Thursday, January 15, 2009

Character Builder

I downloaded the Character Builder Beta program when it was first released. I was excited to see how well it managed things, because I've taken a stab at the problem before.

The easy part of a character program is representation -- storing the numbers and the text and laying it out in a manner that's esthetically pleasing and well-organized for play. This is why there are myriad spreadsheets and programs that exist that let you keep track of your character, many of them decent.

It's another thing entirely to get a system that knows the rules, so it can ensure that your character is legal (read: that you're not cheating) by ensuring that you've got the right number of feats, right number of powers, and that your numbers add up.

For 3.5, the best commercial program was probably E-Tools, which did a reasonably good job at calculating your character sheet for you, but of course required you to purchase all of the source material in add-on modules, to get the classes and races and magic items that your hardcover books gave you. E-Tools could possibly be considered the grandfather of the Character Builder.

On the free front, Heroforge was amazing for what it was. Probably the most complicated Excel spreadsheet in existence, it had quite the following and was a remarkable accomplishment for what it was. Last I looked, the Heroforge team were doing a complete rewrite and were going to support 4e.

But what about this Character Builder? Could it really be useful, and free (with subscription)? So far: yes.

The beta only lets you play with the first three levels of character development, which works out great for our group, because they only JUST hit fourth level last play session. A few sessions before that, however, I had grabbed everyone's character sheets and punched them into the Builder, to see how well it handled a real-world sample of characters.

I'd say that every character had something wrong. Wrong on OUR end, that is, whether it was a missed bonus here or a forgotten feat there. Right away, the benefit of getting a computer to do your math for you, especially when it has access to every formula in the game, is evident.

If we were sticklers for this sort of thing, the Builder also keeps track of whether the character is "house-ruled" or not, marking it so based on whether you've got extra feats, too much loot, or ability scores out of whack. In our campaigns, we tend to allow point-buy or 4d6 rolling, and thus the two 4d6ers ended up as "house-ruled", since that's not a verifiable way of getting your abilities (for purposes of the RPGA, for instance).

Your powers (see below) are all presented with the math all done for them, adding in proficiency bonuses, ability bonuses, feats and implements. Very handy, especially as you level up and increase the chance of forgetting to advance some number or another.

It's unfortunate that you cannot set up different equipment configurations, to get stats for shield-and-sword, as well as two-handed-spear, etc. I believe E-Tools supported this.

The level-up feature in the software is nice, because if you enter each level separately, then you can, at any time, go back through and see the character in previous levels. Once you level up, it gives you a checklist of things that you need to decide -- new power, new feat, ability scores, etc. Very easy to use. Granted, levelling up in 4e is so easy that even *I* can do it.

The best part of the Builder, though, might very well be the cards at the end of the sheet. These 2.5"x3.5" sheets give you your powers and other effects in a nice succinct layout, providing the math for the power and giving you the to-hit and damage numbers you need. They have the rules for the power summarized right on the card. And they even provide a cheatsheet to give the DM so he or she has all of that character's useful information printed out instead of on a ratty piece of paper. Assuming the players play along, these sheets allow you to keep track of your dailies and encounter powers that are used (flip them upside down or "tap" them), and I use the cheatsheets as the characters' initiative order during combat.

The programmer in me wonders how they encode all of the rules, of course, and wish that that data was available for use, but I guess we have the Compendium for that. All told, though, I've quite impressed with this tool (more than I thought I'd be), and am looking forward to the full version to be released, not only so we can update our party to fourth level, but to also play with it a bit to make some 20th and 30th level characters, just to see how well it does (and to see what a 20th/30th level 4e character looks like!)

No comments: