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Character Flaws

by Paul Mitchener
Oct 19,2004


Methods of Campaign and Adventure Design 4

By Paul Mitchener

Character Flaws

As promised last time, this column is a little less sweeping than my previous three. It is also somewhat more opinionated; you have been warned!

The issue I want to explore is why so many character creation systems give a character extra points for skills, attributes, or other powers in exchange for disadvantages that inconvenience the character. For example, in GURPS, a character could easily be a better computer programmer (by spending the extra points on that skill) if he has the pyromania disadvantage. Some people like this feature of character creation, thinking of it as somehow fair; without some sort of power boost, why would a player take any disadvantages for his character? Others see the structure as somewhat ridiculous, and aimed at power gamers.

My opinion is that some sort of disadvantage or flaw system is useful if appropriately presented. The point of disadvantages is that they can give the GM ways to make things more interesting for a character, and help create or inspire elements of adventures. According to this point of view, when a player takes disadvantages for a character, the extra points awarded are some sort of meta-game reward for the player helping the GM.

This theory of disadvantages has led me to three conclusions.

Not every disadvantage is useful

To return for the earlier example, the pyromania disadvantage probably contributes nothing to the game, and is potentially disruptive. I am not saying that a player should not be allowed to play a pyromaniac. I am saying that he should not get any extra character points for playing a pyromaniac.

The same goes for various addictions and physical problems that might also be taken as disadvantages. These can be modelled descriptively as a consequence of low attributes in most systems.

There is no reason for different disadvantages to have different points values

If gaining points for a disadvantage is a meta-game reward for a player creating a character with potential adventure hooks (or at least hooks for adventure elements), there is no reason to give different point values depending on how much a character is inconvenienced. There is probably no way to subjectively judge how useful the various adventure hooks are.

In GURPS, for instance, I would grant ten character points for each disadvantage that I allowed, obviously with a sensible maximum number of disadvantages. Actually, GURPS is probably a bad example to use here, since many of the disadvantages (for example those reflecting wealth, social status, charisma, and appearance) are those which might be governed by low attributes in other systems- something which is a completely different issue, and probably needs to be quantitatively controlled.

A player should not be penalised for going to great effort to remove a disadvantage

If a player decides to go to great effort, over the course of several adventures to remove, for example, an Enemy taken as a disadvantage, he should not be penalised by having to pay back the `free points'. The disadvantage has already generated some interesting adventures, so the price is paid.

On the other hand, it follows both by common sense and the above argument that a disadvantage should never be easy to eliminate.

My Flaws System

We now get to the meat of the column; a flaws system that can be added to most RPGs. Each character can choose up to two flaws in the following list appropriate to the campaign genre. Each flaw either grants X points to spend on extra skills or attributes (sadly the number X will vary considerably from system to system), or (for d20-based games) a free feat. It may be possible to take the same flaw more than once (for example, for a character with two definite enemies, who may at some point learn to cooperate with each-other).

Observe that the above list contains mainly social disadvantages. Mental disadvantages can also be useful for adventure ideas, although they can be slightly unsubtle. A GM might find himself saying something along the lines of "What do you mean you don't want to investigate the forbidden temple? You've got the Curiosity disadvantage!" However, mental disadvantages do work well with the right player and right GM. Here is a very short list of examples; more are clearly possible.

Wrapping Up

Although I have tried to make the flaws in my system quite general and inclusive of special cases, there is obviously room for more possibilities.

For better or worse, this column was a little opinionated. I plan for my next column to be on a similar theme, this time looking at an advantage system built according to the philosophy expressed in this column.

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