OK – It’s not either of those things. But I make a lot of character sheets, and have occasionally been asked about my process. This isn’t in any sense a complete guide, just some notes and ideas I’ve had while designing sheets that some might find useful. This is generally intended to create print PDFs, usually with fillable fields.
Why make a custom sheet?
- Some older games don’t have one.
- The existing one is too small (or big)
- It doesn’t have the information you use regularly.
- It’s ugly.
I try to group together things that are related to on another in the same place on a form. For example:
- All combat-related info (Armor, basic attacks numbers, etc.) should be in one place.
- Equipment lists and encumbrance should be next to one another.
I usually put the basic personal info at the very top. If a form is fillable, I like to make the character name field bolder and larger than all of the other entries.
If the character sheet is more than one page, I try to put the information a player would be referencing most often on the very first page. Generally things like skill lists, basic stats, etc. Save the equipment lists and background info for the secondary pages. It’s usually not a bad idea to have the character name repeated at the top of each page.
For values that might change a lot – hit points for example, make sure to leave space on the sheet to record the current value of that stat. You may want to have a completely separate field for current values.
If you’re feeling generous, after you’ve designed your page, you could make a copy and resize it to other paper sizes (A4, US Letter)
For systems with a simple core mechanic, you can put a simple explanation of the rule directly on character sheet. For example:
- Traveller: Roll 2D6, 8+ to succeed
- FATE: the FATE ladder
- D6 systems – roll D6s – 4,5,6 values are a success
For complex systems, it probably isn’t worth it. I generally prefer to give my players separate cheat sheets for the rules.
I usually keep them minimal. Often all I’ll add is the game logo – usually taken directly from the game publisher’s website.
I also like using simple vector images to decorate sections. You can get free vector based images that can be manipulated, resized, and recolored from places like FreeSVG.
I can’t really draw myself, but many have created some really lovely hand drawn character sheets. ( I rather like James V West’s creations) You can scan these in, and make them fillable. Keep in mind, fillable PDF fields can only be horizontal or vertical, so fields set at an angle will be a problem.
Occasionally, if there’s room, you can put in a box for a character sketch. I’ll usually add a script (see Calculating Fields & Scripting below), so a player can import an image in the box directly.
If you want your sheet to match the rulebook, it helps to use the same (or at least similar) fonts. You can see which fonts a PDF version of game uses by opening it in a PDF reader and selecting File > Properties. It’ll list all the fonts that were used.
If you don’t have the PDF, or if the PDF is a scan of an old book, you may not have access to the actual font list. You can use sites like WhatTheFont!, which will scan an imported image and tell you what fonts match.
Indie and OSR publishers usually use free fonts that you can use for your own projects. Some fonts , however, have commercial licenses, and need to be paid for. If your budget doesn’t allow for this, you can use sites like WhatFontIs or Alternatype to find alternative free fronts in a similar style.
If you’re making a PDF fillable, remember you can set the font of the field to match the rest of the sheet. I like to use the biggest, boldest text possible for any important numbers. Make sure you you test the field by entering the largest possible value to make sure everything fits.
The font will be embedded in the PDF file, so the end user doesn’t need to have the font on their machine to fill out the form. Note there are some fonts that won’t allow themselves to be embedded, so you may need alternatives.
Export to PDF
Most modern graphics programs will let you export to PDF directly easily enough. If not, there are many PDF print drivers available.
Making it Fillable
I generally like to use open-source and free software for most things, but for this step, it’s not yet possible. I’ve been using Adobe Acrobat Pro. There’s other commercial software that will let you do the same. I haven’t fully investigated these yet.
There are cruder methods to make a fillable PDF. If you design the form completely in word processors like LibreOffice Write, you can create simple editable form fields and export the whole file as a fillable PDF. This works, but a word processor doesn’t give you quite the fine control in designing a form as the above software.
There are free online editors and form fillers like PDFEscape that will let you create and edit PDF forms. Also a little crude, but they work.
When you have a PDF editor, you can add text fields, check boxes, list boxes, and radio buttons. For larger fields (Background, equipment etc.), you can make a text field wrap so they can enter several lines. Text fields can also be set to Rich Text, so the user can make text bold or italicized.
If you’re not sure how much text will be entered into a field, you can set the font size to Auto. It’ll automatically adjust the font size as the user types to make sure all of the text fits in the box.
Calculating Fields & Scripting
- Calculating Statistic modifiers and derived stats.
- Totaling up point costs or encumbrance values.
- Allowing a user to import an image into a PDF
Here’s an example sheet: This is my fillable version of the old 1980s Danger International sheet (original post). It uses the Hero System, which involved a lot of calculations and buying points. This sheet handles all of the math for you. You can open it up in Acrobat and see all of the calculations for each field.
I’ll probably eventually post some of the scripts I’ve used in the past that you might find useful. Feel free to take any of the sheets from my master list of character sheets to pull scripts from.