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RPG Character Sheets

Why Character Sheets Suck

Almost without exception, RPG character sheets fail to make the player’s life as easy as possible. They are all product of either bad game system design, bad graphical design or bad usability design. It is far easier to find character sheets that are bad in all three categories than it is to find one with none of these problems.

In the Beginning

In the early 70′s photocopying was very expensive and the idea of a computer and printer in everyone’s homes was a distant pipe dream. So when D&D was born, the idea of a preprinted character sheet was laughable. Everyone grabbed their notepad and scribbled down the basic information they needed. And RPG character sheets were basic back then. The original D&D sheet need to record eleven things: Name, Class, Stats x6, Gold, Equipment and Experience.

But then, in the early eighties things got more complicated. Some of this was the desire for more complicated game systems (AD&D, Rolemaster, Aftermath!) but it was also linked to the falling low cost of reproduction. Photocopying was getting cheaper and the desktop publishing revolution was just around the corner. Now the average character sheet started to fill up with skill lists, attack options and complicated armour stats. It is a trend that continues to this day encouraged by ever lower printing costs, home PCs and the internet. RPG character sheets can now consist of several pages of stats, spell lists, feats and equipment even for a starting character. There is nothing wrong in this except …

The Usable Character Sheet

The character sheet has three functions.

  • A permanent record of the character between sessions
  • A record of temporary changes during the game
  • A reference during the game

In order to be a good character sheet, it must fulfill those three functions. Generally, RPG character sheets address the first task easily as ink & paper are well proven technologies. The second function is also normally accomplished though I have seen character sheets with no place to record current hit points or how many arrows you have left.

It is on the third task that most character sheets fail because what matters during the game is how fast and accurately can you find and use the information on the sheet. During your next game, watch how long your fellow players take to find even the most mundane piece of information. Even simple things like armour class takes a moment and finding the right skill in that tightly kerned 8pt list can be a nightmare. Especially if you don’t know if you are looking for a skill called Stealth or Move Silently. Accuracy is also an issue. And how many times does a player a say “Hang on, I forgot to add on ….” in your sessions? These are failures in usability.

If you were designing a character sheet for pure usability then the most used information (probably your attack and damage stats) would be in the largest font and at the top of the character sheet. Things like the character’s name would be tucked away in some corner in a tiny font simply because that information is rarely used. Yet it is a universal amongst RPG character sheets that player and character name plus gender and race always go at the top.

This is hangover from one area of usability that a character sheet should never attempt: Character Generation. There is a very strong case to made for a special character sheet that guides a player through the creation process but that the results should then be transferred to a different piece of paper. The two should never be combined however as creation is something that happens once where as RPG character sheets can be used every week for years. It makes no sense to try and combine the two.

The Graphic Design of Character Sheets

When a graphic designer is asked to produce a character sheet, especially fantasy character sheets, they seem to be overcome by a desire to use lots of black ink and gothic graphics. This can ruin even the best layout. An example of this effect is the 4e character sheets. Large lumps of black with white text do not make the sheet better looking or easier to read. Where as these versions are generally a great improvement though not without their faults. If you want to know how good design looks I recommend the works of Edward Tufte. The best designer and thinker on how to display and communicate information working today. RPG character sheets designed by Tufte would be beautiful and usable.

It Starts with the System

If you want to design a first class character sheet, you need a game that allows you to create one. Modern game systems have so many options, powers and modifiers the character sheet has to be complicated and cluttered. Original D&D character sheets were simple because the game was simple. Despite the obvious impact the system has on character sheet, I wonder how many game designers give it any thought? Truly perfect RPG character sheets can only be created when the question of how the information is to be presented is built into the game from the ground up.

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15 thoughts on “RPG Character Sheets

  1. admin

    Joshua -

    Why does the name need to be at the top in order to know whose sheet it is? Does a name stop working if it is on the bottom?

    Chris

  2. Joshua

    Tucked away in some corner in a tiny font as you suggested? Yeah, it stops working. People don’t flip through the bottom left-hand corner of a stack of papers looking for identifying marks. (I could see maybe an argument for putting it vertically on the right-hand edge of a page if you always put it in a folder, but that’s just not as general.) The very first task of each session is figuring out who gets which sheet. The same goes for GMs wanting to have a hope in hell of finding the right NPC. Top of page is where identifying information goes, for ease of retrieval. Once you have the sheet out you can make other important information stand out by its size, whitespace, borders, etc

    You could ask the same question more profitably of your own arrangement: Do the attack and damage stats stop working if you put them at the bottom of the sheet?

    Joshua´s last blog post..Spell Books and Spell Variety in Savage Worlds

  3. admin

    Joshua -

    Most groups I have ever played with, the players look after their own character sheets. There is no sorting out to be done in most case.

    Even in your example, where players or GM’s have to sort out the character sheets, this happens once per session. Something like attack / damage / AC you may reference 10 or more times during a session.

    What should be given more prominence on the character sheet – something that gets used at most once a session or something that gets used ten times a session?

    Bonemaster -

    Expectations are a powerful force in design, for good or bad. They can make a new product (e.g a computer keyboard) easier to get used to because it works like you expect it to (e.g. all the letters in all the right places) .

    But expectations can hold back design, making designers blind to new ideas and users resistant to new products even when they are much better. It is those designers and products that radically reshape people’s expectation that make the most impact. Apple are really good at this (iMac, iPod, iPhone) as are Google (just about everything they do).

    Chris

  4. greywulf

    Good post.

    My favourite design for a character sheet is portrait, folding in half so it stands upright to give the player a mini-screen of their own. One side shows all the player needs to see in-game, the other side shows what the GM (and other players) need to see – character name, level, perception & other skill bonuses, etc. Inside is the less-frequently referenced stuff – equipment lists, etc.

    Add Power Cards for 4e, and you’re ready to play. Lovely stuff.

    greywulf´s last blog post..Bugbear du Jour: Noorda of the Blackened Wastes

  5. admin

    Ben

    It doesn’t need usability testing, though that would be very interesting. All it takes is a bit of thought all the way through a games’ design as to what is the player needs during a session.

    Greywulf

    What a great idea. Though I’m not sure it would appeal to me as a player or a GM. I think it would get knocked over too much when using the battle mat and figures.

    Chris

  6. Kiashu

    I think your last point is the most important. If there are (say) 50 separate numbers for a character then the sheet can’t help but be cluttered. If there are a dozen or so then it’s much easier.

    A few game designers have given this some thought, particularly with the wave of Old School clone games. My own SixLetterSystem, a riff from classic Traveller, had as one of its aims a character you could fit on an index card.

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  7. Bonemaster

    @Chris – I agree. Expectations are not always a good thing and with character sheets, I think many of the bad design choices are simply because either that’s were the creator thought people would expect it or because the designer expected people to think like they do.

    Bonemaster´s last blog post..The Spell Utility Belt

  8. Brent P. Newhall

    @greywulf – Nice sheet!

    Good article, overall. I agree that many character sheets are just tough to flip through, though I think much of that comes from preference. I don’t necessarily expect to see Initiative in the upper-right of a sheet, for example. But where does it belong?

    The other problem comes from when the stats are used. In D&D 4E combat, I need to look at both powers and Armor Class, but typically those are on separate sheets of paper (or separate sides of the sheet).

    Brent P. Newhall´s last blog post..CommentLuv needs updating on this site. Please download the latest version and install it on your site. This message will apear during the first 10 minutes of each hour. This remote script will cease returning posts in 7 days

  9. Darran Sims

    I do feel that I have been spoilt as RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu had some truly excellently designed character sheets.
    Everything you needed was on one sheet of paper and the layout allowed you to use everything and still make notes.
    Stats that you needed to keep track of like hit points had a number matrix from 0 to 32 so you just had to tick off each time you lost or gained HP. Simple yet very effective!

    Darran Sims´s last blog post..UK & Europe RPG Conventions Listing

  10. Bob

    I’ve actually been thinking about this these last few days after going through an old box file and finding most of my old character sheets.

    I like to think the sheets I made up during my D&D/AD&D days were almost perfect for the job but I’ve yet to find a decent sheet for any of my games since.

    Bob´s last blog post..Giving Back To The Readers

  11. Jester

    Having read your posts here, dose it matter where the name, stat’s and other information are kept, traditionally it was the top for the names so those of us who play lots of games and games over the years could see which sheet was which, you need to file your sheets and it makes life easier to see the name at the top of your sheet.

    But if it sticks in your craw so much make your own sheet and play about with the style till your happy. Each to their own.

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