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A Character Sheet Is A Map

A statement from my latest post on Rebuilding Vampire about the Vampire: The Masquerade character sheet turned into an all-day Twitter discussion about character sheets in RPGs in general. It was a good series of chats, actually, but it highlighted very quickly that I was talking to two different groups of people and that what I wanted to convey about why I said what I said about the VtM sheet was not clear at all for those who lacked a certain context. This post is me trying to explain my views on character sheets and what I see is their role in an RPG. I would love it if from there we can launch a greater conversation about RPG character sheet design in general.

In 2008 I listened to episode 54 of the Master Plan podcast, in which Ryan Macklin interviewed Daniel Solis. The name of that episode, and the idea that was hashed out over the half-hour interview, was that “A Cover Is A Promise.” Briefly (and really, you should listen to the episode to get the better explanation), Daniel poses the idea that when looking at the cover of an RPG, it gives the prospective customer a solid idea of either what you will do in the game or an emotion/theme that the game will create; the cover makes a promise of what’s to be found inside and in play. That phrase has stuck with me since then, and I have brought it up in various conversations ever since because it speaks to me, and solidifies a feeling I have had about roleplaying games that I simply had no way to voice. Following that line of thought, when I think of character sheets, this is the statement that comes to mind:

A character sheet is a map.

When I see a new roleplaying game that calls my attention (and I have done this since extremely early on), I page through it just to see what’s inside the pages, but it is the character sheet that I go to in order to get an idea about the workings of the game. A character sheet is a tool, plain and simple, and as such it can serve two functions in relation to a game: reference or guide.

Reference

See the image to the right? That is the character sheet my friend Josue designed for our D&D games way back in the 90s. It went through countless iterations as he fiddled with it. It had space for everything. EVERYTHING. I’m pretty sure it had space to record when our characters last had sex. And we loved it. (Seriously, click to see it large; it rocked.)

Up to my days playing D&D 3.5 this is the style of character sheet I was using. Why? Because in D&D it pays for me to be have a reference to all the stuff I can do. The game doesn’t enforce upon me any particular theme or play behavior, therefore I need to be aware of all that I am capable even if it looks like I’m really doing my taxes instead of killing monsters and taking their stuff.

For many games this is a valid approach to the character sheet. It is a reference document pulling into one place countless bits of info from various sources so you don’t have to go digging through those sources during play.

There is nothing wrong with that approach, but it isn’t optimal for every game. And honestly, it isn’t the kind of approach to a character sheet I am interested in these days.

Guide

The other approach to character sheets is to have them be a guide to the game, or more precisely, to what is important in the game.

To the right is a sample character sheet for Ryan Macklin’s Mythender (which is still in development, so this may or may not be a final form). I chose it for a very simple reason: it is a very busy page, with lots of spaces to be filled in; lots. Almost as many as a D&D character sheet. The thing is, when I look at this character sheet, I can get a quick idea of what is important in the game: Weapons, Mantles of Power, Gifts – I’ve no idea what these mean in the context of the game, but I sure know these are central to what I will be doing based on the area and prominence they get on the page.

Another quick example is this page for Burning Wheel (PDF). Even if I’ve never played Burning Wheel (and I haven’t) I can tell that Beliefs and Instincts are crucial based on the focus they receive on the page.

Both of these pages are guides for me, the customer/player, of what is important in the game, what I need to be paying attention the most while I play. In Mythender I’m gonna be a dude with mythic weapons and gifts, a dude that fights for sure; in Burning Wheel I’m a dude with Beliefs and Instincts, a dude with convictions that will surely come into play.

This is the approach that I am more interested in. This is the approach that makes the character sheet a map – it shows me the lay of the land, but points out the significant landmarks while still leaving blank spaces for me to explore or even fill in.

Vampire and Humanity

The reason this topic burst on Twitter was because I said that, were I to redesign the Vampire character sheet, I would move Humanity to a more central space (whether literal or metaphorical) on the sheet in order to highlight the central theme of that game.

It was always my one complain about Vampire: The Masquerade – it is the game of personal horror that buried the central mechanic dealing with it at the bottom in a virtual oubliette.

I know understand, however, why that bothered me. Vampire was how I entered into the realm of more story-oriented roleplaying; it wasn’t about killing monsters and taking their stuff anymore, but about exploring the lives of these characters as they experienced their personal horror. I don’t claim I did that right, that I didn’t devolve into playing/running blood-powered supers (just like I don’t claim that I never explored a character’s story in a game of D&D), but that was the conceit of the game. But the character sheet does nothing to communicate that. The Vampire character sheet is a reference, not a guide, and for story-oriented games, I much prefer a guide.

Do I blame my lack of focus on the core theme of the game to a referential character sheet? No, but it certainly didn’t help the situation.

As I have played more games, both in number of sessions and variety of titles, as I have seen our hobby/industry evolve, as I have read and participated in conversations about game design theory and practices, I have come to understand what I couldn’t put into words years ago. That’s why I bring it up now, simply because now is when I have the right words to express myself.

I don’t expect the character sheet for the 20th Anniversary version of Vampire to be changed, but I can make certain that I am aware of why I feel that character sheet does a small disservice to the game, account for it in my games when I or my players use it, and make sure that any game I design has a character sheet that acts as a guide and not (just) as a reference.

Sound Off

There are branching conversations that can grow from here in regards to the actual graphic design of a character sheet, but I am not a graphic designer so those will have to be left for others to pick up (and hopefully to link them here so those interested can follow them as well).

Ok, so I have had my say. What do you think of my idea? How do you feel about the tool that are character sheets? Let’s talk.

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  1. April 5, 2011 at 9:12 AM

    I had some similar thoughts about a year ago on my own blog:

    http://eddyfate.com/?p=3208

  2. April 5, 2011 at 9:18 AM

    When seen at a distance a lot of character sheets look the same as pages from a tax return. That’s not hyperbole – check the thumbnails google image search if you don’t believe me.

    I want the character sheet to get me excited about the game and emphasize what’s important (in this case humanity) and de-emphasize what’s not (in this case the ‘driving’ skill etc) or better still – remove it completely.

    CCGs and modern RPG-like boardgames such as Arkham Horror do a much better job presenting character stats than many traditional character sheets, and I think there’s a lot of good design lessons to be learned from them.

  3. April 5, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    I understand where you’re coming from, to a point. I feel the character sheet is one of the most important things in any role playing game. At the end of the day, it needs to have the info you need in order to record your character by the rules given in the game. Now, simpler rules require a simpler character sheet. The more complex the rules, the more complex the sheet.

    That doesn’t mean it can’t have style.

    As far as the Vampire sheet goes, I like it the way it is(or at least the way I have tweaked it). I have spent countless hours and years designing character sheets for white wolf games, and the layout just works for me. It lists everything you might need to know, and it follows the rules for character creation. It’s divided into section that follow those rules.

    Theme and mood for the game should be left up to the story itself. While the character sheet needs to look good, it needs to contain info needed to play the game. It’s not the character sheets job to get across the mood and theme of the game, thats the stories job. Least in my opinion. I think it’s a tall order to put that responsibility on the character sheet.

    Besides, how would the Vampire character sheet get the theme and mood of the game across? Meaning, if you could redesign the sheet, how would you do it? Keeping the same rules for Vampire the Masquerade, how should the sheet look according to your thoughts. I’d love to see it. I love all kinds of character sheets.

    I don’t claim mine are the best. I just do the best I can with what I have. So far, it keeps everyone pretty happy.

  4. April 5, 2011 at 11:28 AM

    So, a character sheet is a map, absolutely. I don’t know that I can successfully embellish that concept more than you have.

    I will say, to tie back to “the cover is a promise”, that in being a map, the sheet’s also a promise, too. It says “here’s where you can go”, “here’s what you can do”, and “there be dragons here” and all that.

    I’m standing around with John Wick at a convention a few years back. I hand him a book, I forget what, from a micro publisher at the IPR booth. He looks at the front cover. He flips it over, reads the back. Then he opens it up, not at the front, but the back, and looks for the character sheet you usually find there. It wasn’t there, and that flummoxed him mightily.

    The cover might be your first impression, but the character sheet is the second one. Make it sing. It has to back up the promise that the first impression made, and say, “Not only is there a promise made, but there is substance to that promise.”

  5. April 5, 2011 at 6:04 PM

    @Eddy Webb
    Yep, we’re certainly on the same wavelength there. I don’t know to what extent you have influenced the graphic design of the NWoD character sheets but they certainly are a bit more organized and highlight-y than OWoD ones were within the constrains of the games and legacy of those games. V20 is a great opportunity to try to tweak that user interface a bit more.

  6. April 5, 2011 at 6:05 PM

    @Stuart
    I would actually love to see a branching conversation between graphic designers on ways to make good character sheets, or how to improve existing ones.

    Of course, I also know how copious is your free time. 😉

  7. April 5, 2011 at 6:12 PM

    @Fred Hicks
    That which you describe John did, that’s exactly what my behavior is when I see a new game at Gen Con or wherever (but especially Gen Con, where the attention span is extremely limited and there’s so much to see). When I picked up Pathfinder I knew I was gonna get a kitchen-sink reference sheet and in that case what I’m looking for is how well organized it is. But when I picked up Remember Tomorrow or Shadow, Sword & Spell or Apocalypse World (to name three from last Gen Con), I looked to the character sheet to tell me stuff about the game beyond the back-cover copy.

    My original statement was A Character Sheet Is Also A Promise, before I refined what I wanted to say more, but that still stands 100%. And it’s a conversation that really has not been had much and which I hope will continue to emerge so we can all learn from whatever is gleaned over time.

  8. April 8, 2011 at 5:20 AM

    @MrGone

    At the end of the day, it needs to have the info you need in order to record your character by the rules given in the game. Now, simpler rules require a simpler character sheet. The more complex the rules, the more complex the sheet.

    What I think I’m seeing is that, the higher the moving parts of a game, the higher the chance the sheet will be referential and less a guide. Games that create a simulation of the world will tend to have a character sheet that is all reference, whereas games that evoke a particular mood/style of play will tend towards a more guide-like sheet. That’s just based on a cursory scan of all my game books.

    That doesn’t mean it can’t have style.

    No one said it didn’t have to. I mean, check out this Nosferatu character sheet I came across:
    http://tinyurl.com/3o5khm7

    One thing has nothing to do with the other, actually. Referential sheets do not have to be tax forms, though they do face a harder time simply because of all the info they have to put at the player’s fingertips.

    As far as the Vampire sheet goes, I like it the way it is(or at least the way I have tweaked it). I have spent countless hours and years designing character sheets for white wolf games, and the layout just works for me. It lists everything you might need to know, and it follows the rules for character creation. It’s divided into section that follow those rules.

    I want to make sure to state clearly that none of what I’m saying here, on Twitter, or wherever has anything to do with your sheets specifically. I like your sheets, I’ve been using them for years. For Vampire, as it stands, they are great. They convey mood via graphic design and they are good references. So please don’t take any of this personally. This has more to do with the design of the original character sheet at White Wolf, and even more so with the stated theme of the game.

    Theme and mood for the game should be left up to the story itself. While the character sheet needs to look good, it needs to contain info needed to play the game. It’s not the character sheets job to get across the mood and theme of the game, thats the stories job. Least in my opinion. I think it’s a tall order to put that responsibility on the character sheet.

    And here is where we hit the crux:
    I disagree. Every single part of a game has to relay the same message across, because every single part of it could be someone’s door into the game. The story–and by that I mean, the actual playing of the game–is going to be the culmination and exploration of the promise that’s been laid out by the cover, the character sheet, the back cover copy, the font, the illustrations, the writer(s)’s voice, the layout, the binding. These all work together to shout a message (“I’m a game about being a bloodsucking monster that feeds on humans!!!”) to the user; after that message has been heard loud and clear, and the decision has been made to trust the promise laid forth, the playing part, the story, is where we sit down and see if that promise is kept.

    And yes, you can play a bunch of different stories with Vampire, but honestly, I could play the same stories using D&D or make-belief. We using Vampire because it promises to give us the tools to tell those stories specifically.

    So while I don’t expect the character sheet to tell me everything, I do expect it to communicate its part about the promise of the game. And no, I don’t think that it’s a tall order. I just think that for 40 years we’ve been following D&D’s lead too much and have not explored all the ways in which flow and presentation of information can be maximized to evoke reactions from the user.

    Besides, how would the Vampire character sheet get the theme and mood of the game across?

    Your sheets convey mood quite well. The use of specific fonts, of specific borders, these evoke a gothicky mood that goes with the look and feel of the book. So even reference sheets can do their part.

    Meaning, if you could redesign the sheet, how would you do it? Keeping the same rules for Vampire the Masquerade, how should the sheet look according to your thoughts. I’d love to see it. I love all kinds of character sheets.

    This is where I struggle because I am not a graphic designer, I just know how to use InDesign enough to layout a book. 🙂

    If the main theme of Vampire is “A Beast I Am, Lest A Beast I Become” and the downward spiral of Humanity is at its core (and we can talk about this in another post, especially based on Justin’s recent post about the Themes of V20), then yes, I feel the sheet should convey that by moving Humanity to a more prominent position on the real estate while subduing the area covered by skills and such. As it stands, when I look at the Vampire character sheet, the impression I get is that it is more concerned with my skills (can you Drive, use a Computer, know Occult?) than with the inhuman monster I am.

    How would you do it? Without changing the game, without taking away info that the game as it stands requires the player to have available, how would you bring that theme to the fore on the sheet?

    I don’t claim mine are the best. I just do the best I can with what I have. So far, it keeps everyone pretty happy.

    Actually, as far as presentation of a lot of info on a single page, yours are pretty close to the best. And again, my post, my continued talking about the topic, is not about you or your sheets in particular. If you were the graphic designer at White Wolf in charge of doing the sheets I guess this would be a bit more biting and would be talking to you more directly, but even so it wouldn’t be personal. My intent is to challenge thought and raise awareness, and perhaps yes, push a few buttons that will get people to try new things.

  9. April 8, 2011 at 7:47 AM

    @Daniel M. Perez

    What I think I’m seeing is that, the higher the moving parts of a game, the higher the chance the sheet will be referential and less a guide. Games that create a simulation of the world will tend to have a character sheet that is all reference, whereas games that evoke a particular mood/style of play will tend towards a more guide-like sheet. That’s just based on a cursory scan of all my game books.

    Yea, that makes sense, and thats been my experience as well…for the most part.

    No one said it didn’t have to. I mean, check out this Nosferatu character sheet I came across:
    http://tinyurl.com/3o5khm7

    One thing has nothing to do with the other, actually. Referential sheets do not have to be tax forms, though they do face a harder time simply because of all the info they have to put at the player’s fingertips.

    I gotta admit, thats a pretty awesome looking sheet. Do you know who made that? I should bow before their skill, because that puts mine to shame I’m afraid. I should tell them they win. 😉

    But I agree with you.

    I want to make sure to state clearly that none of what I’m saying here, on Twitter, or wherever has anything to do with your sheets specifically. I like your sheets, I’ve been using them for years. For Vampire, as it stands, they are great. They convey mood via graphic design and they are good references. So please don’t take any of this personally. This has more to do with the design of the original character sheet at White Wolf, and even more so with the stated theme of the game.

    I didn’t think you were talking about my sheets specifically, tho mine are based on that original white wolf design.

    Glad you like and have used mine tho, I do appreciate it.

    And here is where we hit the crux:
    I disagree. Every single part of a game has to relay the same message across, because every single part of it could be someone’s door into the game. The story–and by that I mean, the actual playing of the game–is going to be the culmination and exploration of the promise that’s been laid out by the cover, the character sheet, the back cover copy, the font, the illustrations, the writer(s)’s voice, the layout, the binding. These all work together to shout a message (“I’m a game about being a bloodsucking monster that feeds on humans!!!”) to the user; after that message has been heard loud and clear, and the decision has been made to trust the promise laid forth, the playing part, the story, is where we sit down and see if that promise is kept.

    I think I can see your point now…

    And yes, you can play a bunch of different stories with Vampire, but honestly, I could play the same stories using D&D or make-belief. We using Vampire because it promises to give us the tools to tell those stories specifically.

    So while I don’t expect the character sheet to tell me everything, I do expect it to communicate its part about the promise of the game. And no, I don’t think that it’s a tall order. I just think that for 40 years we’ve been following D&D’s lead too much and have not explored all the ways in which flow and presentation of information can be maximized to evoke reactions from the user.

    Yea, I can see that. And you’re right, I suppose it all filters back to D&D, even in character sheet design.

    Your sheets convey mood quite well. The use of specific fonts, of specific borders, these evoke a gothicky mood that goes with the look and feel of the book. So even reference sheets can do their part.

    Again, good point. And thats what I try to do with my sheets, even tho I stick close to the original design in terms of layout.

    This is where I struggle because I am not a graphic designer, I just know how to use InDesign enough to layout a book.

    If the main theme of Vampire is “A Beast I Am, Lest A Beast I Become” and the downward spiral of Humanity is at its core (and we can talk about this in another post, especially based on Justin’s recent post about the Themes of V20), then yes, I feel the sheet should convey that by moving Humanity to a more prominent position on the real estate while subduing the area covered by skills and such. As it stands, when I look at the Vampire character sheet, the impression I get is that it is more concerned with my skills (can you Drive, use a Computer, know Occult?) than with the inhuman monster I am.

    I think I see where you’re coming from. But, as someone who designs character sheets(mostly for white wolf), I’m having a hard time thinking up a different way to do it. Mainly because, as far as Vampire goes, you tend to make your human first and then add on the vampire elements(NWoD and Requiem went even further with that by the use of “templates”…which again is a throw back to D&D in some ways). So the sheet follows the character creation process, where you make a mortal first and then add on the Vampire elements.

    I might have just been looking at that style layout for so long that I have a hard time seeing it another way. Tho, that character sheet you linked to earlier did a pretty good job of having something like humanity stand out. Of course, whoever made that is much more of a graphic designer than me. I’d love to be able to do something like that…

    Actually, as far as presentation of a lot of info on a single page, yours are pretty close to the best. And again, my post, my continued talking about the topic, is not about you or your sheets in particular. If you were the graphic designer at White Wolf in charge of doing the sheets I guess this would be a bit more biting and would be talking to you more directly, but even so it wouldn’t be personal. My intent is to challenge thought and raise awareness, and perhaps yes, push a few buttons that will get people to try new things.

    Yea, I try to do what I can. But sadly, no, I’m not the guy in charge of making the official character sheets. Tho, I’m realy hoping I get to make the sheet for the V20 book. But, for that sheet, I’ll be sticking to mostly the same layout. It is classic after all. 😉 I don’t think they’ll want me to stray too far from that layout.

  10. April 8, 2011 at 9:11 AM

    I enjoyed your article and the discussion. I remember all the fun I had designing new character sheets for about every game I played, from Rifts to Vampire. The Internet kind of killed that.
    If I had to design character sheets again, I would make them mapmind-like I guess. Hmm.

  11. April 8, 2011 at 9:58 AM

    Mind map sorry, not map mind. I am in a hurry but here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_map you have a good description and I advise you to give it a try with a freeware like Freemind. I take most of my notes on a pad with mind maps.
    You put the name of your character at the center of the character sheet, then you expand with all aspects of his interaction with everything. The farthest from the center, the most space you have to detail minutia.
    This character sheet could even become a journal, ever expanding.
    I need to catch a plane but I’ll be happy to discuss it again in a few days!

  12. Mike
    April 10, 2011 at 3:23 PM

    When I am interested in a new RPG, I look at the cover, then I look at the character sheet, then I skim the book. I can be dissuaded from continuing at any of those points, so the sheet needs to be clean, interesting, informative, and convey the point/mood/setting of the game even –more- than the cover (since by then I have already seen the cover).

    Publishers should keep in mind that a lot of their players, especially first-time players, will never even see the rule book. The only exposure to the product they will have is the character sheet. I am sure it has been said before, but should definitely be restated: the character sheet is the player’s interface to the system! The character sheet is how the players ‘use’ the game. If it is confusing, incomplete, or hard to understand then that is what players will think your game is – confusing, incomplete, and hard to understand!

    I think this is an excellent post Mr. Perez, and I hope future character sheet designers (whether professional or hobbyist) are taking your points into consideration!

  13. Jim
    May 26, 2011 at 11:57 PM

    I wrote a tangentially related post about mapping/annotating a character sheet during the game rules as a means of orientating new players to the rpg system and its character creation. I think the approach that th 6th edition of the Call of Cthulhu rules is a good first step and that more games should take the idea and run with it.

    My thinking, I think similar to yours, is that the character sheet is most player’s first exposure to role playing in general (if they are a first time player) and to a specific system. The sheet (and by extension the rules that explain filling out that sheet) should do everything in their power to make that as smooth a entry as possible.

    I’m interested in other’s thoughts. Check it out and let me know what you think: http://storiedadventures.blogspot.com/2011/02/make-games-better-character-sheet-walk.html

  1. April 10, 2011 at 7:51 AM
  2. May 1, 2011 at 7:11 AM

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