3 Tips For GMing “Blank Sheet” Characters

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0862

Recent emails in my inbox share a common theme of characters unknown to their players.

Example: the PCs have amnesia and players get blank character sheets. As facts emerge about the PCs through trial and error or memory recovery, the character sheets get filled out.

Another example: zero level PCs. A compelling mythological device with characters as normal people. They answer the call to adventure — or adventure is thrust upon them.

Roll To Check For Pits

These are cool ideas. However, please put on your Player Hat during design and planning to avoid some GM Traps.

One trap is gravitation towards the lowest common denominator. Without guidance or structure, players will do just the most basic things because of a lack of context or information.

For example, when I was a player in the shipwrecked type adventure with common-man characters, the easiest thing to do in each encounter was grab a club and beat our foes.

Turns out our actions were informing what classes we would get at first level. The whole party became fighters, lol.

We pivoted mid-adventure and made conscious efforts to sneak around, pray, draw upon esoteric talents, track, and so on to eventually create a party of differentiated characters.

Another trap is players not discovering the corners. Without guidance of what to explore, your group might not think to try, test, or remember special character abilities, granular skills, or specific feats/boons/aspects. 10x this if players are new to your game system.

Finally, some players hate grey zones and uncertainty. They love to know the facts and the rules to help them make the best decisions. Starting with a blank character sheet is like telling Warren Buffet he can only use Fruit Loops for money.

Here are a few tips to help “unknown” character type games be successful.

Plan Ability-Revealing Encounters

If players can resolve every situation with the swing of a club, there’s no motivation to test other abilities.

If every encounter seems the same, there are no cues to try different things.

Create a variety of encounters designed to test, prompt, or guide the strategic removal of fog-war-war from character sheets.

Start With Skeletons

Instead of blank character sheets, pre-fill some parts.

Use this to give clues about the true nature of characters to create an interesting puzzle for players.

Use this to give hooks for players on how and what to play.

Use this to give ideas on what might be possible to avoid player frustration or paralysis.

Provide Guidance

I appreciated it when the GM stepped in part-way through our shipwrecked adventure and told us we were all going to be thugs if we did not start trying different character abilities.

I would have preferred this advice from the start. Then nudges when we were missing obvious opportunities, like that time no one thought to pray or serve an offering at the altar in the jungle. No clerics created that day.

I feel it’s more important to direct at crucial times than to preserve the purity of an idea. Give characters a flashback or memory recovery to make gameplay fun instead of sticking to your guns and letting the party flail around without progress.

Since playing a zero level PC in that jungle island adventure, I’ve GM’d several similar campaigns.

I ran my own shipwrecked adventure, kicked off a campaign on a ruined space station with PCs waking from cryo with amnesia, started a group out as themselves in real life, and so on.

I’ve learned having no information about your character is not as much fun as you think it might be.

Put on your Player Hat and empathize. Consider giving at least a few initial details or clues to help guide gameplay.

And design your game so it’s focused initially on character revelations.