Realm Works, the new campaign and world management application by Lone Wolf Development (creator of the very popular HeroLab character creation software) was finally released out of a (very) long Beta/Early Access programme at the end of March 2014, about a year after their successful Kickstarter campaign.
As a backer of the Kickstarter (at the Dire Wolf level), I’ve had access to the program for sometime before that, so I’ve played with it for some time. So what do I think so far? There have been some positive reviews out there (e.g. from Anna Meyer, of Greyhawk mapping fame, and here, and here). However, although I certainly want to be a firm advocate, I have to admit that I am struggling to find the software a compelling addition to my RPG toolset.
Some of this impression is definitely tied up with the fact that LWD are a very long way from delivering the full set of rewards promised by the Kickstarter campaign. Most of these ‘extra’ rewards were in the form of content delivered via the Realm Works market place … which still seems to be a long way from being complete . According to LWD’s latest roadmap this will be started after the Player Edition has been delivered. Honestly, based on current progress, I would not expect this until well into next year.
LWD have been open and honest about the delays to their development programme, so I have no issues about this, I’m just realistic. I manage software projects as a career myself, so I’m pretty familiar with the type of timescales needed here. But it does mean that in usage terms, what we’ve got in our hands so far definitely doesn’t yet match with the vision of the Kickstarter.
So what’s to like?
There is a lot to like about the current Realm Works product. It’s fast (especially once your ‘Realm’ is loaded), well-written, and is relatively bug-free, at least major bugs. A number of features are really well implemented. Several of the best are:
- Smart Images – these are images of any sort which you can drop pins onto which link to other topics. This allows you to build for example a regional map with ‘hot-spot’ links to other maps or information (example shown on right)
- Automatic Content Link detection – this is really well done! When you’re editing text in a topic, as soon as you hit the ‘Save’ button, Realm Works automatically scans your text to determine if any of the words you’ve used match other topics, and will ask you to confirm if you want to create links to these topics. I mean, why wouldn’t you! This is so much easier than specifically creating links yourself, and it works pretty fast as well – you’re certainly not sitting there twiddling your thumbs while it churns through your database looking for hits! Maybe this will slow down as the size of your world data increases, but in general this is very usable.
- The Storyboard functionality, which allows you to create flow charts of your plots, and link plot points to encounters, NPCs and other data, is another win. The interface is clean and simple, and linking to content is fast and effective: you simply associate a node in the storyboard with a topic, and this allows you to link directly.
So what’s the problem then?
Well, I think simply there is one word that sums it up: integration. Or rather, the lack of integration, because essentially there is none. If you build an encounter in Realm Works, there is no way to export the data into any other program (e.g. a combat manager), or in fact at the moment to even print the encounter. What if I want to create and layout a campaign handout (e.g. a player’s guide to a region in my world)? There is no way to achieve that without individually copying snippets of data over from Realm Works into your tool of choice. Of course, if you then make any updates in that tool, you’re out of sync with your ‘Realm’. What about syncing your data with an online wiki like Obsidian Portal? Or uploading content automatically to a virtual tabletop like Roll20?
It’s clear that the intention is to share content electronically using the RealmWorks tools – in fact Lone Wolf Development just released their Player Edition – a cheaper version of the application that supports only viewing content as revealed by the GameMaster (created using their more expensive version of course…). I’ve had a little play with this, and it seems pretty slick, but my point still stands: in this day and age you ought to be able use your data in multiple different tools, depending on the specific need you have at the time. Some of these features will come in time, and are on the to-do list for LWD. The bottom line at the moment though is that the functionality in this area is pretty limited.
Another area I would like to see improved in the future is the style of the user interface. Currently it looks and feels a bit like using an old-style Microsoft Access database. Now that may be fine when actually editing your ‘Realm’, but I’d certainly like it to have a bit more pizazz when simply viewing data i.e. some styling and layout options.
The Bottom Line…
I want to like Realm Works, I really do! But right now, with the current functionality, I just can’t see it being a useful tool in my campaign management toolbox. Before I would change my mind, it would need to go through several iterations of improvement.
On the positive side, Lone Wolf Development seem very committed to the project, and from a technology perspective seem to have concentrated very carefully on the underlying building blocks of their product, so that they can develop significant new features in the future. If that remains the case, I’m quite happy to stay along for the ride!