Let me preface this by saying that I’m very much a design geek. I love getting into the nitty gritty aspects of designing any visual product and character sheets are no exception. It’s my opinion that not very many people give nearly enough attention to the design of a default character sheet for a roleplaying game. What follow are just some of my observations about the subject at hand.
There are very few roleplaying games where I use the default character sheet printed in the back of the book. Generally I find that they’re either ugly, don’t fully capture the theme and focus of the game, or that they just don’t have nearly enough space for my large handwriting and need for detail. Judging by the number of websites (mine included) that offer third party character sheets I am not alone in this opinion.
The first concern, general ugliness, doesn’t come up as often as you’d think. Usually at least a small amount of attention is paid to the character sheet, but usually it’s not nearly as much as is deserved. Most folks see the character sheet as a necessary part of playing (as they are) but never look beyond a utlitarian function. If it has all the little boxes to record the important information that’s good enough for most folks. Little thought seems to be given to how the sheet looks on the table or how it can evoke a feeling or theme found in the game.
What a lot of people forget is that in many ways a character sheet is the ambassador for your game. It immediately shows a player how complex the game is, what the theme of the game is, and how crunchy or fluffy the game plays. Take for example two popular games, Dungeons & Dragons and the World of Darkness. One sheet (D&D) is filled with tons of little boxes to the point where you have to write tiny little numbers all over the page. The sheet itself looks very complex and while the game isn’t really all that difficult or overly-crunchy, it does have a lot of numbers you have to remember. In stark contrast the World of Darkness sheet just has little bubbles you fan fill in, much like those old standarized tests. You immediately have a visual reference of how good your character is by seeing how many dots are filled in. It’s also a bit less cramped, as there is less information you have to know to play the game.
Just by looking at either character sheet you can immediately glean how many things you’ll have to remember and how complex the game might be. Character Sheets are a wonderful visual shorthand for the complexity and crunchiness of the game. That’s why I always look at the character sheets of a game before anything else, since it gives me a great idea of the mechanics of the game. Games that don’t have a character sheet in the book tend to suffer in my eyes for this reason; I like seeing the sheets first.
Beyond the simple expedited information dump they provide, character sheets can lend to the feel of the game. Very few sheets in this day and age really fully supplement the visual identity of a game. The one that immediately springs to mind is actually a third party sheet by Voidstate. His Unknown Armies sheet immediately shows you what a screwed up game Unknown Armies can be in a vivid and visual style that perfectly accentuates the game focus. More companies should pay attention to his work, because that’s how it should be. You can get all the information you need in the sheet while at the same time meshing your game feel with the in play character sheet.
It is my opinion that all game companies need to spend more time creating more expansive and well designed sheets for their games. Don’t just hand the sheet off to anyone and bang it together in a few days. Hand it to a competent designer and really let them go to work. Until you do you’ll see your players go to third party designers to get the sheets they feel they want and need, not your offical site. Give us sheets that are more than two pages, especially if those last two pages are filled with an advertisement. I can understand doing stripped down sheets if you don’t have enough pages left in your print block, but don’t skimp on them if you have the space. And even if you don’t have the space, offer an expanded sheet on your website.
The company that’s most guilty of boring and shortened sheets is defintely Wizards of the Coast. Their recent Character Sheet product is especially guilty! If you expect me to pay $10 for character sheets at least make them larger and more beautiful, not a rearranged black and white morass of blocks and tiny squares. Why would I ever pay for those sheets when I can get some very beautiful sheets online for free?
In closing I want to give a shout out to the other folks who design sheets with beauty and skill. I know that I’m going to miss some folks out there for sure, so if I do please let me know so I can give credit where credit is due!
First up is the afformentioned Voidstate, who does excellent sheets for a variety of game systems. His excellent Spirit of the Century sheet is what spurred me on to revise my own sheet. Mad Irishmen Productions does some wonderful character sheets for all versions of Dungeons and Dragons and several other systems. Most are form fillable and do some of the math for you. RPGsheets.com has a plethora of sheets and it should link some of the finest sheets there.
Again, I know I missed some folks, but voidstate and the mad irishman have been on my mind lately as I work on my own sheets (Shadowrun 4th, Reign, and Spirit of the Century are currently in the pipeline). Any omissions are out of ignorance, not malice or disapproval.