KBar DM’s Tracker
Produced by KBAR Consulting LLC
Released August 6, 2009
iPhone App for the tracking of initiative, hit points, and effects for 4e D&D.
Let me start off my review and advice about this product with a little bit of disclosure. Nothing crazy like I own stock or some stake in Kbar’s DM’s Tracker and I feel like everybody in the world should buy it so It'll fill my coffers with mad iPhone app money. That’s nowhere near the case; I just want to give you some idea of where I’m coming from.
I’ve used index cards and tools for initiative tracking since 3e. I like cards because of their ease of use, I like having important information at my fingertips (or entire stat blocks in the case of 4e), and it’s easy fast to make adjustments to hit points and other statuses. While I know many people who use a white board or magnetic combat board to great success, I’ve always had better success with cards.
Ever since I bought my first PDA I've imagined a tool that would allow me to track initiative on a PDA or smart phone in the same way that I track initiative with cards. That imagining has finally come to pass with Kbar’s DM’s Tracker.
After one game of using the tool I consider the app a qualified success. I don't feel that it slows down the game once one becomes a skillful in its use and it has the advantages of keeping all of your information in one place and not wasting paper (yeah, I'm a tree-hugging hippy...whatever!). There’s also no danger of me dropping the cards and scattering the initiative count. Dropping the iPhone on the other hand, could potentially be more destructive...but I face that challenge every day.
At the beginning of the session, one of my players voiced skepticism that my iPhone battery wouldn't be up for the challenge, but it absolutely was. (He’s a Microsoft employee, so I think he has it out for my iPhone anyway.) I think if I pushed it, my battery would hold out for a at least a full 5 hours of non-stop combat. Just to be safe, in future tests I’ll keep my power cord handy and make sure to plug it in between combats. I’m always amazed at how fast my iPhone charges.
Just so you know what kind of time I’m talking about, the session featured 4.5 hours of game time. We typically play for 5 to 6 hours, but at least an hour is taken up with general “what happened in your life,” character prep, and/or my rant of the week. I ran three combat encounters, a skill challenge, some exploration, and roleplaying with a succubus “ally.” Most of the actual game time was taken up with the combat encounters (roughly 3.5 to 4 hours of the app open and running). By the end of the session, I had about 25% of the iPhone's juice left.
Like any new tool, the Kbar DM’s tracker takes some getting used to and seemed a little slow at first, but I knew I imagined this would be the case. I had already planned on using the tool for the next few game sessions so I could get my speed and comfort level up. That said, by the end of the session, my reaction time and troubleshooting ability dramatically increased. By the last encounter, I don’t think I was taking any more time on initiative and hit point tracking than I do with cards. That said, I did ignored some of the apps functionality, and did take some short cuts.
Before the game I created individual characters for the party and all the monsters in the various encounters, and I really advise doing this, and rolling initiative for the monsters before the encounters. It will save you a lot of time at the table. To be fair, this is true in general, whether you use cards, white board, or whatever. Then I organized them into combat encounters using the group function, which is not only very handy, but quick to use. When my players were able to avoid a potential combat trigger in the first encounter, I was able to make adjustments to that encounter on the fly quickly and easily. I was also able to create a new encounter when they hit the same trigger later.
While the tracker allows you to track the PCs’ hit points and effects, I would not advise taking advantage of that function. It’ll needlessly slow you down, and unless you’re playing with a bunch of cheaty-face jerks, that’s work better left to your players. Also, while the app allows you to track conditions, after the first few times, I tended to avoid this function also. My group uses Alea Tools magnetic markers, which puts that information out there on the table so everyone can see and react to it each round. What the tool does do, which I like a lot, is inform me when a creature becomes blooded with a little heart icon that shows up on the initiative list. I just wish this icon also showed up on the creature screen also.
Another word of advice is that you wait a couple of seconds before you input your player’s damage on critters. Even if you players use the Dungeons & Dragons Character Builder, there are enough conditional adds to damage rolls from feats and magic items that you get a situation like this (Sorry, Lisa):
Lisa: 24 damage.
Me: Okay, 24 damage. [inputs damage]
Lisa: No, that’s 29 damage.
Me: Okay! [Frustrated because brain has already moved on to the next round of action, and doesn’t remember what the initial damage was]. How much damage did you initially do again?
Lisa: Ah, well I get 5 extra damage from this feat, so that would be 26 damage.
Mike: That would be 24 damage, Lisa.
Lisa: Oh yeah, that’s right…24 damage.
Me: Shit…okay. Never mind, all I need is how much more damage you did. Shit!
Overall, I found the app easy to use, surprisingly quick to master, and a bargain for only $2.99. Has a great help file, excellent reminder text , intuitive buttons, and I think it will become fixture at my game table from now on. If you are playing Pathfinder or 3.5, you can still use this app, you will end up ignoring many of the features that I found to be needless anyhow, and you can put any whole numbers you want in the application’s numeric fields.
Okay, so here are the things that I don't like about the app. Most are nit-picks, but they are also worth watching out for.
My biggest pet peeve is that the “Save and end turn” button is at the bottom of the display, which is dangerously close to the bottom menu and its buttons. Unless I was being very careful I'd end up hitting the help button more often than I hit the tiny save button. I think there needs to be more space between those two buttons, or I need to get smaller fingers.
The program’s biggest pain in the ass is that it does not do a good job of dealing with delayed actions and readied actions. Basically you have to go back to the initiative roll and change it instead of finding a way to drag-and-drop characters into the proper initiative order. Sometimes you will have to change multiple initiative rolls to get things to work right, as sometimes a combatant will want to squeeze in between two other combatants going on the same initiative roll, but has a modifier that doesn’t fit neatly in the middle of the scrum. Unfortunately this very thing came up a couple of times during the game. I got the sneaking suspicion that my players enjoyed my furrowed brow during numbers wrangling a bit too much, and delayed more than I thought was necessary.
One thing that hasn’t occurred yet, but I’m sure it will, is that eventually the list of character will become so large it'll become unwieldy. I’m also wondering if a long list of character in the app will start to affect the apps performance. I imagine I'll have to clear out my character list every so often, but time will tell.
I also have some purely pie-in-the-sky wishes for the application. These are probably not realistic, but I’ll voice them anyway.
I would really like this app to talk to a web app. I’ll freely admit that I am no rapid-finger-texting king. I would much rather do prep in a web interface on my computer than punching in the information on the phone. I would also love it to talk to my D&Di account. so that I could push a button to look at a stat block that is sitting in the compendium. Then again, that’s probably just a job for my laptop.
I know, I know, I’m asking the world here, but hey, I’m a gamer. But unlike most gamers I would be more than willing to pay money for that kind of functionality. I think the price point on this tool is a steal, and would be willing to pay 10-20 times that amount to have a more powerful web and iPhone tool.
I'd like to think I'm not the only one.
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