As time has gone on more and more things have been replaced by digital alternatives. A Kindle replaces paper books, a forum replaces in person discourse, and even teachers are replaced by video recordings to educate. In this same way the paper character sheet now has a digital counterpart. As someone who started playing playing Dungeons and Dragons in 1999 it would be easy to think that I prefer the good old fashioned pen and paper character sheet. Ultimately, though, I think that both can be superior in their own right.
The first, and most glaring, flaw with a paper character sheet is the paper itself. Paper becomes damaged from repeated writing and erasing, and you will erase a lot. It is damaged by drinks, food, and just being handled. The sheer amount of information that is presented on a character sheet can be easily overwhelming. They are a sea of text, boxes, and lines, with very little context. As the character sheet is designed to be universal there is bound to be a line, box, or something that isn’t relevant to your character.
A paper character sheet’s greatest strength is that it is physical. The character sheet in many ways is the soul of your character. It contains a record of all the information pertaining to that character, their backstory, their physical and mental stats, their flaws, their strengths and maybe a few smudges. Having something that you can touch that represents your character can ground the character and make them feel more real. In addition to that, you can write anywhere on a paper character sheet, and you can write whatever you want. This makes custom or homebrew additions a possibility.
If made professionally a digital character sheet can be an incredible tool. Creating a character and leveling them up in a digital character sheet simplifies the process. In Dungeons and Dragons creating a character spans over several chapters and sometimes over several books. When you create a character using a digital character sheet it only gives you the pertinent options and doesn’t show you things you couldn’t do within the rule restrictions. In other words, it doesn’t let you make a character that is against the rules. In addition looking up information is just a whole lot easier with a digital format. Indexes will get you to the right page, usually, but it won’t say every instance of that word used over several books. On top of that it does the math for bonuses under the hood, rather than needing you to keep track of every bonus. This is great for new players that are overwhelmed by the complicated math of the game.
As someone that was started on paper character sheets and in homebrew games, the rigidness of a digital character sheet is one of the biggest flaws I see. As a Dungeon Master, I like to come up with custom magic items and custom abilities. Digital character sheets can cause you to have to follow the rules of a given system much more rigidly. Much of the reason to play a pen and paper role playing game is that you have so much more freedom that a video game RPG has to offer. All of this can be fixed with a custom made digital character sheets; however, they can be cumbersome and clunky with badly made interfaces.
While I must concede that a well made digital character sheet is in many ways superior to a paper character sheet from a utility perspective, I still prefer to use paper character sheets. That being said anymore I will create my characters and level them up on my digital character sheet then transfer them to paper. Ultimately I use both, because they both have strengths and weaknesses.