Pardon me for quoting myself, but last night I had some free time (I mean, over and above the free time I seem to have these days) so I sat down, stared at the wall, and thought about writing an RPG campaign. It’s been on my mind for a while for reasons I cannot fathom, so I’m chalking it up to my semi-annual cycle…cycle…in which I get the urge to take another stab at a particular project type which I had previously gotten distracted from (3D modeling, game development, app development…you should know me by now).
I, however, am a creature of comfort, and I find comfort in tools that can provide me with organization. I like things organized. I comment my code. I like it with indents, to break long lines in logical places, and to have my files placed just-so. I use OneNote and Notion.so for my note taking needs because they both do very well at keeping things organized. As with a lot of my undertakings, I often use a lack of organization or lack of organization options as an excuse for not moving ahead with a project. “I can’t make this game because I don’t have proper art,” for example, or in this case “I can’t start thinking about a campaign unless I have the proper tools with which to codify it”. I mentioned OneNote and Notion.so — both of which would work, of course — but I need something RPG-centric, not just “it’ll do in a pinch”. I know a lot of folks use tools like Google Docs but to me, that’s like driving a nail in a wall to use as a place to hang your coat: again, it works, but it lacks so much personality and doesn’t exactly lend itself to putting one in the mood.
The lack of a tool to help me along is kind of mind-blowing, which I think speaks to the undercurrent of how RPGs are viewed by many of those with a creative bent. Everything out there is about worldbuilding, which is a term that’s often used to describe both “setting a scene” and “playing god”. Tools like World Anvil and Obsidian Portal are designed to take the place of a stack of paper notebooks, like the ones you nerds have been compiling since you were 10 years old. There’s tools to codify information on continents, towns and cities, NPCs, history, deities, currencies, customs, and maps…always maps. World Anvil in particular goes balls to the wall with this, giving you an insane amount of rope with which to hang yourself, so much so that I couldn’t even discern out the borders of what this app can do.
I understand that there are many people out there who like World Building(tm). It’s cathartic in many ways, as you, the author, can indulge in every single flight of fancy that you…fancy…and find a home for it. The borders of your world are only as confining as your imagination, and if you’re the kind of person who daydreams about fantasy worlds then you’ve no doubt got a whole lot of real-estate invested. As the author, world building can be a solitary affair whose payoff is realized when your players (or reports of someone else’s players) are dumbstruck with how inventive, in-depth, or mysterious the fruits of your labor are revealed to be. The problem with this, for me, is that it’s complete navel gazing. As fun as being a human Dwarf Fortress might be to some people, 99% of that stuff isn’t going to be experienced by the players unless the GM throws it front of them like a broken down wagon signaling an ambush, and even then there’s a good chance that the glee experienced by the GM in finally getting to deploy that in-depth and esoteric tidbit might go completely over the heads of players, as players are notorious for latching on to anything and everything the GM does not want them to focus on, when the GM doesn’t want them to focus on it.
Many of these sites also exist for keeping track of gameplay sessions, which is something I am all for, even though I cleave closely to Fantasy Grounds for all things RPG and which has it’s own facility for taking notes. As I’ve not run a game sans software in over 30 years, I don’t personally value this feature over others, but I like how World Anvil and Obsidian Portal have approached it. As you can imagine, this feature is about as far from my current needs as you can get: I need something to write the adventures that would eventually be catalogued using these tools, and I can’t get to point B without first arriving at point A.
What I’m looking for is something slightly smaller. I no longer have the time, the inclination, nor the mental capacity to dream up worlds from whole cloth. Aside from cities and towns, RPG source books generate a lot of that crap for us. There’s a ponderous amount of hubris involved in coming up with a new continent, new deities, or racial customs for a D&D campaign when there’s, like, 50,237 books out there that cover everything from the history of dragons to how to create a convincing door in your fucking dungeon. I don’t need the space nor the tools to reinvent those wheels; I just need some kind of tool that understands why I am there:
- I want to center on A Story, a slice of a world that the players are experiencing now, not might experience some day.
- I don’t need “eventualities” that involve some obscure holiday celebrated by a long-dead race who only inhabited a single village on a remote island in a very large ocean…you know, in case the players end up there some day.
- I need a way to create NPCs with stats relevant to the system I am building for, and I need to be able to drop them into my notes, and access them directly from my notes, which would occur exactly when I need them.
- I don’t need a family tree builder. I am not running a geneology service.
- Everyone allows for the upload of images, although not sure if they allow for linking offsite with embedding. That would be cool, so my free-tier account can actually be usable and not some hobbled sham.
- Items, same as NPCs: want to create them, add them, and reference them as soon as I need them, not 20 pages hell-and-gone from my notes in the middle of a session.
- Organization, of course. A campaign is a series of individual adventures, or scenes, which are made up of locations Where Shit Happens. As such, the app should allow me to organize in such a way that I can keep my story straight, but also allow me to link to other locations, scenes, or even campaigns in case I need to refer back to something that’s already happened.
I’m sure that there’s other needs and/or wants that I will remember as soon as I publish this post, but there you have it. I am not sure of any other tools out there (please don’t suggest Realm Works, as I own it and it makes my eyes bleed just thinking about that UI). I am also familiar with Scabbard, which seems to be a community darling but hasn’t been keeping up with the times. I punched “Realm Works” into AlternativeTo.net and it returned a few items, so here’s a rundown of everything I know about these tools.
- YARPS. Apparently this was a successful KS, and looks kind of nice. However, they aren’t done yet, and their partner lineup is rather anemic. One to watch.
- Ream Works. From the folks who made Hero Lab, the lazy-person-with-more-money-than-time’s way of generating characters. The big downside is that this is an installable app. The bigger downside is that the UX paradigm is very Windows 95.
- Obsidian Portal. OP doesn’t over-do-it with the flair, providing a themed wiki and session-tracking tools. I’ve used the freebie version a bit, and while it works OK at this tier, I don’t know if there’s enough oomph to get me to pay for it.
- World Anvil. I am a sucker for bells and whistles, but this site really goes the extra mile in that regard. The free version is buried under a landslide of ads right now, so I have to power through it to see exactly what I might be able to use, and what I can ignore. If the former outweighs the latter, it might be worth a sub. Inverted, however, I don’t know if I could justify the price.
- Fantasy Grounds. Of course, the love of my life, but I would prefer a web-based solution, especially if it played well with different resolutions and viewing form factors.
Do you know of any RPG-centric tools that I don’t? Please drop a comment so I can check them out.