that this also allows for particular individual perspectives: some people may respect only clan achievements, or may think that family status should count for nothing (or, in the case of inverted snobbery, should count against a person).
5 Thanks to Dave Morris for calling this story to my attention.