Reflections on Disadvantages
I’ve been thinking about this blog post for years, because it illustrates some of my thoughts on game design. See, I used to play the hell out of GURPS. It was my first RPG, and I loved it — honestly, if someone were to ask if I wanted to play in a GURPS one-shot that was as interesting pitch, I would throw down 3d with the rest of them.
But shortly after GURPS Fourth Edition came out, and we prepped an Infinite Worlds campaign, I discovered that the disadvantage system annoyed me. One of my players would always take the -10 disadvantage Smoking, because it was a meaningless disadvantage. And while, sure, we could do something to make smoking interesting, there were enough other, more immediately interesting things to play with. So, again, free points. In fact, in writing this, I’m pretty sure that trying to play with smoking would have somehow violated an unspoken social contract that had been built up over years of us playing GURPS, that it violated the game of “get as many free points as possible”.
That lead to a pseudo-principle: Smoking Makes Me a Better Gunfighter.
I saw that especially in WWII games. Those points went into the various Guns skills you needed in order to fire a rifle, pistol, submachine gun, etc. Of course, it was one in a few disadvantages that was taken to reach the disad cap, and other “free” disads would be worked in as often as possible. But Smoking always stood out to me, so that’s my association.
I contrasted that with the -75 disadvantage that someone else took, Cursed. That was interesting, it gave me things to play with, and most importantly for the sake of this thought process, it was the only disadvantage this player took for his character (because the cap was at -75).
What I said after the last session of that GURPS game was that in the future, I would just give everyone the full disad cap without having to nickel & dime with the bullshit disads…if they gave me something cool to play with. Cursed, or an enemy, or obsession — some plot-oriented awesome, not free stuff or a mechanical hinderance that didn’t matter because their character was optimized for a totally different set of actions.
Sounds a little story gamey, doesn’t it?
I recall playing a D&D 3.5 game with, among other things, the Unearthed Arcana options. I took a thing called a Flaw, which was an anti-feat — something that permanently penalized you. For that, you got a bonus feat. I took one that gave you a permanent -2 to ranged combat on a character that would never, ever do ranged combat. That’s what others in the party were for. Everyone felt like it was cheap, including me, but we all let it go, because the system was pretty much about twinking anyway.
Sometime later, our group played 7th Sea. There was an interesting idea, where you could pay for a disadvantage (called background) with your character points, the rationale being that said background would give you more experience points to play with in play, because you got credit when it came up. These backgrounds were all interesting, like the GURPS Cursed above, so there was no “free” bullshit one. I played a character with Amnesia. But because (if memory serves) a tenth of my points went into this background, I was a tenth less functional than the rest of the group.
If you don’t know 7th Sea, it’s a swashbuckling game. And swashbuckling is a genre defined by competence. This made me seriously consider that the “pay for your disads for points later” was a cute concept, but also one that felt like bullshit. If this were some other genre not tied up with competence, sure, but here, bullshit. The game was fun, and my character could do stuff (and ended up because of said amnesia being way core to the plot), but I was left thinking that from a design standpoint, it shouldn’t have cost a damned thing.
Especially if I had decided that because it cost something, I would ditch it. Then the GM wouldn’t have built that particular awesome arc.
It also sends the message that you should have to choose between full competence out of the gate, and being an interesting character. (Plus the payoff factor is different for different length of campaigns.)
But more than that, backgrounds in 7th Sea required the GM to actively push them. If my amnesia didn’t matter in a session, I wouldn’t get shit for it. As a player, it’s difficult to push them.
Thus, with these experiences, I was left with some thoughts on the ideas of disadvantages:
- They should always fucking matter. No such thing as a free lunch.
- If you tie it to character currency, whether getting some more or paying some, you’re encouraging uninteresting — no, I’ll go as far as to say bullshit — behavior.
- The player should not be powerless to incorporate them, especially if they are tied to a reward cycle.
- And frankly, let’s tie them to reward cycles, whether it’s growth currency (XP) or competence currency (things like Fate points).
I often take time to reflect on what experiences have lead to what thought processes today. I cannot recommend enough that y’all do the same.
 This was one of my staples for a bit, along with “grunt with a sword”. I like amnesia characters because I get to discover & explore a personally-connected backstory.
 And yet, I don’t have that problem with Keys from The Solar System/Lady Blackbird. Probably because you start with some, and the buy-off cycle feels natural and right. Or because the experiences I’ve outlines lead naturally to things like Keys.