Epic Words, Obsidian Portal, and MyDndGame Compared
Reviewed by: Dave Schaefer
Electronic systems can be helpful for dealing with the bookkeeping of a pen and paper roleplaying campaign. Some people like to write in-character journals to establish how their character thinks, or write prose that expands the canon of the game setting. Others like to keep session logs to record the story, or track XP totals and party loot. Several sites now exist that aim to be a one-stop solution for all of these activities - rather than settling for only one type of record (e.g. wiki, blog, or forum). These all-in-one sites host everything in one convenient place.
This review covers three "all-in-one" helper sites: Epic Words, MyDndGame, and Obsidian Portal.
First, the good news: each of these sites competently covers the basics, allowing you to track information about characters and campaigns in a variety of blog, wiki, and forum formats. You can create a profile and link your information together, invite players to your game, or join a game run by someone else. The sites differ, however, in their details and implementation.
Epic Words has several features that make it stand out. They have an XP tracking system that makes it easy for players and GMs alike to update character advancement, and also lets you easily view XP history. It also has a loot tracker where you can store items, note their properties, and divvy them out to the party. The loot system can be customized for your campaign to refer to money with a dollar sign, as "credits", "gold pieces", or anything else you desire. Overall, the attention to small details with things like loot customization and a special place for character motto made me really enjoy using this site.
Finally, the free accounts on Epic Words give you lots of functionality - almost everything provided to a pay account except image storage and number of characters or campaigns. If you do pay for an account you get a whopping 1 GB of image space, which can be shared among a GM and their players. If you only need to run or play in a single campaign you could easily get by with a free account, but at $12 per year the Epic Words paid subscription is very affordable.
Of course, there is room for improvement. Although it claims to be (and is mostly) game system agnostic, there are several areas where Epic Words tries really hard to stick to the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition system. For example, it asks you to chose your character's "role" from the 4e list of defender, controller, leader, and striker. The site could also benefit from making the public user list and games list searchable; currently it is difficult to find a game if you're looking to do something like Play By Post.
My Dnd Game
MyDnD is another site that covers the basics well. I really like their Open Games list, which makes it easy to search and find players and groups to game with. The list has useful features such as leaving messages when applying to a game, when accepting players, or when declining players. If you don't have an established group but prefer to play online this makes the social aspects of negotiating group membership flow more smoothly.
MyDnD also has a site-wide chatroom where you can talk in real-time with other community members. The people I talked to were friendly and helpful, and made me feel like I was part of the community. Some groups on MyDnD even run their game sessions via chat rather than Play By Post, which is an interesting compromise between playing in realtime while being geographically separate. Gaming through chat may appeal to people who want more immediate feedback when gaming online.
The MyDnD dev team seems very responsive to bugs and feature requests. And the other great thing about MyDnD is that it's free - signing up for an account gets you access to all of the features right away. If you're on a budget or just want to try things out, that's good news.
On the down side, the MyDnD interface is less polished than either Epic Words or Obsidian Portal - a few of the site features don't work (e.g. editing wiki pages or adding a character image), and the site was sometimes slow or unresponsive for several minutes at a time. Some of the navigation is awkward: upon logging in it takes you to the forum rather than your homepage, and the navigation links on the forum page differ from those used on the rest of the site.
The allowed game systems are also much smaller: when creating a campaign the site has dropdowns listed for many different systems, but while creating characters you can only choose from D&D 4e, D&D 3e, and Pathfinder. Those three systems do have nice looking character sheets, but if you're looking for a non-D&D campaign you're better off choosing another site. As the name of the site is "MyDnD", this shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
Of the three sites, Obsidian Portal seemed to have the most intuitive, most polished interface. Entering information, editing posts, and setting up campaigns was easy, and their comment system feels snappy. The only downside I found was that the site is very tall - I had to scroll a lot to see all of the windows and find features like the 'save' button. This may be less of an issue if you're not using a laptop.
Obsidian Portal supports multiple game systems and has areas to let you store GM-only information, which is very handy compared to a stand-alone wiki, forum, or blog. It also has a slick in-browser dice roller. And if you prefer getting your hands dirty with markup rather than using a graphical interface to edit pages, Obsidian Portal is the system for you: not only do they have a point and click system but they also let you use HTML and Textile formatting.
Obsidian Portal has a few other interesting features, such as a Google Map of player locations to help you find a game, and a partnership with a website called Avatar Art if you're interested in custom character portraits. Their login system also uses OpenID, and you have the option of publishing your campaign blog posts to Technorati if you're looking for extra campaign exposure (although judging by the forums I'm not sure how useful this would be).
One downside is that Obsidian Portal is the most expensive site of the three - a paid account costs between $40 to $60 per year, depending how much time you buy at once. Some useful features are also limited, such as not being able to have a campaign forum unless you pay. Finally, Obsidian Portal does try to collect a lot of personal and geographical information when you create a campaign, though thankfully it is easy to not provide them with anything.
In addition to the above, there are several features that are absent from all of these websites. Firstly, none of the sites have a secure https encrypted login option, which would allow you to keep your password private. Secondly, help files and tutorials were lacking across all three sites. Even the sites that did provide help often had files that were sparse and out of date. Finally, none of these websites had any sort of export or backup feature. If I'm going to pour my heart and soul into a campaign or character I want to be able to make a backup copy! Currently, if any of these sites go down or the business folds, your data is most likely lost, which could be a big issue if you've invested a lot of time in your game.
Having never used an all-in-one site to track a D&D campaign, I can now see the benefit of using one to run your game. It's nice to have your information manageable and in one place, and using these sites made me feel like part of a gaming community. Browsing through other people's campaigns can be a good way to judge community activity, and to get ideas for your own games.
None of these systems struck me with a dire need to switch right away. If you're proficient with another technology such as a wiki or a blog and are using that to track an existing game, you probably don't need to change systems or transfer your content. If instead you're not very technically inclined, are looking for an easy tracking system, or are starting up a new game, using one of these sites may help you organize and run your campaign.
So which site should you pick? Truthfully, all of these are good. If I were starting a new campaign I would probably choose Obsidian Portal because of the overall feel of the polished interface. I am biased, however, because I prefer to edit pages using wiki markup rather than a graphical interface. If you like certain features such as the loot or XP tracker, or if you want lots of image space, you may want to use Epic Words instead. If you are on a budget, enjoy chatting, or need a good way to search for open games, you may prefer MyDnD.
Regardless of what you choose I hope you found this review useful, and I hope you are able to have fun at your game!
Here is a feature comparison chart based on information available at the time of writing these reviews.
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