2005-05-20 : 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 said:
2. On 2005-05-20, ethan_greer said:
3. On 2005-05-20, Ninja Hunter J said:
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