Role Playing Disadvantages – With Teeth

   First up today, it’s another question from Alzrius – whom I must thank for helpfully providing topics, since my answers so often turn into small articles like this one.

   You mention (in an article on race design, HERE) that “playing up the social prejudice a bit can easily make up for a modest boost in personal abilities,” which seems to be another way of saying that a role-playing penalty can balance a mechanical (that is, rules-based) advantage.

   Now, I’ve read opinions and statements by various game designers touting the opposite view – that a role-playing penalty doesn’t (adequately) offset a mechanical bonus – so often that it seems to have become part of the current zeitgeist of RPG design. Clearly, however, you (and Eclipse) disagree.

   Can you expand on your view regarding this? Does having something like “relates poorly to other people” as a penalty really make up for having, say, a +1 bonus to hit in RPGs in general, and the (combat-focused) d20 System in particular?

   To some extent I do disagree with the “current zeitgeist”, as illustrated by the disadvantage list in Eclipse.

   Of course, the disadvantages in Eclipse offer just enough extra character points to encourage people to take a few. A first level character can be expected to have anywhere from fifty-four (the forty-eight base plus a first level bonus feat) to ninety-five plus (throwing in a package deal worth up to ten, racial bonuses worth up to thirty-one, restrictions, duties, world law bonuses, and intelligence-based skill points) character points before disadvantages – to which disadvantages can add a maximum of ten points. Ten points are not a lot – and they’re even less in proportion when compared to the hundreds of points that a high-level character will have. Eclipse disadvantages really are more trouble than they’re worth in the long run.

   That’s because characters with a few built-in hooks and drawbacks are also usually more fun for the player in the long run, as well as being easier to run a game for – but many players are rather reluctant to add drawbacks to their character unless they get something for them in exchange. Thus Eclipse notes that – while a character with disadvantages really should have fewer character points to work with because he or she will have to invest time and effort in dealing with that disability rather than in developing other abilities – the game mechanics don’t work that way because that isn’t as much fun. Ergo, disadvantages provide a small bonus – a bribe for making running the game a little easier and complicating the characters life a bit when the player doesn’t have to.

   Eclipse keeps people from min-maxing disadvantages simply by making them not worth it; you can only get three of them, they’re worth a maximum total of ten points – and the rule is stated in the book; if it doesn’t cause you problems, then you don’t get points from it. Thus if a player takes some “disadvantages” that never cause problems for his or her character, then the points from them will disappear as well.

   If you belong to the camp that feels that “disadvantages” should reduce the effectiveness of the character while allowing the player more influence over the direction and play of the game, all you need to do in Eclipse is rule that points from disadvantages must be spent on narrative effects – a bunch of which can be found in the Narrative Powers Template.

   Now, outside of Eclipse, where I disagree is with the notion that “a role-playing penalty” doesn’t have any “mechanical impact”.

   Lets say that your combat monster really does take “doesn’t relate well to people” as a disadvantage. That’s pretty vague to start with – but that makes it all the worse for the character. He or she took that disadvantage, and will have no room for complaint when…

  • The game master reduces their starting money and equipment because they can’t get along with the people who would normally be providing that money – or with the people they bargain with when buying things.
  • The rest of the party gets good rewards or positions while they get crummy ones or none at all. If you wanted to relate well to important people, you shouldn’t have taken that disadvantage.
  • The legal system discounts their testimony, they’re held in contempt of court, or they’re unjustly convicted of a crime.
  • They don’t get paid for their services – or wind up paying more for everything they buy throughout their entire career.
  • They make political enemies and people reject their suggestions and plans for no reason at all (save for taking offense at them).
  • NPC’s opt to help other party members and NPCs who “are more worthy” instead of them.
  • At the extreme end, this can result in serious assassination attempts that won’t be in the least “balanced encounters”, helpful priestly magic failing on you or hostile priestly magic working exceptionally well on you (Gods are people too), and being a preferred target (many monsters are also people). (I wouldn’t usually recommend going that far though; the rule is that disadvantages always hurt – not to make them hurt so much that the character becomes unplayable).

   Don’t like that sort of thing? Then don’t take vague “disadvantages” and expect to be able to shrug them off. A narrow, defined, mechanical disadvantage is the soft option; you can plan for that and work around the mechanical difficulty. A vague, broad, role-playing disadvantage is an invitation for the world to kick your character in the teeth whenever the game master feels like it because it affects all the background interactions that are normally assumed rather than being played out.

   There are other methods of min-maxing disadvantages of course.

   For example, in many games you can load up a character with things like phobias, “codes of chivalry”, or “compulsions to kill”, and other personal behavioral problems – which many players will then pretty much ignore.

   The reason those things are disadvantages is because you’re giving up some control over your character. Of course, characters can behave in those fashions voluntarily, without taking a disadvantage – but in that case, they’re free to abandon those behavior patterns at any time without penalty.

   Taking such disadvantages and then ignoring them is more commonly known as “cheating”. You can deal with that in any of several different ways – revoking the disadvantage without replacing it and removing whatever benefits the bonuses from taking it were spent on, not giving the character any experience or benefits for the session (you should warn the player about this first), or even simply telling them “Well, you’re obviously not playing Orlando the Chivalrous, so he’s out of here. Write up whatever character you ARE playing under the usual rules for making a new character and I’ll see about introducing him to the party”.

      If a player isn’t willing to play such a disadvantage, he or she shouldn’t take it – and if the game master is not willing to enforce disadvantages, he or she shouldn’t allow them in the first place. Freedom to design your own characters includes taking responsibility for your choices in doing so.

   Taking a bunch of “hunted by” type disadvantages because you think the game master won’t want to be bothered having them come into play? If you’re playing a game set in equatorial Africa, you’ve put down “hunted by zombie penguins”, and you’ve rated them as “appear all the time” – and I, as the game master, have agreed to that – then they’re going to appear all the time. No matter how thin the rationale. If you didn’t want that, you shouldn’t have taken it – and if I wasn’t willing to put up with it, I shouldn’t have allowed it.

   Want a softer option? Characters don’t get benefits from self-inflicted problems. You can’t conjure up a monster, tell it to attack you, and then claim to have gained experience from your inevitable victory. If a character has a “hunted” who would interrupt your plans, build a session around them occasionally, but don’t award experience to the character they’re after for that session. He or she took them as a disadvantage – so he or she will not gain any benefits from their activities.

   Now, if the game master isn’t enforcing disadvantages that’s fine too – as long as everyone knows it. In Eclipse that simply amounts to the game master giving everyone a ten character point bonus – which is nice, but hardly overwhelming. I’ve seen a lot of campaigns which hand out a bonus feat or two just to make the character a bit more “heroic” or individualized (although individualizing characters isn’t normally a problem in Eclipse), and that amounts to the same thing.

   Now, in particular, I think that you are drastically underestimating the effects of serious social prejudices. We don’t really have much serious social prejudice today in most of the countries where RPG’s are popular – but there are plenty of places which do have it or have had it in the very recent past.

   Serious social prejudice may well involve…

  • Being unable to obtain information that you need, simply because most of the local population will have nothing to do with you.
  • Not being permitted to attend various social events or enter various areas – meaning that your character sits out of the game when the focus moves to such events and areas.
  • Not being allowed within the city walls after dark – or being subject to arrest if you are in a place that’s “off limits to your kind”.
  • Being unable to find a place to stay – with all the consequent dangers and problems of exposure.
  • Being unable to obtain medical (or priestly) care, transportation, or other services because you’re a member of the wrong group.
  • Not being permitted to carry weapons.
  • Having no real chance of escaping conviction in court – no matter how innocent you are.
  • Being charged double or triple prices for goods – if you can get anything at all.
  • Finding that many important people will not deal with you.
  • Being freely enslaveable.
  • Being a popular target of deadly accusations and mob violence – such as being lynched, hung, or burnt at the stake.
  • Being tossed out of a stronghold as a suspected spy during a siege – or not being admitted (and so being left for the enemy) in the first place.
  • Attempts at genocide.

   Does that seem extreme? Try a few searches on “Genocide”, “Darfur”, “Bosnia”, and “Rwanda” to obtain some recent examples.

   Personally, I suspect that problems like that are quite enough to make up for a “+1 to hit”.

   Finally, I can’t entirely agree that the d20 system is necessarily heavily combat-oriented. The Federation-Apocalypse game is using the d20 system, tonight will be it’s 129’th weekly session (so presumably it’s doing something right) – and the last major fight scene was several months back. Now it helps that the game is awarding character points directly for success in dealing with problems rather than for combat-based experience, and thus allows characters to advance without having to fight things – but that’s always been an option in the d20 and older edition rules anyway. It simply wasn’t often used.

   Eclipse: The Codex Persona can be found in a Print Edition (Lulu.Com), an Electronic Edition (RPGNow.Com), and a Shareware Edition (at RPGNow.Com) or in a Box.Net download Here.

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One Response

  1. […] Role Playing Disadvantages – With Teeth. Why vague social disadvantages are NOT the soft option. […]

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