Does Character Builder Limit Creativity?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on August 25, 2009

The character builder is great. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s the most important and valuable resource currently available for 4e D&D. It makes creating new character fast and easy. It incorporates all legal source materials from Wizards of the Coast and makes them available with the click of a button. From what I saw at GenCon it looks like the vast majority of gamers are using the character builder. The days of pen and paper character creation are gone. But is this acceptance by the masses of the character builder a good thing?

The character builder is updated once a month. When new materials are released in the middle of the month it takes a few weeks before that new content is available in the character builder. So what do you do if you want to create a character unsung the new books? Or what if you want to retrain some of your powers or feats when you gain a level mid-month? If you’re anything like me you wait. And if you just can’t wait then you have only two choices.

The first is to enter all the information about your new power or feat manually into character builder. This is time consuming. Not only that, but bonuses aren’t applied and the math isn’t done for you. The second choice is to make manual adjustments to your character sheet by hand. This is also time consuming and makes for an ugly end result, a character sheet with some printed text and some hand written text.

In essence we’ve become slaves to the character builder. If you want a power, feat or item not in the character builder then you’re screwed. For example, in a recent home game my DM created a magic ring that allowed a character to fly and granted them fire resistance 15. Since the item is not in the character builder I had to add it to the notes section of my character sheet. Every time I reprint my character for any reason I have to remember to mark his fly speed and fire resistance manually since the character builder won’t do it for me.

The character builder is Wizards way of ensuring that you don’t use or even try 3rd party materials. Here at Dungeon’s Master we created powers for the Necromancer at heroic, paragon and epic levels of play, but with so many gamers using character builder it’s unlikely that many of our readers will ever use these powers. This is true of other powers, feats and magic items created by fans and made available on the internet. The Ennie nominated blog, Mad Brew Labs, for example is full of great D&D magic items.

One of the things I really liked about 3.5e D&D was that there were so many 3rd party materials available. Sure Wizards had a lot of great stuff out there too, but I wasn’t limited in my choices. With the introduction of the character builder for 4e D&D Wizards has pretty much ensured that no one will use any material that Wizards hasn’t created themselves.

What do you think? How likely are you to use powers, feats and items not available in the character builder? If you’re a DM, are you less likely to introduce unique magic items into your game since they aren’t in character builder?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 DeadGod August 25, 2009 at 9:49 am

FYI, there are ways to add “house rule” elements to the builder. (I think there is a little yellow house icon for it–you click it, define the race/class/power/item/whatever and it gets added to the character.)

Personally, I don’t like using the builder. Call me a grognard, but there is something nice about flipping through physical pages. I think it has two advantages: Firstly, leafing through the books, I can see a feat, power, or picture that inspires me. The builder limits you only to those things that you qualify for. Secondly, I like being responsible for writing every number on my character sheet. I get to know the numbers on my sheet and the reason each got that way.
.-= DeadGod´s last blog ..My Custom GM Screen =-.

2 wrathofzombie August 25, 2009 at 10:18 am

The other thing that I really dislike about the Character Builder is the sheer waste of paper it creates. I know some people have horrible writing and their character sheets look like a mutilated poodle, but my players and I, we use the same sheet till there are holes in it from erasing:) I don’t like that every time you level, there is “x” number of sheets being reprinted. I know I know.. I’m all green, but there you have it. I just don’t like it.
.-= wrathofzombie´s last blog ..Canon problems in a Star Wars campaign, Part One =-.

3 JesterOC August 25, 2009 at 11:00 am

At the moment the character builder is a golden pair of hand cuffs. It has nearly everything I have always wanted in a character generator. The only problem is that it does not accept 3rd party data.

While it would be great for them to add this, given the limited resources Wizards has assigned to DDI applications, I think I would rather see updates to the monster builder, and encounter builders to the adventuring tools before 3rd party support.

4 Kensan_Oni August 25, 2009 at 12:35 pm

You see, my problem with it is that it’s too much.

I don’t have a DDI subscription. I’ve had friends who do, and it includes a lot in it. A lot, in fact, that is not in my game. A lot that I don’t have access to for rulings. It also contains things that really are, for lack of definition, ‘not well thought out’ (like a lot of the Dragon material).

Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice not spending an hour generating your first character sheet (I use Excel), and then typing out ever power, but I’ve tended to like my sheet better for the things that the other one doesn’t include (Check boxes! Why does CG not include Check Boxes?)

5 Craig Willcutt August 25, 2009 at 12:45 pm

I suppose it comes down to how important, and how anal, you are with your character and the sheet it is printed on.

As for myself I love the Character Builder. I am only playing LFR at the moment so not allowing 3rd party material isn;t an issue for me because LFR simply doesn’t allow it.

If I were to play in a home game it still doesn’t bother me. In 3.5 I always used a hybrid sheet of typed information (from EMMAS character sheets) as well as manually written stuff from me that the automated sheet didn’t calculate for.

But I am anal. Usually, an mainly due to the ease, I updated my sheets continually and didn’t have a problem re-writing stuff. It all just depends on the player.

6 New Zombie August 25, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Does Character Builder Limit Creativity?
No. The individual limits their own creativity.
In my group 3 players use the character builder the 4th player who wants to do something the CB doesn’t accomodate uses a spreadsheet of his own design. And as DeadGod points out you can add houseruled content to the CB.

7 JesterOC August 25, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Kensan_Oni: You can have your friends limit what Character builder allows them to use. In the preferences section you can turn off the content by source. So you can tell them no dragon mag sources, but PH1 and PH2 are OK.

8 Glenn Peirce August 25, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Grognard here. Playing since 1978. And I love the character builder. With it I can create the character I want without having to remember exactly what sourcebook the feat I think I remember seeing came from.

As for not supporting 3rd party material… sure it does. Just add it as a house rule like you would any homebrew item. Not that there is much need for 3rd party material. For the first 20 years of D&D, we didn’t have much (any) in the first place. And in 4e, the publishing community tore itself in half with various stances and positions on 4e taken by publishers who forgot they were businesses.

9 Ameron August 25, 2009 at 7:37 pm

@DearGod
When I said that you can “enter all the information about your new power or feat manually into character builder” I meant that you can do it by using the House Rules feature. I guess that wasn’t clear. The problem I’ve found is that if create a new power, for example, and it’s supposed to do 3[W] + Str + all other relevant modifiers, you have to do all the calculations yourself; the character builder isn’t sophisticated enough to have your new entry interact with the stats already recorded on your character sheet.

I must admit that I too miss the “getting to know your character” that comes with recording all the information manually. But I’m a true character builder convert and I don’t see myself going back to pen and paper even after I’ve outlined the restrictions above. Thanks for your feedback.

@wrathofzombie
Wizards seems to be addressing the “green” problem with character builder. Each new update seems to give us more flexibility regarding what parts of the character sheet you want displayed and which power card you want to print. I agree that there really isn’t much reason to reprint your entire sheet and all the cards between levels. You could even argue that you really only need a new sheet when you hit even levels. At odd levels you really only get more hit points and one new power.

@JesterOC
“Golden Handcuffs” I love it! What a great way to explain this conundrum. If it had a better way to enter unique information (like the kind we find through 3rd party sources) then it would be pretty much perfect. But I think your assessment of where priorities lie with Wizards is spot on.

@Kensan_Oni
As a gamer who used excel for years before the introduction of character builder I hear you. See the feedback from JesterOC regarding how to limit character builder’s source materials.

@Craig Willcutt
If you’re playing Wizards adventures then the character builder is fine the way it is. I’m pretty anal myself and I always want my character sheets to be perfect (which is a big part of why I love character builder so much). I cringe every time I have to add something in pencil.

@New Zombie
Character Builder itself certainly doesn’t (or shouldn’t) affect your level of creativity. However, I find that I’m a lot more reluctant as a DM to introduce items, feats or powers that aren’t in character builder already. It’s not so much that it limits my creativity as much as it limits my motivation to be creative.

@JesterOC
Thanks for jumping in. I was offline all day, and I’m just getting a chance to respond to these comments now.

@Glenn Peirce
I love that I don’t need 15 books in front of me to create a character (or at least have access to all the latest and greatest feats and powers). As I mentioned above, the house rule option lets you add stuff, but it’s basically just static text. If I’m going to add new feats or powers I want them to use the data already on my character sheet and interact accordingly. If a new magic item grants me +2 to my Will defense, I want the character builder to work that bonus in. Perhaps I’m just expecting too much. The character builder is already so great I guess I shouldn’t be so critical of something that only a minority of players would even care about.

10 Wyatt August 26, 2009 at 7:03 pm

I dislike the character builder and refuse to utilize it in any of my games or accept CB files as entries to my games, all of which have house rules and homebrewed material from my homebrew campaign setting, including powers, paths, feats and races. So the character builder is useless to me.

But I play online, so I can be draconian. Though I don’t care for tabletop play, so I’m okay.
.-= Wyatt´s last blog ..Might of Eden: Legendary Crusader =-.

11 karazax August 26, 2009 at 11:51 pm

The majority of the concerns in the original post don’t seem to have much to do with creativity at all. Most of the concerns seem to be linked to problems when the Character Builder is not up to date. If there was no Character Builder you would still have these problems, except it would be all the time rather than just in the dead zones between new player related material being released and DDI updating. During those dead zones you still have the option of doing whatever you would have done if there was no character builder in the first place.

The reality is that character builder is just the easiest way to make characters. All the other options from pre-character builder days are still valid, they just take alot more work to set up. So is it the character builder that is limiting creativity, or laziness?

Regarding 3rd party materials, the character builder isn’t even a factor in considering whether I will use them or not. I am fortunate in that I play my actual games with the 4e ruleset for Fantasy grounds 2 on the computer, so even though I can create and level up my character with Character Builder, I can import it into Fantasy Grounds, and the Fantasy Grounds 2 4e ruleset is capable of making the calculations that the Character Builder is not able to for custom items, powers ect.

12 Ameron August 27, 2009 at 7:52 pm

@Wyatt
I think you’ve just proved my point. Character builder is great if you’re playing by the book, but as soon as you want to exercise your creativity the character builder is a pretty much useless tool. Thanks for commenting on the “other side” of this discussion.

@karazax
Good point. I will admit that I’m less likely to do something creative if it means a significant amount of additional work. So I guess your assessment of the situation is pretty much accurate. It sounds like you’ve found a good compromise and are able to utilize the best aspects of two applications. Kudos to your creativity.

13 Icosahedrophilia September 2, 2009 at 12:43 am

My answer to your final question to DMs is, quite simply, “No.” I was making my own power and magic item cards long before the CB was released, all the way back into 3.5e for magic item cards. The CB is a time-saver but not a limiting factor to my mind.
.-= Icosahedrophilia´s last blog ..Icosahedrophilia Podcast, Episode 26: Feed the Dead, Part 7 =-.

14 Ameron September 3, 2009 at 2:29 pm

@Icosahedrophilia
It seems that “older” gamers, those who played previous editions of D&D, are used to creating their own powers, feats and items. After all, character builder has only been around for a year. However, I’d be willing to bet that newer players who only know D&D with character builder are going to be more reluctant to be creative if character builder isn’t capable of accepting new powers and items easily.

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