Character Sheet as Contract

There’s a concept I’ve been throwing around for a while in RPG groups and it is an integral part of what I teach new GMs: “Character Sheet as Contract.” Character creation is oftentimes a lost opportunity to get the game started (a topic near and dear to my heart, and one I will likely spend a lot more time on in the future) but is also the part where the players and GM map out the course of the campaign.

When players write “Goblin Language: Fluent” or specialize in repairing astromech droids or even something straightforward like Edged Weapon 4/Katana 6, they are telling you something important. When they pick a Rogue with a Noble background or a former mob enforcer with the contacts to back it up, listen to them. The player has outlined what they want featured in the game when they wrote their character sheet. Rarely does a player have so many resources during character creation that they can afford to spend them frivolously, so they are trying to tell you something between the lines of that character sheet. As an audience, we want to see Indiana Jones scraping through encounters with enemy soldiers and supernatural menace by his luck, skill, and knowledge of history. That’s what we get sold by the movie poster and the introduction of the character. Similarly, when Malcolm Reynolds attends a fancy-dress ball and starts a fistfight after some fine footwork, we’re seeing the character played (to their detriment!) based on what we are told about the character to begin with. The character sheet tells us all of this.

And the GM’s part in this is just as clear: Write the story for the characters at hand. Give them a chance to use that fancy background every now and again. Let their checkered history catch up with them. In fact, make it catch up with them. Some forums have lamented when flaws or prestige classes only have roleplaying drawbacks as if they are less valid than a mechanical one. That comes down to GMs who neglect their end of the contract. They wrote it. You approved it. It’s worth making sure that as the characters develop that you stay mindful of what that contract looks like between you and your players.

And like most contracts, you can make amendments. When someone submits a character sheet with a skill you have no intention of ever making use of, tell them right then. “This game won’t have goblins/astromech droids/katanas.” Don’t let them feel like they bought a specialized tool and wait for weeks and weeks to find out they’ll never even take it out of the box. If you think those features won’t matter, let them take it for free. It might surprise you how it comes into play later. And if it keeps being a thing, let them pay for it with a level up or some experience points when it becomes clear that is just as valid a choice as someone who spent all their points on Melee Weapon: Whip or Fisticuffs. I heartily recommend “breaking the rules” so that your characters can have a life of their own and study poetry or learn Ancient Egyptian or practice their short game in that universe’s equivalent of golf.

Listen to your players. They’ve already told you what they want to be playing.