How to reward character drawbacks in fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons, part 1

Hello all-this is my first post on this blog. I thought about writing a long introduction, but I kind of already did that in the About page. So I’ll dive right in with some thoughts I had on alternate rules for D&D 5th edition. Hope you like it.


One thing about D&D that I hadn’t noticed until I began playing other game systems is the lack of incentive to have flawed characters. Not useless or ineffective characters, but characters with a built-in drawback that makes them more interesting. Most characters in movies or novels have some limitation, which makes them more compelling to follow. I’ve always felt the same to be true of characters in role-playing games.

First, why is a flawed character more interesting than a perfect one? We’ve all heard complaints about min-maxing—creating characters that optimize their strong points (strength for fighters, dexterity for rogues) and ignore attributes that are not essential to their operation. People suggest using well-rounded characters, even if it’s not optimal, as these are better for role-playing. But when I mean flawed, I mean something more than that.

By flawed, I mean a character with a background, race and class combination that does not lead to the best results, and can make things difficult for the character. A gnome—with intelligence bonuses in 5e—isn’t primed to be a fighter. A half-orc makes a bad paladin. Flaws can also come from your choice of 5e backgrounds. The skills you gain with an acolyte background add little to your abilities if you play a front-line fighter. And flawed characters may have extra limitations, like a wizard who refuses to cast offensive spells.

But don’t these characters sound interesting? A gnome who swore to protect his village from invaders. A half-orc striving to rise above her nature. A cleric school reject who picks up the sword. Indeed, many of my characters are like this. Randulf, a warlock (about whom I will blog later), gains little from his noble background (charlatan would be more useful), or the madness I’ve added to his social interactions. Badger, a forest gnome rogue (who will also be featured here) makes little use of his intelligence bonus. But they’re both fun to play.

We play D&D and other PnP RPGs to create and live through a character. If we just wanted to spam attacks on grinding quests, we’d play WoW or a console-based FPS. Indeed, it’s the non-combat interactions that often make D&D so much fun, and these are made more interesting with a three-dimensional character. Even combat is more fun with a flawed character, as failures and near-misses can be as enjoyable as overwhelming success.

Unfortunately, they’re fun in an immersive sense—you can really get into the character—but not in a gameplay sense. I don’t help out myself or my group by making these characters, in fact I kind of complicate things for them. For example, an earlier character—a chaotic good half-elf cleric of Lathander always trying to struggle to be more noble—refused to destroy some dragon eggs in an adventure, making the party’s task harder.

Thankfully, my game group at the time was like-minded enough on characters to appreciate these drawbacks. They had their characters sigh and wait when Randulf rants about talking crows. They just asked my cleric character to turn around while they destroyed the eggs. And another character—Dorn, a headstrong Oath of the Ancients Paladin—would rush into combat without thinking. One time this led him to be overtaken by a swarm of giant centipedes. Instead of being annoyed, my fellow players used this as an opportunity for comedic relief, lighting the centipedes (and Dorn) on fire to clear the room.

But not all game groups will be this forgiving, and indeed I sometimes just want to play an ideal character, setting aside considerations of backstory and personality. What can we do?

Other systems have dealt with this in interesting ways. In both Shadowrun and the Firefly/Serenity RPGs, character creation involves the option of taking on negative qualities, like addiction or a criminal past that results in the authorities being on the watch for the character. But these negative qualities help the character out, as they provide more points for purchasing beneficial qualities or skills. And the Star Wars Edge of the Empire game uses obligation, in which character take different amounts of a negative quality (having to take care of family members, running from bounty hunters) in exchange for more funds or skill points.

I don’t think a mechanic like this is needed in D&D. I kind of appreciate how different D&D is from these other systems. But then how does one incorporate flaws into gameplay?

I have a few thoughts on this, making use of an already-existing D&D rule, which I’ll discuss in my next post.



4 thoughts on “How to reward character drawbacks in fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons, part 1

  1. Pingback: Controlled randomness as a tool in adventure/character creation – The Owlbear Sleeps Tonight

  2. Pingback: Origin Stories: Roland, mechanics – The Owlbear Sleeps Tonight

  3. Pingback: How to reward character drawbacks in 5th edition Dungeons&Dragons, part 2 – The Owlbear Sleeps Tonight

  4. Pingback: In praise of “situational” abilities/spells – The Owlbear Sleeps Tonight

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