Reading a character sheet isn’t easy, especially when you don’t know what you’re looking for. “Longsword: +6 to attack, 1d8+3 damage” doesn’t actually mean anything without context, and that context is usually buried in gaming rules and minutia. Even if you have a frame of reference, like knowing you’re looking at a 2nd-level fighter in 3.5E, the context changes based on the campaign style (“Why don’t you have a magic weapon yet?”), the challenges (“You’re almost guaranteed to kill any goblin in a single hit, that’s ridiculous.”), the setting (“A longsword? So you’re showing off that you’re a foreigner?”), and too many other factors to list. I can’t give you a detailed primer on how to know if your character’s abilities, or the abilities of your players’ characters, fit the character or characters you want to play. That’s something you have to figure out for yourself within your campaign framework.
What I can do is give you examples of reading character sheets for information and what we learned from those examples. These aren’t direct recommendations like “if a character’s attack bonus falls below the recommended range for an attack bonus at the character’s level, that character is not interested in front-line combat”. Hard and fast rules don’t work for this. Instead they’re concepts, gentle nudges that say “here’s what we noticed, here’s what it meant, here’s how we reacted or did not react, and here’s the result” to demonstrate the general flow of this activity.
Before getting too deep into this, I do want to say that nothing here is an indication of bad or malicious play. A player isn’t bad at the game or trying to trick you just because what they said they wanted for their character doesn’t match what the character does. It’s far more likely that the player’s concept changed during character design, they’re leaning a bit outside their concept for survivability (a character with low defenses may be flavorful, but it’s not fun if they’re unconscious for half of every session), or they just don’t know what’s an especially good, bad, impressive, or broken value or tactic. Don’t read these as examples of behavior that needed to be fixed, just examples of things that happened.
Except for Jeb. He needed to be fixed.
Jeb was the cucco farmer in the second Zelda campaign. He was a reskinned seeker, a ranged controller who throws or shoots weapons and channels fey spirits to aid allies and limit enemies’ powers. Jeb did this by tossing hay bales, summoning chickens, blocking attacks with pigs, and passing out tasty, tasty milk. He was somehow the comic relief in a party that already had a cowardly healer constantly talking about how he was very definitely not a thief, a hair-trigger defender/explosives expert, and Princess Azeld, royal murderhobo. All this was fine and valid.
The issue was shortly after a fight when the player was talking about how rarely he seemed to hit his targets. We took a look at his sheet and realized he hadn’t updated it for recent level gains, which meant he was missing several bonuses and abilities he should have been applying. Once we fixed that, suddenly he was much better at combat. This is a somewhat meta first example, but it shows how the player’s stated (understood) intention, “I want to play a character in a 4E campaign” was secondary to his actual (understood) intention, “I want to play a character who is fun.” The action of running the character and using his wacky powers was more relevant to the player than being mechanically viable even in a system built around mechanical viability.
Once I saw that, I largely stopped trying to find ways for Jeb to be relevant as a combat threat and just let him do his own thing. It was clear to me that being effective in fights was not Jeb’s payoff. Instead of making encounters where Jeb was a plus because that would cause him to have fun, I assumed he would find ways to have fun even if he wasn’t terribly powerful in a given fight, and I was right. Jeb kept getting wackier, but in a way that remained fun and interesting instead of distracting or annoying, and I only had to juggle four characters’ abilities when I built my monsters, giving everybody else a little more time in the combat limelight. We recognized the disparity between the intention and the actual character and we rolled with it instead of trying to shoehorn Jeb into something he didn’t want to be.
We did something similar with Icronouf. His player said Icronouf was an innovator, but he took no abilities related to innovation and did not significantly innovate during the campaign. Instead his abilities tended toward diplomacy and archery, with a splash of healing because the party desperately needed it. This patchwork of ideas gave us a character who didn’t work as well as intended, and I don’t think he got enough of a chance to shine because he was too busy wearing several hats to impress us with any one of them.
I discuss him a bit more at the link above, including how his concept and his play style didn’t really mesh, but what I don’t say is that we didn’t really do anything about it. Had we caught what he was doing early we might have been able to work with it more. But we kind of just let the character be himself, and his story petered out with the rest of the campaign in an ignominious end. Icronouf really could have benefitted from a line-by-line read of the character sheet to bring him more in line with his concept, and at that point in my career I wasn’t prepared to do that.
I want to point out that the response “ignore the disparity and let the character run as written” worked in the first case and didn’t work in the second. Different situations require different responses even when a lot of the points in those situations are the same. You and your players have to decide how important the disparities are to you before you decide how much effort you want to put into fixing them, and that involves understanding what your players actually want. Sometimes the character concept is just an excuse to use a given build or vice versa, and in most cases that’s okay, as long as it’s intentional.
Of course, it’s hard to read the intentions of a party the same way you can read the intentions of a player. Parties tend to be dominated by the loudest voices and the strongest opinions. For groups I’ve had more success looking at the broad trends of characters sheets; there’s no use in collecting everybody’s full feat lists, but by comparing everybody’s AC you can get a sense for who’s an outlier and how afraid the party is of taking damage. This is easiest when you pick something tangible, like a specific number (attack bonus) or game concept (skills). Consider The Eight Arms and the Day That Wasn’t, my current campaign in 5E, in which the party has the following skills and tools trained:
- Four characters: Insight, thieves’ tools
- Three characters: Perception, Stealth
- Two characters: Athletics, History, Intimidation, Investigation, Persuasion, Religion, Sleight of Hand, disguise kit
- One character: Acrobatics, Arcana, Deception, Medicine, Nature, Performance, Survival, various proficiencies
- No characters: Animal Handling
What does this say about them? As a group, they are not interested in being surprised, but they do want to surprise others. They do not want to be tricked by creatures or impeded by locks or traps. They are not particularly interested in creature lore or backstories, and they are not prepared for physical challenges besides combat. They are not animal lovers.
This is, of course, a generalization—one character is proficient in Arcana, History, and Nature, so it is safe to say he cares about knowledge skills, and that same character is proficient in thieves’ tools but only because they came automatically with his class and not because he plans to use them. But as a whole, most of the party is much more worried about a lie going undetected than they are about not knowing what a given creature’s powers or weaknesses are, and they are much more prepared for a deadly trap than for an obstinate guard. I should have sneaky enemies so they can use Perception, I should be careful about putting them in crumbling ruins because they’re short on Acrobatics and Athletics, and I absolutely should not make the campaign hinge on whether or not they can save and befriend a tribe of hungry wolves.
(As I compiled this list, at least one player explained that they deliberately did not take proficiency in a specific skill because they decided their bonus from an ability score was already fairly high and they would rather have the proficiency bonus elsewhere. This was presented as an argument against using skill proficiencies as a measure of party intention, and I understand that. But even this argument told me the silent intention “being well-rounded is more important to me than excelling at something”, and that factors into my design decisions and my understanding of the character just as much as anything else. The act of discussing intentions gave me more intentions my players hadn’t expressed verbally. The lesson, as usual, is to listen to your players even when they aren’t saying something.)
As an example of things gone badly, look at The Umbrageous Sodality and the Ghost Opera, our all-vigilante Pathfinder campaign. During Session Zero, our stated intention was to have the characters start separate but join forces during the campaign. The example we used for power level and feel was the X-Men: everybody knows everybody else’s powers and identities, each character had their own background and path that converges with the group, and the party is powerful enough to save a city but not a planet. Things didn’t work out that way. Once the campaign started, the players fiercely protected their identities and avoided each other, resulting in them wandering around investigating several different storylines even after they had ostensibly joined together, which was rough because their lower level was more in line with the Defenders than anybody who could shoot lasers and fly.
Why what we wanted differed from what we did isn’t the point here. The issue is that it was different, and more that I was surprised by it. If I had been paying attention I could have seen it from minute one. Everybody built a character versed in working alone: for the most part they had exceptional Stealth so the other characters couldn’t find them, exceptional abilities so they couldn’t be caught and unmasked, exceptional ability to blend in so nobody suspected them, and exceptional survivability so they never got in a situation where they would be knocked unconscious and unmasked. Characters were built to be individuals, not part of a team, and they were built to protect themselves, not to put their trust in others. If I’d seen it earlier I could have forced the issue harder, making it clear in everybody’s storylines that the plot before them was too great to handle alone. But I didn’t push it enough narratively, and everybody danced around each other for several in-game days, which played a big part in making a five-week campaign balloon to eight.
But I didn’t fail completely because I recognized the shift in power level. When we originally discussed the campaign, I’d expected the players to take only half their levels in vigilante. I foresaw them multiclassing to get all the other neat abilities they wanted to make their concept go, like magic or training or anything that could be considered a superpower. Instead, of our six characters, only two multiclassed, and only one of them went anywhere supernatural. Of the two characters who took magic, one reskinned it as equipment and the other never made it to a session. But I saw this happening early and I adjusted for it. Even if the players said they wanted a superhero power level, the characters they built were street heroes, so I scrapped any designs I had on giant enemies, threatening villains, and horde battles in favor of small-scale combats against fantasy creatures and low-level minions, capped by a villain who operated cleverly from the shadows. If I hadn’t, most of the party would have gotten overwhelmed and killed or captured in the first two sessions.
Like a lot of DMing this is more art than science. No matter what checklist you imagine, you’re going to catch some things and miss others. How (and whether) you react to a disparity is similarly subjective and I can’t give you a best way to do it. It’s something you develop a sense for over time by reading the table and understanding why players make the characters they do. The point of these posts is to acknowledge that disparities between concept and execution exist, show you some of the ways they present themselves, and explain what happens when you do or don’t work with them. Once you get a feel for it, a lot of “why didn’t this campaign/character work the way I thought?” questions start making sense, and that’s a step on the way to recognizing and getting the at-the-table feel you want.