We’ve come a long way from “Roll 3d6 6 times.” Character creation in Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is less intricate than it was in Third Edition, but the plethora of sourcebooks and options still makes it complex. You may need to check four or five books and a half-dozen online articles to be sure you’re seeing every choice of at-will powers for your new dwarf fighter…or you can just fire up Dungeons & Dragons Character Builder to see every official rule, for a price.
The D&D Character Builder demo covers characters of levels 1 through 3 only. It includes a small–but not comprehensive–selection of races and classes from supplements beyond the Players Handbook. To get everything, including monthly updates, you must subscribe to the periodical D&D Insider. The good news is that you don’t need a constant subscription to use Character Builder once it’s unlocked and updated: You can spend $10 on a one-month subscription and be done.
Character Builder has a clean interface, one designed to create and edit one character at a time. A wizard-style interface takes you through each step, such as picking race, class, feats, and powers. You can level your character up, buy it equipment, and retrain powers. All the rules are enforced, though some can be overridden. You can have higher attributes than you “should,” for example; the program simply writes “HOUSERULED” for all to see. The best part of this is that the bulk of the math is done for you. If you equip a longsword, your “Basic Mêlée Attack” figures your total to-hit and damage modifiers, counting in every feat, class feature, and magical bonus. Swap out for that +3 Flaming Axe, and everything changes. Powers are printed in an array that makes it easy to cut them out and use them like cards, and they include both the default rules for the power and your personal values, calculated for your current build and equipment.
There is a downside to Character Builder. Although there are fewer third-party Fourth Edition supplements than 3E had, there are still many such products–and it’s impossible to add your own classes, races, or powers to Character Builder in a useful way. You can add a “House Rule” for any element, but this amounts to nothing more than placeholder text which doesn’t integrate in any way with the calculation aspect of the project. You can create a feat which, say, gives a half-elf +2 with axes so long as they speak Dwarvish, but if your half-elf has an axe and this “feat,” the +2 won’t be figured in anywhere. As compared to PCGen–which is basically a script-driven engine that can handle almost anything if you can deal with its complex and persnickety description language–Character Builder loses in flexibility but gains dramatically in ease of use and (if you’re a D&DI subscriber) completeness.
Warning: If someone with a full version gives a demo user a character file, the demo’s response to data elements it lacks is variable. One character I tested correctly printed powers not found in the demo, but lost weapon and armor proficiencies due to the demo’s problems with the new Hybrid class features. Other users have reported equally broken results. Reading any but the most basic characters with the demo is probably not going to work.
The demo of Dungeons & Dragons Character Builder is basically just enough to show you what it can do. To get full utility, you need to subscribe to DDI at least long enough to unlock the full range of levels and download all the latest datasets.
Note: To unlock all Character Builder’s features and receive updates, you must subscribe to D&D Insider. As of this writing, the prices vary from $10 for a one-month subscription to $6/month for a one-year subscription. This link takes you to the vendor’s site, where you can download the latest version of the software.