Of being coerced into online gaming plaforms
We all know good gaming groups are hard to come by, and harder to keep together with the pull of the so-called "real life": the wife/husband, kids and professional obligations being among the most common offenders. Although remote gaming (via Skype/others) is not seducing me as a viable alternative, I have been looking for platforms and offerings that simplify my life as a GM and/or player. Enter Obsidian Portal ( www.obsidianportal.com , OP for short).
Obsidian Portal is a web-only platform that provides "spaces" for GMs to detail their campaign and collaborate with their players. Think of it as a Facebook/Myspace page specialized in campaign material. It is rpg-agnostic, although some well-known systems do have access to more features than others on the sole virtue of having more user-contributed material (Dynamic Character Sheets and the like, more on that below.)
The Basic (free) membership lets you create up to 2 Campaigns that feature: Wiki, Adventure Log, Campaign Map (1 map), Characters, which constitute a good starting package. For a fee (about 3$ to 5$ per month depending on term chosen) you can get an "Ascendant membership", which increases storage space to a ridiculous amount (from 2 Megabytes to 5 Gigabytes!), enables Forums and e-mail notifications, raises the number of map uploaded to 10, and removes advertisement along with a few other perks and features.
The website is functional, even basic campaigns can quickly gather a great deal of allure with the addition of a banner and a few pictures, and this is very easy to do. The picture uploading interface is very well made and will help you add a bit of color to your campaign in no time. I suggest you go and take a look at featured campaigns, as some really have an impressive amount of style and character.
Editing pages use a wiki language named "Textile" but HTML is also possible. Textile works for quick-and-dirty editing, and some level of layout is possible, but it does require a bit of "getting used to" before achieving really interesting results. Due to a seemingly very interesting and complete API, a great deal of customization is possible if you are comfortable with technologies like CSS and advanced HTML.
Dynamic character sheets provide a form-like interface for character sheets, although not every system out there has one. These are mainly user-contributed and that's a very good idea, but it does mean that more popular systems get serviced a bit more. I tried my hand at creating such a sheet for my Silhouette campaign but the learning curve is pretty steep and I have a lot of work remaining for my sheet to be useable. Developers are definitely welcome to try their hand at this.
You can upload images as maps, and as this uses the Google Map API you can easily navigate through it by dragging and zooming, making for an impressive showing. For some reason it only accommodates square maps, and the relationship between resolution and zoom is a bit arcane (my huge maps end up looking a bit too small), but it's a welcome addition and lets you put markers linked to wikipages on the map to locate where everything is and provide details.
The "meat" of the campaign space is the wiki, that can be populated by players and GM alike. It does a great job of helping to document locales, items and characters in a legible manner. For each page there is a "GM-only" checkbox that can be used to keep GM information private, but mysteriously there is no way for a player to mark information as "Private between the GM and himself", so anything put on a character page will either be GM-only or wide-open. This is in my opinion a major omission and would greatly help the platform if implemented, for all those "little character secrets" you want to reveal to other players during the course of the game.
A character list (categorized by PC/NPC) is automatically generated and this is a great feature to keep track of all PCs and NPCs. There is a robust tagging system that allows you to categorize pages efficiently, and used imaginatively this can lead to great new ways to view information. You can for instance tag NPCs with their location, and that means clicking on that location's tag will list all NPCs with that tag, saving you a great deal of searching for "Everyone living in that village".
Profiles (including avatars and friends list) help alert you to the changes on the campaigns you're following, and you can even "favorite" campaigns to follow them over time. There are other features available that I did not use much up to now, such as a basic forum system for player interaction, a comment system and even a way to locate new gamers (through a partnership with Lonely Gamer). It's probably great if you're into that sort of thing, but I'm more of the gregarious type and OP suits me well to use with my usual crowd.
As far as I'm concerned, Obsidian Portal made the right choice for its approach: instead of trying to automate anything and everything, walking the dangerous path that is the "Virtual Tabletop", they provide a collaborative framework for players and GMs alike to take some pain out of the book-keeping. It's got a few quirks, such as the missing Player-GM feature or the fact that all tags are public (including those on GM-only pages), but generally speaking the interface is stable and useable.
Its most defining use is clearly for campaign documentation: NPCs can be created in a breeze and will keep you away from the "what was that guy's name again?", locations can be fleshed out and a lot of fun can be found weaving links between places, people and events with wiki-links. Even less tech-savvy players will find a way to contribute, and I really like that everyone can help build the world, from the GM giving setting-wide information to players who want to describe their family mansion in loving detail.
In terms of value, "free" is pretty hard to beat, and the basic membership will provide a lot of mileage for everyone to have a good try at Obsidian Portal. I'm guessing though that if you're like me, the more you get used to OP the less you'll be able to do without it and you'll eventually end up getting the "Ascendant" membership.
I invite you to go to the website and have a stab at it, see if it's your thing.