E-tools Capsule Review by Nicholas Peterson on 12/08/02
Style: 2 (Needs Work)
Substance: 1 (I Wasted My Money)
For a free download, this is an OK product; I was expecting a lot more for 45 bucks, though.
Company/Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Page count: n/a
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Nicholas Peterson on 12/08/02
Genre tags: Fantasy
I have to tell you, I really wanted to like this one.
When 3rd Edition came out, I was thrilled; they’d taken one of my favorite games and managed to improve on it substantially. And the free “demo” of Master Tools that came with the main book got me really excited about what a full version would do. When I saw the web support that Wizards was providing, still the finest in the business, I was amazed; they were giving away adventures, tips, tricks, and new rules for free; imagine what they could do with something they were charging for!
Then, disaster. Master Tools was pulled back. I was heartbroken. The generator I’d sought so long might never be. You could almost hear the sad, thrumming violins in the background.
Until (a flute trills)… E-tools. The revised Master Tools, sans dungeon mapper, was scheduled for release. My heart surged with joy. I danced around my gaming room, tossing flowers across my long-retired copies of Player’s Option books.
Maybe it wasn’t quite the same as that, but in retrospect things always seem to get magnified.
Then, after a harrowing amount of waiting and yearning, (triumphant chorus of strings) it arrived. I rushed home from work, dashed into my local gaming store, and found…
A single CD, lacking any documentation, clearly marked “$45.95.”
Puzzled, I paid for my treasure and rushed home, only to find that my expectations were entirely out of proportion to the finished product. Sadly, E-tools was nothing like I’d hoped.
Don’t get me wrong. Using E-tools isn’t as bad as, say, having your soul sucked out through a bendy straw; though I can’t imagine the two experiences to be entirely dissimilar.
With E-tools, you get three base “sets” of tools; editors, generators, and “customizers”, along with a conspicuous hole where one might normally expect a manual. There’s a help file which doesn’t quite manage to be the complete opposite, but I still found myself floundering quite a bit while navigating the system. Perhaps the designers at Fluid though they had a pretty intuitive product on their hands, but I have to say, I’m a pretty intelligent guy, and I was stumped more than a few times.
The first thing I noticed about E-tools was the presentation. With the Character Generator/Master tools demo, you got a nice, big, flowing script for all your fonts, with a pleasant, quasi-fantasy tune humming in the background, along with an optional “help” voice that was kind of amusing at first before we all got sick of it and turned it off. With E-tools, everything is listed in straight columns with expandable subentries for any main headings, in standard 10-point Times Roman font… quite a contrast to the beautiful menu options Master Tools gave you. With Master Tools, you actually felt like you were immersing yourself in a fantasy world to some extent; E-tools is all about the numbers.
The first set of “E-Tools” are the editors for characters, monsters, and treasure, which are used to either make new entries from scratch or to tweak and revise those generated randomly. The reason most of us bought the thing, the character editor, encompasses everything from the three core books, which is admittedly a lot of information. Unfortunately, it’s not well handled. First, there’s a lot of information that just seems like if got left out; no less then 10 options for stat rolling are presented, and NONE of them are explained. Sure, they’re all ported over from the DMG, but if I wanted to be flipping through my entire stack of books, I wouldn’t be using a generator, would I? In fact, nothing in the editors is explained well; despite the fact that the “help” menu from the program and Fluid’s website promise a comprehensive entry for each skill in the game, I’ve yet to find them in the generator. The Feats menu suffers from the same problem; I’ve been playing for a while, but even I occasionally forget whether it’s useful for a first level Barbarian to pick up “Power Attack”; with E-tools, though, I’ll need to scrounge through the PHB to find its definition rather than have even bullet points presented by the generator. But even then, at least I’ve been able to find all of the Feats; the item list (despite its size; it’s not broken down nearly as nicely as the Master Tools list) doesn’t appear to contain such common items as a Potion of Cure Light Wounds. I know that the program recognizes such items, as I’ve had random characters generated with them, but the “Potions” section under “Magic Items” lists only those items that do NOT duplicate existing spells.
In order to avoid running completely off on a negativity tangent, I should mention that there is some utility to be found in the editors. Each character has a separate tab for “DM” viewing, which recaps the character very concisely, and you can print sheets as either Monster’s Manual-style stat blocks or to any of several existing character sheets. You can also create your own sheets, and Fluid’s webpage promises that more sheets will be available for download as the game evolves.
In addition to the editors, E-tools also features several generators, which basically toss off a random “whatever” based on what you’ve selected. They’ll set up a random character, monster, or treasure; or just roll on any of the random tables featured throughout the DMG or MM. I found these sections to be far more useful than the editors; most of the work’s already been done for you. In fact, the treasure generator is probably my favorite feature; give it an EL, and it’ll give you a complete listing of whatever treasure it rolled, complete with descriptions for the art and gemstones, which I usually find too time-consuming to deal with. The monster generator is also nice, though I’ve found it helps to port the random monster over to the editor to smooth out any wrinkles that might occur, like a Beholder ending up with five Boots of Levitation.
It’s the character generator where my main complaint lies. At first, I found it useful; give it a level and it’ll generate a random PC, complete with equipment. Race, class, and alignment can either be specified or kept random, so you can just run through “halflings” until you find one you like. Unfortunately, there are a few bugs in the system. You have to select a race or go completely random; you can’t, for instance, have the generator roll up “Elves” for you; you’ll need to specify which particular type of Elf you want, whether or not that ends up fitting the finished product. Also, as I mentioned earlier, some items only seem to appear in this section of the generator; I can’t find them on the editor list at all. Additionally, so far as I can tell, the program won’t generate a multiclassed character, nor does there seem to be any way to get one, even by “combining” two random characters. This could be a major problem for DM’s hoping to score some quick and easy NPCs. My real problem with the generator, though, came when I decided to flip through some random Paladins, just to see how different they all came out. They were different, all right; different Feats, different stats, different races, but they all had one thing in common: of the six or so I rolled up, not a one was Lawful Good. Just for good measure, I rolled up some more as I was writing this review; number 9 was the first to meet that most basic criterion of Paladinhood, and I rolled up two Chaotic Evil characters before I hit him. If the generator’s going to ignore such basic things as alignment restrictions, I have to question how carefully the entire thing’s been playtested, and whether you can trust it at all… and if you’re going to have to double-check everything it does, I ask again: what’s the point of having a generator?
I would have explored the character generator further, as it was still pretty fun to play around with, but my computer locked up, and when I tried to close the program it restarted my computer. That’s the only time it’s happened to me, but I’ve had a few friends tell me that E-tools has not been kind at all to their respective Windows boxes. After about a day of sulking, I decided that, in the sake of fair play, I should push on and look at E-tools final feature; the rules editors. Initially, I’d been quite excited about this; it meant we could customize the generator to fit our own personal games, add in any unsupported or non-Wizards rulesets, or even (dare I think it), expand the editor to support non-fantasy D20 settings like Spycraft or the ever-elusive Farscape. Figuring that if I could at least salvage a decent Spycraft generator from it, my E-tools purchase wouldn’t be a complete waste, I dove in, after carefully re-adjusting my expectations to meet E-tools results so far.
I was still hoping for too much. Yes, you can create new items, Feats, skills, and races for use in your games. But not all of them will be supported. Only those Feats that very closely mimic those from the PHB (in other words, provide a bonus to a skill or make some change that won’t be reflected on the character sheet) can be implemented as functional. The rest can be entered, and chosen, but in order to gain the effects you’ll need to modify the character yourself, using the “User” interface after most stats and figures. Nope, not even Feats from supported products, like the “advanced Toughness” variants from Masters of the Wild, will make it in; every time you take the Feat, you’ll have to adjust your stats yourself; which means, after a point, you’re going to have to ask yourself, “Where did that 5 adjustment to my Spot skill come from? Should it really be a 6…” and do all the math all over again. And, forgive me if this seems repetitive, but if you have to make the changes personally, what’s the point of having a generator?
All in all, I can’t say as I’d recommend E-tools to even the most hard-core D&Der. Yes, there’s some useful stuff in there, particularly in the random generators, that could make a DM’s life easier. But the sheer lack of utility in some cases, combined with the fact that it doesn’t seem to follow the core rules that well, would make this a questionable purchase at ten dollars… at 45, it’s almost an insult. Of course, a lot of the problems I’ve mentioned could probably be easily fixed with late-release patches; one would assume that some of them would have been caught during playtesting, but I’m willing to give Fluid the benefit of the doubt here. If they’re willing to provide any level of support on the product (no word yet, but it’s been less than a week), then I’d probably give a higher Substance score. Additionally, there IS some good material in there, particularly to someone with a lot of patience and some skill at modifying the core Access database. If custom rulesets start popping up online for download, it could be a much more useful item; in fact, considering Wizard’s excellent record for internet support so far, combined with the fact that you know someone’s going to do it sooner or later, I wouldn’t be surprised if official expansions, containing material from the class splatbooks, doesn’t start showing up soon, which would also come close to justifying the product. As it stands, though, E-tools seems like the Windows ME of generators; it might not be as bad as some were expecting, but overall it just feels unnecessary.