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Going Digital: Using Obsidian Portal to Prep for, Run, and Document a Campaign

Posted By Martin Ralya On August 25, 2010 @ 1:12 am In GMing Advice,Tools for GMs | 13 Comments

I’m no Luddite, but I’ve always been more of an analog campaign management kind of guy. I type up adventures and notes on my desktop, but print them out to use at the table; I’ve used Google Maps to create a custom “living” map for a modern game, but that game also ended with a two-inch thick binder of material on my shelf.

Having been out of the GM’s chair for over 18 months (Alysia and I had our daughter, Lark, in February 2009, and I spent a year developing and then publishing Eureka with the Gnome Stew team), I’m ready to try something new: abandoning my notebooks.

This time around, I’m going digital.

My intent with this article isn’t to go “Wooo, look at me and my cool idea!” but to discuss the approach I’m planning to take in case it’s useful to other GMs who are considering making this same switch.

Obisidian Portal

There are lots of ways to manage your campaign online, but from everything I’ve heard Obsidian Portal (OP) is one of the best.

The site just won its second ENnie Award, and it’s home to thousands of campaigns. Making my choice even easier, as a contributor to Open Game Table, Volume 2, I received a free 6-month Ascendant (paid) account on OP — a donation the founder of OP, Micah, made to all 70+ contributors.

In a nutshell, OP is a wiki-based campaign management tool with features geared specifically towards gamers, including adventure journals, the ability to hide GM’s-eyes-only material on the same page as public material, and more.

Wikis are pretty easy to update, very easy to cross-link, and are great for collaboration — you and your players can use OP to create and document a campaign together.

The Plan

My idea is simple, but represents a big change for me:

  • Do all of my written game prep in Obsidian Portal
  • Bring my laptop to the gaming table
  • Take all of my in-game notes in OP
  • Document NPCs, locations, and other easily-forgotten elements
  • Write up post-game stuff (and tidy up in-game notes) in OP
  • Welcome player collaboration in OP
  • When the campaign ends, leave it online for reference

No fat notebooks, no crappy handwriting, no decentralized mess — I think this sounds awesome.

The Benefits

I type much faster than I write, and using this approach I’ll have 100% of my campaign material in one spot, accessible from anywhere, and will hopefully save some time both before and during the game.

My players will have access to game material online at any time, something that they enjoyed during the last game I ran, and will have the option of writing character journals, taking notes of their own, and otherwise collaborating on the written record of the campaign.

…And Already Seeing Them

My group just settled on me running a Star Trek campaign, so I’ve just started prepping game material in OP; it rocks.

I have to fight the urge not to jot notes in Evernote or elsewhere, but once OP is open and I’m prepping right there where I’m going to need the material, I can see how efficient this is going to be.

I’m also loving that it helps make a task that can sometimes seem monolithic — prepping to run a campaign using a system I’ve never GMed before — into one that is easily chunked-up into smaller tasks that I can handle as I go. The wiki format is perfect for this.

Resistance Better Not Be Futile

Micah, who runs Obsidian Portal, cautioned me about not trying to do everything all at once from the outset, and I’ve heard him give this advice to others. It’s good advice!

Having started campaigns only to have them collapse under the weight of my self-imposed obligations — like documenting locations that may never get used in agonizing detail, spending hours drawing maps (that may never get used), and writing up adventure recaps as short stories — I can see how this would be a real, and tempting, problem. I’m going to resist it mightily.

I’ll be starting small, and letting my organic prep — and player contributions — drive what winds up on the wiki. I’m going to resist the temptation to over-produce, which would almost certainly lead to under-delivery — it’s the game that matters, not the halo of stuff around the game.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide

I’m not blazing a new trail, here — lots of GMs already do this, and I’ll take all the help I can get. Here are some of the resources I’m already using, courtesy of Gnome Stew (the first three) and Treasure Tables (the last three):

I’m excited to be back in the saddle, all the more so because I get to try out what sounds like a cool approach to streamlining prep and the written side of GMing.

If you do this yourself, have done it before, or have tips and tricks to share, fire away in the comments! Pooled knowledge rocks.

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Going Digital: Using Obsidian Portal to Prep for, Run, and Document a Campaign"

#1 Comment By Noumenon On August 25, 2010 @ 1:25 am

Just in case Micah reads this I wanted to give him the rare customer feedback from somebody who didn’t use his product. My group was having trouble scheduling games over email and considering a forum-based solution (I hate the phone). I signed up for Obsidian Portal thinking it would help and watched the orientation videos. Then I saw that the forums were premium content. Well that was how I was planning to get my players hooked into the idea of Obsidian Portal, first using the forums and then I could put up other pages. So I closed the browser window.

Although my one friend then said he didn’t want to do forums because he could check his email on his iPhone at work.

#2 Comment By Kikatink On August 25, 2010 @ 6:21 am

I’ve been using a forum based site for a couple of years now. It works GREAT for our group. I have all sorts of goodies like campaign information posted, character sheets, session times/locations, previous session recaps, house rules and character journals (which I award xps for maintaining.

The best thing this has done is allow me to create what we call “on the road” postings. This is a spot for the players to do a little forum based roleplay between actual physical sessions. Let’s them RP out a scene in detail and even plan for an uncoming session “in character”. Has been very successful with my group and I award a little experience bonus for those that contribute.

Take a look at the site if you’d like, http://www.thesilverpineinn.com. Not sure how much of it is “secured” from public view (our site administrator is also a player!).

It also gives us a place to “chat” out of game too. I found this has reduced the time we are “catching up with each other” when we sit down to play. We pretty much are able to launch right into things because we’ve done all the joking through postings during the week. It has really solidified the group.

As the GM/DM I’ve been able to post polls and get feedback on issues and had private rules discussions with players. Definately recommend using the “internets” to help your gaming experience.

#3 Comment By davethegame On August 25, 2010 @ 8:20 am

I’ve been using OP for years, and my most loathsome task is writing up adventures (and no, I can’t get any of my players to do it.) I might try just taking notes as I go directly into OP as I play. I generally avoid such a thing because we tend to be a pretty fast-paced group, but it would certainly make it easier. Thanks for the idea Martin.

#4 Comment By Micah On August 25, 2010 @ 8:57 am

Making it easier to take notes directly is something we’d like to work on. There’s just a different way of writing when it comes to prep vs in-game. With in-game, it has to be quick, since your players are waiting.

For myself, I just keep an adventure log post open for editing and add bullet points as things go on. I always tell myself that I’ll expand on things after the session, but I never do.

We’ve got a couple ideas on how to make it faster, like with NPCs. I want a (better) way to quickly add an NPC, like when you have to make one up on the fly. I’d like a random name generator, and a place to write in a quick description. The goal would be able to respond instantly when someone says, “Hey, what’s the barmaid’s name?” She’ll have a name, plus be saved for posterity.

If OP gets in your way in-game, don’t hesitate to drop it in favor of a notebook.

#5 Comment By Sporkchop On August 25, 2010 @ 11:07 am

As a long time OP user, I would like to offer up a couple ideas for things that I have found super-useful and not-so-useful about the site.

Things I highly recommend:

Set up a “loots to be distributed page.” My players often go weeks or months in real time without ID-ing objects in my 3.5 game. Having this page is super useful when they say, “Hey I’ve got 3 unidentified potions on my sheet and I can’t remember where they came from, or if we identified them. What are they?”

The same goes for a current quests page.

Get your PCs stat blocks in their character pages. My group deals with absent members by rolling their characters as NPCs. OP has been a lifesaver on several occasions, because I’ve been able to print out a stat block after a last-minute cancellation.

If you want to pretty your page up, cruise the forums. There is lots of good advice, friendly posters and tutorials.

A couple rough spots:

Using OP to take in-game notes is a little rough at the moment because you would have to have the screen in editing mode to do it, which removes any of the wiki capability for jumping around from page to page. It would probably be best to have 2 windows open. 1 an adventure log in edit mode, and another window for navigating around the wiki.

I would recommend writing up any long pages in an external editor with an autosave feature. I have lost hours of work on a couple occasions, because of my own boneheaded idiocy – hitting the back button or closing the tab before saving – so maybe paying attention to what you’re doing would suffice.

#6 Comment By tman On August 25, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

Great timing Martin!

I have looked at OP in the past, but I just couldn’t quite get it to click in my head as to how to make and use the thing! I’m hopeful that they guides you posted and some continuing articles will help out.

I’m not starting a new campaign, but I’m hoping to ‘re-boot’ the storyline in my current one in about 2 more character levels and this would be a great big help.

#7 Comment By outrider11 On August 25, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

I have been using OP since 2007 and I find it works well for me and my players. I do the recap and if they want to add something they are welcome to do so.

I have put campaign restrictions, the various priesthoods, npcs and a intro to the setting for those who have expressed interest in the game for them to peruse.

#8 Comment By Latmorril On August 25, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

We have been using Google Groups for our game but I have recently checked out OP as well as Epic Words. I am considering asking my players to migrate to one (while keeping the group for file storage and email)but I’ll have to do a good sell job. They each have features I wish the other had- OP’s linking of map locations to the wiki and EW’s loot list. Have folks here tried both OP and EW? Which one did you go with and why?

#9 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 25, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

@Kikatink – Interesting! I’ll be curious to see how much we use our campaign’s forum, but my guess is not much to start with.

@Micah – A quicker way to add NPCs does indeed sound very cool!

@Sporkchop – If we were going to be playing D&D (or another loot-heavy game), I’d absolutely do that — great idea!

And your suggestion about using an external autosaving editor and then dropping finished text into OP is also excellent. That’s easy enough, still avoids writing by hand, and could avoid a lot of heartache.

#10 Comment By XonImmortal On August 27, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

I played in a Shadowrun game where the GM used a wiki. I don’t recall what site it was.

However, it was nice to have my character sheet and all online, as well as some basic background available.

However, it was not as well-utilized as it could have been.

At the first session, we decided that off-time events, such as training, getting Initiated, shopping, building, etc. would be done by email. I talked to the GM about a new mage society, for social adepts, and he told me to email him about it. When I did, however, he didn’t read any of the information I put together, and told me to go ahead. I also did a role-play short-story about my character’s initiation into the society. Also went unread. When I finally just posted the information to the wiki, the other players got upset, claiming I had changed the rules of the game, even though I had already built up enough points to do everything, and I spent them legally.

I was later informed that the game was never meant to be a serious campaign, that they were only running the game until one of the other GM’s in the group felt like running something else. The GM of the Shadowrun didn’t want to spend a lot of time on prep and materials, since it was just supposed to be a “break campaign”.

My advice: Do not invite player contributions if you are not going to read it. The players spend time on their contributions (if they contribute), it is only just that you at least pay attention to what they add to the gaming experience. If there are going to restrictions on content and contributions, make them clear at the outset. And if a restriction isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist.

#11 Comment By recursive.faults On August 27, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

The success of using OP in your game depends entirely on having an understanding between the GM and players in terms of whats expected. The simplest question can be boiled down into, “Is OP a primary or supplemental tool for players?”

I use MapTools for a lot of my stuff. It’s not for everyone since a lot of people can’t use for their normal local games, but I take notes in it, develop my new maps, encounters, and all of that. Then when it’s time, everything is there and on the same screen.

#12 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 27, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

@XonImmortal – Amen to that, and definitely a good reminder! I hate it when GMs don’t use my stuff as a player, and I couldn’t agree more.

#13 Comment By Scott Martin On August 28, 2010 @ 12:58 am

@recursive.faults – I’ve often been in that situation, as the one guy who tries to maintain the wiki. As a player or GM, it feels lonely– and often like a waste. As XonImmortal mentions above, if it doesn’t get incorporated into the game– or at least read– it’s demoralizing.


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