Negative Traits: Why Not Have Them?

minmaxWhen I was a wee little lad, I was a freak for role-playing books.  I didn’t necessarily have a huge group of RPers to play with, but I did spend countless hours pouring over rulebooks like Star Wars: The Role-Playing Game, Cyberpunk and D&D.  However, hands-down, my favorite was GURPS.

GURPS stands for “Generic Universal Role-Playing System”, Steve Jackson’s attempt to forge one universal system of rules that could be applied to all genres and campaigns, from space to horror to fantasy to superheroes.  Well before D&D saw the light and started letting players build characters based on a point system instead of arbitrary rolls, GURPS mastered the art hand-tailored characters.  One of my favorite aspects is that you could spend points on “Advantages” (such as canine empathy), special perks that would make your character unique in some fashion, and earn points back by saddling your character with “Disadvantages” (such as being blind).  If you wanted a whole bunch of awesome advantages, then you were forced to swallow a few nasty disadvatages.

I simply loved the notion — still do.  To me, disadvatages weren’t just a way to squeeze out a few extra character points, they were part of who your guy or gal was.  They were heroes, to be sure, but flawed heroes, and that made them more realistic to me.

But that’s not how it is in MMOs, is it?  Oh, perhaps a few brave single-player RPGs (like Fallout 2) might give you the option to deliberately saddle your character with a less-than-desirable trait in order to gain a significant bonus elsewhere, but heaven forbid that ever enter the MMOPRG genre.  We’re not playing flawed heroes, but heroes with several layers of ascending perfection.  Anything bad we might do is negligible and temporary — debuffs that wear off, minor death penalties, quests that don’t have any meaningful negative consequences.

But what if a MMO would offer players — or even foist it upon themselves — to pick one or more disadvatages upon character creation?  Ideally, it’d add depth and complexity to the game, but realistically, we all know what would happen.  Min/maxers and theorycrafters would hack away at the numbers behind each and determine which disadvatage was, well, least disadvantageous, and then most everyone would pick those.  When WoW came out, the minor racial bonuses and skills that were available caused several firestorms of controversy — Will of the Foresaken being overpowered, everyone rolling race X for bonus Y no matter what they wanted to play in the first place, and so on.  And those were minor bonuses that were in no way holding a character back.

Devs could foresee this problem and issue a different solution — allowing players to choose one advantage upon character creation (but perhaps not mandating it), but each advatage comes with a set paired disadvatage.  That’s just one idea.

But it’ll never fly, I know.  Champions Online eschewed the disadvatage choices that are present in the HERO system, even though the very notion of superheroes is paired with special weaknesses in geeks’ minds (Superman’s Kryptonite, Spider-Man’s fondness for redheads, Aquaman’s entire existence).  They originally stated that CO would have disadvantages, but have since backed away from that (instead, some powers will simply be less awesomer than others):

If we turn to Champions Online, we won’t be using the exact same point system, power advantages, characteristics, power limitations or disadvantages (all of this is Hero lingo).

It’s a shame, though.  It really is.  If it wasn’t for the presence of other players who you always feel that you’re in direct competition with, having a negative trait could be a welcome facet to your character.  I recall games like Arcanum, that would let you choose a “Background” trait for your character that would, more often than not, have both a positive and negative attribute attached.  And that was just fine — I was okay with being more vulnerable to magic damage, or being wounded by sunlight, or having a bad reputation in certain towns, because that gave my character real depth.

I don’t want to play perfection; I want to play something I can truly identify with, a hero that is overcoming his or her flaws to be something greater.  Is that too much to ask?

8 thoughts on “Negative Traits: Why Not Have Them?

  1. I agree with you there. I would also love to see an MMORPG with a disadvantage system, but you are right about the minMaxers trying to take advantage of it.

    It does not mean that it could be done, just that it would need to be very finely balanced.

  2. I totally agree with you. I was a massive GURPs fan myself. Adding negative traits to MMOs, if done carefully, could work.

    Unfortunately, like you said, players would still min/max it and ultimately I don’t know if developers want to add another level of that to their games.

    Great idea though.

  3. I agree that it’s a shame disadvantages aren’t implemented in MMOs, but I also agree with the concerns you listed; most essentially, that players would min-max to find the least disadvantageous disadvantage. On the other hand, is min-maxing innately undesirable? If the design is implemented well enough, then the disadvantages should be worth the points they give, meaning players are given a meaningful choice.

    Some disadvantages work better in a P&P scenario than in an MMORPG obviously. E.g. how does one implement a character being obsessive-compulsive, without relying on the player to RP it? If it’s up to the player to implement the disadvantage, it’s blindingly obvious that some (perhaps many) players would take the disadvantage then ignore it. Other disadvantages could be awkward to implement, e.g. being blind or paraplegic. Some disadvantages could be good fun to implement but would require a fairly dynamic and player-centric world – e.g. having a secret identity or a dependent NPC to support. If the game procedurally generated quests and events based on these disadvantages, it could be a lot of fun though… oh no, the Boy Wonder’s been kidnapped again! Time to hop in the Batmobile and go save him!

  4. Disadvantages in GURPS have lead to a large number of hilarious situations; I couldn’t imagine a game without a few easily exploitable traits.

    My favorites have always been phobias such as Hemophobia; there’s just so many situations where they could easily fail a roll and earn a brand new quirk for further flavor!

    Implementing it in an MMO would require far more depth to quests though. Most games have simple fetch or kill quests with a single path to victory. Disadvantages would add the flavor to force alternate paths upon the players, which could possibly provide completely different play experiences.

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