Saturday, January 3, 2009

In defense of the D&D Character Builder (sort of)

I actually began this post as a response to Todd's comments about D&D Character Builder (beta) under my Character Background Post.  As I started writing it though, I realized I had more to say on it than I originally thought, and decided to make it a post of it's own.

Todd had the following to say on the Character Builder:

The real challenge in character creation is not addressed by this program as of yet. As a 4e character advances, his powers and feats may be easily switched out, but his attribute array remains static apart from slow growth at specified levels. This means that a character who wishes a feat with a difficult pre-req (weapon mastery comes to mind) must still plan for it at character creation. While much of this kind of "character build" creation has been rendered a non-issue in the 4e rules set, there are still some holdovers which require that sort of plan. It is clearly possible that functionality of that sort could be added easily enough... but until it is, I don't feel that it is a better tool for character creation than a sheet of college ruled paper (or spreadsheet).

I respectively disagree.  I would say I found the D&D Insider Character Builder more useful than a sheet of college ruled paper, especially in the situation described in my earlier post (namely a hastily put together fill in game where the characters needed to be built quickly).  Specifically, I found the following aspects useful:

  1. It was very intuitive to use.  The first time I used the Character Builder was that night, but I did not have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to use it.  Granted, this is a wash compared to college ruled paper, but compared to some character generators, it was a godsend.
  2. It automatically performed most of the calculations for me.  Granted, you can perform them yourself.  However, considering that time was a factor and I am still learning the 4th Edition Rules, I found it helpful to use the builder.
  3. It provided a short synopsis of the rules for each choice I made.  In fact, I did not need to refer to the Player's Handbook (or any other D&D Book) during Character Creation.  This was very handy, especially since it allowed me to compare feats and equipment from different rule books without having to consult each one.
  4. It generated a usable character sheet and power cards.  Once again, not something I couldn't do myself, but helpful.

These are very basic requirements for a character builder, but it performed them admirably.  Now there are some concerns I have:

  1. How well will it handle house rules?  I have a feeling it will handle simple things, like adding additional feats or powers.  However, I am concerned that more complex house rules may not be as easy to implement.  This is one case where an open source tool like PCGen has an advantage.  It was very easy to hack house rules in if you were knowledgeable enough of how it worked.
  2. Another feature I would like to see would be the ability to choose which source books you want to use to create the character with.  This was a feature of PCGen that I loved.  The ability to filter out certain books will become more useful as the number of rule books continues to increase.

Still, considering the product was still in beta, I was impressed by how well it did.  Especially considering how poorly E-Tools, supposedly a finished product, was at performing these same tasks.  

Perhaps more interestingly though, was something I realized when reading Todd's reply.  His main concern didn't seem to be generating his character.  Rather, he seemed concerned with planning out his feat and power choices in advance.  So, his main issue might be that he really isn't looking for a character generator, but for a character planner!

What is the difference?  Well, a character generator is focused on building a character of a specific level and creating a usable character sheet.  A character planner is something that allows you to plan out your character "build".  It would most concerned with making sure that you meet the prerequisites for feats, powers, paragon paths, and epic destinies that you want to take from levels 1-30.  It should also allow you to easily make changes and see how they affect your build.

I have used character planners (like Mids' Hero Designer) for MMORPG's like City of Heroes.  These tools are definitely helpful for MMORPG's, and I can see them being helpful for certain kinds of players of D&D.  Specifically, players who like to plan out their character path from levels 1-30 before they begin play.

I will admit, I am not one of those players.  I prefer to "live in the now" and not plan more than a few levels ahead.  That doesn't mean that I can't see why some players would want to plan their 30 level build out in advance.

Honestly, this might not be a bad product for Wizards of the Coast to explore, either as a stand alone product or as a special "planner" mode in the Character Builder.  So maybe people like Todd, who are clamoring for this type of product, should write in during the open Character Builder beta and tell them!