Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Extra Fiddly Details

Just got this comment from Maxwell that really demonstrates how a certain kind of laziness has infected the game.  I am talking about standardized character sheets.

They started off usefully enough: cover the basic stats and details so that people didn't have to keep writing "strength" and "constitution" out every time they rolled up a new character ("str" and "con" didn't save enough time).

But then the character sheet was transformed into a time-saving device for DMs who were too lazy to look up saving throws, weapon damage, a complete list of existing skills (including those the character does not possess) and other basic details for which tables were made.  Not only were these things not part of the actual character (they describe the character's random relationship to the world), but the existence of these things in the face of the player actually takes away from some of the game's drama.

There is an important moment of uncertainty and unease when a character is told to make a saving throw.  I never tell characters what their saving throw is for or what they have to roll.  If possible, I like to wait until the roll is made before looking it up.  The saving throws are on my wiki, so anyone CAN look them up, but since they often don't know what they're making a saving throw for (as the attack is hitting them from the dark, as it were) this isn't always helpful.

Why do I do this?  The same reason the camera takes time to pan from left to right when we're introduced to the main character.  TIME is relevant.  TIME creates drama.  A pause is one of the most important dramatic identifications - and when you eliminate that time by having the player know in advance that a 13 will save their life, the player rolls the dice and knows before there is time to create anything, much less drama.

But I have had a player come into my world and diligently write down all this information because they must have it at their fingertips or else they can't feel comfortable playing.  That's an excellent sign of a player who has gotten really, really used to being in control at the table.  They've learned to game the game through knowing as much as they possibly can - and it is unnerving to have a DM who takes that all away from them by denying them knowledge they think they deserve to have.

Fact is, sometimes there is a modifier to the saving throw because of the monster being faced.  Sometimes, the world just isn't what it seems to be.  Players have to adjust to that.

Now, if I'm rolling the die, it's different.  I will virtually always tell them what I need to hit or what I need to save - because I'm not looking to give myself drama.  I'm presenting drama - and that means I can make up for the player knowing what I have to roll by not rolling the die.  Remember how I just said the player will roll as fast as possible, knowing the result?  It is the opposite for the DM.  I will roll as slow as possible, to build up as much tension as I can before that die hits the table.

Fucking character sheets.  Burn them.  Burn them all.  How in the hell can you bring in a new player into your campaign if it starts with introducing them to a page that looks like a fucking tax form?  Are you kidding me?  I swear:  make your players copy out their character sheets by hand and then burn them in blazing, sacramental act of cleansing.  Then make it clear:  you never want to see another damn character sheet at your table, EVER.

Not only do character sheets make the creation of the character convenient and easy, they make an imprisoning box that denies all personality and life.  Look at this sheet I've found off the net: Flora's character sheet:

The most interesting thing about this sheet is that
"Flora" must be a person.  And don't geek out over
the numbers: anyone can write out a higher number.

This thing is dead.  There's no room on it for personality, for identification or for anything that suggests an actual live person is supposed to be represented by this insensate, spiritless computer throw-up.

Compare it to this:

Oh my gawd, I want to hug this character sheet.  This is a bloody work of art.  This character sheet has acquired consciousness.  The reader may think it a jumble; or inconvenient; but it makes perfect sense to the person who created the sheet, who can look at the scratched out parts behind the lettering and knows what those things mean and how they were acquired.  This sheet is riddled with scars.

There is no comparison.

Want to make your players care about their characters?  Get rid of the sheets.


Maxwell Joslyn said...

Whoa whoa, let's be clear here: I do not use a standardized character sheet and haven't done so in years. I agree with you on that 100% and I love seeing the wacky documents players come up with to manage their characters.

My fuckup here was clearly the saving throw thing. I never once thought about the opportunity for tension afforded by not having those numbers provided during chargen, so thank you for yelling about that, or I probably would have continued not seeing it.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Sorry, Maxwell,

The one usually means the other. I never say anybody with saving throws on their character sheets when we started out. The DMs I learned from would have been horrified at such a prospect.

After all, such info WAS in the DMG.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

It does tend to go with fill-in-the-taxes sheets, yes. Call it a bad habit left over from my starting with 3.5e.

Apology really not needed, friend. I think there's nothing wrong with getting worked up with plebeian D&D. There's a reason I typically excuse myself from D&D-related conversations with random nerds -- it's just not worth trying to explain except by shoving your blog link at them or (when I have one) inviting them to my game.

Patrick Ludwig said...

I recently started a new OD&D campaign. My players were a bit put out when I handed them a spiral bound notebook to get character sheets from, but they adapted. Even after just a couple months I can tell that some of the character sheets are now aspiring to be as awesome as your example.

A couple weeks into the campaign, one player brought in a nice neat printed out character sheet, filled in carefully for his character.

It truly was a coincidence that his character died within the hour! The pendulum swung wide, his next character has been run several times, still doesn't have a name.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Some parents are like that . . .

JB said...

Mm... Back when we first started playing, our character sheets looked like the grubby paper you praise above. The problem is/was, after a year or more of regular play, the thing started falling apart and being illegible. I suppose the solution would be to recopy the thing like a 10th century monk...which is what we would do back in the days before personal computers...but it's so nice to be able to print up something neat and legible to have with you for play. I still remember our first printed character sheets (circa '84...only one of our players had access to both a word processor and a printer, and she did all the data entry....which was cool as she was often acting as co-DM of the campaign). But we were ecstatic not to have to work with crumpled, illegible, snack-stained leaves of refuse.

'Course, we still didn't have saves or to hit tables or anything on the sheets...those things were easy enough to look up on the tables in our books. Instead, they mainly tracked lists...lists of equipment, of enemies and allies, of things that had happened to our characters over the course of the campaign, etc. New PCs had very short (less than a page) print-outs. Long-running PCs would have 2 or even 3 pages of dot-matrix text.

Still...I take your point about the "quick-reference" aspect. Perhaps we're trading learned proficiency (as DMs) for expedience...and yeah that sounds like a bad thing. I'm going to think about it a bit.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The thing about using a computer for your character sheet - it is STILL personal. You make your own little boxes, your own spaces - your own white space in which you can create images and personality. I have no problem with that. Look what I do with a computer.

My problem is the prefabricated character sheets - that assume you're just another round peg.

Fuzzy Skinner said...

I'm also of the mind that saving throws and turning undead should only be specifically known to the DM. The former especially, since those only change every few levels at the most, and the DM can easily put the numbers for every class and level on their screen (if using one) or "cheat sheet" (like I use).

I think the reason for having all of the skills, saves, formulas, and target numbers on the character sheet is to allow people to do almost everything without having to look in the book. To a certain extent this makes sense (especially for the "crunchier" systems like 3.5), but a large part of it seems to be simple laziness. Sure it's faster to just glance at the sheet, but for something as simple as "roll a twenty-sided die", the players and DM should be able to remember the gist of it before too long; if not, they might not be very interested in the game after all.

You also make a good point about the overuse of pre-generated character sheets. I think they're useful for new players - the one for the Pathfinder Beginner Box even has its sections labeled with letters - but I've had several people tell me that the denser pre-made sheets make the game "look like work". (Hell, the "official" sheets for 2e look exactly like Scantron forms.) I considered using 3x5 index cards for the 0e game I'm hoping to run soon, but your pictorial examples point out that there would be very limited space to write non-mechanical details about the character on such a small surface.

Oddbit said...

I've linked one of my previous character sheets on my blag somewhere. But I always start out with a "standard" spreadsheet that very quickly gets torn apart and rebuilt to best suit whatever character I made.

The tinker one is my most ridiculous, given I'm actually managing about 4 characters with one sheet.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Most of my players keep their characters in folders or binders.