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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).

  • Cursed: The character has been cursed, whether supernaturally, by encounter with an alien artifact, or by some sort of cybernetic implant that the character is unaware of. The character is under some strange limitation in his behaviour or his surroundings.

    There are two main types of curses that I wish to discuss. The first type involves a character's interactions with his environment. For example, it might literally always rain for a character (an idea from Douglas Adams), a character might have severe penalties to physical skills in daylight, or a character could be unable to cross running water.

    The second type of curse involves a limitation on a character's behaviour, with dire consequences if it is broken. Ideas for these of curses can be found by looking at geases in Celtic mythology. Examples include being unable to refuse a drink when offered one for a second time, enforced celibacy, being unable to fight a particular type of enemy, and being forced to obey the commands of an individual who uses the right password.

    A character with a curse will probably want to find out more about it and to deal with it. The GM should accommodate this need a little at a time, and not make it too easy.

  • Dependent: The character has another person who he must take care of at times. Possibly a child or aged relative. Although a dependent who is in fact a valuable ally at a similar level of ability to the character concerned is not a disadvantage, there is nothing to stop dependents being useful in comparatively minor ways.

    Obvious adventure hooks can involve dependents. For example, something can happen to a dependent or threaten to happen to them, or a dependent might urgently need something to get them out of dire straits. As for most of the adventure hooks involving a character's disadvantages, they should not be over-used.

  • Duty: The character has a duty either to an organisation or to a powerful individual that calls occasionally on his time. Missions coming from the duty make useful adventure hooks.
  • Enemy: The character has a sworn enemy who plans to ruin or even kill her. An enemy character should be significant but not so significant that the campaign is dominated. Ideally, the enemy should be slightly more powerful than the player character concerned, with a few less powerful minions.

    The appearance of an enemy, or at least an enemy's minions, can be used to complicate an adventure if things are going to well for the player characters. The enemy himself should probably not personally appear to the character in a situation where he does not have the upper hand; in order to eliminate an enemy, it should be necessary to go to some personal and time-consuming effort.

  • Favour: The character somehow owes a significant NPC a favour for something done in the past. This favour can be called upon. This disadvantage differs from most of those listed here because it can only be used once, and then it is gone. For this reason, it is recommended that the GM makes the favour something very significant; returning it could well involve the party in a very dangerous adventure, or be either financially or politically damaging.

    Of course, the character could simply refuse to return the favour. In this case, the knowledge could spread, making the character's lack of honour infamous (see below). Alternatively, the character could easily gain an enemy.

  • Infamy: The character has a widespread and negative reputation that affects how others view him. This disadvantage is useful for making a character's life more complicated in social circumstances. A soldier with a reputation for cowardice, for example, may volounteer for something dangerous in order to try to prove himself, or conversely may not be trusted with important sensitive information.
  • Mystery: The character has a mysterious disadvantage that he is completely unaware of; the GM decides exactly what it is, using the examples given here as guidelines. This is potentially a good disadvantage for lazy players, although they should be aware that this disadvantage is inviting the GM to mess them around, at least a little.
  • Poor: The character begins play with around half of the usual starting funds, and for some reason no capacity to find a job that will improve the situation. This can be through some sort of bad reputation (which would be represented by the above infamy flaw), lack of useful skills, or a view that work is demeaning, along the lines of a member of the Victorian gentry. This disadvantage is useful because it gives a character an excuse to become an adventurer, or to get involved in dangerous activities. However, it is not of so much use in generating future adventure ideas.
  • Secret: The character has a skeleton in his closet (for example, he is really an escaped slave, he deserted from the army, he was involved in a torrid relationship with the crown princess). This skeleton, if revealed, would be very problematic; the disadvantage would turn into an enemy disadvantage or infamy disadvantage that is stronger than usual, or possibly into a combination of the enemy and infamy disadvantages. A secret should not be revealed casually, and the player should have a chance to stop it. That said, the threat of a secret being revealed, possibly through blackmail, makes a good adventure hook. Another interesting question is whether the character tells the other PCs.
  • Vow: The character has made some sort of vow, whether it takes the form of a code of honour, strict pacifism, or even celibacy. A GM should create some situations that test the Vow for the character. Violating the Vow may bestow the Secret or Infamy disadvantage upon the character concerned. It is up to the player whether they choose to keep to their Vow despite breaking it once.
  • Weirdness Magnet: This is probably the silliest disadvantage in the list. Simply put, strange things keep happening to the character with this disadvantage. The disadvantage is an excuse for wild coincidences involving the party. However, such coincidences should mainly involve the character with this disadvantage. It is probably a bad idea to allow more than one character with this disadvantage in the party.

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.

  • Curiosity: The character cannot resist investigating something odd unless it is obviously too dangerous to handle. The obvious adventure hook to use for a character with this disadvantage is for the character to find something odd, such as a map indicating some hidden location or object, or a book in a completely unknown language.
  • Soft-Hearted: The character cannot resist helping someone she sees suffering or in need. Adventure hooks are quite easy for a character with this disadvantage; she only needs to come across an apparently deserving case. The GM should probably make most deserving cases encountered genuine, although there is room for a few tricksters.
  • Temptation: The character has some form of behaviour or a temptation he cannot resist. This could be anything, from attractive members of the opposite sex to sampling a new wine. An adventure hook for a character with the first of the above temptations might well be encountering a beautiful stranger, who later gets into some sort of trouble. On the other hand, a character with the second temptation might well go to considerable effort to get hold of a legendary vintage of wine.

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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