Drawbacks & Disadvantages —
do they belong?

February 8, 2018 at 4:31 pm

“Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.”

—Marcus Valerius Martial

The pitch for virtually every role-playing game ever written is “create a hero and live out their adventures.” But how much of that role is ever really lived? How often do we simply push our PCs through the mechanics or the story — facing the risks and reaping the rewards — compared to trying to emobody the character?

In fairness, many of the stories. movies, and other media that inspire these adventures don’t often have nuanced characters. Sometimes a hero is just a hero, but other times you might want to play it a little differently. Luke Skywalker’s robot hand never seemed to provide any problems, but Jaime Lannister’s golden one is a bit more of hindrance. And for many players, having a weakness or a flaw can provide a window into their motivations, and perhaps be the spur that drives them to become heroes in the first place.
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Whether they are called disadvantages, hindrances, or simply complications, these are generally defined as negative qualities in a character that make their life more difficult. These should not be so debilitating that it makes the character impossible to play, but something to add challenges and provide interest. It can be difficult to create a personality for Fie-Tor, the 3rd level fighter, but if they’d lost an eye suddenly a clearer picture might appear.

Most of these will have some mechanical repercussion in the game, and some might merely affect the role-playing aspects of a campaign. In those cases its up to the GM to ensure these are exercised in equal manners. If a PC is allergic to shellfish on the desert world Arrakis, or has a bounty on their head but never leaves the dungeon, the point is lost.

Games like GURPS and HERO provide expansive lists of all kinds of limitations, with breakdowns of bodily handicaps and mental foibles, which can be helpful to look over. However, this can become burdensome and hard for both GM and players to track.


Caught in a Mechanical Trap

There are those role-players embrace the idea of character flaws, and work to weave their personas failings and struggles into everything they do. They might not even want mechanical adjustments, thinking that their PC is just “too old for this sh** anymore” is enough of a description to guide their play and don’t want an Elderly hindrance.

On the other side is the player that wants the mechanical benefit a drawback offers, and tries to avoid the down-side. They will look for the least hampering choice, or the one that will come up least often, and make the most of the gains. Systems with many tiers of limitations, and multiple choices that might seem parallel, can exasperate these tendencies.

These character choices can add flavor and interest to a player character, but shouldn’t overwhelm them. Not every adventure should involve the outlaw fleeing the king’s guard, or the cocky hero risking his skin to save a damsel. But they shouldn’t be looked at a free asset either. Like so many things, the trick is to balance the power and penalties and make the game fun and challenging for all.


Hindering HEX

It seemed like fun to add this concept to Heroic Expeditions, but wanted to stay true to the idea of a simple, streamlined system. So we built this intentionally low-power, and as a option that can be used or discarded depending on the group.

We also wanted to avoid the complications of long, detailed lists of complications. The GURPS Disadvantage index alone runs nine pages. The HEX Drawbacks lists tries to cover the major areas, and allows for players and GMs to fill in details themselves. Players should choose one from the categories below and add specifics for their character, such as Code (pirate’s honor).

Minor Drawbacks would be worth 1 character point, and Major Drawbacks are worth 2 points, chosen at character creation. No character should have more than one Drawback, unless the GM bestows the drawback on the character for story reasons. A GM may also allow a player to ‘buy-off’ a Drawback with an Attribute advance. In some cases, this may have to be worked into the ongoing story, and might not be possible.

Most of Drawback examples listed here have their mechanical implications noted on them. Players (and GMs) should be encourage to detail their own to better defines their characters. In general, a minor Drawback will cause a -2 adjustment on occasional die rolls, and a major Drawback will cause -4 adjustments occasionally, or -2 to common die rolls.


Drawback Categories

ANXIETIES and FEARS are strong psychological reactions to the environment. Typical minor anxieties are things like spiders, large groups, or fire, and a figure would have to make a standard IQ test to face their fears or be at -2 on all tests in their presence.

Fears are stronger concerns that could even paralyze a figure. Figures must pass a difficult IQ test to act in the presence of the fear’s source, and will freeze of flee the fear in case of critical failure. Cowardice (fear of danger) is a typical fear.

CODES and OATHS are sets of beliefs or obligations that require a figure to act in a particular way. Codes would include things like loyalty, non-violence, or religious devotions that impact a figure’s daily decisions. They could also include character traits like overconfidence, vindictiveness, and caution that would direct their behavior. When facing these kinds of situations, a figure might have to make a standard IQ test to disobey their code

Major restrictions, called Oaths, have a larger impact on the figure’s life. Religious orders, oaths of chivalry or pacifism are all examples of this major Drawback. Character traits like bloodthirsty, glory-hound, or even strong prejudice could qualify as oaths. A figure would have to pass a difficult IQ test to disregard an oath. They may also feel the need to atone for transgressions.

ENEMIES and NEMESES are individuals or groups that are actively working against a figure’s interests. An enemy is a minor drawback that reflects a person or group of limited reach or power that wants to see a figure fail. Rival adventurers, foreign nobles, or minor supernatural foes could all be enemies.

A Nemesis represents a larger threat. Being wanted by the local king, or swindling a demon, or crossing an order of knights could all be considered a nemesis. This major drawback would appear more often or be a much greater danger to a figure.

HABITS and ADDICTIONS are behaviors that put figures in risk of danger or negative reactions. A minor habit might be smoking or gluttony that society disapproves of, or a personality trait like a gossip or a lecher. A figure might have to make an IQ test not to indulge their habit, and face negative Reaction penalties when they do.

Addictions are more severe and harder to resist. A figure might be addicted to a drug, or excessive drink, or even danger. Severe personality drives like arrogance, or pathological lying could be considered addictions. A character to make a difficult (or more) IQ test to resist, and would find it harder to avoid as time goes on. Failure would provide negative Reaction modifiers, as well as other dangers.

HANDICAPS and DEBILITIES encompass physical limitations a figure might face. Minor handicaps would entail a -2 penalty on common Attribute tests, or up to -1d on less common tests. Hard of hearing or poor eyesight (-2 to Notice), anemia (-2SA, -2 ST checks to resist), and lame (-2MA, -2 adjDX on movement based tests) are all examples of handicaps. Others might bar failings like all thumbs (-2adjDX to mechanical tasks), or clueless (-2 to knowledge and social tests). Some handicaps could have positive aspects as well, as obese figures could gain +1AD, along with -2MA, and -2adjDX to physical tests). Elderly characters would take –2 to MA as well as SA, but gain +2 EX for their years of experience.

A debilitated figure often suffers -4 penalties on tasks, and some tests may be impossible. Blind or deaf figures would be at -4 to Notice, and could not succeed at tasks that require those senses. One-armed figures would take –2adjDX to attacks, and could not use any two-handed weapons. Extremely small or scrawny characters lose -1ST and MA, but are -1 to hit in combat.

UNPLEASANT or ABHORRENT drawbacks are physical or personality aspects that people dislike. Minor unpleasant traits include greedy, blowhard, or being an outsider from the dominant social group; or a physical aspect like ugly or foul-smelling. These will commonly give -2 Reaction penalty when known.

Abhorrent traits can be dangerous as well as unpopular. Being a member of an outcast group, a branded criminal, or suffering from madness could make you abhorred by the populace, as could particularly pronounced disfigurement. These would cause -4 Reaction to most common folk, and might have other repercussions.

OTHER drawbacks are for specific failings that can not be covered in a broad category. Poverty (starting with half-normal wealth) is a typical minor drawback, whereas Bad Luck (double critical failure range on tests) would be a major drawback.

For a list of specific drawbacks, their type, and specific mechanics, click here.

How do drawbacks, disadvantages, and hindrances affect your gaming sessions? Did we overlook a choice that you use to make characters memorable? Let us know in the comments below.