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NBOS’ The Keep

A review of NBOS’ Campaign Management Software

NBOS, the creators of the Fractal Mapper cartography software and the Inspiration Pad table generator, have entered the realm of electronic campaign management with their newest tool, The Keep. Using The Keep, a “personal information manager for gamers,” game masters of any system can organise their campaigns electronically, but The Keep also offers a level of software integration that could make it the core of NBOS’ suite of useful gaming tools.

What It Does

NBOS' The Keep

NBOS' The Keep

First and foremost, The Keep is an information management tool with all the expected features: an integrated Rich Text editor, the ability to arrange data in a user-defined hierarchy, internal search, and support for various file formats. When you open a new “file,” you’re actually creating a database to store all the content you want to add: rules, supplements, adventures, etc. Each piece of content is known as a “topic;” basically, if it exists in electronic format, you can add it to The Keep, which means that you can use most of your existing campaign files without having to reformat or re-key them. You can group topics in a hierarchical tree, so you might create (for example) a topic for your campaign world, with sub-topics for each continent, then each nation or region, then major cities within those regions, etc. Or you might create a topic for your ruleset, with sub-topics for rule supplements and house variants.

The Rich Text editor is The Keep’s central tool, and it lets you import content from a variety of formats. It supports hyperlinking between topics, so you can cross-reference content throughout your campaign. For example, you could link an NPC’s name in a settlement description to that NPC’s topic for access to his full write-up. All text is indexed by The Keep’s internal search engine, so you can quickly find information within the database (especially helpful when you’re at the gaming table). Another nice feature is that you can export topics to HTML, XML, or even The Keep’s native database format. This lets you share selected topics (or sub-topics) very easily—you could post HTML versions of campaign background for your players, or you could export some or all of your campaign to share with other Keep users.

Bonus features include the integrated dice roller (that you can hide if you need the screen space), an internal PDF viewer, a customisable spell-checker, a Campaign Log tool (to facilitate record-keeping during the game), and full Screen Monkey support. I get less use from these tools, mostly because I’m still relatively new to the laptop-at-the-table way of running my games. However, it’s fun to roll dice without the clatter of bones on the table—your players will never know what you’re cooking up behind the laptop screen. The PDF viewer is nice, too, because it lets you incorporate all the stuff you downloaded from RPGNow pretty seamlessly. And the Campaign Log tool is a nice addition, particularly if you plan to post session logs to the Web (or, if you’re from the 20th century, a printer).

The Keep: Main Screen

The Keep: Main Screen

All this is pretty standard, but The Keep exceeds expectations by integrating with other NBOS campaign tools, like Fractal Mapper, Inspiration Pad, and Character Sheet Designer. This is actually a major step forward in system-agnostic campaign management software. Game masters can now access all the crucial world-building and campaign design tools they need through one interface. For example, The Keep recognises Fractal Mapper’s native file format, so you can create a topic from an FM map, then view, pan, and zoom it as a vector image, right inside the application. If you have Inspiration Pad installed, The Keep automatically reads the “Generators” folder tree, so you can run tables from inside the software, then drag results you like over to your topic tree (which is pretty slick—if you have a settlement generator, for example, you could crank out towns with IP, then drag them to their parent kingdom in your topic tree). Similarly, anything you create with the Character Sheet Designer can be manipulated and saved as its own topic.

This is a deceptively powerful feature: the Inspiration Pad and Character Sheet Designer tools let a GM automate much of the random and calculated generation useful to his campaign; The Keep provides access to these tools’ output right alongside his static content. Having all these tools within the same interface saves lots of time, not least because you can use IP and CSD to whip up stuff on the fly. The real advantage is using IP and CSD to populate your topic trees, right from The Keep. Best part: all these tools are system-independent, so you can customise Inspiration Pad and Character Sheet Designer content to suit your game and your setting.

What It Doesn’t

The Keep has few, if any, real downsides. In fact, the issues I discovered were more like nit-picks or feature requests. For example, the Rich Text editor is functional, but lacks a few basic features, such as the ability to place images inline with text or the ability to sort table contents. Hyperlinking could be improved as well: it would be nice to hyperlink Inspiration Pad results to topics in your topic tree. I’d also like to see the ability to create image maps, which would let you take an image of your campaign map and link each feature/settlement to its own topic. Finally, given the tight integration with Inspiration Pad, I’d like to see an internal script editor for IP tables, perhaps more like an IDE with function lists, syntax checking, text highlighting, and variable tracking (not unlike the GoblinAPI editor included with Fractal Mapper).

Strictly speaking, these are wishlist items, and it’s not fair to call them deficiencies. Given NBOS’ track record of listening to their customers, it’s reasonable to expect that these requests will make their way into future releases, provided demand is high enough.

The only real caveat I might offer is that if you want to get full use out of The Keep, you’ll need to invest some time climbing the learning curves for Inspiration Pad and Character Sheet Designer. Each of these tools is free from NBOS, and each is easy to learn, but you should be prepared to spend some of your gaming hours writing tables and creating forms for your campaign.

Final Words

I’ve used other information managers to organise my campaign(s), but it’s rather like using a square bit on a Phillips screw—it can do the job, but it’s not as easy as it could be, given the proper tool. The Keep is the first system-agnostic campaign software of its type that I’ve seen, and it does a great job of helping you add, organise, and update your game content. Given the lack of similar tools on the market, that would be enough. But NBOS’ decision to integrate their other tools (Fractal Mapper, Inspiration Pad, and Character Sheet Designer) puts The Keep over the top in terms of usefulness, customisation, and output. If you’re running games with your computer, or even if you’re just looking for campaign management software, The Keep is hard to beat.

  1. October 5th, 2009 at 01:40 | #1

    I agree that this software is great. This is currently version 1.0 so it is new and obviously has room to grow, but like the rest of the fine products from NBOS software, it is a fully functional and very useful program in its own right. Integration with Fractal Mapper, Inspiration Pad, and Character Sheet Designer is a great bonus. Working primarily with the GURPS rules, I have been buying the rule books in PDF format from W23 and now I can use The Keep to organize all these books as well as hyperlink to them as needed. What an awesome tool. I remember going to game sessions and having a luggage cart to carry all the rulebooks around. Now they are all electronic and easily carried around, plus no more coffee stains on the pages. ;-) Having been a Database Admin for over 15 years, I can really appreciate the design work that has gone into this. I had my own system before The Keep came out, but it ran on an SQL server and was certainly NOT portable. I’m really impressed with the power, compactness, and overall clean design they came up with. Another great product from NBOS!

  2. October 5th, 2009 at 21:01 | #2

    Yes, while The Keep undoubtedly will grow into the needs of its users, I think the real power is behind it’s integration. Character Sheet Designer and Inspiration Pad (both free from NBOS) can be made into real campaign workhorses (e.g., there are a number of GURPS generators written with CSD and IP on the NBOS Resource page). The brilliance is that these tools are system-agnostic. Using The Keep as the core and a little sweat equity in CSD/IP, you can create your own campaign management suite. Thanks to NBOS for putting this all together!

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