Friday, August 12, 2011

And While We're At It: PC Quirks & Flaws

In my last post I made the case that true old school roleplaying in the D&D flavor required 3d6 recorded in the order rolled for ability scores. Check it out if you haven't yet. It's a bit longish, but mainly because of all the lists of stats. Anyway, in that same vein I will now make the case for including some sort of a system for quirks and flaws in your game.

As we said last time, 3d6 in order represent nature in the D&D game worlds. Following that same logic PCs should also have a certain amount of personality characteristics that represent weaknesses, strengths, foibles and eccentricities that we all, as people, possess. This mechanic is as venerable as the game itself, first appearing as an Arduin's Grimoire supplement. That piece listed traits or background experiences that actually gave in game bonuses or other potential help to the PC. The mechanic has continued up through modern iterations where lists of quirks and flaws have extended to the hundreds.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that you let die rolls tell you how your PC acts or behaves. The idea to is to give roundedness and a realism to each PC by showing the bad with the good, the ugly with the beautiful. We all know what this is like. I have asthma, as I've mentioned before. I also suffer from anxiety and am slightly nearsighted. These things affect my life and make me part of who I am. If you hang around me for any period of time you will notice these things and they will affect how you see me and relate to me. Something else critical is that I didn't ask for these. They are due to genetics and the environment. I would much rather have chosen some more readily apparent but less life affecting quirks like "big nose", "different colored eyes" or even "male pattern baldness". But, as they say, the Gawds have a sense of humor. So these PC quirks and flaws should be randomly determined. Don't hand pick them. The point is not to pick something you can live with. Random determination of quirks gives us a sense of nature offering up a plate of goods with which we must work.

PC roleplaying is a very personal matter. Some have a hard time breaking out of their shells. Others don't have a dramatic bone in their body. In their mind's eye, they might clearly imagine how their PC is acting and the flair with which he says certain things, but it can be hard for some people to convey that at the table. A little note on your character sheet that Dirk the Daring Dastard, 3rd level Thief has a tendency to twirl his coal black mustache, or even better chew at the ends is a colorful addition.

Good RPGs support such playing. But it's true, quirks and flaws are not a part of the D&D core element. The game can be played without them. And good roleplayers seem to do this kind of stuff intuitively. But all too often we are loathe to linger on things that might be considered weakness. Things like, Varbatelle the Fighter is deathly afraid of cats. When she was an impressionable girl of but six years she found her mother dead on her bed. Her mother's favorite black cat Instigo resting on her chest, licking the drooling saliva off of her mother's chin. She was certain with the certainty only the mind of a child can achieve, that the evil cat had killed her. The cat had always hated Varba anyway. Had scratched at her whenever she got near. The thing was evil she now was sure. For weeks, months and years after she kept a wary eye on the beastly thing; and always locked her door when she went to sleep at night to keep the cat out while she slept. At 12 years of age she finally killed the old thing. But not without suffering a vicious scratch for her efforts. Three days later she was down with a deathly fever, red streaks rising like streams of fire up her wounded arm. The crimson scratches left by the devilish feline were swollen and hot to the touch. The heat soon reached her heart and she almost died. A month later after numerous visits from the physikers she was able to leave the bed. She was not the same however and her constitution never fully recovered. Reflecting her slightly low constitution score for a fighter.

That kind of color can be inspired but the acquisition of such a silly trait. Just writing down the traits without thinking them through and working them into your character gains us little. Such a PC creation mechanic is designed to achieve the kind of roleplaying we might hope to achieve and also makes our heroes much more believable and real. It gives them depth, gives them gravitas.

I remember reading The Eyes of The Dragon by Stephen King my senior year in school. That strange little book affected me deeply. Partly because King is such a "human" writer. He knows human nature and draws that thread through all of his stories. But specifically because in the story King Roland's faults are revealed to his own sons sons, secretly and gradually. The deep bitterness that turned Thomas to the king's evil adviser Flagg for comfort was entirely believable and understandable. The work clearly shows how very human situations can create such evil. Stephen R. Donaldson's novels had also become popular again during my high school years. Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, leper and outcast from society was that series savior and hero. The idea of having such an inherently flawed and unwilling hero was a relatively new concept in current fantasy literature and was immensley powerful.

I suppose at that time in my youth I too was running into certain double standards apparent in the adult world; and I was realizing that the rose colored glasses of my youth may have been slightly defective. I was disillusioned about many things and becoming aware that the world could be a deceitful, dread place. Perhaps that is why those heroes had such an impact on me. But I also think it was their flawed natures. For in them I saw myself. I might not have leprosy or a trusted brother and friend of my father poisoning him, but I had flaws. And by 17 those flaws were affecting me in very awkward ways. Those flaws could be the end of me, or they could be my redemption. And that, my friends, is a factor worthy of inclusion in any roleplaying game.
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