Disclaimer: This article was prompted and inspired by my receipt of a free copy of Player’s Option: Flaws from 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, but it is largely based on my experience with the Hero System. 4 Winds did not solicit this review and did not recieve notice of the content. /Disclaimer

So that we’re all on the same page, let’s start with a quick review of just what’s in Player’s Option: Flaws:

Player’s Option: Flaws: A brief review

Flaws is a smallish low-priced game supplement that gives characters the option to selectively mar their “perfection” in exchange for an extra feat or extra skill points. Each flaw is presented with descriptive fluff and game effects in a format similar to that used for feats. Flaws can eventually be removed using techniques that are customised for each flaw, without losing the benefits that accompanied the original purchase.

Things to like

There are a lot of things to like about Flaws. It helps individualise characters by enabling them to be more intensely focussed on one key area by virtue of a feat or skills they otherwise would not possess. It provides additional colour to a character by means of and additional source of variety. After all, when you reduce it to its simplest elements, a character can be defined by the combination of three things:

  • What the character can do
  • What the character can’t do, or can’t do well
  • Personality – what the character could do, but won’t, and vice-versa, and why

Flaws establishes a new set of relationships between these, opening a new avenue for characterisation.

The requirements for removing, or treating, a flaw also open a new source of adventures for the characters, and no GM can ever have too many of those!

Mechanics

I’d give a solid “thumbs up” on the mechanics for simplicity. I’m not sure that 3 skill points are commensurate with a single feat – the rule of thumb that I’ve always used is that one feat = +4 in four thematically-related skills, +2 in two related skills, or +4 in a single skill, simply because that is what a feat can confer. But that’s a relatively minor quibble, and I have bigger fish to fry.

Content

The 49 flaws listed are well thought-out for the most part. There is not enough information on the game effects of some of them – in fact, of most of the ones that I looked through, however, and that’s my first serious criticism.

Take “Tin Ear” for example. So the character can’t hold a tune, and suffers penalties to perform checks as a result, but what other game effects does it have?

Does it force the character to make a listen check to be affected by Bardic Music? Does it impact other checks? Does it bar the character from learning to speak tonal languages? Does it impact the use of “bird whistles” as a means of surreptitious communications between characters? Does it make it harder for a character to recognise someone by voice alone?

None of these are unreasonable, and none of them are mentioned. Equally importantly, the penalty of the flaw is disproportionate to the benefit received unless one or more of these additional penalties is included.

Roleplay

There is also not enough information on how the flaw should affect a character’s roleplay. Game mechanics can always be interpreted by the player affected, but guidance should be included in the flaw description. What does a character with a “Tin Ear” (to continue the same example) actually hear? Is it like colour-blindness, where the character simply cannot distinguish one note from another? Is it a hearing problem or a problem with the character’s ability to generate sounds correctly? Is the character afflicted with Tinnitus, an occasional ringing, whistling, or humming in the ears resulting from exposure to sounds of excessive volume?

By no means should one answer fit all, but the lack of any answer at all is not helpful. A single paragraph outlining possible causes and roleplaying effects, and another listing other possible flaw consequences with the admonition to the GM to select a penalty that “fits” with a flaw subtype chosen by the player would make Flaws far more useful and far less work for both player and GM.

Flaw removal is flawed

The roleplay problems don’t end there. As indicated above, characters can undertake procedures or quests to rid themselves of the flaw, or at least manage their condition, once they reach third level, and cannot remove or relieve themselves of the flaw in any way other than the proscribed ‘treatment’. I like this idea, but the capacity for removing flaws doesn’t have enough roleplay requirements built in. Once again, what’s presented is virtually all game mechanics.

In particular, I missed GM advice on the subject of controlling access to the treatments. A section full of campaign implications would greatly enhance the value and ease of integration of Flaws. There are two primary types of content that such a section should contain:

  • “Demand for the following services will increase if Flaws is an option in your campaign, and providers would gain power, prestige, and wealth as a result: [list of services with relevant flaws sub-listed];” and
  • “If [X] is less readily available, the following flaws are more difficult to treat: [list]. The GM may need to make an alternative available.”
Other things missed

There are a few other things that I felt were missing from the product. A simple list of flaws; a classification system for the flaws containing the roleplaying advice described earlier; and a blank flaw template for GMs to use when adding their own creations, with some guidelines for such creations, could all be added.

Player's Option: Flaws is available from RPGNow for $1.99.

The Verdict: Inspirational But Incomplete

Flaws is an inspirational product, there’s no question. But implementing it requires more work by the GM to implement than is readily apparent, and this is effort that could have been avoided or made easier with a bit more content from Four Winds.

Implementing all the suggestions herein might have doubled the content page-count (ignoring cover, OGL, etc), but I would have preferred paying an extra dollar to have it. Perhaps in a Flaws 2.0?

Flaw Classification

Here at Campaign Mastery, we like to go the extra mile in providing value for “money” – even when that “money” is just the reader’s investment in time and attention. So, having identified what’s missing from Flaws, I thought it worthwhile to attempt to remedy at least one of the shortcomings, and not simply to offer a review. (Note to 4 Winds: If you want to use this as the starting point for your own version of the content I found missing, contact us – we’re happy to be reasonable!) Think of this as me putting my money where my mouth is!

I thought the place to start was with a general Flaw Classification system, based on my Hero System expertise, and a paragraph or two on the roleplaying implications of each category. I’m not going to list individual Flaws in each, this is about a systemic framework. Added value derives from such a systematic approach because it can be suggestive of new flaws!

Mighty Within Limits

This category describes Flaws which weaken or limit the character’s existing or standard abilities. Since the advantages taken in compensation for the flaw would either enhance a different existing or standard ability, this category of flaw represents the beginnings of specialisation on the character’s part. It may permit a character to qualify for a prestige class more quickly or more readily than would otherwise be the case. The character’s personality should reflect a fascination for the area of specialisation and/or an avid dislike for, or fear of, the area being weakened. For example, if the flaw affects a combat capability, the character might be pacifistic by preference.

A Fish Out Of Water

Flaws which weaken the character when not in their element. This type of flaw reflects either a sheltered upbringing or a case of obsession, reducing the character’s ability in areas other than a specific type of situation. The character will probably be socially naive and may be idealistic. A major component of the character’s roleplay will focus on their learning to cope with “the real world”; the character may embrace it, flee from it, or attempt to reform it. His relationships to the other PCs will also be a focal point, as they will be the most frequent interface between the character and this “real world”.

Constraining Flaws

Flaws which constrain the character’s behavior, forbidding some solutions to the problems they must overcome. This type of flaw mandates that the GM present the character with situations in which the flaw becomes apparent. These can either reaffirm the restrictions faced by the character or make the character perceive it as a weakness to be overcome. The difference is so profound in terms of personality and characterisation that the GM should collaborate with the player in setting the direction of the campaign in this respect. With this type of flaw, the advantage that the character receives in compensation can be relatively inconsequential, or can synergise with the flaw to provide additional focus on the character’s abilities. The choice of advantage should be made with a view to emphasising dominant aspects of the character’s nature and personality, and should form a thread binding the characters’ future development to his basic concept and origins.

Steering Flaws

Flaws which mandate behaviour. These mandates can be narrow, giving the character very limited capacity for self-expression under very restricted circumstances, or can be broad, giving the character more latitude but with the steering restriction playing a more regular part in the character’s day-to-day life. A mandatory, daily, hour-long ritual which must be performed regardless of circumstances is broad, because it doesn’t restrict the character outside of that hour; a mandated directive to “Destroy all Demons at any cost” is narrow, because it doesn’t constrain the character outside of very specific circumstances but is absolute when it does kick in.

Steering flaws provide a unique opportunity to characterisation in that both flaw and the advantage that the character receives in compensation can synergise, the advantage becoming most prominent or effective when the behaviour is constrained; the combination describes a character who has been developed, like a living weapon, to complete a particular task or quest.

Vulnerabilities & Weaknesses

These are flaws which make the character more susceptible to specific types of effect. This is a very important category of flaw because the implication is that the flaw comes from the same source as the advantage that the character receives in compensation. That in turn suggests a philosophy that connects the two, that makes this vulnerability or weakness an acceptable price to pay. The nature of that philosophy should be developed by the player and GM in collaboration, and the truth or falsity of the philosophy then determined by the GM and revealed to the player (and character) in the course of play. In other words, these flaws can be Campaign-Defining if used correctly.

Dependencies & Needs

The final category of flaws contains flaws which require the character to have or do something regularly. This is a category that can be just the tip of an iceberg of profound relevance to a game world when utilised properly by an inspired GM, because ultimately it is all about questions. Does the character really have to do [X] or is that information erroneous? Where did the knowledge of the need come from? Is the requirement really associated with the ability that the character receives in metagame compensation, or is it a need stemming from somewhere else – or even a deception that is being practiced apon the character? And if it’s a deception, and the character doesn’t really need to do [X], then what is the true source and purpose of the advantage that the character receives?

Or is the dependency/need a racial factor? Like Aquaman, can the character only survive for so long without immersing themselves? Or do Orcs need to purge their hormones with the type of adrenalin surge that you only get through anger?

Or is the dependency the work of a third party, affecting individuals from multiple races? Why?

That last is the key question for this category. Why is the character dependant on [X]? Why does the character need to do {X}? The answers can be trivial, or they can open whole new aspects of the game world to the character.

Flaw Treatment – A Systemic Problem

I’ve already indicated that there are limitations on the usefulness of the treatments offered for the removal of flaws, but there are a couple of systemic problems with the game mechanics offered that also need consideration.

The official mechanic is that once a character achieves the required level, they simply arrange – in game – to receive the appropriate treatment. In some cases, this may be achieved by obtaining a specific feat, or a magic item, or being the subject of a particular spell, and so on. The first requirement is to achieve the specified level, and that’s where the problem lies.

Commencement Level

A lot of GMs start their campaigns at a higher character level than first. That means that – under the rules as written – a character is essentially being handed an extra feat, an extra serving of skill points, or both – with none of the pricetags or character development that the flaws system is designed to express.

There is, of course, the obvious solution of ruling that Flaws is not a valid choice for such campaigns – but that’s not all that happy a solution, since it throws the baby out with the bathwater.

A better solution is to make the buy-off point relative instead of fixed. Instead of the character needing to earn N levels from 1st level, what if the character had to earn N levels from the commencement point of the campaign?

Even better, what if the GM permitted the character only to count levels in which the flaw had a significant influence on the game, in the GM’s opinion? It might take N levels, or N+1 levels, or whatever – but it would ensure that the character experienced the penalty of the flaw before it could be bought off; which is the same thing as the game experiencing the benefits of the flaws system.

Expanding the boundaries

Other options exist for the GM to consider. Here’s a meaty one: Doubling the buy-off target for double the benefits.

That means that instead of One Feat for One Flaw, a character might receive two feats, or twice as many skill points, or a partial dose of both, but not be able to buy off the flaw for six levels instead of three.

That’s an obvious choice, but the GM should be wary – too many feats for a single character can be game-unbalancing. If he permits this option, he should be careful to ensure that NPCs take advantage of the opportunity as well, in roughly the same proportions as the PCs do – if one in four takes the double-buy-off, then one in four NPCs should, as well.

Compounding Flaws

Another option is for the GM to provide an extra reward for flaws whose consequences readily stack. If the consequences of a single flaw are viewed as a set of circumstances under which the flaw impacts the character in negative way, then multiple flaws can be viewed as compounding when the triggering circumstances overlap.


When this is the case, the flaws can be said to compound under the right circumstances. The broader the overlap, the more likely that both restrictions will take effect at the same time, proving more detrimental than either would be on their own.


How much should compounding flaws be worth? This is a difficult question, because the degree of overlap can vary, as the series of diagrams show. As a general rule of thumb, however, I would argue the following as reasonable:

No Overlap No extra
Slight Overlap +1 skill point
Substantial Overlap +2 skill points
Significant Overlap +3 skill points

Any such extras should be applied only AFTER any effects from Expanding The Boundaries, above.

Synergising Flaws

Alternatively, a flaw could emphasise existing character constraints or predispositions, in which case it can be said to be a Synergising Flaw. One old-school example might be a flaw that restricted a cleric to a single variety of weapon – given that they used to be restricted to non-bladed-weapons by the rules, but my preferred example comes from KODT: the character formerly used by Brian, “Amber Lotus”, who was a fire mage who had taken the “Pyromaniac” flaw.

The result of a synergising flaw is that the character is rewarded for something that he would be doing anyway. The rule of thumb that I would normally apply in such a case is a maxim from the Hero System: A disadvantage that is not disadvantageous is worth no points.

But this can be a difficult area to police. In the case of “Amber Lotus”, which came first: the focus on Fire Magic or the Pyromania? Viewed one way, it’s a character design that takes advantage of the rules to gain an unwarranted advantage; viewed another way, it’s a character design that reflects consistency of concept, with a flaw that has impacted on the character’s choice of careers. One is rorting the system (or, at best, min-maxing outrageously); the other is good character design and good roleplaying technique.

This is where the refinement that I offered under the heading of “Commencement Level” above becomes relevant. Not only would I ensure that the penalty for the flaw (and it’s worth noting that “Pyromaniac” is not actually one of the flaws listed in the e-book) reduced the character’s ability with non-fire magic, but I would not consider a level in which the character’s choice of spells was the only negative impact as “counting” toward the buy-off target. Instead, in order to be counted, I would require the mage to have needed to cast a non-fire spell and for it to have failed because of the penalty, or in which the character set inappropriate fires to the detriment of the party.

This is a harsher restriction than would normally be appropriate; but, when discounted for the Synergising effect, it would be at about the right standard.

Flaws as characterisation

One final criticism can be levelled at Flaws – that it gives characters a reward for doing what players should be doing anyway. This is criticism that cuts right to the heart of the philosophic foundations of the supplement, and as such is not easily dismissed.

That’s because, to at least some extent, it’s true. It is, however, a truth that fails to view this game supplement in the proper perspective: Flaws is a source of inspiration, a tool to stimulate personality and roleplay. It is from that perspective that I approached it from the moment I first opened the file, and that is the perspective that led to the critique and embellishments that have been offered in this article.

Like any tool, the value of Flaws is not that it should not be necessary, but that it gives the campaign more characterisation gristle for both players and GM. Ultimately, the use of Flaws can be perceived as the GM rewarding the players for enriching the game for everyone. And that’s a fair bargain to strike.

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