Designing Better Character Sheets - Part 1: How We Process Information

Updated: Sep 14, 2019

Character sheets, the single greatest piece of reference material a player will use, are often the most frustrating.


As you've run or playtested a game, have you witnessed players struggling to figure out what they should fill in? Taking a lot of time searching their character sheets for what they need? Or in general, expressing frustration or distaste?


As a player and as a GM I have had my own personal struggles with character sheets.


By day I’m the manager of instructions and graphics for a juvenile product company. The rest of my time I’m a lover and burgeoning designer of TTRPGs, a co-owner of the geekspective podcast network, and a freelance illustrator and graphic designer.


I enjoy using my profession, education, and background to help myself and others in our hobby lives.


I’ve been developing instruction manuals [that’s writing, illustrating, page layout, and UX testing] for the last 8 years and probably many more to come since I have an incredible amount of fun tackling the process of getting to an outcome efficiently, accurately, and consistently.


I enjoy breaking down a large overall idea into pieces and arranging them in a way that’s easy to follow. Designing instruction manuals has become my other extremely nerdy hobby.


Some of you may be asking, what do instruction manuals have to do with character sheets or TTRPGS for that matter?


A rule book is an instruction manual.

It instructs a person how to play a game.


I’m not professing any sort of revolutionary idea. Some, if not most of you, already see rule books in this light.


If the rule book is an instruction manual, what's a character sheet? Well, it's also a piece of instruction or quick guide about how to play a character.


This is a set of papers you and/or your players are going to refer to over and over throughout the few hours of a one shot or for multiple years in a lengthy campaign.


Some of my old character sheets.

Side note: They're also super sentimental pieces of paper.


I bet a lot of you are like me and keep old character sheets in a folder or drawer somewhere.

The above picture is a sampling of my old ones. The top right was from a great Mutants and Masters game that my home group still talks about 12 years later. There’s even an ancient mustard stain on it. Whoops.


Okay, back on track.


I’m sure you’ve all had similar experiences I’ve had as a player:

  • you can’t easily find what you need on a sheet;

  • there’s too much going on and it's overwhelming;

  • there’s not really space to fill things in or write stuff out;

  • the sheet really hurts your eyes.


Pathfinder 2E Character Sheet

This series of articles was originally a panel I presented at GenCon 2019. About a week or so before GenCon a friend emailed me the above Pathfinder character sheet. I also saw A LOT of discourse about it on Twitter and I went, "Wow, what timing." We'll talk about it more later but yes, you glance at it and it's not inviting.


I started GMing 2 years ago and when I was preparing for my first campaign I had a brand new roleplayer who was fairly anxious. As they were filling out their character sheet, they would make statements and questions such as:


“I don’t know where that is?

"Did I do this right?"

"Do I need to fill this out? I feel like I’m missing stuff. There are so many extra empty boxes."

"I can’t really read what this is."

"Am I doing this right?”


A poorly designed character sheet can detract from the overall game experience, cause confusion, frustration, and even reduce confidence in a player’s ability to play the game.


Sticker from Nielsen Norman Group

I cannot express this enough but empathy,

understanding your users and designing for them,

will dramatically elevate your work and their experience.


With that being said, we’re going to tackle 3 topics

to help us design better character sheets.

  1. I want to share how our brains process information,

  2. why organizing information is just as important as visual design,

  3. and how to make good visual design choices.

To understand the user and to become more empathetic, we'll need to start with the actual psychological reasons why that Pathfinder 2e character sheet made so many people recoil.



How We Process Information


We have 2 forms of memory, Long Term and Working.


Our long term memory has what seems like unlimited capacity for storage. It’s where we keep important information we’ve learned that we draw upon to get us through life.


Information such as “Always check for traps” and “Don’t split the party.” You can think of long term memory as our brain’s hard drive.


Working memory used to be called short term memory. It’s where we actively processes information.


For instance trying to figure out the answer to:


"Two bodies have I, though both joined in one.

The more still I stand, the quicker I run"


would be using our working memory. Working memory is a lot like RAM, except you know, computers are way more powerful than us.


It’s been calculated that we can only hold 4 plus or minus 2 bits of information at a time in our working memory.


Because of this very limited capacity our working memory has, it's vulnerable to being overloaded.


There are 3 main mental loads that use up the mind’s resources.


Cognitive. Which relates to thinking and recalling information from our working memory.

Visual. That’s obvious. When we look at something and recognize what it is.

And Motor. Which is performing a task. Click the button. Turn the screw driver.


Cognitive is the most expensive of these loads because it requires a lot of mental effort.


An educational psychologist named John Sweller developed the concept of cognitive load to describe the limitations working memory has while trying to learn or perform something.


Heavy cognitive load typically creates error, confusion, frustration, and ….

... it makes us inherently "lazy".


Studies show people will do the least amount of work to get a task done.


A few months ago I was in a workshop for my day job doing major brainstorming activities for our products and at one point we began talking about human behavior.


A coworker of mine shared a story about how his parents would drive 20-30 minutes to a gas station to save 20 cents a gallon. He didn't get it. Why would they go so far out of their way for such little savings? He would rather drive the 2 minutes to the gas station on the corner of his street and pay more because he’s saving time.


Time is precious and we value it.


We’re creatures who strive to be more efficient and we want to optimize how our energy is spent.


When it comes to finding information or following instruction, we glance. We scan for important information and try to filter out what isn’t necessary. We don’t want to think too hard for too long.


Our minds wander 30% of the time so have to assume people will focus on a task for a very short period of time.


If it’s supposed to be a fun task [playing a game and making a character] and we’re met instead with a confusing piece of instruction, we become frustrated.


We’re driven to categorize.


If there's a lot of information and it’s disorganized, we become overwhelmed. Then we try to categorize the information ourselves.


That takes a lot of cognitive mental resources to do, which is something we as designers want to avoid.


The more organized information is, the more effectively people will be able to use it.

Designing character sheets can ultimately be reduced down to 2 concepts:


Organizing Information Effectively and Making Good Visual Design Choices


As we design, we need to develop sheets that will reduce cognitive load, overcome that "lazy" part of our brain, and support our need for categories.


The next article will discuss how to begin that process by:

Part 2: Organizing Information Effectively.

Resources:

100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Susan Weinschenk

Interface Design for Learning: Design Strategies for Learning Experiences by Dorian Peters

Various icons from flaticon.com

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