Focus on the World: Character sheets

There are many ways to play Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

I recently had the joy of sharing my favorite game with my father, my brother, and a good friend. Each of them played different from each other, who in turn played different from me.

My dad was thorough in his adventure, wanting to find every secret and explore the world as a world.

My brother blitzed through challenges moving from one to the next at rapid speed.

And my friend focused on the puzzles more than his surroundings, often to his peril.

So there are many ways to play, but there are two methods that characterize the others:

  • Normal Heads-up Display (HUD)
  • Pro HUD


Normal HUD

What do you see here? The minimap, shrine indicator, temperature, sound, time of day down to the minute, button indicators for your sword and shield, which sheikah slate rune is equipped (currently the bomb), and how many hearts are left.

It’s very scientific, for sure. Does your fantasy game really need an accurate watch? Isn’t daylight enough?


Now here.

A bridge and tower off to the left, a couple outgrowths of trees to the right atop some hills. A red tower far left, a blue tower straight ahead, a few more points of interest out there, a blue sky, some clouds, sun high overhead.

Now that’s not actually the HUD. There are hearts to show how many hits you are away from dying. That’s it… (And does that need to be there?)

…And the word “Good” annoyingly super-imposed on the image. Ah well.

Without so many things to “block” the relevant information (your surroundings, what you perceive) there is a refreshing focus for players on what matters.

Same goes for your role-playing games.

Play the world, not the rules.

Look here:

“Normal HUD” from Dungeons and Dragons 5e

This is an excel spreadsheet. Clean with many spaces to write in. Shows you eighteen numbers for six stats, eighteen skills, armor class, hit points, hit dice, death saves, a whole slough of boxes to fill.

Truly the normal HUD in the industry, by the numbers. Just like Zelda’s Normal HUD is the default, people assume that this is the default for RPGs.

Check this:

“Pro HUD” from Maze Rats

This looks like something in a fantasy world. Besides the dragon image, I can’t tell that the D&D character sheet above is fantasy. Looks more sci-fi. This spell book has only nine spaces for numbers and a few boxes to fill-in. A vast reduction. That and it’s beautiful.

With a sheet like this in front of you, you’re looking more at the GM and less at the sheet. You talk with players, not searching the information you wrote down. To invoke the classic:

The world, not the rules.

Can we go further? This is an image from an online game I’m running for kids:

True “Pro HUD”
  • Name
  • Role
  • Inventory
  • Notes beneath if necessary.

Keeps the old-school focus on interesting and odd items (potion of sandform anyone?). And the rest of the attention?

On the situation. On the problem. Looking for solutions.

On the world.

Fewer hinderances to precious attention. Break down barriers between the world and the imagination.

Be mindful of this: The character sheet is one filter through which the players view the world. The second is the GM. Offload the weight of the rules from the sheet to the brain, the superior processing power in RPGs.

Make index cards and graph paper the standard character sheets again! (Okay, that’s just me going overboard to move the pendulum back to the DIY nature of RPGs. You can ignore me, haha.)


I had this one in the barrel for a while after the subject came up in a Bastionland broadcast.

Alone in the Labyrinth wrote this up recently, which pairs really well with what was talked about here.

5 thoughts on “Focus on the World: Character sheets

  1. Excellent point. I’ve been playing for over a decade and only now getting more into lighter games and the OSR mindset.

    To me, all that crunch is superficial and distracting too!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.