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I’ve been trolling around the blogosphere, the forum-sphere (a lot of “spheres”) and I’ve come to the conclusion that the D&D flaw system really, really sucks! The reason it sucks seems caught in a heated battle between the general RPG populace being composed of megalomaniacs who use any opportunity to power-game their characters into impossible to defeat warrior gods, and the designers of said flaw system, who seem stunned that they’re dealing with megalomaniacs who will do anything to turn their characters into impossible to defeat warrior gods. In short, “flaws” are not being used to create memorable and unique characters, but being abused to create rampaging cocks that jizz on passersby with about as much subtlety as a large turd in a small punchbowl.

I can’t really blame gamers. They’ve been hardwired to find any advantage they can get and the D&D flaw system is extremely exploitable. Besides, it’s kind of fun to build and play the biggest badass this side of the multiverse. That said, I blame the designers. The flaw system is just poorly designed. To show you exactly how bad flaws are, I’ll use a simple example – the flaw Pathetic:

Description: You are weaker in an attribute than you should be.

Effect: Reduce one of your ability scores by 2.

Special: You cannot take this flaw if the total of your ability modifiers is 8 or higher.

Benefit: Take a feat (the benefit is always a feat).

Sure, a -2 to an ability score is a hell of a penalty, but do you really think a Fighter or Barbarian is going to put this penalty in Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution…hell no! This penalty is getting slapped right into Charisma, Wisdom, or Intelligence (really just Charisma or Intelligence, since Wisdom determines your character’s Will Save) where it’ll never see the light of day. And what does said PC get for taking this oh so detrimental flaw? He gets a FUCKING FEAT! So, net gain: a feat, one of the most vital resources in the game. Net loss: basically nothing. I doubt the PC would be affected in any tangible way. That’s what we call broken, ladies and gentlemen; broken like a hooker’s dreams. And for the record: if you think this is a corner case, that the other flaws can’t be abused just as severely, you’d be mistaken. Most of the flaws developed (and there’s an extensive list) in 3.5 D&D are easily exploited to maximize player potential. If you need more commentary on how ridiculous the flaw system is, I suggest you read a web comic called Goblins, by Tarol Hunt. Not only is it entertaining in the extreme, but the author has, on several occasions, channeled his frustrations with the D&D flaw system through the character of Minmax (who is exactly what his name suggests):

If you want exact context for those little tidbits, I suggest you read the comic. Hunt may be doing it in a satirical way, but the point is clear; the flaw system is utterly broken.

How to Save Flaws

I’d like now to gush a little on why I’m trying to salvage something that should, by all accounts, go the way of the dodo. Simply put, I think flaws are awesome. I think they are the juicy pieces of people that make them unique and interesting. Flaws are those things that define us as individuals and make it possible to develop compelling narratives about our lives. So, having this opinion as I do, I think it only natural that I want flaws to enhance the RPG experience. But how do we do it right?

The creators of the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game were smart enough to leave 3.5 flaws in the past and out of play. While Pathfinder is backwards compatible with 3.5 D&D the creators didn’t take the time themselves to port the flaw system over…and they shouldn’t. It’s a horrible system, but maybe it’s time to build something better.

First, we have to ask what we want a flaw to do. Is it just to flavor a character and provide a guide-post for role-playing, or do we want to build something that has real numerical in-game consequences? Personally, I want both. A flaw should bring both a uniqueness to a PC and have a mechanical consequence that’s tangible when playing the game. The problem, as I see it, is that the current flaw system of 3.5 D&D gives a huge reward for taking a flaw – namely, a feat. This gives players the ability to take a flaw that has little to no effect on play, while taking feats that have an almost constant benefit. This ratio of feat-for-flaw is unsuited for what we actually want flaws to accomplish, those things being:

1. To provide flavor and customization to players who want a unique role-playing experience.

2. To place a penalty on said character that is thematically appropriate for the flaw being taken.

3. To give the PC a benefit that’s as numerically/mechanically significant as the penalty they have taken on.

I think the answer to the problem is to create the benefit one gains by taking a flaw in conjunction with said flaw. This would look something like this:

 How I Would Right the Flaw “Pathetic”

 Description: You are weaker in one attribute than other people.

Strength: You are not very muscular, are perhaps obese, or suffer from some type of muscular disease. Whatever the case, when determining your carrying capacity treat it as if your strength were 2 lower.

Benefit: While you cannot carry or lift as much as most people you have become apt at moving under the constant pressure of heavy loads. You can ignore 5ft of movement penalty when carrying a heavy loads.

Dexterity: You are graceless, prone to stumble or trip over things and possess not even the smallest bit of finesse. Take a -2 to all Dexterity based skills.

Benefit: Being generally uncoordinated, you have learned to use force in place of finesse. Choose one: Disable Device, Escape Artist, or Ride, you may use your Strength Modifier in place of Dexterity for the purpose of using this skill.

Constitution: You are puny or sickly, perhaps possessed of some condition that prevents you from being completely healthy. When determining hit points at each new level, take 1 fewer.

Benefit: Your condition has made you inured to many noxious sensations that would incapacitate others. Should you become sickened or nauseated, the duration of the effect is halved (minimum one round).

Intelligence: Your mental capabilities are in some way deficient. Perhaps you find it nearly impossible to concentrate on a task, are easily distracted, or cannot study for any notable length of time. If positive, you do not add your Intelligence modifier when determining skill points. If your Intelligence modifier is negative, subtract 1 from your available skill points at each level (to a minimum of 0 skill point a level).

Benefit: While your flighty ways have made it impossible to stay focused on a single task. As a result, you have learned skills that could hold your interest. Choose one skill (or two related) that are not class skills for you and treat them as such.

Wisdom: You are gullible, naive, perhaps even a bit childish and it has made you susceptible to effects that alter your state of mind. You receive a -2 on all saves to resist charms.

Benefit: Your naivete has given you a somewhat skewed perception of the world and this rosy outlook has made you resilient to effects that would kill your more realistic peers. You receive a +1 bonus on saves versus death effects.

Charisma: You have a stutter, or are perhaps introverted to the point of shunning conversation. It could be that you run your mouth at the wrong time, or are obnoxious in your dealings with people. Whatever the case, take a -2 to the Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Perform skills.

Benefit: Your inability to carry on a decent conversation has led you to focus on the subtle reactions of the people you interact with. You receive a +1 bonus to the Sense Motive and Handle Animal skills.

This rewrite is an example of what I want to see. I’m not going to create more right now, as I believe this example is sufficient for what I’m trying to do, but expect to see a workable list of flaws appear sometime in the future. The flaw system I’m trying to develop here is a tit-for-tat system that’s deliberately balanced to help those players (myself included) who find the temptation of power-gaming hard to handle. It gives the opportunity to develop a more individualized character without allowing optimization to the point of absurdity (it is not lost on me that I’m talking about limiting absurdity while referencing a fantasy RPG). And for you DMs out there: if you’re looking more to stop your players from getting too creative with their stat placement, I suggest you adopt LS’s flaw system over at Papers and Pencils, which is specifically designed to stop players who are… shall we say “rambunctious” with their dump stats.

I know what some of you are thinking; you’re thinking, “this seems like a lot of trouble” and “we know why you like flaws, but it’s too much hassle to deal with.” For you naysayers out there, I have some names for you:

Indiana Jones

Has a phobia of snakes.

V

Under the mask the dude looks like an overcooked hotdog.

Thor

He may be the God of Thunder, but the man has got anger issues.

And a personal favorite, one that I want to create and play one day:

Hannibal Lector

Blindingly smart and amazingly intuitive, the character oozes interesting…also he eats people.

These are just a few of the names I’ve heard mentioned (some more than others) when it’s character creation time.  Not only do they have flaws, but I’d argue that without their respective flaws they’d be utterly boring.  While some might bitch that it’s too hard to deal with flaws on top of everything else (this goes out to the DMs out there) I say you have no right to whine when you look at your players and see people that aren’t being as creative as you want them to be.  Part of being the arbiter of the all powerful Rule Zero means that it’s your job to motivate creativity in your players.  All I’m trying to say is this: I don’t believe there’s anything more motivating and inspires more creative play than giving a player a flaw and watching them work around it.

The Traits Dilemma

This really is just a general suggestion and a problem I came upon while I was writing this article, but if you’re going to use flaws in your game, I’d recommend taking traits out.

The Pathfinder traits system is what you would call a half-feat system.  It doesn’t provide the character with the bonus a feat would, but still gives a substantial tactical advantage when playing the game. Its design is focused on giving players a little flavor, building a hook in a characters past that can be used as role-playing fodder.  The problem, and I know it’s a problem because I’ve personally done it before, is that this system is being used to further optimize characters.  So, as I said above, I think if your going to use the flaw system I’ve put forth, then take traits out.  They serve similar purposes and your players won’t be tempted to take a trait that counteracts a flaw.

Now –  go and have fun, my children, and may you be more intriguing than you were before.

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