M***** F****** Character Sheets

I’m going to hurt some feelings here. I don’t mean to, but sometimes your big brother has to tell you you’re a nerd with girls and you suck at baseball. It hurts to hear it, but it’s true.


So here it is.

Your character sheets suck.

All of them.

Okay. Maybe not all of them.

Most of them.

A lot of them.

For years, these character sheets have been the final thought in the graphic design process (even I’ve done this at times), and game publishers have failed to sit down and think out, “How is this Sheet going to be the easiest tool for the player to use?” Instead of going on and on about advice, I’m first going to give you an example. Bear in mind, this was just the easiest one to do. I really wanted to tear down the D&D character sheet, but here is Dogs in the Vineyard by Vincent Baker. You may or may not know the game. It is irrelevant. His initial character sheet is okay, but not great. Here’s an example.

If you’ve not played the game, your traits, stats, and relationships are all equally important to game play. The area to write them should be massive and well-framed. This sheet makes them tiny. In addition, the typeface weight is very thin. While I appreciate that it’s thematic, it needs to be bold. What’s important must stand out from what is secondary. This is a mess.

Later, a new sheet was made that sort of realigned the areas, and gave a little more space for traits and relationships, but it’s still not perfect. Let me illustrate…

The great part about this particular sheet is that important game rules are right on the sheet. And while this is a nice improvement, the sheet is still hard to read and is not very useful for beginners.

Then comes along a demo edition character sheet by my friend John, which is posted at story-games. It’s below as well. The organization is so much cleaner than the ones above. In addition to being a very good character sheet, it’s also an example of how to do demo materials for your game. [More on Handouts in a week.]

That said, for all it’s successes, it too has issues. Let me address step by step, everything that bothers me about this design and what I would do to improve it.

a. Trade Dress. It’s great when a game publisher puts style into a character sheet. But there is no reason to tell me it’s a character sheet and no reason to give up so much real estate to the name of the game… I already know I’m playing Dogs in the Vineyard. I don’t need all this extra stuff cluttering up the design. You may disagree on some of this, but the logo is way too big.

b. This information and questionnaire is a brilliant addition to a demo character sheet. In fact, more character sheets should consider this, instead of filling dead-space with textured swords and page edges. However, a lot of space is going to waste. I don’t need an area for my gender. Ever. If I don’t know the gender of my character, I need to be hit in the head with a mallet. Second, too much space is lost with sample names. This is great for a demo sheet, but useless for a game you’re playing each week.

c. Stats, Traits, and Relationships are all tied together with the same game mechanic. They should all be together. Either on the bottom of the sheet, or all right-aligned. More importantly, the information regarding the FOUR types of conflicts needs to be easier to find and read. Instead of a paragraph format, this information needs to be in a list.

d. Since these sections are slightly-flavor oriented, they lack the weight and importance of items (c). My recommendation is to re-organize things a little differently.

This version of the character sheet puts all the flavor in the left-hand column, all the conflict-related statistics on the right-hand side (most people are right-handed). And the bottom-quarter of the sheet is a short-hand of the rules you might need/want to know during play. They are extremely simplified, but easy to read and find. Finally, it removes all the clutter and focuses on what you need, at a moment’s glance, while playing.

And to fully express my point, here is my take on a Fantasy-Craft character sheet (very simple to illustrate the point).

The top half is for combat, and the bottom half is everything else. If you don’t have the math of D&D, have someone fill this form out for you. But this is everything you need in one place, facing the player. No page turning and no hunting down dice.

You want it even faster and simpler… it all fits on an index card and you can dummy up the data for people who don’t like paging through 6-page character sheets.