Making Good Flags

November 19, 2013

Years back, I coined the term “Flags” to talk about game mechanics which explicit aspects of a character designed for players to tell the GM what kind of stories and conflicts they want for their characters.  As this is becoming more and more common in games, I figured it might be a good idea to put down some ideas of what makes a good Flag (and good conflict) for players.

Examples of Flag Mechanics:  Primetime Adventures (Issues), Shadow of Yesterday (Keys), Riddle of Steel (Spiritual Attributes), Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, Torchbearer (Beliefs), Lady Blackbird (Keys), D&D 4E (Quest Cards), Tenra Bansho Zero (Fates), Hero’s Banner (Passions)

Types of Flags

1. Goals

An easy Flag to always put down is a goal for your character.  Usually this works best if the GM has set up a situation (“There’s a struggle for the throne”) that you can start to take angles on and build your character around (“I want the younger brother to take power”).

Goal-based Flags can produce two very different kinds of conflicts.  The simplest is raw challenge – the GM throws a number of challenges and obstacles to be overcome/outwitted on the way to achieving the goal.  The second kind of conflict is one of choice: how far will you go? How much will you sacrifice?  Will you give up ideals?  Will you sacrifice relationships?  Will you give up other goals?

Examples: “I want to get revenge for my dead family”, “I will remake this city into a place where people can live in peace”, “I will find the secret of the magic of resurrection”, “I’ll make sure my son safely reaches Eridan IV.” ,  “I will destroy the system I once served, as atonement for my crimes”

(Notice that motivation is part of the goal – why your character wants to do something and what it says about them is just as interesting!)

2. Relationships

Relationships as Flags are great, but they should be used with consideration.  At the simplest, a relationship can be threatened by potentially cutting off the characters from contact – imprisonment, kidnapping, or death.  But just as often, a relationship is threatened by losing trust, building resentment, misunderstandings, overreactions and more.

Or, if the relationship is negative to begin with (“I’m sure my stepfather is trying to kill me…”), then how you deal with that relationship in the face of social or legal pressure that makes it something you can’t simply walk away from or end without a lot of trouble.

Relationships as Flags basically means conflicts of having bad things happen to the people you care about, struggling to maintain the good will, or else having ties to bad people.

There should be an angle on any given relationship – an idea of what’s going on with it and what causes the stress or threat.

Examples: “I swore to my best friend to protect his little brother”, “I’m afraid my husband is slipping too far into cyberspace and may not come back”, “I have to earn my teacher’s respect”, “I must make sure my parents never find out the truth.”, “My ex-friend is out to get me.” 

3. Ideals

Ideals are about principles, beliefs, or values the character holds to.   These types of Flags tend to overlap a bit with Goals – any generalized Ideal tends to push a character towards action – if you have “Protect the Weak” you’re going to find yourself doing a lot of protecting.   Just like Goals, these can be aimed at the raw difficulty of the task or weighed against other things, forcing you to make hard choices.

Examples: “The pride of the Lao Clan must never be tarnished”, “My word is my bond.”, “Insults must always be repaid in kind.”, “Always help those in need.”, “The folks across the river must never be trusted”

4. Self Doubt or Fear

Self doubt is a great Flag tool and a point of character development.  It also tends to be double layered – you can have a Flag about what your character fears (correctly or incorrectly) and/or a Flag about what the character subconsciously acts on, but hasn’t consciously acknowledged yet.

Example: “I’m not sure I’ll be able to stand strong when the raiders come.”, “If I use my power, I’m not sure what I will become…”, “I don’t want everyone to find out that I really don’t know what I’m doing…”, “Will I be up to the task when the King calls on me?”

Torn between options

You can mix the above Flag types together to create some fun, and interesting combinations where the problem is essentially a choice between priorities.

Relationship vs. Ideal – “Loyalty to the family above all else… but will that include my honor?”

Goal vs. Fear – “I will see him dead – but who will I be at the end of this?”

Relationship vs. Self Doubt – “I must make my mentor proud of me… but am I up to the task?”

Using Flags Better

Buy In as a player

Flags are your way of saying “This is what I want the game to be about!” – so make sure that’s actually what you want the game to be about.

If you pick something that doesn’t make you excited, then guess what you’re going to get?  Likewise, also realize that the Flags you choose are places where real conflict will happen – the outcome is not certain.  If there’s an aspect about your character that is NOT up for grabs, don’t make it a Flag (or, at least, clearly define what part of it IS in the air and which isn’t when you make it…)

Adjusting Flags

In every game I’ve played, usually within a session or two, people will want to adjust or change their Flags.  Your initial Flags were what you THOUGHT was going to be interesting, but once you start playing you find out exactly what you REALLY find interesting.   So, some of your Flags may get adjusted in wording, to refine the types of conflicts you want to see, or they may get tossed altogether and replaced with something you find more interesting.

It’s important to do this because it helps the group as a whole redirect their play better.

Flags as a tool for character growth

An advanced trick is to take Flags that are simple minded or just plain wrong, with the idea of making an arc of your character growing beyond them.

Examples: “Always trust my brother’s word.”, “The law is the law, no exceptions.”, “Every time I use my power, someone gets hurt.” 

Contrasting characters with Flags

Arguably every good drama is about characters with different beliefs, goals, ideals and doubts hashing out their differences between each other.  Amongst all the players, it really helps and is fun to design your Flags together – bouncing off each other to create points of conflict, discussion or growth.  (It’s also a GOOD idea to know whether conflict will be just for show, minor and resolved later, or potentially the source of all out conflict between characters before you put these together…)

The simple way is to just set up opposing Flags (“The system must be destroyed!”, “We can fix things through reform!”).  What often works better is to set up a different Flag that is perpendicular, rather than directly opposing.  For example, one character is hellbent on revenge, the other character is swore to see to the safety of the first character.  It’s not directly opposing, but you can see plenty of places where they can conflict between each other.

The Trap of Non-Flags

When I first named these general types of mechanics as “Flags”, almost immediately people started asking “Well, what if I just look at where the player puts the most skill/stat points, that’s telling me what they want out of a game, right?”

NOPE!  A player may choose to give their character an awesome sword skill for any of the following reasons:

– They want to get into sword fights as a focus of play

– They really don’t like sword fights, but putting a lot of points there means it will be over quickly when it happens.

– They expect the game to be lethal, and are afraid if they don’t put points into sword skills, their character will die.

– It fits the concept of their character but they don’t actually ever expect to use it that much.

Notice that one involves wanting that kind of conflict, and the other three basically don’t want that conflict at all or in a real way.  This is why stats and scores are not necessarily useful, and why Flag mechanics are by nature, explicit.  (ETA: Also watch out for Players Hiding What They Care About.)

If your game doesn’t have Flags, I suggest playing a game or two that does, so you can see how they work, before trying to import or hack the mechanics into a game that doesn’t have them.  A nice easy one for most folks to try out is Lady Blackbird.

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