The added fun of disadvantages

Recently I made a comment on a series of house rules for 4E presented by Dane of War. It was a series of house rules, that I was not fond of, because they either made the rules more complicated, made it more difficult for the player or did not support the fiction.

Now here is another example. Take this post – Minor handicaps – at the GM Oracle. Here is suggested to introduce handicaps for the PC’s in order to make heroes less perfect and in order to make things more difficult for the players.Buying

Buying Disadvantages

Adding disadvantages to the characters is a such nothing new. Plenty of games have these disadvantages. For me the prime example is GURPS, where the you buy disadvantages in order to earn more points to buy skills and advantages.

In GURPS you at least receives some points to buy skills for as a compensation for the disadvantage, but once you’ve spend the points, the disadvantage becomes a passive obstruction for which tje optimal strategy for the player is to hope the GM forget it. The less it is used against the PC the better.

Less Perfect Heroes

When the GM Oracle suggests that the heroes are given handicaps, the rationale is that it makes the heroes less perfect, and less perfect heroes we know from movies and books, so why not add to roleplaying?

There is a difference though. A handicap in a movie is something that troubles the hero, either at critical moments or/and it becomes something he must transcend, thus emerging as a fully fledged hero. In D&D it just becomes a constant annoyance, as it only makes the game more difficult – a difficulty that can be introduced in so many other ways.

Adding Difficulty

Applying a house rule of adding handicaps to the game, results in making the game more difficult. The questions I always consider, when introducing new rules are, why is this fun? Why would the players like to use this rule? Why would I as a player want to have this added penalty? Why will it be more fun? Can’t I pick a handicap without the mechanical penalty? Will the monsters we battle be handicapped too? The reasoning for GM Oracle is that, it will make the characters more heroic, since they are not only battling external advercities but also internal. The reward is that it becomes more heroic – but how does it become more heroic? I don’t remember having played any game with disadvantages (GURPS, D&D Player’s Option, various others), that it became more heroic. Not at all. If I were to accept this argument, I would like to see, how the added heroism is added to the game.

This does not mean, that I oppose the use of disadvantages for characters, but it does mean, that I often find them trivial. There is however some exceptions:

Mouse Guard

Here a player chooses a trait – either a positive or a negative trait – and in conflicts the player can choose to use the trait either as an advantage or as a disadvantage (whether it is a positive trait or not). If used as a disadvantage, the player receives a bonus for later use.

The Shadow of Yesterday/Solar System

This game is a favorite of mine (the rules are free). Besides each character possessing skills and “secrets” (special abilities), they also posses “Keys”, which is the source of XP’s in the game. Whenever a key is struck, it generates XP. A key can be “Friendship”, “Honor” or “Disciple”, but is can also be something negative e.g. “Outcast”, “Broken” or “Addict”. Whenever the player introduces the Key, he or she earns XP, in other words the player is interested in playing the handicap, as it rewards the player, and later the player can choose to buyoff the Key, thereby transcending the problem.

These are just two examples of how you can introduce handicaps, where the players choose when to introduce them, and where the player is awarded a bonus for penalizing themselves. This is one of favorite approaches to dealing with disadvantages. These rules can easily be adopted to D&D, GURPS and other games. In a coming post I’ll show we use a variant of this in the Night’s Dark Terror-campaign.


  1. I really like this post, I feel like disadvantages can really entice players into playing more vibrant characters. I’ve got a post of my own on that.

    I really like what you are doing, going to add you to the links section on my blog.

    – Gestalt Gamer

    1. Thanks 🙂

      btw it is a really good example you have there. I really like your players approach to playing his character.
      I’ll be exploring your site some more, you really seem to have a lot of interesting material.

      1. thank you very much for the compliment and I look forward to reading more from you in the future. If you end up liking my work I would love to get my URL out there as I am just starting out 🙂

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