RPG Blogging Tools I: Intro, Hosting, & Platform

I specifically target novices wishing to write about table top role-playing games (RPGs).  I am providing additional content that is only relevant to the RPG Blogosphere, eventhough the majority of the content of this article applies to blogs of any topic.

What is RPG Blogging?

What is RPG blogging, or blogging for that matter?  Well, a blog is defined by Merriam-Webster with the following entry:

blog
Pronunciation: ‘blȯg, ‘bläg
Function: noun
Etymology: short for Weblog
Date: 1999

: A Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer; also: the contents of such a site.

So blogging is the act of creating an online journal of reflections and commentary.  RPG Blogging is merely focusing those reflections and commentary on the specific subject of Role Playing Games, and in our case, the ones referred to as table top or pen & paper games.

I originally created my blog as a design & development diary for my own custom rank-based d20 rules, Echelon, and my original steampunk/horror setting, The Dead Wastes.  But it grew to be more than that, and it now incorporates product reviews, GM and player advice, points of inspiration, and cross-blog event participation.

Some RPG bloggers write about their experiences at the table, some talk theory, and others run the entire gamut of possibilities.  Some of the more successful bloggers are able to relate their real life experiences into gaming elements.  I have condensed the topics that most RPG Bloggers write about into the following list:

  • • Product Review
  • • Industry News
  • • Game play Logs
  • • GM advice
  • • Player Advice
  • • Homebrew Rules & Settings
  • • Game Design/Theory
  • • Gamer Culture/Rants

I am sure that I could be missing some huge niche in RPG Blogosphere, but I believe that most, if not all, topics can fall into one or more of the listed categories.  I should note that any topics devoted to a particular system (such as D&D 3.5, World of Darkness, or Warhammer) are actually just a subset of one of these categories.

I think one of the most important aspects of RPG Blogging, is that it seems to be more of a community than most of the other topic-related blogs out there.  We are aware of most of the other bloggers and we like to help each other out.  I keep a small circle of friends, so I am not one to claim everyone I encounter as a friend, but I do believe I have formed a few solid friendships with other bloggers.  This is one of the fringe benefits of being an RPG Blogger.

Hosting

The first decision that must be made by any burgeoning blogger is whether to use a free, but limiting host service or to pony up the money for full featured paid hosting.  The answer to this depends on how dedicated the blogger plans on being to the hobby as well as what kind of budget is available.

Hindsight being 20/20, I wish I had sprung for paid hosting from the beginning.  The reason is that after three and a half months, I had managed to establish regular traffic with a few popular articles.  Once I decided to go with paid hosting, due to the limitations of the free host, I found that it was a pain in the ass to redirect that traffic to the new site.  This and the fact that you cannot hope to update all the links still connecting to your old blog.

WordPress.com offers forwarding for an annual fee, but your new blog must maintain the same post structure, which was something I wanted to change.  Other free hosts may have similar options.

Free

So you have decided that you just want to test the waters or, for whatever reason, you are not ready to pay for hosting.  Some of the major players in free blog hosting include WordPress.com, Google Blogger, Live Journal, and Blog.com.  There are also a couple of social networks for gamers, EnWorld and RPGLife, that provide blogging tools (most likely trying to fill the vacuum left by the now defunct Gleemax).

Or if you are thinking about using the Wiki approach, Wikidot, Wetpaint, and WikiSpaces are popular free hosts.  But for the RPG Blogger, I would also check out Obsidian Portal and Campaign Wiki which are both geared towards the organization of campaigns, but might prove useful as a blogging tool.

It is important to note that if you use a free host, you may have to pay a fee to modify the theme, CSS, and HTML, or not be able to change them at all.  This will mean that it will prevent you from joining networks that require you to insert scripts into your site as well as keep you from using external traffic analyzers.

Self

Self hosting is a mixed bag.  The caveats of running your own web server from your home outweigh the benefits in my professional opinion.  First you will need to have an always on broadband connection, preferably something with some significant upstream speed.  And, you will need to ensure that you have a static IP Address.  Even if you have a cable connection, your IP may still be dynamic.

Most average machines will cost you about 1 USD a day (at average US rates) if you keep it on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  Decent paid hosting will probably charge a fraction of this cost, less than 0.20 USD a day (using a 6 USD/mo plan).

Installation, maintenance, and security will all be additional obstacles to consider when looking to self host.  Hosts already have web server software installed (Apache, IIS, etc.) and most will pre-install or have one-click installation of popular software.  And if a hard drive fails, the host most likely will have it replaced and your site back up in minutes.

However, if you already have a machine you run constantly, have a decent internet connection, savvy with configuring routers, and familiar with installing web servers and software then by all means self host.  It will provide the greatest amount of control, but for what little extra it provides, I do not think it is worth it.

Windows users should look at WAMP (for the web serving essentials), DynDNS (for free DNS service and a very good dynamic DNS update client for not-static IPs), and WordPress.org (to download the actual blogging software).  Linux users probably already know how to do this, and since there are so many distros out there, I’m not going to delve any further.  Oh, and before I forget, Macs should already have a shiny icon sitting in the dashboard that should one-click start everything you need, if you believe their ads.

Paid

If you have decided to take the plunge and go full bore on this blogging thing, congratulations.  Paid hosting can be acquired fairly cheaply, depending on what features you need. Some features to keep in mind when choosing a host are costs, domain names, bandwidth allotment, databases, scripting languages, methods of access, drive space, hardware, and supported software.

The first thing you will need when going to paid hosting is a domain name, preferably something unique but memorable.  Many hosting plans offer free domain registration, so picking out the domain name is part of setting up your account with them.  If you need to obtain a domain name from another service, I recommend GoDaddy.com.  It may also be important for future developments if your host provides multiple domains and/or sub-domains.  These can be handy for unrelated and related side projects you might want to develop.

While not so important for blogs when just beginning, the amount of bandwidth allowed for your site can be important.  When your blog takes off and becomes popular, you do not want to hit a bandwidth ceiling.  But if you are mostly serving text and small images, 100 GBs of bandwidth is probably more than sufficient.

To run blogging software, you will need a database, as most blogs produce web pages dynamically by using template pages and inserting the necessary content on the fly.  All of the popular software works with MySQL, which is usually provided in even the most basic hosting plans.  Other databases of note include MS SQL Server and Oracle.  Be sure to reference your chosen blog software to see which database (and version) it requires.

The other tools blogging software needs to operate are scripting languages.  The most popular language I see used is PHP, but some others include Python, Perl, and Ruby.  Again, refer to your chosen blog software to see what it is written in and make sure the correct version of the scripting language is installed on your host.

You will probably want to upload themes, plug-ins, and other resources (possibly the blogging software itself) to your site at some point, so it will be important to note what services the host provides for accessing your site.  I prefer SSH (Secure Shell) and FTP and I recommend WinSCP or FireFTP for FTP only file transfers.  You will also want to utilize FTP to backup your site. DO NOT depend on the host for timely and accurate backups.  Save early, save often.

Make sure you will have enough space available to build your blog empire.  It will need space for the software install, the database where all hour content will be held, additional themes and plug-ins, and whatever else you need to serve.  I would not settle for anything less than 10 GB because many plans offer unlimited space!

See what kind of hardware the server has tucked under the hood.  It will not do any good to have unlimited everything if it takes five minutes for simple pages to load.  If the specs are not listed, try other sites that use the same host and see how fast or slow those sites are.  I doubt this will be a major factor, but it is something to pay attention to.

See if the host supports your chosen software by installing it for you or with simple “one-click” installs.  Perhaps it has some other software you think you could take advantage of, such as Content Management Software (Joomla, Mambo, or DotNetNuke), forums (phpBB, vBulletin, or Invision), and wikis (MediaWiki, TikiWiki, or PhpWiki).

I currently use WebHostForASP.net for my hosting needs.  It is a Windows based host (fairly rare) because I actually develop .NET programs for a living and I want to host some examples of my work in the future.  This will require the use of MS SQL Server and ASP.NET 3.5 which can only be had on a Windows platform.

However, unless you have some exotic requirements like me, the following web hosting companies come highly recommended:

Each of these hosts provides web hosting for less than 7 USD and most provide free domain name registration.

Platform

A platform is a software architecture that applications run on.  I am liberal in what I consider a “platform.”  I usually chain all requisite software starting with the Operating System to the final application.  Some examples include Windows → II6 → MS SQL → .NET 2.0 → Visual Basic → DotNetNuke or Linux → Apache → MySQL → PHP → WordPress.  No doubt the more programming savvy of you will recognize the LAMP platform.

I highly recommend you take a few platforms for a test drive before you commit to any one solution.  I would also ask other bloggers what they use, how their experience has been, and if they have any tips.  I cannot speak for everyone on the RPG Bloggers Network, but I am sure most of them would be more than happy to share their thoughts on the matter.  I personally recommend LAMP and WordPress.

Blog Software

There are many blogging applications at the burgeoning blogger’s disposal, but I am presenting the few that are 1) free, 2) open source, 3) has an active user base, and 4) easy to use.  These are software that I highly recommend and have seen in service; however, feel free to check out additional software at WeblogMatrix.org.

WordPress

While I do not have any facts or figures, WordPress may be the most popular blogging software as of this writing.  WordPress is well documented and has a wealth of themes, plug-ins, and tutorials on modification available.  It also conforms to XHTML 1.0 Strict and CSS standards out of the box.  It is built with PHP, uses the MySQL database, and is licensed under GPL.  WordPress is currently on version 2.6.5 and 2.7 is nearing completion.

b2Evolution

If WordPress is the official successor of b2, one of the first full featured blogware, then b2Evolution is WordPress’s step-brother.  No doubt due to their shared roots, b2Evolution shares many features with its sibling, WordPress, such as being standards compliant, being written in PHP , using MySQL, and licensed under GPL.  Of particular note, b2Evolution supports hosting multiple blogs.

Textpattern

Textpattern is another recommended blogging tool, and it also produces standards compliant code.  If you have not noticed yet, I prefer standards compliant software, because as a professional programmer, I despise sloppy code.  Textpattern is also built using the winning combination of PHP, MySQL, and GPL.

Wiki Software

From a programmer’s viewpoint, there is not much difference between Wikis and blogware.  They both use a scripting language married to a database to produce dynamic web pages.  This is usually accomplished using the tried and true platform of PHP and MySQL and being released under GPL.  I am presenting what I consider the three best Wiki applications, but you can compare more at WikiMatrix.org.

TikiWiki

TikiWiki is a feature rich content management system that supports the following features: wikis, blogs, forums, RSS syndication, WYSIWYG editing, calendars and events, database tracking system, file and image galleries, user and group management, surveys, quizzes, and polls, and includes an activity-based workflow engine.  It is written in PHP and uses a database abstraction called ADOdb for use with many databases (including MySQL).  TikiWIki also incorporates Smarty, a template/presentation engine to facilitate customization.  It is released under LGPL.

MediaWiki

MediaWiki is the magic behind the ever popular Wikipedia, the online user-editable encyclopedia.  It is very well documented and has plenty of resources available to help a user customize it to their satisfaction.  MediaWiki, just as the blogware mentioned before, is built using PHP and MySQL and is released under the GPL.

PhpWiki

PhpWiki is a clone of the original WikiWikiWeb and is one of the more mature Wiki architectures.  All of it was born from the need for quick and easy collaboration.  Imagine a world where you have to program all your pages by hand with HTML, upload them to the server, and then set their permissions.  Thank to the people behind software like PhpWiki, we can edit from anywhere we have a browser!

This concludes part one of three in my series on RPG Blogging Tools.  Look for the next part entitled “Promotion & Measurment.”  I welcome my fellow bloggers to share their experiences, preferences, and tips on choosing a host and platform.

Listening to: Cold – Cold – Go Away

9 thoughts on “RPG Blogging Tools I: Intro, Hosting, & Platform

  1. I have to say this is a good overview for beginners. I have to agree, paid hosting is the way to go if you plan to do lots of blogging or if you just want to do things your way. I’d also say, don’t be afraid of the technical. If one can, learn a bit about the the technical aspects, CSS, HTML, JavaScript, and whatever scripting language your Blog uses will be your friend. If you can’t or don’t want to get technical, find a friend who is and get their help early.

    Also, many of the CMS systems can be used for Blogging as well, my personal favorite at this time is Drupal. Which for Bluehost is a one button install. Although as a tech head, I did it myself.

    Lastly, people should remember Blog Rule #1, if you are not having fun, don’t do it.

    Bonemaster’s last blog post..Computers and Gaming: Part 2

  2. A very nice overview.

    I toyed around with WordPress and consider it more powerful than Blogger, but I settled on Blogger because it was the easiest for me to interact with. Back when I ran RPGBlog.org, I used Typepad, which was easy to use and was slightly more powerful than Blogger, but wasn’t free.

    Another nice thing with Blogger is you can now order a domain name through Blogger/Google, and they’ll do the setup for you. If folks do use blogger, they should definitely look at the wide variety of templates available–its possible to have a very customizable, slick-looking site in Blogger.

    Zachary’s last blog post..Moving Past Gamer ADD

  3. @Bonemaster: I definitely agree with the statement that blogging should be fun. The moment it becomes work, I’ll quit (unless it makes me hundreds of thousands…). CMSs are definitely nifty programs, and I left out the ever popular Drupal from my list.

    @Zachary: Blogger is definitely a contender, thanks for the info about registering a domain name with it.

    @Alex: No kidding, it is always nice to have friends who have been there.

  4. Wow! Nice article Michael. I wish I had read something like this before I had started. I suppose the problem might be that most novice bloggers fire first, then think later… but hopefully this article will get picked up by the RPGBN or other blogs (/wink). If a novice blogger could google “how to start an RPG blog” and land here – that would be ideal. Bravo!

    jonathan’s last blog post..[4E] Ereshkigal’s Hatchet – Statblock

  5. That’s a pretty good intro. I’d recommend taking the plunge and going for paid hosting, if you’re serious about it; you can just do so much more with your own site than with the free ones, and the expense is pretty minimal. I wrote an article a while back about looking for web hosting which more or less sums up my other advice, so I won’t repeat it all here.

    I ultimately decided to go with one of the hosts you mention, InMotion. I’ve had no problems with them and their support is incredible. I second the recommendation.

    One place where I do disagree, though: under no circumstances would I ever recommend using GoDaddy. Their customer support is lousy, and some of their policies are nothing short of appalling. I’d go with Key Systems or Moniker instead. It’s a little more expensive, but at least they won’t yank your domain name and sell it to someone else, as GoDaddy has done on several occasions.

  6. @Jonathan: Yeah, I have the “if I knew then what I know now” syndrome myself, if it helps just one person, my job is done. Oh, and there are two more articles in the pipeline, tomorrow “Promotion & Measurement” will go live and then “Writing Tips & Sample Set-up” should go on Monday.

    @Scott: Thanks for linking to your web hosting article, stuff like that is more than welcome here. I know of GoDaddy’s history, but I have used them for five different projects over the last three years and never had a problem. I wouldn’t host with them, but they have damn cheap domain names. But yeah, if anyone wants further piece of mind, I’d go with your registrar recommendations.

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