USR Wednesdays: Disadvantages

Yes, it’s Wednesday, but I’m not changing my title now. It was a technical issue that kept me from publishing yesterday, anyway.

One of the first RPGs I really played was GURPS, Steve Jackson Games’ flagship game before Munchkin. I played a lot of modern-day adventures: spies and treasure hunters and so on. The sourcebooks are still great reads, with so much background on the topic at hand without even looking at any game stats.

Really dense, little art.
There it is, the overly deadly rifle. (image: sjgames.com)

GURPS itself is a little dense, especially compared to the rules-light approach of a lot of modern games (USR included). But one idea that can come from the old to the new is disadvantages.

As the name suggests, these are negative aspects of a character — physical ones like One Eye or Mute, mental ones like Bloodthirsty or Addicted, or background ones like Dependent or Enemy. A Disadvantage is like a negative Specialism, providing a penalty to relevant die rolls and an indication of how to roleplay the character. It offers a penalty of -1 to -5, though most are probably -1 or -2; more than that, and the character is probably severely hampered from doing anything exciting (i.e., what you’re playing a roleplaying game for).

Here’s a few examples of Disadvantages.

I mentioned the Struggling (-2) Financial Status last time. A character with few material goods or much wealth isn’t necessarily struggling, though. As the song goes, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Severe Body Odor -1: Game masters, remember the character is going to make social interaction a lot more difficult with this Disadvantage!

Bad Temper -2: In a stressful situation, make a Wits roll, applying this Disadvantage. On a failure, your character attacks or at least screams at any nearby target, including his or her allies.

Code of Honor -1: This is a set of rules the character has sworn (if only to himself) to live by — don’t kill, always obey superiors, give away extra money, and so on. The player should choose a few rules when selecting this Disadvantage. If the character fails to act according to his code, all following die rolls are affected by the penalty until the character redeems himself somehow. For example, a woodsman who vows to rob from the rich and give to the poor, but who hangs onto his ill-gotten gains instead of donating to the less fortunate, will suffer a -1 to all die rolls until he gives that money away.

Non-Stop Talking -1: This is just annoying and is more of a role playing guideline, instead of something that will be applied to many die rolls. That is, unless the character is trying to be silent (a ninja or spy character would probably have this Disadvantage at a -2).

Pyromaniac -2: Your character has to start fires, and when things need to be destroyed, she makes sure they’re destroyed in the most explosive way possible. Like Non-Stop Talking, this makes it difficult to be subtle — or to get into melee combat (a fist or knife doesn’t blow things up).

Dependent -2: The character’s girlfriend is always being kidnapped by villains, or his elderly aunt can’t be mixed up in his heroic world, or her life will be at risk. The player should select the Dependent when creating the character; it can’t be another player character. The Dependent probably won’t show up in every adventure, but the penalty can apply even when the person isn’t there; for example, a wizard may struggle to cast spells without his apprentice there to bring him spell components and tomes of lore.

A new character can start with, and gain, any amount of Disadvantages, though it’s uncommon to have more than one or two at most. In compensation for taking a Disadvantage at character creation, a character can either:

  • Add an equivalent bonus to an existing Specialism (a -2 Disadvantage gives a +2 to a Specialism or +1 to two Specialisms, meaning the character has Specialisms of +4/+2/+2 or +3/+3/+2).
  • Start with another Specialism with the equivalent bonus; for maximum role playing fun, try to tie the Disadvantage and the extra Specialism together (for example, a character with a Debt To A Crime Lord -2 is also One Step Ahead Of The Law +2).
  • Start with a number of extra Narrative Points equal to the bonus.

Disadvantages can be removed from a character if the story demands it: a Deaf -3 character who has surgery or cybernetic implants to allow for hearing no longer has the Disadvantage. He or she doesn’t lose the bonus Specialism or Narrative Points that were awarded at character creation.

What Disadvantage will your character have?

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