Vulnerable characters

27 June, 2010 at 7:39 pm (roleplaying) ()

Often, when making a character, one is advised to have some weakness. This may be justified in terms of creating a more compelling character, or maybe because this and that character have some weakness. Superman has a weakness, after all. I think that weakness is not really what people usually are looking for – rather, vulnerable characters are what is wanted.

As a context for this post, Aleksi and I have been working on a presentation on creating good characters and playing them well, to be presented at Ropecon, and Federico Figueredo has been thinking about related material (so watch his space). Further, my character had a nice opportunity of being infected with Chaos (some spirit in Glorantha), and I totally failed to play it as a proper vulnerability.


By vulnerable character I mean one that can be influenced by other characters, player or non-player ones, and by events in the world. Influence is too broad a concept – emotional influence might be better.

Why would vulnerability be desirable? To this I have no satisfactory response. Assuming immersive style of play we could argue that characters experiencing powerful emotions gives the player powerful moments and is thus desirable. On the other hand emotionally vulnerable characters allow creating powerful decision points – the cliched case is that of family or lovers threatened, or Spiderman saving a falling bus or his loved one. (My examples seem superheroic. Odd.) Grand unified theory of why emotionally vulnerable characters are compelling is not something I have, alas.

Anatomy of

Of what consists an effective vulnerability, then? First requirement is for the vulnerability to be something that comes up in play, so it should not be a carefully hidden secret (unless it is on the verge of being uncovered, of course). Second part is the emotional investment – character ought to be emotionally invested to the vulnerability in some way, and further, the player should also be invested or at least understanding and sympathetic. Note that the investment on part of the player is a delicate thing and requires certain amount of trust on other participants.

Raw idea

This is still very much a raw idea. Do you, my hypothetical readers (given this long absence), know of anywhere where similar ideas have been developed? Any comments or questions?


  1. John said,

  2. Sami Koponen said,

    I suppose I’ve been aiming at something similar, but I haven’t called it vulnerability. So consider: an interesting character cares about something / someone. And the player must care about his / her character. Put a threat to whatever the character cares about and you’ve got the basic dramatic situation. Most of the “Forgean narrativistic” games work with this simple premise. (You’ve played Dogs in the Vineyard, right? There’s an example: the character hands judgements in order to protect what he/she values.)

    • Tommi Brander said,

      Yes, I think you have part of how caring about something makes a character interesting.

      Still, I do think there is more to it. Hmmm. Maybe having an explicit vulnerability gives other participants a permission to affect your character, and are in fact an invitation for them to do just that.

  3. Gastogh said,

    Damn it. I had already resolved not to bother with Ropecon this year, but now I have to stand by my vow and be present at your first presentation. See you there, I suppose.

    “- – –
    Grand unified theory of why emotionally vulnerable characters are compelling is not something I have, alas.”
    A suggestion: emotional vulnerability is something that no one needs a crash course on how to relate to. I’d imagine it thus makes immersion and involvement easier at a concrete level, while not falling for the cheap Kryptonite-style weakness thing that tends to always seems forced (at least to me).

    It also seems to me that vulnerabilities are more fluid than weaknesses. A weakness suffers severe inflation once it become public knowledge. An inherent vulnerability runs into to that sort of predictability considerably less than a flat-out weak spot. I mean – to go with the Superman example – the bad guy brought some Kryptonite into his fight with Superman? Oh Gee, sure didn’t see that one coming miles away. I mean, maybe they were going to try and gain the element of surprise by just going toe-to-toe instead?
    Going after the hero’s loved ones, though about as original as showing up with Kryptonite, will always play out in a more interesting way, if only because it involves people not mired in the stigma of their own invincibility.

    • Tommi Brander said,

      Hello Gastogh.

      Another visitor to Ropecon is always a bonus. Getting more pressure from friends in the audience is not entirely positive, though not entirely negative, either.

      Vulnerabilities and weaknesses: I think you have something there.

  4. ksym said,

    I am currently speculating wether it would be interesting to play a sloppy character that has no redeeming qualities at all. For example, in a fantasy setting such a character would be a wizard who can’t cast spells, or a fighter who is so weak he could barely swing a sword.

    A sloppy character must depend on others to get things done. In practice, this would lean towards a more social gameplay, as the character needs to persuade others to help him/her.

    • Tommi Brander said,

      Hey ksym.

      I’d say that in games where characters are not under pressure to accomplish something or to be effective, even seemingly incompetent player characters can work out okay. In rule systems where the persuasive powers of characters are heavily constrained by rules system this is a bit more difficult to achieve, though.

      In games where character competence plays a big role (Shadowrun, say), playing an incompetent character is something the entire group should agree on.

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