Are Flaws Negative?

I was listening to a recent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, and they got to talking about flaws for characters in RPGs. They give a good summary of the evolution of character flaws in RPGs, which reminded me of the way that Four Colors al Fresco handles character flaws, and I thought I would explain the reason it does it that way. 

In Four Colors al Fresco, characters can have flaws, but it’s not a point-build system. However, characters do have a finite number of traits, and each flaw a player gives her character is one less positive trait she can have. So why would anyone ever take a flaw?

Flaws Are Fun!, or, A Brief History of Flaws in Roleplaying Games

Well, first of all, with the free-form narrative traits in the game, not all traits are created equal, so you could definitely create a character with 10 traits that encompass all of the same capabilities as someone with 12 traits. But, even if that weren’t the case I think players would give their characters flaws. 

Let’s look at a little history: at first, RPGs didn’t have flaws. That is, you could play your D&D fighter with a 6 Dex as lamed, but there was nothing in the rules that actually reflected that. After RPGs switched to rules that let you build your character, flaws were introduced, I believe with Champions. In most systems, flaws had negative point costs–the more flaws your character had, the more positive qualities she could have. I’ll call this the Hero System method of flaws. 

For a long time, and even today with most RPGs that have sufficiently-detailed characters to merit flaws, that was the state of the art. There is one problem with that design strategy, however: it rewards flaws, which means that sometimes people take flaws for their characters not because they want the flaws, or the flaws fit the character, but because they want the rewards they generate. This leads to flaws that get forgotten and characters with excessive flaws that make them bizarre. 

But perhaps the biggest problem is that flaws aren’t really flaws. They may be negative from the standpoint of the character, but for the player they are positives. The players take flaws that they want to play, not ones they don’t, so the cost accounting doesn’t match up. If you want to play a kleptomaniac, you take the “flaw”, but you’re gaining something, same as if you make your character an expert sword fighter. In a point-build game, your 100-point character with 30 points of flaws is effectively a 130-point character, or even a 160-point character, since the “flaws” are actually things you want. 

This I knew, but the part that Robin (I think) brought up on the podcast that clicked for me was the terminology. As he put it, flaws in most RPGs aren’t really penalties or hindrances–they’re permissions

How to Use Flaws

Which is roughly the same epiphany, though with less clarity, that I had in the ’90s when discussing these things on rec. games.frp.advocacy. The way I would’ve phrased it then is that spotlight time is the real currency of characters. You give everyone the same number of points so that the players have equal spotlight time–making their characters equally powerful (at least by some measures) is the tool to get there, not the end in and of itself. But flaws create, not take away, spotlight time. 

My first application of this idea was a little game inspired by Nikita (the movie) in which players had points to spend on attributes and skills and advantages–and flaws. Flaws didn’t generate extra points, but cost points the same as advantages. We only played it once, but it seemed to work. 

The other thing that was talked about on the podcast [in relation to flaws] is that a lot of flaws are burdens on the rest of the players, not on the player who takes them. Some of these are obvious: when you take an “enemy” flaw, the other players suffer from that enemy as much as you do.

Character Flaws in Four Colors al Fresco

So when it came time to design Four Colors al Fresco, those two reasons were why it is the way it is. There isn’t really point accounting in the usual sense in the game, so the problem of people taking flaws for the points, rather than because they want them, isn’t there. Even those Planet scores that require flaws don’t really do that, because you can always change your Planet scores in such a way as to avoid the flaws without materially changing the rest of the character. And the problem of “group flaws”–flaws that impact the rest of the group as much as or more than your character–is explicitly addressed in the rules by ruling them out. 

The idea in the podcast that was new to me, however, was the notion that all flaws are really only negatives for the group (as opposed to the player whose character they are attached to). Well, flaws in the traditional way they’re implemented, at least. I hadn’t really thought about that before, but I think it’s a good way of looking at it. If your character is a homicidal maniac, you don’t, generally speaking, suffer a hindrance–you took that flaw because you wanted your character to behave that way. But maybe the other players don’t, so for them it is a hindrance. To varying degrees, Robin & Ken argued, this is true for every flaw. I think they’re right. 

In hindsight, while I hadn’t identified that idea, it is supported by the way that flaws are handled in Four Colors al Fresco. That is, the reason that they basically “cost” the same as part of character creation as other traits is precisely that they give permission–that they are parts of the character that you want, so you should have to allocate some character-creation resources to them, same as if you want your character to be nimble. But the new terminology is really useful to me as I’m writing a new draft of the rules. 

What About Fate’s Aspects?

Oh, and I should talk about the other way of handling flaws in an RPG, which Four Colors al Fresco explicitly doesn’t use. I’ll call it the Fate way, not because it was the first, but because it’s definitely the best-known. Aspects in Fate aren’t just negative or positive, but both. You “invoke” an Aspect to use it to your benefit; someone else “compels” your Aspect to make it work to your detriment. I was definitely aware of this idea when writing Four Colors al Fresco–though I can’t remember whether it was from a published RPG, or just from discussions on r.g.f.advocacy. So it’s absent from al Fresco intentionally, due to choosing a different path, rather than due to not having thought of it. 

The reason is simple: Four Colors al Fresco is a game of heroics, specifically modeled on the action pulps and early superhero comics. In many cases, those characters didn’t have significant flaws. So I wanted it to be possible to create a character without overt flaws, and if every trait was both positive and negative, this wouldn’t be possible. Instead, the player gets to designate, saying “this trait mostly hurts/limits the character” or “this trait usually helps the character.” Flaws can sometimes help, and regular traits can sometimes get in the way, but it should be a comparatively rare occurrence.

That’s also why there’s no mechanical incentive to take flaws–I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re disadvantaging themselves by not taking flaws, as some point-build systems imply. With this system, only players who want their characters to have flaws have them–and they’re not going to feel like they’re missing out on something (like additional skills) that they could’ve had by taking some flaws they didn’t actually want. The presumption is that (1) there are good reasons to take flaws–they are their own reward; and (2) there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to play the game, at least as far as character flaws are concerned. If you have more fun playing a “flawless” character, that’s fine; if you prefer playing a character with both positive and negative aspects, that’s fine; and, most importantly, it’s ok if you have some of each playing at the same table. 

What do you think? Is there yet another way to handle character flaws in RPGs that Ken, Robin, and I missed? Are there other pros or cons to the Fate, Hero System, or Four Colors al Fresco strategies that I overlooked?

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