Friday, March 23, 2012

In Depth DM Tool Kit Review

DMToolkit V. 1.42


I've been using DM Toolkit as my exclusive GMing software for over a year now and decided it was time to write an in depth review.  DM Toolkit is an iOS app published by Level99.  It costs  $12.99, which I'll admit is a bit steep compared to most offerings in the App store, but when I compare the amount of time it's saved me and the price I would have spent on binders and printing, I feel it's fair (as long as they keep updating it like they have been).

Now, this review is going to focus solely on the iPad version of the app (it is universal, though - so your 12 bucks get you the iPhone and iPad version).  Although it is the same high quality piece of software for both devices, it is just plain too complex and powerful to flow nicely on the tiny screen of the iPhone (you have to return to the Apps home screen to get to any other part of the app).  I use the iPhone version for those moments when I get a great game idea while waiting in line some place; then I transfer the file to my iPad for fixing, cleaning up, and actually running in the game.  The workflow on the iPhone will frustrate you as much as the workflow on the iPad (once you get used to it) will delight you.

Update: Lvl99 has added some great tutorials on their site.

Intuitive?  Not at all.

One thing to know, this program does not work how you would expect it to.  This is not a flaw as much as it is a necessity.  Instead of giving you an option to turn on a "power use" or "advanced" mode, it just exists purely in this mode.  Once you get it, though, you will see the incredible usefulness of what you thought was a convoluted mess.  At first glance, it is a Powerful Mess - I almost wrote the thing off as badly designed when I first started using it - then you see that mess is only a mess because you haven't organized it based on the game you are playing and how you GM.

What's such a mess?  Mainly it's the difference between "Templates" and "Resources."  Here is how it breaks down:

From the top level menu, you have a list of "Categories."  These are the broadest possible groupings of everything you will need (Armor, Monsters, NPCs, Locations, Story Hooks, etc.)

Selecting a Category takes you to the list of "Resources."  This is empty until you make them.  These are the individual instances of that NPC, or that piece of armor, or that specific location.

Resources are built off of "Templates."  Templates are the master form for that type of Resource.  You can make your own templates or download them from Level99's site.

What's the advantage of this?  Well, this allows you to make one master template that has all the blanks you will need for every major NPC in the game and then clone that form into as many individual NPCs as you need (each one a Resource).  This is my Template for "Major NPCs":

I make resources our of this Template for every single person who will re-occur in my campaign (I have a different Template for throw-away one time characters like shop keepers).  The best part of this system is how powerful it is.  You may have different needs for your NPC sheets.  That's fine, because DM Toolkit doesn't tell you at all how that sheet should look.  You make it yourself - to suit your needs and the needs of your game.  This is a problem, though.  It means you can't just pick up the program and go... You need to customize every aspect of it to suit the way YOU GM.

Time Saving?  If I have to create all these forms?

Just like all aspects of GMing, the time commitment is massively front loaded.  I spent about 2 weeks transferring all my favorite GM worksheets into DM Toolkit, along with creating worksheets and forms for a bunch of stuff I never thought about having before.

Once those 2 weeks were done, though - I was able to transfer those templates to the other 2 Campaigns I'm running.  Same Templates, all new Resources for each game (Because an NPC is an NPC).

Two weeks of time invested setting up DM Toolkit to work for the first campaign, and about 30 seconds getting it ready for the next 2.  Yes, I then had to type in all my GMing stuff that was in my binder, but that didn't take quite as long.

But what if I run a really common game, like DnD?  Then you can just download the pre-made Templates and tweak them to your liking.  Either way it saves time (after the initial set up).

I guess what I'm saying is this:  If you are looking for a way to replace all of your GM binders with an iPad, this is easily the best way to do it currently.  It will give you the closest approximation of how you currently run the game.  You will have to make some concessions to your work flow, it will not perfectly emulate the paper-based system you have been developing since 1977, but if you are willing to meet it halfway, it will do all the tasks (In a combination of it's own way and your customization).

So what about that giant binder I've used to run my groups game for the past 6 years?

I wouldn't recommend moving your current game over.  This App is best for the next game you start.  Why do I say that?  Well, if you have hundreds of pages of what DM Toolkit will call "Resources," even with a pre-made template, you have to enter those hundreds of pages as Resources.

I attempted to migrate a game over, and after 3 days of hand entering all the stuff I already had on paper (I was dedicated to never lugging a binder ever again) my players still had issues with the extra 30 seconds it took for me to find the right Resource (my first time using it In Game).  Practice the new work flow with a One-shot - not live and on stage with players staring at you.  Every change needs rehearsal.

But what if I'm a brand new GM and my ways haven't been set in stone since the 70s?  Then you might be perfect, because as you teach yourself to GM (let's be honest, no one can teach you - you have to fall on your face a few hundred times figuring out what works and what fails miserably) you can teach yourself the workflow of the App at the same time.

So it's just a database of Templates and Resources?

It is primarily a database.  But it's a database with an interface designed for GMing.  It can hold multiple databases (Called Campaigns - one for each game you play) and can easily move database categories and entries (Templates and Resources) from one Campaign to another.

What else does it have?  It has Generators.  They are incredibly useful and with a little reading in the manual, you can easily create your own Generator.  In the Resources section of this site you can find some Uber-Name-Generators I made (each with over 90k entries) for use in modern games.  With a little reading and a little time, you can set up an Orc generator that spits out a pre-made Orc or whatever it is you need. 

It also has an Initiative Tracker.  It won't blow your mind. Why not? Because it is designed to let you track initiative for ANY game you happen to be playing.  It's handled what I've needed for Savage Worlds & Storyteller.  If you want a full featured initiative tracker for DnD, there is separate apps just for that.

What you actually have is a list of everyone who is in combat and you can easily drag them up and down to set the rounds order.  There is a series of miscellaneous icons you can turn on or off to remember any statuses you need.  There is also a section for adding general modifiers. You can also color coat each person to easily tell the PCs from Enemies at a glance.  Again, it's not perfect, but it couldn't be if it was going to be useful for more than just a single game system.

Eggs in 1 basket: What if my iPad dies?

 It does have a backup system.  It even reminds you.

What it does:
  • You choose what elements from each campaign get backed up.
  • You can choose to back entire campaigns.
  • The backup file can go on your iPad as a single file that you can transfer through iTunes
  • The backup file can go on their server (I'm kind of private and don't like this option).
What it doesn't do:
  •  You cannot choose to have it back up via FTP to your own server.
  • You cannot choose to have it back up to DropBox (A feature it seriously needs).

When you have the backup, you can load it into any campaign (useful if you want to export a bunch of NPCs from one campaign to another campaign set in the same world.  You can also export all your DnD weapons, armor, traps, etc. and load them into any other DnD campaign (or keep them for future campaigns).

Dice Roller

It has a built in dice roller. Compared to dedicated dice roller apps, like Dicenomicon, it falls very short.  It can't store macros at all.  It can't calculate target number successes.  It gives a quiet way to roll a few dice (I only use it for rolling on random encounter tables and junk like that.)

If you want to roll dice on your iPad (or iPhone as I do, since my notes are on the iPad) you want to invest in Dicenomicon - it supports storing macros for multiple games, custom dice, anything you need.  I might review that next.

Linearity is a serious problem.

The Resources work perfectly for NPCs, Equipment, Enemies, Locations, etc.  When creating story lines as Resources, though, you have to work in a linear fashion.  You can reorganize any section of the forms, but they have to progress from top to bottom.  Any experienced GM knows, no good story really works that way.  Stories fork, entire sections are thrown out the window; sometimes those sections return later.  Stories that flow like a mind map are incredibly hard to build into a structure like:

  • Event 1
  • Event 2
  • Event 3

I'm not sure what a non-linear worksheet would like, but I fee like columns would be a serious game changer.  I love being able to create such detailed templates, I just wish I could break away from the linearity the app tries to push on me.  I've found ways to work around it, organize it by location, etc., but it takes some getting used to and you need to make some concessions in your workflow if you don't regularly do linear stories (I tend to sandbox my stories.)

You can add a variety of types of boxes, but they still only hold plain text (with the exception of a single image that each Template or Resource can hold, I wish I could add images in the flow, not just at the top).

Plain Text and no Bullet Points is kind of an issue.

Each section of a template can have a heading, but under that heading you get only plain text.  No Bold, No Italics, No Strike Through, No Font Size, No Font Colors, No Bullet Points.  This leads to huge walls of text and practically no way to break it up.  Yes, this is a minor complaint, but I need to be able to see my notes at a glance, I need to be able to pick out those super important ideas while I'm speaking live as a character I need to flick my eyes down and see that person's objectives.  A little thing like Bold and Bullet points would be a seriously big deal.

Let's Summarize:

The Good:

  • Flexible.  Works for every game, every time. You decide how it's organized.
  • Handles multiple campaigns at once.
  • Flexible backup system.
  • Built in generators, ability to make your own.
  • Community downloads for various game systems.

The Bad:

  • Large learning curve due to it's flexibility.  Not everyone wants complete control.
  • Can't backup to your own cloud services (like DropBox, etc.)
  • Limited Dice Roller.
  • No rich text editing leads to walls of text.
  • Limited search features and control for community content.

I have used this software religiously for over a year of weekly sessions across 3 different campaigns from 2 different systems.  I could not go back to my note books and binders after seeing how well I can make this software work.  The key being "How well I...", if you aren't willing to put the time into customizing (making Templates) the software to meet your needs, you will be disappointed by how limited and lacking it is.  They give you the tools to let you create your GM workflow, they don't prescribe for you how it works.