Good GMs Borrow, Great GMs Steal #2: Drawbacks
Drawbacks: What are they?
Drawbacks are a mechanism taken from the FLOW system’s “STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game” based on the universe inspired by the Strugatsky brothers’ novel Roadside Picnic (to date also including several video games and a widely acclaimed film), with other minor inspirations listed from literature, cinema, and video games as well.
In this iteration of the FLOW system, characters are created by taking competencies in ability areas (like Fitness or Intellect) through specific skills within those areas (like Strong or Journalist). Depending on how many of your 10 skill trainings you devote to each ability area you gain a rating in that area that is then used to help determine your success at actions. It’s not unlike if you put your training/skill points into your skills in D&D first, and then determined your ability scores as a function of how much training you held in the skills related to that ability score.
Each of the skills you have selected to have trained, however, is meant to be a competency you gained through real world experience and training, and every time you gain competency in a skill in real life you are giving up something else in order to have it. This is the core notion behind drawbacks.
A drawback is essentially the downside to having training in a given skill. If you’re a trained thief you probably have had some jail time, or perhaps as a cat burglar you’ve injured yourself and walk with a limp because of a failed escape. If you’re a journalist, as above, you may have all of the excellent benefits that brings (like a variety of informants), but you’ll also have made some enemies for the stories you’ve run, or have a rival from another magazine who constantly haunts you. Whatever they are they’re up to the players (implicitly with the approval of the GM, of course, but I’ve yet to see a player misbehave in terms of acquiring drawbacks without enough bite).
Drawbacks: Why should you use them?
Drawbacks solve a common issue that characters have, especially in modern D&D with point buy ability score systems – they’re just too perfect. The literary trope “Mary Sue” is often a term ascribed to a character that has no flaws, and if you look at games like modern D&D you’ll often find characters without many flaws, if any. While this serves the power fantasy that tabletop RPGs often try to give the player it often doesn’t seem to gel with a more modern conception of roleplaying tough problems and following a player/character driven narrative experience.
Drawbacks are here to fix all that. They offer a sense of groundedness for the character that will help to keep them from floating away by showing that for every advantage they have there was a price they had to pay. Here’s why Drawbacks are worth using:
- Having guaranteed negative facets grounds characters in reality rather than falling prey to “Mary Sue-ism”.
- They flesh out the character’s backstory in a meaningful way by telling us how they got to where they are today in terms of their fields of expertise.
- They also flesh out the character’s backstory in a way that is useful for the GM: it gives you ways to get to the characters to spur them to action or to complicate their lives by providing all manner of foils.
The House Rule Test
- Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
- Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
- Is this rule as simple as possible?
Does this rule save characters from being Mary Sues? It does. Is the rule as simple as possible? It’s pretty simple, I can’t think of an easier way to go about it, although I can think of different ways to go about it (which will be the subject of future articles). Is the game better off with it than without it? This depends on the system you’re using and the game you’re running. I find that, at least in terms of modern D&D, it gives me a lot of leverage to run the kinds of stories a lot of people want to play. Other games can benefit too. It can flesh out Fate characters by attaching drawbacks to their skill pyramid, or any other skill-driven resolution system in a similar manner.
At the end of the day this rule is a good fit for any skill-based system where you want to give the characters a bit more groundedness and to get more leverage for running the game in a compelling way.