Fatal Flaw
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Basic Information

The Fatal Flaw is the personality trait, vulnerability or characterization trope that plagues a character, especially a hero. It's a good way to humanize a character, and prevent them from seeming too distant, inhuman or invulnerable.

This is also a keystone of classical tragedy, where the hero is undone through a fatal flaw due to inexorable fate. That doesn't work nearly so well in an RPG, except in retrospect.

List of a few possible flaws:



Game and Story Use

  • Tradition establishes that every hero should have exactly one fatal flaw.
    • An antihero may have several.
    • Villains, henchmen and sidekicks usually have just one, but they tend to be walking embodiments of their particular flaw.
    • Beyond tradition, another reason why characters often have exactly one flaw is that it makes them easy to understand. The more subtly nuanced a character is, the more realistic they are… but at the same time it also means its harder for casual observers to figure them out. In a novel that can be a good thing, as you have hundreds of pages to flesh them out. In a movie, you're pressed for time. In an RPG, you have to share the spotlight with half a dozen other people (and possibly dozens of NPCs) who may be more interested in their attack bonus than the subtle details of your tragic backstory.
  • Many games feature a Flaws and Hindrances system of one sort or another that reward you for playing a flawed character. Often it's in the form of bonus points during character creation.
    • Sadly, this creates situations where a one-armed albino with a case of tourette's has so many extra points that they can be a total badass despite combinations of handicaps that strain credibility. There's a reason that traditional characters in film and literature usually have just one fatal flaw.
    • Back when I used to run a LARP, I couldn't help but notice that there were certain flaws that were really popular. At least a third the playgroup (15 to 20 of the 50 players) had the "Violent" negative trait, and none of the other players ever called each other on it. Except for the few times I thought to invoke it, it was basically a free bonus point for everyone who took it. GMs should keep an eye open for these sorts of things and make sure they come back to bite someone every once in a while.
    • A few games handle this better. One good solution is to _not_ give points away at character creation, but instead give an XP reward every time the flaw comes up in play. You only get the reward when the flaw is complicating things for you.
  • The GM might require that every PC have a single fatal flaw, and then work out ways to make that come up in the game. It's a bit heavy-handed, but it can usually coax roleplaying out of the most die-hard munchkin.
    • This, especially if the flaw is not always fatal could work as part of a metacurrency generator or be the balance to their greatest power - perhaps, indeed, the price they pay for having it.
  • Too strong of a flaw can make a character unplayable. Be aware that some flaws could tie your hands in a critical scene.
  • Some flaws can help explain the absences of a casual or part-time player. We had a Narcoleptic PC in one game I ran. If the player was missing for a session (which he was about 1 game in 3 because of his work schedule), we just assumed the character was passed out in the corner.
  • Games with a Sanity System might force new flaws onto a character part way through the campaign. Not every player will appreciate such systems, but they can work really well with the right players and a gritty or horror genre setting.
  • Some games have triggerable flaws, where the expenditure (or reward) of some resource can force a character into behaving a particular way.
    • 7th Sea has an awesome flaw system of this sort. If the villain has the right flaw, the players can spend drama dice to force the NPC to behave in a particular way. A treacherous villain might backstab his henchmen or co-conspirators on cue, a cowardly one might flee if triggered, a lecherous villain might leave the PCs alone to chase a skirt (or be easily manipulated by a PC of the appropriate gender). The only problem I found with that system was that it wasn't always easy to communicate to the players what flaws a villain had. You may have to keep reminding them that this mechanic exists, or it will go unused.
      • Presumably there is room for correct character skills to help identify said flaws and how to trigger them. This, after all, is a good chunk of what psychoanalysis and psychological profiling are about.
  • Flaws can sometimes be used to allow for clever puzzle-like solutions to difficult situations. For example, the PCs nemesis might be a powerful villain they can't afford to confront militarily, but if they can take advantage of his insanity he might play right into their hands.
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