Hi, I’m Jamie, and I’m a Dungeon Master. It’s been three weeks since my last game, and I have to admit I’m feeling pretty anxious about getting my hands on some dice. Some of you out there know exactly what I’m talking about.
Today I’m thinking about character sheets. For roleplaying games in general, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular. I’m an outlier when it comes to how I handle them at my table—I design, update, and maintain each character sheet for my players and distribute fresh copies to them every game session—and since I recently asked myself “Why the hell do you make extra work for yourself?” I’ll share the answer with you, anonymous reader. (Stay tuned next week when I scream at myself naked in the mirror to shame myself into losing weight.) To begin, let our minds go back to the early 1980s.
My first D&D character sheet (OD&D for edition-mongers) was just a blank piece of notebook paper that I stole from my educational opportunities in order to play a crazy game with some older boys. Back in the day you rolled three six-siders in the following order: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma. Maybe if your DM didn’t hate you there would be another chance to roll if all your stats sucked. Mine were poor-to-mediocre, except Intelligence offered a glimmer of hope, so I opted for magic-user. First level. I think I had 2 hit points. Winston the Wizard didn’t have a long career, and his sheet was probably in some random stack of papers in the old house when it burned to the ground (along with love letters to my first girlfriend and a draft of my gawdawful 10th grade modern fantasy novel).
Once my Dad got me the kick-ass Elmore-cover “red box” Basic D&D set in 1983 and I got my mother to abuse her office photocopier, my character sheets looked like this:
In 1986 I sat behind the screen for the first time as a Dungeon Master, being a seasoned 11-year-old, and picked the Dragonlance modules for AD&D 1st Edition. Setting aside the many other groundbreaking features of that series, they were the first to assume the use of pre-generated heroes. Each product included cut-out character cards for a growing cast of characters, and DL5 (Dragons of Mystery) featured full-page character sheets with detailed descriptions and full-body character art. That first table of gamers each got a photocopy of one those detailed, pretty sheets.
My father was gaming at two tables simultaneously while I was running my epic Dragonlance campaign for other kids. One was traditional fantasy, the other a scifi game, a crazy hybrid of Traveller with the mechanics of AD&D. Called “The Space Dungeon,” Game Master Jim kept huge binders full of printed rules, maps, tables, notes, and summaries. Each session started with a theme song that contained some clue as to what the crew of the Blackhawk might expect that afternoon. And Jim handed out freshly-printed copies of character sheets to each player when they walked in the door. My father was an adorable nerd, and he loved coming home to tell me all about the exploits of his engineer, Paul Sar (yes, you’re allowed to groan) as they smuggled their way across the galaxy, and I would check out his ever-evolving character sheets.
(Side-note: The hybridization of AD&D with scifi gaming was pretty comparable to what TSR would later do with the Buck Rogers XXVc RPG.)
When I hit 13 years old, I was invited to sit in on a single session of my Dad’s fantasy group. (Everyone there was at least twenty years older than me.) It was explained to me, repeatedly, that it was a one-time thing because one campaign was wrapping up anyway and they could use some firepower for a final battle. I must have done something right, as I was asked to roll up a character for the new campaign and not long after invited to join The Space Dungeon. I had a red Trapper Keeper that held both the sheets for me and Dad—hand-written but meticulous. The permanent headers were written in blue pen and the changing game info was done in pencil, each “sheet” actually several pages long, and re-done every few months. Sadly some kind of water damage ruined those pages in the ancient Trapper Keeper, so the only example of the handwritten work was an NPC I played during a side-mission.
One thing did survive (thematically appropriately) from those days: the results of when my character Gabriel died. I typed out some cheesy fiction and re-created some game stats, and offered it to DM Don. Screw Leonardo DiCaprio, I was a revenant long ago!
While I owned a computer as long as I’d been playing D&D, we didn’t have a printer in the house until much later. With my own game group I began playing around with the official Dungeon Master Assistant software packages on my Apple ][e.
Those tools had their uses, but I wanted to format things my way and incorporate whatever game system or house rules I had going on at my table. So I began using word processing software to maintain both my personal character as a player and for my game group.
You can see the huge influence the Space Dungeon (and GM Jim) had on my character sheet design. It was very functional, with a monospaced typeface and rather clinical. While this sheet performed just fine, it wasn’t very sexy. I really wanted something that incorporated some of the design elements of that old Red Box D&D character sheet—I wanted Armor Class inside a little shield, dammit!—with the nice flow and attractive typefaces of those old Dragonlance sheets. Fortunately both my equipment and skills improved over time.
One of the last D&D tables I ran before joining the industry was my Birthright campaign—which I had playtested before publication—run out of my college apartment for my roommates and several friends. The following example is my buddy Ryan’s character, the chaotic Count of Ilien.
Years later, I’m still up to my old tricks. I currently run a D&D 5th Edition campaign for a group of nine players (!) — each player’s sheet updated and printed fresh for them at the start of each session. Here’s what things look like these days, my daughter’s sheet from a one-shot game we ran a while back:
Why do I still bother? Most DMs, including the one I play under in a Pathfinder campaign, handle the NPCs and monsters and everything else but leave characters up to the players. I have a digital folder full of files and a manilla one full of scribbled-on printouts. Obviously I’m a product of my influences, but in examining why I give myself extra work I think I’ve figured a few things out.
For one, it means I understand how each character works intimately, and helps me tailor my game to present opportunities both mechanical and story-based for each player. An added bonus is that I can more easily figure out if a player misunderstands something—such as a recent time a low-level monk seemed to be attacking way too many times per round—or I can hint at advantages not being exploited.
It also means that each player sits down on an even footing with the others. Some of my players are experienced grognards while others still aren’t sure which dice to roll. I’m ready to help, plus anyone else at the table knows exactly where to find something.
And, most importantly, I enjoy it. There’s a reason it’s the hobby that became my job. I like making pretty, functional character sheets just as much as I enjoy putting full-color poster maps down and presenting neat-looking handouts. I want my current players to enjoy what I did the first time I sat down in the gamer den of The Space Dungeon and saw a DM who had his shit together and handed me a ready-to-go character sheet, what my fellow sixth-graders did when I handed them those gorgeous Dragonlance photocopies sporting Elmore art.
It’s a game and a hobby. There’s no wrong way to do it, and many others prefer to invest their time and energy elsewhere. That’s totally cool, but if you’re running a game or thinking of starting one of your own, I hope I’ve given you something to think about. Have fun, and game on!
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