The Character Sheet is Not Your Friend

Many years ago, in Feng Shui, Mr Robin Laws told us that the map was not our friend. His point was that you can extemporize more on an invisible space, just as improv actors rarely use props because a mimed prop is much easier to work as it shapes to your needs. Of course the counterpoint is that having something physical to look at and interact with focuses the attention, the mind and the imagination. So the map can be your friend. It depends on what suits you.

But there’s another issue about taking away the map, and it’s about the physical space. When you gather around a table to play a game, there are generally three things to look at – the central play area, your playing pieces, and the other players. When we take away the map, and indeed, the GM screen, the central play area becomes empty.

Now some people think this is a good idea, because it encourages people to look at the other players more. Which is sort of true, but we’re still playing the game, and we still want to look at our playing pieces. If, when there is a map, we might divide our eyes between pieces, centre and others 33% each, taking away the map doesn’t make us go 33% char sheet, 66% other players. Our mind in fact wanders because we’re not great at constantly meeting other people’s gazes, or because we have nothing to focus on (especially if our character sheet is hardly being used, or only used in combat).

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of ways to command attention to the game space without resorting to game tools, but sometimes those other ways get forgotten. So you get players engaging with the game tools anyway, like scribbling on their character sheet or stacking dice.

Now, my general way to solve this is to realise that if the tools are there, people should be using them as much as possible. I don’t think dice or rules break immersion, so I call for rolls as often as physically possible. That way everyone is constantly engaging with the game tools and thus the game space, together and separately.

But I was thinking about this recently, and thinking about board games, and I realised one of the problems I have with Arkham Horror is although the game is collaborative, you rarely have a good sense of other people’s stories. Or even much of what they’re doing. Instead, you’re looking at your own character sheet most of the time. Whereas in something like Pandemic or Forbidden Island, you have your own hand but they’re played open so everyone can see everything and thus there’s no sense of individual events, and there’s so little sense of individual characters that people frequently forget which playing piece is theirs.

And this applies equally to RPGs.

Whenever I play a con game, I always make a little stand in front of me with my characters name on it, and basic hook. Sometimes I like to do this outside of con games too. The point is I know that when player bob looks at me, he needs to be instantly reminded of who I am – AND HE DOESN’T HAVE MY CHARACTER SHEET TO LOOK AT. But even this, I realise, doesn’t go far enough. I’m currently in a D&D game and was thinking about the next session and one of the PCs is a vampire (but our characters don’t know that) and I was sure there’d be something more in that arc, or in the half-elf’s arc, and it would mean nothing to me, so I could keep not caring about it. And this is why I prefer Smallville’s idea where there are no secrets from the players, just the characters, because then you know what every secret scene means, and you can enjoy it as an audience, not as a character being confused by the meaningless froth and bubble of life.

But I’ve realised now that Smallville goes one step further and it’s chargen is the heart of it. Although you have character sheets, chargen is done collaboratively on ONE GIANT SHARED PIECE OF PAPER. The piece of paper is in the center of the game space and is owned by everyone. THis is very very important because it encourages the idea that apart from your Lead, everything else belongs to everyone. The paper is the SHOW YOU ARE BUILDING. And in the end, the show is bigger and better and more alive than the character you create as part of it. And that – really – is good. A guy who cares about his character will show up and play and maybe even be awesome, but he won’t always be invested in making everyone else show up and be awesome.

But the character sheet hands all the details of a character to one person, and cuts those details off from everyone else – and then pulls the eyes down to that sheet, away from anything shared. That’s crazy. Other people need that info, and they need it where they feel they are part of it.

I’m not sure how to solve this. You could put all the character sheets on a lazy susan in the middle. Another idea is to take Smallville’s chargen further and have a central piece of paper with the characters summarised on it, and perhaps the name of the episode or the current issue at hand. Game contracts are actually a part of this idea, because it is a physical thing which everyone can own that tells them “this is what we are playing”.  Another idea is to design character sheets with space to fill in who everyone else is and what they mean to you (again, this is part of Smallville’s central mechanic, your stats ARE the other characters and you can’t do anything in the game without knowing how you feel about them). Doesn’t have to be as overt as Smallville’s, just a big box for your fellow crew.  A lot of collaborative storybuilding games (like Fiasco, Leverage and several game chef entries this year) also use the central space for putting down index cards with shared ideas or character names, or a campaign document.  Morningstar’s game Durance had a break down of the prison camp’s structure and players take turns bagsing those ranks by filling in their idea of a PC into it. I’d like to see this done for all kinds of archetypes. We often try to figure out, in our games, who is the hero, the foil, the rival, the mascot/comic relief, etc, but we have, as yet, never thought to fill in a sheet about this information. Yet these roles fit across many different genres, and could certainly be tailored to fit the narrowness of a single rpg. Imagine a game of flying a spaceship and the character sheet is a picture of the ship, and people bagsies where they sit and write their name on that sheet.

I don’t have a game to do this with now, but I will be including the “show sheet” in every game I run now. Hopefully, some great designer will or already has done more with this idea. The map may not be your friend, but the center of the table IS, and we need to make friends with it again.

And once again, for the record: Smallville was robbed at the awards this year. Robbed.


6 thoughts on “The Character Sheet is Not Your Friend

  1. I had this old idea where the players start by all dropping tokens on a map of the game world. Where your token lands is where you’re from.

    I wonder if you could combine this with your shared character sheet idea. Everyone makes their character on a post-it note, which they attach to the game world map in the centre on the table. They can add post-it’s that show their relationships with the other characters. So the game map is also a character sheet, and a relationship map. It’s all shared at the centre.

    (This assumes the game map doesn’t contain a lot of crucial info by itself – you couldn’t do this if you had to count squares on the map.)

    • Definitely a good idea, especially the random part. I have a post from more recent times where I talk about having a dice for every person in the setting and rolling them across the table; everyone on the left of one line or inside the circle are the Good Guys this episode, and everyone on the right/outside the circle are the Bad Guys…

  2. Pingback: The GM Screen is Not Your Friend | D-Constructions

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