September 7, 2012

Flaws: the Great World of Darkness Innovation

EDIT:  This post has been revised and re-written along with some other content.  The revised version can be found here:

Players want their characters to be fun, which means they should serve as capable tools for interacting with the world and resolving challenges presented in the story.  They should also be connected to the story through hooks to give them context and motivation.  These two layers actually oppose one another. 

There’s a system in the World of Darkness games called Merits and Flaws.  Merits are usually ways to make your character more powerful in a specific and focused sort of way.  They’re no different from most other games’ lists of character powers or skills.  Flaws are the interesting part because flaws give you more points to spend on Merits or other character traits, but in return you have to accept something negative about your character.

As a GM, this mechanic is awesome.  It gives players a chance to make a bad decision intentionally, and justify it to the other players.  As discussed elsewhere, flaws make great hooks, but they also make great spotlight opportunities for players. 

Most importantly, the Flaws systems in both Old and especially New World of Darkness games (and in many other games and even house rules systems for games without Flaws) do something unique:  They bridge the gap from hooks to capabilities.  They make your character stronger (with points) while giving you some pretty gritty story hooks.  The forces of capability and motivation are still opposed, but they're also united.  A good player or even a half-decent one can use a Flaw to justify taking an action that is not expedient or even competent.

Designing scenes to provide a real challenge in World of Darkness games is laughably difficult.  It’s hardly worth even trying – You have to consider the die pools of each character, but also all of their supernatural powers, potential ways of getting die pool modifiers, and their ability to expend resources to raise their die pools.  Combat challenges are even less predictable.  But then, this ain’t D&D.  In D&D, everyone can be 90% dead and the battle would be considered a success.  A single character getting wounded is supposed to be a big deal.

Instead of that sort of challenge, a World of Darkness GM should design his scenes to challenge the players’ flaws.  Their flaws include the Flaws they got points for, their Nature and Demeanor or Virtue and Vice (which, unlike alignment, specifically reward irrational behavior), and their particular politics (supposing you’re running a game with political intrigue in it, as intended).  Also, if you’re playing a game like Werewolf or Vampire, list their “don’t freak out and do evil stuff” stat (e.g. Courage/Self Control in Vampire: the Masquerade) and their Humanity, or equivalent stat if it’s especially low.

Make a grid, like this:
Character Name
Major Flaws
Minor Flaws

Under Major Flaws, list anything where the character would be compelled or at least strongly motivated to act irrationally.  Under Minor Flaws, list anything where the character would be motivated to act irrationally, or at least tempted.  Here’s an example using the Vampire: the Requiem system.

Character Name
Major Flaws
Minor Flaws
Flaw: Addiction to Cocaine
Humanity 5
Vice: Pride
Mekhet sire went missing last year; will seek clues to his disappearance
Derangement: Suspicion
Vice: Sloth
Secretly Ordo Dracul pretending to be Carthian, will act to keep this secret
Vice: Wrath
Ardent Lancea Sanctum; intolerant of the Circle of the Crone
Flaw: Mortal parents are still alive; would do anything to keep them from being killed/embraced/caught up in kindred politics
Vice: Pride
Carthian, somewhat hostile to antiquated, authoritarian structures; “problem with authority”

Now, when you plan your scenes, you can try to throw in one or two of the elements from your table.  You could have a situation where the coterie would benefit by having a member of the Ordo Dracul with them, tempting Balthazar to reveal his secret and risk his cover being blown.  Or you could have a mysterious Mekhet appear at an Elysium and vanish, leading Annabelle to wander off looking for him.  Or you could have a problem come up with the mortal world that Darius’ parents happen to be the perfect people to help out with it…

Try to work these things into each and every scene that you plan, if you can.  In World of Darkness games, often you have to ad lib scenes, but you can plan a few scenes per night, and that means you can touch on a few flaws per night.  With the new World of Darkness system, the reward for getting caught up in your flaws is an experience point, in addition to the spotlight time.  That’s even better!