In designing characters, I often find that picking disadvantages is the hardest task involved. I know what attributes, advantages, and skills I want for the character, but I don't have a good idea of what his bad points are. I assume I'll find -40 points worth somewhere, do the rest of the design, and leave the disadvantages until last. This leads to the problem of trying to pick three disadvantages worth exactly -40 points, encouraging unnatural results. In this article, I'll look at disadvantages from a different viewpoint, which may help you select them for your characters.
The Basic Set classifies disadvantages from the character's viewpoint: social, physical, mental, and so on. I prefer to look at them from the player's viewpoint. There, they break down into three groups: passive disadvantages, restrictions, and active disadvantages.
Passive disadvantages are imposed on the character from the outside, usually by game mechanics. The player does not have to roleplay a passive disadvantage, but a good gamer will have it affect the PC's personality. Passive disadvantages include attributes below 8, bad Appearance, Poverty, most physical disadvantages, Unluckiness, Enemies, and anything which just results in a negative reaction modifier. This category includes most Odious Personal Habits – your fellow players will probably appreciate your not roleplaying these!
Restrictions are disadvantages which limit the PC's course of action, or force one on him. Unlike passive disadvantages, they require some roleplaying – a player should not try to circumvent his character's limitation. Typical restrictions are Truthfulness, Honesty, the various Phobias, Duties, and Dependents.
Active disadvantages are ones which must be roleplayed. Active disadvantages include many of the mental group. Bad Temper, Cowardice, Fanaticism, Impulsiveness, Overconfidence, and Sense of Duty are all good examples.
The categories of my classification can be used to guide the selection of disadvantages. A character should have a mixture of the different types. If the PC has only passive disadvantages, he will probably come across as a rather dull character in play, while a character with all active ones may seem frantic or overplayed.
Likewise, a character with only restrictions may find his actions constrained at every turn, which is frustrating for the player. I can offer no hard and fast rule here, but looking for a disadvantage from each category is a good place to start.
Unless you want a stereotypical character, avoid obvious disadvantages. As a GM, I've seen more than enough fighter-types with Berserk and Gigantism – some players seem to view these as advantages! Avoid disadvantages that will cause too much trouble in your campaign. If your GM likes dungeon-crawls, several of the Phobias will be too crippling. On the other hand, don't take anything that won't come into play. A character with a fear of the ocean, but who spends all his time in a desert shouldn't get any points for this. The GM should enforce this, if necessary.
Try to put at least one "hook" into your character for the GM to use. A PC with a predictable reaction to a certain situation makes a good way for the GM to lead the party into adventures. Such characters are likely to see more action in play. Duties, Sense of Duty, Dependents, and Enemies all make good "hooks."
I prefer not to use attributes below 8 for disadvantages. Besides the problems a low stat can cause, an attribute of 8 or 9 can be worth extra points, since it doesn't count against the disadvantage total. If you lower it any further, though, you lose the possibility of these "free" points.
Taking low status (Social Stigma) is a bad idea. In many game worlds, a low status PC will have problems just moving around freely. Be wary of -15 point disadvantages – some of them can get a character locked up by the authorities or worse (e.g., Berserk, Fanaticism, and Kleptomania), others, such as Severe Delusions, are too extreme for most games.
Disadvantages I favor are Poverty, Fat, most of the -5 and -10 point mental ones, Phobias, Pacifism, Sense of Duty, and Duties. Dependents and Enemies are good, if they fit into the game setting.
Now comes the hard part – getting a good set of disadvantages to add up to 40 points. Sometimes a disadvantage isn't worth a multiple of 5 points (e.g., Age, some Reputations, Dependents). In this case, I let a player add or drop one or two quirks so that the disadvantages plus Quirks total is -45.
The selection procedure that I recommend is to pick two or three disadvantages that you really want for the character, and then see what else might work out. To fill out the balance, try disadvantages that are variable in cost. Several of these are fairly common: bad Appearance, Poverty, bad Reputations, and Sense of Duty are usually appropriate. A Phobia is often reasonable – many people are afraid of something. I recommend against taking severe Phobias, since they're much rarer, and can cripple a character in the wrong circumstances.
I've neglected to cover here the character with a single, very severe, disadvantage. Such PCs are usually built around the disadvantage as a central feature, and need to be treated as a separate topic. I hope to cover this in a future article.
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