Roleplayer #27, February 1992

Seen in a Different Light

Making Old Disadvantages New

by Carl Aaron Gerriets

GURPS players often grow tired of using the same old disadvantages for their characters. Roleplaying your sixth Impulsive, Overconfident young warrior isn't as much fun as it was the first time. But when all the "new" disadvantages have been used, what's a poor player to do?

Actually, it's easy to put new life into old disadvantages, especially if you find a new way to look at them. In fact, you may be able to build a more complete character than you have before – with those same old disadvantages.

Lose the Old Bias

Every player has biases against some disadvantages. Perhaps you refuse to play a character who is afraid of heights because you are; or maybe you never play Fanatics because you can't understand how anyone could be that dedicated to a cause. Some biases will be with you forever: if you would absolutely hate to play a Sadist, or a Megalomaniac, or a Bully, don't!

Some biases, however, can be overcome – and doing so opens up new possibilities for your characters. Look at the disadvantages you have never used. Some of them may be so foreign that they would never work; others, might be interesting if you give them a chance. Rereading the definitions may help to give you a new viewpoint. Absent-Mindedness does not mean senility, and it can be a viable choice for almost any character – but you have to know what it really is. Don't judge a disad by its name.

If you can revise your view of the disadvantages you've rejected, you'll be ready to create a wonderfully new character. When I tried one I had been biased against, I found that it was fun to play, because my character had a different kind of problem than I did. Isn't that why we play these games – to face problems that are different than our own day-to-day difficulties?

Mix 'n' Match

Another trick that makes old disadvantages is to mix something unusual into a standard "package" of disadvantages. Everyone knows the standard knight (with Code of Honor, Duty, and a Vow), but what if he was also a Kleptomaniac? It's not something he wants to do; he just can't help himself. If he had stolen something particularly valuable, he might have a Secret or an Enemy. Suddenly, one new disadvantage has made a stereotype into a character.

This works with almost any stereotypical character. The cranky old man (wizard, prospector, or retired college professor) has Age, Hard of Hearing, Stubborn, Absent-Minded, and Delusion (nothing has changed since I was 30). Suppose an old man isn't Stubborn – but he is Impulsive! Combined with his Delusion, all kinds of funny problems are waiting to happen. For a more serious variation, give him an old Secret or a Sense of Duty – some obligation left unfinished.

Using a new disadvantage (perhaps one you had been biased against) along with a standard package is a good way to keep the other players interested. For a space campaign, I made a rather standard hotshot pilot (Cowboy's Code of Honor, On the Edge, Compulsive Gambling) and gave him Low Pain Threshold and Addiction to Analgine. To the other players he appeared, at first, to be a rather standard character. As they learned about his problem, though, they had to consider him as a person, not a character type. One unusual disadvantage can make a character more interesting and much more real.

Attitude Toward Disadvantages

Even without changing the disadvantages you use, you can change their impact by considering how your character responds to them. The character's attitude toward his problem can define his personality as much as the problem itself. Some possible attitudes toward a given disadvantage:


You've not only accepted the disadvantage, but you're proud of it. This is natural (and appropriate) for most of the "good" disadvantages (Code of Honor, Truthfulness, Honesty, etc.), but it works for others too. It heightens evil traits (only someone truly vile would be proud to be a Sadist) or raises interesting questions (what would make someone proud of being Gluttonous?).


You realize that you have the disadvantage and are resigned to it. Perhaps you think of it as a challenge to overcome (a good positive attitude for physical disadvantages), or perhaps as a tragedy that you must accept. This attitude tends to minimize the effects of physical, social, or other "unremovable" disadvantages: while they still affect you normally, your attitude toward them will tend to make others more tolerant of your problems. For most mental disadvantages, it can have the reverse effect; rather than trying to overcome your problem, you calmly accept it, which can be frustrating to your friends!


You honestly do not realize you have the problem. This is almost automatic for most "crazy" disadvantages: no one can realize he has a Delusion while he still has it. This also works well for the simple, honest character, who may have Honesty, Truthfulness, or a Code of Honor and never even realize it! Someone with this attitude will usually expect others to have the disadvantage as well – and will be surprised when they don't! And when the simple farmer-turned-soldier realizes that his companion is a Kleptomaniac – and proud of it – more than sparks will fly!


Deep down, the character realizes that he has the disadvantage, but he won't admit it – not even to himself. This is a dramatic and realistic attitude for many disadvantages, especially Alcoholism. The GM should require a character to admit his Disadvantage before he can buy it off – a GM with excellent roleplayers can probably make a denied Disadvantage worth an extra -5 points, which must be bought off before the disadvantage itself can be dealt with.


You hate your Disadvantage and would do almost anything to be rid of it. For mental disadvantages, there should be some special reason you can't simply buy it off, or it won't last long. Perhaps you were magically or technologically programmed to lie compulsively, and you can't buy it off until you counteract the magic or technology. For "unremovable" disadvantages, no special explanation is needed. Plenty of heroic characters hate the Social Stigmas their societies assign to them!


You are ashamed of your problem and will try to hide or deny it. Unlike Denial, you do admit to yourself that you have a problem, but you won't admit it to others. Unlike Hatred, your shame may be the reason you cannot just buy off the disadvantage – you are too ashamed to ask for help or support from your friends. Also unlike Hatred, your attitude toward your disadvantage may have been taught you by your society. Perhaps you personally see nothing wrong with the drug you use, or your desire to protect your own life, but you've been taught to be ashamed of it.

A character's attitude toward his disadvantages can change over time. An Alcoholic may deny his problem at first, then be ashamed of it, and finally hate it until he manages to successfully withdraw, after which he will probably accept it. As he moves through each stage, the disadvantage will be varied slightly, and thus be more interesting than before.

Theme and Variations

Disadvantages can often be made new by slight variations. Plenty of variations are available in the Basic Set. Think of a new Compulsive Behavior, Fanaticism, or Vow. Some disadvantages already list variant forms: Megalomania and Overconfidence, Bad Temper and Berserk, for example.

New variations can be made, too. I allow two additional forms of Overconfidence: Pride and Foolhardiness. Pride is an excessive concern for public appearance and "face," which will often force the character to act as if he were Overconfident in public, and will also force him to pay close attention to the politics of any given situation. Foolhardiness is not so much heightened confidence as ignorance of danger. It is especially appropriate for young or inexperienced characters.

A fantasy race I designed has a variant form of Impulsiveness which allows them to take part in talk and debate as long as it is moving quickly toward their goal. In general, though, they are "flighty," and they will tolerate any activity only for a short period before they rush off to do something else. A child might have a similar variant called "Short Attention Span."

Most variations of this type will not change the point value of the disadvantage, but the GM can give more or fewer points as he sees fit. Many such variations will not even change the actions the character will take, but they will change his motivations and thoughts, which are at the heart of roleplaying. With just a few changes, the old disadvantages will become new and exciting – and so will the characters.

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