The Gassy Gnoll: Should flatulence be a rules-based disadvantage or an acting challenge?

Ok, so last week I saw Dan’s (the Gestalt Gamer) great article about using advantages and disadvantages in class-based systems to inspire better character design (at More than Dice). Though I love the concept of advantages and disadvantages that affect character builds by improving or reducing particular statistics or characteristics, I was struck by an odd thought… Does this sort of rules modification work as a crutch? Or does it encourage munchkinism? Why not simply roleplay most of these behavior modifying traits without any actual point adjustments to a character sheet?

Now, upon further reflection, this point of view seems very black and white. Some positive and negative traits could be considered severe enough to actually affect combat gameplay. The example Dan raises in his article of a samurai who lost his arm as a young boy falls into what I’ll call the “physical” category. These are traits that could definitely change how a character is used in combat. For instance, one arm with a single weapon might not affect attacks, but could likely affect defending. Not only would the character not have a way to use a shield (not that samurai used shields so far as I know), but they wouldn’t be able to push off or have the added power of a two-handed swing…

But it could be argued that there were no actual changes to gameplay beyond opponents underestimating the character’s abilities. And that could happen with or without the second arm. So I’m not sure even in this case or any other involving a physical impairment or deformity that it would really affect the rules enough to warrant a benefit or penalty to particular die rolls or mechanics. Even if a character is blind, it could be argued that other senses would take over enough that with training they would be just as effective in combat as any other PC or NPC. This is a game after all and we assume that PCs (and even some NPCs) are more powerful than the rest of the rabble they rose from.

The distinction becomes even less necessary for comedic, emotional, or philosophical traits.

If my Gassy Gnoll should be fighting a group of combatants and suddenly let one rip, does that mean he gains an advantage over his enemies? A good GM would look at it from a few standpoints. Would it
distract the gnoll’s opponents? Perhaps – maybe that’s a willpower save behind a GM screen and one of the incompetent minions becomes momentarily stunned. If it happens frequently, the GM may build in a mechanic for that particular PC that can come into play when necessary. But that’s an external effect that might be discussed and implemented during a campaign as an organic part of character development rather than something noted on a character sheet at the beginning. Or perhaps it was discussed from the very beginning. But what it doesn’t need to be is taken into account from the rule book. (Though it might be amusing to see “Flatulence” in the list of Disadvantages in a roleplaying game.)

I had a character – Didius Cato (DC) – who was an escaped slave and a rogue in a campaign a few years ago. Didius had a goal to end slavery in the Rauxian Empire (based roughly on the Roman Empire). Why think small, right? Change the world! Unfortunately, Didius had some willpower control issues. Any time he found himself near a slave market, there was about a 20-30% chance he’d flip out and go on a rampage trying to free as many slaves as possible before escaping into the crowd. To say the least, he wasn’t popular with the Rauxian government or the slave trade. But this little quirk was one of his many crazy little things that he did to combat his past by affecting the present and hopefully changing the future…

We started the game using the HERO system and then migrated to D&D 3.5e. My mechanic for determining one of these episodes was to roll a d10 and see if I rolled below a 4. Sometimes it was a 5 of below if he was particularly agitated. But the mechanic didn’t have anything to do with the system we played in.

For beginning roleplayers, I think the idea of advantages and disadvantages built into a system might be a good thing at first to plant the seeds that characters should have crunchy little traits that make them unique. But I worry that as those roleplayers grow and develop, they may come to view those points as ways to beef up their characters as any good munchkin might. Tweaking those point totals to build combat monsters that slice through hordes of critters in any encounter without batting an eyelash…

But for me, the focus in roleplaying games is always more on the role than the roll… I have more fun playing a character and slipping into the role than simply by hacking and slashing my way through adventure after adventure to gain more power and loot. Sure the combat aspect is there and I enjoy that too, but even combat can be more roleplaying than roll-playing to my point of view.

I think GMs and designers should consider carefully the precedent set by adding advantages and disadvantages into the rules themselves, but definitely need to encourage the creation of unique PCs and NPCs that express character traits through acting.

Maybe it’s just this cantankerous old gnoll though… What do you think? Leave some feedback below!

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4 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Should flatulence be a rules-based disadvantage or an acting challenge?

  • forged

    In that HERO campaign that went to D&D we had it both ways. We had players that were inspired to use the disadvantages to add more color to how they role-played their characters. We also had players who used it purely to funnel advantages into their character.

    As a GM, the former is great. However, the latter is a play-balance disruption. So coming up with solutions on how to fairly enforce disadvantages for players not willing to bring them out in play is a big challenge when using a system based advantages/disadvantages.

  • If the GM confers some advantage in compensation for the character being burdoned with a flaw – regardless of the game system involved – then it is his responsibility to ensure that the player pays the piper. As the Hero System itself puts it, “A disadvantage that doesn’t disadvantage the character is worth no points”. Accordingly, there are two factors to be weighed in determining the value of any given restriction: the severity and the frequency. The severity describes what the impact will be on the way the character will react, behave, think or whatever. The frequency describes how often *this flaw will make a difference.*

    In the one-armed example, I would have applied negatives to climb and swim checks, on top of everything else listed; I would require more frequent balance checks, again at a penalty; and would include any other consequences of only having one arm whenever it seemed appropriate for it to make a difference.

    In the example of Flatulance that gives the article its title, I would apply negatives to sneak attempts, to negotiations and bartering, and to the reactions to any NPCs in proportion to the solemnity or pomposity of the occasion. In addition, I would permit the character to be tracked by his scent more readily.

    Incorporating these flaws is not roleplay; incorporating the character’s reactions and attitudes that result from these flaws impacting his life in the past, IS.

    Frequency can be further subdivided into two sub-elements: the likelyhood of the conditions that will trigger a check, and the chance that the check will trigger the flaw’s consequences. By establishing a quantitative scale on which these factors are assessed, a predetermined total required for a given benefit can be decided such that

    TOTAL = A x B x C.

    The GM can then quantify A, the rating for the effects of this flaw; and B, the likelyhood of that the character will encounter conditions that will trigger a check. Since the total is predetermined, it’s the work of a few seconds to determine C, the chance of the flaw actually manifesting when conditions are right, for each individual case. That could be a roll on a d6, d10, d20, d%, or whatever else seems appropriate to the player – so long as it represents the correct chance, it doesn’t matter to the GM.

  • Fitz

    @Mike – Thanks for the detailed and reasoned response. I definitely see your point of view. I’m not sure that I share it, but I definitely understand it.

    These days I’m more of a “rules light” player than a “rules heavy” player, so I would tend to reduce the rules-based burden in favor of something more fluid as GM. That said, however that “fluid” worked the first time
    would need to be written down so if it came up again, it was dealt with fairly and in the same manner. This only works for more experienced players however.

    I was never a big fan of HERO, but I think it did a good job of trying to quantify everything fairly. So thanks for documenting that approach and sharing your point of view!

  • Fitz

    @forged – Yes, I seem to recall the play balance being disrupted more than once during that game. However, for the most part, we still managed to have fun despite the occasional rules lawyering discussions. ๐Ÿ™‚

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