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Playing Flawed Protagonists

August 8, 2020

I never play characters who I think are the best possible people. Not out of the sense of “ooh, edgy bad boy” BS, but rather characters with flaws are more interesting to play, especially if a part of the character’s arc is whether they will out grow them or not.

However, there are some general guidelines I follow in these sorts of characters, because I’ve also seen people use their character’s flaws as an excuse to fuck up a game (“My Guy Syndrome” – “My guy would do this” “I’m just playing my guy” etc.).

Flawed, not despicable

For PCs, I play characters who I, personally as a player, feel are good people or at least people trying pretty well to be good. That means I don’t include flaws that would make them horrible people, in part because I would just feel terrible playing that kind of character all the time.

As a GM, I’ve run some NPCs that make me actually feel bad, not because they didn’t anything particularly traumatic, but they’re just the people who I truly despise the most. For example, in a Sorcerer game, I played a tech CEO who would constantly come up with ideas that are… objectively bad, irresponsible and ruinous to communities. He didn’t have to hit anyone, abuse them verbally or physically, etc. he was just such a callous person who would casually monetize disaster, that…. eeesh.

So anyway, I think of a character and I give them a flaw that I know I can live with over the course of a campaign – I do hope to see them overcome the flaw, but I’m also willing to pull one of the principles from Apocalypse World and place “being true to this character” (in terms of growth) as a guiding directive.

Plays well with the group

I make sure my characters have reasons to interact with the group – the “loner/anti-social” character who actively pulls away from the other characters rarely works out well in tabletop. While, to be sure, in most games you play with the characters as a party or a band of allies, even in games where it’s all rivalry and drama, you want motivations pointing the characters to interact with each other.

So, when you pick flaws, you want flaws that make the characters complicated to each other, but not necessarily enemy-making or causing the other players to decide “Oh hell no, get rid of this person”. I played a character who would not kill, but had no problem using violence outside of that. And it was complicated because at first the party is like “Oh, you’re the muscle” and then to find out he’s “I do harm reduction. If someone needs to be knocked out, cool. But I’m not taking a life.”

It’s even better if the flaws enable or tie into other character goals/motivations, so then you set up this interesting dynamic where your character’s problems are also in a way, helpful.

I played a magical talking cat who had the knack for doing cat things – getting where he shouldn’t, breaking things, and being a bratty cat – inevitably this became helpful whenever the party was in a jam or impasse – a little chaos, someone finding the inconvenient truths behind the curtain, or willing to rile up deceivers into dropping their masks worked well. Of course, all of these things usually makes you enemies as you go along, so he was also a source of trouble as it was.

Overcoming Flaws

We all love the story where the character transforms into a better person in an epiphany, and sees triumph. This sort of thing is hard to do in RPGs if only because it is hard to structure most conflict and interaction in ways to highlight this sort of thing without a lot of planning and editing.

So, instead, I look for characters to evolve in stages. Sometimes it’s finding a line they won’t cross with regards to their flaw. And that line gets drawn tighter and tighter so the flaw is smaller and smaller.

Sometimes, it’s that the character develops a coping mechanism and a better way to do things so the flaw isn’t a problem as much anymore. It’s good to look at the other characters in the game and ask yourself if your character ever gets enough awareness to go “Oh, I should just do like they’re doing.” and grow as a person.

Also, as situations evolve in a game, your motivations and goals change, which might also change your flaws or have you outgrow them. If your character is nationalistic, maybe when the Demon Lord tears through the world and hell gates are everywhere your character suddenly realizes the rivalry between two kingdoms is meaningless and has to find a new path.

Flaws I like to use

Regret/Atonement

The character has done something (or at least blames themself) and now has oriented their goals and way of doing things around fixing/never doing X again.

Always listens to X

The character has another character they always go along with their plans or ideas, even if these are poorly thought out or have glaring issues. Your character might have a LOT of good sense and insight otherwise, but when it comes to this person, they always trust, or eventually fold and accept the plan. (You can also externalize this to NPCS – “Always listens to my parents”, “Always listens to the clergy.”, but it mostly depends on the campaign and situation on how often this will come up).

Important Moral Line

There’s a thing your character won’t do. And this thing is quite likely to come up in play. If you can’t think how this will get complicated and difficult for your character you don’t have the right moral line.

Be aware, however, don’t pick a moral line that’s simply obstructionist to the point of play. If you’re playing a band of thieves, it’s fine to have a character who won’t steal from certain types of people, or steal certain things, but not someone who is opposed to theft from the start.

Mild Overconfidence

I say “mild” but this is actually the sort of overconfidence that’s mostly out there – it’s not complete foolhardiness, it’s just taking on things a little above what you should be, and not properly planning or thinking about it ahead of time.

Obviously, in high lethality games, this is shitty for both you and allied characters, so maybe not in the sense of life/death risk but other fields it would work fine.

Inattentiveness and ignorance also work here as well. The nice thing about this kind of flaw is… well, there’s lots of real world examples – it’s the minor problems you get yourself into, your friends get into, and so on. Most of us only have a few places where we’re like this, so you can figure out what would be the most entertaining.

Generally – the best kinds of these flaws put you into troublesome situations, gets you interacting with other characters more, and so on.

“HONOR!”

Your character has a code of honor about something. For me, it’s usually stuff like “If someone is harmed by your actions, even accidentally, you have to make restitution.” “If you make a promise, deliver on it.” etc. You don’t need to announce these things, just play your character following it.

This, of course, becomes a flaw when your character encounters places where these simple values start to become impossible due to the stuff that happens in RPGs. Who and what will your risk to stay true to your belief? How bad will you feel for breaking it?

Fear

I like to pick one topic/thing the character is really afraid of, whether they’ve been threatened by it directly or saw someone get hurt/killed by it, or otherwise had lives ruined. Sometimes that fear is “I just want to live my life and not lose everything I’ve worked for.”

The key is not irrational “omg run screaming” but the other issues like avoidance strategies, hesitation, asking for reassurance, or the character basically going into a panic attack/hyperventilating AFTER facing the thing. Our media usually goes for 2 dimensional melodrama around fear, but subtler, more realistic reactions tend to work better in RPGs.

Summary

Give your characters a fun flaw or two. Make sure they’re fun for the group, not just yourself. Be true to the character, but also know the character can, and should, grow and change.

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