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.
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.