Saturday, June 11, 2016

Fundamental: Quirks

Sure, wearing a horse mask is pretty
quirky, but can you bring it to life
at the gaming table?
It seems weird that I need to say something about this, but I feel like I need to say something about this. Welcome to the opinion zone, and today's topic is the inscrutable and wholly subjective quirk. What is a quirk? Why do I want them? Why is it so difficult to come up with them? I don't know where to begin with all these questions, but I'll try to speak to why I think you should care about them, and why they matter to me in the games I GM, and how I think you might be overthinking it if you find coming up with quirks to be difficult.

What Are Quirks?

Quirks are described in the Basic Set on p. 162. You can think of them as tiny disadvantages, and you might not be wrong, but you might as well be. See, it's a kinda funny thing, Perks, which joyously, rhymes with quirks, and they are tiny advantages. So we naturally think, "since perks are the 1 point version of advantages, that means that quirks are the -1 point versions of disadvantages." Sometimes, to be honest, this is actually true, but more often than not, they are mechanically superfluous.
So, what are quirks if they aren't really just small versions of disadvantages. Maybe we can try something to illustrate.
Think of five adjectives that describe you.
Now, for each of these five adjectives, write one thing you do on a daily basis that demonstrates that adjective.
Can't think of a demonstration you do on a daily basis of one of these descriptors? Try thinking of another adjective.
Have five demonstrations that you do regularly of five adjectives that describe you? Congratulations, you wrote five quirks. Now, as a role play exercise, using a well-written backstory and your character sheet so far, get into your character's head. The great thing is that you made your character, so you know your character better than anyone else. Ok, now that you are role playing as your character, repeat the same exercise:
  • Come up with several adjectives that describe you (or your character)
  • Write down ways you (or your character) demonstrate these descriptions on a regular basis.
  • Repeat until you have five demonstrations. These are your quirks.

Important Misconception: Quirks Don't Have to be Silly

I mean, if you look at a dictionary, and you look up the word quirk you will find the definition:
a peculiarity of action, behavior, or personality; mannerism: He is full of strange quirks.
At first blush, a lot of these words have a kind of association with weird, eccentric, unusual, abnormal. And in a way, none of that is wrong, but it has a type of connotation that can lead to choosing unhelpful quirks. Instead, let's use words that have a more neutral connotation.

  • Unique
  • Defining
  • Distinguishment
A quirk is what sets one "guy with a brooding past that is really good at swords and gets by with a little help from his friends," from another, "guy with a brooding past that is really good at swords and gets by with a little help from his friends."
They might even have the same personality traits, but different expressions of them. Let's say these two brooding swordsman with good friends would both describe themselves as honest. But maybe, swordsman A demonstrates this by obsessively counting out the right change when buying something, which might be a little funny, and might give other players or the GM through npc shopkeepers an opportunity to riff off of that and make a scene come alive. Impatient shopkeep might stop him and ask him to stop holding up the line and just grab the money and give him his stuff. Suspicious shopkeep might double check the coins as he is counting them out.
And now we have a scene that came to life because two characters with quirks interacted in a way that set them apart from others.
Now what if brooding swordsman 2 is honest, but is a little bit more grim? He might instead have a quirk of delivering all bad news without balking at being frank and without any tact or respect for feelings. This could be funny in a comedy campaign, but as a doctor, commanding officer, or detective, this could be a very stark character trait.
What if he is very honest, but also very hot-headed? Maybe he has a quirk that being accused of lying is a trigger.
So, we have shown a character that might be honest, and might be very similar to two other characters, but also that the quirk that demonstrates this doesn't have to be a laugh out loud moment.

Quirk Pitfalls

There are three important pitfalls I have seen with quirks in my short time with GURPS, and they are:
  • Making a quirk that is irrelevant
  • Making a quirk that is difficult to express
  • Making a quirk that isn't fun to play out
So first off, the easiest one to cover is irrelevance. If a quirk is irrelevant, then it might as well not exist. If you are going to spend most of your time in a cave underground with no electricity, even if it might be important to your character, "Enjoys watching M*A*S*H" is not a good quirk. Similarly, but a little more subjective, is how often the quirk can be organically introduced to a scene. Let's say your character has an unusual but important ritual that every 30 days, she has to, must absolutely, shed her exoskeleton, and grow a new layer and hates being interrupted while in the process. This is pretty unusual, pretty quirky, and could make for some interesting role playing situations, but if your campaign progresses about 1 day a session, you might not see your quirk but once a year in a bi-weekly game.
The second condition is a little less important but something I urge you consider. Some fidgets, tattoos, or scars might be considered quirks, and they are interesting things that do set some characters apart, but I find that, "strokes beard" or "unusual birthmark near elbow" are really hard to engage with. Perhaps it might be easier with some types of props, but even then, making the quirk stand out as a quirk takes a real commitment that can be exhausting.
The final one is important but it can be hard to tell ahead of time if something won't work out. I personally, for myself, find catchphrase quirks are really forced and don't do a lot to express a character, and I get bored of them a session or two in. "Funny" memes are also in the same vein. Quirks that purposefully antagonize another player or character can make the game less fun for the people you play with, and you should understand the type of group you are playing with before choosing quirks that might jeopardize a mission; some groups like the intra-party conflict, and some don't have no time for that.

But Why Do I Care About Quirks?

Quirks are the window to your character's soul. They make your character who he is, so choosing quirks is all about creating a personality for your character, and that should probably be one of things you want to do if playing an RPG.
Mechanically speaking, in GURPS, Character Points are (usually) rewarded for good role playing. So designing a behavior and personality that you want to act out, that considers situations that are liable to be common has a mechanical benefit for you as well, as it becomes easier for a GM to know the secret unique facets that make the character interesting to you that might not be apparent by reading a character sheet or your incredibly detailed backstory. Some Advantages and some Disadvantages go a ways to giving an impression of a character, but quirks are the human element that goes a step further: You do the things advantages tell you to do, because it helps you; you do the things a disadvantage tells you to do because you don't have a choice. Quirks are the things you do because you want to do them.

Some Resources for Quirks

Besides the examples given in the Basic Set at p. 162, published GURPS adventures generally have NPCs with interesting quirks. This PDF has a bunch of quirks too, but I strongly recommend thinking very hard about using them only as inspiration and not using them directly. If you need some more help, the following I consider some good starters for brainstorming quirks
  • I often like talking about _________________
  • After a battle, I ___________________
  • My first resort to a ___________ problem is __________________
  • I absolutely hate __________________
  • I use ________ slang
  • I talk with a ___________ accent
  • I start the day by _____________
  • When I'm stressed, I take the edge off by ________
  • I am ashamed that when I ____________ it feels ___________
  • I pretend ______ is true to be a more interesting person


  1. For the Quirk pitfalls, I think part of it is because of the examples given in the book - "Hates Carrots" I think is one example given. Highly irrelevant...yet there it is. Gives the impression that Quirks are a free for all free point feature. I mean, on one hand, it does reward players a little bit for giving me something to work with (if they bother at all), but on the other it feels like free five points sometimes.

    1. Yeah, the examples aren't especially helpful, what's more helpful are the examples that usually accompany NPCs in the pre-made adventures, which are often full sentences and not a pithy phrase or verb-noun combo. A good combo of quirks probably means that any 2 or 3 of 5 have some kinda relevance a session, with more being better. It's all my opinions though.

  2. Disadvantages. My players often read the name of a Disadvantage and what comes to mind is something much more minor that what the disadvantage really is. Phobias are thought to be "I don't like this and avoid it." not "I'm paralyzed by this and am so shaken that I can't function at full capacity." So when my players need to pick some quirks I tell them to pick the disadvantages that they thought they wanted then read the description and decided against it. Almost any mental or social disadvantage can have a -1 version.

    1. I think that's a really good point and it's something important I missed. Thanks for the input!

  3. I really like this approach to choosing quirks, especially of them being indicators of personality traits.
    I play a character who had "serious" as a character trait, which ultimately became "Among my entire gaming group, I will refrain from making jokes". I replaced it with "deadpan" since it was more fun that way.


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