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What Are You Bad At?

Most role-playing characters are heroes, some are even super heroes, so it’s hard to imagine them being bad at anything. If you are working with a system that rewards optimisation (like D&D) it’s even harder. Such systems not only make it harder to build in a weakness they actively encourage you to avoid doing so.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Why Be Bad?​

Why be bad at anything anyway? Aren’t heroes meant to be competent? What’s the use of not being able to pick the lock or fight the bad guy? You might think that just sucks and you’d be right. In some circumstances it does, but that still doesn’t mean you should try and focus on a character that is good at everything. I’ll explain myself in two ways here, and appeal to not only the role-play aspect of your character, but the systematic part as well.

Systematic Flaws​

The systematic reasons are pretty simple. In most systems you only have so many points. If you want to be a fighter, you won’t be able to be a wizard or a rogue as well. If you can hit things, you can leave the lock picking and fireballs to other people. Spending some points to specialise and get really good at what you are meant to be good at will leave you unable to cover anyone else’s job. I’d argue that’s a good thing. You can have a chance to shine when your character is using their speciality, and someone else can when using theirs.

It’s also good for group dynamics. If you can’t pick a lock you need the rogue. If you can’t hit stuff you need the fighter. If everyone is playing a Fighter/Wizard/Cleric/Rogue then you have a party full of people moderately competent at everything who always fight to try and be the one to do anything. A little specialisation will make you awesome at something and the cost is to be bad at something else. In a sense this is the sort of optimisation I can get behind. Pick what your character is good at, and be good at just that. Trust the other players to cover your back with characters who compliment yours.

In some systems you are actively encouraged to take flaws and gain some points for them. It can be problematic doing so as you tend to pick them just to get the points for what you want, doing your best to avoid anything challenging. But such systems also recognise that failings and problems offer a chance for a more rounded and believable character.

Role-Playing Weaknesses​

From a role-play perspective, a weakness is always a good thing. Sure, there will be a moment when your character looks like a loser sometimes. But if they never have those moments, they are two dimensional and just good at everything. To be honest, those are pretty boring characters. Weaknesses will make your character more realistic and grant you opportunities for storytelling. Let me illustrate with a few examples.

In the A-Team (an American action-adventure television series that ran on NBC from 1983 to 1987), BA Barracus is scared of flying. It doesn’t make him less of a hero and doesn’t make him less good at his job of cracking the heads of bad guys. But every week the team has to try and find a way to get BA on an aeroplane without his knowledge. There is story and sub plot there as they try and trick, cajole or just kidnap their friend to get him from point A to B. Now this isn’t necessarily fun to do every week, so the GM just needs to make sure a plane ride isn’t on the cards every adventure. But despite being a powerful heroic character, BA is made more real with a little extra weakness.

The A-Team is a good example of flaws beyond B.A. Face has a weakness for the opposite gender and Murdock is insane. Sometimes weaknesses can be a little too much, so you might want to dial them down. But what makes the adventures of the A-Team fun to watch isn’t usually them taking down the bad guys but dealing with their own problems and issues as they do so. The fact they are being hunted and are unwilling to kill anyone might also be considered weaknesses, and both are a driving force in their stories.

Pendragon also offers good examples of fleshing out your character and creating story with weaknesses. The personality trait system means you are making tests not only to be brave, but to avoid being cowardly for example.

Now, no one wants to be the knight who runs in fear from a battle. But all human being make mistakes and everyone has a bad day, no matter how good they are. What matters is not whether or not it happens, but what your character does about it afterwards. Such actions create story from the shame of failure. Lancelot spends months in the wilderness, devastated by the feeling he has betrayed his greatest love (Genevieve) when he is seduced by Elaine. These stories are not just extra side plots, they are epics. The weaker the character has proved to be, or the graver their mistakes, the more epic the story and their attempt to return to grace.

So, when figuring out where your character is cool, find something they aren’t good with. For Indiana Jones it was snakes, Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly) couldn’t quite leave the war behind, Frodo wasn’t quite strong enough to resist the call of the One Ring, Elric needed a demonic sword to be strong, and even Superman had an issue with kryptonite. It is these weaknesses that help define these characters and makes them more interesting without crippling them. Give your own characters a failing and see what it takes your stories.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Fate has an interesting tool recognizing that "flaws" which never come into play should not be compensated one way around that is to reward benefits at the moment a flaw becomes an actual impediment (till then it is just flavor). If one did that in 5e one might grant inspiration at the point a flaw comes to light for use later.
 

The A-Team, what memories! You watch the rerun and you notice they showed the essence of the 80's.

* The grace of the TTRPG is these are a team game, where each character has got their own strenghts and weakness, and then they have to cooperate to compesante each other.

Other reason is too perfect PCs become boring as the Mary-Sue, like when you activacte cheats in a videogame to become invincible. They first time it may be fun, but the second the magic, the charm, is lost.
 

Democratus

Explorer
Starting off with character flaws that you work on thoughout a campaign gives so much more depth to a PC than "less powerful version of a thing to more powerful version of a thing".
 

Thinking in terms of an ensemble cast is, I find, one of the hardest things for new players to grok.

Probably because books, tv shows, and video games tend to have a single main character who good at everything except some specialized stuff that only comes up once or twice and is solved by a secondary character.
 

Lord Shark

Explorer
B.A.'s fear of flying doesn't strike me as much of a disadvantage in RPG terms. Was there ever an episode where, for instance, the team couldn't get him on the plane and he stayed home, or arrived late because he insisted on driving instead? If not, are there really any measurable consequences to having that personality flaw?

To say nothing of the fact that in my experience, most groups wouldn't want to have to start every session with a bunch of player-vs.-player skill rolls just to get B.A. on the damn plane so they can get to the adventure. It'd be easier to just have B.A.'s player and the others agree on how they managed to overcome the problem this time, and then get on with it.

In that way, it's similar to players who want to run characters who are antisocial loners; you're still playing this game as part of the group, and it should be your responsibility to find reasons for your loner to stick with the group, instead of forcing everyone else to cajole and drag you along.
 

Marc_C

Solo Role Playing
Flaws are a great idea but often players conveniently 'forget' about them when they should come into play. I wish I didn't have to remind most players when they should be part of the story.

I once had a Chtuluh character that had to play jazz every so often or he would loose sanity points. He carried his saxophone (in a case) everywhere he went. A fun character. Didn't play him as long as I wished.
 

Stormonu

Legend
We use the ideals, bonds & flaws to manage inspiration, so I see flaws getting invoked somewhat regularly. Basically, you have to invoke the flaw to get the inspiration point, which we use as a hero/story point - automatic success or a story change/advantageous coincidence.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
We use the ideals, bonds & flaws to manage inspiration, so I see flaws getting invoked somewhat regularly. Basically, you have to invoke the flaw to get the inspiration point, which we use as a hero/story point - automatic success or a story change/advantageous coincidence.
virtually a derivation of Fate aspects
 

payn

Adventurer
The one pitfall with flaws, in my experience, is when they give a bonus somewhere else. I've had players who see role playing their flaw as price of admission for their bonus. So now they obnoxiously take up lots of time in every session making sure the GM and table know they are paying their flaw dues.

This is the opposite of the conveniently forget issue.
 


Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
The one pitfall with flaws, in my experience, is when they give a bonus somewhere else. I've had players who see role playing their flaw as price of admission for their bonus. So now they obnoxiously take up lots of time in every session making sure the GM and table know they are paying their flaw dues.

This is the opposite of the conveniently forget issue.
Even a flaw creates a form of lime light ie it takes up that time you are mentioning.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
B.A.'s fear of flying doesn't strike me as much of a disadvantage in RPG terms. Was there ever an episode where, for instance, the team couldn't get him on the plane and he stayed home, or arrived late because he insisted on driving instead?

Yes, often (a negative impact at least, even if it wasn't just staying home). But it did negatively impact many missions.
If not, are there really any measurable consequences to having that personality flaw?

To say nothing of the fact that in my experience, most groups wouldn't want to have to start every session with a bunch of player-vs.-player skill rolls just to get B.A. on the damn plane so they can get to the adventure. It'd be easier to just have B.A.'s player and the others agree on how they managed to overcome the problem this time, and then get on with it.
They had to drug him or otherwise knock him out many times. That right there alone causes conflict, and has an role-playing impact. it wasn't a skill roll, or persuasion check, or whatever. That's the point, BA didn't agree with the rest of the team. It wasn't an issue that was just handwaved away or pre-determined agreement between them. The consequences were that you now had conflict and tension between the team. So yes, his fear of flying was very much a disadvantage in RPG terms.
 


It's why I encourage use of character sheets with the "Flaw" section on the front. They are there to make the game more interesting and quirky, not handicap anyone, but without a prompt, it can be easy to slip back into playing yourself or the "same ole personality you always play."

BA is a great example because, along with his bling, it became a trademark feature that set him apart from just a tough guy who can beat people up (what shenanigan are they going to use next to get him on that plane....) Sidetracking into the reward system, which isn't the focus of the OP, I don't feel "playing a flaw" should be rewarded. It should simply be something you bring to the table that you thought would make the game better for everyone.
 

Mistwell

Legend
I've made sure my halfling arcane trickster is bad at social situations but eager to talk. He blows so many persuasion and deception checks it gets us into plenty of trouble. Just last night he set off an alarm (stack of china against a secret door which went crashing when he opened the door) which alerted a pack of vampires to our presence in a dungeon, and he immediately yelled in common, "So sorry, I totally forgot that was there, I'll reset it and it won't happen again!" Totally blew my deception check. Vampires went on even higher alert than they were before and our mage cast calm emotions.
 

I look at role playing games more like team sports. Every player has a position to play optimized. No winning team encourages a player to play in a weaker position just for kicks. Usually, the team has backup players who may switch positions, but the target is always to get the most ideal player into position rather than the worst member of the team for that position.

The classic quartet in Dungeons and Dragons is a perfect example of winning team play , with the cleric who heals, the fighter who bashes, the thief who sneaks and the magic-user providing artillery fire.
 

Also one major reason 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons offered perfect team sport play,. Basically, each character class while still optimized for winning play positions also offered at-will powers to let fighters cast a few defensive magical effects while clerics got more front-line at-will powers that did not drain slots for potent healing spells.

So everyone could still have some role playing fun without sacrificing their optimized positional play on battle grids.
 

ART!

Hero
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because I noticed that very recently I've been trying to make my characters good at lots of things. I don't want them to have areas of play they can't contribute to well. We're playing through Tomb of Annihilation, we're only several sessions in, and multiple PCs have died, so I think I'm hunkering down and trying to protect my characters by making them good at everything.

My character died, and I made 8 or so characters, trying to find a build that was good at lots of things, got overwhelmed trying to decide, and just stepped back and asked myself "what do I want to be doing at the table while I game?". The answer was actually "not much", meaning I didn't want anything with lots of options and decisions to make every round.

So I went with "human fighter"! :D He's definitely not book-smart and he's pretty taciturn, but he's got a wife and kids back in Port Nyanzaru and he wants to help reduce the threat of undead and other monsters, and he's pretty good at that.

When he dies - and he probably will - I know now that it's not worth worrying about super-protecting my characters. Just find something that will be fun to play.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
I look at role playing games more like team sports. Every player has a position to play optimized. No winning team encourages a player to play in a weaker position just for kicks. Usually, the team has backup players who may switch positions, but the target is always to get the most ideal player into position rather than the worst member of the team for that position.

The classic quartet in Dungeons and Dragons is a perfect example of winning team play , with the cleric who heals, the fighter who bashes, the thief who sneaks and the magic-user providing artillery fire.
In the US military they had the Fireteam which arneson said inspired the fundamental teamwork aspect of D&D ... though I think the "5 man band" of storytelling shows it is not all about the battle field.
 

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