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!


theoutsyder83 said...

Despite my recent rant on Character Builder, I have to agree with you.  The program is excellent for all of the reasons that you listed.  Also, if I remember correctly (can't pull the program up because I can't get it to work on my laptop), the program does have a menu for choosing which books and such to allow for character creation.

Medraut said...

I just checked into it. You are correct that there is a restrictions section, although it is disabled in the beta.

From what I read, I am not sure if it removes those choices from character creation or merely marks the character as "illegal" if you take them. It also seems to let you disallow certain sections of a book, if you want to allow some aspects but not others.

I look forward to seeing how it works.

Scafloc said...

I agree that what I desire from a 4e character tool closely follows a mmo character planner (I used to use mid's myself actually). I feel that that kind of functionality is really quite a good idea, especially in a game which makes use of many mmo innovations. I would like to point out that I did quite a lot of work on feedback in late 3.5 days... and several of the ideas which I presented were adapted for 4e as base rules. I have been unwilling to provide them with further support since about when they adopted gleemax. At that point there was a decided shift in the community, and those (like me) who had major issues with some of the way 4e was being handled were not heard out, even when mathematical functions were used as support. Given the "for pay" nature of DDI, I highly doubt that someone who is not a subscriber will have any voice. It is correct of them to listen to their paying customers rather than someone like me, though it dosen't incline me to be especially charitable to them either.

Anonymous said...

On the same page, in the blue buttons on the side is the retraining thing too, in response to the other guy. I'm quite looking forward to the finished version, to see how the house rules work.

Anonymous said...

I find Todd’s replies most amusing in the facts that they hold as much logic as George Bush does on terrorism.

First off you want a character creator to apply to the needs of you. Let me repeat that, to the needs of YOU. Character builders are there to help people create a character but trying to compare character builders to those of one’s used for online games is like comparing apples and oranges.

First off online games characters have no way of involvement. You pick a character, and try to get experience from doing quests. The only time the game changes are when a new content comes out for your character. Sometimes your character needs to be rebuilt due to changes of making sure all players’ powers are balanced but most of the time this issue can be easily overcome by spending a few minutes of your time and in game money.

However when you’re using a character builder for a pen and paper game things are drastically different. You can use it to create a character or give your character some sort of direction for a few levels. But trying to create a character all the way up to level 100 is pointless. There is no need to such a thing a since pen and paper games have no set course; anything can happen to your character. Thus building a character beyond a few levels is just waiting your time. There are no new content being thrown in the game, there is no way of you seeing in the future and assuming your character will be as they are from level one to level 100. For all you know your character could be dead by the time they reach level 10.

You also mentioned you helped create dungeons and dragons 4th edition, what a load of crap. I certainly did not see your name listed amongst the authors.

People who use any pen and paper game may in fact offer advice or suggestions just as any other game pen and paper, computer or even a console game on their forums. But understanding that the people behind the scenes may take into consideration some peoples suggestions, perhaps they will ignore them, or even tweak them to their liking. Claiming to have helped out a system in which you absolutely hate is total contradiction your behalf.

And just because the company may have not taken all your suggestions does not mean you should throw a tantrum like a five year old. You’re a player of the game they created, not you, them and you choose to play this game, they certainty did not force you. But why should you try to force garbage down our throats? Perhaps the reason with that is because you tried to force garbage down the Dungeons and Dragons author’s throats and now you complain they ignored you-gee I wonder why.

Lastly this system is in Beta it’s not finished yet, it may not be to your liking or the guy next door to you, but there are more players other then you who do like what they see so far. Have you even tried this system or are you basing your ill logical statements off those imaginary friends of yours who also claimed they helped write 4th edition.

It is what it is and all you need to do is wait for the final product and when it does come out, try it for what it is but trying to base comments off a system you have yet to try is pointless just like most of your poor opinions on the matter.

Scafloc said...

In response to lime jello...

I did not say that I wanted a character creator for my own needs. I use spreadsheets for that purpose, and as such have no need of one at all. What I suggested was one bit of functionality which would allow a player (again, not me) to make certain a character would qualify for higher level feats when the tier is reached.

As to your idea that pen and paper games require a build to be more fluid... that is only true given a very specific style of play. In nearly any game, reasonable in character reasons to follow an existing build are not difficult to come up with. While a character might well die before getting to that high level, it may well survive, and I think that many people will agree with me that being prepared for success is useful even in situations where one may fail.

I did not mention that I helped create 4e D&D, you misunderstood what I wrote. I was involved in some discussions for reforming 3.5 edition, several individual ideas which I presented there WERE adapted adapted for use in 4e. I was not alone in those discussions, nor do I claim any rights to cash or fame from those (admittedly very minor) contributions. What I do maintain is that I am not obligated to attempt to assist them in improving the current game design and accessories regardless of past involvement. I feel strongly that such advice would be uninvited by a non-subscriber at any rate, so I, and they, agree on that point.

Finally, I acknowledge that the character creation tool is a beta product, and that there is indeed the potential for improvement. I mentioned that in my initial post.

I have "tried" 4e several times, including the quickstart module which we played before the full rules even came out. I was ready to like the game... especially looking forward to the lower level of DM prep required. My experiences with 4e have not made me "hate" it as you suggested, but I do often find myself frustrated with the lack of certain options in this rule set (resonable trip/disarm/subdual rules and lack of weapon finesse for basic attacks are main complaints). I continue to explore 4e, and have found many things to like within it as well (primarily swordmages, an archetype which finally seems to work in a dnd game without undue fuss)... but I do not believe that the game has any specific merits which make it better than 3.5 which are not more than balanced out by backsliding details which were superior in 3.5e. Neither game is flawless; I merely refuse to admit that 4e is superior.

All that said, I would like you to please refrain from using negative phraseology for things others say that you disagree with. "force garbage down our throats" for example seems unfair, and inflamatory. I never once attempted to force the game designers to do, or not do, anything. I did on several occasions submit my ideas on how to fix certain aspects of the game which were being discussed in community, and a few times provided mathematical support for my conclusions. When I was communicated with, EVEN WHEN I WAS TOLD NO, I was more than happy to continue as I could... merely adopting my ideas as house rules (and in some cases dropping them when I saw their point). When communication ceased, I felt that my input was not valued any longer, and stopped providing it. I have stopped posting on every official forum as a result. Even on this forum I deliberately do not speak against 4e in general. Sometimes I will disagree with aspects of the game, but that should not be construed as an attack on the game as a whole. I like to think of myself as a sort of devil's advocate to the host of this forum. I know he is quite enthusiastic about this new edition, and he knows that I am less so than him. I have often seen value in certain mechanics when pointed out here that otherwise I would have remained skeptical about at best. Through the entire blog I have never seen any person denigrated until this point, and hope that I am merely misreading your intent in this case.