It’s Called Tabletop Gaming Not “Rebooting My Laptop” Gaming

So have you figure out what your Inspiring Presence bonus is to your Exhorted Counterattack is, or am I gonna have to houserule?

Watching my fellow players and their fixation with technology in the past months has got me thinking quite a bit about the place of technology at the gaming table. They use their iPhones to store their character stats, run searches on their PDFs to locate situation-specific rules and rely on the character builder to track all changes in loot and level between sessions. Despite my relative lack of actual play experience with pen and paper RPGs, I think I can safely say that it is in the 21st century that microcomputing – meaning desktop, laptop and mobile – has truly stampeded into the role-playing hobby.

Back in the 20th century, I was a bigger gamer on computers than I was on the tabletop – not being able to find anyone to play had something to do with that – and I recall that most of the punditry took it for granted that most computer gamers were really just the tech-savvy tabletop gamers. The principal concern of such pundits was how microcomputing technology presented unique challenges to designers in exchange for convenience. While they can provide automated number-crunching and information management, computer games have difficulty replicating the social components of the tabletop.

Thus, despite great strides made in multiplayer gaming – from the very first hot seat games pioneered by the likes of Dani Bunten Berry to the Internet-powered likes of MMOs and Facebook games – computers and the Internet have emerged as tools and supplements to the tabletop gaming experience. However, my personal experience is that these tools can sometimes serve as distractions at the tabletop, just as unrestricted access to Facebook and the rest of the Internet may reduce productivity at the office.

To be fair, much of this depends on the nature of your gaming group and DM, but the ubiquity of tech fetishism is such that there’s always one guy who spends more time behind the laptop at every tabletop. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a complete technophobe – I still know my way around a DOS configuration and mess with the innards of my old Kubuntu laptop. Still, I’m sure any of you reading this has met that one guy who spends more attention on getting a better set of power tools than actually learning how to use them.

In the case of RPGs, especially crunch-rich management-heavy games like Dungeons & Dragons 3.5/4e or even Star Wars Saga Edition, I find that tools like the Character Builder and libraries of PDFs have discouraged people to actually sit down to learn the system. In the case of Star Wars, games can grind to a halt when the players who opt to bring laptops – filled with pirate scans of PDFs – instead of books (if they own any at all) drag the game down by looking up the rules in mid-game. Others rely on the Character Builder to look up their powers, insisting that “this won’t take very long.”

Of course, this problem wouldn’t be an issue in groups with discipline and/or tougher play policies – “study your character before the game” or “if you can’t decide in 30 seconds, your turn is forfeit” – but implementing those kinds of policies without provoking negative feelings is easier said than done. Even those players who acquiesce to such policies can be forgetful, showing up just as unprepared as before. Thus my biggest beef with technology at the table is an assumption of “Hey, it’s digital, I can find it quick!” when it can sometimes get in the way of player discipline.

And I’m not even talking about those guys who are checking Facebook and IMing their girlfriend while they are supposed to be listening to the DM’s narration or thinking about what they will do on their next turn. I’m talking about DMs who lose valuable planning time wrestling with a digital mapping program and players who bog down their turns because they never tried to study a new system before hand or commit their character stats to paper, let alone memory. Simply put, a tech-savvy player with all the rules on his laptop is, IMHO, no match for a player who has studied for the game beforehand and/or possesses superior note keeping skills.

It’s not unlike being in college or high school, where all the gadgets in the world do not detract from the responsibility to genuinely study beforehand, and one must be ready when his turn comes up. They can make for great tools, but they can never be a complete substitute for preparation.

What’s your take on technology at the tabletop?

14 Responses to “It’s Called Tabletop Gaming Not “Rebooting My Laptop” Gaming”
  1. Angry Johnny says:

    Well, I plan to use tech at the table as DM. It would be nice if WotC had considered that beforehand and created – then thoroughly tested – software to be used in such a manner, but they didn’t. I’ll be using a program called Masterplan that I hope will allow me to keep track of the positions of each “mini” on the board (including the ones the players can’t see). I am a little concerned with speed, but I’m not planning to use the deeper functions of this particular software – yet – so I think I’ll be OK if I’m just moving pieces.

    As for my players, I will encourage them to use any tools they wish at the table. We all mostly work in computer game design, so we should know what works and what doesn’t. And since I’ve already got a number of “house rules” in place before we’ve even had our first session, I don’t think adding one or two more would really raise any eyebrows…

  2. Neuroglyph says:

    I actually have to disagree with your assessment of my DM prep time. My prep time has gotten considerably more efficient and prosperous by using a wide range of DM tools, and I can offer a better game to my players because of it. And I’d consider myself one of the “old dog” gamers, who has played for over 30 years, and almost all of that time, my prep was done by paper.

    And I also use a laptop at the table, and it serves as my DM screen and notes, and I don’t seem to ever recall having to reboot at the table.

    As far as players using tech, I can’t comment with as much certainty. Only one of my players, out of the 11 players I have in 2 campaigns, brings his laptop and iPhone to the table. But he’s a computer tech for a local college, is massively tech savvy, so asking him to do without would be like asking a knight to leave his armor at home. I haven’t experienced any indication that he is any less rule savvy than my non-tech wielding players, but maybe some players’ lack of tech skills does hurt their play.

    • I wasn’t referring to ‘your’ prep time, but I meant no offense. I’d be a hypocrite to be very ‘tough on technology’ as I rely on my laptop to plan out encounters and transfer world lore into Word documents myself. However, I also pre-roll initiatives onto paper and prepare index cards for common monsters.

      I think the old dog gamers are more often than not, going to be the ones who handle the application of technology to the tabletop responsibly. If they have put together a fully detailed dungeon map, prep the encounters, detail their NPCs on a regular basis for several years, then their going to be much better at it.

      As I indicated above, my personal bugbear with technology probably has more to do with the personalities than the technology itself. I get what you mean about the knight leaving his armor. Some people have a perfectly symbiotic relationship with tech, but those people who force the use without recognizing how bad they are at it are my real target.

  3. Oz says:

    While my notebook has become my GM familiar, I know that my ADD (not AD&D) players would be tempted by internet access to browse during other player’s scenes (not so bad) or between turns (very annoying). Leaving my comic books out is a distraction for some of them, so I’m not in any hurry to give them access to my wifi.

    I do use a loose time restriction rule. When I feel like a player has spent enough time dawdling over a decision I start an audible count down, at which point they get skipped.

    • A wifi ban is probably a great idea for those groups with problem players who chronically surf between turns. I’ve seen other DMs try to implement the count down thing but it always comes down to ‘3,2,1… again… 3,2,1’

      I think if you combine the wifi ban with the countdown, you’d have a situation where other players would be pressuring the current player to decide cause they have no Internet and therefore nothing to keep them ‘occupied’ between turns.

  4. Blackfog says:

    We’ve actually banned computers at the gaming table unless it’s 100% required by someone. Not that they can’t be helpful, but too many blinking lights and do-dads to play with and you lose attention too quickly (even if it’s just an IM from the wife upstairs who’s reminding us we need to make a dinner plan before it gets too late).

    As a GM, on the other hand, the ability to keep all my notes handy in multiple formats, work on things when in disparate locations, search PDFs for rules, and have maps and other play-aids immediately available makes having a computer or an iPhone or whatever rather useful.

    That being said, as a player, I’m still old school and keep my character on paper and record things in pencil.

    Even as a GM, I don’t use the computer to track hit points or do anything that requires interacting with software other than to search or open a document (and even then, that stuff should be opened and prepped before the game even starts, if possible). The last thing I need is for my players to be sitting there looking at me blankly while I wait for something to work right or yell at the computer for not doing what I want.

    After all that, though, I still tend toward printing out what I need, using an actual pad and pencil for notes/tracking, and looking things up in actual books when required. The less things that can distract from the game the better. Still, it’s really about being prepared.

    • That sounds exactly like me!

      I DM using a master reference document that contains whatever I’m going to do that day – indexed with parenthetical comments like “(see Explorer’s Handbook, pg. 73)” and “(refer to Monster Manual 2, pg. 122 for Lore)” when I don’t have time to transcribe from poorly OCRed PDFs. I have pre-rolled initiatives and the monsters are already in custom stats on a separate page, with the XP calculated.

      But as a player? I take one penciled out character sheet with me and hand-written copies of all the daily item powers, class features and other expendable abilities crammed into a single 8.5×11 inch piece of paper. Oh and I bring pencils, erasers and a portable media player to give a musical score to the whole session.

      As for discipline, one player several years my senior says that back in the day they didn’t even have cellphones or laptops, so sometimes it’s really a matter of how refined your mind’s ‘gamezone’ is.

  5. yongkyosunim says:

    I used my laptop at the gaming table when I GM. It’s been very invaluable to me in running combats, keeping track of status effects, and managing the rules and the paper. When I had just the books and my printed out module, I’d always end up with pages here and there that were out of place, missing handouts, etc. It was too frustrating just to have to look for things. Also, my space as a GM is limited so having the rulebooks at one side, the module at another was also a hassle. At least with the laptop, I get to keep it all in one place.

  6. Kameron says:

    Only the DM (me, in most cases) is allowed to have a laptop on at the table during game time. I use it primarily for encounter management, but have used the Rules Compendium on occasion. Like Neuroglyph, I’ve found it lessens my prep time and streamlines combat. I’m currently using the 4E Combat Manager, but am investigating Masterplan.

  7. vbwyrde says:

    As a GM/Programmer I wrote a web application that I use to help me prepare for my games. It’s very convenient. But I tend to use it mostly before the game, and then do printouts from it of what I need. Sometimes, like when a Player has an idea for a new spell or skill or race or some such I’ll add it to the system so that we can use before we loose it, so to say. The players have been cool with this approach, and I know I really could just not go back to the old manual method of calculating everything. No sir, no thanks.

    A while back I was using another application I created that ran combat on the screen. It lets me pull characters around (something like MasterPlan) and run combat with them. It’s a neat bit of code, but the truth is, it seemed to take a bit too much of my time at the table, so my next design skipped that aspect.

    Anyway, as far as players using doodads at the table… yup. That can be annoying, but I note that before technology they used to just fidget, or read a comic book. Ya know, I think this isn’t a technology issue, actually. It’s a people fidgeting issue.

  8. Philo Pharynx says:

    In our group it’s the pencil-weilding luddite who slows things down the most. (and it’s not even a mechanical pencil!) He keeps his spell list on paper and quite often, he needs to open up the book and read the description of the spell to figure out if it’ll work in this case. Often I’ll pull it up on the SRD before he even gets to the right page. While it does provide for distraction, gamers have always had to deal with that. On the other hand, I don’t mind when the party splits up, because I’ve got my computer there to keep me occupied while the other group is going.

    • That he is so Ludditic (?) as to not even use a mechanical pencil – I don’t use them myself – is awesome. However, I am disappointed that he is trying to play a spell caster — obviously not a 4th Edition one — without even preparing everything on hand.

      If it were me, either I have post-its inserted into the book with their ends sticking out listing what spells are on the page marked, or I’d hand copy the complete spell details onto a piece of paper. I was a 3rd Edition Wizard once, and I know you need to be really REALLY prepared whether you’re using a laptop or not.

  9. viricordova says:

    The trick is learning to use one piece of software at a time, and learning it well.

    My new campaign starts up shortly, within the next few weeks, and we have a new HDTV that will interface with my laptop. I plan to use it for combat instead of a battlemat. I’ve also spent the last 4 weeks prepping for this campaign and learning to use the software in question as I’ll need to teach it to 5-8 more people very shortly.

    I am not also learning to use anything else at this time, concentrating instead on just the mapping software so that when we use it, it will go smoothly. Later, I may or may not add something else but ONLY IF I find something that does a better job than what I’m currently using.

    What I’m learning to hate are cellphones and I’m about to ban them from the table. Put them on vibrate and then don’t touch them unless it’s an emergency.

  10. “The trick is learning to use one piece of software at a time, and learning it well.”

    That’s absolutely fucking true, and I would apply that concise piece of wisdom to a lot of situations.

    I try to learn how to do everything with a keyboard because it’s just a lot faster than trying to manage the dexterity to click on a tiny button or select a search form to type in while you’re still trying to juggle monster stat blocks, situational modifiers and player interaction (or as a player: character roleplaying, power mechanics, inventory and surges and action points).

    I tip my hat to your diligence in software learning, and I’d rather people spend their time on learning how to use tools well than to acquire the most fully featured tools possible.

    And oh, cellphones? Hate them. I try to implement a similar ‘crisis’ rule but people often play fast and loose as to what constitutes a ‘crisis’.

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