Players and Sheet Maintenance: A Comment Too Long to Post

The Man Larkins had a semi-recent discussion about players and character sheet maintenance, and where the GM’s mandate falls/should fall/must fall. I’d originally intended this to be a comment on that post, but then it got lengthy.

This problem–which more broadly manifests as the stratification of investment players and DMs have in a setting, system, and individual character–really caught me by surprise in the transition back to tabletop from roughly a decade of play-by-post gaming. On all of the sites where I played, DMs (and often even other players) had ready access to at least -viewing- your sheets at all times. Getting into games was often pretty cutthroat, too, since even when the communities were small the pools of quality and reliable DMs, skilled and reliable players, and talented and descriptive writers were generally fairly shallow. People were on point. If they weren’t, they got replaced…except for whatever inner circle illuminati had orchestrated that particular game, who were functionally a terrible and irreplaceable tumor. I was usually such a tumor; which is why, on those rare occasions when I ran a game, I made my own inner circle apply every time. I knew that I’d end up taking them, but I wanted everyone to see that it was because they were (and remain) incredible writers, who also took the time to read instructions and even went so far as to craft characters to fit with each other. Man, typing that out I sure miss the game.

When I started a tabletop game with a wide swathe of player-experience (ranging from folks who played in high school and on and off since to my wife, who had previously not held a d20 except when I whispered “Hold it…hold iiiiitt” with steepled fingers, now and again), sheet maintenance became a real thing. Sheet CREATION was a real thing, with some players outright ignoring character creation guidelines and showing up to the game with unplayable stuff. Initially I tried doling out some light “homework” between our sessions, so that we’d come each night not only ready to play but with the game expanded. That proved…unsuccessful. Profoundly so. So profoundly that I just started building maintenance into the sessions where it was appropriate, but that also proved fairly unsuccessful. A major element of the challenge was the varying degrees of comfort, attachment, and engagement each player had with everything from their character to the rules. It was a wide gamut, with some folks eager to pump out prose about their person but less invested in picking a level-three encounter, and other folks–folks I might, perhaps, be married to–pretty comfortable with just not doing the things and hoping that I would.

That last bit made me really uncomfortable, because even though I don’t think anyone in our group of friends would have judged me poorly for showing my wife favorable treatment, I was a DM for years before I was a husband. Are these things connected?! Who can say?! I surely can’t!

The mutual friendship of our eventual group–some trimming was required, which was particularly uncomfortable for me as I was DMing for a pre-existing social group and frankly took too long to say “Hey, these people are being incredibly disrespectful to me, and to all of you. That can’t stand–was ultimately my saving grace. I was able to take people aside and say “Dude, let’s do lunch this week and tweak things so that you’re correct.” I could pause the game itself, if need be, and fix something on a sheet.

One of the comments on the Larkinsean post suggested appointing a secretary, and that’s interesting to me, but I think his concerns in response (That players are often protective of their sheet, and the DM is generally the person they’re okay with touching it) hold true. In my tabletop group, the reality is that there was about one person at the table besides me who knew the system well enough to play such a role, and while I did tap him for encouraging their tactical consideration, he was already making a sacrifice in not min-maxing the game as much as was in his heart (he comes from raiding).

In my current game, it’s even less available, because I’m DMing the weekly DnD organized play. That means I’m playing with a rotating cast, though my table has a pretty solid core. That core, though, includes four people who’ve never played DnD, a couple who haven’t played in a few editions, and my wife (who played 4th and FATE and knows her stuff, but is still a relatively recent convert and this is her first edition change). Add to that the reality that on any given night someone new might sit at my table, and folks might not show up, and you get a situation where I have gone from 8 to 6 to 4 to 8 players, night to night. This is a circumstance where I don’t see any of the players except when the game starts, and most of us–myself included, because my wife’s usually not off work til about an hour before the game and I’m adamant about her having time at home to decompress–are showing up with about enough time to push two tables together and lay out the map. We generally have everyone seated and ready to play about 10 minutes after technical start time, and that’s with a sort of “catch up as we go” mentality. All of that is exacerbated when there are new players, particularly players who’re just showing up for the first time with a premade character or–even more challenging–something they rolled out of my sight at home.

In that scenario, sheet maintenance is largely theoretical. The players just hit level three on a relatively sparse night, so we devoted 30 minutes or so to getting everyone rolled up to the target level. If someone comes in who’s new, and likely to be back due to a pre-existing friendship with a standard player, I usually give them a premade character; this means they’re a level, now two, below the party…but it’s markedly less to explain/process/decide for them on their first night. I’ve got one player at my table who is essentially me at any table where I play–which is to say, a test of the DM’s knowledge, patience, and ingenuity. He’s settled down dramatically and become a real asset, because I set him to helping folks through rules questions and even looking things up while I’m adjudicating someone else’s action. The other players step in as well, with one of the guys mentoring my middle-school player and ensuring his boundless energy is somewhat constrained; his sister’s in high school and also plays, but sibling relationships mean her mentoring of him is moderately less gentle.

My current ace-in-the-hole is my beautiful bride, who’s markedly stepped up her own sheet maintenance, and provides invaluable support in-game. She helps keep the party focused–still working on being as vocal as she could be given the merit of her tactics–and built an absolute wrecking ball of a Warlock, so bad combats are markedly less bad after she’s lit everything on fire while tanking hits with her temp hp. In her absence, the party’s tank is a monk with a Con bonus of +0. It’s an adventure! I’ve occasionally needed to eye a sheet, force some re-rolls, or have someone rebuild their character with the standard ability score array–and if they don’t like it, there are 3-4 other DMs they’re welcome to sit with. Ultimately, though, I welcome that because even though it’s ostensibly a pick-up game, I consider myself as responsible to the enjoyment of my regular players as I would a group that met at my house.

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One thought on “Players and Sheet Maintenance: A Comment Too Long to Post

  1. Well, I can definitely say that this is the first time I’ve seen the adjective “Larkinsean” used in a sentence. May it not be the last. 😉

    I did end up appointing a secretary (or “Master Herald” as befits Pendragon), but my prediction came true in terms of reactions–the non-sheet-maintaining players met the announcements with shouts of joy, but the one other more mechanics-oriented player immediately bristled. My compromise was that if a player vowed to keep their online sheet up-to-date week to week, then they could hold onto their sheet.

    Ironically, we haven’t played any sessions since then (took a break to run a Halloween extravaganza, then had two weeks off before launching into the second half of the Great Pendragon Campaign); we’ll see how it all works out…

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