Character Sheets As GM Tools

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0205

A Brief Word From Johnn

New Articles At Site

Gavin Hoffman and Michael Ullom have started re-vamping the articles section at the Tips site. Thanks guys!

Here’s a list of recently posted items:

  • Gaming Group Grind
  • So You Want To Be A GM?
  • Managing Intraparty Conflict
  • The Freelancing Life (PDF 112k)
  • A Guide to Map Making
  • A Cave, A Con, A Troll
  • Rebalancing Your Game-Dealing With Powerful Items


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

Character Sheets As GM Tools

Player Character Sheets As A GM Tool?

PC sheets are for players, aren’t they? I hear you asking. Yes. However, they can also serve the game master in numerous ways to make games more entertaining and efficient.

Potential benefits of tweaked, optimized, and well-designed character sheets are:

  • Better organized players
  • Increased roleplaying
  • Speedier combats

With possible benefits like those, we should explore this opportunity further!

I believe that PC sheets are the second most important interface your players have to your campaigns and stories. For most game systems, characters consist of numerous bits of descriptive, calculated, and interpretive information. There’s too much to memorize so players (or GMs) need to record it all somewhere. A sheet of paper is a natural choice–but is any thought ever given to how this information can be sorted, organized, and presented on that paper for ideal game play?

I’m a big fan of Jakob Neilson’s thoughts on web usability. [ ]. If you’ve ever visited my site [ Roleplaying Tips ] you’ll note that it’s quite plain, simple, and a dozen or so stages behind in general web site evolution. However, its implicitly makes it fast. Fast to load, navigate, and update (for me). It usually just takes a maximum of two clicks to find the information you’re looking for and there’s not many distractions taking away from the reading or skimming experience.

Characters sheets should be designed with the same goals in mind of serving the ultimate consumers of the information– the players and GM–and not the designers.

Use For Game System Analysis

I feel character sheets reveal a lot about a game. Whenever I’m checking out a new game system or game world, I flip to the back of the book, look for the photocopiable PC sheet(s), and study them.I also feel that most game companies don’t put many resources to character sheet analysis and design, so I don’t make any final conclusions about a game before I read it, but the freebie PC sheet often provides a great, high level view of what to expect or read about first.

How is the page real estate divided up? What amount of space is given to the various types of info on the sheet?

  • Statistics, stat bonuses, derivative stats. How many stats and sub-stats are there? Does the system seem to be aiming for realism with a large number of stats? Is it a more interpretive game with a small number of scores? Somewhere in between on that spectrum?Are stats referenced elsewhere on the sheet, such as in skill value calculations? Some games use stats as a core calculation value for all other rule aspects of a character, while others just want a way to describe a PC using numbers as a rough guide. Most games fall somewhere in between.
  • Skills. Has a lot of space been devoted to skills? Sheets with a lot of real estate devoted to skill records might indicate a detailed character management rules set. This might mean character creation and update processes are time consuming. It might also mean lots of potential problem solving game opportunities as players try to present the best skill set for the situation at hand. Other interpretations are valid too, but the main point is judging how important skills seem to be to the game and how complex the skill management component seems to be.Are the final skill values detailed and calculated on the sheet or is there only room for a final figure? This might indicate a character sheet style preference as some prefer all the steps in a calculation to be clearly detailed while others prefer a simpler interface that reveals just the number that ultimately counts.However, if calculations are provided via fill-in spaces or formula crib notes, decide if they seem simple or complex. Also note whether it seems like the calculation is based on a lot of temporary factors, which might indicate math- intensive conflict resolution, or static values, which may or may not suit your GMing style.
  • Is there a lot of room for equipment? Does it look like encumbrance is a simple or complex calculation–or perhaps it’s not a factor at all? Does the game want you to note how and where equipment is worn or does it appear that level of detail isn’t important?
  • Finally, how much space is devoted to roleplaying stuff? Your definition might differ, but by “stuff” I mean appearance details, goals and motivations information, history details, personality description, and so on. Some games assume you’ll record this information in your own style on other paper while other systems’ sheets give you a couple of lines per category (or small boxes) and then get back to the rules calculations.

Keep your study of the character sheet in mind as you read through the game manual. Does it appear that the sheet is a fair representation of what a player needs to know and record in order to run his character efficiently during the game?

Does the sheet capture the spirit of the game? Some games have detailed sheets but then turn out to be highly interpretive and free flowing during play. Some sheets waste space, not providing enough sections for complete character notation.

Character sheets are a window into a game’s mechanics and its anticipated gaming experience. Because most sheets are not carefully designed with purpose as user interfaces, you shouldn’t analyze a game based entirely on the sheet, but instead use it to spark your curiosity, spot potential system strengths and weaknesses, and get curious about the game in general.

As a fun exercise, compare the publishers’ characters sheets for Everway to RMSS’s (Rolemaster). Put Amber’s sheet (including the item inventory sheet) next to D&D 3E’s. Or compare Fudge’s with GURPS’.

Note to game designers: I might be the only one who flips to the character sheet in a game book first or I might be a rank amateur in comparison to how some people analyze sheets and form opinions about a game’s play and design. Regardless, I strongly encourage you give some thought about your demo, blank, or downloadable sheets and ponder what they communicate about your game.

Well designed character sheets not only enhance game play but serve as marketing vehicles for your system. There is no universal character sheet design that’s best, so each designer needs to do his own analysis about what layout is best for his game.

Create Two Versions: Roleplaying And Combat

I’m not sure why, but many character sheets scramble up roleplaying type info with combat or action resolution type info. A sheet might start with the character’s name, then his experience levels, then what god the PC worships, then his ability scores and bonuses, then his hair and eye colour, and so on. It’s a mish mash of information that I feel should be separated into two distinct sections, or preferably, put on different pages altogether.

During a game session, a player is generally in one of two mental states: roleplaying or rules resolution (such as combat or skill checks). I feel it would be most efficient to present the information most important to each state in its own container to minimize searching and calculating and to maximize inspiration and imagination.When a player is roleplaying they should have their character description, illustration, and personality notes in front of them.

Entries for “favoured saying”, symbol, NPC names, quirks, friends, and so on should not be squished into 8 point font grids, printed in the margin, or pushed to a small section on the back of an otherwise combat-dominated information reference.

This type of information should be broken out, separated from the rules heavy stuff, and given its own space to breathe and grow. It should be legible, inspirational and remind or encourage players to roleplay.

When combat or rules resolution erupts, a player should have everything they need to quickly and efficiently deliver the final result or relevant calculation info to the GM. They shouldn’t have to find a movement rate modifier that’s been tucked away between personality notes and a skill list.

For some games, such as D&D, it’s also good to have lots of room to provide the final calculations for multiple buff scenarios. For example, when a PC has magical effects A, B, and D running and is using a two-handed weapon, what’s the final attack roll modifier? Permutations quickly get out of hand, so a character sheet would just need to follow the 80/20 rule–provide enough space to note the 20% of permutations that get used 80% of the time.

Therefore, you might benefit by making character sheet templates that organise rules information on one sheet or side, and roleplaying info on another sheet or side. This lets players put the information that’s most important for the current situation in front of them at any given time. It also lets the two broad player types of roleplayer vs. wargamer keep their preferred info in front of them as a default.

In some games and group styles, the line between roleplaying and rules resolution is blurred. For example, your group might expect players to roleplay every social situation to generate a general sense of NPC reactions and interaction modifiers, and then make skill rolls at the end to see how things finally resolve. In these cases, you can duplicate the info (i.e. skills are noted on the combat and roleplaying sheets) or create a middle-tier sheet of common information and value (i.e. roleplaying, combat, skill sheets).

The design is up to you. The main point of this tip is to consider separating roleplaying information from rules information where possible and to allow enough space for all information to grow so that it doesn’t become hard to find or read.

Supply Creativity Materials

Characters whose sheets have been decorated are often better roleplayed and usually well remembered. You can encourage this activity by placing craft materials on or near the game table. This is also a good technique for harnessing the unfocused energy of doodlers and for keeping idle players busy.

Some example materials:

  • Crayons
  • Markers
  • Coloured paper
  • Fancy “edging” scissors
  • Stickers, stars, coloured dots

I’ve always thought it would be cool to use stars for D&D character levels on a sheet. Whenever a PC gains a level I’d hand out a star in a colour representing the PC’s alignment. A quick glance at any character sheet would indicate levels/power. I also think stars would be a neat reward ritual.

Enforce Character Portraits

Character pictures are amazing visual roleplaying tools and I recommend GMs encourage or mandate that all their players get one. A portrait is good, but a full body shot on a separate piece of paper is best as the pose, clothes, and other additional info will help and inspire players.

Potential sources of pics are:

  • Online art
  • Scans
  • Online photos of modern or historical people
  • Online pictures from movies and TV shows
  • CCGs
  • Hand drawn

A nice touch is to add labels. Lines pointing to various parts of the picture with comments attached provide a player with good info but in a visual way. You might have seen an advertisement or joke picture along these lines.

Potential player label uses are:

  • Roleplaying queues
  • (Major) Item inventory
  • Personality observations
  • Rules, such as armour ratings

For some styles and preferences, a character picture might be the best character sheet with labels and callouts representing game rule information.

Make Them Easy To Update

You can classify character sheet items into three categories:

  1. Static elements – never change (i.e. PC name)
  2. Slow change elements – change once a session or less (i.e. during PC level-up)
  3. Fast change elements – change several times in a session (i.e. hit points)

We don’t need to worry about static elements. Slow change elements are a bit of a problem though. If put on a character sheet, the area will become messy, hard to read, or worn out over time. And fast change elements will definitely ruin a good character sheet in short order.

Some possible solutions are:

  • Use Post-It notes, cut to size. Replace as needed.
  • Move the scores to a separate, replaceable sheet (i.e. a combat sheet and leave the roleplaying one intact)
  • Use a temporary sheet to track all dynamic scores
  • If the score is numeric, use sticks and bundles notation (i.e. write 4 vertical lines and a horizontal line through them all to indicate a score of 5). This lets you accumulate scores without erasing–requires more room though.
  • Cover erasable portions with plastic, or slip the whole character sheet in a plastic sleeve
  • Use software, such as Roleplayingmaster, and print out a new character sheet each session

Sources Of Character Sheets

Here are some reader submitted online sheets:

d20 Star Wars RPGd20 Star Wars RPG 3e Dark Sun: Cook’s Arcana Unearthed: 3.# fans — ENWorld: whole bunch of Shadowrun sheets:


A German site:

RPG Record Sheets (CoC too)

Some character generators:


Gates of Doom has a GURPS sheet:

A sweet D&D 3.5 editable PDF sheet:

Das Schwarze Auge:

The RoleplayingTips GM Encyclopedia


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I feel character sheets are great GMing tools, as stated in Tip #1. Do you have any tips on creating, using, or managing PC sheets? If so, send them on in to: [email protected]



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Ideas For Involving Space Phenomena

From Kiriath Machin Ni

You cruise through the limitless black sea in a starship. Whether it’s a top-of-the-line starfighter or a customised freighter, chances are that this ship has an engine that allows it to move throughout the universe at a speed we can only imagine.

What do you do when you’re cruising through the stars? We all know about raiders and scavengers and pirates – you might be one of those – but what natural phenomena are out there? What could suddenly run across a ship cruising through the wide, wild black? And how would those things make for interesting gaming?


Shattered rock floating throughout the cosmos – anywhere from distant space to the center of the known universe. Are the asteroids shrugged-off debris from a civilisation? Or are they something else?

  • Run Away and Hide
    There’s the classic Star Wars maneuver: dive into an asteroid field and avoid the oncoming Armada of Death. And then there’s the notorious Star Wars approach: something lives in the asteroid and comes out to eat you.
  • Battle Mines
    There’s the Galaxy Quest direction: instead of asteroids, the field is actually comprised of long-forgotten mines. Wise players characters might use the mines to repel the attacker; sneaky ones, like my PC, might try and tractor beam a mine for later use or research.
  • Mining
    What sorts of minerals could hide inside the asteroids? This is more likely for a Traveller or day-to-day game, dealing with exploration and mystery. It could be a volatile mineral and threaten the ship; or it could be filled with rare and expensive minerals that could take them on a flashback or to a interested merchant NPC.
  • Plot Dots
    • The asteroid is transmitting a strange message that has not been deciphered yet.
    • Strangely, an asteroid resembles the face of the world’s leader. Coincidence?
    • According to long range sensors, ships from several of the galaxy’s races are on a direct course to a large asteroid. Why?

Black Holes

Black holes are eerie gravity wells, one of the strongest forces inside space or outside it. Rumored to be the center of many galaxies and star clusters, light and nearly anything else drawn to a black hole never leaves. Don’t want to be spaghetti? Don’t wander toward a black hole.

  • Underworld
    As the place where nothing ever leaves, a black hole could serve as an ideal science fiction spooky setting. Event Horizon took this direction, and the black hole was a direct link to the Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.
  • Urban Annoyance
    All across a planet, during rush hour for dramatic effect, the lights suddenly switch off. Generators kick in, and the reports immediately fly in. All the energy was sent to one location, but analysis shows that there is nothing there.
  • Plot Dots
    • A sun is drawn toward an obscure location. Is its destination a black hole?
    • Crazed zealot. Government bashing his door. Black hole. Uh oh.
    • A wild electric storm rages. Is a black hole discharging its buildup?


Ice and rock streaking between the stars like a starship, and in some campaigns a literal ship, whether deserted or filled with aliens from a distant galaxy.

  • Missiles
    Is the comet truly a natural phenomena? Is it carefully designed, the gases trailing behind it too streamlined? Is it on a strangely deliberate course to annihilate a planet? Or is it a decoy? These questions must be answered quickly as the true warhead inches ever closer.
  • Mobile Base
    Comets travel through system to system. What better disguise could there be for a renegade base? At the most dramatic time, as a cliffhanger, the comet could shatter and reveal a never-before-seen spacecraft, weapons primed and ready.
  • Plot Dots
    • Unusual rocks are left in the comet’s wake. Why?
    • The comet leaves no trail, or is vanishing. What’s wrong?
    • The comet’s tail is colored strangely. Energy? Laser beams?


Even to a starship, nebulae are all around. Peek through the cockpit and the nebulae mingle with the lights all around, sometimes shining brighter as a new segment of the cosmos opens up to one’s eyes. But is this always a good thing, and it always mere scenery?

  • Call
    Like the female vixens called the sirens a nebula might beckon to a man. Whether it be the nebula itself, a mystical calling from the Force, or a new alien species, it is not known. Sounds like a campaign start to me.
  • Collective
    Nebulae could be a linked, enormous collective of alien life forms. Like the Magog or the Borg or the Zerg, an alien- filled nebula can be the ultimate foe of a campaign. The heroes are forced to ensure the enemy never reaches their universe and keep it from destroying all they hold dear.
  • Distraction
    Your enemy winks cruelly across the viewscreen and blinks from your sight as he dodges your missiles below you. You swivel to avoid his riposte, and suddenly, a bright star appears in the viewscreen. You are blinded and your enemy now has the upper hand… can you overcome the distraction?
  • Harbinger
    Space is like an infinite sea and some nebulae are like its coral reefs – vast, deep and mysterious. Nebulaic stars could appear as strange alien faces or hallucinatory entities – a dark harbinger in a bleak, moody campaign.
  • Plot Dots
    • A nebula starts to follow your ship and trail it. Why?
    • Faces appear on the nebula, phasing in and out. These faces are very familiar to you. Why are they there?
    • A surreal nebula flash shows a somehow more real universe. Which is the true reality?


Every epic Sci Fi story has an explosion somewhere, such as the Death Star. Supernovae are the last breath of a star as its long-lasting energies are at last diminished. There’s millions of stars, and potentially millions of supernovas. What happens if it goes off when you’re there?

  • Glowing Suns
    In the Fading Suns universe, the stars are fading and the religions harp on the occurrence as a harbinger of a finale. Supernovae are much the same but the lights are going on rather than out. It could potentially alter the entire mood as the stars go out with a bang, not a whimper.
  • Meltdown
    The larger the habitation, the more power it needs. If a planet powered by a star were to have its star explode – or even its sun explode – it would be a disaster on amazing levels. If terrorists set off the explosion, it could be a 9-11-01 in space.
  • Science
    A science academy is studying a supernova or a star inclined to become one. Will this unveil a mystery that has remained unanswered for eons? Is it an analysis frenzy? Or are the scientists using the situation to elevate their standing?
  • Plot Dots
    • Are lightsabre crystals designed with supernovae?
    • There’s no asteroids. Flee through a supernova?
    • Scanners indicate a large energy source near you. What is it?
    • There’s a supernova nearby and your hyperdrive is down. What do you do?

Worm Holes

These fluctuations in time and space have been used in many ways, such as in video games and the Farscape and Babylon 5 series. Sometimes worm holes are used as controlled pathways between the stars and are imagined as scattered segments of a continuum.

  • Bermuda Triangle
    In Farscape, worm holes lead to different realities. The space-time continuum can be shattered through this variation on the worm hole, and the effects could potentially support the entire expanse of a campaign. Much like the Bermuda Triangle, whirlpools and all.
  • Pathway
    Much like an interstellar Suez or Panama Canal, worm holes are often imagined as a traveling point. Space stations often line worm holes, as a federation base or a wayside rest. Pathway worm holes are best used in day-to-day games, as they could be considered railroading in something like Star Wars.
  • Plot Dots
    • You hear a transmission from inside a worm hole. Do you follow it?
    • A creature emerges from a worm hole and chases you. Are there others?
    • A supernova explodes in or near the worm hole. What happens to it?
[Comment from Johnn: what a great article! Thanks Kiriath. Would anyone want to try the same format for fantasy or modern genres? If so, let me know and I’ll reserve the topic for you.]
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Blue Vein Syndrome Comments

From KM

re: RPT#203 – Political Campaign Tips Part II

The author’s approach is clever but it’s not as workable for non-fantasy campaigns.

When I have players that don’t show, one tactic I use is to send them on a side quest that may or may not be related to the story line at hand.

For example, in my Vampire game, I have one character who has the flaw Ward (meaning they have a human they have to protect). When he’s away from the group, I often use the disappearance of his Ward as an explanation.

Other times, it may be something as simple as having the PC leave a voice mail message for one of the other PCs saying they’re unavailable.

Now if the PC is currently involved in the scene at hand, I will often try to get permission from the player to play the PC as an NPC for the night, and then make some excuse for leaving the party immediately afterward.

For example, the group starts the session searching the sewers. One of the PC’s players is gone, so I play the character as an NPC, and when the others leave I announce that the absent PC is going to spend the rest of the night searching, or perhaps they simply go home to shower.

For any of these, I do suggest working with the absent PC, and have something ‘in it’ for the player’s PC (information, money, etc.).

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Hidden Rolls Method

From Andrew McFarlane

I use a simple strategy to deal with “hidden” rolls for players (noticing that their pocket is being picked, seeing the orcs waiting in ambush, etc). At the start of each session, I take 6 or 10 rolls from each player and write them in a little table. Then, when I need a roll, I put my finger on a row and roll d6/d10, count to that row and read the rolls. I find that in addition to not letting them know something’s up by having them roll, making the rolls also helps to focus the players that the session has begun.

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Regional Opinions Technique

From Janis Maggs

I’m in the process of developing a new game world for my D&D players. While doing so, I tried to think of a way to convey some basic information on the world to my players, who are not the types to sit down and read page after page of background info. I actually don’t want to give out too much information about the world up front anyway so that the players can learn about the world in a natural, organic manner as they explore.

I first thought of writing a short “what you know about the world” page for each player depending on where each character is from, but this seemed like too much work and I won’t even know where everyone hails from until character creation, which is still down the line a bit. I settled on writing a sheet of regional opinions, where a native of each region gives his or her thoughts on all of the other regions.

Each native is somehow typical for their land but also has a way to know about other lands (perhaps a relative was an adventurer, or maybe they live in a trade center). They also have typical traits for their land (revere nature, conceited, etc.) and I’ve tried to give each a distinctive voice and attitude, to the best of my pitiful creative writing abilities.

Obviously, each native knows the most about the lands neighboring their own, and only the barest rumor of the most distant lands. I’m still not finished with the project, but it’s turned out to be a great way to express the international relations, conflicts, imports/exports, popular expressions, and attitudes for the game world, as well as allowing me a way to slip in some adventure hooks and red herrings.

It’s also been a lot of fun getting to know the “average Joe” in my world, and I think this will make it easier for me to develop NPCs in the future (a traditional weak point for me as a GM). [Johnn: Janis kindly sent me her opinions document so we could see an example. It’s a work in progress but I think you’ll get the idea clearly:Regional Opinions]