Roleplaying Character Weakness and Vulnerability

I have played a huge number of characters. Most of them are insanely powerful, or are on a journey which leads hem to power. And if you asked me to name or describe 5 of them I think I would be hard pressed to pry them out of the old memory banks. For the most part I would be reduced to speculating whether I was playing a wizard or a rogue, or some other equally broad epithet. The ones, however, which stick out in my mind all share the one thing: each of them had a weakness.

Thinking back to favourite characters that I have played, Ichabod, while eventually being a very powerful wizard specialising in tricky magic, was haunted by his lower class criminal upbringing. He also suffered from hay fever and would get stuffed up and miserable if he had to spend too much time in the countryside. Marmadoc, while garrulous and friendly, would often get on people’s nerves with his overbearing personality.

Why do we find flawed characters more interesting than those with no obvious flaws? Well, I have heard it said that a character in a novel is liked not for their successes but for the way they face trials. Facing up to things they find difficult shows character. So it stands to reason that a character which finds absolutely anything easy will be dull. Consider Superman, for example. He suffers from the problem that he is good at almost anything. He is virtually invincible. The only problem with that is that there is no tension in the narrative. The authors had to rig up the improbable and clumsy device of krypton it’s in order to introduce some flaw against which he must struggle.

This runs counter to what most people feel when they are rolling up characters. They look at those lowly 5 or 6 dots on the 3 dice in front of them and there is a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach. “Well, crap. What’s going to be my dump stat this time?” I understand the feeling. But it’s wrong. It is really a question of motivation. In most games you are trying to maximise your chances of winning. Even in several roleplaying games the urge to create a set of numbers which will most successfully navigate the travails of their imagined lives is uppermost in the mind. But if you’re trying to create a character which will fulfill an entertaining narrative then putting in some flaws is a better idea.

Well, you might have heard all of that before. I’m certainly not the only one who has ever said “build a broken character” to you. So let’s move on to talking about how you might do it and what pitfalls to avoid.

First of all, note that there are several lists of character flaws available in the form of “disadvantages” in some games systems. These are usually point-buy systems where the players are encouraged to build character flaws into their character by giving them extra points for taking them. Unfortunately, this is usually abused in my experience. “Okay, I’ll take a 3 point addiction to alcohol.” And then you might get a mention here or there of he character getting drunk but it doesn’t affect the character in any deep sense. I’d even go so far as to say that if the negative is reduced to a numerical disadvantage then that also takes the fun out of the flaw. Instead the player must own the flaw, must make it part of the character. It needs to be played and enjoyed. Instead of suffering a negative to actions because your character is hungover, instead there should be a section of the session devoted to the drinking session and it’s aftermath. It forms part of the narrative – most importantly part of the characterisation.

Now this might impinge on the play of the entire party. Ideally, it should form part of the interrelation of the different characters. If it becomes a gimmick and everyone has to hold up while the flawed character does his thing for a bit then you have misunderstood what flaws are for in a narrative. The other characters should be involved in what is going on. It should develop those relationships and therefore become part of the collective narrative of the group. Furthermore, if your player is using the flaw to hog story share then something needs to be done. Aim for an integrated story, not a romp into silliness.

To briefly conclude may I again encourage the reader to create ugly, weak, sickly and annoying characters. They are a lot more interesting and memorable than your usual Captain Awesome. Give it a try

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About Paul

Cuchulain (otherwise known as Paul) has been playing roleplaying games since he was 10 years old. Although he'll play any game under the sun, he prefers characterisation and plot over tactics and mechanics. He is never happier than when playing in or mastering a horror campaign - preferably with heavy Cthulhu Mythos overtones or theme.
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