How Much Is Too Much?


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.

4 thoughts on “How Much Is Too Much?

  1. I am a big fan of the HeroQuest 100 words system, I use it a lot for writing out characters as well as descriptions for villages, towns, cities, locations, army units, organisations, groups, space stations, planets, ships, spaceships, etc.
    Now that is obvious as it is the way it works in HeroQuest but you could use it in other game systems as well. It not only keeps descriptions short but allows that each one be interesting and distinct from each other. The prose will also help to convey the genre or setting flavour more.

    As for handouts I use very visual ones showing pictures of locations or NPCs. For certain settings, like the ‘verse in Firefly, I print out NPCs as ID cards, or crew manifests, or employment profiles, or military records. That way it helps the players visualise the NPCs as well as gives them basic information about each one.

    One thing to avoid is the eight pages of font size 7, double page with little margins, background descriptions. I have seen them handed out at con games before – worst is that they only have one copy to share between six players!

  2. Quality post Gaz. I like the “3 Things” rule: John Wick describes it on his LiveJournal at…

    The latter part of that post is perhaps a bit too hippie even for Hai-Karate aficionados such as the Smart Party – and Brut lovers such as me too – but the first technique is quality.

    In “fishing” the GM merely need provide structure and paint in broad brush strokes, letting the players pencil in the fine details. I dig opening up the description of the world, the characters and (sometimes) the situation to everyone at the table by inviting players to describe “3 Things” about an NPC or location: it’s ace when proactive players run with it and narrate plain-cool stuff.


  3. My current style is, IMHO, middle of the road. The characters I created for my pirates game at Conception filled both sides of 2 column, landscaped, A4 (so 4 sides of A5). That may sound like a lot, but it wasn’t really.

    Side 1: Game stats and gear
    Side 2: Weapon stats and character background
    Side 3: Descriptive text for the edges and hindrances
    Side 4: Tricks and attack options

    This was for a Savage Worlds game so for other systems Sides 3 and 4 could be dropped and they were only included to save the players having to dig through the rulebook during the game – I work on the premise that I’m going to be the only person there with the rules.

    Back to the character background. I try to limit that to just enough to give the player an idea ofwhat sort of character they have and the reasons for being where they are.

  4. I’m as guilty of over narrating as the next man. One of the systems that helped me with overcoming this was FATE. Aspects are all you need to know about a character, a location, a plot even. The fact that they get mechanical effects is the icing on the cake.
    It’s not unlike the HQ 100 word method now I think of it…

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