It’s 1938, and you find yourself employed alongside this person:

  • PJ is short but athletic, with dark hair cut into a bob. She almost always wears trousers rather than a dress.
  • Her accent gives her away as English–as does her fascination with the details of American culture.
  • She doesn’t take shit from anyone–especially anyone who says or suggests that a woman shouldn’t fly planes.
  • She doesn’t have any visible means of support, but never seems to be short of cash.
  • She frequently mentions a sister whom she adores, but who seems regrettably trapped in the bonds of high society.

Now, that isn’t high literature, but I bet you’ve put together a pretty decent mental picture of this character.

I’ve written before about using “five things everyone knows” to quickly implant an understanding of campaign details in your players’ imaginations. And about using bullet points to give life to your descriptive text. And I’ve talked about the First Session rule for letting players adjust their characters after their “pilot” episode. This time I’m bringing it all together for some advice on introducing player characters–to your game, and to each other.

If you’ve read those other posts, there’s really nothing new here. Basically, it amounts to this:

  • Instead of writing up lengthy, detailed read-aloud prose that will glaze your players’ eyes over, compose your descriptive text as a series of bullet points. Then instead of reading your text at them, you’ll engagingly describe your content to them.
  • Rather than composing lengthy prose treatises on campaign topics, distill them into sets of “five things everyone knows” (in bullet points) that are easily communicated and digested.
  • Treat your first session (or even the first full adventure) of your new campaign like a TV pilot. Let your players make changes to their characters without consequence, and just ignore any continuity issues that arise.

Putting that all together gets you to a technique I use whenever I launch a new campaign: “Five things everyone knows about my character.” This is what I tell my players:

  • List five things everyone who has hung around with your character a bit would know. If you spent a few evenings around a campfire with this person, or a few lunchtimes in the break room, these are the sorts of things you’d come away with.
  • Some of these things should be physical (hair color, general build, etc.).
  • Some should speak to the character’s interests and attitudes.
  • And some should touch on his or her background.

I ask the players to come up with this info during character generation, and I find it’s a low-pressure technique for building well-rounded characters.

But maybe I should have said “ten things,” because I actually make them do this twice. The first time is, as I said, during character generation. At that point, I let the players keep the info to themselves if they want to (or to share as much or as little as they like).

Then, a few sessions into the campaign–usually a couple of sessions after I’ve implemented the First Session rule, I ask the players to do it again. At this point, they might have made tangible changes to their character. And their internal conceptions of their characters might have evolved. Or both, or neither–so it’s OK if the second five things is identical to the first, or completely different. But this second set they share with the group.

This is a great way to convey the basics: “Short but athletic, with dark hair cut in a bob” does a much better job of communicating appearance than the “Height: 5′ 3″–Weight: 125lb–Hair: Brown” that’s typically at the top of the character sheet. And it gives the players a way to express a bit about their characters’ inner workings that might not become obvious in play until the other players have already formulated (possibly very different) impressions of the character.

Even better, it helps the players to, well, not so much flesh out their character concepts as articulate them. Give them a bit of focus. Which makes those characters a bit more fun and a bit easier to play.

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