I am constantly trying to improve and evolve how I GM my games. I genuinely enjoy the time it takes to prepare a game, so it doesn't become tedious. I have become increasingly fond of using my laptop to help GM, and in light of that, this week I purchased a piece of software called "The Keep" from nbos. (I purchased mine on Paizo, it was a couple dollars cheaper.) Below is my review.
Price: A bit steep actually. Coming in at around 30 dollars. This seems pretty in line with similar products though. I would have much preferred paying about 10 bucks less. But that's not to say that I think 30 is overpriced, but it is an expense that certainly is trivial, at least not to me.
First Impressions: So I paid the seemingly high cost, installed the software to my flashdrive (cool feature, discussed below) and started the program. As soon as it loaded, and I looked at the interface for the first time, I thought to myself "well... this sucks, what a waste of money." The interface isn't flashy, there's no pop up that says "Start here" there really isn't anything that comes up right away to tell you what to do or how to make the best use of program. So, I did what anyone would do, I just started playing with the buttons and seeing what happens...
10 minutes later: I get it now, despite not being initially intuitive once I started playing with the program its functionality became much clearer. You create a new entry, for me, this was to create "Carrion Crown," the adventure path my group is currently playing, then you give that entry 'children.' Each child that I gave to carrion crown became rooms in the dungeon. Then I could give those rooms children to post monster pictures, stat blocks, read aloud text for the room, all the knowledge DCs, skill checks, etc.
My old system was to use a word processor that contained all of the information for a room, all of the stat blocks for monsters in a room, and anything else I would need to know during gameplay. The problem with this approach was that my documents would get long, and cumbersome. I would end up with files like "SoG Prep" and "More SoG Prep" and "Prep for SoG," just because I didn't want huge text files that were unpractical to print, and hard to use quickly from the laptop.
The Keep takes away the need for this, with each room in the dungeon being it's own child, I can use the navigation panel to go anywhere I want. I have completely cut out the need for using a word processor to help prep the game, I can do everything right there in The Keep.
Things I like: I love that I can install the program to a flash drive. I can work on prep now when I have downtime at work, and not have to do any conversions (Word at work, Open Office at home), emailing files to myself, uploading to dropbox, etc. I can keep my flashdrive with me, and run The Keep from there.
The GM screen. How functional this becomes for me, is yet unknown. The GM screen feature allows you to have a second screen project an image, while you run the keep from the laptop. This would allow you to show monster portraits or maps to the group, while you see everything else behind the scenes. I haven't ran a game using The Keep yet, I'm still prepping, so I don't know well this work. I'm still trying to figure out the best way to use it to show maps, without showing the entire map. The Keep allows you to move an image around so that you can only show parts of it, but this seems clunky to try and keep parts of the map hidden. I might use an image editing program to cut up my map, and show the parts to the group as they become revealed.
Built in PDF reading. I have a subscription to Paizo's Adventure Path, as such, I get a PDF of every book for free. Having a built in integration of PDFs to The Keep makes using these PDFs incredibly easy. I can copy/paste, I can click between rooms of the dungeon and the room in the original PDF, etc. I keep the bookmarks tab open in the PDF reader, and this makes quick navigation around what you need even easier.
What I'm Unsure about...
The Dice roller is not overly simple, there is a lot of clicking and weird things to do to say, roll a d20 +5. That simple command would require: 1 click on the d20 dice, 1 click on the 1d20 button, 1 click on the add button, 1 click on the number range to add to, and a final click on the number 5. By that time, I've done the math in my head. I think I am going to be using Combat Manager with The Keep in order to handle rolls and combat. The Keep wants to have everything a GM would need in one place, and it comes pretty close, but I'm unsure that its dice roller will be efficient enough to use during game time.
As I hinted above, I'm unsure about the GM Screen. I like it, but I don't know that it will do everything that I would really like it to do. Ideally, I could have my map, and I could have a fog of war type function that would let me reveal parts of the map as it is explored. I think NBOS offers another piece of software that can do this, but it also has a cost, and I am not ready to give them more money yet.
I'm not sure how it is going to work during the game, but I will post part two of this review after it is giving its test drive on Sunday. I don't anticipate problems, and I think I will like it, but I don't want to assume too much yet.
What I don't like:
The cost. Its only 30 bucks, but then again, it is 30 bucks! 19.99 and I wouldn't have an issue at all with the cost, I also fear that the price tag will scare people away who could probably benefit by having a pretty good piece of software added to their arsenal.
The "uh..." moment that I had when I first loaded it. A tutorial, a "start here", or even a built in campaign would have been helpful so that I would have a clue where to start. First impressions are important, and this one sucked.
The 'other programs' that you can integrate with The Keep. NBOS produces a character sheet creator, and a random table generator that can integrate with The Keep. I have played, albeit briefly, with these other two programs, and they are intimidating. They rely on a lot of coding, a lot of manual reading and referencing, and are very unfriendly to a new and casual user.
I do like The Keep. A lot. It can do a lot of things, and I constantly get new ideas to get even more functionality out of it. I would certainly recommend it, if you have the cash to drop on it. Don't let its first impression scare you away, it's worth a second look and worth taking some time to play with and figure out.
What software do you use to GM? Are you using The Keep and have more ideas, further input? Comment below!