Tools of the Trade – Electronic Edition

I’m going to admit up-front, I’m a bit old school when it comes to how I run my games. Even though I have the nice map design software and a good printer with a library of map images (sorry, can’t share since I don’t have permission, but Google Image Search is very helpful), I still tend to use graph paper even though elephants with paint brushes in their trunks have more artistic talent than I do. But I’ve tried several gadgets during my games and I admit that they can be useful. Since many gamers aren’t as set in their ways as myself and there seem to be a lot of posts concerning how people use various devices, I figured I’d give me opinions on them.

eBook Readers – These aren’t that useful at the table in my experience, but can be great for prep on the go. Anyone who has tried to haul a small library of books to the office or on a vacation knows exactly how big of a pain that can be – literally, if you have back issues as I do. The problem is that the processors on most eBook readers are not very powerful and they’re slow if you’re trying to do something other than read a novel. Taking a few seconds to load the next page isn’t a problem with a book, but can be frustrating if you’re flipping through trying to find rules. This is especially infuriating if you’re running an adventure off of it and need to go back and forth to describe something or because the players took a different route than you expected. The most limiting factor for these devices is that no publisher I’m aware of offers electronic downloads in eBook formats aside from fiction. PDFs tend to be incredibly laggy on these devices, and I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve seen a single game rulebook in any other format. I haven’t played with the touchscreen LED versions (which are basically just underpowered tablet computers), so I’m not sure if the processor is as limited on those. So while I love my new Kindle Touch (an amazing Christmas present from a friend), it’s only really good for reading novels.

Laptop Computer – A much better option for research and running a game, laptops these days are just as powerful as their desktop counterparts these days with the exception of netbooks, but even those have enough processing power to handle text searches and quick paging to go through PDFs or run character generator software. They’re amazing for prep as you can do so much these days, but they’re not as good using during the game as they’re bulky for the table. Even with the thinner designs, a laptop will take up almost all of the space behind a DM screen and you’ll be rolling your dice on the keyboard. However, if you have the table space, you can do a lot with a laptop from background music to dice rollers or even a PowerPoint presentation with images and maps on your TV screen.

Tablet Computer – Everything a laptop can do during a game but in the space of a single piece of paper, tablets are the best of both laptops and eBook readers. Not as good on the prep side even with the apps out there since image manipulation isn’t as easy on a tablet (unless I just suck unless I’m using a trackball), but amazing for running an adventure. You can thumb through the rules, do searches for research, and everything else you could want to do in a much more convenient size. Many tablets also have video outputs so you can throw images up on a computer monitor or TV screen as well, giving great visual aids to your game.

Smartphone – All the problems of an eBook reader and small enough you can’t read! Sorry, I’ve tried running a game off both my old iPhone and my current Android and the screen’s just never big enough. Even with my inFuse and it’s massive screen, I’m still zooming in so much so I can read the text that there’s barely a paragraph on the screen. I’ve also had a player once try to play a character off their phone and even he didn’t have enough room to keep more than two powers on the screen at once.

Printers – If there is any invention that I believe was made solely for gamers, it’s the inkjet and laser printer. Have horrid handwriting (like me)? Type up your adventure notes and print them out. Don’t want to type in all those monster stat blocks? Use the D&D Insider Compendium to copy the stat blocks or the Pathfinder SRD to copy and paste them. The only time you can draw a straight line is when you were trying to draw a crooked one? There’s not only image manipulation software specifically designed for making role playing game maps, but there’s even software that lets you tell it what sets of Dungeon Tiles you have and map out the entire dungeon. Suck at math? Use a character generator and print out a nice, pretty character sheet. There are even many free Dungeon Tiles you can buy online and print out on cardstock to use.

Why I Don’t Use Any of These at the Table– Distractions. Perhaps others have better self control than I do, but if I pick up my phone or turn on my computer, it’s just too easy for me to hit the Facebook icon and check what’s going on (even if most of my friends are sitting around the gaming table with me). How many times have you opened up Wikipedia just to look something up real quick and realized three hours later while reading the IMDB profile for voice actor Frank Welker that you forgot what the hell you were looking up in the first place? It’s not so bad if you have a slow office job or you’re stuck home sick while everyone else is out and you have time to kill anyway, but it’s another if you’re doing it while 3-6 friends are sitting around a table waiting on you.

I also hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate automatic dice rollers. It seems like anytime anyone uses a tablet, phone, or laptop at the table, they want to show off their dice rolling app. Even the nice ones that use real physics engines to clatter the dice around the screen just don’t feel right to me. That clacking sound as the plastic hits the game table is part of the experience and you lose that tactile sensation when you use a dice rolling app. Plus, you can’t take a blowtorch to your iPad because you rolled back-to-back critical failures (also known as “pulling a Holkins”).

Maybe I’m just easily distracted or maybe it’s because I started gaming back when the guy who went to the library to photocopy character sheets out of the back of the book was badass since all the rest of us had were pages of notebook paper with the little fringe from where we ripped it out of our spiral notebook for Biology still dangling, but I just really don’t like seeing too many gadgets at the gaming table. Maybe in a few years when the Microsoft Surface is ready and affordable or when Wizards of the Coast finally releases their virtual tabletop, I might be more accepting. But for now, I’d still rather have a character sheet, some graph paper, a crapload of dice, and a pencil.

Published in: on December 28, 2011 at 12:01 AM  Leave a Comment  
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