When I first leapt into the world of tabletop roleplaying, I started (as so many did) with the basic Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Later, my brother the GM discovered a relatively new roleplaying system called GURPS -- it stands for Generic Universal Roleplaying System. The fun part about GURPS was that it wasn't simply about heroes wandering off in a faux medieval world; there were campaigns for everything from superheroes to bunny rabbits. ...I am not kidding about the bunnies.
It wasn't just the staggering array of campaigns -- the process of character creation was also incredibly detailed and entertaining. It took the concept of simply rolling a dice for particular character stats and threw it out the window. With GURPS, a GM would give you a set amount of points to create a character with. You started out with a 10 in each typical statistic-based category like health, strength, dexterity or intelligence, and then you could simply assign more points to whatever stat you wanted and whatever skills you wanted.
The unique aspect of building a character however, was the advantages and disadvantages you could assign -- and it made all the difference in who your character was going to be.
The way the advantage and disadvantage system works is pretty simple. Advantages are things that directly benefit your character, and they cost points to take. Disadvantages, however, do not benefit your character in any way. In fact, most of the time, they make your character have a harder time than usual with everyday interactions.
So why would you pick any disadvantages at all? Because taking those disadvantages actually gives points back to you, which you can then toss into getting better things for your character. The more disadvantages you have, the more skills you can pick up and the more advantages you can buy. It was this careful balance between advantages and disadvantages that really struck me as clever back in the day. It wasn't just about the tabletop roleplaying, however -- it could be taken out of that tabletop roleplaying concept and applied elsewhere, too.
What GURPS struck on with this system is something that also applies to creating a character for a written story or a character for roleplay. For every advantage a character has in his life, there should be a disadvantage of some sort, to prevent him from staggering his way into the magical land of the Mary Sue. It's a curious sort of balancing act, but it worked for GURPS; for every high-powered ability you had, there was something lurking behind that ability that kept your character from being too over the top, that kept the character in check.
The same applies to roleplay and character development. When you're creating roleplaying characters, it's tempting to give them every advantage in the world, from superhuman strength to the ability to talk themselves out of any situation. But giving your characters a million advantages with no disadvantages to speak of makes for one-dimensional characters that have the potential of getting on people's nerves and can eventually make those characters boring to play.
It's often hard to come up with negative traits about a character, or things that might work against your character in the long run. Why would you want to focus on bad attributes? This is the other big reason I like GURPS and other systems similar to it -- the books come with a long, long list of potential disadvantages, and the more you look at them, the more you realize these types of disadvantages can give your character an added depth that will actually increase roleplaying opportunities. Let's take a look at a small handful of disadvantages from the GURPS system and how they would apply to characters in a game like WoW:
- Addiction Not only is this a pretty obvious disadvantage, it's been touted as one of the hallmarks of blood elf society since the launch of The Burning Crusade. Blood elves are addicted to magic, but other characters could find themselves addicted to other substances, whether it's some sort of drug, alcohol, or the simple high they get from charging headfirst into battle. What you want to keep in mind with addiction is that most addictions need to be satisfied, or withdrawal symptoms may occur. Those withdrawals make for a pretty unpleasant experience for your character and an interesting experience for those roleplaying with him.
- Bloodlust For most orcs, this is kind of a hail back to the days of the Old Horde, when drinking Mannoroth's blood turned them from a shamanistic society into a group of bloodthirsty savages acting out the will of the Burning Legion. But bloodlust doesn't have to take over everything your character is; it can simply be directed at enemies your character is fighting. Your character wants that enemy dead -- and will go to outrageous and messy lengths to make sure it is dead and will never return to life, much to the discomfort or disgust of those accompanying him.
- Greed This is an almost typical disadvantage for goblins, but it can apply to any other race out there. Your character lusts for wealth of any kind and will do whatever it takes to get that wealth. You can stretch this out as narrow or wide as you'd like -- small sums of gold don't really catch his attention, but giant piles of it guarantee he's going to try anything under the sun to make sure that gold is in his bank or under his mattress at the end of the day.
- No sense of humor Your character has absolutely no sense of humor. Any jokes made around your character are taken literally, and your character is earnest, serious, and completely means everything he says at all times. This disadvantage can end up being hysterically funny in the long run, especially if your character encounters someone who cracks jokes constantly.
- Sense of duty Your character is strongly committed toward a particular class, race, or even individual. Your character will never, ever betray them, abandon them, or fail to leap to their assistance if they're in trouble. How is this a disadvantage? Well, if your morals toward one particular race, class, group, or person outweigh what you are asked to do, you simply won't do it. Or if you are called away to help that group of people you're dedicated to, your character has to make the uncomfortable choice between staying with his friends or leaving immediately to go help that group. This disadvantage creates tension, something that can help create dynamic roleplaying scenarios.
- Squeamishness Your character cannot stand anything deemed "icky," like creepy-crawly bugs, blood, dead things, slime, etc. Exposure to these things can trigger anything from being markedly uncomfortable to full-on squealing like a girl and running the other direction. Needless to say, the potential for humor with this disadvantage is high.
- Truthfulness Wait, isn't being truthful a good thing? It can be, sometimes. But if your character hates to tell a lie, then covering for another character's indiscretions is nigh impossible. Truthfulness can be anything from being very, very bad at telling lies, to being unable to speak when asked to lie, to compulsively having to blurt out the truth when asked directly about a situation.
Weirdness magnet This is my favorite disadvantage in the GURPS system and one that I took without fail for every character that I made. The description of the disadvantage makes it clear:
Strange and bizarre things happen to you with alarming frequency. You are the one demons stop and chat with. Magic items and disturbing properties find their way to you. The only talking dog on 21st century Earth comes to you with his problems. Dimensional gates sealed for centuries crack open just so that you can be bathed in the energies released ... or perhaps the entities on the other side invite you to tea.This is an example of a disadvantage that directly works its way into roleplay. I actually have a character who is afflicted with something similar to this -- it isn't that strange things happen to her, it's that she is constantly drawn into grand and world-changing schemes, plots, and various sundry matters of grave importance. Meanwhile, all my character would like to do is while away the days sunning herself and napping on the nearest cozy hammock. This makes for an interesting experience for those involved with her -- they are invariably drawn into whatever grand scheme she is noisily complaining about being involved with.
-- GURPS Basic Set 4th Edition
This is only the tiniest selection of disadvantages available in the GURPS system. Steve Jackson Games has a list of all advantages and disadvantages in the GURPS system -- it's something worth glancing over and seeing if any of those disadvantages are things that could potentially apply to your character.
There is a line, however, where too many disadvantages can also make your character come across as a Mary Sue. A character designed with only disadvantages in mind can quickly come across as someone seeking sympathy or attention, which can be just as repugnant as a perfect princess to some roleplayers. The trick is taking those disadvantages and balancing them with good things, so that your character is a well-rounded person, rather than an example of perfection or eternal sympathy.
The other thing to note when you are creating a character is that sometimes those things that seem like advantages aren't really advantages at all. Mary Sue characters typically tout "unique" physical characteristics such as unusually colored eyes -- something done in an attempt to make them special. But oddly colored eyes are actually a disadvantage, when you look at it. Weird colored eyes are weird, and people are going to look at you funny and possibly react in a negative way.
However, most disadvantages that you give your character can be starting points for RP -- an alcoholic loudly going on and on in a bar may be obnoxious, but if he lets something interesting slip in his drunken rambling, people might be interested in hearing more. A squeamish character is an entertaining prospect to take along on a particularly gruesome mission, if only to see how he reacts to disgusting situations. Someone afflicted with a weirdness magnet can also be a magnet for bizarre stories and events, something that can draw other players in.
Though some may turn up their noses at the thought of giving their characters negative traits, those negative traits can turn into positive roleplaying situations if handled correctly. If you've noticed your character's life is lacking a little spark, give him a disadvantage or two to play with and see how that changes his interactions with other characters. Sometimes, all that's lacking to brighten up your character's life are the little things in life that bring him down.
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