Hazards of 5E Character Sheet Design

In preparation for playing in my first 5E campaign I’ve come across something of a quandary concerning my character sheet.

I’ve been using my own character sheets for years, designed in Excel (or OpenOffice). It lets me present the information I think is relevant in the way I think is simple rather than going strictly by the designers’ opinions. I’m sure there are characters who used the official 3.5E character sheet just fine, but generally I don’t need to track five types of attacks, or record three movement modes, or use a “Wounds/Current HP” box big enough to tally every instance of damage I take in a campaign. The basic sheets generally spend too much time on too little, and vice versa, for me to use them. I’d rather only have room for five attacks if I’m using five, and if I’m using one attack I can spend that leftover space on recording my feats or secret identities.

A custom sheet doesn’t just let me move things around to fit each character, it also lets me update numbers automatically. I never forget to increase my attack bonus if that cell is already tied to my level, Strength modifier, and weapon enhancement. If I have a computer handy I can even change a “temporary modifier” field and watch all my skills change in keeping with that cat’s grace I have today. And I’m never beholden to my own handwriting; if I find I’m running low on room on a line, I can change the font instead of writing the whole thing over. The setup for creating a sheet is well worth the time saved later, especially when you’re creating fifty or so characters on a deadline.

So I didn’t think twice about trying to create a character sheet for 5E. The layout was fairly easy. I copied the default sheet fairly closely, expecting I’d move things around as I got more familiar with the system and saw where I needed and didn’t need space. I ended up with a lot of blank room because 5E wants you to write down things like bonds, traits, and other information that doesn’t work into an equation, which meant a lot of room to play with layout. Once I got something I was fairly happy with, I started getting into the minutia of what would go in what specific cell.

That’s where I hit a wall. See, skills in 5E work differently from in 3E or 4E because in 5E they don’t exist. There’s no such thing as a skill check. There’s only an ability check to use a skill. A “Perception check” is meaningless because 5E only has “Wisdom (Perception) checks”. That is, in earlier editions you would “make a Perception check, which is whatever you have for Perception plus or minus your Wisdom modifier”. Now you “make a Wisdom check and add (or subtract, presumably) whatever you would for Perception”. It’s a subtle difference but incredibly meaningful, and not just because it pulls the focus to ability scores as the key mechanic and reduces the number of modifiers on your sheet.

5E skills are based around the idea that the skills modify abilities, not the other way around. This means we can apply skills to different ability scores. A Dexterity (Perception) check is a valid, if weird, interpretation of the rules. A more clear example is Constitution (Athletics), which covers swimming across an ocean, while the more common Strength (Athletics) covers swimming across a running river. Dexterity (Stealth) is hiding, but Intelligence (Stealth) is telling other people how to hide. It expands the breadth of each skill and allows for more creative interpretations of what it means to be good at stealth, or jumping, or medicine.

But how do I represent that on a sheet? Say I have “Athletics”, and room for a modifier next to that. Do I put my full bonus, including Strength? That means whenever the DM calls for a different ability score with Athletics, I have to to take my modifier, look at Strength, subtract it, look at the other ability score, and add it. I’m checking three places on the sheet and performing two mental operations before factoring in a die. That’s more work than an ostensibly simple character sheet could be, and it’s a lot to think about for a new player.

So do I just put my modifier and add the ability score later? Most skill modifiers are the character’s proficiency bonus and nothing else. Occasionally characters will add twice their proficiency bonus to something or perhaps add a value from a feat, but that’s fairly rare. This means all of my modifiers are either +0 (I’m not proficient in it) or +2 (I am, and also I’m 3rd-level). I don’t need to dedicate one of the densest sections of my character sheet just to say “+2” over and over again.

So do I just have a binary box, like “class skill” in 3E or “trained” in 4E? Then I can’t keep track of those rare cases where I do have extra modifiers. Also, I have to look at my skill, see if I’m trained, look at my proficiency, get a number, look at the ability score, add another number, and the factor in a die. We’re skill looking in three places and we’ve barely saved ourselves any steps.

I think it’s a great idea to let skills leverage different ability scores. It’s something I’ve used before (the above examples are from my own sessions) and I’m glad it’s in the rules so I don’t dumbfound my players by asking for an ability-skill combination they’ve never heard of. But it’s an at-the-table tool, not an on-the-sheet tool. I haven’t found an elegant way to represent it, which means my custom sheet is stuck in limbo until I figure out what works best for me. And I know what works best for me may not work for any other player, so I can’t target “universal utility” any more. It’s a pretty inconsequential gripe, like being upset that your new monitor is so large and clear you can’t use any of your old desktop wallpapers. But it’s a gripe nonetheless.

At least whatever I put out will be better than that official character sheet with the circle in it. Pretty as it is, what’s the point of a 5E sheet with room for six magic items but no space at all for bonds? Who’s the target player here?

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One Response to Hazards of 5E Character Sheet Design

  1. Jean-Pierre says:

    Maybe a Dexterity(Perception) check could be a thief trying to crack a safe and “listening” with his fingers.

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