Monday, February 6, 2012

More Choices (Electronic Version)

When 4E was released in 2008 Wizards promised an on-line character builder tool, a monster builder tool, adventure tools, and a video table component. There are still no adventure tools, the video table (VT) is still in beta, and after changing formats and several major overdue upgrades the character builder (CB) and monster tool (MT) are finally in pretty good shape. This was a classic case marketing disaster in the "over promise and under deliver" category.Wizards learned a hard lesson here, so one can understand why they are deliberately obtuse when it comes to providing firm dates for things in the future.

There is also the not so small problem that the CB and MT do not work on phone or tablet devices (Ios or Android operating systems) and for the time being it sounds like Wizards will be sticking with an MS-Silverlight development tools. Vanir at did a nice job compiling some ideas on how Wizards and DDI could take steps to meet any and all new platform issues recently: Recompiling Digital D&D. I am not expecting another DDI tool set overhaul before DnDNext is released. Given the current DDI tools do work well when DndNext is finally released (mid-2013?) this means that there is a high likelihood that the corresponding new versions of the CB and MT tools will be ready to go as well. Beyond that ... I guess we'll see won't we.

Having said that I am pretty pleased with the CB and MT tools. They are reliable, provide the basic information I need as a player, and seem to pretty accurate as to the source books and the errata. The updates are made on schedule and are pretty painless. When you look at the bug fix list every month the errors that fixed any more seem to fall into two categories: errors that are really esoteric/rare and errors that are very basic oversights such as misspelled words or having 1+1=3 somewhere (errors that may you go "d'oh!").

And when it comes to choices, well, the CB really gives them to you. It's nice to have a tool that works well, is expandable, and allows you to account for absolutely every possibility and variation. I read once that 90% of the MS-Word and MS-Excel users never use more than 10% of the software's features. I am going to assume the class/race choices utilized in CB follows a similar percentage. Wizards is supposedly doing some level of tracking as to what races and classes are used ... I am not in favor of necessarily deleting all of these choices, but I do think the way they are presented could be streamlined somewhat.

The home game option gives you the world of choices, and it gets real ugly pretty quick. Using the four basic class archetypes let's see how our choices sort out:

Fighter: Seeker, Ranger (Hunter), Barbarian (Berserker), Fighter (Knight), Fighter (Weaponmaster), Paladin, Paladin (Cavalier), Warlord (Marshal), Barbarian, Fighter (Slayer), Paladin (Blackguard), Ranger, Ranger (Scout), Battlemind (14).

Magic User: Psion, Ardent, Artificer, Wizard (Arcanist), Wizard (Bladesinger), Wizard (Mage), Wizard (Witch), Sorcerer (8).

Cleric: Druid, Druid (Protector), Invoker, Warden, Cleric (Templar), Cleric (Warpriest), Druid (Sentinel), Runepriest, Shaman, Avenger, Monk (12).

Rogue: Assassin, Assassin (Executioner), Rogue (Scoundrel), Rogue (Thief) (4).

Fighter/Mage: Warlock (Binder), Swordmage, Bard, Bark (Skald), Warlock, Warlock (Hexblade) (6).

Unknown: Vampire (1).

I had to add two categories to account for the Fighter/Mage options and the Vampire option, and please feel free to move some of these options around to more fit your preference. Regardless, 45 choices ... it's a mess. It seems to me you could start with the higher level categories, and then break it down into sub-categories (i.e., fighter down to paladin or ranger, etc.) and then choose accordingly.

Then you move into races ... 43 choices. Bugbears are a choice? Bullywugs? Really? I am not going to break these out like I did the classes, aw hell, let's do it:

Standard DnD Races: Human, Dragonborn, Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Gnome, Half-Elf, Halfling, Half-Orc, Tiefling (10).

Shadowfell Races: Vryloka, Revenant, Shadar Kai, Shade (4).

Eberron / Dark Sun Races: Mul, Thri-kreen, Warforged (3).

Feywild Races: Drow, Hamadryad, Pixie, Satyr, Wilden (5).

Non-Standard "People" Races: Bladeling, Changeling, Deva, Duergar, Genasi, Githyanki, Githzerai, Goliath, Kalashtar, Longtooth Shifter, Razorclaw Shifter, Shardmind (12).

Non-Standard "Other" Races: Bugbear, Bullywug, Gnoll, Goblin, Hobgoblin, Kenku, Kobold, Minotaur, Orc (9).

Some of the "non-standard" races may actually belong in one of the specific categories (Eberron?). Also, my distinction in identifying the non-standard races is tenuous at best. Regardless, like with Class options it seems to me the myriad of choices could be funneled somewhat to eliminate or hide extraneous options. 45 of one times 43 of the other ... 1,935 possible options ... really? It's just a bit much. I can't believe this was an actual goal, but more like an unfortunate outcome.

I guess what I am saying here, and what I think Wizards is seeing from their research as to what character types are being created in the CB tool, is that their basic character/class archetypes (i.e., Dwarf Fighter) really do tend to dominate. I am not proposing eliminating the "other" categories, but rather streamlining the character creation process toward your "standard" DnD archetypes.

Some additional quick examples of DDI CB bloatware:

1) I don't mind that there are 2000+ total feats in the feats database, but it seems to me that once I identify that I will be playing, for example, a Dwarf Fighter, that about 75% of the feats should no longer be available to me. They should have been weeded out by the time I got to start choosing them. If the ideas of character themes is implemented more thoroughly it seems like some feats should even be pre-designated for that particular character. What I am saying is here is that feats should be categorized in such a way that they align to a type of character being built.

2) Similarly, if I take a particular build model for my fighter dwarf some of my power selections should be pre-designated as well, not just highlighted. My Bravura Warlord really should have those powers with a Bravura Warlord key word initially assigned to him. This would therefore imply that all build models, especially for the "core class/races" should have powers that would fit this classification.

3) There are just too many magic items with too many miscellaneous powers attached to them. A +1 flame sword that does some level of extra flame damage is consistent with it's DnD heritage, but the same sword that allows you to have a daily power of "take an extra swing" is starting to push things. Add in armor, gloves, and an amulet, all with some additional power ... at some point it just becomes clutter on a character sheet. Simplify, perhaps allow extra powered magic items to a very small subset of items (magic items not identified as common?), and I think things will simplify quickly.

What I've described here is basically what the DnD Essentials choice of the CB already provides today. I am assuming we will have a DnDNext version of the CB when DnDNext is rolled out, and if the impetus really is to "back off" the excesses of 4E and to make to game a little closer to its pre-4e counterparts, then Wizards already has in place today the basis for a CB tool that meets the goals I described.

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