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Cover Your Character Sheet

Sometimes, putting a thought to paper (or pixel) will solidify a thought or an idea into something more concrete. In the discussion over Patrick’s review [1] of the “Quick Primer for Old-School Gaming [2]”, I pointed out that third edition D&D (and similar games) unintentionally encourage players to play their character sheet instead of their character. Which raised the question “How the hell do I address this?”

Well, I could track down one of those indie games which marries character goals and game mechanics, and try convince myself and a bunch of players that it’s what we’re going to play. Or I could come up with my own solution, and continue to set my sights on the broad swath of players interested in mainstream games.

My back burners [3] were apparently cooking away at this issue all weekend, and the answer is blindingly obvious: Use a coversheet. 

Not just a blank piece of paper, a good coversheet should help define non-mechanical aspects of your character: history, goals, enemies, allies, contacts, likes, dislikes, etc. Perhaps a portrait, if you are so inclined. 

This trick will not work for all groups. The ‘beer & pretzels’ and ‘fight club’ styles of play probably aren’t interested in this; neither are the old hands. But the novices, the players striving for a unique character identity, and the players frustrated by game mechanics which focus on ability more than goals may find it useful.

For those who prefer the “emerging complexity [4]” approach to character-building, the sheet need not be filled in at the beginning of the game, but it can definitely facilitate the process.

What to use

I’m not going to post a coversheet here. The whole point of a coversheet is to help the players (and yourself) to define their characters by something other than the game mechanics. Each group (and possibly each player) will want to choose what is important to them, and focus on those things. So each coversheet should be somewhat unique.

That said, here are a few ideas:

Regardless of what you have on it, the coversheet needn’t be much, but it should be enough to jog the memory of players who tend to look at their character sheet every time they’re faced with a situation.

I’m not going to pretend that this idea is for everyone, so sound off and let me know what you think. Would you use this, or do you know someone who might benefit from it? Did I miss any important (or not-so-important) elements? Or is this just another “typical gamer” over-thought solution to a nonexistent problem?

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Cover Your Character Sheet"

#1 Comment By ZedZed77 On June 17, 2009 @ 3:15 am

I have been doing this as long as I’ve been gaming (Okay, so it’s been like 2 years…)

I find that having my character’s history first and his present capabilities second helps me play him more reliably.

So, for example, Garret the Monk/Rogue becomes Garret, who used to spend time cooped up in a monastery, before his lust for freedom prompted him to take up thievery.

Is it that much of a creative stretch? No. But it made a huge difference for me in playing him as a rounded character as opposed to a set of numbers.

Thanks for the great tip!

#2 Comment By Tazo On June 17, 2009 @ 6:57 am

I’ve definitely used some form of this with varying degrees of success. I can definitely agree that it’s not going to work for everyone. Some people will simply never be interested in it, and that’s okay. Remember your audience and it should work out.

If you are playing WoD and need one of these, incidentally, Mr. Gone produces some particularly fine two and four page character sheets which include space for all of this and more (I’m particularly fond of the space for group relationship):


#3 Comment By Rafe On June 17, 2009 @ 7:07 am

Great idea, Kurt!

As far as additions, what about a short list of quotes? Not only can you use them, they get you thinking about your character approach. I think DNA Phil wrote about quotes to start or summarize campaign settings, but they’re also great for a character personality “thumbnail.”

Another thing might be to note a “best interest.” (Borrowing this idea from [6].) “It’s in Relan’s best interest to…” Keep it situational, and change it up every adventure or when it is no longer relevant.

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 17, 2009 @ 7:30 am

The thing I REALLY like about this is the priority given to this information. Other game sheets may include this stuff, but it’s all buried.

A cover sheet puts it up front.

Now I gotta go design one …. what a wonderful inspiration, Kurt.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 17, 2009 @ 7:55 am

[7] – Ooh, nice!

#6 Comment By deadlytoque On June 17, 2009 @ 8:19 am

I know a lot of games have sheets with info like this on them (the 4-age character sheets for WoD, as mentioned above, for example) but in 15 years of gaming I’ve never seen anybody fill it out. Hell, I’m as “story now!” as they come, and I don’t fill in those spaces on my sheet.

Generally, I think if you’re the kind of person who needs that kind of information to play, you will make it for yourself. If you don’t, then you won’t.

In my experience, the most important person at the table for making sure that kind of thing happens is the Gamemaster, and not between-session like this, but at the table. A GM who focuses on making everything come from the sheet will encourage players to play their sheet. A GM who rewards players for bringing their creativity to bear on the game and on the shared fiction of the game creates a richer play experience and a better-rounded roleplayer.

Little, simple things can encourage this.
1) Roll first; games like D&D will tell you to roleplay social scenes first, then award a small bonus or penalty based on what the player does. This results in situations where your players gives a brilliant in-character speech, takes their whopping +2, and rolls a 4 on the die. People hate wasting good rolls on unimportant events, and it’s worse to waste good roleplaying and then slave it to a poor die roll. Instead, roll first, and determine success or failure, then let the player roleplay it out, knowing what the result will be. They can then tailor their character’s action to the die.

2) Narrative control; let the players narrate the success and failure of their actions. Yes, “and failure”. Let them describe their character’s fighting style, their spellcasting, whatever. They can bring in all kinds of colour and character detail that way. Also, occasionally let them put words into the mouths of your NPCs: “Alright, the bandit draws his sword and says ‘hand over the crown or else I’ll…’ and then he pauses, staring at Rutger. Why is he doing that?”

3) Give rewards for bringing the detail; in my recent Changeling: the Lost game, I left a supply of 4×6 cue cards on the table at all times, and told a player if they took a card and put a person, place, or thing related to their character on the card and gave at least 5 details about it, not only would their creation be part of my setting, they would also earn 5 xp for it (a fair bit in a standard WoD game. By the end of the 6-session short campaign, I had 12 filled-out cards, meaning 12 new elements regarding the PCs and their lives.

4) Questionnaires; the game Dread uses character questionnaires as its sole form of character creation. They ask semi-open questions like “You are the ship’s engineer; what kind of drives do you specialize in?” which means when players come to the table, they have a history, but they’ve also been prompted down certain paths. That might not work in a traditional game, but here’s an alternative: if you have a detailed setting already created for play, before a single mark is made on the character sheet, run the characters through a questionnaire about the setting, asking things like “There was a war in the Hammervale three years ago between goblins and dwarves. Did you participate? On which side? Do you have any friends or rivals from that time?” In point-buy character creation, you can even go through the trouble to divvy up the character points into different questions, with the answers determining where they go (I also did this one in the Changeling game). This means that all your work planning your setting background doesn’t go to waste, because it ties the PCs to it in various ways.

#7 Comment By NeonElf On June 17, 2009 @ 9:12 am

I like it, but I’ll probably use it for NPCs so I can pull them out, look at their cover sheet and become the npc.

This might also help if you have longer breaks in a game, if you haven’t played in 4 weeks or longer (and/or you play other games in a shorter time frame), sometimes you forget your ideas for this specific character.

@deadlytoque: You’re right, the GM drives most of this but it’s good to have players who can help and/or have a way to offer help to players who seem to lose their character’s feel quickly. However, I do love the ideas you’ve presented here as well!

#8 Comment By brcarl On June 17, 2009 @ 9:36 am

I think the cover sheet idea is good, but probably has the most usefulness at character creation time (to help solidify the persona) and after an extended hiatus from playing (so you can remember what motivates your PC).

I also think that giving the GM a copy of an (up-to-date) cover sheet can be very useful. The list Telas gives is full of standard hook-generation items.

I also think that “playing your (abilities) sheet” isn’t always a bad thing. As an escapist hobby, many players want the ability to do the flashy thing, and especially at higher power levels, it can be easy to forget about that neato ability or item you have.

#9 Comment By tman On June 17, 2009 @ 11:18 am

I have done this in a couple of different ways. with multiple characters in a couple of games, it’s an easy way to ‘reacquire’ the character in a hurry.

Most of the time, it’s a regular 3×5 card with key info on it, like “+2 to AC vs Opportunity Attacks” which I would otherwise never remember in time.

I then put character notes, motivations and such on the reverse from the mechanical stuff.

#10 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 17, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

This is freaking brilliant! I was just asked to run a game at my local game shop for Free RPG Day, and I am using this idea. Thanks Kurt!

#11 Comment By Lee Hanna On June 17, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

I did something like this about 10-15 years ago, when I was DMing 2e AD&D and Merc:2000. I made PC sheets with all of the combat stuff on one side, and everything else on the other. It was easier to make sheets with Word or whatever, and print ’em off. I think I will go back to making covers like this, next time I run.

On the other side of the screen: with my last long-running D&D 3.5 PC, I kept forgetting important stuff like his style of speech and desires and goals. I kept writing them on several pieces of paper, but those got shuffled into my “what did we do this session” pages, and never stayed up front where I needed them. I think I will do something like this for my current PC this weekend, and see what happens.

#12 Comment By LesInk On June 17, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

I like it to, but I think I’d be tempted to do a ‘short form’ version with only about one or two lines per list item. Why so short? Because it can stay open to interpretation down the road and a player will be more likely to glance at it, read a couple of words, and be immediately ready to go.

Too many words just tends to slow everyone down or get ignored. Kind of back to a portrait is worth a thousand words.

Plus, if its short, its more likely to be used for NPCs as well.

#13 Comment By itliaf On June 17, 2009 @ 7:59 pm

@rafe Skillfully borrowed idea.
I have become a bit skeptical I will ever find one magic trick to make my bloodthirsty players get a bit more in character-focused at the table, but this idea seems as good as any I have seen (deadlytoque seems to have covered a lot of the other common ones).
@lesink your invocation of “portrait is worth a thousand words” makes me wonder if the cover sheet wouldn’t be best served (for some groups) with a best interest or quote or two, and then just a few icons that speaks to a character’s core concept. One of the beautiful things ’bout web 2.0 is that you can find a 80×80 png of just about anything, be it your cleric’s holy symbol, your spies corporate logo, or a reminder that your barbarian never leaves a man behind: [8]

#14 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 17, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

[9] – I was thinking ‘two sided sheets’ initially, but then I realized that many characters have equipment and/or spells on the back. But if it works, use it.

[10] – Love the idea of mining the coversheet for plot hooks. You guys (and gals) do a great job of adding value!

#15 Comment By outrider11 On June 18, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

I use 4×6 cards and if I have a picture to help jog my memory for the npcs. I will also put additional notes on the npcs from the encounters with the players

#16 Comment By Sewicked On June 18, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

Another helpful tip/hint/note: have the 3 most important goals; and usually survive is #1. This works for NPCs and PCs. And when survive is not #1, that says something about the character right away.

I love this idea of a cover sheet. I’ve done parts of this; just never formally. My Mage character had one page handed to the GM and in my hands was 5 pages long (complete description of tattoos, family, etc).

#17 Comment By Grungydan On June 19, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

Been adding space for this kind of stuff for years. I think this might be a good way of introducing newer or less experienced players to more of the story side of gaming (if that’s what you and they are after).

Myself, I’ve often made my own character sheets becasue there isn’t enough space for this sort of stuff. I don’t think that “covering up” the mechanical part of the sheet is as necessary if you already consider the story side to be as important, but it’s definitely good for the sheet to reflect it, regardless of what page it’s on.

#18 Comment By brcarl On June 26, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

(My apologies for the personal request here in the comment log; I couldn’t find a more direct way to contact the author…)

Telas, I have a question about HeroForge and I seem to recall you’re a big supporter/fan. Could you drop me a line when you get a chance? bbosh at the msuspartan of the dot NET. Thanks.