Player Technology Part 2 – Character Building Software

This was a topic that held a lot of excitement for me, personally – but all of us at Thirdwalling.  All of us love building characters – maybe not as much as The Fez – and anything that can be done to streamline the process and give us a more standardized and digital result is a welcome addition to our game table for sure!

When I initially set out to research for this aspect of the article (about two years ago, actually) we were deeply embroiled in a West End Games Star Wars campaign of my design.  I searched for some time for a Star Wars character generator – or really any D6 character generator – to use with this.  Ultimately I wound up with a .pdf of my own design: ThirdwallSWCharSheet.  But I really wanted to explore technology beyond .pdf sheets – even after The Ginger did a great job of converting my Star Wars sheet into a savable .pdf form it just wasn’t enough.  So when I started playing Pathfinder D20 with another group I used it as a place to unwind – and also to test out the more affluent technology available to the D20 crowd.  Sorry D6ers – I’d have loved to have offered you a great solution in this regard but I simply couldn’t find it.  If you know one (especially a free one!) please post it in the comments!

So I selected three reasonably popular character builders to conduct this test.  They were the somewhat costly Herolab – which thankfully The Fez had a license for so he was my guinea pig – the free PCGen and an even free-er Google Doc Spreadsheet The Ginger found on a Google search.  Let’s see how they rated up?

  As with our previous entry in this series, we began with three criteria scored on a 5-point scale each for a total of 15 possible points.  These were slightly different than previous, but not overtly so.  They are:

1.) Playability – How well did it translate to the game table?  What was the end product like as far as getting the information needed etc?

2.) Usability – How was the UI?  How quickly could it be picked up?  Cost is a factor here.

3.) Flexibility – Could it be easily adapted to other systems?

So without any further preamble, let’s launch into it:

Herolab – 11/15 Points

If it wasn’t for the price tag, Herolab would have been the clear favorite.  Visually it was stunning awesome, organizationally it was acceptable – a bit cluttered, but Pathfinder character sheets are overly complex in my opinion anyway – and I liked that I could add custom magic items and equipment right through the app without having to look at code on the back end.  But at $30 for the software and one game, plus additional fees for additional users – plus even more fees for additional game systems – it really took a toll on my love of the Graphic User Interface (GUI).  Still, that only managed to cost it two points in its overall score – as there really was value there for what you were getting.  The game systems that I looked at (Pathfinder and C’thulu) both had great text around all of the options both in the software and on the character sheets it printed – so if you have the money to spend it certainly may be worth it!

Playability – 5

The software printed out great .pdfs and the information on them was easy to find.  As stated in the summary paragraph I cannot understate how helpful the on-screen texts and dialog was to building and playing the character.

Usability – 3

Sometimes finding the information in the software was a chore – and it really slowed down game.  Most of the players in the Pathfinder game were running the software on their laptops at the table, and many was the time that the game dragged to a halt to dig through Herolab’s settings to find some feature or stat they were interested in.  It was frustrating from the standpoint of someone using a .pdf on my phone (using the cloud to full advantage!) and that was enough to cost the software a point.  If the Game Master had insisted on .pdfs at the table it might have helped – but it would have probably stolen some from Playability as the on-screen text resolved many rules disputes without having to dig out the resource books.

The price cost them another point.  I understand there is a lot of value for the cost – but I felt a little nickle-and-dimed having to pay for every computer I wanted it on, every game system I wanted to play (even when I already owned the book!) and for any supplements to those games that I needed.

Flexibility – 3

For the average modern gamer, the flexibility was probably ideal.  Most gaming systems you could want were represented in one form or another and there were good resources around them.  I couldn’t find any resource for D6 or old-school Deadlands but those are pretty obscure.  World of Darkness was available (though on my free trial I didn’t purchase it to see how it was) which was a big bonus and so I think a 3/5 was fair.

Now some of you are reading this saying “Well, you could have just customized your own source files with the Authoring Kit” – but by saying that, you’re showing clearly that you don’t understand the point of the exercise.  If I wanted to author it myself – I’d just make the character on paper!

PCGen – 11.5/15 Points

I really enjoyed PCGen.  It wasn’t as easy to navigate as its costly counterpart above, and customizing magic items and equipment meant editing source documents in a text editor, but free buys a lot of fun here.  At the end of the day it produced a functional character sheet .pdf and had decent enough on-screen text to figure out what most abilities did.  In fact, after using it a few weeks, I didn’t even need to get my Pathfinder book out to level – I could just use the software.  The learning curve felt a bit steeper than Herolab but again – it was free!  There also seemed to be significantly more resources available for it – probably BECAUSE it is free – so I was able to find an attempt at a D6 character sheet for it and even older Deadlands.  That being said – they weren’t the best or most professional renditions of those systems so I wound up not using them.

Playability – 4

The sheet this software produces is very usable at the table.  I did not bring my laptop to game – only the sheet – and I never felt like I needed it as long as I had my PCGen sheets in front of me in .pdf form.  Leveling was sometimes cumbersome and more time consuming than I’d like – but the “home” screen was good about letting you know what still needed to be done to finish that process.

Usability – 3.5

The UI was a bit cumbersome, maybe even more-so than Herolab, but in a free product I didn’t let that take away too many points.  There were certainly some workflow issues that I had to push through – and it seemed to eat up a lot of ram – more than I would have expected from it.  I took away half a point for the cumbersome UI and a full point for magic item and equipment creation.  Maybe there was something I missed (I looked at the help files and even googled it) but the custom gear creation system was REALLY clunky.  Adding a magic sword meant customizing the standard sword template with the various characteristics through a cumbersome workflow that was very, very difficult to follow.  Adding the magic pebble the game master gave me?  That meant looking at source files to create a “pebble” inventory item to do the same thing with.  I spent much more time trying to create magic items in this system than I did even leveling my Inquisitor!

The information text for some resources was also very, very limited and tough to decipher.  This sometimes made me feel like it was lacking “polish” – even for a free resource.

Flexibility – 4

PCGen has a really strong community of users creating custom content for it that is free on the web.  I had no trouble finding just about every resource I would have wanted to find – though the Star Wars D6 and Deadlands resources I found weren’t the best by any means (The Star Wars one didn’t seem to work right) – at least they were there!  Still, it is limited in what it can produce and customizing your own is very, very tedious process so I deducted a point for not having my favorite system (WEGD6) in a usable format that I could find.

Overall, a very flexible product that was – once I got over the steep learning curve – very fun to tinker around on.  And it worked on Linux – which was a big bonus over Herolab.

Spreadsheet – 9-12 Points (depending on which one you get)

Though I used a very specific sheet for this test, I reviewed it as a representation of any home-built or internet-found spreadsheet character creator.  I’ve built them in Word, Excel, Open Office Writer, Visual Basic (in High School), and even with old-school note-pad and they’re all about the same.  The sheet I tested did have drop-downs for many of the entries which made it better than anything I’ve built outside of my Visual Basic days of World of Darkness.  Overall, spreadsheet character creators are – in my opinion – too often overlooked by players.  At the end of the day they make a very playable sheet – but they require more legwork on your part.

Playability – 4

Spreadsheets have a bit of an advantage here in that they are built specifically for the game you’re playing in most cases.  They’re customization to an extent (if you know Excel) and the end product is a very usable character sheet if it is done right.  Of course it loses a point for not having pre-built info-text on the screen (unless you put it there, usually) but that’s not that big a deal, really.  I think I speak for everyone at Thirdwalling when I say we’ve been using Spreadsheets since our early days of gaming – and they just work.

Usability – 4

Cost is right – they’re usually free for the taking on a quick Google search.  They’re easy enough to use – though I subtracted a point for the fact that (unlike the more advanced builders) they actually require you to own the sourcebook to know what skills to apply.  This makes leveling at home when the DM is the only one with a Core Rulebook somewhat tedious.

Flexibility – 1-4

The flexibility of the spreadsheet really depends on what you’re judging it on.  One individual spreadsheet is not very flexible – my D6 Star Wars sheet isn’t going to do you much good if you’re playing Deadlands – but I haven’t been able to find a game yet that didn’t have some fan-created spreadsheet floating around online.

Parting thoughts:  If you’re using a system that can be found in Hero Lab or PCGen – use that software to generate a .pdf character sheet and store it on the Cloud.  PCGen was the favorite of The Ginger and I, though The Fez is very vocally in favor of Hero Lab.  For the more obscure games or if you just want to keep things simple – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with finding (or making!) an Excel character creator and building it that way.  All of these are great options that – after this research – will certainly have a place at my future gaming tables.

Have something to add?  Questions?  Take it to the comments.

– Bob Thirdwaller


One thought on “Player Technology Part 2 – Character Building Software

  1. Pingback: Player Tip Series #1 – Technology at the Game Table | Thirdwalling

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