Character sheets are fairly ubiquitous in RPGs. Not every game uses a character sheet, but the vast majority do, especially genre games and especially especially those in the OSR scene.
By and large, character sheets are treated as reference documents—which is good, since they’re traditionally a tool to help people play the game. And part of that work is organizing and presenting information in a clean, clear, accessible fashion.
Most games leave it at that. Some games go further with more aesthetic and evocative layouts and design. Mörk Borg’s is one example of a sheet that nails both aspects: information is easily accessible, and the graphic design reinforces the game’s atmosphere and theme.
Oscar’s article “I Judge RPGs by their Character Sheets because That’s Where the Magic Happens” is a fun, quick look at some other games that leverage their character sheets’ aesthetic value alongside usability.
However, few RPGs I’ve encountered take advantage of the character sheet by integrating it more fully into gameplay. Rather than only interacting with character sheets when we take damage or level up, we could be constantly engaging with them as material game components, not just as reference documents.
Here are a few games (and one supplement) that take steps in that direction by emphasizing player engagement with inventory management.
Knave (Questing Beast Games) isn’t the best example, but it’s a good starting place to orient ourselves on this concept.
Gear is hugely important in most RPGs. Knave makes it a defining character feature. Yes, PCs have numerical attributes, but they have no classes, and so they have no class features or special abilities. Everything a Knave character does is a function of their gear.
This grants players a huge amount of flexibility. Tired of hitting monsters as a fighter? Change your gear, and that same character can now function as a rogue or a spellcaster. You don’t have to accrete a bunch of class features by gaining levels. You just have to swap out your kit.
Knave isn’t the only game that takes this approach. Its derivatives like Rogueland (Caverns of Heresy) and unrelated games like Into the Odd (Lost Pages) also primarily define characters through basic stats augmented by the items they’re carrying.
Troika! (Melsonian Arts Council) takes inventory management a step further, albeit in a different direction. Troika! uses character classes, so it’s not as gear-centric as Knave. But it makes inventory management a much more central, mechanical component of play.
In d20-based games like D&D or Pathfinder, you spend a move action to retrieve an item from a pocket or backpack or anywhere else on your person. Troika! puts a mechanical twist on that by making you roll to grab objects you’re not already holding.
Rolling high allows you to instantly retrieve something further down on your inventory roster. If you don’t roll high enough, you must spend the full action to dig out the item. This forces players to not just write down the stuff they’re carrying but to actually spatially arrange it the way an adventurer would: with the most important items accessible near the top of their backpack.
Knave + Troika Inventory for All
In Knave, carrying capacity is based on Constitution, and you can just grab whatever you need when you need it. In Troika!, capacity is a flat 12, but quickly retrieving an item requires either foresight or else a bit of luck.
Taylor Lane’s optional ruleset “Knave + Troika Inventory for All” takes the interesting aspects of these approaches and mashes them together to create a more complex, engaging system that can be implemented in almost any game.
When using this ruleset, carrying capacity is based on Strength—the stronger you are, the more stuff you can carry. But at the same time, the more stuff you’re carrying, the more attention you need to devote to arranging that gear so that you can quickly access it if need arises.
This combination of the variable components of Knave and Troika!’s inventory mechanics adds exceptional depth to gear management. Additionally, damage (or its equivalent) takes up gear slots as well, adding another strategic layer to adventuring—not to mention incentive for avoiding fights.
This supplement also includes rules for cargo pants and fanny packs, which no adventurer should ever be without.
Everything about UVG (Exalted Funeral) is a weird, psychedelic trip. And its extended inventory system is part of that package.
The character sheet has defined blocks for basic inventory, as most do. But about half the page is a dot grid called the Customization Space, and that’s where (to steal Oscar’s phrase) the magic happens.
This space is for anything a player needs to write down that doesn’t fit (spatially or conceptually) elsewhere on the sheet. These points can include in-game “items” like a pack animal or a cargo vehicle as well as custom mechanics and character memories.
In most games, players can keep a small journal or write notes on a sheet of scratch paper. Not so in UVG. As the rulebook says, this restriction is an intentional design choice: “Space on the character sheet is limited because a hero can know or do or carry so much.” Players must choose which of these tangibles and intangibles they most need to carry and economize their load accordingly.
This is challenging, to be sure. You may write down a detail early in the game, leave it on your sheet for a while, then erase it because it now seems irrelevant and you need that space for something else. Maybe that detail was inconsequential. Or maybe it will become significant later in the game, and you’ll regret having erased and forgotten it.
Personally, I think this constraint is a creative mechanic that fits well with the game’s overall feel and ethos. UVG isn’t an epic quest with a well-defined plot. It’s a surreal road trip across a bizarre landscape where people, places, and memories all constantly, inexorably roll past and recede into the unbounded horizon.
All of these builds leverage the character sheet as a material game component in a fun, clever way by treating space as a scarce commodity that must be actively maintained and navigated. They all focus on inventory management, in one form or another, to create that engagement.
And this is an appropriate approach, in the sense that the character sheet is a piece of the player’s own inventory alongside dice, tokens, and whatever other material components a particular game calls for.
But is this the only way to leverage character sheets? Get in touch and tell me about other games that use these documents (or others) as play components. I’ll do a follow-up post, and we can explore more of the possibilities.
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A summary & discussion of my paper about RPGs and art