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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

Self-Balancing Talents & Flaws

by Dan Pond
Jul 11,2002


Self-Balancing Talents & Flaws

The Problem

Merits, backgrounds, perks, disadvantages... Talents and Flaws go by a great many names. However, they almost always work the same: You can buy a certain value in Talents during character creation, each of which costs a certain number of points as determined by the game designers' best judgment. If you take any Flaws, you get more points to spend.

The problem is, all of this assumes that each Talent and Flaw has some kind of objective worth that can be weighed relative to the other Talents and Flaws. Even if this were true in the abstract, it is certainly impossible for a game designer to predict how often each Talent and Flaw will be relevant in any particular game, or how significant its effects will be each time. Not even the GM and players of a specific game couldn't predict this with any reliability.

So, we see now that point balancing can't really be done well by a game's designers. Nor can it be done by players or GMs before the start of a game. The only time you'll know the frequency and significance of a Talent or Flaw is during game play. But how should you balance them, and what should you balance them with?

The Solution: The Karmic Balance

Usually, when a player chooses to role-play one of their Flaws, it means sacrificing some tactical advantage in favor of adding depth to their character. They do the game universe a good turn, and now the universe owes them one. As the universe's duly appointed representative, the GM should give it to them. Any time a player gets the shaft because they role-played one of the Flaws, the GM should hand them some Karma (or Drama Points or Action Dice or whatever). These are meta-game points that players can cash in for special bonuses, second chances, dramatic editing, or some other tactical advantage...

... Like using their Talents. The most stripped-down way to balance Talents and Flaws is to use the latter to fuel the former. The down side is that this gives out-of-character factors (how many points the player has) influence over in-character events (whether or not a character can use a Talent). The upside is that you can slap it on top of any game system with ease; it's completely self-contained. If you don't have a problem with the out-of-character thing, this is all you need.

If you do have a problem with it, you'll need to decouple Talents and Flaws while keeping the point system in place. In Nameless and Blur, Bad Karma takes care of this nicely. Bad Karma works just like regular Karma, except the GM uses it on behalf of the NPCs. The GM gets to heap Bad Karma on their pile when the players use their Talents and gain a significant advantage from them. (If it's just for flavor, don't worry about balance.) This means that, for each time the player characters use their Talents to give the NPCs ye ol' shaft, the NPCs receive a Get Out of Jail Free card.

The easy way to balance things is to pay a flat rate of one (Bad) Karma point each time a Talent/Flaw is used to significant effect. If this rubs you the wrong way, feel free to give out a range of points based on how significant that use of the Talent/Flaw is. I recommend 1-5, just because it's an easy scale to use, but the most important factor is how much (Bad) Karma you want flying around your game. Getting the balance just right may require some experimentation.

NPC Talents & Flaws work a little bit differently. If you don't mind the out-of-character issues mentioned above, you can use Bad Karma to power NPC Talents. In this system, the GM earns Bad Karma when the players exploit NPC Flaws. I don't recommend trying to hand out Karma to players who have NPC Talents used against them, just because it'll get hard to adjudicate things pretty quickly. (Personally, I prefer to just trust the GM to use NPC Talents sparingly, and role-play NPC Flaws when appropriate.)

All of this boils down to a handful of uses of Karma systems:

  • Use Flaws, ask the GM for Karma.
  • Use Talents, give the GM Bad Karma.
  • Exploit NPC Flaws, give the GM Bad Karma.
  • Get smacked around by an NPC Talent, charge the GM Bad Karma.

A Note on Adversarial Player-GM Relationships

After a recent Nameless game, it became apparent that even decoupling Talents and Flaws may not completely remove out-of-character considerations from a game. When I, as the GM, ran out of Bad Karma near the end of a session, one player chose not to use a Talent only because it would have given me more. In hindsight, I should have expected this, but I'm usually frugal enough in my Bad Karma use that I never run out completely.

I think the real solution is to foster a non-adversarial relationship with your players. If they expect you to use Bad Karma when it's in the best interest of the game (ie. to protect important NPCs and make encounters more challenging), then no one should have a problem generating it through Talent use. It's only when they expect you to use Bad Karma "against" them (ie. to make sure the NPCs "win") that you get into trouble. Actually, that sounds like pretty good advice in general, whether you're using the Talents/Flaws system in this article or not.

Next Time: I have no idea! Rest assured, though, it'll be something schweet!

Bayn.org - Blur, Nameless, Erebus, and other wierd-ass games & settings.

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond