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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

CrystalBall Brings RPG Utilities to the Macintosh

by Ken Newquist / March 5, 2005

CrystalBall is the best damn D&D RPG tool on the Mac. The fact that it's also one of the only D&D RPG tools for the Mac is beside the point. Available as a shareware trial download, the program is comprised of a dozen or so different utilities for your game that can be used in or out of the game.

The program consists of:

  • Character Creator: serves as an aid to help you generate a character, automating some, but not all, of the process.
  • Monster Creator: uses a monster-design article from Dragon as a template for creating new monsters.
  • Dice Roller: Rolls all the common dice -- i.e. d6, d4, d20, percentiles, etc. -- but also allow you to create custom dice rolls (like 3d6+20)
  • Treasure Generator: Generates random treasure hordes based on encounter level using the random treasure generation rules from the DMG.
  • Name Generator: Generates random names from real-world and fantasy sources, including Greek, Gobi, Arab, Japanese, Tolkien and much more. In addition to generation names for people, it also generates names for places and items
  • Experience Calculator: Calculates XP based on the Challenge Rating of the an encounter vs. the party's level.
  • Combat Manager: A tool for tracking combat
  • Campaign Manager: Used to by the combat manager, this tool tracks players in your campaign.

The software was created using the Open Gaming License, and it adheres strictly to the information found in the system resource document. It supports both the 3.0 and 3.5 versions of the SRD, but not the "Modern" or "Future" supplements.

CrystalBall runs natively under Mac OS X. I tested it on a dual-USB 500 MHz white iBook with 384 mb of RAM and a dual 1.45 GHz Power Mac with 1 gb of RAM. Both Macs were running Mac OS 10.3.8.

I reviewed CrystalBall 3.1.7.2.

Great Tool, Great Potential

My Mac bias is well known to Nuketown's readers. I switched to the Mac at home about four years ago when I bought my iBook, and reaffirmed that decision two years ago when I bought a PowerMac to replace my desktop machine. At this point I'll never go back to a Windows laptop. I'd gotten used to Jamis Buck's offline treasure and NPC generators, as well as a few other tools, like the Everlasting Book of Names and a a dungeon mapper I found.

When I first booted up my iBook and started searching for RPG tools for the Mac, I was disappointed to find only an OS 9 port of Buck's treasure generator and a bunch of ancient HyperCard stacks (an easily-programmable quasi-database popularized by Apple in the late 80s to early 90s, and latter abandoned by the company). I muddled through, continuing to use my PC tools to generate the stuff I needed, and then e-mailing it over to my Mac.

And then I found CrystalBall. Not only it was an OS X compatible, but it did most of what I needed.

I found the best tools -- the ones that I use every week -- were the program's supplementary utilities. The Name Generator contains too many seed languages to easily list here is tremendously useful when preparing for a game. There are plenty of name generators available on the net or on PCs -- the aforementioned Everlasting Book of Names is particularly good for fantasy names -- but CrystalBall goes beyond the norm by including place and item name generators. These were godsends -- as a DM scrambling to meet my Friday deadline I've often fumbled for to name a new town or magic item; with CrystalBall, my fumbling days are over.

The Treasure Generator is good, although not quite as good as Jamis Buck's old generator (which incorporated treasure from the various class guidebooks, Dragon magazines, and d20 products, but then again, that generator wasn't OGL compliant). It allows you to generate a treasure based on a Challenge Rating level, and lets you exclude certain types of treasure (art objects, coins, etc.). It's easy to cut-and-paste the results into Word or some other word processor, but a print or save option would be nice.

The Experience Calculator is a convenient extra that, as mentioned earlier, figures out XP based on the chart in the DMG. Its particularly useful if your players, like mine, want to have their XP calculated at the end of each session. For technical reasons relating to the Open Gaming License, the software does not shift with the actual experience tables for Dungeons & Dragons, but those tables are editable by end users.

I've experimented with a few different character generators. PC Gen is a Java-based character generator that incorporates data from most of the d20 publishers. As Java, it runs on Windows and OS X, but I've always found it to be slow and not exactly intuitive. I've also played around with eTools, which does an adequate job of character generation, but whose other tools are lackluster at best.

CrystalBall's Character Generator is good for what it is: an aid for creating a character. It automates parts of character generation -- automatically generating attributes and adiding the bonuses to things like base attack, but relying on the user to factor in from bonuses from feats and such. For example, if you take "weapon focus: greatsword" you'll need to manually add in the attack bonus it grants.

In addition to attributes, the character generate can randomize race, level, name, alignment, sex, age, and social class Even cooler, it can generate random equipment lists, as well as starting armor and weapons that are either entirely random, or random based on class equipment lists. That's a nice touch.

The Monster Generator works along similar lines, but it's more basic. It doesn't come with the standard races like orc or goblin. Instead, it uses one of the early D&D 3E articles in Dragon about monster creation to provide you with all the base options for creating your own monster. Not quite as useful as the character generator, but still nice to have around.

The generators are helpful, but if you're expecting them to be a full-blooded generator like PC Gen, you'll be disappointed. But if you're looking for a simple generator to aid in character generation, this'll fit the bill.

The Combat Manager can suck in Character Generator files, and allows you to, well, manage combat between characters and monsters. I experimented with it quite a bit, and used it in a few games, but like most computer-based combat managers I found it to be more trouble than it's worth. Set-up is time consuming, and it's difficult to use on the fly; I'd much rather use my tried-and-true Excel spreadsheets.

I've never used uses electronic dice rollers much, but all that changed when I got CrystalBall. When the tool loads, the first window pain you see displays photo-realistic graphics of all the standard D&D dice. Clicking them rolls the dice, but that's merely its most basic function. The real benefit of the dice roller comes in the form of its customization options, which allow you to roll odd combinations like 10d6+12 or 10d10+9d4+6d6.Now there's nothing like dropping a handful of six-siders on the table to instill fear in an unruly party of gamers, but there are times -- like when creating monsters for a session -- when it's helpful to roll large amounts of dice without, well, rolling large amounts of dice. The custom roller does that, and does it well.

There are a few things I'd like to see added to CrystalBall. In the Character Generator, I'd like to see the point-buy system for attributes from the DMG. My campaign uses that system exclusively for character generation, and automating it would be helpful. The printer option is a must -- I'd like both a traditional sheet and a stat block -- which the developer's working on.

I'd also like to see an Encounter Level Calculator to complement the XP Calculator. Calculating out an Encounter Level for four CR 6 shambling mounds (it's 10) is something that's not exactly complicated, but could be made quicker with an EL calculator. I'd also love some sort of search interface for accessing all the information stored inside CrystalBall -- for example, I'd like to be able to do a search on the term "greatsword" and have the program serve up the stats. Having other d20 products supported by CrystalBall -- especially with the treasure generator -- would be nice, but it's not crucial.

One last thing -- and this is a minor quibble -- is that I'd like to see pricing for two-copy, one-user licenses so that fans can easily run copies of CrystalBall on their desktop and portable machines.

Performance wise, the program is slow but manageable on my iBook, and flies along just fine on my Power Mac G4.

Active Development

CrystalBall has been under constant development since the day I first installed, with the developer Joseph Sharp constantly asking for feedback from his users via the program's online forums. Fans can actively shape the future of this product by commenting on screen shots of new versions, experimenting with betas, and suggesting new features.

Development of the latest version -- called 3.5 -- has been slow, but periodic progress has been made, and the feedback loop between Sharp and his users is continuous. It's great to see this sort of back and forth between creators and users, and in my opinion, its one of the things that makes the program worth buying.

Final Analysis

CrystalBall is a little rough around the edges, but its numerous utilities and generators make it an essential purchase for any Mac-addicted D&D player.

Details

  • CrystalBall
  • System Requirements: Macintosh Computer running system 8.1 - OS X (10.2+), 64 megs of free RAM, 10 megs of hard drive space.
  • Web Site
  • MSRP: $20