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Review: Obsidian Portal

Reviewed by: Brent P. Newhall

I'll give you my overall review first: Is Obsidian Portal a useful tool for tracking a campaign? Yes. Is it perfect? I'm afraid not.

Basically, OP collects all the software tools that the really cool folks already use for their campaigns into one convenient, integrated, fully-functioning product. Its website provides a lot of useful functionality for keeping track of a role-playing campaign, including an adventure blog, a wiki, an NPC tracker, a forum, and a place to upload maps (well, a map; I'll get to that issue later). It's free for basic use; you can pay to unlock a few restrictions.

However, Obsidian Portal suffers from the typical ills contracted when a relatively powerful site is developed by a small group of people: the interface isn't always consistent, a few features can be confusing, and it doesn't have all the functionality I'd need. It does do most of what I'd want, though.

First off, setting up a campaign in Obsidian Portal is refreshingly easy. I used my major ongoing campaign for my tests of OP, and I had everything I needed plugged into OP within 30 minutes. That included the campaign log, some wiki information, a map, and a few NPCs.

It might've been quicker if not for a few strange interface conventions. There's no direct way of returning to your own campaigns. I usually clicked on the Campaigns tab at the top, which took me back to a list of featured and recent campaigns across the site, as well as a small profile. I'd then click on my profile, which listed my campaigns, and from there could get into my campaign.

That's my one major complaint, actually. The main tabs at the top display information about site-wide content (such as featured campaigns, recently added items, etc.). When I'm using a content management site like this, I care more about my own content than others', So I'd prefer it if those main pages at least listed my own content.

Anyway. Each campaign consists of six sections: Adventure Log, Wiki, NPC Tracker, Forum, Maps, and Comments.

The Adventure Log is basically a blog of your adventures. Each entry contains a title, subtitle, and date, plus the text of the entry. Works well enough, except the date is listed on the very bottom of the page. The date's the most important field, which I usually have to tweak because I write the log entry a day or two after the session. So why isn't it at the top? And do we really need a subtitle? It's not a bad design; it's just a little strange.

Not so strange is the Wiki, which is a particularly well-implemented feature. It accepts both common wiki formatting and HTML, and in general just works. No problems here whatsoever, and it's nice to see a solid wiki engine in a product like this.

The NPC Tracker, like the Adventure Log, works well enough but has a few interface inconsistencies. I won't bore you with them; suffice to say that a few fields didn't make immediate sense (like the field for crunch that's labeled "Description"), and I had to go back and fix a few NPCs that showed up as playable characters as a result. I also find it strange that crunch is always listed before fluff. I always show my players fluff before they learn crunch; why is it reversed here? But overall, it's a solid feature that lets you list major NPCs and PCs in the campaign.

The Forum contains standard web forum features, letting you create discussions. I didn't notice any particular interface weirdnesses here; the forum is simple and useful. You might even be able to run a forum-based game this way.

The Map area allows you to, well, upload maps. They have to be images, and they have to be less than 500 KB each. And, actually, you can only upload a single map in the free version. This strikes me as a significant limitation, but then most campaigns probably aren't generating a lot of maps, and how many of those are worth scanning in? Still, I'm surprised OP limits you to only 1 map with the free version.

The Comments section...I honestly don't get. It lets people post comments to the campaign, as though commenting on a blog post. I don't see the utility of this when you've already got a solid forum. Why not just let people post there? I suppose it's slightly easier to post a comment.

The problem is you have two places to look for discussions: the Forum and Comments. Why? Heck, why not automatically create a "Comments" thread in the Forum, and have the Comments section jump straight to it? It's just weird to duplicate functionality like this.

And, again, that's my primary complaint, and it's a minor one: many functions and attributes are a little odd. They get in my way, or are ordered in such a way that I end up scrolling all over the page to find the most-accessed fields.

There are a few other features - such a Google Map of all OP users who have entered their real-world location - that are interesting but don't appear quite ready for prime time yet.

Much as I'd like to see these little problems fixed, OP excites me. It's a pretty solid product, and with a few more features could turn into a must-use service. What would I like to see added? A way of tracking players, and scheduling sessions. Getting the group together is always the hardest part of playing, compared to informing the group about Duke Malinare's hit points. I'd also like to see a way of tracking locations in the game world (similar to the NPC Tracker), and a robust campaign export function, so I can get my data out of OP if I need to, ideally exported as a Word or OpenOffice document.

But I don't want to make too much out of these relatively minor issues. Obsidian Portal works; it's a solid product with solid functionality. It's a great place to start for anyone wanting to track their campaign online.

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