Roleplayer #24, June 1991

A Matter of Principle

Code of Honor, Sense of Duty, Vow: The Self-Imposed Mental Disadvantages

by S. John Ross

A great many of the mental disadvantages in GURPS overlap in terms of what they mean to the player. If a fantasy warrior will, without exception, save any damsel in distress, several game explanations could be given. He might simply have a Sense of Duty to them, or he may have taken a vow that "no lady will come to harm." He might also have Compulsive Womanizing (of a very extreme sort!), or a delusion that the Faerie Emperor had decreed that he be the Sacred Guardian of Damsels. It could be any one of a number of Codes of Honor, or even an Obsession (see GURPS Riverworld).

The net result is the same, but the explanation makes a big difference in the way the character is played. The motivation is defined by the disadvantage, and this is vital to understanding what makes a character tick. It is not merely a cosmetic difference. It determines just why the person does that, and when exceptions will occur.

A major division can be made between the two basic types of mental disadvantages that prohibit or require certain types of behavior. Disadvantages such as Delusion, Obsession, and Compulsive Behavior are all neuroses of varying degrees. They are outside the character's control, and are impervious to reason. Sense of Duty, Vow, and Code of Honor, however, have the distinction of being self-imposed. The character has made a deliberate choice to act in a way that is a disadvantage.

There are several reasons why some players prefer self-imposed disadvantages (SIDs). They can be a great vehicle for character expression. A disadvantage seems somehow less restrictive when brought about by a character's own convictions.

It is also true that SIDs are, by definition, easier to reasonably be rid of. They are entirely under the control of the PC, which makes justifying their (gradual) disappearance easier. This needn't be as bad as it might sound; changing a character can still be good roleplaying if it's done right! A good way to develop a character is to allow him to change in major ways. Codes of Honor, in particular, can change in an interesting way, as the character becomes bitter about his former virtue, or finds another way of living. Pride is a factor, too. Some players find it easier to stand behind a character's actions when he is motivated by honor or a bond of fellowship. (On the other hand, some people prefer to play a character who is mad. So be it.)

Developing a PC's self-imposed limits early on is important, and will often fill that empty spot in the disadvantage list. Just a little thought will often reveal one or two aspects of a character that can be hammered into a perfectly legitimate personal Code of Honor.


The major problem of SIDs is also their strength. The (potential) variety is as great as the number of RPG characters! These are individual traits, best when custom-tailored to the player's creation. Not all knights, for instance, have the same beliefs, though they have many in common. Most of the more likable "criminal" characters in adventure literature have a crime or two that they won't touch. And each belief has different levels of strength. Not littering is one thing, going around cleaning highways is another, and stun-gunning litterbugs on sight yet another!!

Look at the Codes of Honor listed in the Basic Set. They are most useful in settings resembling pre-17th-century Earth. While the Pirate's Code is somewhat flexible as regards setting, the Gentleman's Code (as presented) and Chivalry simply won't translate into a modern campaign, or one that is especially primitive (such as an Ice Age campaign). Thus, clear guidelines for "pricing" these disadvantages are needed to develop new ones consistent with the intent of the rules. The following rules are presented to help GMs define the value of SIDs with confidence. They can also provide a useful gauge for evaluating other sorts of disadvantages.

Pricing Guidelines

In general, the value of a SID, or any other mental disadvantage, depends on the inconvenience it causes the character. A disadvantage may limit the character's behavior – getting him in trouble, or keeping him from escaping. Or it may affect the reactions of other characters.

In general, a disadvantage which has no real effect other than "Hmm, that's interesting," is only a quirk. A disadvantage that causes only minor or occasional inconvenience is worth 5 points. One which causes regular problems, or occasional major ones, is worth 10 points. One that affects the holder significantly, every day, is worth 15 points.


Many of the vows presented for my approval as GM fall into this category. This is because many SIDs cause no real inconvenience, loss of freedom, or trouble to the PC; they merely help define him. This is great, of course, and should be encouraged as a very useful form of Quirk. But a vow to, say, never draw a sword in the presence of a certain form of pottery, no matter how strongly it is upheld by the character, is simply not extreme enough to be a 5-point disadvantage.

Very few Codes fit this category. Most matters of personal honor are at least important enough to cause bad reactions or strongly affect decisions. Many Vows will fall here. Sense of Duty to some item of property might also fit, depending on the item. If the object is likely to be imperiled with any measurable frequency (a lucky throwing axe, an item of displayed jewelry, a ship), then 5 points would be fair. If the item is easily guarded, such as a silver dollar kept in the pocket at all times, then it is a Quirk.

5-Point Disadvantages

Self-imposed Disadvantages of this sort will not usually get you killed, broke, or humiliated. They will strongly affect your judgment in some minor area, or deal with something which is rare in the campaign. A 5-point SID could also be a less restrictive, self-imposed version of a greater disadvantage (a code that does not permit theft would be a partial version of Honesty).

Thus, a vow to kill everyone on sight when near any bug-eyed, polka-dot aliens would be worth only 5 points in most reputable Space campaigns (and usually accompany a Delusion or two). While a vow to go on a killing rampage under a named condition is extremely serious, the condition here named is not – and it's likely to be rare. More common SIDs at this level include: things that determine how you spend your free time, things that affect combat in minor ways (never draw a weapon indoors), or things that might cause others to take offense. Vegetarianism, for instance, could bring about a bad reaction from an uninformed host, but is not truly an Odious Personal Habit.

SIDs of this level will quite often be rational and logical, and are likely to be respected by NPCs who understand the reasons for them. They will almost never cause stress within a character group. Most restrictions on weapon use will fall into this category. This depends on the importance of the weapon class within the culture – cutting weapons in the Middle Ages, or guns in the Old West, would be weapon classes worth 10 points. But remember, unless the character is a fighter type, no restriction on weapons is incredibly important to his daily life. For any non-fighter, drop the value of a weapon restriction by one level (from -10 to -5, from -5 to quirk).

A few further 5-point examples: Never lie (the existing Truthfulness disadvantage). Always avenge an insult. Donate money to every deserving charity. Always be courteous. Never strike an unarmed man. Find your true family history (this often means huge investments of time and money for research). Never give anything away. Tithe 10% to the Church.

10-Point Disadvantages

At this level, you can expect injury, loss of property, loss of respect, or relatively extreme inconvenience. This is the realm of most Codes of Honor, the more extreme religious taboos, and minor quests. SIDs of this level will often be irrational or quite difficult to maintain within the character s society.

To be worth 10- points, the disadvantage should cost the character money on regular basis, or affect his use of time, or seriously affect judgment or options. For combat-related SIDs, things like always fighting with your off hand, never using guns, or permitting no foe to survive a fight go here. Major restrictions regarding property, communication, or environment also apply. These disadvantages will often cause some friction within a group, or even embarrassment ("Sorry, he really insists on kissing the walls. It's a religion thing"). If a character insists that those around him follow some minor (5-point) SID, this would also qualify ("No handguns will be used while I am present").

Some sample 10-point SIDs: Never use doorways. Give all excess money to ecological groups. Never eat in the presence of others. Never shave. Find your long-lost father. Permit no discourtesy in your presence. Allow your opponent the first blow. Completely avoid one class of people (not necessarily intolerance; it could be for religious reasons, or out of respect).

15-Point Disadvantages

Someone with a Code of Honor or Vow of this magnitude will usually be so affected as to be considered a class apart from normal people. Codes of this level will be strict and complex ways of life, combining many smaller SIDs from quirk level up. Vows will be life-consuming quests (vows of vengeance included), or cut wholly against the grain of normal existence. Such things involve a great loss of what others view as personal freedom. To you, it is the Only Way. 15-point SIDs will often be the close cousins of Fanaticism. Extreme monastic cults, orders of knight-hood, suicidal mercenary warriors, or the Defenders of The Ether Infinity will usually have SIDs in this range. A Code of this level not only sets its holder apart from normal life, but also involves a considerable danger or restriction. Many people not so bound will view these things as stifling. The penalty in game terms will be high.

Because they are so extreme, these are often the easiest of the self-imposed disadvantages to role-play. They define the great archetypes of their culture. The Hero's Code from GURPS Supers and the Code of Chivalry are the classics of this sort. This, however, represents a danger. Often, players will turn to these disadvantages in lieu of a solid character concept. This is fine in one-shot adven-tures, but the novelty may wear off in an extended campaign . . . the other characters gain depth, while the Cardstock Avenger never changes. Most players seeking depth in their characters will eventually end up roleplaying the removal of such vows, as the character becomes disillusioned . . . GMs and players should also be careful to avoid SIDs which "cramp the style" of other PCs in any great way, which these often will.

Examples: Never retreat from any chance to fight. Own no more than clothing and rations. Use no weapons (worth only 10-points if the character can break bricks with his hands, and only 5 if the character shoots 10d lasers from his eyes). Never be closer than 50- yards to another person. Shoot anything green. Personally disarm every single nuclear device on Earth . . .

Going Beyond

It takes a brave playing group to permit the sorts of disadvantages that push beyond the normal 15-point limit, but some exist, and some are even relatively harmless. Total non-violence is a playable 30-point code. A PC android with Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" is playing with a 30-point Code of Honor (total devotion to the good of mankind, as the robot interprets it or has been programmed, but permitting some degree of free will). In nearly every case, these larger SIDs will actually be examples of the Combination Rules.

Combination Rules: Keeping Multiple SIDs Balanced

In most cases, when a player proposes several SIDs for his character, they should be combined into one, just as the number of Enemies or Dependents is limited.

For instance, if someone takes the disadvantages of "Never steal, never use illegal drugs, and never exceed the speed limit," they could be defined as two 5-point SIDs and a quirk. This would be worth 11 points. However, the Honesty disadvantage covers all of these, and is only worth 10. These SIDs should be combined to form a 5-point Code of Honor. They simply aren't worth 11 points, or even 10, because taken together they don't offer 10 points worth of inconvenience!

Even if a character's collection of SIDs have nothing to do with one another, they often work better combined into a Code. These are usually named after the character or his group (The Creed of the Orange Knights, Crazy Eric's Code). Of course, some collections are extreme or disparate enough to stay separated. If a character takes a vow to personally disarm all of the nukes in the world and use no weapons, go ahead and give him 30 points for it. He'll need them.

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