Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Keep's a Keeper

A while back I posted about my search for a good RPG database program. I thought I'd update on what I found and how it's working out.

I was a little surprised by the dearth of good RPG database programs currently available, to be honest. Judging from the comments I got to my initial post, it seems that most people turn to wikis for their database management these days. Well, call me an old stick in the mud, but I don't want to have to code - no matter how minor said coding might be - on top of organizing a database. That's just me. Plus, I usually don't have the sort of players who can be bothered to check wikis or contribute or what-have-you. They're more of the "roll the damn dice" school, while I'm more of the "obsessive archivist and tinkerer" breed. Which, I suppose, is why I'm the GM and they're the players. What I'm trying to get at is that the point of having a publicly-shared database is sort of lost with me and my usual players.

At any rate, after searching around and looking at demos and so forth, I settled on two programs that would face off against each other in a winner-take-all Thunderdome-esque showdown.

 Art by Matthew Elliot

In one corner, we have DM Secretary. Pros: it's freeware; it looks purty and has a nice interface; it has a great calendar app - something that was lacking from pretty much every other program I looked at, which really surprised me - plus all the other features I was looking for. Cons: it's for Fourth Edition (and it could also work for d20/Pathfinder). This was a con for me since I was running Castles & Crusades at the time, plus I like to run a bunch of other systems and was looking for something that could handle any campaign I'd choose to throw at it. It's lack of customizability led me to look into shelling out some ducats for...

The Keep from NBOS software.  I've had some experience with NBOS before; I used their generally excellent Screen Monkey program to run the latter half of my online 2006-2008 Pendragon campaign. The biggest con with this company is that they charge way too much for their programs. I mean, 35 bucks for Screen Monkey!? Fantasy Grounds II is only 5 bucks more, and it comes with all these fancy bells and whistles like interactive, 3-D dice and such.

But what can I say? Despite the lack of graphical whiz-bang wow factor, NBOS got me again. With Screen Monkey I shelled out the dough because of the way the program worked; specifically, only the GM needs the program and everyone else simply dials in to the game through their web browser. We'd been having lots of trouble with updates and network crashes with OpenRPG, and Screen Monkey provided a most welcome respite from that.

In the case of The Keep, the money has again proven itself well-spent. This is because the program walks the fine line between the total flexibility of a wiki and the plug-n-play interface of a good database program of something like DM Secretary. With The Keep, I've been able to organize all my notes, NPCs, books, maps, and adventures, all in one location. One thing I really like about the program is that you can embed PDFs into the database tree. This makes flipping back and forth between your notes and your PDFs an absolute breeze. Plus there's an extremely versatile dice roller.

Although I'm not running my C&C game anymore, I've started running my Pendragon games with The Keep open on a laptop off to the side. Previously I was using a three-ring binder to organize all my notes, but I found that I have a tendency to forget what exactly is in the binder, particularly at crucial moments. With The Keep, all your files are listed in tree-form so it's easy to see what you have to work with at a glance.

Two things The Keep lacks that DM Secretary has in spades are a calendar function (which is much less crucial now that I'm not running a D&D-esque game) and an easy to use PC record sheet. The program interacts with NBOS's freeware Character Sheet Designer, but that's just a blank template that still requires you to actually build a character sheet before you can start plugging in data. Not something I've had the time or inclination for doing.

On the other hand, The Keep also interfaces with another extremely handy piece of NBOS freeware called Inspiration Pad Pro. This program allows you to put together your own random tables and the coding is so ridiculously simple even I don't mind doing it.

So overall, I've found The Keep to be the perfect solution to organizing my campaigns (both present and future - more on the latter in a forthcoming post) and I've now officially become one of those GMs that has a laptop at the gaming table. So be it. I tried the analog method, I really did...

(Incidentally, one of the criteria from my original post - the search for a Mac-compatible program - failed utterly across the board. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since I can now also run the stunningly excellent Domesday program alongside The Keep when I'm running Pendragon. Domesday has proven invaluable in coming up with NPCs, names, hunts, and so forth on the fly.)
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