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.
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.