Back in the early, early days of computer gaming, there was excitement when you brought that hard-earned game home and opened the box. Besides the disk(s) there was a chance that inside there’d be something extra – a cloth map, a ring, an in-character or in-universe letter (Mechwarrior 1 came with an excellent affidavit that told the whole backstory for the game), or something else interesting related to the game. While sometimes they were a form of copy protection, mostly they served to aid to set the scene and to bring the atmosphere of the game to your fingertips, priming you to enjoy the fiction even more. They were tangible entry points into the world. (And they were cool!) These extras gained the name of “Feelies.”
And with that, I’m going to jump to the tabletop to talk about character sheets.
Truthfully, this is not just about character sheets, for there are many Feelies that can be put on the table to similarly bring out the atmosphere of the game world. Character sheets, however, are something you interact with very often and, when you sit down at the game every week and pull them out, they’re pretty much one of the first things you see. They’re the interface between you and the character written upon them. There’s an opportunity for them to set and reinforce the fiction of the world.
I love designing character sheets. (I might even enjoy it just a bit toooooo much to be healthy at times…) For our new Dresden Files campaign, where we are part of a paranormal investigation/handling non-profit organization, I created a character dossier:
This is just the front; it’s printed on an 11×17 page and folded, so that it has all the appearance of a full dossier folder. Inside is listed the character’s characteristics and other in-game pertinent info (such as when we joined the organization) plus the main FATE-rules conceit of the character’s aspects.
There’s a great quote from Viggo Mortensen about filming the LotR movies when they were at Edoras. Weta workshop built the buildings of Edoras on a real rock in a real landscape (which they had to remove and Leave No Trace when they were done). Viggo’s quote went something like: “When you stepped out of the building, and stood there in the vast valley, with the flags fluttering nearby, you didn’t have to act as though you were in Edoras, because you **ing were in Edoras!”
My gaming room… doesn’t look like Edoras (unless we’re playing Papers and Paycheques, it wouldn’t do well to match any of our game settings), but when we start our games, and pull out that dossier, it sets our mind in gear. We have a tangible part of that world in front of us. It reminds us who we are: agents dealing with entities and events that few other even know exist. It builds an atmosphere.
RP springs from the creative muses within us all, and can exist quite well without any costumes or props or even feelies. But a little support never hurts. Whenever I look at one of my designed character sheets it is a subliminal reminder, a nudge back to the fictional realms I am engaging in. If you’re designing a game it pays to give attention to the character sheet so that it is not only legible and usable, but supports the feel and theme of the game. If you’re playing, I invite you to spend a few minutes and find a sheet online, doll up the one that comes with the game, or personalize it in a way so that it too can support the RP of your character and of the game.
Get your feelies on. Pull out that dossier, and dive into character.
(Other feelie ideas include props (cigars, hats, swords, candles), appropriate food, tent cards to set in front of each player depicting an image of their character and the character’s name, maps/posters/etc on the walls of the game world and game imagery, ambient light music or sounds in the background, goblets or other dishware, miniatures…)