Challenges in Character Sheet Design

By | September 8, 2012

Happy Saturday, one and all!

Today has been an excellent week for Room 209 Gaming.  After a rest-and-relaxation break last weekend to help us get our heads screwed back on, we hit the system pretty hard this week.  We fleshed out the new Social Role system fairly well (and made it both simpler and more complex. . .), modified its interaction with the new Social Interaction system, re-developed our concept for the Goblin player race, did some very exciting things regarding art for the project (we’re hopeful that we’ll have some more news, and maybe even a small gallery to share, next week), and finally did some serious re-development work on the character sheet.

It’s this last part I’ll talk about, after the break.
Character Sheets are hard, there’s no question about it.  I’ve played in lots of different systems over the years, and in very few of those systems would I call the default character sheet good or very good.  Usually, the good character sheets are for really simple systems, the systems that are trying to harken back to those Days of Yore in the late 70s and early 80s when the hobby was just getting its legs under it.  Sometimes, though, the good character sheets are for systems that are practically board games instead of roleplaying games.  In essence, good character sheets say something about the system they’re tied to.  And usually, the good ones are memorable only because they’re simple, because the system is simple.  That’s why there are so many different fan-made character sheets in the wild for the crunchier systems: people the world over are trying to find the perfect character sheet, the one that works for them.

So that’s something we have to keep in mind.  Our character sheet is the gateway to Infinite Earths.  It needs to say, very clearly, what’s important to the system, how the system is laid out, and how to play it.  And it’s got to be able to tell you at a glance what your character can do.  And it’s got to accurately reflect not only a pure functionality, but the philosophy behind the system: namely, that “Social Interaction” and “Combat” stand as equals.

Oh, and be on a double-sided sheet of paper.  That would also be nice.

Sarah Perry-Shipp, my wife and one of the Room 209 partners, has been a champ when it comes to designing this character sheet.  She’s been crafting it in Adobe Illustrator, and we’ve been through dozens of different designs, layouts, etc.  She came up with the initial design, which was largely fantastic despite missing some key information. . .if we were playing something like Pathfinder.

What we discovered is that our Talent (feat) design, which emphasizes new gameplay mechanics rather than straight bonuses to already-existing mechanics, didn’t really work well with a talent section that only included the name of the talent.  So we had to scrap a quarter of the character sheet’s front page.  Queue the appearance instead of one playtester’s suggestion, a “Bolsters & Hinders” box identifying .

At this point, Sarah developed a third page where all talents could be listed by their relevant role, along with page number and effect.  This was really slick, but it was a 3-page, 2-sheet character sheet.  Looking at it was heartbreaking.

Fast forward through a few more playtests, and we’re scrapping the original social interaction system.  Queue the disappearance of another quarter of the front page, as well as the “Bolsters & Hinders” box, which was at this point just a place to record, in a second location, the information on the Talents page.

At this point we were left with vast holes in the modular design of the character sheet, and two sections–one for animal companions/beasts/familiars, and one for magic–that only some characters would actually use.  We could assemble this into a single two-page character sheet if we moved some things around, but we’d have to shrink some sections or do away with others.

Character sheet design–generic character sheet design, not “designed to my specifications and conforming to the way I think”–is hard.  As a designer, you want to express all the things you can do.  But you have a limited space in which to express this, and you want to make sure your sheet is usable across 20 levels, and you have to account for various writing sizes, and and and.  I used to think character sheet design was relatively simple, too, and I’ve been using personally-customized sheets since about a week after I started roleplaying.  But taking a sheet from “this will be useful for me” to “this will be useful for everybody” is another thing entirely.

So currently our approach is to have the general information, the stuff every player is going to have, on a two-page character sheet.  At-a-glance statistics are on the front of the character sheet, and talents are on the back of the character sheet.  Modules that not every player will need–magic, animal companions/beasts/familiars–will appear on an optional third page.

Is this a finalized design?  Probably not.  We’ll learn its effectiveness as we go, and adjust accordingly.  As I’ve been writing this post, I already identified 4 changes we need to make to the current iteration.

Ah, the life of a game designer.

See you next week!