Role-playing Flaws with Purpose

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Character flaws are a great concept. They add depth to characters. Different gaming systems have different rules for applying them. In Dungeons and Dragons, flaws, bonds, ideals..etc. are used to flesh out a characters personality. They are no more than tools intended to help the player role-play their character. But you have to know how to exploit theses attributes. There is a right way and wrong way to do it. Make sure you role-play with purpose. If you don’t, you risk looking silly a best or annoying/game breaking at worst. 

Flaw Concept

Some role-playing game systems have a character flaw mechanic built into the rules.  Those systems may have a reward system or stat assignment for flaws and acting them out. Truth is, the nature of  role-playing   is such that hard rules don’t need to be in place to role-play a characters personality. This is where flaws exists in the current iteration of Dungeons and Dragons. Right now, flaws don’t have hard numbers assigned to them, they simply exist. The impact a flaw has is depends on 1) how well you role-play it and 2) the DM/Group receives it.  A properly executed flaw is almost always an asset to the game thematically . In other words, the result of a well placed flaw within the context of the collaborative story will produce a net positive experience to the drama within the story. Remember this: “Flaws should be applied logically not literally.”

  • DM speaking, “I understand your flaw says you’re a sucker for a pretty face, but  it’s  now obvious to the party the pretty face belongs to a Succubus. So Tim, you made your save vs charm – are you sure you still want to kiss her? “
  • DM speaking, “Betty, I understand your characters flaw is to argue every point, but the magistrate just agreed to the parties terms, twice!”

Do these examples seem a bit exaggerated to you? I would agree except I’ve shared the table with players that fail to understand we do not share a collective “Minds Eye”. In their mind a scene is plays out where this is all very dramatic, but it fails the logic test for the majority of people and therefore fails.

The Low Intelligence Flaw

Another component of character design that I often see improperly exploited is the intelligence score of a character. This is a little different. Here we are working with some hard numbers. The numbers reflect your characters aptitude for matters of intelligence. Typically, the lowest starting ability score in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition is an 8. While I didn’t find an official Wizards of the Coast intelligence score definition, I did find this article which I believe general consensus will support. Here is the intelligence score/behavior breakdown:

  • 1 (–5): Animalistic, no longer capable of logic or reason. Behavior is reduced to simple reactions to immediate stimuli
  • 2-3 (–4): Rather animalistic. Acts on instinct but can still resort to simple planning and tactics
  • 4-5 (–3): Very limited speech and knowledge. Often resorts to charades to express thoughts
  • 6-7 (–2): Has trouble following trains of thought, forgets most unimportant things
  • 8-9 (–1): Misuses and mispronounces words. May be forgetful
  • 10-11 (0): Knows what they need to know to get by
  • 12-13 (1): Knows a bit more than is necessary, fairly logical
  • 14-15 (2): Fairly intelligent, able to understand new tasks quickly. Able to do math or solve logic puzzles mentally with reasonable accuracy
  • 16-17 (3): Very intelligent, may invent new processes or uses for knowledge
  • 18-19 (4): Highly knowledgeable, probably the smartest person many people know
  • 20 (5): Famous as a sage and genius. Able to make Holmesian leaps of logic

As you can see, with an intelligence score of eight a character won’t have a good grasp of their native tongue and probably forgets important details. This doesn’t mean they are incapable of carrying on a reasonable conversation or that they repeat the same mistake over and over again. Low balling your intelligence score is fine, but have a clear idea of what that means. I would recommend you and your dungeon master have a consensus on that as well.

Intelligence vs Wisdom

Intelligence is often closely linked with wisdom and often confused which role each one plays. One ability, intelligence or wisdom, is almost always higher than the other and you need to understand the difference. An easy way for me to remember it is to think “book smarts vs experience”. Your player might not have the intelligence to understand why flint and steel make sparks when struck together but they are wise enough to not stick their hand in the fire. They may not have the intellect to understand why the cursed boots can’t be removed, but they wise enough to stop trying after multiple attempt have failed to remove them. Don’t continue to have the character try to remove the boots after all means available have been made. At some point this action becomes an unnecessary distraction. I wish this was an unrealistic example, but its not.


Humor and Flaws

There is a comic in all of us looking for a stage to perform on. A tabletop RPG is perhaps the most accessible captive audience. Timing can make or break a comedian and it can make or break your role-play. Don’t sell out the groups success for a laugh unless you know your group is down for that. The important thing to remember here is “Know your audience”. You might see an opportunity to apply your flaw that will have players die laughing so make sure the players die and not the characters. If a chance to take milk straight from the teet compels your characters to make for the cow rather than address the dragon…well, that’s pretty damn funny, but your misplaced action could mean the difference between the group living or dying. (For the record – Kosmenos’ milk fetish never caused anyone harm)


There is a right way and a wrong way to use a flaw to your benefit and your groups benefit. A well played flaw is going to add drama to the scene and propel the story forward. The benefit may not add to the success of the objective, but it’s detriment should be logical in nature, not nonsensical. A low intelligence or wisdom score doesn’t mean your character is non-functional within the world it resides. It’s okay to be funny, just know your group. Not everyone has a  sense of humor when their characters’ welfare is at stake.

What do you think? Agree or disagree? Do you have some better examples? I love to hear your opinion. Feel free for leave your thoughtful comments below. If you like what you read, please consider sharing on Twitter and check out my other articles here 

I can be reached on Twitter. Link here.

Gravy Kingpin exists in two gaming worlds - Pen & Paper and console/PC. He's a part time guardian, part time Dungeon Master, and a full time husband and father of two.

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