When making a character - whether as a GM or player - the recommendation is to give that character flaws. Flaws make the character more unique and more interesting. They help the character generate stories, appeal to the rest of the table, and can even make them more sympathetic in a way. There is only one problem: when it comes to RPGs a lot of what people list as flaws aren't actually flaws, they're limitations. Limitations are great to have as well, but they're not flaws, and as such they don't do the full job you really want from a flaw. Today I want to talk about that.
A Limitation is an Obstacle
To over simplify it, a limitation is an obstacle. It is not something the character chooses. It is not something the character can do anything about. It simply is. Limitations can be great ways to highlight aspects of a setting as certain settings have different things count as a limitation. For example, being a peasant in an L5R game is a limitation on the character. Being a pesant in Dungeons and Dragons is not.
It can be more than just social aspects though. Missing a hand is a big limitation in a game without limb replacement or regrowing technology/magic, but not in worlds with that ability. In those worlds you'd need something like "Cyber Allergies" where the limitation is if you lose a limb, you can't just buy one at the local stuffer shack and keep going.
To restate, a limitation is an obstacle that is there with nothing the character can really choose to do about it. You can't choose to have a hand if it is missing. You can't choose to stop being allergic to cybernetic implants. You can't choose to disobey the 3 laws of robotics if you're playing an Aasimovian android character. They are problems you have to deal with, but they're not flaws.
Flaws Dictate Choices & Actions
I could over simplify a flaw to a choice, but that doesn't feel quite right. Instead, I'll boil it down to the fact that flaws dictate choices and actions. The other key parts about flaws is that they can be overcome. Flaws are part of who we are, and they can define who we are, but they can also change. We can grow from them.
Racism is a flaw. Hubris is a flaw. Naivete is a flaw.
These are things that dictate the choices and actions of a character. A character makes things worse for themselves with flaws. The flaw brings things into conflict. And that in turn helps to generate good story and good encounters.
Superman Is Boring
One of the common complaints thrown at Superman is that he is boring. He is too perfect. He has no weaknesses. Stories about him are broing because of those factors. To which the common response is that Superman does have a weakness, kryptonite.
The thing is, done straight kryptonite isn't much of a weakness. Kryptonie removes Superman's powers, and should be incredibly rare. Kryptonite doesn't really make things worse for Superman, it just makes Superman normal in that moment. Most people have to worry about being shot. Superman does not. If kryptonite is in the area, superman now has to worry about getting shot. Comics over the years have made kryptonite more debilitating for Superman to make things more interesting, but in part from that how kryptonite effects him is largely inconsistent.
Batman's Rogues Are More Interesting
Batman is also often called boring, and his stand out arcs tend to emphasize a similar theme: how does batman's flaws match up with those of his Rogues. One of the Batman brand's biggest strengths is how interesting his Rogues Gallery is, and for good reason. All of Batman's rogues are flawed in very different, interesting ways. Which in turn makes those characters very interesting.
Yes, some of them have limitations on them, but their flaws are what make them interesting. Riddler is just some guy asking weird questions. Throw in his hubris, his need to prove he is smarter, and you end up with a character working themselves to the bone to make death traps that by their nature have to have a solution because an unsolvable problem is not outsmarting the opponent.
Poison Ivy has straddled the line between villain and hero for a long time, all without changing her core character of someone who loves the natural world of plants - perhaps more than people - and wants to preserve it against the spread of humanity that has proven so dangerous. That flaw, or quirk, of hers to value plants more than people makes it easy to paint her as a hero - fighting to preserve the land from corporate pollution while working with more reasonable people - or as a villain - turning people into trees because their new house is where some endangered plant could grow to keep it alive.
Batman's own flaws - his need to be in control all the time, his insane drive to be the one man force against crime, his need to do things alone, his tendency to get overprotective of people he puts in suits and tells to jump around people firing assault weapons - make up the majority of his own most interesting stories. Why do they work? Because people don't want to see if he wins or not - we know he is going to win eventually - but we want to see how far he has to go, and is willing to go, this time to make it happen - or what he won't do to make it happen earlier.
Both Make Things Harder
The confusion comes in that both Limitations and Flaws make things harder for the character. Being a sword fighter is harder when you're blind. Not being able to read can make life much harder. But a flaw makes the character make things harder and more interesting for themselves.
Two characters with different limitations can go through identical stories. It doesn't matter if a sword fighter is blind or one handed. Either way they walk into the village, beat up the local gangs, get bloodied up themselves, and ultimately win in the end because they're the protagonist. The limitation can make some parts of that interesting, sure, and it is always interesting to hear how a limitation happened or was overcome. But a flaw? You give those characters two different flaws, and the story can play out very differently.
A blind swordswoman who is innocent and naive likely ends up working for the criminals before realizing what is going on - if they ever do - and has to work through things that way. While a blind swordsman who is greedy could play out a lot more like the movie Yojimbo or A Fist Full of Dollars played out.
So give your character a flaw. It makes them more interesting.