Society for Interactive Literature West

Game Design

Writing Characters

Copyright (c) 1992 Stephen R. Balzac
Society for Interactive Literature
Originally printed in Metagame, the Journal of the SIL

"Characters are the most important part of a game; character sheets are the least important."

It's been said more than once, but is that really true? Well, it does seem reasonable that in any game, the characters are the most important part of the game. After all, the players are not taking on the roles of furniture, buildings, or other item cards; rather the players are all playing characters in the world created by the gamesmasters. So, what's in a character sheet?

The character sheet is the document which tells the player where he or she stands in the world. What is he doing? Why is she doing it? Who are his friends and enemies? Who does she work for? How does he feel on various issues? And so forth. How can a GM accomplish all this? After all, character sheets in games have ranged from a single "character paragraph" to multiple pages of description sometimes having exactly no relevance to the game. Let's look at what a character sheet is intended to do, what it needs to do, and the various ways it can do those things.

At the most simplest, a character sheet must tell the player: his name, his goals, the identities of those other characters whom he knows, and any data on relationships, commanders, subordinates, or allies that is unique to that character. Sometimes team information can be omitted from the character sheet, letting the bluesheets take up the slack; that doesn't work if the character has knowledge about the team that doesn't belong in the bluesheet. For example, if Fred is a traitor, his character sheet needs to specify that; putting it in a bluesheet given to the rest of the team would make his life a bit difficult.

Given this basic list, what could be used to accomplish it? Well, how about a bulleted list? Seems very straight forward, just a listing that looks something like:

Name: Ivan Tadeov Position: KGB Commander Goals: Defeat the gravy-sucking capitalist pigs.

And so on. Such a listing might even include a listing of important character traits:

Personality Traits: Short-tempered, dislikes capitalists, fanatical.

Now, there are several problems with this approach. To begin with, telling someone that he is a fanatic really doesn't do much. First off, what is a fanatic? How does a fanatic act? There's absolutely no guarantee that the player and the gamesmaster will have the same image of a fanatic. The GM might think of a fanatical Russian as something out of a James Bond film; the player might have a definition of fanatic based on the image of a professional athlete or musician, each of whom are certainly fanatics in their own ways. A more serious problem is that most fanatics don't think of themselves as such; more generally, most people don't think of themselves as a list of "traits." People think about how they act, what they do in response to other's actions, and so forth. A bulleted list leaves little room for that sort of characterization. It really isn't much more than the Interactive Literature equivalent of a D&D character sheet. That doesn't mean that a bulleted list is useless: it can serve as a very useful set of notes to the GM when he's writing the character. It just doesn't make it as a character itself. To put it another way, how many people would prefer the outline of a story to the story itself?

The basic "character paragraph" is the next step up from the bulleted list. It's just a relatively brief restating of that list, in prose this time: "You are Ivan Tadeov, head of the KGB, and boy, do you hate those gravy-sucking capitalist pigs! You're a real fanatic about it too!" Not much of an improvement, is it? The basic problem of this approach is that it's giving the player a set of instructions. Unfortunately, it gives him no guidance as to what any of these wonderfully descriptive statements really mean. Ivan hates capitalist pigs. So? Does that mean that he walks up to people and shoots them on sight? Does he walk around saying, "Are you a gravy-sucking capitalist pig?" Does he hide his hatred? Or is he unafraid of making enemies or tipping his hand? The player has been given no idea how to express these traits, no sense of situation or where he fits into the world. The character sheet has failed in a basic function: to tell the character where he stands in respect to the rest of the game.

The next step up is to give the player a page or so of unadorned prose telling him about himself, and maybe mentioning acquaintances, subordinates, and the like. Unfortunately, this is still lacking in an important area: history and detail. If a player is presented with a character sheet containing the line, "Your friends are Tom, Dick, and Harry, all of whom you can certainly trust," he might have some questions: the most likely are, "how well do I know these people? How well do I trust them? Under what circumstances did I meet them?" It can make a major difference. If the player thinks that someone is out to get him, he might reasonably want some way of distinguishing between his friends. Many people have good friends, friends whom they trust. But how many of your friends would you trust with your life?

The character still doesn't really have a good sense of place in the world. Perhaps more significant, the player has no sense of how his character reacts to changing situations. For example, our player hears fairly early in the game that Harry can't be trusted. If Harry is someone the player's character has known for thirty years and they have been close friends all that time, the player might react to the rumour in one fashion; if Harry is someone he met last week, he might react quite differently. To extend that, perhaps Ivan hates capitalist pigs and wants to see them all die. But what's his limit? Is he going to kill capitalist pigs no matter what? What if the world is about to be blown up by a third party and only alliance between Ivan and the pigs will save the day? What does Ivan do?

Well, given no information to work with, most people will play themselves at this point. They ask themselves, "What would I (the player) do?" rather than "What would I (my character) do?" If this is a roleplaying game, it doesn't seem unreasonable to give the players something to roleplay. The problem so far is that the player has been given dry facts, no character motivations, no character incentives. For all that every GM says that the idea is not to win but to roleplay, if the player is only given a list of goals, winning and losing quickly appear as little more "did I accomplish my goals or didn't I?" To take this a step further, what happens if the player accomplishes his goals at 1pm on Saturday? What does he do? Who does he play for the rest of the weekend?

The next step up from this is the "cut and paste" character. For example, the "KGB Agent" paragraph, given to all KGB characters; or the "Mad Scientist" paragraph, given to all mad scientist characters, and so on. The problem with cutting and pasting is that it starts to show after a while. As soon as a character sheet has any characterization in it, cutting and pasting can have unexpected traps. It can be very embarrassing when a player comes up and says, "What does this mean? I don't understand this line in my character." At the very least, it makes the GMs look highly unprofessional. Even worse is when the player receives information that he shouldn't have and proceeds to play his character in a fashion totally unexpected by the GMs. They see the player ignoring his character; he doesn't understand why the GMs are so upset with him. A more serious problem, however, is that all characters within a group have the same "vanilla" view of the world. Teams become one big happy, interchangable, family, not a collection of unique individuals working toward a common goal for individual reasons. Finally, players are paying for individual characters. Why not give them what they pay for? Of course, if you've advertised that, "Every player will receive a custom carbon copy of the character his friend has," then you may as well go ahead with cut and paste.

Suppose now that we give the player a long, detailed character sheet. Potentially, this can give the player a great deal of information on background, motivations, and, in general, his place in the world. There's nothing wrong with a several-page character sheet, provided it meets a few requirements: the information contained in the character sheet must be well-written, relevant, and generally fun to read. Let's face it, if you can't write without putting the reader to sleep, don't write a long character. Obviously, there's no way a player can be given his complete life history, but he can be given enough to work from. He can be told how he got to where he is now, why he does what he does, and so forth. It gives the GMs the chance to slip in information both about the character and the plot in a subtle fashion, without having to hit the player over the head with it. Finally, it gives the players something to roleplay other than themselves. Instead of a flat listing of traits, the character sheet becomes three-dimensional.

This is a very important point. By talking to the player in the voice of the character, the GM has helped to build and reinforce the suspension of disbelief necessary for the game. The character sheet draws the player into the illusion of an imaginary world, instead of coming off as a list of instructions from the GM to the player. In the former case, the player is "listening" to the character talking to himself; in the latter case, the character sheet comes off as the GM talking to the player about a third party.

But, how long is long enough? Unfortunately, there's no minimum length after which the GM can say, "OK, Ivan's four pages long. He's a good character now." The minimum length is simply however long it takes to convey all the necessary information to the player in a well-written and fun-to-read fashion. That might be two pages, or it might be six or seven. Optimally, the character sheet will contain information on each of the character's plots, acquaintances, background, and how the character feels about all of that. Now, there's something there to play beyond just trying to "win" the game.

But if long is good, is longer better? Well, not exactly. The character sheet is not the only thing that needs to go into that character packet, nor can all the information that needs to go into the game be included in character sheets. One common mistake made by GMs who do like to write long characters is that they forget about the rest of the game. One game had these long, fantastically detailed character sheets, and very little else. The bluesheets were on the order of, "You are a member of organization FOO. You believe in FOO. You want to see them succeed." Scenario information, abilities, items, and so forth, were all at the same level of detail. The GMs had simply become so enamored of writing characters that they had forgotten to write the rest of the game.

Another group of GMs managed to give equal time to every part of the game. However, some 99% of the information in their characters, bluesheets, etc, was irrelevant to the game. The actual information that mattered to the play of the game could be compressed into a very few paragraphs. These GMs had become so enamored of the world they were creating that they forgot that they were writing a game.

How then does someone write a good character sheet? The answer is actually very easy: practice. Unfortunately, that doesn't really help very much. How does someone get started? Well, here are some simple tips:

Don't tell a character he has a particular personality trait, make him have it: if Ivan is a fanatic, don't write "you are a fanatic." Write his character background to show him just how he acts. That way you've also conveyed your view of what fanaticism actually means to Ivan. You may never even need to use the word "fanatic" in Ivan's character sheet. After all, he may not see himself that way.

The importance of something to a character will generally not depend on how early in the character you mention it, but on the vividness and length of your description. Something that appears to have been tossed in as an afterthought will generally be treated as one, no matter what you intended.

Write the character sheet in the voice of the character; don't write it like the GM talking to the player. Don't automatically start the profile with, "You are foo..." Make it more interesting. Give a creative lead in.

Try to give characters personal as well as group goals. They should have something to do if their group leader flops.

Give characters as many hooks to other players and plots as the game structure will permit. Not everyone can work themselves into the game from nothing, and even good players can get stuck if their characters are too lacking in connections. Spread around lots of rumours. It livens up the game and helps tie the plots together. As a side comment, if only the "bad guys" are interested in or know about a particular topic, then the players will quickly realize that anyone who knows about that topic is a "bad guy."

Following these hints, what might a character look like? Well, space precludes including a complete character sheet, but here is a possible opening paragraph which might have come from Ivan's character sheet:

Those stinking capitalist dogs have destroyed your country! Scarcely a few years ago, the Soviet Union was one of the greatest... nay, it was the greatest nation on Earth. Strong, powerful, blessed with the vitality of communism, the USSR was a power amongst nations. Those piddling scum of Europe quaked in their beds at night and in their boots by day before the Soviet Union's military might. Even the United States dared not push her. But no longer. Now, she has been reduced to a collection of poverty-stricken, squabbling "republics." The once-great Russian Empire is struggling to hold itself together, while the rest of the world laughs. And rather than taking what is its rightful due, the Soviet Union must beg the foreign pigs to grant money and capital so that the country can switch to a "free market" economy. Well, this is just too much for any true Russian to tolerate!

From the beginning, Ivan is given a very strong sense of self. He has a clear view of how he sees the world and what he thinks of others, all, by the way, without once using the word "you." The character would continue on from here to describe to Ivan the plots in which he is involved, his acquaintances, and so forth, maintaining the voice established at the beginning and giving Ivan in character examples of what is and what is not normal behaviour for him.

Remember, while there is no "right" way to write a character, there are plenty of wrong ones. It's easy to produce something unplayable, boring, or just plain screwed up. The most important thing to remember is that you are giving the player a portrait of a person, not a list of goals and character stats. The character sheet is the player's first point of entry into the collective illusion which is your live roleplaying game. How well you bring him in can affect the entire course of the game.

Good luck!

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