Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Keeping Character Sheets in Play - What's the GM's Responsibility?


A recent event in my Pendragon game has brought up an issue for me, one that I haven't normally had to deal with until recently.

See, for many, many years, and with very few exceptions, if I wasn't running some sort of outright one-shot, I would typically run campaigns consisting of perhaps a dozen sessions at the most. Its only in the last couple years that I've started consistently running campaigns of considerably longer duration. My Deadlands: Reloaded campaign of last year ran for about two-dozen sessions. The ongoing Great Pendragon Campaign is clocking somewhere in the neighborhood of three-dozen and counting - by the time we're done, we'll be somewhere around the 80-session mark.

And in both those campaigns, I have run into an interesting and, to me, unfamiliar problem.

I'm sure you fellow GMs out there would agree without a moment's hesitation that gamers come in a variety of different variations of how much they enjoy the "bookkeeping" element of the hobby. Some players simply want to show up to a session and be told when they need to roll the dice, while others are almost quasi-GMs themselves, spending a fair amount of downtime between sessions charting their level progressions or detailing their holdings or backstories or what-have-you. I've found that these differences during a short-form campaign, such as I've been used to, are largely cosmetic. My attitude has traditionally been one of trust - trust that the players are keeping an adequate record of their character and maintaining their character sheets accordingly.

But what I'm finding with these longer-form campaigns is that with the former type of player, the one who doesn't enjoy the record-keeping aspect (or is simply not engaged with that aspect), cracks will inevitably start to show on their character sheet, despite their best intentions:

  • Advancement restrictions or prerequisites will be missed.
  • Derived values will not be recalculated.
  • Stats in need of updating will not get updated.

I've found that as often as not, this hurts the player more than anyone else, but sometimes it works in the PC's favor. Pendragon, for example, has rules for degeneration due to aging, which affects important derived stats like Hit Points and Damage. If those stats aren't being recalculated, the PC will enjoy an artificially-inflated advantage in combat.

Normally, this sort of thing doesn't really bother me. What are a few extra Hit Points between friends, after all? But it gets tough when one has a mix of players (like I do) at the table. Because then I start to worry that the players who are performing due diligence on their sheets, carefully making sure to deduct lost HPs or reminding themselves that they can't boost a Statistic again until they reach Veteran level, are getting rather the short end of the stick. Also, it tends to create more work for me as GM, since I find I have to step in and help unstick a problem that shouldn't have been an issue in the first place. ("What do you mean you haven't been keeping track of that?" is a phrase I've uttered more than once over the past couple years.)

The matter came to a head a couple sessions back, when one of the less bookkeeping-oriented players had to admit that their character sheet had gotten so disorganized they could no longer read some of the Trait values. I asked to borrow the sheet after the session to help sort things out, and discovered a laundry list of mistakes on virtually every part of the sheet. In the end, it was simpler to print out a fresh sheet and transfer everything over, making corrections as we went.

The obvious solution to this, of course, is for me as the GM to head off the problem by periodically stepping in and doing an "audit" of everyone's character sheets, much like how old-school D&D DMs will do encumbrance audits from time to time. But I'm trying to weigh the hassle factor involved with that. I mean, as a GM I'm already shouldering 90 percent of the workload involved in running a game, and with the GPC I'm going a bit further than that via our Obsidian Portal website. Do I really want to add one more task to the pile? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, of course, but sometimes that extra ounce can seem like a lot.

The crux of the question, then, is this: to what extent is it my responsibility as GM to police players' sheets? What about other players at the table policing each other? If they see something wrong on someone else's sheet, should they speak up? The character sheet is a physical specimen of player agency, and folks get rightfully protective of their copies.

To what extent do you, gentle reader, allow for error-riddled sheets at your table, both as player and as GM? To what extent are erroneous sheets a problem for you, personally? Is this a matter of player agency, or something that affects everyone at the table?
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