Today’s guest article is by Angela Murray (aka Orikes), an occasional graphic designer, a sometime photographer, and one of the voices over at Rogue Princess Squadron, a new gaming blog put together by several female authors. Though she’s been gaming for years, GMing is still a new love in her life. Thanks, Angela!
In an ongoing campaign, the character sheet is in the hands of the player. It’s their baby, their lifeline into the game world. They often put a great deal of time and effort into keeping track of the information they need in the way that works best for them. With a one-shot, though, it is up to the GM to present the player with what they need to get into their character and the game. It’s important to make sure the basics are all there, but you also want to put the character together in a way that’s going to grab a player’s imagination right away.
I have been a player for far longer than I have been a GM, so in many ways I still think like a player. When I put together a one-shot, I think about what I would have wanted out of the game. One of those things is a character that has had a little bit of care and creativity put into its creation. While a rumpled, soda stained, faded photo copy with a handful of penciled-in stats could still lead to a fantastic game, I know I trust an unfamiliar GM a little more if I see some effort went into crafting the characters for the players. Prepping for the scenario may be the GM’s primary job, but it’s the characters that draw the players into the game. If the players can’t get into their characters, it won’t matter how fantastic the hook is for your game.
There are three important things to keep in mind for one-shot characters:
- The Crunch
- The Flavor
- The Presentation
The bones of any character are the numbers and stats that make the game system work. Game systems vary widely on how stats and attributes are handled, but very few eschew numbers completely. It almost goes without saying: All the important bits of information need to be presented clearly and legibly for the player. Any stat you’re going to be asking them for during the game should be represented on the sheet. How you present all the important crunchy bits will depend on what game system you’re running. The more complicated the system, the more important it is to have everything right there for the player.
Legibility is the key. No player wants to interrupt the GM to ask them to decipher something they can’t read on their sheet. Luckily for all of us, there are PDFs available online for almost any system you can think of. Many of these have fillable fields, so you can input all the information on your computer and print it out, avoiding the awkward moment of having someone decipher your handwriting. I know I have trouble reading my own handwriting, let alone someone else having to try and read it.
When running a game at an event (like a con or open gaming at a local store), there’s a very good chance you will have a mix of experience among your players. The more knowledgeable players may be able to work with a half-built character, but newer players are going to struggle to grasp what their character can do. Try and look at the character as if you were completely unfamiliar with the system. Would you be comfortable with it as a newbie? If not, you may want to revisit the sheet and make it a little more coherent. One-shot games are sometimes the best way to hook new players on the hobby, so it’s helpful to make the stats as easy to follow as possible.
The next piece of the character puzzle is the flavor. While the stats give the bones, it’s the flavor that really fleshes everything out. A simple dungeon crawl or arena combat game may not provide much opportunity for roleplaying, but even there a line or two about a character’s personality can help bring a fun spark to the game. Providing some background and personality becomes paramount for any game where you want to get into a story and bring out good roleplaying.
The goal is to give enough background and personality on the character so a player can grasp the essence of who that character is, but keep it loose enough that they can put their own spin on it. Each player is going to do things in a slightly different way, so you don’t want to get too caught up in YOUR vision of the character. While it might be fun to write a novella for the background, that’s probably going a bit far and could be too constraining for the player. Keep it concise and flexible.
Of course, while you want to keep it loose, you still want to make sure you give the players all the information they need. If there’s an NPC or a plot point that is going to come up in the game that their character has knowledge of, make sure it’s noted somewhere in their background. You don’t want to have to slow the action down in mid-scene to explain why a particular NPC should be important to the PCs. This also includes the relationships between the PCs. If they have any history at all with one another, it can help immensely to provide even a tiny note on what they know about each other.
However much or little you provide as flavor for the characters, you want to make sure all of the characters are consistent. It can be hard to come up with six to eight unique and interesting characters, but they should be as balanced as possible. You might favor one or two of the characters, but it’s crucial to spread the cool and awesome among all of them. Every character should have the chance to shine in the hands of the right player. As a last step, go through each of the characters and make sure there are no inconsistencies or conflicts with their backgrounds. As a player, it can be very frustrating to have your background mention nothing of something another character’s background talks about extensively, but they should have also known about.
Last, but not least, we have the presentation of the character. While making the character sheet pretty isn’t absolutely necessary, having a sharp looking character sheet is a good way to draw players in and show them you’re serious about the game. I have some graphic design experience in my background, so the visual look of a character sheet is probably a bit too important to me. Fortunately, though, you don’t need to be a graphic designer to put together a visually interesting character sheet. Just keep a few common sense rules in mind and get creative with it!
- In the spirit of keeping it concise and clean, try and limit each character to only one or two pages. Much more than that and you’re heading into “too much information” territory. Think of it like a resume —- you want all the pertinent details there, but without overloading them with too much information and losing your audience.
- Don’t go overboard with the fonts. Definitely find and use a cool font that fits your theme for the important things like the name or headings, but stick with a basic, easy-to-read font for any large chunks of text. You also want to avoid using too many different fonts. Using more than two or three can start to make your document look schizophrenic.
- Pictures and graphics are a great way to visually spice up a character sheet, but remember to be respectful of others’ work. No one is likely to scream copyright infringement if you use an actor’s publicity photo on a character sheet, but grabbing artwork or photographs off of DeviantArt without asking permission is a big no-no.
- Finally, have someone else proofread everything. As with any creative project, by the time you’re done, you’re probably too close to it to see any of the little mistakes you might have made. A proofreader can catch everything from non-spelling errors (like there and their) to confusing or ambiguous information. I once accidentally swapped some character names around. If they hadn’t been caught before the game, it would have caused a headache for my players. /li>
Each game is going to be a little different, so these are just suggestions that may or may not help with any given set of characters for a one-shot. As a GM, the ultimate goal is to run a good game for your players, so occasionally take a moment and imagine yourself on the other side of the table and think about what you would want to see when you sit down and grab a premade character to play.
I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that these are all great points, and ones that those of us with one-shot/tournament style design experience can agree with.
I have ~played~ in more than one one-shot over the years. (probably close to 100 or more) and these are all very valid. Having been left with little or no background is almost the worst thing possible of those mentioned, perhaps save an illegible sheet.
Having also played in a number of Angela’s one-shots, I can also say that she does a wonderful job with these points.
Thanks DOTU. 🙂
I have seen people make characters work that have no background, but I’ve seen just as many, if not more, struggle to try and find the character.
Great Timing. I’ve got a series of one shots with pregens coming up throughout the year (which is something very new to me).
Clarity of Crunchiness is a definite must.
However, Flavor is even more important to my mind, especially for newer players. It’s what they’ll really ken to the quickest. (And it’s what I find the most fun in RPGs anyway.)
It’s a bit of a balancing act, though. You’ve got to give ’em enough detail to sink their teeth into, but also enough room to make the character their own. Recently, I made a few pregens for a Savage Worlds one shot I’ll be running. In that spirit, I filled out the quote line in with a non-verbal gesture. “Nods Emphatically”, “Grunts in Disapproval”, “Winks Knowingly”. I thought it fit the bill rather well, but I wont know ’til I run it.
If you want to see a great example of a character sheet, check out Cosmic Patrol (which was created with one shots and pick-up games in mind). It’s Pregens have clarity, flavor, and gads of wonderful presentation. The cues idea could be easily drifted to other games as well…
Anyhoozle, thank you ma’am for the great article!
Exactly on the balancing act. I think it’s also important to try and make the flavor match up with the crunch. If the flavor implies a character is good at certain things but the crunch prevents it from happening that way, that can turn off a player very quickly.
I’ll definitely check out Cosmic Patrol. It sounds like a neat system. 🙂
My experience with one-shots is that the motivation is usually the weak link. Why is my character on this mission? What do I think of the others in the group? When we come upon a tough situation what am I likely to do– wait, analyze, lead, complain, or bail? I don’t need a page of background. I’ve seen these things sketched out well in as little as a paragraph.
One suggestion I have for all one-shot GMs is to avoid overdoing secret knowledge/motivation. I’ve played in lots of games where what passes for backstory is an explanation of why my character thinks he/she is the most crucial person in the group and how a personal goal of mine is more important than the group goal. Invariably when I am a self important secret keeper, so is everyone else. And invariably we end up at each others’ throats just as the climax scene is unfolding– if not sooner! Was the point of the game to watch the group self destruct? No? Then tone down the conflict.
I actually think your points are stronger drivers for me than those made in the article (with the exception of legibility).
When I do a con game or other one-shot, first and foremost is the knowledge that I have no idea how many will be at the table, and that for the game to “work” the players that do assemble must have a fighting chance of rescuing the princess or their take-away will be “game sucked”.
So my key driver after coming up with what I hope will be an intriguing scenario is to make sure that the key skills to overcome the x challenges (usually three plus one* in my four hour games) will be available in any combination of three characters, and that the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh pregens have different mixtures of those same recapitulated skills.
After that I come up with a convincing mis-en-scene c/w lightweight reason why everyone would be together in the mess they are in (or about to get into). This may or may not include personalized “secret” motivations but those never conflict with the three plus one goals.
Characterizing the PCs is left to the players – they won’t thank me for telling them what sort of character they are playing so why should I waste my time best spent punching up my end of the game?
I lifted an idea found in Realms of Cthulhu – the “defining interest” – and leave them blank, telling players that at any point when a knowledge roll is required they may, at their option, declare that the particular area of expertise is a defining interest of theirs (“Hey guys, I am a ham radio enthusiast and I may be able to tell what’s wrong with the transmitter”) with two provisios: That any choice uses up one of their empty D.I. slots, and that the first person to claim a Defining Interest is the one who takes it.
The idea has been wildly popular and successful in practice, making for characters that can be customized to seize the limelight at a given moment without derailing the entire game. The player gets to tweak the character and I get to not have to wing the plot as a result of a derailing tweak.
I do usually make pre-printed sheets for characters for con games, but for one-off walk-ins to my games (I run games in my LFGS and usually the door is open if there’s a spare seat at table) I simply use one of a batch of characters I’ve gussied up using a spreadsheet-derived thing I wrote (at least for Savage Worlds settings; I have slightly less clever things for D20 and BRP) and hand over a black character sheet so the player can transfer the stats themselves.
My handwriting looks like I use an inked spider so I never ever do characters for others by hand.
* Why three plus one? Because I plan for one encounter every hour or so and have a scene that can be pulled without ruining the game if the players take longer than anticipated to defeat a challenge and the game slot is immutable. You sign up for a four hour game at my table and you get four hours or as near as I can time it.
I’ve used that “Defining Interest” technique before in the context of Shadowrun’s “Knowledge Skills”. The PCs all had chemically-induced amnesia. I had players leave all of their Knowledge Skill points unspent, and had them spend them in-game as they needed them to learn new skills, with the caveat that they had to provide a flashback scene explaining how they came upon that knowledge originally and why they remember it now. It really added a lot of depth to their characters’ back-stories.
The ‘Defining Interest’ idea is a neat one and I can see it working well in some games.
I know with ‘Characterizing PCs’, I find that as a player, I like getting a degree of character/personality for the characters I pick up to play in one-shots. My favorites are usually situations where there’s enough information given to give me a direction but enough flexibility that I can run with it and expand on it.
I think the secrets in backgrounds idea can work, but only if that’s actually the FOCUS of the game. If it’s not the focus and there’s too much of it in the backgrounds, it can cause all sorts of problems in the game.
I definitely agree that motivation can be a weak link. I was actually inspired to write this by a one-shot where the GM just threw out a bunch of characters that had been made over the years. Most didn’t have backgrounds or any sort of personality at all. It was hard to reconcile why that particular group was working together.
Good points! I played a pregen on Sunday and it was a good experience–though honestly, much of that was just hanging out with people I enjoy.
I’m a big fan of “flavor first” for character creation. As the GM, unless I’m new to a system, the difficulty is in explaining what makes a character exciting. (Too often coming up with a character ideas that excite me is difficult–I’m busy working on the scenario part. You’re absolutely right: the character is the player’s window into the game world and demands attention and focus.)
One, no more than 2 pages, is a must–at least for the stats. An extra, often appreciated element to a good pregen, is to explain or provide examples of key abilities like stunts, rotes, feats, or other differentiating or unique character elements.
It can be tough coming up with 6-8 exciting and different characters for a one-shot. There are always a couple of ‘favorites’ among the bunch, but I always try and spread the awesome out between them all. It helps to put myself in other players’ shoes – other people like different types of characters. 🙂