Review: Realm Works
A computer program that has been on my radar for a while is Realm Works. I’ve heard it hyped in interviews and mentioned on podcasts and websites, for both Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. Most recently because of a partnership with Paizo to deliver Golarion-centric Realm Works content.
But I haven’t seen many recent reviews of the program and thought an updated look was more than overdue. And I needed an excuse to pull the trigger on purchasing the software. And “writing a review” is a great excuse to spend money.
What It Is
Realm Works is a campaign management tool aimed at organizing the information from your adventures and setting/ campaign world. The software was designed by Lone Wolf Development, creators of the character generator program Hero Labs. Realm Works is locally used PC software for Windows. It does not require an internet connection after downloading & registering, but one is expected for patches and syncing. Once installed, you can run offline.
While useful during a session and able to display both handouts and maps (with a fog of war), Realm Works is not designed to run your game or serve as a virtual tabletop. It’s more like a character sheet for your campaign, the Dungeon Master equivalent of Hero Labs. It replaces the big binder of notes and world lore.
An apt comparison for Realm Works would be one of the campaign management websites, such as Obsidian Portal or Epic Words. With those sites you create a wiki for your world, track NPCs, treasure, locations, and the like. In many ways, Realm Works is a locally stored and more feature heavy version of those sites.
I have not currently tried it, but I believe City of Brass is a similar program; if you’re familiar with that, you likely have an idea regarding Realm Works. (Realm Works is also what Trapdoor Technologies’ DungeonScape/ Playbook was supposed to be, but never quite accomplished.)
At the risk of coming across as an advertisement, I’ll summarizing the program for those unaware of campaign management software. At its heart, Realm Works is a more robust version of a campaign wiki. A digital Dungeon Master’s notebook, and replacement for the campaign notes and campaign setting book (either printed or digital).
You create entries in various broad categories – called topics. There are topics as cities, groups (factions, families), nations, classes, races/species, events, and many more. The categories themselves are genre agnostic and you can use the Place topics for planets or planes, modern countries or feudal city-states. You can then populate each entry with information, descriptions, and details. Topics suggest various sections based on the category (such as culture & description for a ethnicity or climate & trade for a region), and there’s assorted space for tags and pictures. You can group topics as needed to keep the list of topics tiny, nesting urban neighbourhoods into that city, the city into nation, and the nation into a region.
The program is system neutral and there are separate libraries for mechanics and the world, but the two still interlink. So you can even put crunch and rule information into the program if needed (such as copying a rulebook, making custom content, or just listing house rules). And if you decide to swap between 5th Edition and Pathfinder, you can just change the mechanical sections, leaving other areas untouched.
You can choose what is visible to the players on an topic-by-topic basis (with the default being invisible so things aren’t spoiled because you forgot to unclick it). You can have a big Event hidden, and then reveal it to the party with a single click. But each section of that event topic can be visible or invisible, giving lots of granularity to the revealing of information. For example, if you have an Event called “The Assassination of King Roland”, you can keep it invisible until the news reaches the party, reveal more facts (or rumours) as they hear them (on a rumour by rumour basis), while keeping the true assassin and background hidden until needed. You can even do thinks like mark the truthfulness of each snippet.
One of the strongest features of the program is that it automatically cross references categories, creating links in an topic to other related topics. It’s like making a campaign wiki that automatically generates the links. If referencing “the Assassination of King Roland” in a nation or racial topic, it will make that reference into a link to the event, allowing you to move from one category to another.
A computer program lives and dies with its User Interface. Realm Works’ UI is simple and barebones but functional. There’s not a lot of shiny graphics but it works. It looks like office software more than an app. The UI is cleaner and simpler than HeroLabs, which can get a bit clunky and overwhelming at times.
After 10 minutes I had a grasp of the basics of the program. And after 30 minutes of entering data and making entries, I’d gotten a handle of some of the deeper functionality. Even then I still had a feeling there was a lot more the program was capable of, that I was just scratching the surface, but it wasn’t overwhelming. (It was certainly close though… there is a lot of stuff going on.)
Entering text is easy. There are some basic word processor tools allowing you to change font, text size, and bold or italicize text. It even accepts hotkeys, like Ctrl-B. This is a big advantage over making a website or wiki, where you often have to do a little code or avoid certain characters. The text is stored as HTML so you can’t get crazy with text effects and formatting, but there is a lot you can do.
(As an aside, I remember when I started using Obsidian Portal and copied my world over and found hyphenation in my text meant italics, and had to replace all uses of dashes with commas. Pain in the butt.)
The sheer number of sections in each topic was a little overwhelming at first, but once I accepted that I didn’t need to fill every box it became a little easier. And knowing where you have blanks is a nice encouragement to add more details (although, it can certainly be a trap, pushing you to overwrite). I didn’t see a way to rename categories though, which would be nice. Such as creating a “subrace” category for your Elf and Dwarf topics. But there’s a LOT of features I haven’t figured out yet, so that might just be overlooked. And, really, it doesn’t matter where the the information is so long as I can find it.
When you start cross-referencing, you can choose how many or few links you want. If you’re creating the Rivendell of your world and don’t want a hundred links to “elf” you can opt to just have the first reference be a link and skip the rest. And you can make links case sensitive so the town of Haven doesn’t link to every usage of “haven”.
Realm Works is easier to install on multiple machines than Hero Labs. This makes sense as Lone Wolf really doesn’t want people sharing HeroLabs with their entire group, as you buy the entire content of rulebooks. Sharing Realm Works is less likely, as pirating your GM copy means giving players access to all your secrets as they have full access to the material. There is the additional limit that each login to Realm Works requires a separate Windows login. As each purchase of Realm Works requires a product code to get a login, I’m uncertain why this is necessary: if you and a partner (or roommate) both run games and share a computer, you need to separately login to see your copy of Realms Works. I imagine it’s for privacy (so they don’t snoop through your work) but if your spouse is sneaking a peek at your campaign’s secrets you have larger issues in the marriage than RPG spoilers. Regardless of login issues, as I work on my desktop computer but use an ancient laptop when running games, I appreciate being able to install twice.
The game remembers what was being shown in Player View, even after closing and restarting. This initially irked me as I had to manually close windows, but I quickly realized the advantage that it would retain the display between game sessions allowing you to pick up where you left off. That’s a big plus.
A feature that I barely touched is storyboarding. Like the 4th Edition D&D program Master Plan, there are some features that let you outline your adventures. I prefer to brainstorm on paper. But there’s still some nice functionality there. While I’m mostly interested in Realm Works for managing the world and sharing information at the table, there’s a lot of story design and adventure planning tools.
Realm Works is very, very time intensive. Even if you’ve made a world it can take hours to cut-and-paste entries into the right locations and hit the right check boxes. Depending on the work you’ve already done of course…
The amount of options provided to you means you could end up with some redundancy or information duplication. Halfway through transcribing your setting, you might decide that Section 3 is better for certain information in a topic than Section 2 decide to edit some entries. Or discover some heretofore unseen feature, category, or tag that encourages you to revise. Maybe you decide that a city-state should be under communities rather than nations or that a nation’s religion should be under “Philosophy” rather than “Culture”. Because I like consistency, I spent as much time editing and re-editing “finished” topics in my world as making new ones. And I made the accident of listing my races under “Group: Ethnic” in the World library rather than Game System library where there was space for Race/Species. Then I decided each point of interest in my world should be its own snippet rather than one big lump, requiring some revision.
At $50, it’s pricey bit of software. As there is no demo, it also makes the pricey sticky, since you’re uncertain of how you’ll like the program until you pay.
As a comparison, $50 is over three years of Epic Words, a year and change of Ascendant membership for Obsidian Portal, or two years of City of Brass. Of course, this is before the subscription to the cloud sync subscription; this subscription is optional, and you could conceivably rely on a memory stick or Dropbox to move your world from computer to computer, but it’s handy but makes this program the expensive alternative.
When you start the program there are the usual tips and help boxes. But these are large walls of text without graphical cues. While useful, the amount of text is somewhat intimidating. A quick “how to get started” help box with some images would have been lovely. I imagine that’s what the videos are for, but the two ideas are not mutually exclusive (and having a link to the views at the end of an introduction would have been helpful for many).
Links only generate when you edit a topic. Typically this means making a change, but if you click on the tools icon you can get to the “quick edit” option and trigger a check for new links. This means if you’re progressing linearly through a setting, the later entries will be fully populated with links but the early entries will have significantly fewer as potentially linked topics did not exist. There’s the extra step of going back through every entry and editing it to generate links. Even with “quick edit” this is labour and step intensive. There might be a feature to do a scan of the entire world somewhere, but I haven’t found it.
When the program generates links, it only does so with text that matches the name of the category. So if you have an Elf racial entry, all references to “elf'” in groups, nations, races, or events will link back. But if you refer to “elves” it won’t. You need to manually enter additional names (elves, elven), and then make those invisible. It’s not hard, but it’s awkward.
(As a tip, I’d recommend doing the Half-Elf racial entry prior to the Elf and and being careful when populating links, otherwise Realm Works will mistakenly link the “elf” part of half-elf back to the Elf topic.)
There’s no real photo-editing features, so you need to edit and crop your world map into regional maps if you want images associated with nations (and thus store multiple copies of maps. Similarly, getting maps to show in Player View takes some work; bringing up a region with a map shows there’s an associated map, but it needs to be launched separately and can be finicky. I had some trouble and crashes getting that to work nicely.
The program likes to crash. It’s very crash prone. Thankfully, every time you leave a topic it saves, so I never lost any work. And it never just crashed out of the blue, I was always trying to load something or use an option. It never stopped responding when I was just typing. But it’s an incentive to write in another program and then cut-and-paste into Realm Works. Thankfully, it’s relatively quick to load and retains items in player view, so it’s quick to get moving again following a crash.
Currently, there’s no app or mobile support like there is for HeroLabs. This means you’re unable to work on the go, such as sneaking online during a lunch break to make an NPC. A disadvantage over websites and for people who have moved away from laptops at their gametable in favour of tablets. It worked reasonably well with a remote desktop program (I tried Chrome Remote Desktop as a test), but your mileage might vary. I wouldn’t try editing topics streaming to my iPad, but I could move options and pull up topics if needed.
Revealing information is all-or-nothing. You cannot reveal content on a player-by-player basis, having something be a secret to someone but not everyone.
Realm Works is PC only. Not a problem for me and mine, but the lack of Mac support will hurt a lot of gamers. If even a single member of your group is a Mac (or Linux) user this will be a sticking point, as they’ll be excluded.
The biggest problem with Realm Works over campaign websites (either gamer specific like Epic Words or just a Google Sites page) is that the information is local. There’s no way for players to check on their own, on their own device at the table or at home. This also means there’s no “log” or “adventurer’s journal” functionality to the program, which is a big plus to websites.
To access your realm, players need to purchase the Player’s Edition of Realm Works, which retails for $9.99 (slightly less when you buy a pack or multiple copies, but this requires some coordination and sharing of funds). Getting players to read your campaign information is tricky at the best of times, let alone getting them to pay for the privilege.
There’s an online version in the works, but it’s been in development for many months (it was initially supposed to be out in late 2014 and was previewed a year ago). The online version will likely be the game changer for Realm Works, even if it’s read only. Especially since that also means players can check a name or read a topic at the game table, and the lost journal functionality is restored.
There’s no way to “export” or “print” a realm. I’m not sure how a Realm saved as a PDF would look (or be desirable) but having an entire campaign’s worth of information trapped in proprietary software is… unnerving. If you want to revisit a campaign years down the line, you have to hope Realms Works is still available (or make continual copies of information added to your game in a text document).
Making Events is tricky since Realm Works defaults to a Gregorian calendar. You cannot just type in a date, and have to scroll back (like the Window desktop calendar) so setting an event 1000 years ago takes some time. Not being able to make your own calendar is irksome but not a deal breaker, but not being able to rename the years (from CE/BCE) is really annoying.
Further making the calendar more of an irritation is that whenever you make an NPC it assigns a default date to their date of birth, marriage, and death. I can see how knowing the exact DOB of NPCs is handy, but as it’s done automatically and is unable to be turned off quickly populates your timeline with a wave of unneeded information. And as you cannot leave an entry blank, everyone has a date of death entry even if they’re still alive.
Lone Wolf released a number of online help videos, showing how to use the program. I initially eschewed the videos, attempting to muddle my way through the program on my own to provide an informed review, complete with bonehead mistakes. But I’d recommend the videos for anyone getting started or curious of the program. Great stuff.
Realm Works is really set-up to take advantage of a multi-monitor system, such as a laptop hooked up to a television. With a click, you launch a second player view window in another monitor, which mirrors the player display in the main screen but remains on player view even if you shift to another topic. This makes it crazy easy to quickly pull up information for your players.
The program might be advantageous for people making a brand new campaign setting, especially if they’re less experienced at worldbuilding. The suggested sections and snippets in each topic give you an idea what information is needed to make a world and provides a framework, and can give some inspiration. It’s a lovely framework for details.
In the works is a marketplace, allowing you to buy worlds, locations, or adventures from other creatives. At the time of this writing it is not live, but this sounds pretty cool and an interesting alternative (or addition) to selling campaign settings just as PDFs. Lone Wolf has partnered with Paizo for this, so it’ll be possible to bring in some Golarion content. I’m envious of the future Rise of the Runelords Gms, able to run that AP with a full Realm Works integrated map of Sandpoint or Magnimar.
Because you can make NPCs, events, and locations and keep them invisible until needed, you can create a pool of possible characters, encounters, and adventure details that you can reveal whenever the players go off rails or wander in an unexpected direction. You can make characters with a name, personality, quirk, and backstory then when the players get really curious about the stableboy you can just grab Snard Torrinson and add a profession with a couple keystrokes. This would be super handy for a sandbox campaign. Or for people with variable amounts of free time where they can dump lots of time into Realm Works when free and rely on that later when busy.
Realm Works has some integration with Hero Labs. You can make a character in Hero Labs and load that portfolio into Realm Works. Then with one click you can pull up their statblock in Realm Works. Meanwhile, a different click launches Hero Labs going directly to that portfolio (and significantly faster than just loading Hero Labs, since it skips all the steps prior to loading a portfolio).
Realm Works is awesome for me. I’m pretty much the target audience, being a gamer using a Windows laptop hooked up to a TV by my gaming table to display content like maps or monster images. I’m excited to *really* integrate the program into my campaign. The tech is almost perfect. But… that “almost” there should probably be bolded. And maybe underlined.
There are some bugs and warts in the program, but most are ignorable. Small company and all. But many problems have been around since launch back in mid-2014 and Lone Wolf has been slow to implement fixes or new features.
There’s a lot of talk of the content market and sharing content, but that seems secondary to the main functions of improving your home game. It makes sense for Hero Labs to prioritize adding new content over new features, since users likely bought the program to manage the available options. But the opposite is true for Realm Works and the content market and licenced material is secondary to fixes and features.
The biggest catch for me is that the program doesn’t fully replace my need for a campaign website in two key ways: player journals and sharing world lore. Asking players to pay money for an unfamiliar program is tricky, especially when it doesn’t benefit them during play: players bringing laptops to the game went out of vogue half a decade ago. Half my players barely think about the game away from the table as it is, so even if I personally bought them the Player’s Edition it might not see much use. If they could bring themselves to instal unfamiliar software on their machines…
(I wonder if Lone Wolf could bundle one free copy of the Player’s Edition with the GM version, so one player could try it no-risk and hype it to the rest of the table.)
Part of me wants to recommend waiting for the online functionality before purchasing. So much usability would be added with that single feature, such as players being able to referencing information at the game table or at home without personal cost, and easily being able to write journal entries or take notes during play. And a web player view will partially alleviate the PC-only limit on the Player Edition of the software. This is probably the biggest missing feature of the program, and I’d take it over having customizable calendars, not having every single NPC having a set date of death, the ability to export, or other small quality-of-life fixes.
Arguably, making a world is time intensive, so one could purchase now and get started, being ready to move online when that feature goes live. Crossing fingers that it’s not another year away, of course.
But my opinions are not necessarily typical. Even without the online capability, Realm Works could be very useful to many groups.
Maybe your group is awesome, loves your world lore, and is happy to buy a copy of Realm Works to use at home (or on their Windows 10 Surface device). Maybe you have more disposable income than me and spending $25 four-pack player bundle that might never be used is no big thing.
For online campaigns, where players are on their computers anyway, Realm Works would be an excellent tool and a way to not rely on the virtual tabletop for a world maps, handouts, and lengthy text, saving that for the actual running on the game.
Additionally, when the content market goes live, there’ll be a lot more material to tap for people who don’t want to do it all themselves. There’s some fun stuff in the works, including books of NPCs, Green Ronin’s Freeport setting, and more, including the aforementioned content with Paizo. If you’re running in Freeport, Realm Works would be incredibly handy for keeping track of NPCs and locations.
Lastly, published adventures. If you’re running a prewritten adventure and own a PDF (or have a scanner and some OCR software) then Realm Works can be amazeballs. You can cut-and-paste much of the adventure into the program and run much of the adventure straight from a laptop, having all the information easily accessible with no page flipping. I’m planning on running Madness at Gardmore Abbey converted to 5th Edition and being able to just link all the locational information and maps is very easy and relatively quick. Which, given the adventure is spread out over four books, is handy. And I can give pages numbers for myself in Realm Works to make using the physical books or PDF even easier.
Realm Works is well worth the price of admission for me. And you can decide for yourself if you want to take the plunge, wait for the online component, or sit this program out.
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