Iourn.com – Phase III

Friday, 24 September 2010 will be the tenth anniversary of the Iourn setting. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a decade since a bunch of fresh-faced nobodies decanted themselves down to the Rutherford Cloister for the Sugar and Spice adventure. To mark this momentous occasion, I have decided to devote some considerable time and attention to updating the Iourn website, revamping it and bringing it in line with the twenty-first century. In this post, I’m going to discuss some of the ideas I have – and hopefully those of you that have opinions will be willing to voice them in the comments below.

The web is not the place it was in 2000 (or even during the last website update in 2004). A static site like Iourn.com has rather fallen out of vogue, replaced by all manner of interactive gubbins such as blogs, social networking sites and so on. These various “Web 2.o” entities have their place, and I plan to use them to augment the existing website. For example a don’t need a page of upcoming events if I can simply imbed an interactive Google Calendar in the site. I don’t need a page of Links when I can simply store all the links on Delicious and then link to that site. The Iourn site doesn’t need to contain important and time-sensitive news, when I can simply upload that sort of material to this blog, and post the blog updates on the front page of Iourn.com via an RSS feed.

None of the above is beyond even my puny web-building skills. However, none of them replace the need for a single, well-known and coherently formatted source of information and resources for the unending game. As I’m sure that HD&D is demonstrating, a blog is a poor place to try and build a coherent body of information. The amount of time I’m spending cross-linking the Combat system is testament to that. The question before us is not whether Iourn.com should continue to be the main source of campaign specific and house rule information, but how that information is presented.

I don’t think that the general skeleton of the site needs to change. Under Iourn.com will hang various sub-sites as now: The HD&D rules, the Iourn setting, the FBI game as well as the Hurssia and Karris’Mohr campaign settings. The Special Features can spin off into a second blog that I’ve been working on for a while. In addition a complete archive of the Iourn site as it was can also be included for historical purposes. Graham has been kind enough to offer me more than enough web space for that to be feasible.

The Structure

So how is information presented within that structure? If you have a look at the sitemap of the Iourn site, you’ll see that the site is laid out in an extremely basic fashion. There’s no search feature, so you need to either use the sitemap or drill down through the site to find what you’re looking for. That can be quite cumbersome, particularly if you’re trying to find something in the Religion section. The sitemap itself is an increasingly long and unwieldly page, that will only grow longer and more unwieldly in time.

And then there’s the A to Z: an encyclopaedia of all things Iourn. A nice idea, but one that hasn’t really been updated since session 35 of the Notoriety of Kings campaign – that’s October 2001 for those not in the know. My intention was always to have the definitive world information on (e.g. Religions, Countries) in their own sections, and then to have the A-to-Z acting as an encyclopaedic index of the rest of the site. A short-hand destination. Recently, I have come to think: what’s the point in that?

Having an A-to-Z in addition to the rest of the material in the site is simply duplicating information. Why not simply have everything in the A-to-Z? If you can imagine every entity, location and object in the setting listed as a separate entry on the site, and then simply indexing those entries. An over-arcing ‘Contents’ page can still group thematically similar pages, or you couldjust use the encyclopaedic index to jump to information about any one specific  thing. The addition of a Google Site Search box would make it even easier to find information.

Again, I can create all of the above with static HTML pages. I can dress them up with style sheets, templates and widgets, but at the core the pages would simple HTML. There wouldn’t be anything clever going on under the surface. But then… the thought occurs to me that if I’m structuring the site in the way I have just described, am I not creating something that is perfectly suited to being a database?

Iourn the Database

The advantages of turning the various subsites of Iourn.com into databases should speak for themselves. There would be a greater ability to classify and sub-classify the entries, allowing for far more sophisticated seaches. For example, Nicos Allumière could be classified as a Player Character, a cleric, a human, a worshipper of Calafax, the Firewalker, one of the Chosen of Narramac and so on. Any search on the database could then be limited by any of those criteria creating a list of all player characters, or all humans or all firewalkers. It would be a whole new way of searching for information, and might reveal new connections and relationships that were previously not apparent.

A database would not preclude a contents structure similar to the one the site has now, that would allow users to drill down and find an entry (rather than rely on the search feature). Neither would it preclude browsing through entries alphabetically. Plenty of database allow for a search feature, as well as the alphabetic browsing of entries through an index. So is this a win-win idea for the Iourn sites?

The main problem with this idea is that I don’t know how to make a database. I’m not a complete Luddite, and I’m sure I could learn, but doing so would take time. Therefore if we did go down the database route we would have to wait for me to master the necessary skills, or to impose upon the good will and the time of someone who already has the skills. With the best of good intentions, the sort of work I’m envisaging would be a tremendous imposition on the time of someone else. I’m happy for the help if someone wanted to volunteer, but I think it’s asking quite a bit.

I’m also not entirely sure how the campaign logs would fit into this database structure. Would they just be absorbed like everything else, or would they in some way stand alone.  Graham and I toyed with the idea of turning the Timeline of Events into a database last year, which I still think is a very good idea. However, I don’t know whether the timeline entries would necessarily sit in the same database as everything else, or occupy one of their own. And this highlights another big problem of using databases: although I interrogate them for the a living, and I know what makes for a good database from the user side, I don’t actually know how they’re made. This means that my expectations of what a database is capable of may be either too small or too great (or both).

Do we need a database?

All that said, and assuming for a moment that turning the Iourn sites into a database was as easy as not turning them into a database, do we really need a database at all? Take a moment to look at the wonderful www.d20srd.org. That’s the complete rules of the d20 Open Gaming Licence rendered in HTML. The world information for Iourn may be complex, but it is in no way more complex than the third edition rules. Site navigation over there is simply dependent on drilling down through the HMTL links, or using the Google Site Search box. I can create a site like that right now.

Of course there are things that the Hypertext d20 SRD can’t do. You can’t sort all the spells by descriptor or school. You can’t find a list of all Large monsters and so on. In fact the limitations of the site are such that has it has a companion site, Pen, Pixel and Paper, that does just that.

Conclusion and Advice

The fact is a database provides a greater degree of utility and control over the information on the site. The question is: do we need it? Is it worth the time and the hassle of turning the site into a database, when we probably won’t need the features of a database most of the time? Or am I simply underestimating the ease with which a database can be integrated with the site. Maybe it’s not as much hassle as I’m thinking?

Over to you.

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6 thoughts on “Iourn.com – Phase III

  1. I feel I should point out (before INdran does it for me) that I am not going to spend my time revamping the Iourn site without adding more content to it. So yes, that means more Campaign Logs. You don’t have to bug me about that!

  2. Hey Neil

    Call me a Philistine, but I have no objections to the way the website currently sits and have never had trouble finding things. I think it does the job just fine as it is without really needing a re-vamp. If you really wanted to do something on the website I am with Indran. I think updating the campaign logs is far more useful than updating the format. But then I am a bit behind the times with these things.

  3. Marc says:

    Remember that embedding links does do away with the offline usefulness of the site, something I’ve always relied on….

    Data basing it now would be a Herculean effort; a limited database that Graham suggested would be possible, but really? all of it! You should take a look at the design notes I’ve got for my SQL db to record a campaign, it is fairly hefty but I has to be to be flexible enough to cope with all the variations you would want. One of the worst sins is going into a project like this and saying it only has to do… PPP dealt with a static dataset, once the design was discussed they didn’t have to look to future proofing it. Also the PPP database was not the effort of one man… if set up correctly it will work fine, but I would foresee the attention paid to the historical entries would mirror the effort paid to the A to Z or campaign log giving you two unreliable sources of information. I spent two years of my life analysing, debugging, report writing, building databases, and I honestly do not think this is the way to go unless Graham, myself, or someone else has a decent chunk of time – HD&D, Campaign of ’10, conversion between systems, do you really want to add more now? It is unfortunate but my suggestion would be that, like with most heritage systems, start the db with new data and a clear design spec (as feature creep kills).

    Personally how many of us – excluding Indian – spend the time reading more than the campaign logs or most recent posts. I’m with Steve and Indran why change? The navigation is really only a hassle to you as you deal with it most often. As to hereunto unforeseen linkages; we are playing the game at far too disparate a rate to have anything like that occur if the GM isn’t spoon feeding it… currently that kind of linkage is handled by handouts, which we all enjoy reading.

    Enough rambling.

  4. So… you’re saying it might take a while?

    You missed out running the League of Light campaign, writing a growing number of Spider-Man reviews, raising two kids, holding down a full time job and writing a book in your list of other things I should be doing.

    I will happily bow to your greater understanding of database design, construction and maintainence. It does sound as though a massive retrospective conversion of the site into a database is out of the question for the time being. But this is not to say that the site doesn’t warrant a revamp.

    I take your point about the site’s utility off-line. I don’t use it off-line any more, so it didn’t really occur to me. A Google Site Search won’t work off-line either. However, if these Web 2.0 gubbins are there in addition to the site content, and not instead of it, I don’t think that you’d lose much by consulting an off-line version. All the information would be present and reachable, after all.

    You and Steve may be happy navigating the site as it is, but the truth is that the complexity of the site and the internal link structure discourages me from adding new material. For example, I think the campaign logs would be better presented session by session as they are on the FBI site, without me trying to divide specific sessions that fall between adventures.

    Should I revamp the site next year (and it’s still a big if given the rest of my workload) I would probably look at rewriting the templates for each subsite, introducing some drop-down menus, and adding more images. More importantly, I’d rationalise the file structure behind the site, to make it easier for me to manage and, as I said in the post above, place all entries in one large A to Z for convenience sake.

    All that said, I’ll agree that substance is more important than style and useful parts of the site (such as the timelines and logs) shouldn’t be ignored any longer. I shall ponder on this.

  5. For my two penneth, I say stick with HTML. I’ve never had a problem finding stuff on your site and think it is well put together. In my experience databases are more hassle than they’re worth for a project of this size. A good A to Z would be a useful addition if you have time, depends on your priorities.

  6. Thanks, Jack. I seems that opinion is falling on the “if you’re going to do something, stick to HTML, but I don’t know why you’re bothering at all” side of things. This is good for me, as I know that the general look and feel of the site is still fine after all these years.

    I still want to make some changes, but they’re likely to appear cosmetic from the front end. No databases for me.

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