I went through a phase at conventions of writing stacks of info for players, big ass descriptions, things they thought of the other characters, world background, organisation information etc. But frankly, that’s all too much. Anything over a side of A4 just ain’t going in, with the best will in the world. Typically I’ll have some flavour on one side and the stats on another. I’ve even been paring down to A5 in some cases for things like Savage. On the other hand I’ve also just given people the raw stats. Now, in things like Pendragon, that’s fine. You’ve got personality traits and all sorts right there. In other games though, you might be selling your players short, especially if they’re new to all this.
How much do you try to guide the player on their character or way of acting though? Clearly it can depend on the type of game you’re after. Most D&D games will simply require you to let a Paladin know not to rob and murder. If you’ve got something more meaty that relies on character interaction, you’ll probably want to give some more guidance – but be aware of going over-board.
For one thing, players generally want to get stuck into the game. They’ll have their own way of playing too. Plus there are considerations like the ability or pop culture knowledge of the individual. A short paragraph is normally a good starter for ten though. Some people will put down some key words or “tags” if you will. Proud, Haughty, Aloof – that gives you an idea how to play a character and doesn’t require too much of a stretch from a player. A short paragraph that hints at why this may be, or gives more depth or alternatives, maybe includes a sentence or two on backgrounds gives a more rounded approach however, but why not include both?
Same goes for your game world really. Trim that description down. As exciting as it is – and I’m guilty of this more than anyone – to try and tell your players all about Teh Awesome of your world, chances are they’ll get bored and switch off pretty quickly; the players are here to play a game, not listen to you tell a story. I’ve no doubt devoted Star Wars fans could bang on for ages about Tatooine – but all I really need to know (as a player) is that it’s a backwater desert world, has a dirty, villainous space port and apart from smugglers, criminals and dirt farmers, there are hostile indigenous Sand People and carnivorous Sarlacci waiting to digest me over 1000 years. That’s all the flavour I require to start with – anything else can be *shown* during the game, rather than told. i.e. on speaking to me contact in the cantina, he reveals that Jabba the Hut is the big cheese in these parts and he’s offering a big ass reward for some rogue smuggler behind on his debts etc.
Its all in the details – they really make a game come alive – *but* you can’t write them all down for your players in copious notes and expect them to go in, or even if they do, to come out in play as you’d imagined. I have many great ideas for characters and then I’ll watch someone play and think “What are you doing? He’s not like that…” – but, of course, he is. The character is the player’s own from the minute he opens his mouth. Its always amusing to play the same game more than once, as invariably, the characters portrayed are different every game, despite having the same (terse or lengthy) descriptions provided by the GM.
From the system side, Pendragon which was mentioned earlier highlights that skills or traits over 15 your knight is famous for. Its by no means a bad thing to do this for other games. Players can easily spark ideas about what their character is like based on what they’re good at. Don’t be frightened of referencing good abilities, in that paragraph of description or hinting at why someone has Guns 20 or Library Use 97. The key is not to provide too much in the way of definitives and more in the way of ideas, Unknown Armies is great for having skill “penumbras”. Check it out.