Steve Jackson Games GURPS – Generic Universal RolePlaying System

Self-Esteem and Repartee in GURPS Swashbucklers

Importing an Idea from Lace and Steel

©1992, 1994 by Steffan O'Sullivan
Lace and Steel is a roleplaying game designed by Paul Kidd and published by The Australian Games Group. The setting resembles Europe in the mid-17th century, with a twist. The game combines some fantasy elements, such as low-level magic, harpies, centaurs (half-horses, please!), pixies, etc., with black powder weapons and swashbuckling heroics. It is a very fun game, with good game mechanics and an interesting combat resolution system.

Perhaps the best part of the game, however, is the social interaction that takes place. Lace and Steel is able to satisfy a gamer who desires to play a noble courtly lady, for example: there is plenty for such a character to do in this world and game system.

In particular, two aspects of the game are so fitting to a swash- buckling setting that I've written them up in GURPS terms. These are the courtly skill of Repartee and the gaming mechanic of self-esteem.


High self-esteem is best thought of as a temporary advantage, and low self-esteem as a temporary disadvantage. Unless something has happened to affect your self-esteem, consider it always to be 0: neutral. (While it is possible to create a new advantage, High Self-Esteem, and a new disadvantage, Low Self-Esteem, this is not advisable as a permanent state. For one thing, the costs would be very extreme. For another, it's more fun to have it fluctuate, as you'll see!)

Self-esteem can fluctuate from -3 to +3, but is normally 0. When a character's self-esteem reaches +3, he feels very good about himself and is full of cocksure bravura and dash, ala Errol Flynn. When his self-esteem reaches -3, he feels as if he can't do anything right, and more closely resembles a Woody Allen character. Anyone who's ever seen the old Danny Kaye movie, The Court Jester, knows exactly the difference between high and low self-esteem in the same character, and the effect it has on skills. (If you don't know this movie, see it soon.)

A character's self-esteem level affects all of his skill levels. If you feel good about yourself, you'll do better at whatever you try; if you feel low, you won't have as good a chance as succeeding. Thus, a character in a state of +3 self-esteem is at +3 to all skills!

The effect lasts for one hour at each level, gradually returning to normal, until self-esteem is back to 0. For example, a self-esteem of -1 lasts for one hour, at which point the character's self-esteem returns to 0. A character with self-esteem +3 has a +3 to all skills for one hour, then a +2 for one hour, and finally a +1 for another hour. (This time is relative to the character, not the player. That is, one hour in the game may last a few minutes to the players, or take several sessions to game through, depending on the situation.)

Self-esteem can never rise above +3 or below -3. Repeated attempts to raise self-esteem must wait until the current level changes – that is, there must be at least one hour in between attempts to raise self esteem.

At this point, most gamers want to know how to get high self-esteem and avoid low self-esteem. There are two ways to change your self-esteem level: daring deeds and Repartee "combat."

Daring Deeds

If a character is trying an especially hazardous or otherwise risky maneuver, he may opt to invest self-esteem in the venture. The GM is the final arbiter of how much self-esteem can be invested: anywhere from 1 to 3. If a character has a particularly good chance of succeeding at something, there is no risk involved, and no self-esteem can be invested. An example would be the most skilled darts player taking on a country bumpkin in a game of darts – there is no chance of his self-esteem rising after defeating such a foe. Conversely, if he were beaten, he would suspect he was either cheated or "set up," and his self-esteem would not be likely to suffer an undue blow.

But if a fencer is in a "first blood" duel with an unknown (but dangerous-looking) foe, he may opt to risk some self-esteem. Something as serious as a duel allows risking 0, 1, 2, or 3 self-esteem levels, as the player wishes. The more self-esteem risked, the greater the loss or gain, depending on the outcome of the duel.

As an example, Pierre, a Musketeer, is in a duel with a stranger. Pierre feels pretty sure he can beat the stranger, so he risks 3 self esteem. If Pierre wins, all of his skills are at +3 for the next hour, then at +2 for the following hour, and +1 for the third hour. Should he lose, however, all of his skills are at -3 for the next hour, and so on.

Aside from physical danger, other examples of self-esteem risk are courting someone, rescuing someone close to you, asking for a raise or to be sent as a trusted emissary on a critical mission, succeeding at such a mission, throwing a party with the king in attendance, and so on.

Repartee (Mental/Average) – Defaults to IQ-5

Repartee is the skill of verbal combat. It is full of impaling witticisms, cutting remarks and crushing retorts. However, Repartee isn't overtly insulting: the implications are devastating, but there is never anything solidly libelous that would stand up in court. Unlike physical combat, it doesn't do physical damage: it does self-esteem damage.

While Repartee is primarily an upper-class skill, there is a lower-class version of it, often found in bars and workplaces. The lower-class battles tend to be cruder and less witty, but not always. However, there is a natural reticence to enter Repartee with someone of a higher status, unless open revolt is brewing. In general, the GM should disallow Repartee between the lower classes and the upper classes. Should the occasion arise, however, the lower-class combatant has a penalty to his skill equal to the difference in Status levels.

Repartee combat is begun by one party almost insulting another person. If the other party chooses to ignore the taunts, a successful Acting (or Savoir-Faire) roll will extract him or her without any self esteem risked. A failed roll means you showed your annoyance with the remark. At this point, you must either begin Repartee combat or your self-esteem drops to -1 immediately.

If Repartee combat is engaged, each party engaged must announce how much self-esteem is risked: from 1 to 3. They then roll a Contest of Skills and keep a running total of the amount won by. When one contestant reaches a total of 10 more than the other, the Repartee combat is over, and the loser stomps off in anger amid the laughter of spectators. The winner's self-esteem is enhanced by the amount he risked, and the loser's is decreased by the amount he risked. These may be different amounts.

At any time up until one party has a running total of 5 more than the other, either participant can break off the Repartee combat, at a cost of -1 self-esteem. The victor gains +1 self-esteem. At any time up until one party has a running total of 10 more than the other, either participant can break off the Repartee combat, at a cost of -2 self esteem. The victor gains +2 self-esteem.

If a player is making particularly good cutting remarks, the GM should give a bonus to his character's Repartee skill. In fact, if the group is naturally witty enough, the GM should not allow the Repartee skill at all, but require the players to supply their own remarks.

Example: Jean-Paul, a Musketeer, and Sebastian, a Cardinal's guard, are rivals for Marie's hand. They meet at a fancy ball, with Marie making eyes at both them of them while the other is watching. Smallsword combat would be inappropriate at a Duke's ball, so they engage in Repartee combat.

Jean-Paul struts forward and announces that Sebastian looks very good tonight – that yellow scarf is especially appropriate. Sebastian is quick to respond that Jean-Paul's dress sword looks particularly polished – or is that unused. Jean-Paul's Repartee skill is 14, and Sebastian's is 15. They are both Status 1. The first round of "combat" goes to Jean-Paul, as he rolls a 9, making his Repartee skill by 5, and Sebastian only rolls a 12, making his by 3. Jean-Paul is 2 ahead at this point.

They exchange other remarks, rolling the dice again: Sebastian this time wins by 6. Subtracting Jean-Paul's earlier success from the current score, Sebastian is now ahead by 4. On the third roll, Jean-Paul wins by 1, so Sebastian is ahead by only 3.

And so on – they keep bantering back and forth until one either wins decisively or quits the combat.

Lace and Steel contains an excellent example of Repartee combat: two women making caustic observations about each other's clothing and lack of style. Other possibilities include insinuating cowardice, lack of virginity, corruption, low mentality, clumsiness, and baseness of character in many ways – see the list of Mental Disadvantages.

(My thanks to Paul Kidd for granting his permission to publish this article. Lace and Steel is copyright 1988 by Paul Kidd.)

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