Monday, May 19, 2014

Realm Works: Interviews with Customers

My original intent was for these interviews (and the interview with Liz Theis) to inform my review. However, Liz and the users that I interviewed were so thorough in their responses, I just couldn't let them invest all that time for nothing! So instead of incorporating their responses into my text, I decided to post their responses as separate posts so you can see all of their commentary rather than just the parts I thought were most important. Before I go on, I want to send out a big "thank you" to Liz for allowing me access to Realm Works for review purposes and to both Liz and the Realm Works forum regulars for taking the time to answer all my questions!



Me: Who are you? What type of campaign(s) are you running, and how long have you been using Realm Works?

Mike: My name is Mike, I'm from Blandford Forum in Dorset in the UK (Portilis on the Realm Works forums). I'm an experienced programmer and support engineer, and have been roleplaying for nearly 20 years, in tabletop games as well as online and live roleplay.

I've had a range of experience across different gaming systems, both professional and homebrew, with the current tabletop games I am involved in being a regular Pathfinder group I am the ref for, another group run by my wife that uses the Pathfinder rules for a historical campaign set during the Roman era, and finally a less regular 3.5 group in a homebrew world.

I have been using Realm Works since the first early access release from the Kickstarter, back in August last year. At the time I was running the Reign of Winter campaign for my group, which I moved into Realm Works.

Since then, with many lessons learned from my early experiences, I've working on two other projects - the first is the follow up campaign for the same group, for which I have been building the campaign world from the Pathfinder setting material in far more detail than I did with my prior campaign, and the second is the start of building a homebrew world for another potential campaign. Additionally, my wife has been moving her campaign into Realm Works, combining information from a lot of source material online.


Chemlak: I'm Chemlak ("ch" as in church, not chemistry), and I've been a roleplayer since the mid-1980s, and I've been GMing since about 1990. I started playing BECMI Dungeons & Dragons, and I've played every single edition of that game since, having settled on Pathfinder after 4E proved to not be what I and my group were looking for. I own dozens of RP systems (ranging from FUDGE all the way up to Rolemaster), covering every genre (fantasy, horror, superheroes, Sci-Fi, you name it). My true love, though, is fantasy. I've been running campaigns set in WotC's Forgotten Realms since I started GMing, and in the spirit of making it "my" campaign, I run my games as a persistent world - the events in one campaign are "history" for all subsequent campaigns.

Mark G: I have had access to the program since shortly after the conclusion of the Kickstarter. Some of my answers, such as those about updates, are based on that period of beta access. I don’t want to go into much detail on them because the beta was covered by a NDA that still stands, as I am still a beta user and will remain so for new updates. The beta status may be something LoneWolf would prefer not to be disclosed, so I include that only for context.

I am not running any campaigns at the moment. I am preparing a few, though, using the Pathfinder rule set. One of them is based on the “Price of Immortality” module arc (Crypt of the Everflame, Masks of the Living God, and City of Golden Death) combined with Clash of the Kingslayers and Fangwood Keep. A second is a conversion of the “Second Darkness” Adventure Path, and a third is my homebrew world setting (ongoing development over 30 years). The fourth campaign I am tracking is one in which I am a player, not the GM. This last one is being run over email, and I am using Realm Works to track the information revealed to us as players.


Me: What did you use to manage your campaign information before Realm Works? What are the advantages/disadvantages to the switch?

Mike: Prior to having Realm Works, my campaign notes largely consisted of using a number of text files managed through TextPad (if you don't know it, it is essentially a more powerful equivalent of notepad, popular with a lot of programmers), combined with Hero Lab files for the monsters, and the base book resources.

For me, the switch to Realm Works has been excellent, as it provides a lot of management tools and resources. Whilst the player version of the software is still to come, having the data so easily at my fingertips makes the game run far more smoothly, and the ability to link up to the TV with the player view to display maps and images of areas, people, and monsters has been incredible - no more players trying to interpret my descriptions (or those in the book) of an opponent ahead of them, I can put up and image and they can see exactly what they are dealing with.

I am very much looking forward to the day when the player version is released and my players (who all use laptops or tablets anyway for their character sheets) can have information revealed to them directly.

There are only a few things I would say are "downsides." The first is that I've had to start moving my computer into the room we game in whenever I'm running the game, as the laptop I used previously both struggles to cope with the resource requirements of the software (it's quite an old machine) and doesn't really have the screen size to display the program to it's full utility.

The second item is the work involved. If you are inputting a serious, detailed campaign into it, there's a lot of work, especially if you are adapting a pre-written setting and/or scenario. I've been working on my new Pathfinder campaign for months now, as it is a very large project - I am rapidly heading towards 2000 entries in that realm, and I am far from completion.

Finally, the learning curve is massive. This is not a simple piece of software, and no-one should buy it expecting to be able to use it to full effect overnight. After eight and a half months of working heavily with the program, I'm still learning new things on a regular basis, both in how the software operates and how best to use it to manage my information. That said, much of the reason for this is that the software is extremely powerful and provides a huge array of tools to help you, so once you are comfortable using it, it is very much worth the effort.


Chemlak: Prior to getting my greedy little hands on Realm Works, I've been very old-school in keeping my campaign notes: I have boxes filled with paper scattered around the house (much to the chagrin of my wife), filled with adventure ideas, NPC stats, maps, and other notes. Some of it is tidily compiled in folders, but most of it is, well, a bit chaotic. Just a couple of weeks ago I went through one box and discovered a few dozen sheets of notes that are actually relevant to my current adventure, which had been written somewhere around 1993.

I'm really not a very organised GM.

That's all changing, now, though, as I start to transcribe things into Realm Works, which I got in August 2013 as a backer on the Kickstarter Lone Wolf Development ran for the project. I've been using it to help run my home games since about a week after I got it (I needed a little time to get some information into it). Right now I have my entire current adventure (including major NPCs and all of the places my PCs should end up visiting) laid out in detail. I'm starting to fill in the wider campaign details as time permits - but as you can imagine, with a campaign like the Forgotten Realms to work from, that's not a small task!

Realm Works allows me to quickly and easily link the details of my campaign together (people, places, items, plots, planes of existence, countries, organisations... there's really no limit to the levels of detail), and see what my players know at a glance. Figuring out how I wanted to consistently present information took a while - up to this point, I've never really put that much thought into what I needed to know, as opposed to what my players need. Once I'd got my head around that, Realm Works made everything pretty simple.

Right now I wouldn't want to run a campaign without Realm Works.


Mark G: I’ve used a number of tools to manage campaigns in the past. Excel spreadsheets, Access and SQL Server databases of my own design, Word documents, HeroLab, VTT tools like Roll20.net, d20Pro, and Fantasy Grounds, and more.

I see many advantages, and no disadvantages. I say no disadvantages because I can continue to use the tools I have used previously with RealmWorks. For example, I can track the same information in Word or Excel as I have previously, and store the document in RealmWorks. If there is a disadvantage, it is that some of the most valuable features to me are still forthcoming.

Organization: Having everything in one “place” make it less likely that any particular document will be misplaced. The ability to nest topics provides a great deal of flexibility, allowing anyone to set up his or her campaign in the manner preferred, which can be different according to each user’s needs. Even when the number of topics becomes a challenge to navigate, the filtering and text searching features make that much more manageable.

Re-usability: This is a planned feature, not a current one. What this will allow is for GM to easily re-use an adventure, or a campaign setting, separately with multiple groups. Each such campaign would begin with a fresh copy, a “clean” start, for completely independent use; changes that apply to each are independent, and the story can progress in completely different directions as needed.

Publishing: RealmWorks provides a platform for a new medium in which to publish content. The expected Marketplace feature would allow an alternative to PDF publishing. The lack of page formatting would allow smaller, private publishers to dispense with the professional services of layout specialists – which has the downside of removing some of the artistry of the books published today.

Rules Flexibility: The same mechanism as will allow re-usability will allow a publisher greater opportunity to release a system-independent version of a campaign setting or adventure, facilitating the efforts of publishers to release the same content for multiple systems. Used properly, this would allow a GM to select the combination of rules and content appropriate for his or her own campaign.

Updatability: The same features that allow the re-usability and flexibility will allow for any published/shared content to distribute updates immediately. This is especially useful with typographic errors or minor corrections.

Retention: Players may miss details at the table, may forget them between sessions, or may not realize the importance of a detail and not make note of it. With RealmWorks, the GM can share the details in a format that the players can access separately (a forthcoming feature not available at the moment), including “red herring” details, falsehoods, and similar elements. The additional forthcoming feature, individual player revelation, will allow even more tailored content to be tracked.


Me: How punctual has Lone Wolf been in rolling out their updates? Have they kept to any release schedule timelines they've promised?

Mike: Lone Wolf's track record on getting the product out hasn't been perfect, with a number of delays, but I've seen far worse projects. They have worked hard to try to meet their targets, and when they haven't they have put out information on exactly what areas they are having problems with and done their best to explain the issues they are having to ensure that their customers are kept informed.

Having used Hero Lab for some time now, they have one of the best updating schedules I've ever seen from a small software concern, and they are very involved in their community of users, actively seeking suggestions for ways in which to improve their products.


Chemlak: Lone Wolf Development have been incredibly open about the development of Realm Works. There have been some significant problems with scheduling while it was in Beta, which delayed Early Access, and subsequently delayed the actual launch: Early Access was originally slated for May 2013, and didn't happen until August, and bugs kept pushing the retail launch back - there were a number of threads on the forums where people who wanted to buy it were getting pretty frustrated by the delays and lack of definite timescales, which I could understand, and even sympathize with to a great extent, but I also knew that the version I had wasn't quite ready for sale, thanks to bugs, so I spent a lot of time both enthusing about the software and asking people to be patient with Lone Wolf. Since release, though, the situation is a lot more transparent to everyone, and the updates have been delivered promptly and to schedule (so far, at least).

Mark G: As to punctuality, Lone Wolf has a mixed record. They have been good about releasing updates fairly quickly. On the downside, they have sometimes been overly optimistic about the key date: the initial public release date. That is really the only date Lone Wolf has attempted to be specific about. All updates have been more vague, probably to better manage expectations. Those updates have been fairly frequent, certainly not so long as to seem overlong considering. Lone Wolf has been very open about progress made and challenges encountered.

Me: How satisfied are you with the product in general?

Mike: Overall I am extremely satisfied with the product I have ended up with at this point in time. Whilst there is a definite degree of work involved in getting your game ready, I am finding that the accessibility of my information has notably improved how smoothly my games are running - no more needing to find everything amongst my notes (either on paper or computer) when I can access everything with a couple of clicks of the mouse, not to mention the added extra of being able to easily display things on the TV from within the software. Now it just needs the release of the player version and I will be running an entirely paperless game!

Chemlak: Overall I consider Realm Works to be the best possible campaign management software available. It does as much or as little as you need, and is extremely customizable. Having used it for 8 months, I now consider it indispensable.

Mark G: Overall, I am quite satisfied with Realm Works, and I look forward to long years of use.
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