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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