Character Sheet Design

In the beginning there was Chaos!

Gods usually start their holy blogs in this way and go along with how awesomely they organized the whole mess. As an Incubus I usually don’t care about their shit, but in this instant, there is a very good reason for this: Human Attention is rather limited. If I for example don’t sell you on this article by the end of this paragraph you won’t read it and my whole damn work would be all for nothing.

We are going to create an awesome Character sheet not the whimpy shit you see from the casual peasant indie dev. But apart from your attention, I need you to download the LibreOffice Suite. It’s basically MSO but for free. Like MSO it has different applications (Word= Writer, PP = Impress, Exel = Calc), of which LibreDraw will be the application we’ll use.

You can of course also ignore the invaluable tutorial and just read the theory behind attention and information organization.

Some Theory

If we think of the Charactersheet as an answer to a search request by the player, then this Charactersheet has to answer all possible requests. That sucks because that is impossible.

We as Designers need to organize information and guide attention. For that we need to determine what portion of our rules is important during play and when, which information are needed together, and which does a player expect to be connected.

Intuitive Design

Intuitive Design means to bridge the gap between what the player already knows and what he needs to know to operate your thingy. That means that how intuitive your design is depends partially on the user. For example:

We follow written text left to right and thus it makes sense to order information on a charactersheet that way. If you design an arabic sheet, that wouldn’t work (arabic is written right to left).

You look for a search field top right on a website, not because that is objectively the most sensical place for it to be. You look there because that’s what the sum of all websites before taught you.

All of that just means, our sheet shouldn’t be different from conventional charactersheets unless there is a good reason to.

Organization

On the sheet a player doesn’t want information to repeat or contradict itself, doesn’t want information that is never used or only used out of play. I prefer sheets that use one page rather than two but not like, idk 12 (though TDE would certainly like me to). This is all pretty obvious, even to humans.

The important thing to remember is to split the Charactersheet into sections, so that a player can first search for the topic and then the specific and doesn’t have to search the whole sheet for the specific. Generally a closed line around items is the fastest way to make sure humans see the items as a group.

For deciding which items belong into the same group the ability to think comes in quite handy. Playtesting should also guide your decision (“I expected Longsword under weapons, not attacks”).

I don’t know why most Sheets are 2 pages. Maybe Devs think their precious system is too awesome for merely one page. I think most Charactersheets absolutely fit on one page. And I like it if they do, because they are faster that way. If you have to use two pages, put information that the player just has to write down on page two (Equipment, XP, Gold, Damage, Descriptions) and information that he is asked during play (make an X-Check) on page one.

Most of the note-down information, especially equipment, can be handled by the player in any way they please, they should be able to organize their notes in a way that makes sense to them. I wouldn’t play with people who can’t create a list for equipment and their characters fashion choices without explicit fields for it.

Visual Attention Guidance

The last theory thingy I want to talk about before we finally dive into practice is Visual Design.

The research behind visual attention is quite interesting, but for our purpose it’s usefullness can be quickly summarized, because we are limited on a 2D static sheet of paper.

Attention is primarily guided by how visually different things are from each other AND how alike the rest of the things are. You can’t make everything pop out. Additionally humans associate visual likeness with similarity in meaning, thus you want all your skill to look alike, all your headers to look alike etc.

So the only thing we can do is to make frequently asked stuff pop out the most. And to give the sheet enough visual structure, so a player can easily remember where they found stuff. For structure just keep in mind that something at the top is more important than stuff below and English works from left to right, so people will start their look at the left end of a row of numbers.

The most important pop-out features are:

  1. Colours, though I would restrain from using more than three colours, you want high contrast betwen the colours so they really pop out and for readability.
  2. Size, the bigger, the more pop out, though bigger also eats more valuable place. When I decided on a font for a sheet I usually use 3 sizes depending on the font size.
  3. Shape, Closed shapes stick out among not-closed shapes and differences in shape if major enough also pop out.
  4. Orientation, is the reason why italic text is noticed within regular text.

Lefaret
If you want to know more here’s 100 pages of Details. Though the most interesting happens 2.4 preattentive features. If you want to get into web Design this stuff is especially useful. It also shows surprising limits of and blindspots in human perception. Five factors that guide attention is also an interesting read. They charge you, so if you are neither devil nor student, you might want to give it a pass.

Actually Creating a Badass Sheet

So, I think I owe you some practice. First you need to download LibreOffice.

Digression: Libre Office Themes and Styles

If you want your LO to look like word, or if you are freaked out because your LO looks different than mine, this is for you. First please click on “LibreOffice” without any open window of any LO application:

List of Applications

Next window you click Tools -> Options. Here you find all the stuff you permanently adjust for all documents not just the current document.

You can set Icon Styles at LibreOffice -> View -> Icon style. I use Galaxy, so don’t freak out if your symbols look all different, just try out which icons look dope to you.

LO version 6 made it possible to upload custom themes (called Icon styles), so you can install Word Icons.

 

First thing we gotta do is open up the Libre Office Draw Application. On your left you see the page pane, displaying all pages in your document. It works similar to Powerpoint. And also on the left you have a toolbar. From this toolbar you select the shapes you want to draw. In our Case I’ll go with a rectangle.

You done with your pretty rectangle? Great, double left click it to write CON or whatever Attribute Abbreviation inside.

Lefaret
And think of the choice of Font! There is so much detail that goes into font, though in general you would probably want something serif for charactersheets, unless your font is going to convey some sort of setting style. You also might want a different font just for numbers, just remember to use fonts with commercial license if you want to sell your system. I’m a devil, not a lawyer, so maybe it’s fine to use a non-commercial font if you give away the sheet for free?

Now the first ugly options menu is going to rise its head. We want to change the properties of our rectangle. Those should open to your right in the sidebar, when you click the rectangle (if not, you have to extend them).

It depends a bit on the font in question, but 12 is as big as I let things go in my sheets, except for the Logo. More important is that you turn up the line width to at least 0.3 pt because otherwise the lines look bullshit on paper. Oh and as a fill colour 0% Gray equals Black, 100% Gray equals white. I don’t know either why they throw such a tantrum with black and white.

If you are lazy like me you probably don’t want to do this property thingy every time you draw a rectangle. All you have to do is to click on your rectangle, look to your right sidebar and click on the symbol between the bunch of D6s and the framed image. And now you have to make a decision: either you replace the default style or make a new style.

If you replace the default style all thingys (rectangles, texts, circles, etc.) will have the same font, font-size, alignment, line width, background colour as your rectangle. That applies to new drawn stuff from now on and also changes all of your stuff retroactively. Unless you altered properties from the previous style. E.g. if you create a circle under default and change it’s line width and then change the default line width the circle will not change it’s line width. If you also change the default background colour, the circle’s colour will change. That is probably what you want for now and to do it you click on “update style” left of the d6-bundle below the x.

If you add a new style you can now change all thingys to that style by selecting the thingy and then selecting the style. If you sort your new style under the default style, it will be prone to changes of the default style, so be aware when changing/updating the default style. You can get to the style selection quickly by pressing F11.

Next thing you need to know about is grouping items. If you have any section ready, you can select all items in it and group them (right click -> group). That way you can move the whole group of items around without messing anything up. You enter groups to edit them via a double click and leave them by double clicking outside of the group.

There are only two more important things to address and both are in your right click menu:

If you right click the page, you can turn on the Grid. This is very helpful to align all of your rectangles properly.

If you right click the rectangle, you can tell it if it needs to go to the back, to the front, or behind/in front of a specific other item.

That’s it. Now let’s see what sections a charactersheet has.

Attributes / Abilities

Attributes are often just used at leveling up and Character Generation. They influence many other parts but are rarely used on their own. Generally Attributes are not very important during play which would suggest to make them small and move them to page 2. However as I mentioned intuitive design is what people are used to. And people are used to the attribute section being big and fat.

Often there are secondary attributes, attributes that are calculated upon the primary attributes. If the secondary attribute is not just an attribute but an important rule value (like HP) it can be detached from the attribute section. Otherwise you want the design to be clear about which primary attribute the secondary attribute belongs to.

Attributes Examples
Ad&d 2nd Edition Charactersheet
Ad&d overdid it with it’s secondary abilities…
…but at least you could see the connection between primary&secondary attributes! The Designer(s) of this mess deserves black IC!

This is a rather simple Attribute section you can create in Libre Office. One big square at the back serves as a border.

 

 

 

 

An example of a secondary attribute that is important enough to split off. All text is aligned as separate text bits, not just regular rectangle text.

 

This is a more elaborate design. You can turn text sideways via selecting and then clicking on the selected item once more. than you can turn with the mouse+shift by dragging one edge around. The cut of edges are just white triangles in front of black rectangles. The circles are just a big circle with a vertical line and a small circle in front of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Defences

Defences are asked from the player, someone is waiting on their answer, so they should stand out more than usual. Defences are also often calculated from multiple sources. The End value should stand out and be at the left end of the row of numbers.

Defenses Example
Just a beautiful example, especially when you look at the whole D&D 4e sheet.
Same purpose, made in LO

Ressources

As in rules ressources, not character ressources. Mana, exhaustion, HP, charges, XP, Ammunition, Gold, Fate Points… Lots of points. Ressources are usually marked in boxes, unless they are too big (XP, Gold, HP), then they are just a big number.

Be consistent with what you want your players to x-mark and where you want them to put in numbers. E.g. don’t use a circle for x-marking at HP and a circle of the same size for skill ranks.

Ressources Example
The player knows which box to tic next. The sheet states that the modifiers are cumulative. And it’s compact.
Minimal tic-boxes. Ordered in bundles of 10
Design for fewer resources at the edge of a sheet. Just a rad idea. It is only useful if the resource doesn’t carry over into the next session, since a paper clip is easily lost.

Skills

Skills are very similar to Defenses in their design. One number has to stick out in addition to the skill name. They just have to be smaller and form a nice table. Since most systems have many skills you need to save space here if you want to fit your sheet on one page. To speed up search, most charactersheets…

  • sort alphabetically
  • add subcategories of skills (combat, social, etc.)
  • have a system to custom mark important skills (skill proficiency in it’s many forms)
Skills Examples
Pathfinder sets the important number apart via the according attribute shortcut.
A skill-list made in LO.

Text Bits

Text Bits really suck in design. Feats in D&D Aspects in Fate, special equipment descriptions. All of those are part of the rules, but cannot be broken down into a simple number. So you create some lines with a headline for players to scribble that stuff down. Either you waste space or you aren’t providing enough space. It sucks. I prefer if you give two columns of lines, so that a player can sort between right and left as he pleases (e.g. name on the left – description on the right).

 

All complete Sheets used as examples can be downloaded here.

That’s it?

Yeah that’s it. Sort of. I asked Fiddleback (an awesome podcaster, you can find him at Digressions and Dragons and at GM word of the Week) if he’d be fine with me designing a Transit charactersheet, because I also wanted a coherent example. So here it is (probably about 8 hours in total work):

Transit is currently in Beta. The players take on the roll of starship commanding AIs exploring and securing the frontier of known space. The sheet is thus neither final and I’m nor am I sure it will be “the” Transit charactersheet or if Fiddleback will come up with something else. A few mistakes I still need to clean up with this one are that the 4 main section headlines are lacking some salience. And that I fucked up the format. Because Americans have another norm than Europe. Yeah.

Next time we will be talking about Dice mechanics or why Rpgs are not games. I’m not sure yet.

Some last tips for Libre Office:

  • try to use shift + mouse when you move stuff or alter size, you’ll see why
  • export to pdf under file -> export to pdf
  • templates: if you have all your properties nice and dandy you can safe them as a template, so ever new document you create comes with those properties as a default. File -> templates -> save as template. After that you have to manage templates and select your newly saved template as the new default.

Update

Transit is now in open Beta

Furthermore I finally updated the Sheet. I added the symbols, because I felt the sections blended into each other too much. I adjusted the format to fit American standard Paper Format and made some space for the Logo plus some minor changes. Download sheets here.

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