Today’s guest article is by Angela Murray (aka Orikes), an occasional graphic designer, a sometime photographer, and one of the voices over at Rogue Princess Squadron, a new gaming blog put together by several female authors. Though she’s been gaming for years, GMing is still a new love in her life. Thanks, Angela!

In an ongoing campaign, the character sheet is in the hands of the player. It’s their baby, their lifeline into the game world. They often put a great deal of time and effort into keeping track of the information they need in the way that works best for them. With a one-shot, though, it is up to the GM to present the player with what they need to get into their character and the game. It’s important to make sure the basics are all there, but you also want to put the character together in a way that’s going to grab a player’s imagination right away.

I have been a player for far longer than I have been a GM, so in many ways I still think like a player. When I put together a one-shot, I think about what I would have wanted out of the game. One of those things is a character that has had a little bit of care and creativity put into its creation. While a rumpled, soda stained, faded photo copy with a handful of penciled-in stats could still lead to a fantastic game, I know I trust an unfamiliar GM a little more if I see some effort went into crafting the characters for the players. Prepping for the scenario may be the GM’s primary job, but it’s the characters that draw the players into the game. If the players can’t get into their characters, it won’t matter how fantastic the hook is for your game.

There are three important things to keep in mind for one-shot characters:

  • The Crunch
  • The Flavor
  • The Presentation

The Crunch

The bones of any character are the numbers and stats that make the game system work. Game systems vary widely on how stats and attributes are handled, but very few eschew numbers completely. It almost goes without saying: All the important bits of information need to be presented clearly and legibly for the player. Any stat you’re going to be asking them for during the game should be represented on the sheet. How you present all the important crunchy bits will depend on what game system you’re running. The more complicated the system, the more important it is to have everything right there for the player.

Legibility is the key. No player wants to interrupt the GM to ask them to decipher something they can’t read on their sheet. Luckily for all of us, there are PDFs available online for almost any system you can think of. Many of these have fillable fields, so you can input all the information on your computer and print it out, avoiding the awkward moment of having someone decipher your handwriting. I know I have trouble reading my own handwriting, let alone someone else having to try and read it.

When running a game at an event (like a con or open gaming at a local store), there’s a very good chance you will have a mix of experience among your players. The more knowledgeable players may be able to work with a half-built character, but newer players are going to struggle to grasp what their character can do. Try and look at the character as if you were completely unfamiliar with the system. Would you be comfortable with it as a newbie? If not, you may want to revisit the sheet and make it a little more coherent. One-shot games are sometimes the best way to hook new players on the hobby, so it’s helpful to make the stats as easy to follow as possible.

The Flavor

The next piece of the character puzzle is the flavor. While the stats give the bones, it’s the flavor that really fleshes everything out. A simple dungeon crawl or arena combat game may not provide much opportunity for roleplaying, but even there a line or two about a character’s personality can help bring a fun spark to the game. Providing some background and personality becomes paramount for any game where you want to get into a story and bring out good roleplaying.

The goal is to give enough background and personality on the character so a player can grasp the essence of who that character is, but keep it loose enough that they can put their own spin on it. Each player is going to do things in a slightly different way, so you don’t want to get too caught up in YOUR vision of the character. While it might be fun to write a novella for the background, that’s probably going a bit far and could be too constraining for the player. Keep it concise and flexible.

Of course, while you want to keep it loose, you still want to make sure you give the players all the information they need. If there’s an NPC or a plot point that is going to come up in the game that their character has knowledge of, make sure it’s noted somewhere in their background. You don’t want to have to slow the action down in mid-scene to explain why a particular NPC should be important to the PCs. This also includes the relationships between the PCs. If they have any history at all with one another, it can help immensely to provide even a tiny note on what they know about each other.

However much or little you provide as flavor for the characters, you want to make sure all of the characters are consistent. It can be hard to come up with six to eight unique and interesting characters, but they should be as balanced as possible. You might favor one or two of the characters, but it’s crucial to spread the cool and awesome among all of them. Every character should have the chance to shine in the hands of the right player. As a last step, go through each of the characters and make sure there are no inconsistencies or conflicts with their backgrounds. As a player, it can be very frustrating to have your background mention nothing of something another character’s background talks about extensively, but they should have also known about.

The Presentation

Last, but not least, we have the presentation of the character. While making the character sheet pretty isn’t absolutely necessary, having a sharp looking character sheet is a good way to draw players in and show them you’re serious about the game. I have some graphic design experience in my background, so the visual look of a character sheet is probably a bit too important to me. Fortunately, though, you don’t need to be a graphic designer to put together a visually interesting character sheet. Just keep a few common sense rules in mind and get creative with it!

  • In the spirit of keeping it concise and clean, try and limit each character to only one or two pages. Much more than that and you’re heading into “too much information” territory. Think of it like a resume –- you want all the pertinent details there, but without overloading them with too much information and losing your audience.
  • Don’t go overboard with the fonts. Definitely find and use a cool font that fits your theme for the important things like the name or headings, but stick with a basic, easy-to-read font for any large chunks of text. You also want to avoid using too many different fonts. Using more than two or three can start to make your document look schizophrenic.
  • Pictures and graphics are a great way to visually spice up a character sheet, but remember to be respectful of others’ work. No one is likely to scream copyright infringement if you use an actor’s publicity photo on a character sheet, but grabbing artwork or photographs off of DeviantArt without asking permission is a big no-no.
  • Finally, have someone else proofread everything. As with any creative project, by the time you’re done, you’re probably too close to it to see any of the little mistakes you might have made. A proofreader can catch everything from non-spelling errors (like there and their) to confusing or ambiguous information. I once accidentally swapped some character names around. If they hadn’t been caught before the game, it would have caused a headache for my players. /li>

Each game is going to be a little different, so these are just suggestions that may or may not help with any given set of characters for a one-shot. As a GM, the ultimate goal is to run a good game for your players, so occasionally take a moment and imagine yourself on the other side of the table and think about what you would want to see when you sit down and grab a premade character to play.