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There is a player in my campaign who's characters defining trait is that they have a bad memory.

I like creating mechanical representations of character traits if it makes sense to do so.

I've given the player a Homebrew feat called "bad memory" that basically says "roll disadvantage on any memory based intelligence checks".

I selected a feat because it was the easiest way to get the effect I was after to appear in the D&D Beyond character sheet so that the disadvantage badge appears in an easy to find part of the character sheet. It was intended as a way to mechanically represent a character trait.

My reasoning being that a character with bad memory should not have the same statistical probability of rolling well on a memory based check as a character with a good memory.

This player is adamantly fighting me on this though.

This is his reasoning:

The game already has the scaffolding and complexity in the locations where it is required. There are reasons why things like forgetfulness are included in the traits and features yet don't have mechanics attached to them. If it was appropriate they would have been added by the devs. Mechanics which make it harder to use a character, and especially mechanics which remove abilities from players, are things which are only used in very rare cases and only ever for very short periods.

Note: This player is a very good role-player. It feels wrong to me to not represent the bad memory mechanically though.

How should I as a GM handle this situation?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Imma leave the reminder to everyone that solutions to the problem should be put into answers, in their full form. If you only have partial advice, see if an answer already covers it (and upvote) or suggest it to one where it would fit. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Mar 29 at 19:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Does the character also have any traits that give them a numerical advantage on certain things? \$\endgroup\$ – user3067860 Mar 30 at 12:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user3067860 no. There was no "I'm giving you this bad thing but here is something good in return". It was just outright bad and the player was right for fighting me on it. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Tonon Mar 31 at 13:45
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Give them Inspiration for Role-playing their traits

Others have great answers, but fifth edition has a mechanic for rewarding good RP and it's probably the most forgotten mechanic in the game, as well as being basically the exact opposite of the feat you created. That said, if the PLAYER wanted, I'd totally allow them to CHOOSE to roll with disadvantage on any memory checks they made.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this option. I think this is more what my player had in mind when they decided to play a character with bad memory. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Tonon Mar 30 at 1:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ The other answers are great but since this is the method that my player and I have decided to use in our game I've got to award this as accepted answer, especially since no other answer seems to mention the use of inspiration. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Tonon Mar 31 at 13:48
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Your player is correct

Making a special mechanical representation of this is very likely to cause problems, and you should not do so. A trait like this simply shouldn’t be in the dice’s hands—it is important to bring it up with care and judgment, in situations where it adds to the game. Otherwise, this sort of thing has a tendency to just derail games and annoy people.

Moreover, permanent disadvantage is not how the game works. If you just aren’t good at something, it is your bonus that should be lower—(dis)advantage is for circumstantial changes from that baseline. I would expect this character to have low Intelligence, and probably not have proficiency in any Intelligence-based skills. But we don’t need to bring special rules into this situation—the usual character creation schemes give s ample opportunity to choose to assign a low number to Intelligence, except in the rare case where one rolls for scores and then rolls high for all six.

(Or if they have good Intelligence, I would want to talk about what that means. Been there, done that—one of my most successful characters was an absent-minded professor sort, but since he was also a professor of religion, theology, and medicine, he needed Wisdom rather than Intelligence. I just chose not to roll Perception checks when the DM called for one in the middle of him going on about his latest theory. It worked fine. The unfortunate reality is that the ability scores are massively overloaded and sometimes a character is supposed to be good at some parts of what one covers and not others, and the rules don’t handle that. It is rarely worth getting fancy with house rules to “fix” the situation, though—just roleplay it appropriately, and have clear communication about what everyone is doing. I mentioned the problem to my DM, and he agreed that it was more effort than it’s worth to start changing Wisdom classes to Intelligence for this.)

And most importantly, this is not your character. You get the entire world to control—with the exceptions of the handful of player characters. The player absolutely should be pushing back on this, and you need to accept this. They wanted a role-playing quirk. You are trying to push them to accept a potentially-substantial extra disadvantage not seen by any other character in order to have it. That isn’t anything the game calls for (since, per the first paragraph, it causes problems), isn’t what the player tacitly agreed to when they agreed to play D&D (since, per the second paragraph, it isn’t how the game models poor memory), and thus really isn’t an appropriate demand for you to make. It could have been an idea to bring up, if the player was interested you could have tried to balance it out with some other bonus, but they weren’t. That’s their call and that’s when you needed to back off.

All this player is saying is that they have normal kinds of poor memory, the kind that suggests a below-average Intelligence score. What you are trying to do is turn that into some kind of special, severe chronic ailment, the kind that suggests a medical diagnosis and quite possibly an early retirement—certainly from a career as demanding as adventuring. That isn’t what they’re going for and they’ve said as much. That should have been the end of the conversation, and I think it would be appropriate to apologize for pushing on them so hard on this.

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You say your player is a good role player, so trust them to be a good role player.

You’ve said they are a good role player. So trust them to handle this trait appropriately through good role playing. They have expressed discontent with ruling that there are mechanical disadvantages to this trait, so implementing these mechanical disadvantages discourages fun and discourages role playing. They are correct - there is a reason personality traits and flaws presented in the character creation material don’t have mechanical effects tied to them. In my experience, unless the player has signed up for these mechanical effects, they discourage role playing.

I tried playing a character that temporarily suffered from short term memory loss due to a good bonk. I was on board with mechanical disadvantages and it still was an unsuccessful experiment. At first all was well, but during the second session I found my self shifting the responsibility for role playing on to the DM. I felt that the disadvantage was beginning to feel punishing, and the DM would call for a check when my short term memory should be involved.

If they are a good role player as you say, letting them handle it themselves without punishing it mechanically should be sufficient.

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Let The Player Play Their Character

...Because that's how D&D works.

There are some games where character building works explicitly on a "points buy" system for everything. These systems often include disadvantageous things that can be "bought" for negative points, thus allowing more points to be spent in an area of particular strength. GURPS is the system that comes to mind most readily, but it's not the only one.

(Compare and contrast to the PHB "Variant: Customizing Ability Scores" on page 13, where you use a points buy system only for the six basic stats. You don't have the option to buy a stat lower than 8 in exchange for more points elsewhere.)

In systems like this, it makes perfectly good sense to put some mechanical teeth behind those disadvantageous mechanics for the following reasons:

  1. The player fundamentally gets something-- more points for more or stronger advantages in play. There is a notion of fairness and game balance, here.

  2. There is a type of player who will be all over those disads, glomming on to them in exchange for more points, More Points, MORE POINTS without ever really intending to play the disadvantages or let them affect the character in play. For these players, that notion of fairness and game balance needs an enforcement mechanism, either at the discretion of the GM or codified into mechanics.

  3. In addition fairness and balance, there is an element of player choice to be respected, here: When I played a lot of GURPS back in college, I tended toward physical disadvantages (character lost an eye, character bought a stat down) or sometimes social disadvantages (character is poor, character has an enemy or rival) but almost never took mental disadvantages (character has a temper) which would lessen my agency as a player. (Honestly, as a GURPS GM, I didn't like those either, but some players really do, so I didn't feel I could disallow them.)

But Dungeons and Dragons does not work like that. It's not a points buy system, except and unless that variant stats system is in play, and only to that extent.

I obviously can't quote the whole chapter, but nothing in Chapter 4 ("Personalities And Background") which describes traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws suggests to me (or your player!) that flaws or negative traits should be backed up with enforcement mechanics, and nothing in your proposed mechanic describes any positive balancing aspect that they receive in exchange for the penalty.

And honestly, it's not clear if you're singling out this one player/character for special treatment, or if you're trying to force this on everyone at the table. Both are bad, in my opinion, but singling out one player/character for this is virtually guaranteed to cause friction, argument, and might very well end up in a walk-out.

In my book, you're definitely violating both the rules and the spirit of the D&D framework. To the extent that you're thinking about it in terms of point-buy systems, you're violating the spirit of that kind of systems methodology too.

So how do you deal with this player?

Apologize, and tell them they can role play their trait/flaw as they desire.

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I agree with some of the other answers, but I also play much looser with mechanics (and expect my players to be good with that) than a lot of people. If I want RIGID adherence to all mechanical rules... I'll play a @#$%ing video game. TTRPGs are for the RP part as far as I'm concerned... so ways this might go down at my table:

  • I might intentionally omit some pertinent reminder information if the character has a bad memory
  • I might have them roll with Disadvantage on occasion where it would add to the drama
  • I'd award them a Hero Point (I use a homebrew version of Hero Points - variations of which can be found all over) any time they volunteered that their character probably didn't remember a pertinent bit of the story, making the game more interesting/amusing/fun/exciting for everyone.
  • If we thought there should be a hard-mechanic to the bad memory, then I'd definitely give them something to balance that out. A free feat. Unrelated stat increase. That pet they desperately wanted when they were making their character. And so forth.

Outside of some of the very basic mechanics, I'm willing to throw out anything that doesn't help the table have fun at any point in time. If the player is pissed off about a rule I'm imposing... unless it is crucial to maintaining the shared fantasy for everyone, I try to either nix it or mod it to something more palatable.

I think every DM ever has had to make this judgement call around Encumbrance rules. How important is enforcing them to SOME extent to maintain the suspension of disbelief (No, Jardoth can NOT carry a couple of wagons around in his backpack), without making it a boring numbers-crunching chore.

To blather further: that is the heart of WHY there are mechanics in TTRPGs - to allow us to be in the same playspace and suspend our disbelief enough to get invested. Even where the min-maxing and crazy-rules adherence comes in for some people - without being otherwise invested in the game, there's nothing to get them invested in the numbers. So if a mechanic isn't helping with that - it's not worth your time. If a LACK of a mechanic is hurting everyone's ability to invest in the game, then you need to find it. But just making up mechanics for mechanic's sake isn't gonna get you anywhere you wanna be.

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The rules-lawyers don't want you to know this simple trick, which I've used as a mere player:


So, a PC has a flaw, and you want to represent this mechanically. This can be done without any actual mechanical changes, with just backstory:

First give character, say, +6 extra INT (+3 bonus) because they got good stats, except...

Then give them -6 INT because they really do forget things. So they have exactly the same INT they had before, so there is no mechanical change.

Then, use this role-playing guideline: whenever they roll 1..3 and fail on an intelligence ability check, describe (or let the player describe) how they are quite sure they know this thing they rolled for, but just can't recall...

Tweak numbers above as best fits the flavor you are looking for. And if you are concerned about, for example, investigation checks being with the same bonus, well... sometimes they just forget to check every pocket, and check another one twice, etc.


Back in the day, needed to justify the weak physical stats of an ex-gladiator Warlock PC. It kept me happy, and the DM was like "umm, no, you do not need my permission to adjust your character's abilities by total zero points from what you rolled..." They also were only happy to oblige my desire to describe certain failed rolls with specific kind of descriptions. It should work equally well with player-DM roles reversed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm having a hard time understanding what you're trying to get at with this. I think you're saying don't change their Intelligence at all, just make it that when they roll a 1-3 on the d20 your description is that they can't recall things due to their poor memory. Can you clarify? \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Mar 30 at 13:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pyrotechnical The OP expresses, that they feel the PC's character flaw should be somehow represented mechanically. I say this is fine and easy and balanced, as long as they give the character higher imaginary stats, which are thwn reduced due to the flaws, bringing the character on the level with other PCs. Ie. this is solution to the subjective "feeling" problem of the DM. \$\endgroup\$ – WakiNadiVellir Mar 30 at 14:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you explain how "increase Int by 6 then decrease it by 6" is meaningfully different to applying no mechanical change at all? \$\endgroup\$ – Andrzej Doyle Mar 31 at 15:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AndrzejDoyle For some people, the reasons behind stats are important. Character backstory needs to be "real" in a sense. I couldn't imagine an STR 10 gladiator, it bothered me. The OP can't imagine "bad memory" trait without it being explained by the stats. Same problem, possibly same solution. \$\endgroup\$ – WakiNadiVellir Apr 1 at 4:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like what you're presenting here - I think some folks are just having a hard time conceptualizing it. It may be better restated as: Given that all PC's should have relatively equitable foundations, if a "disadvantage" like a bad memory, is NOT being offset by a positive ADVANTAGE, make the disadvantage accounted for in the character's existing stats - thereby using particularly bad rolls as the mechanical motivation for application of the roleplayed trait. So, yes - it is a "net zero" impact on stats, but DOES provide a mechanic. \$\endgroup\$ – webnesto Apr 2 at 21:19
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You definitely shouldn't unilaterally give the player disadvantage because of a character quirk, but you might offer to trade them something for it. A bad memory could be a boon; perhaps they are resistant to some charm spells like Friends or Suggestion (which are rare enough that it would likely be balanced) and will only spend 1/4th of the specified time under the effect of the spell.

Then on the fifth session you have the whole party get charmed, and they snap out of it six hours early.

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