Character Sheets

Steve Hatherley

Character sheets can, for me, make or break a game. A badly laid out and formatted character sheet gives me no end of frustration during play – and in the past has lead me to miss things that I should have known. And that’s meant that I haven’t enjoyed the game as much as I might have.

(It might also have meant that the game didn’t go in the direction the author intended, but as long as most of the players enjoyed themselves I’m not actually sure that’s something to worry about.)

The problem comes down to the fact that there are basically two types of players. There are those that do need to refer to their character sheet during the game, and there are those that don’t. I’m in the latter camp. I need to refer to my character sheet because I have a terrible memory for names and facts. My brain is also wired so that if something is written down, I won’t remember it (because it’s written down).

So I find myself referring to my character sheet over and over again – particularly during the early part of the freeform when I’m still finding my feet.

The other problem I have is that I tend to read quite fast – I will skim something in preference to taking my time over it. Unfortunately, that means that it can be easy for me to miss important information if it’s buried in five pages of single-spaced 10 point text…

So for me character sheet design is an important part of designing a freeform. In essence, I need character sheets to be clear and well organised. I need to be able to find the information quickly in the heat of the game – nobody is happy when I can’t find the information I require.

Because I have this issue with character sheets, I have spent some time thinking about them and what I’m looking for.

The Basics

The purpose of a character sheet is to convey information – and to convey it clearly and concisely. Purple prose and great narrative passages are fine for your novel, but they are out of place in a character sheet. Brevity is generally to be praised (but don’t be too brief!).

When developing your character sheet you should bear in mind that you have two types of player to cater for – those that need to refer to the character sheet during the game, and those that don’t. You don’t need to worry about the latter – they will take care of themselves. For the former, however, their game will be improved if they can find the information they need on their character sheet quickly and efficiently.

In general, a character sheet consists of a variety of sections – such as background, goals, secrets, other people, starting positions and the like. I have categorised these either as Background or Administration. The background sets the scene and has details of plots and the character’s history. The administration sections recap some of the background and provides some of the dull bits and pieces. The two should, of course, be seamlessly woven together so that you can’t tell the difference.

Background

I find that there are usually four parts to the background – Basic Details, Background Story, Other People, Information.

Basic details: These are things like the character’s name, their age and gender. This section may also includes things like race, occupation or social class. Basic details are often presented as a series of bullet points at the top of the character sheet, and may be summarised on the character’s name badge.

Background Story: The background story is usually the “meat” of the character sheet – but all it has to do is answer three basic questions: Who the character is, why they are present and what they are trying to achieve.

The background story is usually the first part of the character sheet and needs to immediately give a small thumbnail sketch of who the character is, before launching to detailed background information and recent history. “You are Georgie Smith, a happy-go-lucky antiques dealer and you are here because you are interested in the newly-discovered Dickens manuscript.” This immediately sets the scene and helps me understand who the character is.

The background story will also contain tie-ins to other plots in the game, and will draw in other characters as required.

It can be useful to highlight the names of characters (and possibly locations) in bold to make them stand out at a glance.

Other People: This section contains a list of people that the character knows, along with a nugget of information about each.

The key here is that nugget of information – it should be something that isn’t part of the public information. (If you just repeat the public information you’re just wasting everyone’s time.) Ideally the information about the other character will be enough to make the player start a conversation – either with the character concerned or someone else.

You can also introduce plot information here if you didn’t do it in the background story.

There is an argument that says that everything in the Other People section should already have been in the background, but I don’t buy that. It’s important to me to keep character sheets short – so repeating information is bad. If you’ve discussed a character in the background story, you don’t need to mention them again in Other People – unless you’re adding new information.

Information: In some games I have found it useful to give characters specific facts and knowledge (or even rumours) – and sometimes the simplest way of doing this is simply to include an “Information” section in their character sheet.

This is particularly true if I am writing a game in an unusual setting as I may need to convey particular information to certain characters that’s important to the game but I don’t want to bury it in the game background (or I don’t want it to be common knowledge). Having a separate section also allows me to tailor the information for each character.

Administration

I regard the rest of a character sheet as “Administration” as, strictly, none of it is necessary. However, it’s required to make things move smoothly and because in the heat of the battle few players have time to carefully re-read their character sheet again. And again.

Remember, our goal is to make things as clear as possible for the poor players. (It’s quite likely that the Administration sections of the character sheet and the Background are interwoven – which is as it should be.)

Goals: The character’s goals and objectives for the freeform should be clearly and explicitly stated. While it’s common for these to be listed through a simple bullet point list, I prefer to include some explanatory text to reduce the need to hunt through the background waffle.

Goals should be internally consistent with what has been written about the character in the background. Please don’t introduce new goals at this stage.

Secrets: Some character sheets have a section that includes secrets. As with goals, any secrets should just confirm what is in the background – this isn’t the place to introduce new secrets.

The main reason for having a separate section for secrets is to allow them to be the target of special abilities. If you are going to allow players to read each other’s secrets through the use of abilities, then you might want to consider what secrets you list. For example, in a murder mystery game you might not want the murderer to be revealed by reading secrets as it’s better if everyone has to work it out the hard way.

Items, Money and Other Stuff: A lot of character sheets also have a section detailing the other things that are in the character sheet – money, items, abilities, special rules and the like. These help both in packing the envelope in the first place,
and they are also a useful check when the player receives their character pack.

First moves: I tend to use first moves for games that I am writing for new players – although I find that experienced players find them useful. They certainly help to get the game moving.

I try to write them so that they are as specific as possible (“Talk to Mel Brown and find out why she wasn’t at the party last night”) and if possible I try not to give away any important plot issues. The important thing with first moves is to get unsure players to start talking to one another – not to get them to solve the plot in the first 30 minutes.

Starting Positions: In some games it can be useful for characters to start the game in different locations. They might then be restricted to those locations for the first 20-30 minutes before being allowed to roam the gamespace generally. If you’re planning to have starting positions, then it’s a good idea to include them on the character sheet.

Overall character concept: For a large game you may easily have a 7-8 page (or more) character sheet. In that case it’s worth starting the character sheet with an overall character concept (two or three paragraphs explaining the core character) and their overall goals. That way the player has a good idea of what the character is about and their major themes before they start reading the bulk of the character sheet.

(This is essentially the same as the thumbnail sketch of the character that I mention above – although in more detail.)

An overall character concept has a couple of other advantages. If you are writing a game with several authors, agreeing on the overall character concepts at the start of the writing process will make the game easier to write. The overall character concept can also be used to brief players in advance of the game.

Author’s Notes: The author may need to add some notes to the character sheet – some general guidance for the character which will help the game. For example you may need to explain to the villain of your game that he/she is the villain and they should act as such (and that they should expect to come to a sticky end). Or you might need to explain that the Montagues and Capulets are bitter rivals and under no circumstances should they come to any kind of agreement or deal. (I mention this because in my experience freeformers are quick to end such feuds with easy compromises. Sometimes you need to be direct.)

Design and Layout

Design and layout of the character sheet is largely a matter of personal preference – but here are a few things that can make players’ lives easier.

White space: Make sure there’s plenty of white space on the character sheet. Reasonable margins, breaks between sections or paragraphs – that sort of thing. This is not only easier to read, but allows players to make their own notes.

Font size: Please don’t make font size too small. Teeny font sizes are hard to read, particularly in dim light.

Special abilities and character sheets

If you are using special abilities in your freeform, I recommend fixing the layout of your character sheets early on in the writing process so that you know how they interact with the special abilities. You can then write those sections knowing that they may end up being the target of special abilities. You therefore can therefore put critical information in those sections and avoid the risk that players keep information so close to their chests that nobody finds out the information they need.

(An aside: some freeformers like to hoard information, and you can use your character sheet and ability cards to help reduce hoarding and get the information out and into the game.)

Some examples of ability cards I’ve used:

  • After talking briefly to another player, show this card to them. They have revealed more than they intended and must must show you their top goal.
  • You see that person over there? What can you tell me about them? After talking briefly to any other person, show them this card and point to another person. They must then tell you everything that their character sheet says about that person.
  • After talking briefly to another player, show this card to them. They have revealed more than they intended and must must show you everything in their Information section.

Real Life Example – Freeform Games

At Freeform Games we publish interactive murder mystery games and sell them to the public at large. This style of murder mystery game is very similar to a freeform and lasts about 2.5-3 hours. We are therefore careful about how our character sheets are structured, and they’re structured to be easy to read.

Click here to see an example of one of our character sheets.

(We have created a facility to allow our customers to create their own characters – if they do this and we publish them, they will earn themselves a free game. Click here to learn more.)

Note that we have an “Information” and “Secret” section on the ability cards.

We’ve done this so that the players can reveal their information or secret without having to show their whole character sheet.

Last Words

As with all things, character sheets must be designed to suit your particular game. However, by designing character sheets so that they make it easy to play the character, you can help make your freeform run more smoothly.

Article by Steve Hatherley.

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