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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