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[1]. 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[2], 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.

– Ryan

[1] 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.

[2] 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.


15 Responses to Reflections on Disadvantages

  1. Bruce Harlick says:

    George MacDonald had a great rule regarding Disadvantages in Champions. I think we even put it into the various rulebooks. It ran something like “A Disadvantage that doesn’t disadvantage you isn’t a Disadvantage and isn’t worth any points.” It really helped cut down on the bullshit Disads on characters in our Hero System games and instead help make those things into more interesting role-playing hooks.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Totally, from a GM/table standpoint. From a design standpoint, though, I don’t want to create situations that promote behaviors that I’m very much against. That’s why in my designs, the option for bullshit disads is removed entirely. Now, back when I was younger, I enjoyed the shit out of the game that is min-maxing. But today, I want systems that don’t distract or detract from what I’m looking for now.

      I remember one time I was playing SLA Industries. There was the Sterile disadvantage, which boggled the mind. I sort of made it a point to take that and have my character be gay. Sometimes “mundane” (or at least non-detrimental/non-dramatic) things like that can lead to interesting character thoughts. Which is making me think now…

      – Ryan

  2. Very interesting read, funny that I was working on Advantages and Disadvantages earlier today for my own game. I will definitely incorporate some of this thought as I rework them for testing.

    As for player side initiation of a disadvantage in 7th Sea, I once tooked Cursed and applied it to a disease that at the time would have been unknowingly called a curse. I played a Vesten with Giantism including a pre programmed height/death plan. As a player it was easy to bring up because of living conditions being around peoples of 5 to 6 feet tall, not 7’7″. It always mattered that the beds were too small, chairs broke, passages were uncomfortable and couldn’t be fought in (negated some dice in my pool). Best character I ever payed, Bjorn Torden.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Oh, I’m not intending to knock disadvantage systems for those who like those games & whose play culture jives with them. After all, if they didn’t work for some people, no one would do them. :) And they create an interesting mini-game at character creation, which in turn can create a greater sens of buy-in to playing that character.

      These reactions are just my own, and I wanted to point out where they’ve led me to think about design and why I have different goals in design these days.

      Good luck with your design! :)

      – Ryan

  3. Stephen says:

    It almost seems like gaming evolution is forcing a link between Disads and meta-story currency (Fate points, etc.). In my experience:

    * Disads that award a bonus in chargen almost always get min-maxed all to hell. They specifically incentivize the player to squeeze maximum one-time profit out of minimum pain. So most games that still use them have moved to an “award on inconvenience” paradigm for disads.

    * Most GMs I know don’t like to deal with players complaining about advancing at different rates, or passive-aggressive hurt feelings without the complaints, so experience is awarded equally to all PCs. “When your disad is a problem for you, you get bonus exp” is therefore a non-starter. (Strangely enough, nobody really tries “When your disad is a problem, everyone gets more exp.”)

    * Disads that award temporary currency are still acceptable, however, so there’s really no way to incorporate disads without Fate points. It’s a natural transition to just using Aspects (or related mechanics), but it doesn’t necessarily achieve the same feel as genuine disads did classically.

    And I’m not sure any of these system have ever really mechanically enforced the play that I think they were originally meant to address, which was “I’ll make a flawed PC around which the GM can base interesting dramas on the condition that doing so makes my game more fun instead of feeling like punishment.” That last bit may not be achievable with systems, just trust and a social contract.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Most GMs I know don’t like to deal with players complaining about advancing at different rates

      This is an element of play culture, not a universal thing. However, since it’s (I assume) your play culture, it’s something you should consider (or not) in your designs. That said, there is a difference between pure-uniform advancement and non-uniform advancement that still achieves parity.

      If five people have different ways of getting advancement (such as in Lady Blackbird), but at the end of a session they’re at or near the same level of advancement. That’s parity. It’s something we’ve played with in the Dungeon World XP experiment I blogged about a bit ago, and found it also achieves parity.

      – Ryan

    • Stephen says:

      Yeah, I’d neglected to mention player-directed unequal exp mechanics (Dungeon World, Marvel Heroic). They’re so new that I don’t even have any real anecdotes about how they might work out. My gut is that as long as the players felt that their triggers weren’t widely disparate (i.e., they felt they had similar opportunity to trigger the exp), it would be far preferable to GM-directed unequal exp.

      It’s just been something I’ve specifically noticed about my local gaming culture as we’re back to playing a WoD game, which has historically been all about GM-directed unequal exp, and we’re getting equal exp and nobody has questioned that at all.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Also, many games have, for years, promoted non-uniform XP awards for the nebulous idea of “roleplaying,” which sometimes don’t achieve parity.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      They’re so new that I don’t even have any real anecdotes about how they might work out.
      Plenty of games have been doing this for years. Look outside your play culture. Ask people about their experiences.

      My gut is that
      No! Don’t use your gut! Actually play games. Thinking about how a game works is never as good as trying it. :)

      – Ryan

  4. Jess says:

    ” I played a character with Amnesia[1]. But because (if memory serves) a tenth of my points went into this background, …”

    Please tell me I’m not the only one to catch this pun, intentional or otherwise.

    On a more related note, my groups have generally done away with disadvantages in general, for min-maxing reasons. If someone wants a disadvantage, we’ll accommodate, but no one gets rewarded for them, especially when it becomes up to the GM to bring them. I usually have enough on my plate already that I have trouble keeping track of disadvantages for all the players. Those few players that take them anyway have really made them a focus and built interesting back story around them that encouraged the GM to write plot around those ideas. But that’s just my play culture.

  5. Jason Pitre says:

    One thing I adore about disadvantages is that, at their best, they make it cool to fail. By choosing a disadvantage for my character, I am giving tacit approval for the GM to provide failure and complications. This increases the conflict in a game and makes it more interesting for everyone involved.

    Chain smoking might make you a better gunfighter, but it should also means that you can’t sneak up on someone without alerting them with your fragrance. Oh, and lung cancer. It worked for Constantine.

  6. Captain Pedantic, reporting for duty. :)

    Smoking isn’t a disadvantage in 4E. Not sure if it’s in 3E anywhere, but a quick search didn’t find it.

    But yes, I can see where certain disadvantages don’t make sense. Stuttering shouldn’t let me improve my archery skill.

    And a proper GM would take something like stuttering and make you have to give a speech, ala The King’s Speech. As other’s have mentioned, it isn’t a disadvantage if the GM can’t yank on it a little.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      You may wish to be thorough when being pedantic, lest you look, well, foolish. Look up the Addiction disadvantage. And I have already mentioned my reaction the the “hey, but good GMs…” bit.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      But since it still seems unclear, let me use some math:

      A person looking for -40 points of disadvantages (typical in 3/e) would take on average (based on memory of my experiences) four disadvantages. I would have around five players. That means around twenty disads to think about when plotting sessions & reaction to player actions. That’s in addition to ideas from the premise of the game, which is typically either not or only loosely involved with personal disads, that’s a lot to work in. So, yes, a GM could make it work. But there will be far, far more interesting shit than “okay, you’re cranky because you haven’t had a smoke in a couple days” (Which is actually what the Addiction disad is for) or “your cigarette alerts people to your presence”.

      The number of disads + external plot stuff is part of why the mini-game of min-maxing exists; that of “can we create enough noise that this weak-ass disad will be ignored?”

      If it’s still not understood that this lead to a designer decision, then there’s nothing more I’m willing to do to explain it.

      – Ryan

    • OK, I stand corrected (looked for smoking, not tobacco). Mea culpa.

      From 4E’s addiction, with an example of Tobacco use:

      “Examples: Tobacco is cheap, highly
      addictive, and legal; a chain-smoker
      has a -5-point Addiction. Heroin is
      very expensive, incapacitating, totally
      addictive, and illegal; a heroin addict
      has a -40-point Addiction.”

      “Highly addictive (-5 on withdrawal
      roll): -5 points.”

      So, you’d get 5 points back for taking an addiction to tobacco, and only if you’re a chain smoker:

      “Minor Addictions
      For an Addiction worth only -5
      points, the GM may rule that the
      expense, stigma, and detrimental
      long-term effects of use are the whole
      of the disadvantage, and waive the
      usual withdrawal rules. This is appro-
      priate for such drugs as tobacco and
      caffeine. If forced to go without, you
      must make a Will or HT roll as usual,
      but the only effects on a failure are
      general anxiety, irritability, or restless-
      ness. This manifests as a temporary -1
      to DX, IQ, self-control rolls, or reac-
      tion rolls (GM’s choice) – not as insan-
      ity or injury. Successive failures pro-
      long the duration of the effects; they
      do not increase the size of the penalty.
      If you can make 14 successful rolls in
      succession, you must buy off your
      It is also possible to create a 0-
      point Addiction using these rules.
      Such Addictions are always Minor
      Addictions, and you may take them as
      -1-point quirks (see Quirks, p. 162).”

      But yeah, I get the main thrust of your dislike for the advantage / disadvantage economy. It’s definitely ripe for abuse, and rules like the above signal to me that the authors also know it too.