Character Flaws

By | April 4, 2015

Hello once again!

Recently, I’ve had enforced character flaws on my mind.  You’ve seen these in other systems – Fate Core‘s Trouble, World of Darkness‘s Vice, GURPS‘ Disadvantages, etc. – and they’re largely present to enforce a roleplaying aspect onto the player of how to make a character and story interesting and engaging.  These ideas have been around for decades, and we flirted with the idea of adding some to Forthright as well.  But I think there’s a fundamental flaw in the concept of flaws.  (haha)

In every scenario (admittedly, that I am familiar with) where a character flaw is an enforced mechanic within a game, there is a character benefit that comes along with it.  Either the generation of more Fate Points, Willpower, Character Points. . .character flaws are somehow beneficial to the player in optimizing the performance of a character.  This fundamentally misses the point of a character flaw.

Character flaws produce tension in that the audience of a fiction can see that actions are non-optimal while the character cannot.  In roleplaying, the audience and the characters are blended – the actors are also the characters are also the audience.  Character flaw mechanics explicitly, then, pull the player further into the audience and further away from the character in order to accomplish their function – thereby reducing immersion.

Character optimization additionally reduces immersion because the character becomes a tool through which players accomplish their goals – the key to every character flaw mechanic is that players want to choose a flaw that won’t hurt them too badly (or will hurt them in a way they have chosen is acceptable) in exchange for benefits to their characters which will come into play in a broader scope.

Does stealing a lollipop from a convenience store really equate to more karma to defeat a villain?  Or more magical potency?  Or better skill with guns?

But that’s not even the strongest reason why I object to character flaw mechanics.  An even better reason is that in a goal-focused game (defeat the bad guy!), players are going to inevitably screw up somehow.  Either they’re going to get in over their heads, miss a helpful clue, or chain together clues in such a way that their herring is the reddest of reds.  That should be accounted for as a part of play – that should be a part of their story.  Layering “. . .and your character has to add more confuggery to your situation” just seems like salt in a wound.

And finally, I’m a big believer in anything being a potential character flaw and generating drama.  A character who is desperate to not hurt people due to a pacifist tendency continuously getting stuck in situations where he has to make the choice to fight or allow others to be hurt.  A character seeking justice to the point of robbing people of their rights and what it means to be alive.  A character who cares so much about others she destroys herself on behalf of them.  Avoiding fights, wanting justice and caring about others are not generally considered flaws – these are largely the highest moral aspirations.  And yet drama can flow easily from them.

I think mechanizing character flaws by its very nature breaks immersion, reduces drama and restricts creativity.  Yes, some systems handle these objections better than others – but when sitting down to look at this notion for Forthright, we had to decide how we wanted to do it and if we wanted to do it.  And ultimately, we decided against it for these reasons.

Part of playing Forthright is going to be the Guide finding ways to turn characters’ goals and desires against them, forcing them to make dramatic choices.  And part of playing Forthright is the players’ mistakes, through their characters, adding to their story.  Those are items where mechanics, instead of advice, would get in the way of the experience we are trying to create.

Thanks for reading.  See you next time!