When Theory Meets Practice – Character Flaws

There are a lot of interesting ideas for running D&D or making tweaks to the rules that sound really cool when you first think of them but that sadly don’t work out in actual play. I will explore many such ideas in this series: going over what makes the ideas attractive in the first place, explaining why they don’t work, and suggesting compromise solutions.

Character Flaws: In most rpgs that offer a system for flaws, the characters can take one or more flaws in exchange for some kind of benefit. So maybe my character is blind but gets an extra feat to compensate for their blindness.

Teen heartthrob Peter Dinklage

The Attraction: Flaws can be fun roleplaying opportunities and give more depth to a character. It can be fun to play a one armed fighter sometimes or a character whose pride is so strong they will NEVER retreat from combat.

Furthermore, many epic heroes from film and literature have notable disadvantages that can be fun to mirror. Conan the Barbarian is extremely prideful and has an impulsive nature that gets him into a lot of trouble. Horatio Hornblower (that noble fantasy hero) has a strict code of honor. Tyrion Lannister is an ugly dwarf reviled by those who first meet him or have heard of his reputation (of course, in the HBO series he is played by teen heartthrob Peter Dinklage).

The Hard Truth: There are a lot of potential problems with flaws:

  • People feel like they need to max out on them: If I get an advantage for every flaw I take, I am probably going to take as many as possible so that I can make an awesome min/maxed character. So suddenly all these heroic characters have a TON of flaws that make them actually pretty inept and lousy at everything that isn’t their specialty. And then they are SUPER awesome at the things they focus on.
  • People take the ones that don’t impact their character: If I want a mechanically awesome character and I get some benefit from having a flaws, I will take those flaws that don’t really hurt me. In D&D, for example, if there is a flaw for “Bad Eyes”  that gives someone a -2 to perception and a -1 to ranged attacks, that would be a no-brainer for the fighter who basically never makes ranged attacks and probably isn’t focusing on perception to begin with.
  • Flaws are less fun then you think they are: A lot of flaws are more fun as roleplaying hooks than as actual disadvantages. For example, if my flaw is “Mean” and that translates to a -2 to diplomacy that just means I get annoyed when I have to make diplomacy rolls; it doesn’t present me with opportunities to revel in my disagreeable nature! Even a flaw like “one eyed” is more of a fun character quirk than something you necessarily want to have mechanical disadvantages.

The Compromise: Probably the best way of actually handling flaws is one of the following:

  • Make flaws purely roleplaying related: You might just encourage your players to come up with a fun flaw for their character, as appropriate, and then present them with even more fun opportunities to roleplay it! I do this all the time even without explicitly stating it; for example, if I know that one or more PCs are particularly honorable, I will have a monster surrender during a fight, thus burdening the party with a prisoner they may be unwilling to kill. Alternatively, there are often PCs (or players) who are just a little too mischievous for their own good; I will give them plenty of opportunities to hatch schemes and then let the logical consequences follow for good or ill!
  • Players get rewarded for invoking a flaw: A system where flaws are actually kind of advantages mechanically can often be more interesting than a classic way of handling flaws. For example, you could reward a PC with an Action Point every time they indulge in one of their character’s vices to their obvious detriment. So maybe one of the PCs refuses to retreat from a fight where they are pretty obviously an underdog. As a reward, they get an AP that might just tilt the scales back in their favor.
  • Flaws close doors but open windows: Flaws could provide their own advantages that are rolled up in the disadvantage. For example, in a game I played in there was a character who was blind so the DM gave him blindsense out to 20 feet or so. Thus, he had obvious limitations, but in pitch darkness, he was more effective than any other member of the party.

9 Responses to “When Theory Meets Practice – Character Flaws”

  1. Laura says:

    The FATE system is pretty good at handling this, going with the “players get rewarded for invoking a flaw” route.

    If you’re not familiar with the system, players must basically make a list of flaws (I forget the technical name), and the DM can use those flaws to “compel” them to do something disadvantageous. For example, if my character is a hopeless Lothario, the DM might compel me to work with an obviously untrustworthy but beautiful NPC. To refuse the compel I have to give up a Fate Point (represented by a BEAUTIFUL TOKEN); if I accept, the natural game consequences of what I did will apply, but I get a Fate Point I can use later to refuse another compel or gain other advantages.

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  3. Rory Rory says:

    I have played a game using the FATE system once, and we only got like an hour of actual gaming in after character creation :). The flaws system definitely seemed like the right approach to take, where you like the flaws because they give you cool mechanical benefits and you and others are encouraged to invoke them!

  4. Dave says:

    FYI: the technical name that Laura couldn’t remember is ‘aspects’.

    I agree that the aspect approach to character flaws is a lot of fun. I even came up with an adaption of the rules for 4e D&D. You can download the one page PDF here if you’re interested: http://sites.google.com/site/randomfileshere/files/4e_Fate_Points.pdf?attredirects=0&d=1

    From a GM’s perspective, I ran into two problems when incorporating aspects/flaws into an RPG:
    1. It can be difficult to remember everyone’s aspects, depend on how many players you have and how many aspects they each have.
    2. Situations came up where people suggested compelling a particular aspect, and so I did, but the results of doing so sometimes derailed the story more than they enhanced it. It’s a good idea to always ask yourself, “Will this make the game more fun?”

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  7. Back in the day I remember Top Secret succumbing to many of the problems you describe. I definitely maxed out my flaws to get the most benefits… I distinctly remember every single member of our team taking the flaw ‘ego signature’ (where you are compelled to leave a signature token at the scene of any of your crimes – like a rose for instance) – it honestly seemed more like an advantage than a disadvantage to us. Unfortunately, while it seemed cool on paper it became pretty ridiculous as every dead body left in our wake was buried under a pile of junk.
    If I recall, that campaign imploded after I succumbed to my ‘lecherous’ flaw and sold the party out to a beautiful enemy agent – what the Russians call a ‘honey trap’ I believe.

  8. John E. says:

    Flaws are optional for PCs, but are necessary for NPCs. Flaws make NPCs memorable. Without them, it’s hard to tell one innkeeper or town mayor from another. They are fun for DMs! I once made a companion character who helped out the players for a while. He acted as a guide across the realm and helped out in combat and negotiations now and then. His main flaw was that although he was a Dwarf, he was very claustrophobic (kind of like the Hill Dwarves in AD&D). He even had to do saving throws against taking damage from it. He also carried a small cask of ‘liquid courage’ and would have to get ‘liquored up’ a bit before he was brave enough to fight. It would affect his ability to dodge attacks, but it boosted the damage he could inflict.

    They are fun for players too. I like to give my heroes a flaw that is both funny and that ‘handicapped’ him a bit. One time, I had a hero who was acrophobic. He was so afraid of heights that he would panic and often failed any skill checks that involved high places due to his really big roll penalty in those cases.

  9. Rory Rory says:

    Yeah, I tend to prefer picking a flaw and roleplaying it over mechanical systems for determining flaws. Though occasionally wacky roleplaying opportunities do come out of the latter.

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