The Secret Language of Character Sheets: Theory

There is perhaps no less fruitful question in my daily life then “what do you want for dinner?” The perfect answer is something direct and attainable like “grilled cheese sandwiches with ham like you made three weeks ago”. Acceptable answers include “pizza”. But the most common answer is some version of “I don’t know.” It’s frustrating, it’s unhelpful, and it is completely reasonable.

In my experience, rarely does it actually mean “I don’t know.” It usually means something much more nuanced like “I want a meal that’s warm and hearty but not too heavy, strong on umami but light on salt, preferably heavily sauced, but right now I don’t have the wherewithal to express that.” A person typically knows what they want to eat, but they can’t express it in language. They just know a particular dish or place or culinary style sounds good or bad, and they consider those dishes and places and styles rather than finding the links among them to get a picture of their current perfect meal. That’s neither wrong nor surprising. It takes knowledge of food to be able to say what you want in food terms, and it takes knowledge of self to be able to even begin looking at your wants in that way, and most people don’t have both in sufficient capacity.

If you look, you can find dilemmas like this all over the place. “I don’t know what decorating style I like, but I know those chairs are ugly.” “I don’t know what I like in TV shows, but I know Killjoys is great.” “I can’t tell you what’s obscene and what’s not, but I know it when I see it.” It’s not weird. People don’t always know how to verbally express what they want, even if they’re asked explicitly. It’s why I’ve fallen off in using my campaign surveys recently. Asking players “how light-hearted do you want this campaign to be?” rarely gives you a correct answer. To really understand it, you have to see how they actually play.

But it’s hard to plan sessions for a party at the beginning of a campaign when you have no idea who they are or what they want. And players and characters both change over time as they understand the setting, get more comfortable with each other, and overcome challenges. For something as mutable as a character you have to understand what a player’s intentions and expectations are at any given point in time while also recognizing that he might not even know it himself.

Luckily, these intentions and expectations do express themselves immediately and tangibly in the character itself. I’ve seen this described as “the secret language of character sheets”. On the sheet itself the player silently tells you most of what you need to know. It comes down to this: People play characters they want to play. This shouldn’t be controversial. It’s one of those things so understood and ingrained there’s usually no need to say it, like “people sit in chairs” or “the sky is up”. We only think about it when it’s not in effect. But extrapolating this to the actions a player takes, or wants to take, fills in a lot of the gaps in what that player wants to see in a game.

Consider a player who brings a wizard to the game. This is a typical wizard with high Intelligence, low physical stats, few social skills, a boatload of knowledge skills, and a wide variety of spells that solve several kinds of problems. We know this player wants to play her wizard. She wants to cast spells, she wants to show off her knowledge, and she doesn’t want to spend a lot of time being challenged physically or socially. That’s fine. If we want to make this player happy, we give her situations where she can know things or use her magic. If we want to challenge her, we put limits on the utility of her magic (antimagic zones, magic-resistant enemies, or just encounters where her typical spell selection doesn’t solve the problem) and force her to deal with things via other methods. The player probably didn’t say this, but we can extrapolate it from the character she has and assuming she wants to play and challenge that character.

Of course, most characters aren’t typical. A wizard might not be a high-Int, low-physical, knowledge-only character. He might be a transmuter whose spell list is full of polymorphs and other transformations. That’s fine too, though it means we can’t assume he wants to play a specific way just because he’s playing a wizard. For example, in Pathfinder a lot of these spells augment your ability scores rather than replacing them. To change into a high-Str giant it helps to have a high-Str wizard and you have to think about the campaign knowing your wizard wants to lift wagons and hit people with them. But it’s still all there on his character sheet: his stats, his spells, his feats, and his spell selection all say “I want to change into other things and use their abilities to solve problems.” Even he didn’t explicitly say that, we know it’s his intention and we can plan for that.

This is most important when a player says he knows what he wants, but what he says and what his character does are at odds. If a player says they want to avoid fights rather than winning them, but then comes to the table with a high-AC, high-damage greatsword fighter, there’s a conflict. If he gets into fights, he’s not doing what he says he wants to do. But if he avoids fights, he’s not using any of the equipment or feats around which he built his character. I’m not saying it’s impossible to have a clever character with a combat bent. I am saying a player’s character should be consistent with their stated intention for that character. If they conflict, either that player is setting himself up for disappointment or he doesn’t know how to express what he wants in words as well as he thinks he does.

Where this gets really interesting is applying it to an entire party. Obviously one character can’t do everything, and we shouldn’t avoid social encounters just because our typical wizard can’t handle them. That just means our wizard is a minus in that encounter while the fast-talking bard or even-mannered monk can shine. But if nobody in the party can handle social encounters, it’s a sign that the group as a whole doesn’t want social encounters to be a big part of the campaign. Little is less fun than getting the party halfway through the Kobold Temple of Generic Doom and coming across a hallway nobody can pass because nobody can find, disarm, or circumvent traps. Everything comes to a screeching halt and the characters either give up or expend way too many resources overcoming it because it’s not what they signed up for*. Encounters should challenge the players, not frustrate them because they designed their characters wrong.

This is why we want to look at the character sheets and see what the party actually wants to be. Usually this is as simple as asking the players “what is your character concept, and how do your character’s abilities reflect that?”. It should be pretty clear when a concept and abilities don’t match, and then it’s time to adjust one or the other. But more than that, the way the character fits with the concept tells you a lot about the player’s expectations. Even something as simple as “I’m a former soldier, and according to my sheet I use a sword and shield because that’s what soldiers use” means the player associates being a soldier with equipment and combat, not with defending her country or being a part of something bigger than herself. That’s fine too. The important thing is that what the character does tells you what the player wants the character to do, and it gives you the information you need to work with the character in your campaign.

I realize this is a high-level abstraction. I can’t just tell you “read a character sheet and understand everything you need to know”. Next post I’ll provide some more specific examples of how we’ve managed this well, and also how we’ve botched it.

* — There’s room here to argue that a party who isn’t any good at traps shouldn’t have gone to a trap-filled kobold temple in the first place. That’s correct, but not relevant to this topic.

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2 Responses to The Secret Language of Character Sheets: Theory

  1. Yanni says:

    I feel like it’s worth mentioning that many players don’t have deep system mastery, and just like your dinner desires example, if you don’t know the ins and outs of the system, it’s very easy to make a character that doesn’t do what you want to do. Maybe I assigned my attributes and didn’t realize dexterity is my secondary stat for a bard. Or maybe I thought a wizard would be cool but don’t grok vancian casting and would be happier with a sorcerer or cleric since the idea of prepping all my spells chaffs. Worse some players with limited system mastery will just not realize that the character they made isn’t enabling them to be the best they could at doing what they find interesting. Maybe I make a wizard and just assume that all spell casters work the same way and so I suck it up and try not to let anyone else know I’m only having 60% fun.

    On the flip side I grew up with OD&D and there is something to be said for every player being given a hot mess and trying to work with it. Playing with a weird build or unconventional attributes can be quite entertaining, but it certainly helps if that’s what you signed up for, and is kind of the equivalent of answering the dinner question with “Let’s go try that new place and see if it’s any good”… but of course the analogy breaks down a bit there, as it’s a lot easier to make a different thing for dinner, than to drop a character and bring a new one in.

  2. I can think of exceptions but I think they just end up proving the rule. For example, Vash the Stampede and Himura Kenshin are both high-level combat characters but both use combat as a last resort. Of course, if they were often successful in diplomacy both shows would not be as exciting as they are. So, I have talked myself into agreeing with you. This is a very useful post as I am sitting here writing my very first campaign.

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