Navigating Character Sheets & Simplification

July 21, 2014

So, one thing that hit me worth going over again is the issue of usability and character sheets.  One of the big hurdles to non-gamers to roleplaying games is navigating character sheets.   Most games have a process like this – the player states they want to do something, the GM says, “Do an X check/roll/test” and then you have to look up something on the character sheet, do something with dice or cards, then make a calculation of some kind.

Teaching that process is a basic skill for whatever game you’re doing, but it also means that new folks are basically playing “Where’s Waldo?” trying to find the correct information on character sheets that may look a lot like arcane tax forms.  This becomes especially bad if terms are repeated several times on the sheet.  “Bonus” or “Modifier” probably makes up something like 30-40 boxes on a typical D20 game, which doesn’t help a new person at all.

Simplified Character Sheets

Usually, I’m teaching new people to play less mechanically heavy rpgs to start, but if I have to teach something with more heft, I try to get the cleanest, most simple and least detailed character sheet out there, if someone has it.  Otherwise, I make one in a word document, trying to keep it to the minimal amount of info necessary to run the game.

The less stuff on the sheet, the easier it is for a new player to find it.  If you have 7 skills you use all the time, but the normal character sheet lists 30 of them, how much easier is it to find what you need if all we list is the skills you have, instead of having you look through lines upon lines of skills you don’t?

Also accept that maybe simplification causes you to skip or do some things wrong the first couple of games.  “Oh, wait, this one modifier shouldn’t normally be added in this case!” “We’ll try to remember next time”.   That’s fine, you want the players to grasp the basics and then refine, not drop them into the deep end without support.

Sections: Related Info goes together

Just like I said with tracking dungeon data?  Break out information into sections.  Put the combat stuff together, the social stuff together, the magic stuff together, etc.  This may include repeating info from other sections or simply moving it altogether if it only really gets used in one way.

You do not want to force players to have to jump around a lot looking for multiple pieces of information – put it all in the same area and make it easy to find.  If there’s also charts or rules that do well to include on the sheet, put these in this same places as well.

You can also use visual breaks like large fonts, boxes, symbols or colors to help people differentiate the sections from each other.  Of course, these things have to be large and readable enough to stick – there’s lots of folks who used really small or detailed symbols and all it ends up doing is cluttering up the sheet.

Detail vs. Shorthand

So, the trick to a character sheet is to give you information you need to play, right?  Expert players don’t need as much information – they’ve memorized a lot of it.  They can write “Magic Missle” on their character sheet and they know what it does and how it works.  Another player needs the range, the cost, the effects, to reference it.

So everything you have on the character sheet is basically a balance between detailed descriptions and shorthand.   Now, this isn’t to say the player has to internalize everything – other players at the table can help, or the GM can as well.  For example, using my shortened skill list suggestion, if a player has to use a skill that’s not listed, someone at the table can go, “Oh, what’s your Intelligence attribute? Ok, roll a die and add that” pretty easy.

On the other hand, if there are powers or abilities which require choices in thinking about whether to use them, or how to use them, you want at least a shorthand layman’s description of what it does so that a new player can even make that initial guess to try to use it.   For many games that have powers or magic like this, it often eats up enough space on the character sheet that you need to use the back or give it a whole sheet onto itself.

Leaving Space

Have space on your character sheet for random notes, even if it’s on the back or wide margins.   You could make a box or section for every single thing (“Weight, height, hair color, eye color”) or you can leave it off and have a blank space for players to take the notes they want.   The thing is, players WILL take notes for things they find important, and it’s easier for them to do that than to fill every last millimeter with boxes or sections and expect the players to hunt it out every time.

Noob Strategy Advice

If the game has a lot of crunchy strategy to it, it’s also helpful to have a sentence or two describing what this character is good at, and which of their abilities might be useful in certain ways.  “Loma is a powerful warrior, best used to running up to the front lines and taking on the enemies head-on.  Use your Warrior’s Healing to keep up your life points!”   This helps new folks figure out a bit about the strategy and if they want to play this character to begin with.

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