How Do Character Sheets Work?

What the heck is a character sheet, anyways? It’s one of the first questions I get when a new player joins the table.

Those of us who have been playing tabletop RPGs for awhile tend to take questions like these for granted – why would someone who’s never played before know what a character sheet is!?

So today’s post answers one of the basics for new tabletop RPG players: what is a character sheet? And how do they work?

Your Character on Paper

In stories, characters have attributes. Whether they be of the mind, body, or spirit, characters possess traits, talents, and flaws. Hermione is brilliant, clever, and brave. Sam Gamgee is loyal, enduring, and steadfast. Jean Luc Picard is wise, diplomatic, and an excellent leader. Whatever those character attributes may be, tabletop role-playing game systems try to quantify them.

Growing up, I played the Star Trek Collectible Card Game (STCCG). Characters in that game had Strength, Cunning, and Integrity as their core attributes while also possessing skills affiliated with their role which they could contribute to solving dilemmas. Captain Picard, for example, might have had 6 Strength, 10 Cunning, and 11 Integrity. Whereas Lt. Commander Data might have had 12 Strength, 11 Cunning, and 10 Integrity. But Picard had Diplomacy, Leadership, and Anthropology as his skills. Whereas Data by contrast had Engineering, Physics, and Robotics as his skills.

The STCCG translated those characters, and their attribute/traits/talents, into quantifiable bits and pieces. Those cards were like mini character sheets – a quantified version of the character on paper apropos to the system. They allowed the player to attempt to solve dilemmas using those characters.

Solving Dilemmas

Crucially, proceeding in any played story – as well as the STCCG – comes down to solving dilemmas. Those challenges can be social – persuading a king, solving a mystery, or exploring a trap-infested dungeon – as well as combative – battling a giant ogre, facing-off against a Klingon Bird-of-Prey, or surviving as a gladiator in an arena.

The character sheet sits at the middle of your character’s quantified attributes/skills and the various dilemmas the story naturally presents. Take, for example, disarming a trap in a dark dungeon. It takes a certain amount of dexterous skill and slight-of-hand in order to work the various mechanisms, right? The game master (GM) will likely have the character making the attempt to disarm the trap roll the appropriate dice.

And this is where your character sheet comes into play: whatever skill your character possesses that’s mostly closely linked to disarming the trap – Slight of Hand as an example – gets added to the result of the roll of the dice. That total figure is then compared to the difficulty of the trap itself – a number fairly set by the GM. And if you meet or exceed that difficulty, you disarm the trap! And if the total is below that number, the trap will likely spring back on you, hurting you in some fashion.

Today’s Character Sheets

The popular, modern systems of today have made a fine art of the science of character sheets. Dungeons and Dragons’ (D&D) character sheet for example, is far more robust than the STCCG cards from my childhood. Everything from your Strength, to your Intellect, to your Charisma is on there along side your skills, talents, bases of knowledge, and reactions to various story prompts. Having that quantitative – and qualitative! – foundation empowers your character to interact with the multitude of challenges in the story world.

Trying to persuade a king, for example, should use a different character skill-set than battling a goblin king one on one. And for Dungeons and Dragons, set in a incredibly diverse high-fantasy setting, there can be many different types of challenges and obstacles! So the character sheet should be complex enough to accommodate that story flow.

Our system, StoryNite, in contrast is aimed at the new and intermediate players. While the attributes, skills, and talents are there, everything is simplified and slimmed down to facilitate playing stories to the widest possible audience. The system balances ease of learning without sacrificing the wonderful depth, nuance, and great times that come along for the ride. But whatever system you’re using, there’s a method for quantitatively measuring your character: your character sheet.

So there’s your answer! If you have any questions on this topic, just let me know and we’ll solve it for you…

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