In 2014, I wrote “Three Cues from Your Character Sheet” — which was advice to players on how they could introduce roleplay elements without preparation, simply by identifying three key parts of the character sheet and using them to good effect.
It was advice intended to encourage players to roleplay even in one-shot settings, such as conventions or impromptu gaming opportunities.
To recap, the three things were: 1) You are your weapon; 2) You are your best ability (either your high score or class-granted power); 3) You are what you wear (like an actor “inhabits” a character from their costume or physical description).
I thought I’d return to this subject and guide players who are looking to dive a little deeper into their character, maybe because they ported that one-shot character into a campaign or that pop-up game developed into an ongoing arc.
Here are more things to glean from the character sheet that can guide your roleplaying.
1 Raistlin’s Rasping Cough
Raistlin is the sickly ambitious mage of the Dragonlance series, famous for his rasping cough and arrogant demeanor — depictions that made the character memorable in novels by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. But it was Terry Phillips, who portrayed Raistlin in Hickman’s playtest games for the series, that first gave Raistlin his rasping, sickly voice – in part, based on the character’s low constitution score.
In a longer game, consider playing up a PC’s low ability score in some fashion. Introducing a frailty into the character gives you a hook.
Now things don’t have to be roleplayed to such extremes (and it’s probably best if they aren’t). A fighter with a 9 intelligence isn’t stupid, by any means. But he might need time to ponder or figure things out. For example, the thoughtful Onion Knight Davos Seaworth rises to become counselor to Stannis Baratheon in “A Game of Thrones” in spite of being illiterate and cautious.
Low score roleplaying moments help others at the table identify in one another individual weaknesses that the party as a whole might be able to compensate for. A bard adorned in frippery — even at her best — might not sweet-talk her way past a castle guard; but if she’s in the company of the party’s imposing strong-armed swordsmen — who are without a charisma bonus between them — it provides a greater chance of success because they look like they belong.
2. Deep pockets
Another defining personality characteristic is their attitude toward wealth and currency. Even though desiring more gold pieces is an almost universal trait among adventurers, a character’s starting gold amount and their subsequent approach to money handling can be telling.
Does the monk from the mountain retreat have need for a personal account, or is she more like Batman – who pours riches into a career of vengeance? Does the cleric seek donations for his church? Is the barbarian carefree with her treasure? Is the bard buying ostentatious clothes with her share, or does she accompany the rogue to the horse race track where they bet it all on a “sure thing”?
Does the character apportion a share of the loot toward a faction or organization to which they belong, to a master they apprenticed under, or to their silver-haired grandmother back in Waterdeep? Is it about sober business commitments in shipping or long-shot investments in odd inventions? Does the character hoard their money like the dragons they stole it from or is it being put to work buying better gear and exotic magics for the next adventure?
Whatever your character’s predilections might be, their attitude toward money, and their attitudes toward others who do other things with it, all reflect the character’s position and outlook. Playing that up can create “moments.” In the marketplace, for example, the sorcerer holds the party treasure and isn’t going to loosen those purse strings just because the barbarian saw something tasty served on a stick. Just like the real world, the fantasy world is made up of people who make impulsive buying decisions, who fall for get-rich-quick schemes and who are misers capable of making Scrooge blush.
3. ‘I have many skills’
The familiar catchphrase of Xena: Warrior Princess (well, it’s familiar to me) draws our attention to the skill list on the character sheet. While the skills the character is most proficient at can help frame the player’s personality, it is more often the skills the character does not possess that make things interesting.
Similar to “You are your weapon,” you are your skills can be a handy prompt when roleplaying opportunities surface. Conversely, play up instances when skills outside the PC’s range also instructs.
Roleplay using skills with ranks with confidence in their competence. “I’ve got this” or “This is child’s play” come in handy here. But it’s also important to address skills the character doesn’t posses. These should be tried as shots in the dark or reflected with tentative answers, such as “What’s the worse that can happen?” Again, demonstrating frailty, weakness or lack of skill can be useful, defining the parameters within the party dynamic.
Now you’ve got three more things on the character sheet to guide your interpretation of the character. Have fun bringing them to life.