Ever notice how, in RPGs that grant PCs advantages and disadvantages, PCs tend to use their advantages all the time while rarely being hindered by disadvantages?
Most games I’ve run that use some version of disadvantages (or drawbacks, flaws, negative feats – you get the idea) implicitly give creative players ways to ignore them. Some players may select disadvantages that aren’t really disadvantages at all (e.g. the impulsive, overconfident bully) while others select disadvantages that rarely affect their characters (the one-eyed barbarian that has a penalty to ranged attacks but only ever wades into combat with his battle axe).
In addition, many disadvantage systems require the GM to “trigger” them, meaning that if an opportunity for the disadvantage comes up and the GM misses it, then the player quietly gets away with it (I’m not necessarily blaming the player here; I’ve known many players that forget the disadvantages on their sheets just as often as their advantages). This is especially true of “roleplay” disadvantages*.
A little over a decade ago I discovered 7th Sea, which used a different mechanic. Rather than grant points that could be used immediately in building a character, 7th Sea had ‘Backgrounds,’ such as Cursed or Obligation, which granted a PC double its XP value whenever the background was the focus of an adventure (tangentially, this also encouraged the GM to weave PC backgrounds into the adventures).
This could easily be ported into other systems, either as-is (disadvantages grant extra XP, not character creation points) or as a hybrid system (disadvantages grant character creation points and extra XP when used). For the latter especially I’d suggest limiting extra XP to situations where the disadvantage actually hindered the character, rather than simply being triggered.
I’ve used this system in other games and I’ve found that it tends to take the burden off me to remember to trigger disadvantages; in many cases the affected player actively plays her disadvantages. It also ensures that the disadvantage, especially a roleplay disadvantage, truly becomes part of the character, rather than an occasional hindrance that’s mostly ignored.
So how about you? Do you use a disadvantage system like this? Would you consider it? What problems do you see with using it?
*A “roleplay” disadvantage is one that requires a triggering event rather than a straight mechanical disadvantage (although a mechanical penalty may also be applied to roleplay disadvantages). “Lame” is a mechanical disadvantage as it always imposes a modifier to movement checks, while “compulsive gambler” is something that requires a triggering event (the GM mentioning a card game in the corner of the pub) to activate. If the GM forgets to point out the card game and the player doesn’t ask, then the disadvantage isn’t activated.