Old-School vs. High-Tech: Paper Character Sheet Or Electronic?

As I sit here on the couch battling my second round of bronchitis in six months (thank you, asthmatic lungs), my laptop is keeping me company. Not only does it keep my lap warm and toasty, and provide the interwebz fix that I would surely die without, it houses a lot of very important things. My articles for GDG, for one. My work files, for another. And for yet another, the character sheets for one of my Pathfinder campaigns.

For my games at our local gaming club, all my character sheets are traditional – printed out on paper or cardstock, most filled in by hand with pencil. But for the game my husband and I play at home, where I play multiple characters, all my character sheets are stored as PDFs. My husband has all his NPC character sheets on his laptop, for all our games, and has PDF versions of a lot of gaming materials on there as well. It’s rare for him to GM without his computer.

The PDF vs. printed book debate is an active one in the gaming industry today, and one that I may get into in a future column. But for now, let’s just look at character sheets. Should we stick to paper for them? Should they be electronic instead? Like anything, there are pros and cons to both.

Classic Paper Sheets: The Pros

They’re Simple: You really can’t get much less fussy than a good ol’ paper character sheet. Character sheets designed for printing out are streamlined and easy to navigate. Heck, you can even go the minimalist route and write stuff down on a sheet of notebook paper if that works for you.

They’re Portable: You and the gang are carpooling to the game, and space in the car is seriously limited. Slap your character sheet in a folder (or put it in your Trapper Keeper, fellow children of the late 80s/early 90s) and you’re good to go. If desperate times call for desperate measures, you can even *cringe* fold it up and stick it in your pocket.

They’re Nostalgic: Remember the first time you created a character? It was so fun to put all your stats in the appropriate lines and boxes, to write your paladin’s name across the top of the page in some fancy handwriting that you imagine is his signature, and hold his finished sheet – his life! – in your hands. Frankly, I still get that feeling every time I fill out a character sheet. It’s one of the little things that I just love to pieces about gaming.

They’re Open For The Whole World To See: Sometimes the GM needs to check something on your sheet to make a secret roll for your character. Handing him a sheet of paper that he can briefly tuck behind the screen is much easier and more confidential than him coming to look over your shoulder at your computer monitor.

The Cons

They Get Lost: My desk is a disaster. I’ve been known to lose seriously important paperwork in the piles of paper upon it. If my Pathfinder character sheets ended up in one of those piles, I may never see them again. I know I can’t be the only person with the messy desk/backpack/whole house problem. No one wants to have to try to recreate a 10th-level character sheet from memory.

They Get Messy: If you write, erase, rewrite, re-erase, in the same spot on your sheet repeatedly – like for your hit points, or your equipment slots – the paper is at best going to start to look funky; at worst you’ll wear a hole through it. The margins are likely to become filled with scribbled notes or doodles that begin to make it hard to find the actual character stats. And many a character sheet has fallen victim to the Spilled Can of Coke. Then you get back to that recreating a 10th-level character from memory dilemma.

There’s Not Enough Room: For anyone who writes big (or a little bit sloppily), those tiny lines on a sheet are just too hard to fill out. The more equipment, feats, and spells your character gets, the worse it is. Before long your character sheet is impossible to read, and your fight to find the information on it is holding up the game.

So surely keeping your character stats on your laptop is a better option, right? Well, maybe, maybe not. And don’t call me Shirley.

Record-Keeping On Your Laptop: The Pros

It’s Neat and Clean: You’ll never again have to worry about messy handwriting, erasers that leave smears on your paper, or pens that blob ink all over your character sheet. Imagine all the crisp, clean lines of typed letters and numbers, perfectly placed and easy to read. Need to make changes? Instead of scrambling for a pencil, with a few quick keystrokes your sheet is updated and just as beautiful as it was before you started making adjustments.

It Won’t Get Lost: Your character sheet is always going to be right where you left it and ready to play when you are. Instead of rummaging through that stack of papers in your game bag, getting your sheet out is as simple as opening a file.

It’s Fancy: Have you seen some of the character sheets available for download out there? Even free sheets (like these beauties by Talon Dunning) are gussied up with exotic fonts and graphics and COLOR. Your character sheet can be a real work of art!

The Cons

Computer Issues: There are a host of problems that can crop up with your laptop. Crashes and viruses happen. Files have a weird way of becoming corrupt for no reason. Computers themselves just up and die. And they’ll take your beloved character sheet with them to the cyber-grave. Even if your computer is healthy, it might be too slow to keep up with the number of files you have open, especially if you are using those super-pretty graphics-heavy sheets.

Space Issues: Unless you have an industrial-capacity laptop battery, you’re going to need a way to get on the grid. That means fighting for outlets and tripping over extension cords. Then you have to find room on the table to set up your computer, and no matter how tiny your notebook is, it takes up valuable space that could be used for rolling dice.

It’s a Distraction: You love the game, and want to play the game, but Facebook, LOLcats, and YouTube beckon. So you decide to just check things quick while the focus is on another player. You get the giggles, and the player next to you leans over to see what’s so damn funny. Before you know it, the whole table is gathered around you watching Smell Like a Monster, the dungeon has been forgotten, and the GM is turning red in frustration.

You Can’t Hand It To The GM: We’ve all played with someone who can’t be trusted to be honest. If they take their character sheet home with them, they come back the next week with beefed up skills and a couple hundred more gold coins. It’s sad but true – people try to cheat at RPGs. GMs who like to keep everyone’s sheets in a quest to stave this problem are obviously not going to let you have your sheet on your laptop, and as a good player, you must respect that ruling.

What’s The Solution?

Every gamer, and every gaming situation, is different. For our home game, where I’d have way too many pieces of paper to keep track of, and there’s no one at the table besides my hubby and me, having my sheets on my laptop is perfect. But to pick up and go to the game club, it would totally stress me out to have to pack up my computer and lug it over there, so it’s easier to stick to pencil-and-paper.

If you have always struggled to keep track of all the pages of your character sheet, hate writing by hand, and know you can resist the lure of the internet, and your GM is OK with it, why not give electronic character sheets a try? But if you know you can’t be on your laptop without being all over the web and taking up the whole table and every outlet in the room, it might be better for everyone at the table if you stick to the old stand-by.

Which works better for you? As a GM, would you allow your players to have their character sheets on their laptops?

About c

By day, Connie Thomson (aka Ariel Manx) is a mild-mannered shoe salesgirl, geeking out about insoles, outsoles, and shanks. But when night falls, she takes her turn at the helm of 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, where she writes, edits, and does layout for table-top RPG products. Regardless of her persona, C is always a fangirl, bookworm, and craft diva. (Email C or follow @arielmanx on Twitter.)

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