Cinemechanix Design Journal 11: The Character Sheet

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 18 March 2016 Written by Steve

Earlier this week I posted the Hobomancer sample game for Cinemechanix to the playtest group (as well as the second playtester survey). It turns out that condensing the background from a 150 page book into a few paragraphs is not an easy task, and the sample games in general require more work than I expected. I originally thought the sample games would be in the 5-10 page range, but Team Alpha Force 37 came in at 27 and Hobomancer is 34. Some of the page count is due to big fonts and inefficient layout (especially of stat blocks), so they'll shrink down in the actual PDF/book, but there's still a lot of content (the Hobomancer sample game is just under 13,000 words). It's tempting to cut down the number of sample games (I originally planned on 10) to keep the page count down, but I think I'll stick to the plan. I want plenty of examples in the book to illustrate how you can adapt the basic rules concepts to different kinds of games. The next one I'm working on (working title Summer Camp Monster Mash) is a game about a summer camp for monsters. It's sort of Hotel Transylvania meets Wet Hot American Summer. 

A few weeks ago I posted a sample Cinemechanix character, but didn't really offer much explanation for those who haven't read the rules. I originally planned to do it the next week, but got sidetracked, so I'm going to start on that today. Before we start get into the stats, there are a two things to understand: 

  • Cinemechanix is a storytelling game, so players "win" by helping to tell a good story, not by exploiting the game rules. Since I'm not writing a strategy game where all players need to start at roughly the same power level, I'm not worried about game balance. As long as the story includes obstacles that require Kryptonian powers as well as obstacles that require trick arrows, Superman and Green Arrow are both viable characters despite the fact that Clark has a ton of flashy super-powers and Ollie just has a bow. GMs need to keep players from making characters who are so powerful that they overshadow the other characters (in order to keep everyone else from quitting the game) or so versatile that it's impossible to challenge them (because stories where characters don't overcome any meaningful challenges are bad stories), but that's better accomplished through good judgement than through some arbitrary point system. 
  • The character sheet for a Cinemechanix character isn't a resume or inventory, so it's not meant to describe everything about the character. It describes the character at a certain time within a certain context, namely the time and context of the story. Players don't need game mechanics for things that are outside the scope of the story. We don't care about Carl Winslow's ability to chase down a bad guy or shoot a gun because "Family Matters" is a sit-com, not a cop show. On the off chance Carl has to do cop stuff, the GM will probably give him a bonus and the player can always spend Acclaim (Cinemechanix Yum Yums) if he wants to nail the roll. If the inevitable Netflix reboot is a cop show called "Winslow on Patrol," Reginald VelJohnson will have to make a new character sheet that describes Carl in the new context. 

A Cinemechanix character sheet is broken down into three main sections (plus two other sections that are basically notes):

Character Concept

The Character Concept consists of Role, Backstory, Fatal Flaw, Game-Specific Traits (like Race or Hogwart's House or Secret Identity), Hooks (things that make the character special or unusual), Tag Line, and Who Would Play Him/Her In The Movie?. The Character Concept describes who the character is. You can think of this information as what the people in charge of a movie or TV show use to build the character. It helps decide what kind of things the character says and does, what kind of make-up, wardrobe, props, and special effects are required, and what actors or actresses to consider for the role.

Tropes

Tropes describe things a character is good at (Trademarks) or bad at (Drawbacks). They're often based on things established in the character concept (a character with a "Cop" Role may have a "Shoot Bad Guys" Trademark), but don't necessarily have to be. If you think of Concept as adjectives, Tropes are verbs; they're things the character does (or does badly). Continuing the TV/movie analogy, these are the things that the actor has to convince the audience he's doing (often with help from stunt doubles, special effects people, etc.). 

Stats

Stats are traits that are purely necessary to make the game work. In the movie analogy, they're kind of like the wires and harnesses used for a stunt in an action movie. You have to have them, but don't want the audience to see them. Stats include Hero Factor (an abstract measure of badassitude), Acclaim (more or less Yum Yums), Stamina (for measuring damage), and Special Effects (other special rules, like how much damage a Werewolf character takes from silver weapons).

Other Stuff

The two remaining areas of the sheet are Plot Developments and Trivia. In Cinemechanix, story arcs are equated with seasons of a TV show and characters "level up" at the end of the season. In television, nothing is permanent until it survives into the new season, so Plot Developments is a place for recording temporary rules changes until the season ends and the player and GM decide whether or not they hang around. In Buffy, for example, Xander would probably get the "Missing An Eye" Drawback as a Plot Development when his eye gets destroyed in Season 7. When Season 8 starts (in the comic), he's adjusted well enough that the Drawback goes away and the fact he's missing an eye becomes a Hook. Trivia is a place for the player to write down dumb facts and other notes about the character.

Next week, I'll go into more detail about what the different traits mean and how they work.   

 

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Cinemechanix Design Journal 11: The Character Sheet.
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