The Art of Character Flaws

Last week, when I spoke of redemption and how it could play out for a role-playing game, Sean Holland (Sea of Stars) spoke up about liking to play flawed characters. Some RPG systems have built-in systems for handling character flaws. In these systems, you can usually take on flaws that open up more ways to improve the character as compensation for those disadvantages. In other systems, it is purely background material.

I agree with Sean. I like characters that are trying to overcome their limitations to make the world a better place. (Some of my characters, I confess, utterly fail at the latter.) However, RPG systems that have the flaws built-in and give additional ability to make characters better in other areas feel forced to me. I don’t have a problem with the concept in abstract but rather I have a problem with how to bring those disadvantages to light if the players don’t chose to embrace them.

A player who enjoys playing a character that has challenges, doesn’t need to be compensated for introducing flaws to their characters. They will do it anyway because it feels natural to them and in a lot of cases, the flaws are quirks in the character that they would be playing regardless of whether they system pointed it to them or not. A player that is merely going through the motions so they can have more ability to increase their character’s prowess won’t actually role-play the flaws. They are also likely to pick at least some flaws that the GM has to figure out how to introduce into the on-going story arcs.

As a GM, you have enough on the plate trying to set the stage for all the characters to shine. If you force time to bring flaws to the stage for the characters, you take time from other plans that you might have. It may also come across as though you are picking on a character (and thus the player). While you can slow down experience for that character whose player doesn’t want to role-play those flaws, the player will eventually figure out their character is being left behind and be unhappy with the situation.

To avoid this, the GM could simply talk to the player and switch out flaws they will realistically be willing to role-play. Or, if all that seems like too much of a hassle to bring in the disadvantages, there is another option: Don’t worry! Be happy! Let the player do their own thing with as much or little attention to their disadvantages, but perhaps give the players more gung-ho to role-playing all of their characters’ qualities a bit more screen time.

At any rate, my chief concern with RPG systems that have flaws built into them is simply that it means that the GM has additional things to consider when already busy trying to shape up what is next and where things are going.

What do you think of RPG systems that have disadvantages and flaws built-in? How do you handle a player that doesn’t actually embrace their character flaws?

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What crosses your mind when you read the word “Redemption”? There are obvious and not so obvious ways to look at that word and its meanings and then apply it to gaming. While there are religious overtones to the word, at its heart is someone trying to overcome a past failure.

Yin_YangA player character trying to redeem themselves provides long-term motivation for a campaign without the GM having to do anything. The character might even be unclear on what will redeem them. There are some examples of this in the media that demonstrate this. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko spends three seasons wrestling with his own personal demons and stains on his honor while trying to figure out how to redeem himself. At a couple of points he even attains what he thinks is redemption only to find out that it fails to make him happy. Aang, meanwhile, is trying to redeem himself from the fact that he ran away instead of facing the fact that he is the avatar. Both make compelling stories as the world faces a potential doomsday of a nation trying to become an empire.

In Star Wars, Luke eventually decides to attempt to redeem Darth Vader — putting the Rebellion’s goal of ending the Empire’s reign in jeopardy to do so. (Although blowing up the Death Star would likely still end the Emperor’s reign.)

In the BBC’s version of Robin Hood, Robin, the Earl of Huntingdon, returns from the Crusades but experiences first-hand just how far corruption has spread while the King is away fighting in the Crusades. While burnt-out from fighting, he decides that he can’t sit by and do nothing about it. At its heart, Robin is trying redeem himself for abandoning his charges to fight for King in the Crusades.

For a character (player or non-player variety) redemption can play a powerful role. In one campaign I had two examples of this. A wizard started on his adventuring career after failing to protect his village’s sacred relic. Feeling the weight of his failure in his interactions with everyone from the village, he left home to try to track down the relic.

A soldier in that same campaign, was ordered to do something reprehensible. When he was called on the carpet for obeying that order, he was thrown into slavery. He never resisted the fact that he was thrown into slavery because he felt he let down the people he was supposed to protect. (It never occurred to the soldier that he was in a no-win situation if he resisted following the order.) He spent the rest of the campaign trying to do the right thing because he let his guard down once and horrible things resulted from it. In those two cases, the redemption those characters were seeking weren’t the focal points of the campaign, but they were at the core on what they were trying to accomplish.

In Vampire: the Masquerade, a Vampire on the Path of Humanity is constantly wrestling with how to survive and yet avoid descending into a heartless monster. It has a built-in redemption attempt in how to deal with the fact that they have to now prey on humans to survive. Obviously, not all characters or chronicles dwell on this particular issue, but you can make a really believable character if the character, newly turned into a vampire, is wrestling with that very issue.

However, redemption can be a much larger scale than just one character. What does redemption look like for the United States and how it treated the Indians?  What does it look like for a country that embraced slavery? What does it look like for a nation that embraced genocide? In Game of Thrones, the Mad King Aerys Targaryen the Second was overthrown because of the atrocities he was ordering. What does redemption look like for the Seven Kingdoms? Is redemption even possible in a land that seems perpetually stuck in an epic Civil War?

In the end, redemption can be a powerful goal for a character. What are some gaming examples of character’s seeking redemption that you have witnessed?

I wish you all Happy Holidays and may you have a Happy and Joy-filled New Year (with plenty of gaming!). Thanks for stopping by!

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Into the Unknown

Even without monsters, the world is full of challenges. Exploring jungles, deserts, land near the North/South Poles can be trying even for the most prepared parties. Reading about the early explorers of Antarctica and how they fared is a great example. There are even TV shows dedicated to people trying to survive in the wilderness. In gaming, though, we tend to not stop there — our adventurers try to survive underwater or in caverns for extended periods of time. Because of this, game settings have done their best to demonstrate how to incorporate the environment as a challenge to add to the setting. Exploring a forgotten tomb or city long thought lost to the sands of desert, or racing across the Arctic polar regions before deep winter sets in can be an exhilarating experience if done right.

Explorer Grayscale SnowIn the early basic D&D days, there was the module B4: The Lost City set in a desert. However, in Basic Edition, the modules didn’t really start to explore the environment as part of the adventure until the Expert Set came out. In First Edition D&D, the epic arc from Village of Hommlet led to the Temple of Elemental Evil, which lead to the Scourge of the Slave Lords, Against the Giants, then into the Underdark against the Drow, and ultimately taking on Lolth herself in Queen of the Demonweb Pits. If you ran the whole arc, it was an epic 15 module length campaign. In it, you faced being in a dungeon with no gear on an island that had a volcano erupting, experiencing northern weather as you dealt with Frost Giants, trekked into the Underdark to deal with the then unknown enemy of the Drow, and lastly had to deal with traveling to the Abyss to deal with Lolth herself.

At the time, players (such as myself at the time) had no idea what dealing with the Underdark or the Abyss were like. The modules presented getting there as part of the challenge, but GMs running it had to be careful or the players wouldn’t make it to their destination. Let’s face it, being in a hostile environment and running into Mind Flayers for the first time can end many a party if it isn’t done right.

The question becomes what is the right balance of environmental challenge within the overall adventure? If you do too much of it, the players can lose momentum as they spend lots of effort to survive getting there. Do too little of it and marching through the desert doesn’t seem all that hard. The trick is to make players deal just enough with it that they recognize how much it impacts all their normal chores, without having to check every day to see how it is going.

I have found that balance to be real tricky in games I’ve run, so I’m curious to hear your ideas on how to best make it work. What tricks do you use to make the environment a challenge but not overwhelm the story you are trying to tell with the players?

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For more information:

Adventures in 5e, The Actual Session


In the last two articles we’ve talked about character creation and module prep… now let’s get into how the actual play session went!

Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure how this adventure was going to go. In the last two years when we’ve done our holiday game with the kids we’ve done a more traditional dungeon . . . → Read More: Adventures in 5e, The Actual Session

Dungeons & Dragons’ Legacy

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The D&D system will always hold a fondness for me. It was my introduction to roll-playing and then (as I became more sophisticated) role-playing. It allowed me to play in worlds that were inspired by authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, and Robert E. Howard (among many others). While I owe a great debt to . . . → Read More: Dungeons & Dragons’ Legacy

Adventures in 5e, The Fey Sisters’ Fate


I started this series last week with Adventures in 5e, Overview and Character Generation… So let’s move on to the module I chose…

Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you’re planning on diving into this adventure from Goodman Games.

Fifth Edition Fantasy #2: The Fey Sisters’ Fate from designer Chris Doyle and Goodman Games was . . . → Read More: Adventures in 5e, The Fey Sisters’ Fate

Lost in a Dragon’s Hoard

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So the other night, I had the pleasure of watching the extended edition of the Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. The funniest thoughts occurred to me as I watched the scenes with Smaug. How exactly did Smaug manage to gather the hoard of coins together into one massive chamber? <spoiler>And after Smaug is slain in the . . . → Read More: Lost in a Dragon’s Hoard

Adventures in 5e, Overview and Character Generation


Those of you who know me know that I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for a very long time. I started in 1982 and have played every edition along the way, though I was a little late to the party at times. I resisted 4e for a long time, though have a good time playing . . . → Read More: Adventures in 5e, Overview and Character Generation

Rise of the Video Games

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Back when I was young, I dreamed of the day that computers would be used both as role-playing aids and provide a level of sophisticated games that would be a reasonable substitute for role-playing when a group couldn’t meet. As time marched on, this dream became more and more the reality. However, what I never . . . → Read More: Rise of the Video Games

Web of Ly’s

Hi. I wanted to take an out of cycle moment to send out a hearty congratulations to my friend Lawdon (check out his website here) for the self-publishing of his first science fiction novel, Web of Ly’s (check it out at Amazon here). It is the first book of the series. The series looks like . . . → Read More: Web of Ly’s

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