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I am a DM for two D&D 5e games. I always ask for character sheets when we first start out, so I can have a general sense of what I'm in for, and to get working on incorporating backstories.

Our friend group has gotten into the habit of sending out the complete updated character sheets whenever we level up. (We all play a lot, and I'm not the only person who DMs in this friend group.)

However, I don't really feel like I need all this information. Our groups are on the smaller side, so if anyone can't come, we cancel the game, so I don't need the sheets for playing absent characters. I don't want to micromanage monsters based on what abilities the party has; I want to create challenges and let them figure it out on their own.

So, my question is: What information from a character sheet is actually mechanically useful to a DM?

I would guess that I should keep a general eye on AC, hit points, and maybe passive perception, but is there more information I should keep handy? My general goal is to keep the game moving smoothly, with as little of asking players what they can do as possible-- but also without a ton of scanning through information that is useless to me on their character sheets.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @aherocalledFrog We play online. Everyone keeps their sheets digitally. And my policy has always been: I'm the DM. Not your mom. \$\endgroup\$ – Blue Caboose Dec 19 '18 at 15:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @aherocalledFrog Besides, that was already responded to in the question. (Also, that counts as answering, which shouldn’t be done in a comment.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 19 '18 at 15:58
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I have some 4×6 index cards that I've made to collect information for DDAL convention play, where time is often a critical factor. The information I collect is:

  • Character Name
  • Class & Level
  • Race
  • Background
  • Armor Class
  • Save DC
  • Passive Perception
  • Passive Insight
  • Passive Investigation

The first couple are obvious, while Background is helpful in a DDAL content because some of the Season 8 modules provide for automatic successes or extra information based on it.

Knowing their Armor Class and the Save DC of their abilities (spells, fighter subclass features, monk ki abilities, etc.) in advance greatly accelerates combat; any question I don't have to ask a player more than once makes things go faster. AC can change from round to round for some characters, so I generally instruct players to provide a most-of-the-time-AC - casters with mage armor but without shield, melee combatants with or without shields based on how they normally fight, etc.

Collecting the three observational passives has much the same effect. Why bother even asking for a roll when most of the time, the character is likely to succeed anyway? If they're not a race that has darkvision by default, I ask that here, too.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Oops! I totally thought I accepted this as an answer, but apparently, I forgot! Thanks for the clear and concise list, plus your explanation of why you ask for these things. \$\endgroup\$ – Blue Caboose Jan 17 at 22:51
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I've gotten a bit spoiled with Roll20's ability for me to see their full sheets, but it's also helped me understand what I really want to have "at my fingertips".

A way that I approach this is in splitting apart mechanical from roleplaying information.

Mechanical

My goal here isn't to have an exact copy of their sheets, but to have some basic information that I like to see to help make my job easier. I still trust my players to provide accurate information , so this isn't really to doublecheck their work but to help streamline mine.

  • AC
    • While it's nice to ask your players if something hits, it's even easier to just 'know'. This also makes it more seamless in your action descriptions when you know if you're likely hitting or not. Just don't get too quick on the action as a lot of mechanics require a player decision before the outcome is determined.
  • Passive Skills
    • Knowing their Passive Perception, Investigation, Insight gives you some ability to do things behind the screen without giving anything away as to what you're doing.

Roleplaying

Here is where things are potentially even more helpful. Having quick access to this can help guide your interactions with your players. You don't need to use hooks for every player in every session, but being aware of the hooks you can use will help you in not just telling your story, but in helping your players develop their players stories.

  • Names/races
    • Keep yourself immersed by remembering the names of your player characters and where they're from and who they are.
  • Background
    • There are some background features that may come into play from time to time that your players may not remember. Let them shine by creating hooks.
  • Traits/Bonds/Flaws/Ideals
    • These are the bits that really make your player characters who they are. Find ways to use them to help bring more life to their character and grow them.
  • Character specific goals/items
    • Here it's nice to have a quick reference for items/goals/objectives players may have. This may be identical to the goals/ideals/bonds/flaws but could be additional and are very helpful in tailoring events and encounters to your players and making them feel part of the story and not just actors in it.

Keep it simple

If you have too much data to refer to, it's going to overwhelm and you'll likely miss key things to focus on. The above is generally what I reference most often both in terms of mechanics and roleplay.

But make this your own! As you gain more experience, you'll recognize what you really need or want to have.

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In my games, I've found that none of that information is mechanically useful for running the adventure. I've never seen my group's character sheets; I have a general idea of what they might do, based on what they've done in the past, but that's all. I've got one fellow who's been playing a "Blood Hunter" for the past fifteen sessions and I don't even know what that is! None of this interferes with the running of my game.

You might think that you'd need to know characters' passive perception scores, but I don't ask for them. If they get near a trap, I generally say something like this:

"Okay, so there's a great big spider on the ceiling through that door, and it's got sharp pointy fangs and it wants to jump on you and bite you and paralyze you. Who's first through the door? Okay, give me a perception roll to see if you notice it before it lands on your head..."

Likewise, if something is attacking a character, I find that it adds to the tension if I tell them the attack rolls each monster is making against them.

"Okay, does 8 hit your AC? No? I guess that's not surprising. How about 16? Okay, take seven damage. This next attack is a 13, does that hit? Okay, and the last attack is a 23, I assume that one hits? That's another eight damage."


The one time when it's useful to see people's character sheets is to make sure they're following the rules correctly. Sometimes people get their stats wrong, get their attack numbers wrong, misunderstand one of their class features, et cetera. I've been catching these things during play -- I'll say something like:

Wait, did that ability use your bonus action? Doesn't this ability also use your bonus action? Can you do both of these in one turn? I'm actually sincerely asking here, maybe we could look it up?

or, in one particularly bad case:

Wait, your attack roll is really just +4 at this level? Did you include your proficiency bonus? Are you sure you included your proficiency bonus? And your stat modifier?

But I've found that just asking these questions at the table is good enough. Making everyone send me data and then reading and checking it all for myself would generate a lot of friction, and the super-new players who need it the most are also the people who will be least excited about doing it. So my feeling has been that it's better to resolve it at the table.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How can you possibly understand if your Blood Hunter is following the rules if you've never taken a moment to look at the class at all? \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Dec 18 '18 at 20:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ I trust my player. And if he did anything that seemed way broken, I'd go rules-check him then. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Dec 18 '18 at 20:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like the spider description. It's clear and to the point instead of ominously going "Perception check". That one bothers me when playing - characters often have abilities that could modify a roll : what might happen then is "Roll perception" -> "12" -> "A spider attacks you!" -> "Wait, I come from a line of insect exterminators, so I get a +2" -> "But spiders aren't insects" -> "It's small and has many legs - it fits" -> "This one is the size of a dog" -> "Then I have +1 defense against small creatures with 3+ eyes" -> "Why?" -> "Technically it falls under the training against cerberi"... \$\endgroup\$ – VLAZ Dec 19 '18 at 11:40
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For this edition, what I have found helpful to keep play moving

This is my current "smart card" converted to text. (I have it as a grid: player name on top, items going top to bottom, with a lot of abbreviations that make sense to me)

  • CharName / Race / Max HP /

  • Class/Level/

  • AC 1 / AC 2 {useful for: shield / no shield; Mage armor / no mage armor}

  • Darkvision: Y/N - Sunlight Sens: Y/N {listed as DV and SS}

  • Dmg Type of two primary weapons/attacks;

    {as more monsters showed up with resistances and immunities, it was easier for me to apply changes in my head if I saw this}

  • Save bonuses for all six stats (+1 Str, +2 Dex, -1 Int, etc)

  • Resistances or sources of advantages commonly needed: (fill in)

  • Constitution Score: For Con Checks and Death Saves

  • Feat Features I'll need to know:

    {example; Bonus action for shield master; war caster advantage on con saves}.

  • Passive Perception Score

  • Passive Investigation Score

  • Passive Insight Score

Casters take a bit more

I have found that the spell caster "complexity-due-to-choice" situation creates some stumbling blocks to smooth play for both new and old gamers. For all spell casters (character levels 1-6) I keep on a note card for my own reference:

  1. Spells known / Spells typically prepared.

    Why this really helps: I make myself familiar with the spells they'll be casting most frequently. That way if something novel or unique shows up with a spell effect, I have an idea of how to make a ruling; I like to keep play moving.

  2. New Spells learned / prepared.

    Same as above, but I want to review new spells that I can expect to see used soon as the PC levels up or begins to use another spell more often once they have discovered its utility. This has been very helpful to make rulings (if needed) since I have just refreshed my understanding of the spells in question.

    Once past character level 6, this need for spell tracking fades as the player has taken ownership of this facet of their character. (In my experience ... YMMV)

About our play groups

The groups I DM have 4-6 players. It is common to have one or two absent players: their PC's are played by someone who shows up (this is by group consensus). It is not uncommon for a player to be standing in and not be up to scratch for the player they are covering for. (Other groups may not have this problem to solve). I am able, with my smart sheet, to assist that player now and again so that play keeps moving.

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You: I'm not sure, Me: nothing

I am ignorant and apathetic: I don't know and I don't care.

Apart from knowing their race, class and level I am not interested in the specifics. They manage their characters, I have enough to do managing everything else.

For combat, I'll tell them what the monster rolled to hit, or its save type and DC, they tell me if it hit or if they pass or fail.

For ability checks, I tell them the DC, they tell me if they pass or fail.

For roleplaying, we play it out and they can say something like "Ooo, ooo - I was a mindless jerk and that's my flaw - can I have inspiration?"

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is interesting: you and I posted essentially the same answer, a few hours apart. But I was positive and cheerful about it, and you're being sort of negative and hostile about the whole thing. I think people are reacting to that. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Dec 19 '18 at 18:25

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