The creators of the InKarnate RPG Toolset talk about the balance between tradition and accessibility in modern role playing.
There’s no arguing that part of the fun/frustration of tabletop gaming is sitting in a room with your friends, penciling in character sheets and rolling fistfuls of dice. But like so much else, the advent of not only computing, but convenient computing, has made the actual need for lugging such a physical kit to game night all but obsolete. Still, despite the convenience of digitization, to date, technology has proven continually unable to oust even the most cumbersome manual aspects from modern role playing.
Enter the inKarnate RPG Toolset, a web application that hopes to strike the right balance between maintaining a classic tabletop experience, while augmenting certain components of the experience to make it more accessible to modern gamers. The Escapist recently got a chance to sit down with its creators (who are currently working to fund the project through Kickstarter) about the philosophy behind making a technological application of a mechanical hobby.
The Escapist: Why start with D&D 3.5? What other RPGs are you planning on expanding to in the future? Just other D&D versions, or other games like Pathfinder?<
InKarnate: We began with 3.5 because of its open-source foundations and how close it is to Pathfinder. We’ve since decided that PF will be the next rule set we tackle. After that, we’re not quite sure. Our intent is to make this a long-term development where we are consistently expanding InKarnate. We’ve looked at Shadowrun, 4e, and Savage Worlds as just a few examples of other rules we’d love to find a way to include.
The Escapist: Do you see the InKarnate app changing the way that people play tabletop RPGs, or just helping them improve the experience that’s already there?
InKarnate: Both, in that by improving the experience we hope to change it. To us, engaging in this unpredictable mutual storytelling experience is at the heart of the fun. Yes, gaining power for your character, rolling crits and slaying terrible demons through masterful strategy are all important as well, but right now we feel the rules are getting too much in the way of enjoyment. We were observing some other groups recently and there was one example that really stuck with us. This particular group was brilliant with the story-the GM was playing the role of a fork-tongued Beholder that talked the party out of killing it once and then damn near did so again. They were all laughing and coming up with entertaining solutions to the scene, the GM was firing on all cylinders, and then…one the players couldn’t find an appropriate skill for his character to use and the entire session came to a halt. If those moments could be avoided wouldn’t we all want that?
Another major area where we hope to promote change is in game preparation. How many hours do GMs spend putting their campaigns together? Seems, at times, like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up a hill. How’s that fun? With rules agnostic tools like the Map Builder and Adventure Creator, our intent is to make writing campaigns, adventures, and even one-off encounters simple and fun. Rather than the GM thinking: ‘EUREKA! I just had the coolest adventure idea of all time,’ followed shortly thereafter by ‘For all that’s good and holy I now have to write the thing.’ We want GMs to look forward to firing up InKarnate and building out their imagined Underdarks and celestial cities.
The Escapist: Are you considering working with or trying to attract any RPG developers, or are you focused exclusively on the players?
InKarnate: We’ve had talks with developers here and there-but nothing that’s progressed to a point of being able to discuss just yet. One area where we’d love to attract creators, though, is through the adventure editor we intend to build. We see that as an opportunity for many of the smaller module publishers to offer up their work without having to create physical books and worry about poor margins or marketing costs. We want InKarnate to become a virtual tabletop RPG hub. That’s a lofty goal and one that’s not right around the corner-but a worthy thing to chase all the same.
The Escapist: Wizards of the Coast developed an in-house D&D app, but seems to have ignored it since. Do you think there’s a reason why its app wasn’t widely adopted by the tabletop community, and how is InKarnate’s toolset seeking to offer players more?
InKarnate: Well, will start off by saying that, now that we’re neck-deep in this ourselves, we realize how big a task it is. With that acknowledgement out of the way, I think the main issues we’ve seen with other apps are: they’re not easy enough to use, are not fully integrated, do not have a visual UI, and do not do enough to help GMs and players with preparation for play sessions. We recently showed our prototype Map Builder at Gencon and were surprised by the delighted reaction we received from attendees at the booth. I know it probably sounds strange that we’d be surprised by a positive reaction to a component of our own app, but the Map Builder is still very early in development compared to the Character Creator-and so we were caught off guard by how much everyone seemed to love it even in its early state. We think the reason is that GMs do not have enough tools to help them that are simple and even a little fun to use (a lot of Gencon attendees remarked that they could see themselves just doodling away at maps for an afternoon using the Map Builder).
Also, we intend to set ourselves apart by continually updating InKarnate. One of the cool features of the app is the equip screen-an interface where you can see illustrated weapons equipped for your character. We intend to release monthly art packs with new looks, visual styles, etc. So your Holy Avenger might look completely different from someone else’s. And beyond art packs, new adventures, and other content, given the open-ended nature of tabletop RPGs, we feel like we could roll out new features nearly into infinity without ever running out of something new to chase.
The Escapist: While they often share multiple components and players, software-based RPGs and table RPGs are pretty distinct. Where does InKarnate draw the line between keeping D&D a true tabletop experience, and evolving it into something different entirely? Are there any features or components you’d never consider including virtually?
InKarnate: Our focus, from the beginning, has been on making the experience sitting around a table with your friends better. We feel that there’s a certain something about being in the room together that really makes these games sing and so that’s been our mission statement: MAKE PLAYING IN A ROOM MUCH, MUCH BETTER (of course, given that it’s a web app we get strong online play also as a benefit of the design).
For the foreseeable future, we’re going to avoid 3D in the app (particularly in mapping, given that 2D is the typical standard for maps in the genre). Outside of that, one of the fascinating things about this project is how many different directions we can ultimately take it. So would not eliminate anything as future targets (of course, given the scope of what we already have on our plate, that hypothetical future is a ways…well…in the future).
The Escapist: So, you’re looking for funding for Inkarnate through Kickstarter. Why’d you decide to go that route?
InKarnate: Well, at the moment, InKarnate is a labor of love from the three of us-Alex Gagen, Glenn Rane, and Marc Hutcheson. We have the ability to build out InKarnate, but with additional resources we can move much more quickly and expand the feature set. We’re asking for $100,000, but it’s important to understand that after Kickstarter and Amazon take their cut, fulfilling the physical rewards, taxes, etc. there’s a lot less than that left over. For an app of this scope and level of polish, that’s a very streamlined budget. If the community gets behind InKarnate and we receive the funding, it’s going to help us tremendously in pushing out a polished, well-executed app in a shorter time frame. But even if we don’t get the funding we are going to continue to work on it. We believe that InKarnate has the power to transform how tabletop games are played-and we’re going to do everything we can to see that it does.