Interview With Realm Architect Creator Nils Philips
Explore the world of virtual tabletop gaming like never before with Realm Architect, a new tool for DMs to enjoy
Realm Architect is a virtual tabletop (VTT) tool that just recently launched on Kickstarter (and was funded in less than 48 hours). This innovative program makes running a tabletop roleplaying game easier by allowing DMs to create Realms - interactive maps with nested specific location maps and pre-loaded character sheets, tokens, monsters, items, and more, all with a built-in notetaking system so that everything you need to run the game is at your fingertips within the program itself.
Excited by the idea of this project, I sat down (virtually) with the CEO of Realm Architect, Nils Philips, to discuss the inspirations and specifics of this awesome new tool.
SJP: Care to introduce yourself? Who is on the Realm Architect team, and how did you come together?
There are three of us on the team as founders: myself Nils Philips as CEO started the project with Yannick Severyns my COO, and we both met Silas de Smit our CMO later on. Yannick and I have known each other for a decade now, we met while volunteering in our community. We've played D&D and other TTRPG's for about the same time. In fact, I opened my Roll20 account in 2014 when we played Lost Mines of Phandelver. We have always been frustrated with the VTTs available over the years and observed both as a DM and player a lot of minutia in playing these types of games and how they really tend to slow down the game and immersion while not adding anything to the story.
During Covid, Yannick and I actually set out to create our own TTRPG system, codenamed Project Outlaws, which was going to be a TTRPG that put storytelling and roleplay first, by emulating those dramatic scenes from Sons of Anarchy or Narcos where players would be part of the same illegal outfit trying to grow their criminal empire and survive the scrutiny from law enforcement.
As a design challenge, we set ourselves the goal to try to eliminate the need for the DM altogether, just to explore new paths in the space. We quickly arrived at a supporting application that was going to strip the role of a DM of a lot of the details and administrative work and give them back the focus on telling their story. That was codenamed DM-Toolkit and eventually grew into Realm Architect, as we understood the potential of what we were building could be applied to any TTRPG system.
A year later, having a prototype developed, knowing full well we wanted to do a crowdfunding campaign, we were looking for a marketing expert in pop culture brands and met Silas. He was so charmed by what we were building he decided to just hop on board.
SJP: How long have you been playing TTRPGs? Which system is your favorite?
I personally have been playing TTRPGS for a decade, and I do have shiny object syndrome. Every cool new TTRPG system that comes out or I learn about, I feel the need to get deeply involved in it. I've got a ton of sourcebooks lying around from Cyberpunk Red to The One Ring from Free Leagues Publishing. However I do have a favorite, and that's Blades in The Dark. It's one of those systems that just works perfectly for amazing storytelling and epic moments. It has this "Ocean's Eleven" type flashback mechanic that I just adore, making players a driver of the story and content rather than just a participant.
SJP: As you mention in your Kickstarter trailer, you were inspired by the lack of adaptable and comprehensive digital tools available for virtual tabletop gaming. Was there a specific incident that led to this project, or was it a more general frustration?
It's more a general frustration, there's a variety of amazing tools out there and people should always use what fits their needs the most. We just were frustrated that most of them come with quite the learning curve, and while my life certainly got more busy over the years I had even less time to get to learn them. And we were sure we couldn't be the only ones. So when the DM Toolkit was being developed we focussed on making most things either not take more than 5 clicks, drag & drop, or fixed with a slider. And I mean that, truly out of the box.
On top, we felt that the "scene-based" approach to playing TTRPGs was getting old. If you think about single-player roleplaying games, where part of our inspiration comes from, we interact way differently with RPGs such as Pillars of Eternity, that's what a Realm is a connected world experience, with some worldbuilding features attached.
That was a 2nd frustration, the plethora of tools that you bring to a table as a GM is out of control, you bring notes, have data in your VTT, Worldbuilding tool, notepad/OneNote, etc.
We all know that DM-Burnout is a real thing, and you're not supposed to be burning out on a hobby if you ask me.
SJP: Realm Architect is currently set to premiere preloaded with the base rules of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, with, as Becca Scott notes, “more to follow” including Pathfinder. Which systems would you like to see added to the RA codex?
Honestly, any system should run in Realm Architect, which is going to be a challenge. The way we approach that is by building RA from the ground up as a tool that is system-agnostic by design. This means we generalize the TTRPG and their system into a "generic version", that we can expand depending on the system. On top of that foundation, we're building low code/no code features that allow us to program most TTRPG systems ourselves. The goal is to make it easy enough, even an intern could fit a new system into Realm Architect themselves with minimal training. Succeeding in that will be a challenge for sure, but it's better to shoot for the moon and land among the stars. It's cheesy but true.
Those creator tools will roll out to publishers/boutique creators and end users alike. Currently, we're exploring how we can use Steam Workshop as a way for people to share the systems we haven't officially supported yet, but there are some legal aspects around copyrights that we need to understand better first. Wouldn't want Lost Mines of Phandelver floating around suddenly.
But generally, our approach to officially adding new systems is based on 2 axes:
1) from biggest to smaller ones
2) how long it takes us to support it
SJP: This project has many, many features to explore that sound incredibly useful. How did you build/are you building the program from a developmental standpoint?
I think the above covers that quite nicely, the idea is to be more accessible to most users while forgoing some of the depth that other platforms offer you. All to get you to create faster as a Game Master so you can play more sessions.
On the flip side, the plug & play nature of the Realm just skips the creative process altogether, which can be hard to do with life getting in the way of creativity.
SJP: There’s going to be a content marketplace for RA, open to creators who want to build and sell full campaign worlds and adventures. Could you give me a little bit more detail about that aspect? What kinds of things will be available on the marketplace? Who can sell there?
Our system is based on Realms primarily, so a world that you sell as a whole. That includes a prefilled codex with classes, subclasses, spells, items, monsters, NPCs, etc. A true plug & play solution.
However, for people who are creating their own Realms, we welcome Creators to submit their work as modules to us, so people can integrate this new monster manual easily into their codex and existing campaign.
The reason we distinguish between Realms and Campaigns is mainly because you can run multiple campaigns in the same setting. There are GM's out there that play the same setting in more than 1 campaign. We're trying to reach their needs as well.
Anyone can submit content in the program, but there is a bar to be cleared. We want to maintain a level of quality in the submitted work but mainly because AI art flips will be a thing really soon and for us, that's just not that interesting and a big potential legal risk. Currently as far as I understand it, if someone would send us a DMCA or cease and desist letter claiming that's AI artwork based on stolen IP, we'd have to go to court to prove that wasn't the case. There's no way we could ever prove that and we'd like to support artists anyway. On top, we need to make sure that people upload content that's actually theirs. Again don't want another Lost Mines of Phandelver floating around on our marketplace!
SJP: Jeff Cannata of Dungeon Run fame recently ran a D&D 5e one-shot for your team to celebrate the Kickstarter launch and showcase the product. How was that experience?
When we first pitched this idea to Jeff he was super stoked and glad that such a project was being made. He understood the core frustrations of GMs perfectly and if you watch those short videos with him, it shows.
Honestly, we did spend quite a bit on that whole shoot and I was anxious about what we would get in return. But I have to say, Jeff Cannata is just such a pro, not that I was surprised by that, but he aced it during the shoot. Not only him but the production crew as well, they found this amazing castle in Thornsbury that felt straight out of a Harry Potter novel. And it fit our setting perfectly, so big shout out to And The New as an agency for pulling this off. On top we were surrounded by amazing players from amazing podcasts, Alex from Roll Britania, Yugiohoe from Drag & Dungeoneers, and Stephen from Roll the Damn Dice. Super talented improv artists that really showed up on the day. My performance admittedly was the weakest out of all of us, but I never claimed to be the best player anyways :p.
That all came together quite late, just one week before the Kickstarter, and so it was hard for me to enjoy at the time when I had a list of a million things to do, still. But it's a good sign that the production crew behind the scenes had issues keeping it together at times!
We hope to show you the full show really soon! And honestly, I'd love to do more. It was just SO much fun. But let's get this Kickstarter done first!
SJP: Is there anything else you’d like to add about this project that we haven’t covered?
I think what makes us different from other TTRPG tools, is that while we definitely have passion for the project, it's not a passion project. We've chosen a "Game Pass" like model that combines subscribing and buying content to meet the needs of our community but also develop the tool alongside the community.
We're also different because before we started this project we first applied and got accepted into Startup accelerators. We knew NOTHING about actually building a business from the ground up OR developing and publishing a game/software. So we were accepted both into Birdhouse, an accelerator here in Belgium with a 3% acceptance rate, and DAE studios, a Belgian game dev focussed accelerator. We've learned so much and met people we never would have gotten access to normally.
We also pitched our idea to the head of business development at Larian Studios HQ which is in Gent, Belgium. One of the highlights of my life for sure. They gave some great advice that we use to this day. Both Birdhouse and DAE studios have started Venture Capital funds with significant capital to be deployed in Belgium. They've invited us for a pitch and told us to prove that there was a market for our niche product, which the Kickstarter is exactly for. In fact, it is part of a diverse funding mix, consisting of not just crowdfunding, but loans, subsidies, grants, and VC investment.
On top we're surrounded by amazing entrepreneurs who have done it all before, we're learning from them how to build this business. That puts us in a different category altogether. Or at least, that's my belief!
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