Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Dissecting a Character Sheet

posted by Al-X

One of the vital ingredients of any RPG is the character sheet. It’s actually one of the first things I look for when considering a new game, since it gives me a summarized glimpse at what the game considers important that a player should have handy. It also gives me an idea on what the company considers good layout, and a messy character sheet often speaks of messy content.

A character sheet is also a window for the rules system, and although it won’t be possible to glean the actual rules, it will at least give someone an idea on what the game is about. Going over the sheets of some games, there are some common elements to all of them that can be used as tools for deciding what a game should or could have in its system.

Personal Information: The character’s description in mostly non-mechanic terms. Name, height, weight, hair and eye color, etc. This area also includes the description of the character’s general classification within the game system, such as race and class in D&D as well as clan, tribe, etc. in White Wolf games. It also describes in-game associations and allegiances.

Personal Attributes: Some games dispense with this, but it’s a major staple of RPGs that a character has a set of basic characteristics describing him or her in general terms, giving a quantitative expression to basic talents or aptitudes. These characteristics represent innate capabilities that can be applied in many situations or in a wide spectrum of task resolution challenges, applying a value to the challenge, providing a target number for the dice and/or combining with other, more specific values. In D&D, these are the six abilities (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma). In the Storyteller system, these are the nine attributes divided in three categories: Physical (Strength, Dexterity and Stamina), Social (Charisma, Manipulation and Appearance) and Mental (Intelligence, Perception and Wits). In Tri-Stat, they are the three stats that give the system its name: Body, Mind and Soul.

The various systems bear many similarities, as there are only a few logical ways to describe a character, but also note how each game stresses its focus by stating what defines a character. Tri-Stat stresses simplicity as it divides the attributes in three broad values, while Storyteller adds the social aspects missing in D&D attributes.

Task Resolution Capabilities: Also known as ‘skills’ in most systems. These represent definite areas of expertise that characters do not have for free in any measure; they must be purchased during character creation to define what the character knows what to do. D&D 2nd Ed. was sorely lacking in this area, using weapon and non-weapon proficiencies to cover what other games rightfully devote more space towards. Task resolution challenges involve pitting the characters’ skills against a particular difficulty for the dice to match and surpass. A system like Nobilis dispenses with the randomness, simply stating that a character automatically achieves something that falls within his expertise. The challenges tend to involve fairly mundane tasks (even if sometimes dangerous in-game). Some systems include the character’s combat abilities into this area, considering combat just another possible challenge.

Combat: Even a social-oriented game like Vampire has its area devoted to combat. In a very tactical game like D&D, it has its own terms and values while in Storyteller and Tri-Stat these are folded with the task resolution capabilities above. However, the character sheet almost always include an area where a player can write down the numbers he needs to conduct attacks and defense, including the information of weapons, techniques and combat-oriented powers.

Life: While dependant on combat mostly, the life area of a character gives a numerical gauge to the threat of character death. The player subtracts numbers or crosses boxes to represent the wounds or reduction in vitality his character is taking. Once this gauge is depleted, the character is either dead or dying.

Inventory: An area to write down the character’s equipment, such as weapons, armor, gear and other goods independent from the character. Some items have their own characteristics, which some character sheets contemplate by including their own format in a separate area.

Special Abilities: This area would describe the special abilities and powers characters possess that make them different from other similar characters. They are blank lines in games with several options, while they can already be written down in the sheet if they are few (such as Spheres in Mage: the Ascension). These abilities can be mundane, like D&D’s feats and many of Tri-Stat’s attributes; or they can be superhuman, like D&D’s racial traits and spells, Vampire’s Disciplines and Whispering Vault’s Servitors.

Character Resource: These are special traits that represent a pool a character can draw from to achieve certain effects during play. This pool can be tied to activate one of the above special abilities, or may be more open-ended and allow for a variety of effects. The character resource depletes with use or with time, and depending on the system, it can be renewed. The rate of renewal of a resource is balanced to its utility in the game as well as on its focus. In D&D, a character resource is a bard’s music ability, a monk’s stunning fist uses or a spellcaster’s spell slots. In White Wolf games, Willpower is a generalized resource and each game adds its own like Blood (Vampire), Psi (Trinity) or Essence motes (Exalted).

Character Description: A more in-depth treatment of the Personal Information fields, Character Description may be cosmetic or mechanic, depending on how much the game system pays attention to things that describes a character’s personality and history. Few sheets contain this information except in expanded versions that go into detail about the characters’ family, loyalties and even appearance. Some systems add mechanics to this, such as Storyteller’s Backgrounds and some of Tri-Stat’s attributes. Wraith’s Passions and Fetters are a prime example of mechanic-driven in-depth description.