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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design, Advice » GM’s Play YOUR Disads Too

GM’s Play YOUR Disads Too

We in the Happy Jacks community put a lot of emphasis on playing the character’s disads. It is at least as important for the GM to play the villains disads as it is for the player characters.

Waitaminnit JiB why would I want to give my villains disads? I want my villains to be bad and nasty and evil and terrifying why would I want to give them something to make them weaker?

Two reasons. First, it makes them more fun to play, and more fun for your players. Second, it makes them beatable without having to metagame or make the player characters more powerful than they should be. Something I think that we as GM’s need to keep in mind is that ULTIMATELY it is the purpose of a villain to get defeated by the heroes.

But JiB, I want my villain to be really scary for the players I don’t want to make them weak.

This isn’t about making them weak or strong, it’s about giving them obstacles that can get in their way just like the rest of us have. Often our disadvantages are the things that we set out to overcome and thus make us stronger, but they still get in our way from time to time. As an example allow me to introduce you to a character of mine. The Raven was originally created for a d20 based game, but I’m going to rework her for Savage Worlds because it makes it easier to express her disadvantages.


The Raven is a mysterious figure of quasi-legendary status as the most prolific and successful assassin to ever lurk the shadows of the Inner Sea. The reader may note that a moment ago I said “her” when referring to the Raven. Nobody knows who the Raven really is. Nobody who has ever knowingly seen the Raven in the flesh still lives to tell the tale. In point of fact many people have seen the Raven they just aren’t aware of the fact. It is said around the Inner Sea with a certain amount of accuracy that nobody escapes the Raven’s kiss. The Raven never kills in the same way twice in succession and the range of methods employed would ordinarily indicate that there was more than one person was making the kills. In fact it was rumored early in the Raven’s career that “Raven kills” were not actually the work of the Raven. As a result the Raven began to sign her work by painting a stylized raven on the wall or nearby, sometimes on the body of her victim, in the victim’s blood. In one particular case where a young and brash would be rake took credit for one of her kills the Raven demonstrated a technique referred to as the “Blood Eagle” in the midst of the town square and left the resulting carnage for the whole city to see.

So now we have a character that should really terrify the characters. But what about the disadvantages?

First lets go back in time a bit and think about who is the Raven really? Why? Because nobody starts out as they are now. The person known to the Inner Sea as the Raven is actually a half elven girl born in a small town on the north coast of the Inner Sea. The product of rape her mother was an elven girl and her father a norther man raider. When she discovered that she was pregnant her mother could not bring herself to kill the child, but nor could she embrace what she saw as the symbol of her pain and shame. As a result the young girl grew up largely ignored and forgotten and reviled by the elven community. Growing up in pain and torment at the hands of those who should have shown her love and understanding twisted and warped the young girl and left her without any sense of connection to any community.

So what does that mean?

The Raven lacks the ability to empathize with anyone or see any value in life. She is a total sociopath for whom all that matters is her own enjoyment which she derives in the ritualistic killing of others. She has found that people of less scrupulous nature will pay to have obstacles or troublesome people removed. This has allowed her to create a lifestyle that she was denied as a child namely one of privilege and opulent luxury.

Ok that’s great but how does that translate into game terms?

For starters clearly she has the major disadvantage of “Delusional” She is a sociopath who though she ostensibly knows that killing others is wrong that is unimportant to her. Additionally there are certain things that will trigger her to kill functionally without any control. There in lies the real disadvantage there are things that could cause her to lose control or could be used to track her down. References to her family or anything that might threaten her disguise for example could cause her to attack at a moment’s notice.

In addition she has the minor disadvantages of “Vengeful” and a “Delusion” (Inferiority Complex) also as results of her painful childhood.

All of which together makes for a character who while terrifying and very capable of doing enormous harm to a group of adventurers could be forced into doing things that are precipitous or ill considered which play into the aims of adventurers who are presumably hunting the Raven to bring her to justice or if necessary see her dead.

In games that include disadvantages such as Savage Worlds, Hero and GURPS it’s pretty simple to find disadvantages that will hinder the villain and make it more possible for the adventurers to beat them. In games like D&D or any d20 based game without the concept of disadvantages the GM will have to make them up. In either case the premise is the same. Disadvantages come in two varieties. Those with a concrete game mechanic and those without. Disadvantages with a game mechanic are easy just apply the disad, do the math and there you are. Disadvantages without a game mechanic influence how the character is played and the decisions that they might make.

In the case of the Raven if she perceived that someone were threatening her secrecy, for example if there happened to be a witness that might be able to identify her, she might very well be pressed into precipitous action to silence that person before they could tell anyone. This could give the adventurers the opportunity to push her into a situation that favored them rather than her.

Disadvantages of this type are harder to play but ultimately more rewarding and more useful in terms of playing the villain to be more interesting than just another monster to be slain by the heroes, at the same time giving the villain means by which they can be defeated that give more depth than just “dumbing them down”.


Sure, the GM can say, “Yes my necromancer has the finger of death spell” but he’s not going to use it because it would wax the party too easily, but that’s a meta-gamy way of doing villain disadvantages, and we want to avoid being meta-gamy if possible. Besides isn’t it more fun to give them something unique and memorable for the player characters to find out about?

Let me wind this up by saying that for a villain who’s purpose is to be killed at the end of the current night of play going to this much effort is overkill. This is the sort of thing a GM would want to use for characters who are to be recurring villains in the game.

So GM’s write villains with disadvantages, and then play them. It’s fun and makes them more memorable for your players.



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2 Responses to "GM’s Play YOUR Disads Too"

  1. SirGuidoNo Gravatar says:

    Disadvantages are one of my favorite things in the world. L5R has disadvantages as part of it’s system. I remember one time getting into a heated argument with a fellow online who’s comment was “Why would you ever take disadvantages?” and my response was “Why would you ever take less than the maximum 10 points of disadvantages?” Because disadvantages are what make a character memorable. As a result they are what make your NPCs memorable. Absofreakinglutely play them up as a GM. Right on JiB, another home run.

  2. SeshuNo Gravatar says:

    I think games that don’t give a mechanical bonus to disadvantages are actually better for acting a role, since it should be the players choice to have a distinctive personality/trait and not a legal way to gain more (points/advantages/bonuses) than the ones inherent to all characters (which encourages min/maxing, though that is just acting as someone who wants to be the best).

    Just my personal opinion: Disadvantages are paid for by the fun you gain for having them, while not having them removes a level of complication and therefore fun (for people who have fun with complications). Your mileage may not be as crazy as mine though.

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