Of Dice and Men


posted 2/16/2009 by Shawn Sines
other articles by Shawn Sines
One of the core promises of the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons (when it was first unveiled in 2006) was a tight integration of the print products and digital tools. Features like a virtual game table for people to play on the Internet, a visualizer that allowed those with no art talent at all to create 3D representations of their characters, a rule encyclopedia for instant search and reference online and an up to date tool for making D&D 4E characters quickly and with access to all the latest published sources were promised to make 4E a more modern game that adapted to the changing nature of the RPG hobby and to combat competition from MMORPGs like World of Warcraft which continues to drain casual players away with its instant play ability and lack of a required group/DM.

You might think this was a lot to bite off for a company that has demonstrated a startling number of false starts building game supporting digital tools over the last 25 years… and you’d have been right. Dungeons & Dragons is not a game that requires these sorts of tools but as the game becomes complex and full of options the time spent by players and Dungeon Masters in preparing for games and updating their avatars and actors increasingly takes more time and frankly more shelf/desk space using books alone.

While the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is just newly released and the options and builds for player characters are rather limited, there is evidence that by as early as next summer players could potentially draw from three players handbooks, dozens of digital magazine articles and at least three optional books of powers and feats not including the settings books like the Forgotten Realms and Eberon. Keeping a handle on all these options alone is a cumbersome task that anyone who played the previous version of the game should be intimately familiar with.

So what’s a player to do? Well the simplest course would be to limit the number of sources you use in making characters, missing out on some of the potential fun.. but Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of D&D probably wouldn’t want to encourage players to stop buying books just because they complicate character creation now would they? So how do you keep the various sources manageable and still keep players buying new books? Well you offer them a tool that automates a lot of the bookwork and allows them to focus on choosing from a finite list tailored to the players whims at any time and to that end we have the D&D Character Builder.

The 4E Character Builder differs in a few ways from some of Wizards previous attempts at a character creation and management tool. Firstly it has a manageable and intuitive interface that guides players through the process of creating or updating a character. The process is simple and shows players what options they have based on earlier choices so only those important to your decision making process are displayed at that time. Additionally Character Builder gives you enough information when you select a choice to make an informed decision – including a link to the online rules compendium for reference and a more verbose description.

The last tool sponsored by Wizards for this – Fluid’s eTools – was a mess and overly complex if a player strayed from basic options or added information included in the myriad source books. It also took an all inclusive approach that led to list after list of options that could not easily be used for the character you might be making at the time, therefor obscuring the choices that really mattered and making the process longer than needed.

The Character Builder tool supports RPGA style characters and allows players to enter information about their hero in a journal like record area and including the selection of traditional images (.jpgs) for character portraits. These character management features are a nice inclusion as they go to making Character Builder seem like a more RPG oriented tool and allows those who want to spend hours pouring background information, personality quirks and other details into their repository simple. The biggest problem at this point however is that the program’s printed character sheet seems to ignore all of this information for the most part meaning it will not print a nice character journal along with the statistical sheets needed to play the game.

Speaking of printing, currently the Character Builder is exhibiting some pretty odd behavior when it comes to outputting a full character. Namely the options to print landscape don’t work properly and the automatically printed power cards can often be impossible to read when a power has a very detailed, long description. There is also no native support for generating a PDF version of the character sheet which is an option that needs to be implemented before Wizards considers making their promised online game space a reality or there will be a lot of very unhappy players and DMs out there.

One other odd choice/annoyance I encountered when using the tool dealt with the generation of character scores. Personally I prefer to roll real dice at a table when making characters with my players and while the tool allowed for the manual adjustment of ability statistics, the ability to choose an array or to do point buy, when I changed the values to reflect the real world dice results the program continuously nagged me that the results were “houseruled” and prevented the simple “next” button flow of character creation using the tool. I was able to manually skip to the next part of the process but this nagging made it hard for an inexperienced player to do the same. A note for Wizards in a quote from that frustrated player “Warn me and let me go.. don’t force me to use the tool the way you think I should use it or eventually I’ll stop.”

The Character Builder tool is free to try for anyone interested in D&D 4th Edition but the trial version is limited to creating characters of levels 1-3. Access to the full tool and all the updated content requires a subscription to the Dungeons & Dragons Insider service and the tool performs a phone home process when launched to validate this account and check for updates. It is handy that the program will automatically go online and actively update or patch itself since there are still problems with the rules and output depicted on the character sheets and Wizards is including all the Dungeon and Dragon magazine content in the tool along with content from published books and accessories. The tool also works in an offline mode when not connected to the Internet though integration with the online Rules Compendium is obviously disabled.

This is a tool for player character creation or creation of player-like characters. There really are no tools here to benefit DMs in preparation of their games, there are no monster or encounter tools either. This is obviously meant for the creation of characters alone but it still serves as a good tool for Dungeon Masters who might want to shepherd new players through making characters or want to maintain a digital character repository that can easily be updated and maintained.

Right now many players probably have reservations about committing to the subscription for the D&DI service. Wizards has failed to deliver much of what they promised regarding the digital nature of 4th edition and was slow in releasing the full Character Builder as well. What we have here however is truly an invaluable aid to creating 4th Edition D&D characters. Access to all the latest published sources as well as the ability to turn off those sources if you choose not to utilize them or don’t own them and want them in your game is very nice. The ability to access books you might not own in making a character probably can’t be overstated – for the first time you don’t need to purchase a copy of a marginally useful D&D book for the one useful power, race, class or feat inside it. The printed character sheet with Power Cards is also very handy for verifying character math and giving players the tools they need to play.
Regardless of the state of the other promised tools this piece of software does what it should and is worth the roughly $50 a year subscription alone.