Choosing New Games: the Character Sheet Test
When I’m struggling to decide whether a new game system is worth trying out, there are lots of different things that can influence my decision. But when in doubt, I find I fall back on the character sheet test:
1) Open the book
2) Flip through it until you find a character write-up
If your eyes start to bleed, you feel a faint nausea or dizziness, or you just get distracted and start thinking about more interesting things like getting flu shots or doing your laundry, then the game has failed the character sheet test. It is not the game for you.
On the other hand if the character sheet seems vaguely interesting, comprehensible, or if it arouses excitement or even a faint sense of curiosity, then the system is probably one that’s worth your time to try.
Don’t think about it too hard. Just ask yourself whether you like the way the character stat blocks look. Your brain will take care of the rest, consciously or not.
There is nothing scientific about this test, nor should there be, because the kind of game I like may be quite different from the kind of game you like. Do you love long lists of skills, three sub-flavors of dexterity, numbers in the triple digits? Great, than that’s the game that will speak to you. Prefer minimalist stats, prose stats, characteristics described as animals and colors? Rock on.
A roleplaying game really has just two parts: the way characters are defined and the mechanic for resolving actions.
The mechanic for resolving actions is usually something like “roll a die and add X” or “roll a handful of dice and count successes” or “roll a pile of dice and group them into a pyramid of matching primes.” Most games have one unified core mechanic, unlike the good old days when there were separate systems for every single thing you did (roll percentile dice to bend bars/lift gates!).
The method for defining characters is something like “three physical attributes and three mental attributes, each with a number between 3 and 18, and a profession ranked in class levels” or “a zodiac sign, one dominant elements, two minor elements, a favorite color and a patron god.” Class-based, skill-based, point-buy, prose, whatever.
When you do the character sheet test, you are getting a glimpse at the character definition system. Even if you don’t understand all the terms, you are getting an idea of what the system thinks is important or unimportant and how much detail it thinks it needs to define a person.
What’s that you say? You think examining the core resolution mechanic is a much better test of whether or not you’ll like a game? You really want to know if you’re going to roll a bunch of dice or just one + X?
The first critical step in gaming is relating to your character, your duly-elected representative and looking glass into the fictional world. If the character definition system doesn’t sit well with you, if it doesn’t click with your mindset, you’re going to have a harder time getting into your character. It can be even worse if you’re the GM, because even though the characters aren’t your looking glass, you have to write up and handle a ton of them.
The two parts are actually surprisingly independent of each other. Pick your favorite core mechanic and you can probably graft it on to your favorite character definition system without much fuss. It sounds crazy, but try it and see. Play your next D&D game using dice pools or play Dogs in the Vineyard with a d20. It’ll be a different game (of course) but it works.