Dice Tales: The Character Sheet

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the fourth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)


I’ve mentioned “character sheets” before. These are actual pieces of paper, which contain information representing a character’s abilities and weaknesses in terms defined by the game system. (You can see examples here, here, and here — taken from Pathfinder, Changeling: The Dreaming, and Legend of the Five Rings, respectively.)

How can you possibly represent the complexity of a person — even a fictional one — in such a fashion?

The short answer is, “you can’t.” The character sheet is just a condensation of certain key elements, primarily the ones that interface with the rules. (Some sheets include sections for things like “Background” and “Personality”; these are always laughably small for the information they should in theory contain.) Where things get interesting is when you look at what elements are included, because that tells you a lot about the underlying assumptions of what makes people tick.

Look at those three sheets I linked above. If you don’t know the systems involved, the similarity between them isn’t immediately obvious, but they all share one core assumption: a distinction between a relatively small number of inherent characteristics, and a much larger number of learned ones. On the Pathfinder sheet, the former are called Abilities (and consist of Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Charisma, Intelligence, and Wisdom), while the latter are called Skills (and consist of everything from Acrobatics to Diplomacy to Stealth to various kinds of Knowledge). In Changeling, as in all Storyteller games, the first category are called Attributes and the second are called Abilities — which, yes, can be confusing to somebody more familiar with D&D-type games like Pathfinder, or vice versa. But note that each of those categories is further subdivided: Attributes are grouped into Physical, Social, and Mental trios, and Abilities are classified as Talents, Skills, and Knowledges. The later “new World of Darkness” systems took the Attribute structure even further and matched the Physical, Social, and Mental trios such that one Attribute in each category represented raw power, the second represented finesse, and the third represented endurance.

Encoded in the character sheet are fundamental concepts of the human psyche and how it manifests through behavior — whether the game designer was consciously aware of it or not. Which things are fundamental characteristics (e.g. intelligence), and which ones are learned (e.g. the things that intelligent person knows)? Which ideas are similar or unimportant enough to be grouped under a single name, and which ones need separate representation? (White Wolf’s Storyteller games break social gifts apart into the raw force of Charisma, the subtler operation of Manipulation, and the physical appeal of Appearance; D&D-type systems bundle that all into the single stat of Charisma.)

What interests me about the character sheet is that the concepts it encodes aren’t necessarily statements on how the real world works. In a well-designed system, the sheet can instead reinforce the setting and the type of stories it’s designed to tell. Look at that L5R sheet linked above, and think about the game’s title: Legend of the Five Rings. Inherent characteristics in this system are called Traits, and they’re grouped into the five eponymous Rings, each of which represents an Element. The choice of grouping tells you something about the role that Element plays in the cosmology of the L5R setting. Furthermore, the system has an interesting feature that sets the numerical value of the Ring equal the lower of the two Traits that feed into it. This lends mechanical force to the cultural idea that a well-developed character must be strong in both body and mind . . . because all of the Rings save Void consist of one physical and one mental/social Trait. A brilliant character with no Agility is poor in Fire, no matter how smart he may be, and over time that will limit his effectiveness and his growth.

Creating a character for a game can be a great thought exercise, because having to decide on the stats helps you think through who this character is going to be. A lot depends on how the stats are chosen, which again can reinforce (or in cases of bad design, undercut) the concepts of the setting. In Pathfinder, for example, the classic method is to roll dice to determine your Ability scores, i.e your inherent characteristics. This creates a world in which some people are fundamentally more talented and capable than others, right out of the gate, because their player just happened to get better rolls. In the World of Darkness games, by contrast, you are given a certain number of “dots” to assign to each element, and these are allocated according to the groupings. If you decide your character is primarily smart, reasonably social, but not very physical, then you distribute seven additional dots among your Mental Attributes, five among your Socials, and three among your Physicals. Having a really high Intelligence will mean your Perception and Wits must lag behind, and prioritizing your Mental Attributes means you’re not as awesome socially or physically. It’s the World of Darkness in action: if you want X, you must give up Y, because it’s a zero-sum situation and everything carries a cost. On the other hand, L5R gives you free boosts to two of your Traits, representing the heritage of your family and the dojo you trained in. This is a game where those kinds of traditions matter, not just in theory but in numerical practice.

I particularly like systems which include some kind of Advantage/Disadvantage system (which can, in the usual way of game design, go by a bunch of different names: Qualities/Drawbacks, Merits/Flaws, Blessings/Curses, etc). These are often more about flavor than numbers, and browsing through the list of possibilities is frequently how I find the hooks that transform my concept from generic to specific. I knew I wanted my first L5R character to be a tattooed monk following the “cheerful drunk” archetype; it wasn’t until I got to the Advantages and Disadvantages that I conceived of her as a friend to peasants (Ebisu’s Blessing) who, despite being a samurai-class monk, was perpetually poor (Ascetic and Daikoku’s Curse), and half of her plot was driven by my decision to take the Lost Love Disadvantage, representing the childhood sweetheart she left behind when she went to the monastery. Before I got to that section of her sheet, I had an archetype. After I went through it, I had a character.

This interface between character and story is a really complicated one, and we’ll come back to it in later posts — probably more than once.


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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Dice Tales: The Character Sheet — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Next installment of Dice Tales at BVC | Swan Tower

    • I don’t actually play a lot of those myself, so I can’t say much about them. I suspect it’s still true that they encode some basic information about worldview — maybe even more strongly in some ways, because they choose so few things to treat as mechanically relevant. But I’d have to play more of them to really know.