I’m a fan of getting shit together. Judging my my self-assessed performance last session on Hoard of the Dragon Queen, I need to step up my organizational game when it comes to preparedness.
I found Realm Works from Lone Wolf Development (makers of Hero Lab) when I was cruising around the net looking for RPG resources. Now, I swear by Fantasy Grounds, which is excellent for creating brand new modules and campaigns, but I need something to allow me to just take notes of important aspects of the different sections of each episode in HotDQ. I can get the long winded low-down by reading the book, but sometimes things double back on plot points, so when I reach further in the campaign, I realize I’ve flubbed an important part by not having read ahead, or done some rather slick RP that ends up not fitting into the narrative. So reading ahead and taking notes and organizing plot points so I don’t run over my own foot is something I really need. I could use regular pen and paper, but with the need to cross reference and get speedy access to stats and other characters at the point in time where they’re needed, having a technological method should help a lot.
Realm Works is like a massive wiki, but also not. It’s a three ring binder, but which provides tabbed dividers that you can fill with whatever you need. It’s not really a great campaign creation tool, although with a big shoehorn you could get it done; Fantasy Grounds is far superior in this regard. RW is like a three ring binder of index cards, then: you supply a lot of one-liners that describe what you need: “King Gerald is having an affair with the ambassador from Luretia”, or “The players will be watched as they attend the opera”. Using dedicated, structured sections, a GM can fill out a few lines with shorthand info that makes it good reference tool for quick information.
The UI is pretty daunting, however. While very flexible, it doesn’t allow for custom layouts. Information is presented in a list format, divided by headers and sub-headers. Sometimes labels are present, sometimes they aren’t. Everything is initially entered in a one-line textbox that expands as you need it, unless it’s numeric or special case data. Naturally, there’s integration with Hero Lab (which I don’t own) for NPCs, and you can also “embed” maps, external documents, and even audio and video (I think). The best part is that you can create or modify existing structures as needed. For example, I created a “template” for a D&D 5E monster/NPC which contains all of the info I need. I just fill in the form and save the record, and that creation is available for reference when I need it. The best part is that all I have to do is use the name of a record in the body text of a field, and RW will offer potential matches to other known records, automatically creating hyperlinks between the two.
All of the reference material constantly talks about how RW is a GM tool for creating and managing campaigns, and that a player edition is forthcoming. RW is not a virtual tabletop. However, it does allow a GM to reveal information to players on a record by record basis. For example, amidst everything listed about the King, the line above about him having an affair could be released to the players on it’s own. This way, the GM can push out just what the players learn as opposed to dumping everything at their feet (including maps and such). I have no use for this whatsoever. I can see how a party in agreement might pick up RW and the upcoming player versions ($9.99 per individual license is the current, proposed MSRP for the Player Edition), and how it would work well for folks not needing or wanting a vTable, but I have to circle back to the UI; it’s just not all that appealing. It’s functional, and I cannot think of any way to allow for the flexible management of data that RW is aiming to handle, but…yeesh. The gaming group would need to just spend a few sessions doing dry runs to ensure that everyone knew how to use the software properly. The benefit is that anything shared with the players goes into their personal dossier, so they can refer back to info they learned without actually having to meta-memorize it. That has a lot of merit.
From my perspective, though, as an organizational tool, it works great…when it works. It just completed a KS campaign, and the tool itself is widely available, although admittedly incomplete. There are a few things remaining on their to-do list (which can be found scattered around the forums). One thing that needs some work is their SimCity-esque design choice to authenticate and sync data to “The Cloud”. See, in order to get the data from GM to players, LWD requires that users A) create an account on their server, and B) connect to “the cloud” to create a new campaign (which they call a “realm”). Then, and only then, you can either sync the realm to “the cloud” once changes are made, or work offline and sync when you damn well please. When I bought the software, I couldn’t create an account. I tried several times over two days. I finally uninstalled it and re-installed it to the suggested directory on my PC (I normally put everything on a platter drive to keep my SSD as lean as possible), and I was able to register. That’s correlation and not causation, so do with it as you will. Then, however, I tried to create a new realm — create a new file — and I was denied because of a connection error when trying to sync the new file to their server. While I can see the appeal of having data like this in “the cloud” — it’s actually one of the things that sold me on this product, being able to sync between stations without Dropbox or something similar — LWD’s infrastructure is experiencing some issues that, due to design choices, makes the program a virtual paperweight when it experiences issues (in honesty, only when you sign in, or create a new realm, not if you want to work offline and un-synchronized, which works just fine).
I think that maybe RW is overkill for what I need, or maybe it’s because the unflattering UI makes it seem less worthwhile than Fantasy Grounds, Evernote or OneNote, or just good old Google Docs, but once you get over the learning curve and adapt to the clunky visual representation, Realm Works is a great organizational tool which should help speed up a gaming session for the GM.