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.

Image Credit – Bureaucracy by Christian Schnettelker  – CC-BY-2.0