Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Different Disadvantages

Some game systems don’t have (or need) personified disadvantages/flaws/etc. – GURPS isn’t one of them. Disadvantages play a huge role in determining how a character might react in a given situation or be forced to react if the player isn’t running his character as his disadvantage(s) dictate. That’s the whole point of having them – you get extra points to build your character with and the GM gets hooks into your character he can tug or pull to get you to react a certain way. But is that the only way something like this could be run? I have two new options and two old ones for you:

Disadvantages as Roleplaying Tools

Instead of giving points at character creation, disadvantages serve as roleplaying tools. The more your play your character according to his disadvantages the more character points you earn after character creation. This represents a very radical change in how the system functions and the GM should beware of munchkiny players collecting oodles of disadvantages in order to have a “swiss army flawed” character who can earn points no matter the situation. In particular, characters shouldn’t have disadvantages that are antithetical to one another without GM approval and no one should have more than -75 points worth or 5 disadvantages, whichever comes first.

Disadvantages as Quirks Writ Large

Sean Punch created a new form of disadvantage in his article “Pointless Looting and Slaying” called a foible. Basically, it’s descriptive like a quirk, but allows variant detrimental effects according to the scene, drama, and current situation. I personally only use foibles now when I run games. They are that good. Go buy the Pyramid issue and then come back and thank me.

Disadvantages as HAM!

Another Sean Punch creation is the “ham clause” in Action 1: Heroes (p. 20). Basically, if you haven’t RPed a disadvantage you can ham it up, take some penalties, and then you are considered to have RPed it for the session. Easypeasy, but makes like lemonsqueezy.

Disadvantages as . . . Disadvantages

This one is less a rule and more a guideline. The problem with having tons of disadvantages on your sheet is that . . . you’ve got tons of disadvantages on your sheet. The GM might set a soft limit of 5-6 disadvantages regardless of point total (or double that if he doesn’t use quirks) to better help his players concentrate on the traits they do have. Otherwise character sheets start looking crowded.

Picking Over the Bones

Have you used either Foibles or the Ham Clause before in your games? How has it worked? How have you experimented with Disadvantages? If so, what did you do differently?

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  1. I find myself increasingly drawn to a mixture of “hard” disadvantages like Secrets, Duty, poverty and Social Stigmas, and handling the rest with the Ham clause. It also amuses me that GURPS is slowly changing into a deep version of Fate.

  2. My group¹ hasn’t played with any kind of disadvantage limit in years — when buying disadvantages, we go with what best describes the character, and if the list winds up overly long we usually write up what’s effectively a disadvantage meta-trait. Min-maxing happens seldom if at all, and there have been few complaints.

    ¹) Results not typical. Not valid in all areas. Shake well before using.

  3. Interesting options. I think Disadvantages are too often seen by players as little more than a means to boost their point total elsewhere. Frankly, I think Disadvantages (including Quirks) are a huge part of what makes characters interesting.

    Back in the day, I played a certain popular fantasy roleplaying game that didn’t have Disadvantages or Quirks (I had never even heard of such things in a game). But I thought characters, even heroes, were more interesting with personalities. So my paladin never once told a lie, liked green, and hated wererats; my druid would forever stay a virgin, go almost nowhere without her unicorn, and was afraid of the undead; and my otherwise fearless gargoyle was terrified of butterflies.

  4. The limit on number of Disadvantages existed in earlier GURPS editions. I don’t remember for certain off the top of my head, but I think 3 or 4 was the Max (not counting 5 Quirks). Frankly, I think having a lot of them is hard to play–unless they’re split where about half are player controlled and half are GM controlled (things like Enemy).

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