Saturday, September 22, 2018

6 Dos and Don'ts of Character Flaws

When it comes to making characters, there are a lot of players and dungeon masters alike who feel the process isn't complete until a character has been assigned their flaws. However, before you start rubbing in grit or distressing your PC willy nilly, I have a couple of suggestions that I think might help keep your flaws interesting and engaging, without going overboard and creating problems for the rest of the table.

What's your flaw? "I'm too honest." That's not really a flaw... "I don't give a shit what you think."
To get a sense of what I'm talking about, consider some of the following dos and don'ts. And, for more on this topic, refer to the entry How To Write Flawed Characters over on my sister blog The Literary Mercenary.

And if you're a dungeon master looking for a handy list of fully-fleshed characters, you might want to check out 100 NPCs You Might Meet At a Tavern, which I wrote for Azukail Games a bit ago. A lot of the following suggestions went into the process for making that list.

#1: Do Assign Active Flaws

Geoff just polymorphs into a goat when he's scared. Also he can't cast spells as a goat.
Something a lot of players will do to try to minimize character flaws is to pick specific flaws that won't have any real impact on their character's story, or which aren't going to come up all that often. As an example, say you have a character who has a paralyzing fear of deep water. If the whole game takes place in a desert, where there is never any water deeper than mid-thigh, then this flaw isn't really a flaw. If this character has to get onto a ship, though, or finds themselves in a race against time in a flooding cavern, then this would be a lot more active as a flaw.

If a flaw is never activated, and always hangs out in the background, then it doesn't really matter. If you can go the entire length of a campaign without this flaw ever coming up, choose something else.

#2: Don't Use Character Flaws As An Excuse To Disrupt

"That NPC looked at me funny... I kill him!" That's the king. "So? I'm short-tempered!"
We've all been at a table with that player who picks a flaw specifically to push everyone else's buttons. Maybe they choose to play someone who's really, needlessly aggressive. They might choose to be actively prejudiced for no particular reason. All too often they have some kind of sex addiction, or they're a kleptomaniac. And then when you call them on this behavior, they hold up their hands and say, "Hey, I'm just playing my character's flaw!"

As I said in The Dangers of The Phrase "I'm Just Playing My Character", you don't get to duck the blame for annoying the rest of the table, disrupting the game, or making people uncomfortable. You still made this character, and you are the one who assigned them this flaw. As such, the actions you've chosen to take are still your responsibility as a player.

#3: Do Show Character Development Through Flaws

I bring them in alive, this time. Maybe Haran was right, and I don't have the right to judge them after all.
Nowhere is it written in stone that characters have to face (and overcome) their flaws. In fact, you might end the game with the same swaggeringly overconfident, boorish, more-than-slightly toxic character you started the campaign with. That's fine... but it should be done as a deliberate decision from you, as the player.

Generally speaking, flawed characters are more interesting when we see them struggle with their flaws, and at least attempt to overcome them.

Does the coward learn to face their fears, and leap into the fray in time to save their friends? Will the aloof loner learn to open up and make real connections among the party? Does the arrogant warrior learn humbleness watching the selfless cleric? You don't have to do this, but characters that have development arcs are generally the ones we tell stories about long after the campaign is over.

#4: Don't Just Pick The Big, Sexy Flaws

Yeah, my character's a pyro! Guys? Seriously, guys, why are you laughing?
I have a theory that picking big, sexy flaws for characters comes from the same, knee-jerk reaction that makes players always kill off their character's entire family. Everyone does it, but very few people do it thoughtfully and deliberately. As such, a thing that was supposed to be a single aspect of your character grows, cannibalizes everything else, and becomes their single, defining personality trait. Worse, it often ends up becoming a parody of what it was supposed to be in the first place.

Take the pyromaniac sorcerer. An unhealthy obsession with fire that occasionally tips over into a kind of blind need to burn enemies where they stand can make for a character who feels a little unbalanced, and who is trying to maintain an addiction without hurting themselves or the people around them. That's an interesting, compelling flaw. A character whose first reaction to an NPC not doing what they want, or who simply wants to commit a string of arson across the city for no reason other than because, "He really likes fire, guys!" is not just a boring character, but they've become a parody of what they could have been. The same is true of the character who suffers from dissociative identities, the sadist who wants to torture everyone they come across, or the rage case who reacts to any form of criticism with violence. These aren't flawed characters... these are stereotypes of one specific flaw that are standing in for a character.

Does that mean you should only limit yourself to small flaws? Hell no! If you want to go big and operatic, then do your thing! Just remember that you don't want to Flanderize yourself.

#5: Do Choose Flaws That Appeal To You

My druid has no idea how to people! It's like that intro arc in Tarzan!
A lot of the time players treat flaws like vegetables... they know they should sprinkle a few in there, but they don't want to, because it's just clashing with that they've made. Rather than trying to force a flaw you don't like into your character, consider making a flaw that you actually relish bringing to the table. Big or small, just make sure you are having fun with it (and that it meets the former criteria in the other sections).

A character trying to reform their murderous ways, and thus who has to constantly try to restrain themselves from violence until there's no other way, can be fun. So can a character who tends to be deceitful, or one who has to learn important lessons about manners. Any flaw can work, but you have to want to play it in order for it to be enjoyable. Because if you're not having fun with it, neither will the rest of the table.

#6: Don't Compromise Your Performance

Can he help? I don't know, maybe... but isn't he cool?!
This is a story version of the Shiny Blue Ball syndrome I mention from time to time. In this case, players can get so caught up in the story and potential surrounding their character's flaws that they forget the character also has to perform a function within the story, and as part of the party. Which is why it's worth asking yourself if your flaw is going to get in the way of you doing your job, and thus getting the rest of the party to fire you.

As I said way back in Remember, The Party Is Under No Obligation To Adventure With You, your character is essentially part of a band. Your job is to show up to the gig on time, and do your job (play the drums, slay the goblins, cast the spells, what have you). If your flaw prevents you from doing that, then your character has shot themselves in the foot regarding their usefulness to the game.

In more concrete terms, say you want to play a PC who's a drug addict. Long as they've got their fix, they're good to go. Sharp, strong, and while they might be a little overly enthusiastic, they perform when you need them. But how many times will the party have to dig you out of an opium den and sober you up to go adventuring? How many days will you be fatigued and dealing with a -6 penalty on all your rolls because you didn't get your pipe? And at what point will they decide to just leave you in whatever den of iniquity you holed up in after your last dungeon delve, and just go on without you because you're too much of a liability?

These questions should be asked of all flaws. Whether it's a character who can't control their temper, who commits too many crimes, or who is constantly doing things, "because that's my flaw!" that get everyone else in trouble, too, you need to know how many shenanigans your table is willing to put up with. Because character flaws are best when they aren't a bigger obstacle than the lich king you're trying to oppose.

That's all for this particular Fluff installment! If you've got any particular character flaws you love, or horror stories you want to share, leave them in the comments below! For more of my work, head over to my Vocal page, or just click my Gamers archive to see only my tabletop articles. Alternatively, you could head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out quite a bit. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! Lastly, if you'd like to support me, you could Buy Me A Ko-Fi or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a monthly patron. Either way, there's a load of free gaming swag in it for you as a thank you!

1 comment:

  1. Point 6 is resonating with me - I'm playing a pacifist in a Deadlands game. Ran it by everyone first, and it seemed fine but the reality is that it does get in the way. Added that I've picked up a bunch of phobias so am generally running with penalties, and it's beginning to get a bit difficult. I've compensated by taking edges that provide bonuses and benefits to my allies even when I'm unable to help