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Using the Kbar DM's Tracker iPhone App

KBar DM’s Tracker
Version 1.0
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.  


Yesterday I played some Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition with Rodney Thompson, Logan Bonner, and Chris Tulach. It’s something that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. I’m a big fan of the minis game, I like the Warhammer franchise (though I like the 40K franchise better), and recognize a lot of great and revolutionary things that have helped sharp RPG design that came out of the original game. I’ve been following the design journals put out by Fantasy Flight with a mix of awe and WTF. When Rodney told me he was getting a copy, I browbeated him for months into running a game.

Anywho, someone on Facebook asked me about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition, so I thought I would share here as well in a slightly expanded form. If WFRP1 or 2 got drunk, and met D&D 4e at a bar, they fucked all night, but 4e scooted out the next morning before WFRP 1 or 2 woke up without leaving a phone number or a note or anything, WFRP 3 is what happened after 9 months of "development” and a few years of being raised by its step daddy – Mr. Board Game. It’s not a boardgame, though. It is purely an RPG with a bunch of board-game-like pieces. Many of the pieces help information flow. Some are just bits porn. It keeps some of the core conceits of WFRP, but improves the encounter flow. It musters and army of new tech some of which works. Usually what works are the parts they swiped from D&D 4e, but there are a few interesting ideas new ideas in there as well (their solution for “feat stacking” is truly inspired). There’re a handful of things in the game that are probably design dead ends. Their movement is bitsy and annoying. If they didn’t want to go with a grid, they should have gone with zones (a.k.a. a larger grid) but it’s pretty easy to fix that (as I am sure some groups already have done so). The tension meter is bullshit, and no good GM will every use it unless he is running a game for a group of fuckwits, hates himself, or both. I think that boons and banes, at least their relationships in the dice pools and within actions, are clunky and sometimes just aggravating. I need to do more research on it but I have a suspicion they are bad mechanics hiding in rules arcana. I am not nearly as impressed with the party card as I wanted to be. Having unifying adventuring group mechanics is a seemingly interesting idea that always ends up becoming meh in application. I think this game’s no different. I think it might be hard to write adventures for this…but I’m not sure…yet.

All that said; I like the game. I think it is a good RPG that I’ll end up buying and playing. I’m interested to see how campaign play works, and there are parts that I really want to explore, take apart, put back together, and fiddle with.

If you like fun, don’t mind bits, and are hip with the newer directions tabletop RPGs (and tabletop games in general) are taking, you should check it out. At least play it once. If your one of those “theater of my mind” troglodytes that think cards and pre-paint plastics rot your imagination or soil the grand Gygaxian tradition of RPGs (your wrong BTW) just give this one a pass.

BTW, if you want to read Rodney's thoughts on the game, you can find his journal entry here: gamescribe.livejournal.com/113154.html

For Good Again

Holy crap, I’m going to get really long-winded here, so if you just don’t want to deal with that, there is a CliffsNotes version of this novel at the very bottom. Scroll down, you’ll find it in bold and with bullet points.

I started working at Wizards of the Coast in August of 2000. I was hired on as an editorial assistant for Polyhedron and Living Greyhawk Journal magazines, I went on to briefly become the assistant editor of those publications, and then when those publications were absorbed into Dragon and Dungeon magazines, I stayed with the RPGA, held titles like Games Coordinator and Content Manager, and probably a couple of others I don’t remember. All those titles were just were just a smokescreen for shifts in business philosophy through the various reorganizations I’ve witnessed at Wizards (grand total, I’ve seen 9 rounds of lay-offs while working for Wizards…the last one got me) and while my title changed, my job was always “keep the RPGA juggernaut going with far less resources than you have or want.” I left that job in 2006. I just quit. I turned in my two-week notice, was asked to reconsider, promptly said no, and walked out the door to become a “civilian.” As I told my friends, when you have one too many Office Space moments, it’s time to go. I had a good six months away from the company, doing whatever the hell I wanted. After six years of Sisyphistic rigmarole (I would of rather it have been Quixotic rigmarole, and treated it like it was for many of those years) I needed a detox. It was one of the best things I ever did. I was able to get a better piece of mind and shed some unwanted pounds that only cube life and bad eating habits can pack on. I felt so refreshed, after six months I accepted a position at Wizards again, this time in RPG R&D to work on 4e.

It was an exciting period. There is nothing more exhilarating, more challenging, and more nerve-wracking than working on a new edition of the game. There were many arguments, and I lost quite a few, won some, and had some very talented people challenge me to rethink old assumptions about RPGs and games in general. To date, it was the highlight of my career, and I would do it over again in a heartbeat. I’m very proud on the impact I’ve had over the years on 3e, 3.5e, 4e D&D, but especially the work I did on 4e. I think it is the greatest RPG ever produced, though I’m admittedly biased.

That said, there are things I wish “we” did differently. (After so many years working at Wizards, it is going too hard for me to stop using “we” when referring to Wizards…I will only use it here to put it in historical context). I wish the GSL were more inclusive and was so from the very start. I always admired the OGL and d20 System license, thought they were good for the D&D game and the adventure game industry in general, and wished we could have continued with that kind of open relationship with the fans, amateur designers, and 3rd party publisher.

I don’t like how the whole PDF thing panned out. I understand the desire to protect one’s self from illegal pirating, but I just wish it was handled differently. Let’s just say I didn’t agree with Sherman Alexi when he was on the Cobert Report a little while back (I still think you’re the bomb, Sherman!)


There were some so-called sacred cows in the rules that I wished we could have kept sacred. Now if any of my students are reading this, I’m sure they might be tempted to spit out their pop or coffee all over their screen. They know I don’t mind grinding sacred cows into tasty hamburger. You should always question dogma when it stands in the way of fun and innovation, but at the same time some sacred cows are there because they were fun and innovative from the start, and continue to do yeoman’s work in that regard. I will not go into what particular ones in detail, but I’ve been playing D&D since 81, so some of you might be able to make reasonable guesses on the subject.

So why am I telling you all of this? Because I can. I’m very self-indulgent, so if you’re reading the long version you’re just going to have to bail out or keep on reading. But there is also a lesson here. When you make games you only one real job – make fun. Anything that detracts from that will ultimately hurts you. Some will counter that your chief job is to make money -- that’s bullshit. I think if you make fun you will be more likely to make money, but hobby game marketing (at least in its current incarnation) is quicksilver, most of the marketers are alchemists keeping their formulas hidden with code, but in doing so obscuring the truth. There is no magic formula, there is not even a mundane one. There are only good games, clear lines of distribution and the ability for your partners to buy and warehouse what’s not flying through the channel…oh, and that fun thing.

So, what am I going to do now that I’m no longer at Wizards again? In the words of Bam Margera, “Whatever the fuck I want.” My birthday is coming up (some of you celebrate it as Christmas) and I am going to travel down to my favorite place on the Oregon Shore, spend some time with my wife, drink some of the best beer in word (all hail Pelican!), catch up on my reading (Jeff VanderMeer’s “Finch” Charles Stross’s “The Atrocity Archives” are top on my list, but finishing the Horus Heresy novels will undoubtedly come next) while watch the storms roll onto the beach.

I’m going to continue to run my two Days of Long Shadows campaigns, paint some miniatures, play some minis games, play some XBox, and look for another job. Right now I have more people sending me job listings and offering to collaborate with me than I know what to do with. There is some exciting stuff in that jumble… but first thing’s first. Time to relax. Detox. Smile and game.

Please do the same this holiday season and beyond.
The CliffsNotes Version

·         I left Wizards again, this time I got a severance package. A good one!

·         I’m very proud of the work I’ve done for Wizards and my contributions to D&D 4e. I think 4e is the best RPG produced to date.

·         I wish there were things that were done differently (I list some of them).

·         Now I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want.



Time Flies...

…when you are spending the majority of your time on other social networking sites. It doesn’t mean that I’ve abandoned this one, but if you want to see what I’ve been up to lately, either friend me on Facebook (Stephen Radney-Macfarland), on Twitter (http://twitter.com/SRMacFarland), or check out my Obsidian Portal campaign wiki’s (http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaign/days-of-long-shadows and/or http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaign/season-of-long-shadows-tan-group) , and feel free to friend me there too.

In the mean time, I’ve started up a second group for my Days of Long Shadows campaign, organized a monthly miniatures painting workshop at Wizards of the Coast, took a mini vacation to Pacific City Oregon, and have been busy developing and designing D&D books. But more on that later.

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

I know. It's been a long time since I've blog'ed, and there has been a lot going on recently, but this is something I think I must share.

If you have not seen, picked up, or played the game Pandemic yet, do yourself a huge favor and do it. The game is brilliant. It's simple, fun, highly addictive, and...cooperative. You always make interesting choices, and you always have fun, even when you lose.

Better still, the game's designer, Matt Leacock talks in-depth about the design and development of the game in this video. It is long. It's at a seminar, so he's not trying to entertain you, but it is (if you are like me and a huge game dork) fascinating.



Alright, I am out. I’ll try to blog more. Maybe over the holiday break.