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Breaking the Rules, Writing in the Margins

UPDATE: We didn’t tell you that this is by the one and only Dave Chalker, Editor-in-chief of Critical Hits.

One of the things that stuck with me after attending a talk by game designer Monte Cook was his opinion on character sheets. He wasn’t talking about layout, or amount of stats or any of that: he was talking about the margins.

Totally stolen image from Dave's girlfriend, E.

More so in older editions of D&D, the margins of the character sheet were used to mark aspects of your character that didn’t conveniently fit into the rules. Cursed to never be able to find true happiness, cool scar running along the PC’s arm, pursued by a scorned lover, paralyzing fear of water.

There are so many great tools in modern RPGs that it can be easy to lose all the non-rules parts of characters, especially for DMs. When there are rules for every character flaw or lasting scar, it can be tough to break out of the mold.  Here are three quick tips to try and bring some of that back.

Give PCs Unexplainable Powers

When your story fits with it, you can tell a PC that he has the power to do something- he just has to tell the DM. Don’t write out the rules. Instead, have that player jot down a note in the margin like “Can invoke the power of Unnamed God” or “Overcharge a spell.” You can make some notes on what that means to you, but don’t share the exact effects. When they do that, you can describe the additional effect based on the situation they’re using it.

By keeping the exact benefits changing, you can preserve the mystery for longer. Or, use it as a springboard to develop into a full-fledged power that the PC gets to keep.

Tie-in Strange Circumstances

When giving out rewards to the PCs, whether it be treasure or something more intangible, consider tying it to something strange. Maybe the sword that they discovered has an unusual smell. Maybe the new spell discovered has an added descriptor of “might cause madness.” Perhaps when spending the treasure, the character finds that it refuses to be spent on certain things by sending impulses to the character.

The trick here is to make it not entirely “your character has found something that he worked hard to get, and is now hosed.” These rewards should have some extra benefits to go along with the quirks, otherwise, the players probably won’t bother. Also it’s good to keep the effects from being strictly mechanical drawbacks.

Record History

When the heroes have become well-liked in a region, have them write it down somewhere on their sheet. When the party encounters a hag and it curses one of the PCs, have that PC write the curse down. When the character almost drowns in an encounter, have them write it down.

By putting it on the character sheet as a defining moment, it’s more likely to be remembered and referenced. Let the characters drive this- if they are trying to strike a bargain in another city, they can say “well, we’re well-liked in this city…” and you can have the character recognize them from this exploit: “Hey, my brother in law is from there!” Same with the more negative examples. If a player sighs and says (even jokingly) “oh, the hag’s curse is finally going into effect,” bring that into the game. Then later, that can be turned around if the player decides to deal with the curse, and emerges from the experience all the better.

By busting out of the rules that are provided, no matter the system, you can add extra flavor in a way that can only be done at your table, and not by a ruleset. Try it and see, and let me know if you’ve done anything similar.

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