Make Them Suffer: Hindrances in Play

This one’s for the game masters out there, but if you’re a player, behold and despair!

Some players look at hindrances in games as a free ride–something which may look bad on paper, but rarely, if ever, come up in play. Say it ain’t so, Joe.  If you’re letting folks coast, then you aren’t doing your job. And, yes, it is your job. Regardless of system or style of play, if a character takes a hindrance, flaw, complication, or whatever the word of the day (or game) may be, you gotta make them feel it.  This isn’t all players, some players will take things to the other extreme and let the hindrance be the central focus of their character. It’s up to you to reign those cats in, help define the parameters of your expectations of how it should occur in play.

First off, let’s examine the word hindrance. A quick check of the word on Google yields “A thing that provides resistance, delay, or obstruction to something or someone.” Got it? This “thing” is going to hassle the character. The degree to which the hassle should occur is based upon it’s value. In Savage Worlds terms, it’s determined by its value of Minor or Major, but your system of choice shall certainly have discrete guidelines for the frequency of the impediment. Now, with the term clearly defined, we can look at how to apply our dark knowledge in a practical sense so sharpen your knives and get out the thumbscrews; it’s time to get wicked.

How do you induce the proper amount of pain without turning your group into a bunch of gibbering misanthropes?

Here are a few tips to let them know you mean business.

1. If it’s minor, try to make certain it pops up as a little annoyance at least once in a game.

2. If it’s major, make certain it can derail things at least once during a session.

These sound easy, but there are times when it doesn’t make sense for the hindrance to occur at all in a session. For example, we’ve got one character in the Echo of Dead Leaves playtest who has astraphobia–a fear of thunder and lightning, so he’s not a big fan of storms. In the Charleston area, there are a number of storms, depending upon the season, but it isn’t Seattle, so rain doesn’t fall every game session. When it does, you have to hit them hard with it.

More tips include:

3. Have a team roster of your PCs with their associated hindrances. This ensures you’re not forgetting that Winston O’Reilly is hunted by the Havana Harrowed, a particularly nasty posse of Cuban gunslingers. It sounds like it’d be hard to forget, but…

4. Have a hit list. Keep a running tally of whom you’ve doomed, so you know who’s turn it is in the barrel. While you should be dishing out pain on a regular basis, if you’re always having Wilma’s glasses fall off while Fred and Daphne get a free ride, you’re not being particularly fair, now are you? Pain should be evenly distributed.

5. Advantage is its own reward. I’ve seen many debates about players wanting rewards for playing their character. Really? That’s what they’re supposed to be doing. In most systems, the character isn’t required to take hindrances, but if they do so, they gain some intrinsic other advantage (i.e. better attributes, additional edges, and so on). Do not necessarily lavish bennies and so on for playing their characters as they are supposed to. They got credit for it going in. You can certainly reward additional experience points at the end of the session, if you’d like, or you can opt to reward them bennies during the course of play based upon the following criteria:

a. Did this create an unnecessary complication for the entire group?

Example 1: A curious character opening a chest? That’s to be expected. No reward.

Example 2: A curious character reciting a chant sucking the party through a portal into a parallel dimension? Give that man a benny!

b. Did this cause extreme heartache for the character in question?

Example 1: An overconfident character getting in a bar fight? No reward. This isn’t his first rodeo.

Example 2: An overconfident character drawing his sword and charging a platoon of orcs? Give him a benny. (He’s going to need it.)

Take these tips with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, common sense must rule. As the GM, your common sense must be uncommonly accurate–this is one of those things separating the mediocre GM from the superior GM. Always work on refining it. If the players are complaining a little bit about the harshness of your rulings regarding hindrances, you’re probably making them manifest at the right level. While these tips are geared towards Savage Worlds and other similar systems, and not so much the push-me, pull-me dynamic of aspects found in FATE, you should be able to glean something of value to add to your gamemastery. Now go make them suffer! Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!

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