Three Character Sheets to the Wind
Since we just had a conversation about characters, now seems like a good time to talk about character sheets. Character sheets are useful for some types of games, but in others they only serve to limit characters and gum up the works. How can we as gamewriters determine whether character sheets will be right for our game?
Are character sheets right for me?
Essentially, your game should have character sheets if you determine that there is information that needs to be communicated to a group of players smaller than their PC team, in order to achieve any of the goals of the game. Those goals might include making the flow of your game work properly, pushing any of your themes, or any other goal you might have.
If the information needs to be communicated to everyone, use your world background. If it needs to be communicated to a group, use a group background. If it needs to be communicated to part of a PC team, but not the whole PC team, even down to just one player, character sheets are the way to go.
But what should a character sheet have on it?
Good question. A character sheet should have everything that you want to determine about the character before the player picks up the process of developing him or her further.
That’s pretty vague.
I know! I’m about to go into some specifics. Stop being so hasty.
Character sheets often include biographical details for the character written in a prose style – things like the character’s name, where they were born, who their parents were, if they have any siblings, etc. Unless one of the characters relatives is in the game, or some biographical detail turns out to be a plot point in the game, this is flavor material.
WHAT?! But that’s like 90% of all character sheets everywhere!
That’s true. A lot of gamewriters like to give their players a lot of flavor to work with when creating their character. It’s important for gamewriters to remember that they cannot control every aspect of their game, as much as they might like to, especially in terms of characters. At some point, they have pitched the ball, and it is up to the players to catch it. It just depends on how much “spin” a gamewriter wants to put on the ball, as it were.
A character sheet MUST have what is necessary to make events continue to happen in the game, i.e. to make the game run. For instance, if it is necessary for some PC to know that she is the secret heir to an ancient queen, for the moment when the mystic asks if “any of you brave adventurers have royal blood”, that is something that must go on a character sheet. In a less structured game, where the plot depends on characters having goals and trying to achieve those goals, character sheets are essential for obvious reasons – each player must know their character’s goals so they have something to do in game. The same is true for the opposite reason: each player must know if their character has something to do with any other character’s goals, whether it’s to thwart them or help them be achieved.
But how do I write them?
Good question! Thank you for your patience.
When writing character sheets, it’s often helpful to have some kind of standard format – whether it’s something as simple as putting the name at the top and then a page of prose detailing a character’s life, or as complex as having five different fields that must be filled in with short phrases, or something in between. The more thought that is put in to the structure of your character sheets before you start writing them, the easier they often are to write.
For specific character sheets, it can be easy to lose track of the character concept you started with, as you get distracted with interesting bits of backstory and characterization. As such, I often find it helpful to try to sum up the character’s core or tone in a single pithy opening line, like “you’ve been hurt before, and this time you’ll get things right,” or, “you’re a woman on a mission, and nothing’s going to get in your way.” As in all things, while being artsy and experimental can be fun, clarity is vital to actually accomplishing your goals.
How about some examples?
You got it, buddy! Let’s start with a classic: Graduation Day. If you go onto the Wayfinder Experience Wiki article for the game, you will see that some brave souls saved and typed out their entire character sheets after the camp. This wiki, though tragically in need of some serious updating, is a great resource for gamewriters, by the way.
The character sheets written for Graduation Day follow a very simple structure: They start with the character’s shadow name in bold, then a field for the character’s age, also in bold, and then a field for the character’s real name. What follows is about a page of prose detailing the character’s life from their birth to the moment of the beginning of the game. This obviously gave players a lot to go on in terms of further developing their characters and their relationships to their teammates, and since the game followed a fairly standard diamond flow, further elaboration on their goals was unnecessary.
Other games have made use of character sheets with more structure. Auctoritas, the most recent Winter Game, had sheets that each had four fields: Name, Relationships, Wants, and Has. The first two are pretty self-explanatory. The last two were essentially lists of goals and resources. Since these formed the majority of the gameplay, they were extremely necessary to explicitly state. There was sometimes a short prose description of the character, when it was deemed that some of the goals and resources needed linking up into some kind of narrative, but most of the time, that was it. The players were set loose to create the kind of person they want to be, using information from the world and group backgrounds.
Most games we run do not make use of character sheets at all. Players are left to make up their character without any flavor information from the gamewriter. This is a completely legitimate way to write excellent, interesting games. Players are surprisingly good at picking up on flavor of your world and creating characters to match.
Whether or not to write character sheets, and what type and to what extent, depends entirely on the needs of the game in question. And keep in mind, these examples are only meant to provide a framework. Feel free to experiment, by all means. Good luck in your submissions!
Original post 1/10/14