Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Disadvantages, Part IV: How the types of disadvantages work with the disadvantage system goals

In my last article, I classified disadvantages into 4 types, and previously to that, a described 2 goals of disadvantage systems. Now I will discuss how each type of disadvantage fits into each goal.

If you are thinking of the goal of your disadvantage system as encouraging characters to take interesting disadvantages, you want to give points for disadvantages which make the characters and the story more interesting. In that case, all 4 types of disadvantages are pretty valuable and important, and should be encouraged. Restricted choice is perhaps the most interesting to encourage, as it makes you describe the psychology, motivations, and beliefs of your character. This can both come through in your roleplaying, and provide hooks for the GM to make customized adventures. Story disadvantages can be even stronger in terms of really providing clear hooks for the GM to make stories – putting a rival or a loved one in a scene can be a convenient way to add some emotional connection. On the flip side, they may have little effect if the GM doesn’t want to customize an adventure – they tend to require work from the GM. Situational vulnerabilities are similar to story disadvantages, though it is often rather harder to use them in a fashion that is fun for the player. Negative abilities are good to encourage, and along with situational vulnerabilities they are the least likely sort of disadvantage to be taken in a game with no disadvantage system (roleplayers are more likely to given themselves interesting psychology and back story than to arbitrarily penalize their own characters). But in some sense, they are less important to encourage than other types of disadvantages. Characters are likely to have clear strengths and weaknesses even in a system with no disadvantages at all; for instance, a fighter may have the “weakness” of being incompetent in ranged combat, simply because he didn’t put any points into it. Thus, even with no disadvantage system, the GM can create situations that play on character weaknesses. So encouraging negative abilities isn’t really a qualitative difference over having no disadvantage system at all, it just provides more and stronger weaknesses to differentiate the characters. But really, all types of disadvantage are pretty close in terms of the goal of encouraging interesting disadvantages.

When it comes to the goal of compensation, however, we have a different story. If you are trying to give characters extra points as compensation for the problems the disadvantages provide to the characters, then the disadvantages had better be truly disadvantageous.

Negative abilities are the perfect disadvantages to offer compensation for. Your character is less powerful, and you get back points corresponding to how much less powerful your character is. If the disadvantage is small, you earn a few points; if the disadvantage is large, you get back lots of points. Of course, there are many tricky practical issues around how to correctly price disadvantages and how to reduce the risk of abusive minimaxing, but I’m not getting into that here. In terms of high-level theory, compensating characters for negative abilities is quite straightforward.

Giving characters substantial numbers of points as compensation for a story disadvantage, on the other hand, is fraught with problems. A story disadvantage adds features to the character’s adventures that cause him problems. But the point of adventures is already to be difficult and cause the adventurers problems. Story disadvantages work very well as a way of helping the GM find challenges to put into the adventure, but not so well if you try to make sure they are a large penalty to the character.

In Champions, one method of using story disadvantages is to create the story first, then add the story disadvantages – the character’s enemy just shows up as an extra menace to cause trouble. But this is an example of what I would call “disadvantages which penalize the GM”. Part of the GM’s job is to make a good adventure, which is basically an act of creative writing. Trying to shoehorn a bunch of extraneous elements into an adventure is hard work for the GM, and is likely to reduce the quality of the adventure. The more natural and desirable approach for story disadvantages is to periodically make adventures that are designed to feature them, or to otherwise work them nicely into the plot. This matches the way such story elements would be used in the source material.

When you do this, it becomes very hard to say how much of a penalty the story disadvantages are, because there is no source of comparison – you can’t really say how difficult the adventure would have been if the storyline had been different. This is true in the source material as well. In a comic book, for instance, a Superman story which includes Lois Lane getting in trouble isn’t necessary more difficult overall than a storyline which doesn’t. If is just a characteristic type of Superman story showcasing a special problem which Superman often has to deal with.

Now, in principle, it would be mathematically possible to construct adventures in such a way as to make sure that story disadvantages appear with a predictable frequency and adventures which include them are appreciably more difficult. This is tricky to do correctly. Consider, for instance, a Champions character who is hunted by a team of supervillains. You can’t just add the enemies on top of an existing encounter – that way make it way too hard, totally unwinnable. The most likely thing to do is to add the enemies as a separate encounter. But this just isn’t worth the same kind of compensation as a negative ability, which actually makes your character less powerful. From the player’s point of view, you can only fit so many encounters into a play session, and one encounter is just being replaced with a different one. Champions characters don’t normally suffer any lasting effects from fights, so it doesn’t really hurt the character in later fights. The main penalty is the chance the players may lose the fight, and that this would have negative repercussions within the story.

Since story disadvantages usually don’t come up too frequently, the GM would really have to stick it to the characters to make them worth a substantial amount of compensation. There are certainly a number of ways the GM can do this. But I don’t think it is the right approach. I think the game works best when story disadvantages mostly just make the story more interesting, and you acknowledge that they aren’t really worth many points from a compensation point of view.

The same is true of situational disadvantages. Consider the case of Superman and kryptonite. You could just randomly add kryptonite at random spots in your adventure, on top of threats that are already balanced for the characters. Whenever it showed up, Superman would be rendered helpless and the villains would win a devastating victory. This might be fair if the vulnerability to kryptonite is worth a good number of points. Mathematically, if that were true, Superman should find non-kryptonite encounters slightly easier and krytonite encounters vastly more difficult, in order to balance out the points. But it doesn’t seem like that much fun. A more comic-book approach is to use kryptonite as a way to challenge Superman in situations that wouldn’t normally be a challenge – for instance, to allow him to be captured by villains who lack the earth-shattering might necessary to defeat him in open combat. And conversely, you don’t normally want to make all of Superman’s other fights easier just because they don’t have kryptonite. This points to the vulnerability being used primarily to enhance storytelling rather than as something that is really equivalent to a negative ability.

Restricted choice disadvantages don’t necessarily have this aspect of wanting the adventure to be designed around them. It is common enough to just go on a prepackaged adventure and find that your desire to do everything by the book is getting in your way. However, characters can make both good and bad choices during an adventure whether they have formal disadvantages or not, so the effect of the disadvantage is somewhat muted. Also, the kind of extreme psychological limitations that cause you to make very bad choices can often be very annoying for the GM and the other players. Restricted choice disadvantages that have strong effects on the style in which you complete the adventure, without preventing you from properly playing the adventure, are usually most interesting. But such disadvantages really aren’t worth as much compensation as a negative ability.

So my conclusion is that all types of disadvantages are worthy of encouragement, but negative abilities are generally worth more in terms of compensation than the other disadvantages. I might describe negative abilities as “hard” disadvantages and the others as “soft” disadvantages. This leads me to describe a problem stemming from this.

In designing a game with a disadvantage system that wants to encourage characters to have disadvantages, it is typical to make all 4 types of disadvantages worth comparable numbers of points, and try to force everyone to take a substantial number of such disadvantages. In the natural play of the game, though, negative abilities are more of a penalty than other disadvantages, and players tend to lean towards soft disadvantages in taking the required disadvantages. When the game master or game designer notices that this is happening, the tendency is to want to “crack down” on the soft disadvantages by trying extra hard to penalize characters who take them, in an attempt to make them worth their points. In my view, this is counter-productive, as for the reasons I’ve listed above, it makes adventures harder to write, more awkwardly constructed, and generally less fun, and restricts character design to a subset of particularly deranged and troubled characters. I think that a better solution would acknowledge that the purpose of soft disadvantages is to make characters more interesting, and that it just isn’t natural to expect that even several of them will reduce a very powerful character to be no better than a very weak character without disadvantages.

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