: Things on Character Sheets
Eight and a half hours until the Game Chef ingredients!
Things on character sheets, in particular characteristic, skills, and whatnot. What is their purpose, and are we going about the right way of fulfilling their purpose?
The latter: no, mostly we aren't going about the right way of fulfilling their purpose. We're held back by our loyalty to the broken old historical approach, it blinds us to what's really going on. We collectively need to do character sheets and what they're for a whole lot better, if we want to accomplish anything.
Accordingly, the former: ready? This is intense.
Imagine Thatcher's London. Imagine a person in Thatcher's London who has everything to lose.
That's a character. That's a whole, playable, complete character. If I ask you to speak in that character's voice, you can; if I present some threat or challenge, you can tell me easily how that character will react; if I describe a morning and ask you what that character will do in it, you'll know. Take ten minutes to think and that character's as real as can be.
Character sheets are useless when it comes to creating, describing, defining, realizing characters. Totally pointless, valueless, toss 'em in the recycling. A notebook is helpful for remembering things, or 3x5 cards or post-it notes, let's use those instead. Or let's use nothing at all, if we can remember what we need to remember! Probably we can.
This isn't (just) to Collin but to everybody: I can't teach you anything useful about RPG design if you persist in thinking that mechanical character creation or the character sheet have anything to do with the character at all. It's a misleading historical mistake to call the process and the paper "character-" anything. If you want to get anywhere, if you want to understand, if you want to create anything at all, you have to let that old error go.
So we start right here at this point: the character exists only in our minds. If we write something down about the character, it's only to remind us, to help us keep the character in our minds. The character cannot be touched by rules or game mechanics at all, under any circumstances, no exceptions. The character is pure inviolate fiction. This is fundamental and inescapable.
And from there we build.
I say, "my character, this guy in Thatcher's london, who has everything to lose, he goes to his lover's flat and convinces him to keep their affair private." You say, "y'know, I don't think that his lover is inclined to keep their affair private, do you?" And I say, "no, I suppose not, but my character is desperate to convince him anyway. In fact, he brings an antique revolver with him in his jacket pocket, in case he can't."
(Look, just look: the character has no "character sheet," but he's a whole character, fully realized. I can play him effortlessly.)
How do we decide what comes true?
We can simply agree. That works great, as long as we really do just simply agree.
We could flip a coin for it. Let's do that: heads my character convinces yours to keep their secret, tails he murders him instead.
Or y'know, that's a lot to deal with. Let's have a rule: whenever a character's life is at stake, that character's player gets to call for one re-flip of the coin.
On the other hand, isn't my character's life at stake too? His wife, his kids, his position, his money, his everything? Which should have more weight between us, your character's life or my character's "life"? Shall we go best two of three, or is that setting life and "life" too equal?
How about this: we'll roll a die. If it comes up 1 or 2, your character will refuse and mine will kill him; if it comes up 3-6, your character will agree to keep the secret and (unknowingly) thereby save his life. It's unequal because my character killing yours is less to your liking than your character ruining mine's life is to mine. It's unequal to be fair to us, the players.
Notice that we haven't considered which is more likely at all. We probably agree that it's more likely, in fact, that your character will refuse, so my character will shoot him. But that doesn't matter - either could happen, so we roll according to what's at stake.
Also, notice that we aren't rolling to see whether your character values his life in the face of my character's gun in any way. We're rolling to see if your character agrees to keep the secret without ever knowing about the gun, or if he refuses without knowing about the gun and my character shoots and kills him.
What we have here is a resolution mechanism with no character sheet. It treats all outcomes as equal, except in cases where it's "a character dies" vs. "a character's life is radically and permanently changed." In those cases, it biases toward the latter.
Let's add a wrinkle. Let's say that over the course of the whole game, each of us is allowed 10 rerolls, no questions asked. Just in case we want another shot at our preferred outcome. Now we need a "character sheet," except that of course it's really a player sheet. We need to keep track of how many of our rerolls we've spent.
Let's add another wrinkle. Let's say that at the beginning of the game, we each choose a sure thing, a limited circumstance where we don't roll, but instead one or the other of us just chooses what happens. I choose "my character's children are in the scene." You choose "once per session, at my whim."
Here, this late, I've finally made a mechanical reference to the fiction of the game. I still haven't considered probabilities at all, and do you see how "my character's children are in the scene" and "once per session" are the same? They're resources for us to use, us the players, to have more control over what becomes true.
Maybe we should write them down on our player sheets too, so that if we forget or get sloppy we can call one another on it.
But so okay, that's pretty good, but how do we come to agreement about the two possible outcomes in the first place? Here's a rule: neither outcome can overreach the present capabilities of the characters involved. That makes sense; if my character didn't bring the revolver, I shouldn't be insisting upon "shoot and kill" as a possible outcome, right? Same with my character's skills and foibles as with his belongings. Like, if I establish that my character has a weak heart, that opens up some possible outcomes for us to propose; if I establish that my character is an excellent driver, that opens and closes some others.
Come to think of it, when do I get to decide if my character has access to an antique revolver, has a weak heart, is an excellent driver? Do I get to decide on the fly or do I have to declare it up front?
Either way, I should write all this stuff down on my player sheet, as I establish it. That way I know what I'm allowed to propose as possible outcomes.
See how this goes? The "character sheet" isn't about the character. Maybe - maybe - it refers to details of the character, if that's what our resolution rules care about. But either way, even if so, the "character sheet" is really a record of the player's resources. "Character creation" similarly isn't how you create a character, but rather how you the player establish your resources to start.
If you like, you can design your game so that the player's resources depend wholly on details of the character.
Or you can just as easily design your game so that the player's resources don't refer to details of the character at all.
Or a mix, that's easiest of all.
Whichever way, you need to establish what resources the player has to begin with, and you'll probably want to write 'em down. That's what's really going on.
Everybody good so far?
1. On 2005-05-20, Chris Goodwin wrote:
I just learned more about game design in the five minutes of reading this post than I have, like, ever.
As you go on there, I nod more and more, but the beginning assertions don't sit well with me, just cuz I don't think I understand them.
I look at a character as a nexus of relationships, desires, and resources. Those are all effected by the story, which is constructed mechanically. How, then can you say "The character cannot be touched by rules or game mechanics at all, under any circumstances, no exceptions."?
As a player, I wield those relationships, desires, and resources how I want so the character goes the way I want. I do so by the rules, mechanically.
I'd be shocked, really shocked, if you didn't think that was true, so I'm going with the other option: I just don't understand what you're saying with that statement.
J: "As a player, I wield those relationships, desires, and resources how I want so the character goes the way I want. I do so by the rules, mechanically." Exactly. You're between the rules and the character. The rules can't touch the character; only you and I can.
Recent experience between playing some bog-standard Unknown Armies and collecting artbooks and sketching is teaching me how far away rpgs are in dealing with characters than how comics, movies, cartoons, videogames or any other media deals with them.
For many games, you "build up" a character as a collection of traits and mechanical abilities and then draw an idea of who your character is from that... which may or may not match with the concept you had to begin with. For any other media, you get the concept, and then add details later. The filtering process of the "build up" character often prevents certain kinds of character concepts from ever being reinforced mechanically, while the "build down" usually has a lot of integrity to vision.
The myth that the sheet = character is just another ugly myth we can shoot any moment now.
Sweet fancy Moses, V! Yes, I'm with you. I can't wait to see where you go next, because right now I'm at the top of the hill on the rollercoaster and my arms are raised. I think I see a loop in the distance.
But... (you saw that coming, right?) the little arrows in your diagram go both ways. The things written down on paper (cues) are not only an attempt to approximate the things in our heads (SIS). Sometimes the mechanical cues tell us stuff about the imagined character that we didn't know beforehand.
To (mis?)quote Ron Edwards, "sometimes the dice tell you that today is the day your character gets kicked to the curb." And likewise, even something as mechanics-fiddly as "Hmmm, I have a spare 1/2 point, what's a neat skill, oh, okay, 'small sailboat' -- now why does he have THAT?" can prompt you to imagine your character more richly.
I'm thinking particularly of Tony Lower-Basch's CAPES here, where you write down a bunch of often loosely worded abilities and often end up discovering just what they mean in play. But DiTV does this too, especially when you look at the Fallout list and think "Oh! It'd be cool if she changed like THAT!"
But yeah, the essential point: a character's not real, it's just a tool for the real person playing. Yes.
Imagine Thatcher's London. Imagine a person in Thatcher's London who has everything to lose.
That's a character. That's a whole, playable, complete character.
I don't agree. I am sure that you, Vincent, can wield that thought as a complete character. I don't agree that that's all anybody needs.
I do agree that the stuff on the sheet is for you, as player, and the other players and GM (if there is one). However, I think that the stuff on the page is all there to give context to you and the others. It isn't (just) about resources. It can be, but I think that path leads to problems. The stuff you write down about your character tells the other players about what you want from the game. It tells of your expectations. It gives the others hooks to grab onto and knobs and levers to play with.
I really need to get my context article finished, so I can articluate all of this better. It isn't going to happen this week though--I'll be busy with my IGC game design work.
I think Chris is mostly onto something, but the idea behind the Rorschach test comes to mind as a complication.
I see "building up" as this: using the game's options as a lunch buffet, an objective stimulus (psych 100, what!!) that can get our brains tingling. It doesn't necessarily provide characters, but it can sometimes provide lifeless elements that we can breathe into.
Consider Vincent's British family-man, with Thatcher's England as a given for our setting.
"Building down" could be "I want to play a closeted gay man with a lot to lose if he's outed."
"Building up" could be "I see that 'Middle Class' and 'Family Man' are some of the traits available. What comes to mind?"
I think that the 3rd ed. D&D "Hero Builder's Guidebook", and really any so-called "random background generator" for that matter, provides a similar Rorschach test, so to speak. You have some objective traits to choose from, usually pretty practical and/or skill-oriented in most games, and these help get your juices flowing.
I mean, they don't have to. I totally agree with the idea that they can limit your possibilities. The class system in D&D is a strong enforcement of Build-Up, and Vampire might be even stronger (since each clan[read: class]in V:tM brings an array of stereotypes with it).
Donjon, on the other hand, has a class system that really pushes Build-Down, since there *are* no standard classes or races per se, simply our preconceptions about the donjon-krawling game genre.
When people aren't too familiar with a particular setting, it might be a useful kick in the pants to push a Build Up, just to establish examples of roles. I agree that a sheet isn't a character, but I do think that it can provide a tool to place your character in the setting's social framework.
Unrelated but important: does anyone have any resources on managing a roleplaying group with varied Creative Agendas? Watching my CP's (character-players) handle char. creation suggests that I've got a pretty sharp Nar: 1 CP Gam: 1 CP split going on.
Sydney: "Sometimes the mechanical cues tell us stuff about the imagined character that we didn't know beforehand."
Put the creativity where it belongs. Thusly: sometimes the mechanical cues provoke us to create stuff about the imagined character that we hadn't created beforehand.
As long as you don't think of any of the mechanical cues as representing the fiction or vice versa, you're fine. Instead, recognize that the players can manipulate the cues according to what's in the fiction, they can manipulate the fiction according to what's in the cues, but representation isn't what's truly happening in either direction.
Jay: "The stuff you write down about your character tells the other players about what you want from the game. It tells of your expectations. It gives the others hooks to grab onto and knobs and levers to play with."
I consider all of these things to be, straightforwardly, player resources.
Player resources can be (and usually are) a hell of a lot more interesting and subtle than "you get 10 rerolls, no questions asked." No contradiction a'tall!
Most people I've played freeform with had no character sheet at all, though some did write extensive background stories because they felt that that helped them develop the character.
Now, in the current freeform game I am running, I made my fellow players write out traits and relationships for their characters, rated with the importance they want them to have for the game. That might fall under player resource for me (the GM, as I use it for bangs and the likes), or simply under communication about what we want the game to be about.
Hey Vincent, if we can't call it representation, what the heck do we say? I wanna say "the representation of characters in Over the Edge and Primetime Adventures" shows that all you need is about as much info as V. wrote above to have a playable character" but I can't. Guess I'll go with "written cues for".
Hey Matthijs! Re: Tools
I'm talking about the way that character resources have been traditionally used as the parameters for player contribution to the SIS. This may be a bit of a tangent.
MJ posted recently on the Forge about the stances (actor, author, director) as ways to distribute credibility, or the authority that a player has to make stuff up et al. With Actor stance, the lines are restricted to in character materials. The creative resources available to you are those that draw legitimacy from their connection with the character. Hence the myth Vincent is poking holes in here that the written cues of a character sheet represent the character. Director stance broadens the area of input to include setting, system etc.
So what I'm seeing is that the character has become a short hand for the creative purview of the player. What I meant by other tools is that if we disengage the idea of the character from player contribution, you suddenly have access to activities & powers that were off the map before. All the positioning mechanics (Spite & playing the Gods in Great Ork Gods, Trust in the Mountain Witch, Fanmail) have nothing to do with "your" character. They are pure player to player feedback, and they each give whole new dimensions to play. And that's just one new sort of approach people have happened upon of recent. Lots more out there.
I get the idea that a character sheet represents a player's resourses, but I'm having problems with the idea that, under no circumstances does a character sheet represent a character.
If I take a sheet of paper and write at the top "Character sheet", and under that write "Bob. He's got a lot of problems and tons of stuff on his mind." Is that not a character sheet, and does it not represent my character Bob?
If I take the piece of paper that represents my character, hand it to another player who's familiar with the game, and that other player is able to discern the important elements of who that character is in the story, then how does that sheet not represent the character?
I'd like to think I'm nearly up to speed on RPG theory these days, but stuff like this is still spining my head.
What I like about this method is that, to me, it points out where many games have fallen short of what I would like them to be. No surprise that in your example above you list things that sound at least superficially similar to the stuff on a GURPS character sheet: things the character is good at, psychological aspects of the character, things that might cause complications for the character, and noteworthy items.
Those are all common parts of any story, right? So anyone designing a game is gonna have those things flash before his or her eyes and go, 'yeah, I need those things!' But this approach above asks both why and how. Too many games miss the why, or worse, they assume it.
So I think I'm with you on the basic concept of character sheet as a player resource. This sounds pretty close to what I was writing about the character sheet communicating things about the character between players and also helping to determine authority for making statements. If there is an important difference between these conceptions, we might want to clarify it before moving on.
One thing that occurs to me looking at this thread and my earlier writing- I think I had the idea that the mechanics which use character sheets should be realistic in the back of my head, and I can see how that shouldn't always be the case. In a game, it is most important that the mechanics be fun, and in a game that tries to address a premise, the mechanics should support that. If verisimiltude is desired, and it is hard for me to imagine when it isn't, the mechanism should respect the "rules" of the setting, but this isn't the same as saying that realism should dictate the outcome, just that the outcome should be compatible with realism. (However realism happens to be defined in the setting.)
I'm still struggling with my earlier question, though, which could be stated as how to apportion credibility so that the player's vision of the character is respected, while still providing interesting conflict. The two approaches I have seen to this problem both seem to fail. If the character sheet gives traits, and the rules try to describe what the odds are for various results in various circumstances, than the range of possibilities will be extremely limited, or some moderator will have incredible fiat power. If the player is given complete control over narration in certain circumstances, that seems to take the excitement out of conflict. How do we resolve this?
My personal preference is giving the GM fiat power to choose probabilities. I have a probability table for three six sided die (with descriptive adjectives to speed the process). When an expert archer shoots for the eye of the commander of the attacking army from across the field I call 'Nigh Unthinkable', which is an 18 on my table. When a noble tries to impress the locals in a village I call 'Very Likely', which is a 7 on my table.
My basic philosophy is that game mechanics exist to add chance to a story in a convincing way. The easiest way to arrange for the probabilities to be convincing is simply to make a judgement for each particular case.
Eric: more accurate to say that whether the stuff on the character sheet represents the character (which, yes, depends on the system at hand) is plain irrelevant.
Collin: You need exposure to some better games. I don't play games anymore that don't do what you're asking for. If you look to the right of my front page, under "publishing," you'll see a bunch of good games. Check 'em out.
Beastin: That's exactly what I'm trying to avoid.
Ed: Um, you mean this one? "If the character sheet gives traits, and the rules try to describe what the odds are for various results in various circumstances, than the range of possibilities will be extremely limited, or some moderator will have incredible fiat power. If the player is given complete control over narration in certain circumstances, that seems to take the excitement out of conflict. How do we resolve this?"
Easy. Don't do either of those things, they're both borken.
wow...more with the mind-blowing; good stuff. i kinda like "Player Resource Document". Still seems like vaguely a semantics argument, but i THINK i understand what's being infered.
I've been reading a lot about Chris Engle's "Matrix Games", which I love in concept, but would rather see the entire group as arbiter of whether arguments are sound as opposed to even bothering with a "referee".