One game element that has made Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) so successful is character development. Players become invested in their created character, cheering at every success and groaning at each setback. The character is their in-game avatar.
Roleplaying was the hook that got players interested in this new type of tabletop game. The original editions of D&D were actual booklets. They listed the rules of gameplay, notes about the D&D world, and general instructions.
In 1981, the booklets got a revision, and the game rules simplified. The layout underwent a redesign to make it easier for beginning and casual players to quickly learn the game. The resulting boxed game set became known as “Basic/Expert D&D” or B/X. Many editions came out since, but the B/X edition formed the base concept of character development and character sheet use.
Information Overload with B/X Character Sheets
Creating characters in D&D is simple but involving. Before the game begins, players decide on a name for their character. Players roll dice to determine the values of various attributes like strength, resistance to magic, and durability. The initial, must-have information for every character includes:
- Character’s name
- Alignment – The way of life for the character – law, chaos, or neutrality. A lawful, unselfish character’s loyalty belongs to the party no matter what. A chaotic selfish character is unpredictable, with no regard for the party whatsoever. A neutral character is a survivor and will remain with a party as long as doing so is to their advantage.
- Class – represents the character’s type or vocation. Choices include cleric, thief, dwarf, human, elf, fighter, halfling, and magic-user. A character can have a class of “elf magic-user.” Each class has specific strengths and weaknesses.
- Level – the experience level of the character.
- Armor class – represents the protection of whatever armor the character wears.
- Hit points – this value represents the amount of damage a character can absorb and remain conscious. The higher the value, the more robust the character.
- Abilities – dice rolls determine the initial values of each ability. The player can adjust points to fashion the character desired. A mage needs a high intelligence value, so he needs to borrow a few points from unneeded abilities like strength. These abilities include:
- Saving throws – each item below has a value. This value gets compared to a dice roll’s values. The result determines if the character survives the Death Ray or succumbs to paralysis. These saves include:
- Poison or Death Ray
- Magic Wand
- Turn to Stone or Paralysis
- Dragon Breath
- Spells or Magic Staff
- Rolling Hit Points – each time a character levels up, this value represents additional hit points earned. The value gets added to hit points. The new value becomes the character’s new base hit points.
- Coins and treasure – the amount of money the character begins with and any treasures they acquired during the adventure.
- Experience points – each level requires characters to attain a specific amount of points to advance to the next level. This value reflects the current experience points of the character.
- Equipment – these are items carried by the character from a war hammer to rations.
- Non-magical items, magic items, and notes
Quite a lot of information there. It’s not possible to remember every value. The statistics must be readily available to determine events and results in the game. To help players, a character sheet with all the above information comes with the game. Each player fills out a sheet while creating their character.
As the game progresses and the character changes, many eraser marks and cross-outs will appear. The character sheet must reflect every change. A player can use the same sheet through multiple quests. Once the campaign ends, a B/X character sheet reflects a character’s journey from beginning to end.
Miniature wargaming has heavily influenced Dungeons & Dragons. In wargames, there are no character sheets. Instead, stats sheets list the capabilities of deployed units. These sheets are sufficient because wargames focus on the broader view of divisions and battalions, not individual characters.
Gary Gygax, one of D&D’s creators, wanted to take war game simulation and add an individual twist – roleplaying. Enter the humble character sheet. It’s a simple yet effective way to connect a player to their character and the D&D universe.
Research shows that the act of writing something creates a deeper, more lasting connection. In that sense, the character sheet did its job. Filling out sheets and rolling dice are dynamic behaviors. Players become participants in the game instead of mere observers.
D&D’s original B/X character sheet is one sheet, double-sided, with small spaces to write in. It’s compact and bland, maybe by design. The B/X sheet is a tool for the player. What do we do with tools? We adapt them to how we want and need to use them.
As gamers became more involved in Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying, they found ways to improve upon the standard sheet. It began with scribbles in the margins. A few games later, the one-sided sheet has morphed into a multiple-page affair. The players added the data they feel is essential for their character and style of play. The format is no longer generic. Instead, each page is customized and illustrated.
Customizing the Universe
Since D&D character creation mechanics don’t change substantially from one edition to the next, players have found ways to save time and customize character statistic sheets. It’s not unusual for a player to use past character sheets for reference. Doing this saves time when creating a new character for a new game. Players have employed creative means to make reusable character sheets. They have:
- Made multiple copies of the sheets provided with the games
- Designed their blank sheets and laminated them for reuse
- Bought campaign journals that contain character sheets as wet erase pages
- Collected completed sheets in binders or on websites for easy retrieval.
As gaming has moved from the tabletop to online, character sheets have transitioned, too. For online games, the sheets have gotten digitized for use on a tablet or phone. For convention play, there are online sites to hasten generating characters. Some generate images, not just statistics.
Players make templates for different kinds of character classes and all the editions and variants of Dungeons & Dragons. These templates get shared on message boards and gaming sites. Gamers have even adapted the character sheet to different games and genres.
Your Character on Paper
A character sheet is a glue that keeps roleplaying at the heart of any Dungeons & Dragons edition. It reveals much about a player. It shows care, commitment, and creativity. Much has been done to transfer the character sheet concept to digital gaming. These efforts have certainly made sheets more accessible and convenient. Video and computer games have elaborately detailed character profile pages right at the player’s fingertips.
However, they cannot replicate the texture of paper, the focused action of filling out a sheet, or the experience of leafing through a stack of sheets. It doesn’t matter what information is on the sheet, and it doesn’t matter what game it’s for – every character sheet is one thing – a memory.
These memories are not solely about the character, though. It’s about the camaraderie of shared storytelling that the players improvise on the spot. It’s about throwing the dice, hoping it decides that a character has enough dexterity to dodge the fireball aimed at his head. It’s about the thrill of finding the Ring of Power and gleefully adding it to the equipment list of your sheet. A character sheet is a convenience, a tool, and so much more.