Monday, April 10, 2017

Blindness and other character flaws

Playing a blind character in D&D is generally going to be more problematic than most players want. You can accept the blinded condition permanently, meaning that in 5th Edition you would automatically fail any sight based Wisdom(Perception) or Intelligence(Investigation) based checks, enemies would have advantage to attack you, and all your attacks would have disadvantage. Taking the Alert feat would remove the advantage from attacks against you but your own attacks would still suffer and it is quite possible that a GM might decide that any spell requiring line of sight is impossible for you to cast.

There might be other ways around this. For example, it is possible to see through the eyes of a familiar as granted by the Find Familiar spell or the Pact of the Chain on the warlock. The description of the Find Familiar states only that your own sight and hearing are useless while seeing through the familiar, which means that you can still move around and act yourself. There is no limit to how long or how often this might be used. Likewise, the 2nd level spell Beast Sense can be used by rangers and druids to similar effect. I have also heard that some players have had blind characters that made use of various spells of the Detect variety as a sort of surrogate sight. Regardless, it requires a fair amount of cooperation with a GM to create a viable character who is blind.

By comparison, creating a blind or crippled character in a game like Hero System or Fate is remarkably easy. In Hero Systems earliest incarnations, the general method was to take a generic Blinded disadvantage and counter it by taking appropriate senses to compensate but more recently it has been considered more efficient to design disadvantages based on how much you actually want it to impact you. For example, look at the three versions of the Physical Complication below:

  • Blinded - Affects the character All the Time, Impairs the character Fully. 35 Points
  • Blinded - Affects the character Frequently, Impairs the character Slightly. 15 Points
  • Blinded - Affects the character Infrequently, Impairs the character Barely. 5 Points
Taking either one of these disadvantages results in a blind character, but the first one hasn't adapted to the difficulties at all and anytime sight is a factor they will have almost no capability to deal with the situation. On the other hand, the second version represents a character who has adapted much more, their lack of sight is not always a factor and when it is, they have learned to compensate for it much better. The third version represents a character even less affected by their blindness and it is primarily a bit of flavor rather than a mechanical weakness. The third complication would be unable to note colors or read text and may be prone to humorous gaffs such as pasting a poster upside down on a wall, but is functionally just as capable as a sighted character.

Fate has Aspects and a few games such as Powered by the Apocalypse systems have similar concepts. One common misconception with Aspects is that a Fate Point must be spent or given any time they affect the story. This is not particularly the case. Depending on the wording of the Aspect in question the Fate Point might or might not be necessary. For example, a character with the Aspect Blind Warrior is assumed to have adapted to their blindness enough that they are still a functional warrior. As such, their blindness affecting a fight would be a dramatic and unusual circumstance that deserves awarding the player a Fate Point. The same character would likely not get a Fate Point when the GM tells them that, no, they can't read a book because they're blind. The chosen wording of the Aspect justifies them having no issue in a combat while still leaving it as a potential difficulty. The same character might spend a Fate Point to use their blindness to lull opponents into a sense of superiority.

The difference between the two situations reveal some characteristics about some of the things the different games focus on. In particular, games like Dungeons and Dragons have focus almost entirely on the idea that characters are facing problems external to themselves. The things a character has to overcome in a D&D game are typically obstacles like traps, cliffs and doors; or enemies like goblins, undead and demons. A character might have a broad disability such as a low strength score but there is no system in place for a narrow, focused difficulty. It is possible to voluntarily take on some sorts of difficulties but there are few methods to compensate for the downsides. Coming back to blindness, this is supposed to be a nearly crippling condition to be afflicted with in D&D and methods to circumvent sight so as to make it a non-issue are rare and often limited to enemies. For example, there is a blind monk villain in a published D&D adventure who has blindsight out to 60 feet but there are no known ways for a player character to acquire similar blindsight.

The designers of D&D presume that their players are more interested in overcoming external forces and have created only minimal ability to represent the internal difficulties. In fact, some of the audience of D&D has tended to see the systems of flaws, complications and the like that other games have as something that borders on cheating. If you take a look at webcomics like Goblins, you'll run across characters who are portrayed as power-gamers and min-maxers who take limitations more as a way to justify more skills. The limitations they take are often ridiculous like the inability to dress themselves. Darths and Droids presents a slightly more realistic representation of the same situation and a GM who is more prone to make the limitations have impact.

If you want your character to be a jaded and broken down veteran with alcoholism in D&D it is expected that you will roleplay that out rather than look for some flaw to take. In 5th edition, it would be a character flaw and you might gain Inspiration for following through on the portrayal, but this is entirely a matter of the player's choice of the matter and there is nothing preventing the character from keeping the majority of that off-camera, as it were. The matter of whether they deal with that aspect of their character is entirely within their own control.

By comparison, games like Hero System and Fate Core focus as much, if not more, on internal opposition as they do external opposition. If you gained points from a complication in Hero System or included it as part of one or more Aspects in Fate, then you can expect that it will show up in game play, often at inconvenient times. An alcoholic character might have to deal with withdrawl symptoms causing penalties to their actions when they go too long without beer for example. A character with a psychological complication in Hero System might have to actually make an Ego roll in order to act against it whether it is a phobia like claustrophobia or something like a Code of Honor. Aspects will likely get compelled at delicate moments in a Fate game, often leading to unforeseen difficulties.

Dungeons and Dragons and similar games do not entirely ignore this aspect of a game. For as long as it has existed, D&D has had the alignment system to act as a guideline for character behavior. Similarly, a character can be portrayed as having a low characteristic such low Strength, low Intelligence, or low Consitution. More recently the inclusion of personality traits, flaws, ideals, bonds and their connection to the earning of Inspiration has created a bit more mechanical heft to dealing with internal issues. However, all of these are fairly limited in comparison to the options other games have for dealing with the issues. Mostly, it becomes hard to get a focused treatment of the story theme that a player precisely wants to deal with.

This is entirely a matter of game style preference.

Dungeons and Dragons' default gameplay style allows you to ignore and forget about mundane difficulties. By comparison, Fate and other game systems allow you to simulate real life, mundane difficulties in the form of a quantifiable obstacle that can be surpassed. D&D allows you to defeat your enemies, Fate allows you to surpass your own limits. These are different sorts of escapism both equally enjoyable and equally beneficial.

For example, my tiefling battlemaster is afraid of canines due to recent experiences with a pack of worgs led by a winter wolf. She essentially suffers from PTSD but the impact of that aspect of her character is entirely within my own control and has so far been limited to her starting a battle a bit earlier than planned (mostly because we've only encountered canines once so far). By and large, I am dealing with that in the background and in my own head rather than putting it into the main storyline. It's a part of the story I'm interested in but don't have much real investment in.  It's a fun bit of flavor that can develop at whatever pace I determine.

By comparison, my character Greyskin from a Hero System game started with lots of difficulties in controlling her own powers. Several of her abilities, X-Ray vision and teleportation, were only controled by the GM at start and thus almost always caused problems when they happened. She also had a complication that would cause her to partially desolidify and then get stuck in a wall if she started freaking out. I had to spend experience points to buy down these complications and limitations. I couldn't just decide I wasn't going to roleplay them out anymore. I had focus time and energy on removing those problems and, as a result, I had something of a sense of accomplishment when I first managed to get teleportation to be something I controlled or when I stopped getting stuck in walls.

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