The Flaws and Traits system for D&D 5e is cool system, but one I don’t seem to use well as a player or a GM. I applaud the decision to make more of these choices more mechanical, rewarding the roleplaying aspect with a system benefit, I have a disconnect between these, maybe randomized, personality and history choices, and the shapes my character take in-play. As a GM, I have a difficult time leveraging these Flaws and Traits in an organic fashion, which probably indicates a deep failure of me as a person, and not only as a game-runner. I want to do more with them, but even when I reward players for doing something, it seems to almost confuse them, as they also have an arms-length relationship with the system.
I have been running a regular weekly game with four-five people for some time now. Recently, we have run into issues getting everyone on the same page, as happens, but in order to make sure the game stays running strong, we play without the fifth. Instead of having a player just “bot” the person’s character, we didn’t feel comfortable the first time around as the party stopped before making a major decision point that was a source of conflict, I opted to run a flashback session. My good friend and creative co-worker, Harbinger, had run flashback sessions with a great degree of success, as it ending up tying some cool story and goals to the Flaws and Traits and existing character histories of a few of the characters. The group there got a rival to hate, and some good story turned out as a result.
I decided to do this as well, as the conceit of this particular group was a shared history of them working together before finding themselves entwined in their current adventure. However, rather than have everyone play at a lower level, I decided to play up the idea everyone is cooler in the stories they tell and in their own minds. I might have listened to a LARP story or two over the years. This has worked out tremendously well, and led me to a new idea for Flaws and Traits.
The biggest problem in running a flashback scene is creating tension for the characters, as they know they cannot permanently die in these scenes. In 2011 and 2012, I ran a couple one-shot games of this game called 3:16. I reskinned it at the time to be a Left 4 Dead themed zombie game, inspired by company holiday parties. It was a good time, and some of the best moments of the game were due to the Flashback system. Each character starts with a set number of blank Flashback slots. Over the course of the game, you may declare a Flashback and tell a story of how an event in your character’s past has an impact in the current, usually dire, situation your party is now facing. The dice are then rolled, and this is either a Strength or a Weakness depending on the outcome. If the outcome is a Strength, this is a positive experience, and you narrate your way to a success for the encounter. If the outcome is a Weakness, this is a negative experience, and you narrate your way to a scenario where a critical character deficiency has led to your defeat, though on their terms, and at a much lower cost than it would have otherwise been.
I honestly feel the players these one-shots had more attachment in the moment to their characters as a result of these flashbacks than players in 5e who go through the Flaws and Traits exercise. The player gets to have the spotlight for a moment, and the group finds out something about that character during course of play allowing them to define their relationship, both past and present. I feel like this is a better overall answer for me as a player and GM. Again, this might be a shortcoming in me, but it’s something I work to improve nonetheless.
The system can’t be a straight port, as obviously the systems as very different, but it takes only minimal lifting to get this sorted out.
- No bond, flaw, ideal, or trait should be filled out on the character sheet.
- “How will I know anything about my character then?”, you ask. Write a short backstory, give yourself the goals and personality you would normally, but leave the finer details blank.
- Alternative: assign blank spaces as “experiences” beneath bond, flaw, ideal, and trait. The flashbacks must them describe that specific bond, flaw, ideal, or trait.
- If you, like me, run flashback sessions, these may only be defined in these sessions.
- If not, just allow them to be assigned at a rate of one per session.
- Out of these four categories, trait is a strength, flaw is a weakness. Bond and ideal may be either, but once one is a strength, the other must be a flaw. These must be alternating assigned.
- Allow additional slots for each category to open up at major milestone levels. Either 5, 11, 15, 20, or 11, 17, 20. No real wrong answer here.
- Once established, use Inspiration as a reward whenever the player plays up to these, and use them as prompts for players.
- Declaring a flashback experience can be done in place of a stunt, and is the players entire turn. This should allow the player to decide the outcome of an encounter when first declared, but must be done within reason. If the encounter is a major encounter, allow it to shift the odds in favor of the players, instead of granting outright victory. If used in a random encounter or otherwise minor encounter, consider letting it just end the encounter successfully. If a weakness is declared, then the player using it should suffer accordingly, but allow them to escape what would otherwise be certain death.
- If done as part of a flashback session, the experience should be happening in “real time”, rather than be a traditional flashback.
Hilda the Brazen finds herself atop a guard tower, with other warriors, hurling giant javelins at a swarm of harpies in service to a night hag are terrorizing a city. Hilda the Brazen declares a flashback, recalling the time when vampire bats flocked to Hilda’s village during the reign of Umbardt the Undying’s reign of horror. Hilda decided to light one of the houses near the attack on fire, using the flame and smoke to disorient the creatures and light the arrows with the house fire, using the flaming bolts to defeat the creatures once they dove beneath the smoke line and away from the heat. Hilda the Brazen was heralded as “making the tough choices”, which is now a trait.
Back in the guard tower, Hilda sees that the harpies are focusing on the group troops beneath the tower, and if the tower was toppled, many harpies would die, allowing the fortunes of battle to shift, though at the cost of the lives of several footmen. Hilda does so, defeating the harpies, even at the lives of the guardsmen, allowing the battle to shift.
Koren Dalesman is facing off against demons as this group attempts to plunder a wizards tower. Koren has been grievously wounded, and another solid hit would drive him to unconsciousness, at the very least. Koren recalls how as a youth, he always had to fend for himself, and never relied on the assistance of others. Koren once made a deal with a local crime lord to work with him, rather than continue defending his uncle’s butcher shop from the crime lord’s thugs. After all, his uncle hadn’t paid him enough to outfit him as he should, and left him to defend the store himself. What kind of person would do that? Koren Dalesman has learned the hard way that he “can only count on himself”, which is now a flaw.
The demons loom large over Koren, and he pipes up, “Maybe we can make a deal. These guys left me just like everyone else in my life has. Let’s talk.” One of the demons leaves with Koren, or incapacitates him after telling him they’ll be in touch, as to not arouse suspicion. The rest of the party finds themselves facing one less demon, and Koren finds himself still alive. The players even get the added bonus of “saving him” in this second scenario.
The sailor background has a great example here, actually. The first example is “I am loyal to my captain first, everyone else second.” Harthwright is a human who has spent a long time sailing the Astral Sea as a pirate. For whatever reason, J’krami took pity on him and spared his life. Now, adrift in Sigil, Harthwright has learned that not everyone is charitable to his old captain. Serving as a member of the Mercykillers, Harthwright find J’krami and his other former shipmates at odds over the contents of a chest in the Lower Ward.
Harthwright is torn between trying to uphold justice on behalf of the Red Death, and his former crew. Harthwright can’t bring himself to kill J’krami, but can’t let her live, or that would sign his own death warrant. Engaged in battle, Harthwright tells J’krami, “Knock me out, drag me a little way away, and then take my key. The second door on the left is a portal and should see you clear. Go, quickly!” Harthwright gets knocked unconscious, J’krami escapes, and Harthwright would gain the bond “I am loyal to my captain first, everyone else second.”
As a flashback item, this might then work with Harthwright taking a bribe to let a thief get away from a robbery, or turning the blind eye to a fellow Mercykiller that needs help at the risk of Harthwright’s own life.
The purpose of this is to find a way to better inclusively support the Bond, Flaw, Ideal, and Trait system. I like it, and I want to do it more, but I also want players to buy into it more wholeheartedly. I think there is room here for me personally to find better use of it, and this seems like a solid way to do so.