I’ve been reading the first few issues of the Dungeons and Dragons comic from the 80’s. Spoilers ahead: in the first issue, the paladin fails in battle against the BBEG, and is struck with a Rod of Withering which renders his sword arm useless. Despondent, the paladin abandons his calling and becomes a drunken beggar – until a band of unlikely heroes convince him to return to adventuring!

I thought, this character would be fun to play! A severe combat limitation that would change your battle tactics, coupled with the kind of broad, slightly-overboard characterization you can get across in a RPG session.

At the end of the comic, the paladin’s stats were given. If I remember correctly, his post-withering strength was 3.

I thought, wow, that character would not be fun to play at all! Even in 1st edition, a strength of 3 would impose a -3 to attack rolls. In 3rd and 4th edition, that would be -4. In 4e math, where a primary stat of 16 (+3) means about a 50% chance to hit against most creatures of equal level, that would mean a character with 3 strength would hit on an 18-20. Of course, with the penalty to damage, you’d do about 1-2 damage when you did hit. That might be fun for an encounter, but it would be hard to maintain your enthusiasm throughout a combat-heavy adventuring career (or however long it took you to find Gauntlets of Ogre Power).


A lot of RPGs (maybe most)? have a “flaws” system: you can take a penalty or penalties, and this gives you more points to spend on advantages. I only know of one time D&D has done this: in 3rd edition Unearthed Arcana. That version, like most versions I have seen, lends itself well to min/maxing: your spellcasting wizard can take Withered Arm in exchange for an awesome spell-boosting feats, and never feel the penalty.

I do think it would be fun to play a seriously flawed character: one whose weaknesses can’t be minimized, but actually change the experience of play, while not rendering the character totally irrelevant. Such characters appear frequently in literature but rarely in D&D.

Examples of flawed character types that people classically want to play:
-a wizard apprentice whose spells don’t always work
-A blind samurai who fights using his other senses
-a drow who has to battle prejudice and whatnot
-an albino sorcerer who weakens if he does not do the bidding of his cursed sword
-a ranger whose hereditary sword is broken

I wasn’t sure how I would set up these flaws: do you present them without corresponding advantages, making them attractive only to masochistic players, or do you try to balance them with advantages? If so, how do you avoid min-maxing?

A description of the game “Desktop Dungeons” at “The Stack” sparked an idea:

Finding an altar can be of paramount importance… Once you find one, you can declare allegiance to its god, who then rewards you with additional power of some sort in exchange for accepting some kind of limitation. For example, there’s a god of magic that increases your mana limit, but forbids you to use melee attacks – which is not a bad tradeoff if you’re playing a primary spellcaster.

The idea I took away is that you can tailor the advantage which goes with each disadvantage. The example above, where magic power is given in exchange for a penalty to melee, is actually a pairing I’d want to avoid because the penalty wouldn’t change a wizard’s gameplay. I think that when in doubt, the disadvantage should slightly outweigh the advantage: you take a disadvantage to feel like a struggling character, not to feel like a powerhouse.

For example: what strengths and weaknesses would we give to a semi-fallen paladin with a withered arm?

In 4e, we wouldn’t want to impose a strength penalty, because there are plenty of paladin builds that don’t require high strength. Since the example paladin has lost his inspiration as well as his arm strength, we could reasonably impose a minor penalty to all attacks, say -1. Such a disadvantage, though, tends to get written on a character sheet and forgotten: when you miss by 1, you won’t necessarily think about your withered arm. So how about we make a purely cosmetic tweak to the -1 to give it some visibility: Whenever you roll a 19, you miss. You’ll feel the penalty more this way: when you see a 19, you will initially think you hit, then remember your withered arm. (I chose 19 instead of 20 because no one should be denied crits.)

Going further, I could see adding further effects to rolling a 19: becoming stunned, or being disarmed, or perhaps rolling on a special DM-designed chart to randomly determine negative effects.

It’s hard to know what advantages to give the paladin. In the story, everyone knew and despised the fallen paladin, so I guess I’d give him a bonus to Bluff to appear harmless – or perhaps a situational ability to gain combat advantage, which would offset his penalty to hit. Perhaps it’s an encounter minor power that is recharged when the character rolls a 19.


The wizard apprentice:
This can actually be done without any rules-tweaking by playing a Chaos Sorcerer, who has special negative/positive effects on an attack roll of 1 or 20. If you specifically wanted to play an apprentice wizard, you could use the same or similar effects on a 1 or 20.

The blind samurai:
Disadvantages: Blindsight 5: fails at Perception checks beyond 5 squares. Perhaps, additionally, grants combat advantage to ranged attacks from beyond 5 squares.
Advantages: Blindsight 5 and Tremorsense 5: situational advantage against invisible and stealthy opponents.

The drow who has to battle prejudice:
Disadvantages: Penalty to Diplomacy, and story complications
Advantages: Bonus to Intimidate


In Desktop Dungeons, paired advantages/disadvantages are given by altars, which reminds me that I should make the Flaws system wide enough to allow for things like religious vows. By supporting clerics who cannot draw blood, and therefore must use blunt weapons, or paladins who must stick to a code of conduct, we could re-introduce – but as an option only – some of the fun class features that didn’t make it to 4e.

2 Responses to “disadvantages”

  1. Rory says:

    I like the blind samurai! It has some good flavor, useful abilities, but a very noticeable disadvantage.

    For the Paladin: I don’t see why you couldn’t just calculate the -1 into your attack roll like you do with all your bonuses, since it always applies. However, why not do something like say he can’t do anything with the withered arm but hold small items, so no weapons or shields? That would be pretty rough! But maybe you could partially balance it by saying once per encounter he can summon incredible power and get like a +5 bonus to an attack roll, or something wacky like that.

    For the Drow: Just because they’re two skills doesn’t mean you can’t min max them by training intimidate and ignoring diplomacy. Also, I’m usually hesitant to balance mechanical things with roleplaying things. Being reviled wherever you go can actually be pretty fun from a roleplaying perspective, and might have few if any mechanical repercussions.

    I could also see the roll a 1 and bad things happen and roll a 20 and good things happen being used to good effect with a lot of disadvantages, basically creating some cool critical fumbles if the player wants them. So if someone suffers from “madness” then maybe when they roll a 1 they go crazy and suffer some terrible effect (dominated by an enemy? everything has concealment because of their visions? dazed?) but with a 20 they see some strange order in the universe and get a +2 to their next attack or something. So anything that isn’t always “on” could be appropriate.

  2. Paul says:

    Having odd effects on a 1 or 20 is especially weird for wizards, who have so many multiple-opponent powers. What if, whenever you rolled a 20 on a blast or burst power, the blast or burst increased by one? That would create a lot of potentially-cascading hilarity. Especially interesting for attacks that target all creatures, not just enemies.

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