How a player writes up their character sheet is not something a DM can or should legislate. Many ‘Organizational Behaviour’ seminars push the latest fads in structure, efficiency, and effective display of information in written form. Alternately, there is the adage about the two auto mechanics: the one whose workshop is neat and tidy and clean and he knows where all his tools are…and the other mechanic, whose workshop is messy and cluttered and dirty and he knows where all his tools are.
Personal taste and style are exactly that…personal. Character sheets will often be a reflection of a player’s personality, or how they interact with information in their environment. The difference between two players’ character sheets may be as minor as the aesthetic placement of attributes and weapon stats on the page – or as major as handwritten notes on scrap paper for one’s character versus a completely electronic document on a laptop or tablet for another’s character.
What matters to the DM, the DM’s campaign, and the players in the adventure, is how easily and accurately each player finds important information on their character sheet. For a player who knows the RPG system inside-and-out, a character sheet might not show very much. For other players, particularly ones new to a game system, the character sheet should be detailed and organized. Consider this example, from one of our D&D v.3.5 campaigns :
This sheet belonged to a Player who was new to the RPG system. There is information missing, numbers written that don’t have supporting details, clutter everywhere, no breakdown of attack or armor bonuses – it’s a mess. And consequently, the Player had a difficult time responding to events that happened in the game. He could not easily or accurately calculate his character’s response to special attacks (Grapple, Trip checks) or Saves, or answer questions as to Movement or Untrained Skill checks.
The game ground to a halt as this Player, and those players to his left and right, would have to join forces to divine the Player’s actual d20 roll outcome based on bonuses missing or miscalculated on his character sheet.
Imagine the DM’s reaction on first inspecting the character sheet…!
Even experienced players, making their own custom character sheets, fail to write in enough information. Another Player in our group keeps a neat, clean, hand-printed character sheet – but he hasn’t got half the information written down that he should.
Back in 2nd Edition D&D, it was the same: in combat, he’d roll the d20, then proceed to slowly add up all the bonuses as he thought of them or noticed them listed in various places on his character sheet. In many cases, even after the DM declared the strike a “miss”, the Player would (honestly) remember more bonuses that would change the outcome a minute later.
For the sake of swift, efficient, enjoyable RPG-ing, characters should be encouraged to use an organized character sheet. It could be a “stock” published one like this :
…the PDF version of this, available online, also has the advantage of doing the calculations for you.
Or it could be a personally-developed one (written by hand, or digital) :
In these examples, you will notice that many bonuses (armor in particular) are shown as line items with a combined value displayed. Same too with to-hit bonus numbers. If a character is denied a Dex bonus to their Armor Class, the player can identify the Dexterity contribution to the Armor Class, do a quick subtraction, and give the DM an accurate response.
When the player’s turn comes to attack in combat, his effort is a d20 roll plus one single number, already compiled and easily added. Same too with Skills; on the character sheet for A.T.’s campaign, the character’s Heal check is [d20 + 9]. Quick, easy, accurate. The game is not bogged down by forensic accounting.
If a player wants to write up their own character sheet, that is entirely their right. I have never known a DM to insist upon a specific format, nor would I encourage a DM to do so. Every player interprets character sheet information in their own way, based on aesthetic and cognitive preference and the comfort of familiarity.
What a DM should encourage, however, is a character sheet that shows concise, accurate, clear information for the player’s efficient reference purposes in-game. A messy, cluttered, ill-written character sheet not only slows down the flow of the DM’s game; it also contains incorrect information that may have serious outcomes for the party or the story.