In this particular installment I thought that it might be interesting to post something of a review on Obsidian Portal, the platform on which this site is built. I have been using the site for a bit now, and think I have at least a few preliminary comments that I can make on it. This might be of particular interest to anyone following along out there that isn’t already a member of Obsidian Portal and wants to get an idea of if they should start using it or not. With that in mind, we’ll get right into the meat of this next installment of the Commentary Series.
WARNING: This is a longer post than normal, and it is all text. Be advised before investing in to read it.
So, let me start off by pointing out that I am somewhat of a newcomer to the Obsidian Portal camp. This page actually serves as my very first campaign on the site (though I have others in the works), and was created essentially as soon as I signed up to the Portal. In this respect I have been using the Portal for under a year still, and I bring this up simply so you can establish your own sentiment of worth to my words. In that time I have since gone for an Ascendant Membership (which is pretty clear by the site), and have made use of every single feature I can think of that is available on the portal.
The most obvious advantage Obsidian can provide to any campaign is information retention. There are many bits of information that come up over the course of any campaign, and those details can very easily get lost in the shuffle of things as time rolls on. Obsidian allows you to store those details, bits, and bobs—you don’t have to be as concerned about forgetting NPC names, where the troupe found that sword, or what exactly that note said now that the hard copy has been lost. Of course, this all assumes that the GM and players are willing to put in the effort of keeping the site up to date. Without that commitment the tools is useless, just like any other form of campaign management.
Of course, there are the more obvious advantages that a Portal page can provide you as well. Though the menu links have been renamed on this page through the magic of CSS, the functions are still the same as any other page here at Obsidian. Even a free account comes jam packed with a series of general features that can help add a new dimension to you game. For me, it has become an almost invaluable resource for my sessions in this short time. We will address each of these basic areas in a little more detail.
The Chronicle section (actually known as the Adventure Log normally) provides a basic blog function that you can use to easily record the details of your campaign as it rolls along. There are so many ways you can approach this beyond what you see presented on this particular site. You could do just a simple line item listing of events that happened, while much more dry for outsiders it still serves the purpose of recording the details of sessions. Players can make personalized character logs that either act as the recap or a supplement to it. You can do non-session things such as this GM Commentary Series that you are reading now. Then there is always the option of recapping the sessions like a story as I have done on this site.
Moving on to the Codex (normally called the Wiki), you get—as you guessed—a basic Wiki setup that you can manage any way you like. This is probably what is considered the core feature of an Obsidian Portal account, but it can also be one of the trickiest to manage. My major suggestion here is remembering to make it functional. You could always just slap things in there and link to them in other areas as you see fit or rely on searches, but if you take some time to consider a manageable structure to the Wiki you can go a long way to making it more accessible. My own Wiki is one example of establishing some form of manageable framework, and other portal pages tackle this in numerous ways. As for the information it contains, the sky is the limit. My own site features a beastiary, lore, mechanics, and more.
The Characters section (that is the name of that section, one of the only ones I didn’t mess with) is again what you make of it technically. Depending on the game system you are using, you may have access to Dynamic Character Sheets that are developed by other fans which can make for one heck of a way to record your information (though since it is all done by the community don’t get your hopes set on this). In other instances, at the very least you can record some basic details or structure up something that lets you record all the information you like. Here on our site, the Characters section are digital repositories of every last detail we need—stats, gear, level up trackers, and more. We have made use of this when players have lost or forgotten their sheets. Not all of this is publicly visible, and I will go into that more later.
The Contrivances (normally called Items) is technically a unsupported section of the Portal and is to be used with caution. No support or development of the section is going to be happening. Still, it provides a good enough framework that you can easily record as many kinds of items as you like. My own repository is now growing to include all basic equipment, mundane items, and magical things. As with most other areas you are really only limited by your imagination (and to some degree your coding skills, more on that later). Like the Characters section (though I didn’t mention it before), you can easily upload a picture of the item (or Character) to add a little more to your sessions. In this case, I suppose Google’s the limit.
Finally, we have the Cartography (actually called Maps) section of the site. This is a pretty cool feature, depending on the campaign you are running. It allows you to upload your own maps and then they are viewed via the Google Maps APIs. You even get the ability to put in Map Markers that you can make your own data tags for. This makes the maps very interactive, though the Markers can only be seen by members of the campaign. You do have a limit on the amount of maps you can have on a basic account, if I recall correctly this is something like three.
The search feature of the site is also great. You want to find things on here really quickly at the table, a fast search will get you where you need in a moments notice. This is much easier than parsing through books, and comparable to running a search on a PDF book (though still faster in many instances, depending on the term and game system). I think most people probably overlook just how nice of a feature this is to have, and it comes right out of the box with the free account.
Another less obvious feature that helps make a Portal page work wonders for a campaign is the ability to tag your content. The tagging feature integrates with the search features of the site as well making it all the more valuable. You get the ability to tie together information, characters, items, whatever you desire really. This again assumes the fact that you are sure to tag your content with as many relevant tags as you can think of. It also helps to review this information over time as a fresh perspective can shed new insights on how your players or fans might be searching for content on your page.
When creating content on the Portal, you also have the ability to easily link off to other content. Every content page you make has buttons to quickly drop a link to a character, wiki page, or include an image. This is all done via a basic coding language called Textile that is actually fairly easy to learn an work with (meaning you may very quickly start hand typing those kind of links and overlook the buttons, but they are still handy). They even give you a link on the Wiki that tells you how to use Textile when you create a new campaign page, so all the better to get it down. As an added bonus you can also use inline HTML and CSS on any pages you like, though I will touch a bit more on CSS later as well.
A hidden feature that I sort of touched on earlier is that you can also make it so not all content is public. This is achieved through a GM Only option that lets a GM tag any page created with information that only they will be able to see when logged in. This feature is simply amazing for tracking all sorts of information from plot points, to character knowledge, to secrets, to special notes about things you need to consider at the table. The options are open to whatever you want to include in the section of the page.
Now, with all of that available to a free account, you might ask yourself what could they possibly be offering with an Ascendant membership. Well, the answer is quite a bit and I have found uses for each and every one of them. You get a couple of new sections that I will details below further—a Forum and Calendar—as well as being able to upload more maps, store more images, do custom backgrounds, include player secrets on pages, and play around with a custom CSS file. So lets touch base on just why you will probably want to upgrade to an Ascendant account. Oh, one last thing before we do, only a single member of a campaign needs to be Ascendant for everyone else to have access to the features!
Now, the first thing I will touch on is the new sections you get with the first being the Forum. Forums have been around since just about the beginning of the internet, and with the paid account you can have a private forum right on your campaign page on the Portal. It is pretty basic, but it features the quick linking and such I mentioned in the free stuff. This means you could do an online forum based campaign, or if you play in person you can use it to discuss all sorts of details about the game in between sessions (like my troupe and I do).
The second new section you get is the Calendar. Now, this might sound a little pointless at first, but it is a great way to schedule your sessions since your players can subscribe to it via Google Calendar or iCal (or other calendar service they might use) really easily. I also find that it seems to encourage my players to use the site (mixed with my Prestige Points system) since they will pop in to mark if they can make a session or not. Once they are on they typically peek around a bit and get some use in outside of sessions.
You also get to upload more maps and store more images (larger storage on account), but this is one of the varied bonuses. Depending on your campaign you may not need a lot of maps, or you may even find the free storage for your images sufficient. Either way though, it is still something more you can take advantage of if the need ever presents itself. So, with this feature I suppose your mileage will vary, but it is still something else you should consider when debating going Ascendant.
The custom background and the CSS features sort of go hand in hand, so I will touch on them next. If you want to be able to spice up you site a bit more than the free account will allow, Ascendant gives you the tools you’re looking for. Obsidian does have a wide range of free backgrounds you can use, so finding something for your page might not be so bad, but the option for a custom background will ensure your page has that proper feeling you want to convey for your campaign. With the custom CSS you can apply some coding skills to truly transforming the site into almost anything you can imagine (really, there are limits, but take a look at some of the pages out there). There are a few in the community (myself included) that are happy to help with the code side of things, so why not go for it?
The last, but most certainly not least, of the features you get with the Ascendant account is Player Secrets. These, simply put, are one of the best features of the upgrade. Just like the GM Only areas of a page, you can now add any number of extra hidden sections and tag what individual players you want to be able to see those details. Use it for extra GM only areas, a place to show one or two players a bit of secret information, give appropriate lore in areas of your wiki to PCs it applies to based on background, or any other number of things you could think of. I use this feature everywhere, and as I said I see it as one of the main draws to the upgrade (even with all the CSS tweaking I have done).
Now, there are a few other things I want to touch on that I don’t see a lot of other reviews of the Portal touch on. The first one is the Community, the second is Support, and the last is Staff Interaction. I find it odd that these things seem overlooked in other reviews, but they are things any customer should consider when approaching buying into a service (or product for that matter). With that in mind, and if you are still up for it, lets keep on rolling with the review.
First up is the Community, and this is a great selling point for the Portal. You get access with a free account, and while the community is not the most active in the world it is a place of friendly and helpful gamers of all sorts. You can find out about cool crowd funding projects for RPGs, get help with some CSS, or generally chat with your fellow gamers on the Portal about anything you like. It is a great place that I have been having a blast being a part of since I signed up, so why not come and join us and keep it growing and thriving?
Well, we have had a whole lot of really good things to say so far—it is about time we move to the mediocre, Staff Interaction. Now, don’t get me wrong, Obsidian is not the worst I have ever seen in this department. In fact, I am typically one of the first ones in the community to defend them when folks have anything negative to say. With that said, I am also a realist and bound by logic. From that bent I can safely say that the interaction we do get could be a lot better and more consistent (and I can think of companies out there that do go to this level, albeit a rare thing). Still, while I think there is room for improvement here, we do at least get some degree of interaction from those behind the scenes which is far better than absolutely nothing. Take that for what you will, I don’t see it as a positive or negative myself.
Now, lets move on to the bad—Support. This is a common trend with a lot of companies, and sadly the the Portal rolls along with the trend in this department. While I have not needed to reach out to support myself since I signed up, my background is able to carry me through most of what I run into online, I have seen others attempt to reach out for assistance with lackluster results in essentially every case I can think of. Still, unless it really is something that only the staff could address, the community is an amazing fallback in this regard as well.
For my concluding thoughts on all of the information presented here I will say this. Is Obsidian Portal a perfect service, absolutely not and they have areas in which they could certainly and clearly improve. That does not change the fact that Obsidian Portal is an amazing service that can drastically change the landscape of your gaming sessions for the better. More simply put, a free account with Obsidian Portal is a no brainer and an Ascendant upgrade is well worth the money by a long shot. I am personally happy with my decision to adopt the Portal into my pack of GM tools, and will be renewing my upgrade without a second though when the time comes.
So, this has been a long one, but I hope it has been insightful for those of you following along that are still not members, or to anyone on the fence about getting an Ascendant upgrade. Until the next time!