ALTER ARMS CHARACTER SHEET UX/UI CASE STUDY
Alter Arms is a tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) that mimics the style of Japanese live-action super hero shows best seen in the likes of Power Rangers, VR Troopers, Beetle Borgs and Ultraman. This includes rewarding melodramatic interactions between characters, and providing mechanics that allow characters to take on different forms to access new powers. Since a player's character is defined by their character sheet, I conducted a series of UX/UI tests to refine the game and user experience.
DEFINING THE PROBLEM
There are no TTRPGs on the market that portray the mechanical satisfaction of changing your character’s abilities and strength on the fly to approach problems from different angles. This is best exemplified in the theme of transforming Japanese super heroes. It is possible to hack such a game by piecing together different systems, but this would require tremendous additional work and bookkeeping by the players and game master (GM) that would detract from the overall enjoyment of the game.
Create a game that facilitates characters frequently changing values and abilities in line with tokusatsu/henshin heroes tropes and themes.
Create an easy-to-use system on the front-end and back-end that requires little prep time or bookkeeping by players or the GM.
What's on the Market
There are several TTRPGs on the market already. This is a breakdown of the pros and cons of several systems that are on the market that are either very popular, or approach the topic of character transformations in their systems.
I've found that the following systems can be worked to create a system that would allow for character transformations, but require a large amount of pre-planning and bookkeeping for participants.
Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition
+Versatility: While primarily geared towards combat, the system is granular enough to allow players many different approaches to solving a problem.
+Accessibility: The game has been at the center of a recent resurgence in interest in tabletop games, due in part to pop culture embracing it. The majority of people know what Dungeons & Dragons is, if not how to play it.
+Sense of Progression: The game has a character progression system that allows players to greatly change their character's playstyle in a variety of ways.
-Bookkeeping: Character creation and a portion of gameplay requires players and the GM to reference multiple materials in order to determine how an individual character operations. Character sheets can include multiple pages as players need to be able to keep track of different special attributes of their character's race and class, as well as the rules for the multiple abilities that they can use.
-Limited Setting: The majority of D&D 5th Edition content is strictly based in a sword and sorcery setting. Supplemental materials provide additional scope, but people who are interested in anything outside of a fantasy setting must look elsewhere.
-Overabundance of Mechanics: The long history of D&D has led it to having many different mechanics that have been introduced and abandoned over subsequent editions. Among most groups, the majority of them are neglected so players can have a more streamlined experience.
Henshin!: A Sentai RPG
+Prioritize Character Interaction and Thematics: The system forgoes a randomized means for adjudication, instead basing gameplay mechanics on an economy of tokens given to players for performing certain actions and given to the GM to perform certain actions. There are no attributes on the character sheets to keep track of. Character sheets are a list of actions and the reward/cost for performing them. These actions are all thematically appropriate and encourage interaction between players.
+Zeroes-in on Tokusatsu Tropes and Incorporates Them into Mechanics: The actions and economy both are heavily based around the tropes of tokusatsu, guiding players to play roles appropriate for the setting and the stories that are common within.
+Pick-up and play: The rules are very straightforward, with the majority appearing on the character sheets.
-Not Built For Mechanical Variation Between Character Classes: Each character class has the same mechanic of giving and receiving points in exchange for actions performed. The system is built to reward players for telling the story, and the only variations between characters is how the game expects players to tell the story.
-Limits Itself To A Single Subgenre: Tokusatsu is divided into different subgenres, the most popular of which is arguably sentai, such as Power Rangers. Henshin is focused on emulating this subgenre, encouraging teamwork and other tropes, but does not include any options that would allow for solo characters seen in other subgenres of tokusatsu such as Metal Heroes.
-Focus On Collaborative Narrative That Requires Heavy Investment From Players: The focus on storytelling and reliance on economy of points to produce the narrative means that players have to be highly invested at all times in order for satisfaction. This can put more pressure on players than they may wish.
-Limited Instructions: The rules can be difficult to decipher, with central mechanics needed to be inferred from the way individual character rules are written.
+Versatile System That Allows For A Wide Variety Of Actions: Players have a number of ways to describe their character, which can greatly change the way they play the game.
+Gives Feeling Of Impactful Transformations: Characters travel to different realities and inhabit new bodies while there. These new forms are meaningful because the characters generate their attributes immediately before inhabiting them. These new forms can be vastly different from the original, giving players new ways to play.
-Transformations Are Disposable: Each transformation is generated before inhabitation, and abandoned once the player is done with them. This means players don't have a consistent relationship with the form that they can revisit. It's basically a tool that is only used once.
-Requires A Lot Of Paperwork To Keep Track Of Character Details: Each new form requires a new character sheet, meaning players and the GM have a lot more to keep track of as the game progresses.
+Versatile system that allows for a variety of actions: The storytelling-based system has various results for adjudication built into the options available to the player, meaning that any action can fail, succeed with a conceit, or be a resounding success.
+Little required work outside of game sessions: All rules are written on character sheets, meaning that players and the GM have very little bookkeeping to do before playing.
-Simple mechanics limit unique interactions from one setting to another: The options available to the player are limited by the setting, meaning that players are confined to the sheets for what kind of story they tell.
-Every session requires a number of documents to be available: The list of options available to the player must be made available during the game session, which is complicated by the fact some rules are written on character sheets, or supplemental rules lists.
First Iteration of the character sheet. Character's attributes (referred to as Stats) are posted along the left-most column, and the different forms (referred to as Arms) are posted along the top. These intersect in a grid fashion, showing what a character's defenses are in their different Vectors when in different Arms.
Vectors are ranked from 1 to 3, 1 being weakest and 3 being strongest. Every character begins the game with each Vector at at least rank 1, and can choose a Vector to raise a rank.
Each arms is associated with a certain amount of Ante, points that characters accumulate by taking damage and performing certain abilities. Each form has space to put three Ante. Below each box is a line for the character's Type, which is a subclass they assume when they are in that Arms. Players write which of the four Types they are.
Traits are bonuses associated with each of the Vectors, allowing players to enhance attacks. Players select a single one and write how their character expresses the trait.
Baggage is a passive ability that players select from a list, as are Archetypes. Motive is a character description players use to flesh out their characters.
The steps players take when playing the game
Players learn the game through instruction by the GM.
Players either create their characters using the instructions they are given, or select them from a number of pre-generated ones.
Players run through a scenario that guides them through different mechanics that need to be tested. All the while asking grand tour questions in order to gain insight into their thought process.
Discuss game session with players, questioning them about their experience, noting their reaction towards the areas that needed testing.
FEATURES BEING TESTED
Alter Arms attempts to create a versatile system that plays to the strengths of tokusatsu settings, while also remaining accessible and manageable to players.
Single Character Sheet
All information regarding a player's character is limited to the single side of single piece of 8.5x11 paper. Is this enough room to convey all necessary information?
Each successive form that the characters access use a larger dice to denote their increase in power. Is this enough to let players feel stronger?
Each character has three core attributes, called Vectors, that determine their proficiency in physical (Might), intellectual (Brains), and emotional/spiritual (Soul) actions. Is this simple enough for players to manage while not being too simple.
Mechanical Character Aspects
Characters have both Baggage that details flaws and archetypes that exemplify their role in a party. These also act as passive and active abilities that a player can use, respectively. Does this give players a sense of expression while also feeling like a mechanical choice?
Details of the various playtests conducted
6 tests during MAGFest 2018
Testers for each game: 3, 6, 6, 6, 6, 2
3 tests at Katsucon 2018
Testers for each game: 6, 6, 6
3 tests at JohnCon 2018
3, 3, 3
Multiple playtests with the same group of 4 people from 2016-Present
Each session lasted about 2 hours
Delegated open tabletop areas at different conventions
MAGFest in the Gaylord Convention Center in the Indie Tabletop Showcase, where attendees can browse different tabletop games that are in development.
KatsuCon in the Gaylord Convention Center, in the open tabletop room where attendees can join tabletop games already in progress, or rent games to play at open tables.
JohnCon at Johns Hopkins University in the Break My Game area where players can try out tabletop games in development.
Sessions played with the same group were held at Labyrinth Games & Puzzles in Washington, DC. Players volunteered to participate beforehand.
Six Dice of each type
A set of poker chips to serve as Ante
A digital recorder
Character sheets and other game documentation
TEST RESULTS AND IMPACT
How players responded to the game and character sheet, and how that input changed the sheets' designs
Each iteration of the character sheet is the result of player feedback from multiple playtest sessions where players were observed having trouble processing the sheet's information or brought attention to mechanics that did not function properly.
Players didn't easily grasp that they could attack opponents via any of their Stats, they are renamed Vectors to show they are different means of attack.
Players also had issues understanding how many different Arms they had available to them, so checkboxes were included in each of the Arms' boxes at the top of the sheet, with the first two forms, the base form and the 1st Arms, already checked off, because each character starts with them.
Each box has the number of Ante associated with it now written inside of it.
The Vector representing spirituality, Spirit, is renamed to Heart to inform players that it is the Vector that can be used for person-to-person interaction.
Ante is changed to Drama to keep in line with the melodramatic origins of the source material.
Heart was returned to Spirit in error.
The Vectors Power, Mind and Spirit have been changed to Might, Brains and Soul respectively. This was done to better convey that they can be used for physical, mental and spiritual actions respectively, while still leaving some room for players to interpret how they can be used.
Columns were added for Experience and Gear, two modifiers that can be added to roles to increase likelihood of success. These were added to give players a feeling of accomplishment and control, as these values are increased as reward for completing certain actions.
A line to identify the gear is has also been added to the Base Form box at the top of the page.
Type has been replaced by letters that players can fill in that reside in each of the boxes for Arms. This was done because it was difficult for players and the GM to tell what Type a character was, which is important because it can have gameplay implications. It was changed from “open ended” to “multiple choice” because there are only four options and they become easy to identify on a sheet from a distance. They are Bio, Myth, Tech and Fight
Motive is moved under the Name and Alter labels at the top left of the sheet because it groups character-based information together, informing players that the rest of the material is used for the mechanics. Players don’t write much in it, so it can be reduced in size. This saves more space on the sheet.
The Traits have been moved next to their respective Vectors, with the requirement that players describe why they have those Traits is abandoned. This was done to make more room on the sheet for Powers and inform players which Vector they are associated with.
Archetypes have been changed from ‘open ended’ to ‘multiple choice’ because there are only six options, so it reduces the need to reference other documents. It also allows players and the GM to know what Archetype are player is just based on a glance
Baggage, the passive ability, has been replaced with the active ability of Powers. Players felt disempowered by only having access to passive abilities, so they were replaced with these options that players can take on their turns instead of a normal action. There is also more room to write out the rules for their Powers, which are chosen from a pre generated list.
Vectors have been changed to Action Vectors so players know that this is the part of the sheet that informs players what they can do that effects the environment. Brains has also been changed to Wit because players assumed that the B for Bio in the Arms boxes at the top of the page stood for Brains.
The dots that were used to denote the ranking a character had in a vector have been replaced by numbers so that it is clearer what the ranking means to players without having it need to be explained.
Traits have been changed from ovals to stars in order to tell players that these are unique factors. They also have a +2 written inside of them to tell players their mechanical purpose: to raise a Vector by two rankings in special instances.
Type has been changed from letters to symbols with letters inside them to better convey to players that these are unique factors that add to their character. Myth has been changed to Lore because players thought that the M that denoted it meant that it actually stood for Might when they were explaining their thoughts on the sheets before they were taught the rules.
Trappings were added in the Arms boxes at the top of the page. These are simple descriptors that explain how the form changes the character, like giving them a fire or ice theme. Depending on the situation, it can give them a mechanical benefit, allowing the narrative to have an impact on the actual mechanics of the game.
Powers and Archetypes were given “moves” as a label to tell players that they are options for what a character can do. They have also been swapped horizontally on the page, because Action Vectors and Power Moves are both offensive abilities for the players, while Archetype Moves is for support.
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