Friday, 4 October 2013

On Character Builder

As mentioned previously, I'm about to restart our lapsed 4E game, though as a series of sporadic one-shots rather than a fully-blown campaign (at least for now). And this immediately brought up the question of characters.

I would have expected to have at least some of the character sheets, but having turned my room upside down I cannot find hide nor hair of em. No worries, though - we used the Wizards of the Coast Character BuilderTM. I can just dig out the old files, which will at least show them up to the right level...

Turns out that doesn't work so well after a four-year hiatus.

The files tend to get stored in some unhelpful part of the computer, rather than in the folders I actually use. Over the last four years, I've done various backups, moved stuff around and so on. At some point, I definitely uninstalled the Character Builder - though I'm not sure why, exactly - and thereby lost forever all the updated files from my long-lapsed DDI subscription. The character files probably disappeared with it. Though I've still, miraculously, got the exe for the offline character builder, it's less help without any files!

I scrutinised my email, since files got sent back and forth a few times. Sadly, I used my work email for this, since all my players were work colleagues at that time. Again, what with auto-archiving (to a hard-drive location, it turns out) and computer moves (to different hard drives) I no longer have access to the attachments, even though I eventually dug up one of the emails. It's a bit heartbreaking TBH.

In the end, things aren't too awful. The two characters who were most unique had players who were using CharBuilder themselves, who have managed to find their own files; and the other returning character was a levelled-up versions of a Quick Start character, who I was able to more or less recreate myself. But it's been a pain nonetheless. Amongst other things, I'd been highly uncertain about character level (2 or 3?) and equipment. With two new players starting, we had to create a new character and convert a Pathfinder one to 4E. Due to scheduling issues, we had to do that some time before the game, before either existing player had found their characters again. Turned out they were level 3, while I'd helped new people create level 2 characters. Not a huge issue, but irritating.

Anyway! Character Builder. The decision, some years ago, to move Character Builder to an online-only model met with a very considerable amount of unhappiness, though not, apparently, enough to change Wizards' mind. Instead of a downloadable tool that regularly gets new content as a download, it's a Silverlight-based browser tool that always has only the latest content. There are a few reasons why that's awkward.

Pros and cons


Firstly, the new model would have solved my lost character problem. Characters are stored on servers and can easily be retrieved, no matter what you do with your computer. Of course, it's perfectly possible to back up things yourself (it's entirely possible that a long-forgotten backup does hold those characters). I will certainly try to be a bit more careful about backing up characters in future, particularly if I'm dealing with newbie players who aren't necessarily going to do that themselves.

They also have the big advantage of updating. New content is added, so that even without the books you can sample new character options, magic items and rituals. Errata are added in, very handy in a game as complicated and errata-ridden as 4E.

Oh, and it works on more devices than the download version, being browser-based. I don't care about that at all - library work really doesn't pay enough to have fancy devices - but I appreciate other people do.


It seems like you have a fairly limited pool of characters on the site - 20, in fact - and as far as I can establish, no exporting worth the name ("exporting" to PDF is nothing of the kind). I have more characters than that, and I'm not even playing. Five of those slots would immediately go on my players' characters, because they wouldn't subscribe to DDI under any plausible circumstances.

Auto-updating is potentially a problem if you're not consciously keeping track of things. Did that rule just change, or am I going slowly mad madder? What about changes to feats or powers that you might actually not be happy with? It's quite possible for an errata fix to make an ability no longer feel right for a character, let alone any mechanical issues. Careful fixes to abilities may change the way they synergise with other abilities, and even other players' abilities, but this may not be immediately obvious. That's important in a game that focuses so much on synergies. A more blatant example is the change to Magic Missile, which reverted to its old auto-hit status with low damage - this is a fairly dramatic change and one that players and GMs may not appreciate. There's also the complication of rulebooks (which are generally easier to use) being rendered mostly useless by such updates, since you can never tell what might have been changes.

Next very obvious problem: access. With the offline character builder, characters can be built, then sent back and forth between players and GM to be tweaked or checked. The demo version allowed players without accounts to view and update their characters created on your account. With an online version, you'd only be able to view and tweak a single character at a time, meaning even things like tracking spending or loot become a pain - a second bit of information you need to keep separately. I can't see how you'd create several characters simultaneously, which rules the classic first session out right there.

Recent extremely bitter experience suggests another major issue: what happens when you don't have internet? I've just come out of a month-long service interruption caused by incompetence - entirely unpredictable in arrival and end. I've managed most things by using cafes with internet, but I game at home. That combo doesn't work. Other people have far worse issues than me; some rural areas have really terrible signal, and many places are far less fortunate than the UK. It seems like gaming is a fairly common hobby in the armed forces, and I imagine they're often without internet, as are many other people working in difficult conditions where a simple RPG might be a really good option for entertainment.

On balance, I think this is a pretty appalling move for customers. Just about the only benefits are the break from Windows-based software and ability to access characters unexpectedly from any computer, without carting them around on a USB (though who doesn't go around with a massive USB full of random stuff?). For Wizards, I can see it's great. Permanent income stream, puts pressure on players to buy stuff as well as GMs, and total control over both the content and the tools.

The future

As I said, my characters are currently third level, which leaves me with a massive gaping question mark over what we're going to do when we hit the Character Builder limit.

Given all the drawbacks I noticed, and the fact that it's an ongoing £50-a-year cost, I'm confident I don't want to switch to the new Character Builder. So we're looking at three major possibilities.

Possibility one: P&P L&L

Gamers have, for years, generated and maintained characters on bits of paper. We could abandon technology and move to P&P roleplaying like in the good old days, when there was no prospect of retrieving a character if you lost the bit of paper. This is in some ways the simplest option. It would, I think, significantly increase chargen and charmaint time because paper doesn't have filters; people would have to scour the rulebooks for their options, cross-reference prerequisites and conditions, and there's no warnings flashing up if you do something "wrong". Again, I have only one copy of the books (my players don't have any) and so we'd be back to picking options only during game sessions, and one person at a time. Similarly, players have immediate access a reasonably thorough version of the rules just in the charbuilder is quite nice, and cuts down on the amount of rulebook-checking; in P&P, people are unlikely to do things like write down the full wording of every single ability.

Possibility two: alternative tools

Though I'm sure Wizards aren't that happy about it, a few alternative tools do exist that can apparently handle 4E. These include Hero Lab. Such tools can do all the character building stuff, with one proviso: you need a DDI account! Admittedly I suspect you could buy a single month's subscription and download all the stuff you need for the tool, but you'd also paying be for the tool itself - which you do at least get to keep and sounds pretty damn good. So, not awful. On the downside, I very much doubt my players are going to fork out £20 each for a tool to manage their characters in.

Possibility three: hybrid

I've seen, in my searches, a few in-between options. There are spreadsheets and things that don't actually offer any 4E content, but can handle the mathematical bits of character creation. I could write one myself, come to that - it's not like I don't spend enough time writing spreadsheets! I'm sure I could either find or make a tool that would let you create powers and would handle the maths for you.

In inconclusion, I don't really know what to do for the best here. Any ideas? What do other people do?

No comments:

Post a Comment