What do you need to know?
Vow of Honor (VoH) is a narrative indie game by Ben Dutter from Sigil Stone Publishing. It comes with a strong theme: you play arbiters from the Order of Fasann in a harsh fantasy world who travel from enclave to enclave to uphold the Tenets of Honor.
The game was successfully kickstarted in 2014 as a digital-only product. Later on, the author provided coupons for print-on-demand-copies distributed by Onebookshelf.
You can buy VoH HERE (aff).
Digital (PDF + ebooks): USD $12.00 (ca. 10,70 €)
Print (Softcover/Premium Hardcover) plus digital: USD $20.00/40.00 (ca. 17,83 €/35,66 €)
I stumbled over the Kickstarter project last year when some of my G+ contacts recommended it to me. I must admit that it was a spontaneous buy-in because the author had a reasonable approach to crowdfunding, not because I was particularly sold on the game. Ben Dutter did a good job of explaining what VoH is about, already had some art pieces, a complete draft of the game and a playable Quickstart. I also liked that there were no unnecessary stretch goals which can easily torpedo a Kickstarter project. The PDF was USD $10 at that time, so I just took a leap of faith.
Please note: I have no affiliation with the author and I bought the game from my own Kickstarter budget/money.
This is a "reading review", I haven't playtested VoH.
The game is set in Sasara, a fictional place on another planet, populated by descendants from Earth, the Forebears. It feels like a fictional Middle East/North Africa. The technology level is on par with the 15th century. Sasara is still wild, brutal and unexplored. People live scattered in isolated settlements and survival is their foremost priority.
The player characters are assumed to be Arbiters in The Order of Fasann. It's not a religious organization, but they are quite powerful. Whereas they do not govern the populace, they help to keep it safe and honorable which means that they are at least tolerated by most governments.
The Order follows the Tenets of Honor: Compassion, Commitment, Purity, Righteousness, and Understanding. The book goes into detail what the Tenets mean and how to interpret them. They are strongly tied into the mechanics of the game.
Enemies of the players might be the Adabhuta, some kind of evil furry demons who prey on humans and the Dishonorable, factions like criminal organizations or militants.
Although there are some example settlements, the setting is still very broad strokes. The author does a good job on conveying general information and a feel for the setting, but specific details (for example with fleshed-out districts and maps) are missing.
The character creation process takes both fluff and crunch into consideration. First, there is the fluff. You'll need to come up with a character concept: Who is your character? (How would enemies/friends/teachers describe you?) and What is your character's role? (What is your role as an Arbiter, what is your skill set, your appearance etc.?).
Next you'll need to incorporate your character into the Order of Fasann. This includes your background (childhood) and your foreground (the immediate history leading up to the start of the game). Usually, Arbiters are recruited as teenagers but exceptions exist. The new recruit has to train for at least one year and you are encouraged to think about how your character's training went.
Now, we come to the crunch: there are eight Skills in VoH: Awareness, Coordination, Influence, Knowlege, Logic, Might, Resistance and Stealth. Skills are ranked as Poor, Average, Good or Exemplary (natural language, how nice!).
The game uses a pool of six-sided dice for resolution. The rank of a Skill determines what number counts as a success. With a Poor Skills only the roll of a 6 is a success, Average Skills count 5s and 6s, with a Good Skills a 4 already does the job and Exemplary Skills allow you to tally up everything equal to or above 3.
Skills can be bought as different arrays: Standard, Versatile, Focused and Specialist. For instance, the Focused character has 1 Exemplary, 2 Good, 3 Average, and 2 Poor Skills.
Additionally, you are allowed to choose a talent. You can define this knack yourself, examples include Smooth Talker, Excellent Shot or Strong Climber. When your talent is applicable to a task you may add a +1D bonus.
Arbiters must also choose two of the Tenets as Oathsworn Tenets. Mechanically, if you act in accordance to a Tenet, you'll get additional Honor Dice (bonus dice) and when you act against these tenets, the penalties are respectively higher. Every Tenet also has a pair of Tenet Maneuvers and you are allowed to chose one of them for your starter character.
Let's say, one of your Oathsworn Tenets is Righteousness. Then you can select either
Each HD (Honor Dice) spent counts as an automatic success while rolling to act Righteously.
You are immune to fear, and allies in your presence gain +1AD (Advantage Dice) to resist fear.
As you can see, the theme of the game is deeply ingrained to the mechanics and into character creation.
Tenets can also be Stained. That's when you violate a Tenet three ties before you act in accordance with it. Interestingly, the Game Master is encouraged to mirror Stained Tenets in the game world. It's recommended to start with one Stained Tenet, so your character has the chance to go on a quest of redemption. Mechanically, acting in accordance or violating a Stained Tenet has no repercussions and no benefits, other than a normal Tenet. Yet the default rules assume that you can't advance your character if she has a Stained Tenet. There is an optional rule which allows it if you'd like your game to assume that PCs have to act a bit dishonorably in your setting.
All in all, I like how character creation asks you to come up with a bit of background story and personality (fluff) but also is tied into mechanics (crunch). While it might take a while to come up with good ideas for flavor, the basic mechanics are easy to grasp and shouldn't delay you too much from beginning play.
Resolution is divided into Tasks, Enemies or Scenes. Tasks are difficult actions, Enemies are opponents that act like Tasks and Scenes are multiple Tasks and Enemies.
The Game Master never rolls, only the players do.
For every roll, you need to pick an applicable Skills. This tells you your success threshold. You get one free Base Die (BD). Remember, the game only uses "normal" six-siders.
If circumstances are favorable, you may add up to 3 Advantage Dice (AD). Additionally, you may select up to 5 Honor Dice (HD) from your pool.
Your pool builds itself from your Honorable or Dishonorable actions (in regards to the Tenets). At the end of each scene, you tally up your actions and may gain or lose HD. Luckily, the book explains how that works in detail. There are also some bells and whistles about sacrifice, forsaking a Tenet etc.
So, your dice pool looks like this:
1 BD + (max. 5) HD + (max. 3) AD vs. Difficulty
The Difficulty is between 1 and 5. That's the number of successes you need to overcome a challenge.
Moreover, there are Short Tasks (one-time actions) or Long Tasks (tasks which require time and multiple rolls). Long Tasks are just "rolled down", so you tally up your success until the Difficulty is reduced to zero. But they can also have a Threshold. That's the number of successes you need to roll before the Difficulty decreases.
Scenes and Enemies are just extensions of the base mechanic. Scenes merely sum up the Scene's Tasks and Enemies into a single Scene Difficulty.
You can already see here that the game is fairly abstract because everything can be shoehorned into one of the three resolution types.
Naturally, characters will suffer if they fail a Task. If you roll successes lower than the Difficulty on Short Tasks you get an Injury or Consequence. If you ever roll zero successes (Short or Long Task), you definitely get one of those. The Severity equals the Difficulty and if you suffer Injuries of 5 or more, you're Defeated.
A Consequence is a narrative detail that either result in the opposite of what you wanted to happen, forces you to roll a Task with a different skill or places some negative effect on your character. The Consequences are scaled in Severity (1-5). However, they are normally removed after a Scene ends.
This system allows some kind of partial success mechanic. The book gives the following example: you fail to leap over a chasm, so the GM decides that while the character clears the chasm, rocks fall and when allies attempt the same task, it will have +1 Difficulty.
Injuries add at least +1 Threshold to any Task that would be logically hindered. If you've got a sprained ankle it will be harder for you to move fast or jump around (Coordination Tasks). Healing is done with a Knowledge Task based on the Severity of the Injury.
The author also included rules for sickness and fear.
Enemies are like Tasks, they have a Difficulty Rating, a Severity Rating, and a Threshold. You attack against the Difficulty and defend against the Severity.
Initiative is a Task roll with Awareness, Coordination or Might. Success count, Enemies count their Difficulty.
Movement is abstract and the GM judges if you can attack or if you're too far away. If it's reasonable you can move, draw a weapon an attack on the same turn. Time is also abstract, you can zoom in on the action or group actions together.
The advice for GMs is very good. The author took a book out of my favorite indie games ("fail forward") and blogs, for example The Alexandrian.
He does a god job of explaining the job of the GM in this ruleset and also how to prep a game, how to handle Honor Dice, setting Difficulties, more on Thresholds or how to handle Scenes.
There is advice on how to drive action and on how to create interesting settlements and situations. Additionally, there is guidance on how to create NPCs. The method includes a Who and What (like in character creation) and an Approach (how the NPC interacts with the players).
Another chapter is dedicated to Factions. These organizations are build like NPCs and mechanically they work the same. This can get interesting if the players want a Faction to act: it can use its Skills and Talents to change a situation. I like the mechanical aspect of this because most games just handle factions narratively and the GM has to decide herself how things work out. What's more, Factions can either follow the Tenets of Honor and have Honor Dice (HD) or they might have their own motivation which grants them Motivation Dice (MD).
The content in the GM chapter is pretty solid and should help a GM mitigate the subtleties of this game.
The appendix has additional rules and setting information which flesh out the game world. They also provide some random tables and plot hooks for inspiration.
Kickstarter backers at a higher level were allowed to contribute "Vignettes", so there are some short stories, tales, ideas for Forebear artifacts, organizations, NPCs or articles about the lifestyle in Sasara.
The appendix further contains the Quickstart rules which should be handy if you need to look something up.
From the players' perspective
Character creation is fast and easy. Generally, the rules are accessible and simple to learn. The most interesting thing will be how to handle the Tenets of Honor, but that's more of a problem for a GM.
With choosing two Oathsworn Tenets and distributing Skill arrays plus narrative background information, there should be enough to distinguish characters.
If players are interested in a game that ties morality into game mechanics, this should work out fine.
From the captain's chair
The author does a superb job of explaining the rules. Basic stuff is laid out first, there are plenty examples and rules summaries.
A new GM will find it a bit difficult to adjudicate the honorable or dishonorable actions and also how Consequences work. While the rules mechanics are clearly well-thought-out, there is a bit of a learning curve on how to decide what kind of Tasks are appropriate, how to handle Consequences and Effects and where Scenes and Factions come into play.
The setting description is enough to evoke a certain feeling for the world and the appendix certainly helps, but there is still lots to do for the GM in order to come up with settlements etc.
It would have been nice to have a ready-made adventure or a detailed settlement to start out in the core book.
(If you're interested, there is a patreon which provides supplements and adventures, USD $1 per creation.)
The game is mechanically tied deeply into the Tenets of Honor, so it's not a universal game. Nevertheless, you could hack it to do different things. The author himself is running a Kickstarter for Hunt the Wicked, a space bounty hunter game based on the same rules engine.
Like Dogs in the Vineyard (see below), this could also be re-skinned to play Star Wars Jedis (I think the patreon also has a Star Wars hack with serial numbers filed off). :-)
Look and Feel
The game comes at around 260 pages. The physical copy is digest-sized which makes for a nice compact book. (I have the softcover version.)
The book uses a well-layed out design, pretty basic one-column-styled text but headers are differentiated and important rules mechanics are summarized in text boxes. This is especially neat, as it makes learning the game much easier. The art is sparse but very good. This is not a full color "art book" but a game book: mostly text, some illustrations, and boxed text. That's why the price for full-color books hurts a bit. For me, the quantity of the artwork doesn't justify having to pay the additional charge for full color.
What I don't like is that each page has a large border with a watermark illustration. Although it looks pretty it's a lot of wasted space. The softcover version uses the normal OBS-paper which means that the colors are a bit muted.
[quite a broad margin
The PDF is bookmarked sparingly and there is no index.
Furthermore, the .mobi version was quite useless for my Kindle Paperwhite. Unfortunately, it's just a converted PDF to .mobi format which means that it also copies the complete layout. It doesn't take advantage of the adjustable text options of an ebook and was pretty unreadable on my Kindle.
Still, all things considered, VoH's layout is adequately done.
Dogs in the Vineyard?
VoH feels similar to Vincent D. Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard. In Dogs, you play a bunch of young Mormon troubleshooters who travel from community to community to enforce the judgments of the True Faith of the King of Life. It is also an indie game with some interesting mechanics which puts a focus on conflict resolution vs. task resolution. Dogs was published in 2004 and is obviously much older than VoH. The mechanics are also different, but I still feel a kinship between these games.
Both feel pretty unique and have a strong central motif.
What do I like:
The base mechanic is simple and easy to learn and looks pretty solid. There are some interesting wrinkles with choosing Skills, Oathsworn Tenets etc. I like how everything builds up from the same foundation:
Tasks -> Enemies/Combat -> Scenes.
The GM chapter is very good.
What would I've liked to see:
The setting could have been (at least partly) more detailed, with an intro adventure, pregens and a setting with maps. I'm not too fond of the layout and, unfortunately, the .mobi version doesn't offer any additional value. But all things considered, I'm positively surprised by the game. I'm still not interested that much in the theme and setting but VoH is a pretty nifty game and I'm definitely looking forward to Hunt the Wicked, as it's more my style.
Some bullet points:
- easy to learn, simple base mechanic with a d6 dice pool which "escalates" to more complicated resolutions
- strong emphasis on a central theme which is tied mechanically into the game
- "abstract" obstacle rules (Tasks, Scenes)
- well written (if broad strokes) setting which is strife with conflict
- a distinctive "indie"/narrative feel (handling the Tenets of Honor could be a bit more wishy-washy which could make the job for a GM slightly difficult)
- some learning curve for the GM on how to adjudicate the mechanical bits (the players' part is pretty easy)
- rules are very well laid out with practical rules summaries in boxed text
- layout and design of the game are so-so: it looks nice but has too much white space and the ebook versions don't work properly
- the price point for the digital versions is ok, not exactly cheap, but the print copies are a bit pricey (full-color)