Using Disadvantages to Create Character Hooks

In this post, we’ll explore how to streamline the disadvantage portion of the character creation process in GURPS. By building your character’s disadvantages around specific challenges, you can create solid character hooks without getting buried in rulebook minutiae.

In general, GURPS plays quickly when you start from a concept and then find the rules you need. This is especially true for disadvantages. Because disadvantages represent limitations on what the character can (or is willing to) do, they are a natural place for players to show the big picture elements that form their characters.

What Makes Characters Interesting?

Characters are interesting when they are flawed. If Achilles were fully invincible, his adventures would be a boring and predictable triumph of a godlike warrior. The vulnerability of his heel keeps the reader interested in his story. If Sherlock Holmes were just a genius, he would be one-dimension; his addictions and his odd mannerisms make him intriguing and mysterious. Even superheroes are built around limitations: what would Superman be without his dedication to his loved ones and his weakness to Kryptonite?

Whether in film, literature, comics, or television, the principle is clear: flaws are interesting. Role players can take advantage of this by deliberately creating characters that have specific flaws.

Flaws and Goals

There’s almost no limit to the ways that characters can be flawed. However, the most interesting flaws interfere with the character’s ability to achieve his or her goals. Harry Dresden’s conscience makes it more challenging for him to defeat the bad guys; he can’t let innocents be caught in the crossfire as collateral damage. Spock’s discomfort with emotion makes it more challenging for him to fit in with the crew, which makes it even more difficult for him to navigate his mixed heritage.

When a character’s flaw becomes an obstacle to achieving his or her goals, the flaw creates tension. It creates drama. Roleplayers can therefore think about what kind of drama they want their characters to face. Do they want to struggle overcoming social stigmas? Do they want to be challenged by a moral code that restricts their options? Do they want to feel caught between conflicting loyalties? All of these are options for creating dramatic tension, and each suggests different disadvantages.

Choosing Disadvantages To Create Conflict

GURPS Basic Set: Characters
GURPS Basic Set: Characters

When you have a character concept that includes a flaw, and you understand what kinds of dramatic tension you want your character to face, then choosing disadvantages becomes easier. But, it also becomes more meaningful because you are thinking about how to challenge your character through the game. You are actively planning the kinds of plot hooks that can create conflicts for your character.

Literary theory generally thinks of three kinds of conflict: character vs. self, character vs. others, and character vs. the environment. Players can use these categories to think about what kinds of disadvantages will suit their character concept.

Mental disadvantages are great for conflict within the character. Vows and codes of conduct can challenge the character when his or her options are limited; disadvantages that require a self-control roll are good ways to model self-destructive (or at least self-undermining) behaviors and to challenge the character to overcome those limitations.

For conflicts between the character and others, social disadvantages are great choices. Many mental disadvantages also have social consequences: odious personal habits can make it more difficult to build relationships and a badly timed case of stubbornness can ruin a negotiation.

Conflict between the character and the environment is more situational, but physical disadvantages like increased life support, low pain threshold, and weakness can raise the stakes for environmental challenges.

Use the Disadvantage as a Hook

Whatever disadvantages you choose, be sure to talk with the GM about why those disadvantages make sense for your character concept. When you tell the GM what kinds of conflicts you expect the character to face, you are really feeding the GM ideas for how to involve your character in the story.