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