DDI Character Builder: Output hell

January 8th, 2009 | Tags: , ,

I’ve had a chance to use the current demo version of the D&DI Character Builder (which is limited to only the first three levels), and it is a decent tool for making the choices necessary to create a character. The program filters out options that you don’t have the prerequisites for thus making choices easier, but this will become more difficult as more races, classes, powers, feats, and equipment becomes available. So it would be very helpful if there was an additional way to filter down the presented options. But that isn’t my main issue with the app — it is the output.

In Digital Insider (#18), Bill Slavicsek includes the first page of the character sheet and one page of power cards for a level 30 ranger. And while the demonstration that the app goes that high is nice the pages clearly show that the Character Builder does not generate useful data.

Feats1) The Feats, Race Features, and Class Features sections:

The first failure here is that Wizards is trying to combine two sets of useful data resulting in a useless blob:

  1. List of all the character’s abilities and selections
  2. Quick reference summary of available abilities or bonues

When constructing a character or referencing the build it is always useful to have a list of all the feats (or any other selections) made for the character, but during play this information can be largely useless.  For example, under class features Prime Shot is listed and under Feats Improved Prime Shot is listed — but when in combat all I care about is that I have a +2 bonus to hit with ranged attacks if no ally is closer to the target.  The result is that even with ~30% of the page devoted to these sections, there is still not enough space to include the full list of feats and features and the necessary descriptive text to understand what the feat or feature provides.

Second, this information is also frequently a duplicate of data stored elsewhere on the first page of the character sheet: the bonuses for Defensive Mobility and Combat Anticipation are in the Defenses section, Sneak of Shadows is reflected in the Skills Section (training in Thievery) and should create an additional power card, the bonuses for Improved Initiative and Skill Focus (Perception) are included in the Initiative and Skills sections.  Space on the first page is very precious and should not be wasted on unnecessary duplication.

Third, the data is not categorized in a way that makes it useful during play.  During play grouping abilities by origin is not useful.  This requires me to look in several locations on the character sheet to find a particular ability which at high level might be modified by data that has another origin.  As in the example above, Prime Shot and Improved Prime Shot are listed in two different sections of the page instead of being grouped together or, preferably, combined into one line item.  Wizards seems to partially recognize this, because as I point out above much of the information is duplicated in domain specific sections, but they failed to follow through.

Skills Section

2) Wasting space with Addition

The current character sheet is the same sheet that was designed to be filled out by hand, thus it has boxes to add the expected bonuses for a particular score to ease computation.  But for a computer generated character sheet this becomes wasted space. The skills section takes up about 1/6th of the first page of the character sheet but it could easily be reduced by half with the removal of the unnecessary computation space.

I do appreciate being able to see where a particular score comes from (such as a +29 to Acrobatics), but that can be accomplished by a separate printed page that can be carried with your character sheet and referenced as needed.  This reference page would also be able to have significantly more space to explain all of the applicable bonuses and their origin.

Healing Section of WOTC Character Sheet

3) Healing Section is too small

In 4E encounters take longer, which results in more damage taken and healed during combat.  This means that it is necessary to have a large box for tracking the character’s current hit points.  The box on the WotC Character Sheet is very small, which requires that the player write very small or make frequent use of an eraser — both are suboptimal solutions.  Several classes also make extensive use of temporary hit points (Helllock, Barbarian, Battlerager Figher) and will need significantly more space than is provided.

Even at the start of the Heroic tier of play, characters will encounter numerous temporary conditions (buffs and debuffs) with short durations.  The single Current Conditions and Effects line isn’t even close to be able to track your buffs let alone your debuffs — which means that the DM has to keep track of the debuffs and several of the buffs can fall through the cracks unless someone remembers.  By providing a large space with room for info on a condition and its duration players are better armed to track their own state.

Power Card

4) Conditional & Additional Effects

On each attack power card there is an Additional Effects section that includes some optional or conditional bonuses/effects that could be applicable to the power.  Unfortnately this space is quite small.  There is room for three short lines of text, which is sufficient for the first few levels of play, but it will quickly become inadequate.  This 30th level ranger has 10 feats/features that provide conditional bonuses or optional effects (3 attack bonuses and 7 damage bonuses).  There is no way to know about most of them from the tiny provided space, and as I pointed out in my first point above, the character sheet doesn’t display that information either.

It is far more efficient to have your conditionals stored in a single easily referenced location rather than trying to repeatedly cram them onto each power card.

5) The Senses Section

Wow this has to be one of the most pointless sections of the character sheet.  Even the most math-illiterate newbie can add 10 to get the passive senses score — and more importantly this is info that the DM should have on hand without having to ask the characters for their score.  It just needs to be cut.

Doing it right

Soon I’ll follow up with a post showing my current character sheet and how I resolve these issues.

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