I’ve been listening to a lot of the System Mastery podcast lately, and one thing those guys hate is merit/flaw systems. And they have a good point. It is something that Burning Wheel seeks to fix by simply charging you for flaws as well as merits.
The issue is that many flaws fall into one of two categories: 1. the flaw doesn’t really matter and is for min-maxing, and 2. the flaw is actually a merit because it means more screen-time or attention for the player during the game.
The Flaw Doesn’t Matter
GURPS is a major example of this problem, but any merit/flaw system that I’ve seen has it. There are always flaws (or Disadvantages in GURPS) that a player can take that the player doesn’t care about so that they can take some merits that they do want. For example, if your GM forgets to use reaction rolls then Disadvantages in GURPS that reduce your reaction rolls are basically free points. Another example would be in-game-only flaws, like the idea that this particular race has great stat bonuses but people in the world hate them. Supposedly this balances out, but in play it is just a benefit with a hand-wavy, occasional problem. But really, if your half-orc has their huge strength bonus and encounters hatred, judicious use of the strength bonus can address the intolerance pretty readily in most games.
The Flaw Is A Benefit
World of Darkness games are a major culprit here, and the two big examples of this problem are dark fate and enemies. A character’s dark fate is almost always something that will happen after the main campaign is over – it is a way of creating a big problem but putting it off so you can front-load your character with lots of juicy merits that’ll count for almost the entire game. The worst example of this would be a dark fate that affects the rest of the party, so you screw everyone and get points for it.
The other problem is with taking an enemy as a flaw. An enemy means more attention for your character – your agenda, your story, drives more than your share of the overall story. And 10 times out of 10, your friends will end up having to fight this enemy too, just like every enemy you face. And in exchange for this increased creative influence and attention, you get character points. It wasn’t long before every White Wolf player I gamed with realized that taking an enemy was the way to go, every time.
The Fix: Flaws Are Foes’ Merits
Taking an enemy as a flaw still exerts influence on the story, but in this reworked version of the flaw, what happens mechanically is the enemy has an advantage against the character who has taken the flaw. As a generic example, a PC has a 2pt flaw that gives them an enemy, so whenever they come up against this enemy, the enemy gets +2 dice against them (or +2 to rolls, or to damage, or whatever would hurt). This makes the enemy worse for the PC than for the rest of their party at the very least. The GM has to integrate the enemy into the storyline as before, but now when the enemy comes up, the PC pays for their extra points by getting their ass kicked. This one NPC just has their number, it seems.
This can be extrapolated out, and I like it being a general bonus. Maybe if you are a hated race or species, then all prices are doubled, and everyone does +1 damage to you in combat. Now that flaw has teeth that will matter in the two situations where most players care – combat and shopping. The important thing to think through is how to make this Flaw bad for the character in a way that isn’t bad for the whole party, and in a way that doesn’t just thrust the character into the spotlight.