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Monstrous Character Flaws

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On May 1, 2012 @ 12:00 am In GMing Advice | 9 Comments

Some time ago, I was playing in a Savage Worlds convention game, and our party hit a major decision point in the scenario. Before the discussion/argument over what to do could really get rolling, the GM (whose name I have sadly forgotten) made a very important point. Instead of analyzing our Skills and Edges to decide what to do, we should look at our Hindrances, because they define the personality of our characters. (In addition, we’d get Bennies for following our Hindrances.)

Savage Worlds almost certainly isn’t the first game to point out that flaws make a character more than just a collection of stats, but it was the first time I’ve seen this point made so bluntly. As a player in many games, I’ve used this technique to decide my character’s actions, and received many a Bennie for it. I’ve also pre-generated characters with conflicting Hindrances in order to create some intra-party conflict.

Now, let’s turn this approach to the GM’s side of the screen…

Flawed Individuals

Obviously, NPCs can be defined by their flaws as easily as PCs, especially when those NPCs fall into the ‘antagonist’ category, and the flaws will help lead to their eventual downfall. This is such a common fictional trope that it should be obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs pointing out.

An individual flaw can be as blindingly obvious as a dictator’s narcissism or a thug’s racism, or as hidden as a detective’s drug addiction or a preacher’s illegitimate child. It can be a major plot point, or just a minor bit of color, and more than one of my NPCs has developed as flaw as gameplay proceeded.

Flawed Groups

Less obvious, but just as handy, is defining entire species of monsters and critters by their flaws. Some examples:

  • Werewolves are as dangerous a foe as anyone might meet, but they are easily distracted, and prefer to chase a moving target instead of noticing the quiet man with the silver-loaded shotgun…
  • Ghouls are so ravenous that they will stop mid-combat to feed on the first paralyzed victim, or even on rotten meat thrown at them.
  • Kobolds are greedy and stupid, and will forget all about the livestock they were going to ‘acquire’ when they stumble on bright, shiny objects.
  • Goblins are aggressively curious and stupid, and will try to open any doors or containers, use any wands, ride any brooms, look at the pictures in any books (because reading is beyond them), etc.
  • Vampires are driven by an overwhelming desire for… Oops, sorry, I can’t tell you that; my group hasn’t encountered an elder vampire yet. Winking smile 

Revealing Flaws

Flaws can be revealed through gameplay, research, or simple knowledge checks, but I find that gameplay is the best way to get them across. Of course, not all tribes of Goblins are going to have the exact same flaws, and the Senator’s illegitimate son is certainly embarrassing, but it’s not as bad as the drug cartel funding his campaign…

(I should add here that a flaw is not necessarily a bad thing. The Senator may love his illegitimate son so much that he wants to keep the press and the filthy money of politics away from him and his mother. A flaw is merely a point of leverage.)

Are your characters and groups flawed? Have you had any good or bad experiences with a flawed NPC or group of NPCs? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."




9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Monstrous Character Flaws"

#1 Comment By Silveressa On May 1, 2012 @ 2:42 am

I’ve had some good luck building NPC’s around a flaw concept, such as “compulsive gambler” or “Hatred for legal authority” as the foundation behind their motivations and how to tie them into the adventure or location. (Nearly all intelligent creatures are influenced by their vices/character flaws to a certain extent.)

If for example a otherwise upstanding city watchman has a gambling problem, it might motivate him to start taking bribes from petty criminals, or selling tips to adventures, smuggling them into/out of the city etc..

While the PC’s likely will never discover the guards flaw, (Unless they spy on or befriend him) knowing the reasons behind his actions lets me portray the NPC much more readily, and focus on how his interactions with the characters furthers his own needs, making for a more in depth personality.

#2 Comment By Orikes On May 1, 2012 @ 3:03 am

I recently ran the same one-shot three different times. The first was for my regular group and a guest, and then twice at two different conventions. It was very interesting seeing what different players did with the same character, especially in regards to the flaws.

One of the things I noticed over the three runs was that some of the less mature players tended to fixate on the flaws and amplify them to become the most important trait of the character, no matter what the value of the trait was (I was running a Supernatural game using the Cortex system). For example, one character had a 2D flaw (very very minor) of Kleptomaniac. One player that had that character spent the entire game trying to steal everything that wasn’t nailed down.

#3 Comment By Silveressa On May 1, 2012 @ 3:50 am

@Orikes

If the players are new to the system and a real munchkin, they may have been exaggerating the flaws in the hopes of earning extra plot points every time they have them “effect the characters actions/choices.”

I find it helps to make it clear to players new to the cortex system (or immature) they can only earn plot points from playing their characters flaws 2-3 times per session unless I declare the flaw comes into play in a given situation.

This way players have less incentive to obsess over their flaw/s and focus on the other aspects of their character.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 1, 2012 @ 10:19 am

@Silveressa
@Orikes
The value of a tool often lies in the person wielding it. As you both point out, flaws can add or subtract to a game.

But what do y’all think of assigning flaws to entire cultures or races?

#5 Comment By Silveressa On May 1, 2012 @ 10:55 am

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider

I think it can be a useful way to distinguish a race and make it easier for a GM to portray them (much like an individual)and makes them more memorable to the players.

Some games already have such flaws built into them, (such as the Weren from Alternity/Star Drive having a racial flaw when it comes to using advanced technology) although if overused I can see it possibly leading to a bit of stereotyping from the PC’s and a feeling of “all of race X is the same.”

As long as the racial flaw is up or down played to a certain extent between each individual group of NPC’s however, the variety should keep them varied enough to remain interesting.

#6 Comment By Bravemaximus On May 2, 2012 @ 8:42 am

I really like this idea. It makes it really easy to create groups and make monsters really stand out. Imagine coming up with some combats on the fly, and just assigning them one flaw and one merit: Goblins are stupid but quick; Trolls are strong but easily confused by groups; etc. I think it could add a lot to the organization of my notes when preparing for a game. I really like this idea. Thanks for putting it out there!

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On May 4, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

Defining a species by a flaw is excellent. While we all “know” the world is complex, most of us navigate by sterotypes and exceptions. The flaws you list match people’s “built up experiences”, exactly as you’d except for people who keep encountering wandering horrors.

If we have sterotypes that “white men can’t jump”, then surely with intelligent races with far greater differences than humanity can contain will lead to even greater sterotypes. And they’ll serve the same “wrong but close enough” function that they fill in the real world. It also clarifies how other will talk about them–which is great when you need some foreshadowing.

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[…] Gnome Stew has a great article up on character flaws. We often focus on just how great and awesome our characters are, but what about their faults? Flaws are what make characters unique and depending on what system you play, may often be an overlooked part of character creation and development. Tune in and theorize with Micah and I and be sure to stop by Gnome Stew to check out the writeup. […]

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