Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Character Builder(s) - Updated

When Wizards released their new web based character builder (CB) tool last fall I played a little with it the first day it came out, but I suspect that most of the DnD world was doing the same. Basic network performance and system overload seemed to be the order of the day, it since it wasn't a necessary tool for me at the time I arbitrarily decided to just let it sit for a month or so. This would allow the initial surge to die down, allow Wizards to fix whatever bugs did come up, and then once things calmed down a little I would try it again.

So of course I had to have a plan:
  1. Create a new "test" character using the old CB tool.
  2. Can I could import the .dnd4e file into the new CB?
  3. Does the imported character match the original?
  4. Can I print the character sheet (printer and PDF)? 
  5. Can I duplicate the character by recreating it step-by-step in the new CB tool?
  6. Can I export a .dnd4e file from the new CB tool?
  7. Can the old CB tool could process the exported .dnd4e file?
I also wanted to test the new CB tool using Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and MS Internet Explorer. Once MS-Silverlight was installed (no problems) I was not really expecting different results, but I was curious to see if IE8 had some inherent advantage because it was a Microsoft product.

Just for the sake of completeness, my home network connection is via ATnT DSL and my home PC is an ~8 year old no-name house brand model I got at Best Buy way back when, running Windows XP. It is admittedly under-powered, under-memory'd, and my video card won't run Civ 4 much less Civ 5. Having said that, it really does runs like a champ so I really can't complain, and for what I am trying to do here I was not expecting any problems (OK, I do complain, but that's more of a personal issue).

Using the old CB tool I created Keokuk, an 11th level Goliath pit fighter. He had an extensive set of powers and feats that, when his off-hand was empty, allowed him to grab opponents and cause further havoc. Once the Keokuk.dnd4e file and the Keokuk.pdf file were successfully created, I was ready to move to the new CB tool.

Observation: Using IE8 and Firefox it took 5-7 minutes for the tool to start, but with Chrome it took 3-5 minutes. The difference is during the initial screen (the little circles) that came up Chrome seemed to zip right past that, while the other two browsers required 1-2 minutes to get past it. Once the next screen came up (the scene of the adventurers sitting around a fire) the final data loading required the remaining time. Once the tool actually started they all seem to work similarly well, with only the occasional random slowdowns.

Importing Keokuk.dnd4e went quickly, and a quick review showed all of my feats, powers, attributes, etc. were present, plus all the numbers added up to replicate the character as produced in the old CB tool. The new character sheet display has two choices - an Essentials look or a CB look. The new CB look is different from the old CB tool, but not drastically so. At some point as long as all the data is there I suppose it really doesn't matter.

First major problem: Printing directly to my local printer went very well. However, printing to a PDF file still hasn't worked properly for me, regardless of browser choice. I can select it, after a few minutes I get to select a file name and location, and then it goes into never-never land. Chrome gave me plug-in (i.e., Silverlight) errors, Firefox had a plug-in crash, and while IE8/Silverlight never crashed, I never did get a complete PDF. Sometimes I wouldn't get any PDF file, but most of the time I would get 2 or 3 complete pages (out of 6) and then an error page. More investigation showed my under-memory'd PC was thrashing because of a lack of available memory, and on occasional test efforts I would get an "out of virtual memory" error from Windows.

PC Note: I killed my anti-virus, ITunes, and mail to free up memory and CPU availability, but the PDF problem never went away. For what it's worth, running nothing but the browser really did help improve my performance in other areas, but just wasn't enough to resolve the PDF issue.

One more thing - when creating a PDF file from the old tool the final PDF file size was ~400K for a 6-7 page PDF. Using the new CB tool the incomplete PDF (only 2-3 pages out of 5) was ~3,000K in size, again, for a still incomplete print-out. Perhaps there is some clean-up that occurs when the PDF creation process completes. I have used cutePDF for my PDF creation for several years now with no problems ... I'm going with lack of memory as my issue here.

I suppose I could print out one PDF page at a time, but that's really not a solution. Since the new CB tool is web-based I decided to try this another way. I got my son's laptop, logged in, accessed my character, and completed printing the six page PDF in less than five minutes. The PDF file size (~8,000K) is still quite a bit larger then I would have expected, but it did complete successfully. And yes, the tool loaded quicker and ran faster on the much newer laptop with more memory regardless of browser choice.

The next step was to step through the new CB build process and see if I could recreate Keokuk via the new CB tool. It took awhile to figure it out, but once I chose Fighter (under the defender category) and not Fighter/Slayer (under the striker category) I was able to find all of the powers and feats as I expected and was able to recreate Keokuk completely.

Given the problems with printing to a PDF I wasn't sure how exporting from the new CB tool to a new Keokuk.dnd4e file would work, but it was almost instantaneous. The size of the file more-or-less matched with what I had expected as well. I was able to load the exported Keokuk.dnd4e file into the old CB tool with no problems, and further inspection showed all the data was present as expected. I loaded the recreated character (Keokuk2.dnd4e) as created and exported on the new CB tool and once loaded in the old CB tool everything appeared as expected as well.

Out of curiosity I created a fighter(slayer) character, exported it, and tired to read it in the old CB tool but it didn't go as well. The file loaded, but upon inspection none of the new powers were listed, some of the feats (new ones I assume) were incomplete, and my trained skills weren't designated as such. After doing this I began to ponder why one would actually want to move a character from the new tool to the old tool, so maybe it doesn't matter. Regardless, the import and export features appear to work on the new CB tool.

Linux notes: Just for grins one day I used Firefox on my Ubuntu Linux laptop to attempt to start the new CB tool via the link on the Wizards web page. I got a page that said I needed to load the moonlight plugin (mono is a joint development project between Microsoft and Linux developers). The plugin loaded fine and when I attempted to restart the new CB tool the initialization page (the little circles) came up, but there it sat - it never went any further than that.

Given that new CB tool is web-based I assume (always risky, I know) that active development is going on to allow non-Win/Mac devices to access the tool (i.e., smart phones, IPad's, Linux, etc). I'm going with the "not ready for prime time" excuse for now, but I'll keep checking.

Conclusion: I found out what I wanted to know, everything seemed to work as expected, plus having the character files stored on-line really helped when I was switching between PC's to do my testing. I suppose it is safe to move all of our current characters to the new tool, but given that we will be done this week or next I do not plan to re-send out new character sheets to everybody at this time.

An update to the new CB tool was released this past week, mostly bug fixes, of which there have been quite a few (here). I know Scott has submitted several bugs. Regardless, it might be worth your while to review any characters you might have created previously.

Update: I thought of two more things I wanted to check, so I imported one of our characters into the new CB tool:

1) We have agreed to adjust our ability points back to legal once the characters reach level 8, but until then they are too high. The new CB tool flags them as such, but accepts them and provides no penalty for them being too high.

2) I have included a lot of text in the journal pages for each character, and have commented as to how I can not print out the entire body of text for my journal pages. The new CB tool doesn't even have journal pages. They are text boxes for notes or characteristics, but at least for now when a character with journal data is imported the journal text is lost.


  1. To me, the inability to create PDF files (or at least emailable-sized ones) is a fatal flaw for a dispersed group like ours. I'm just going to stick with the old CB and forgo whatever new stuff comes out (there's already too many choices - who needs more?).

  2. I did get it to work - just not with the old PC.