Technology And Tabletop Gaming

Video games and tabletop role-playing games are two different animals. I think that if Wizards of the Coast figured that out, then they wouldn’t be up the creak like they are. They believe that it is their job to figure out for us how to use technology in our games, when this truly isn’t their role. Not to mention, that in the past they have shown a blatant disregard for how we do use technology in our games.

Back in the day gamers did everything by hand. We had mountains of maps drawn on graph paper, if we were really advanced we’d use a typewriter to type up our games, but for the most part, we just used a 3-subject notebook. We made all of our own character sheets, and a character had to actually prove himself to us before we would make a permanent sheet for the guy – which by permanent I mean one which we created with a pen.

Back then; printers were worthless unless you wanted to hang a big dotty banner over the table, AND WHO DIDN’T? Sure, if we had access to a computer we’d put some stuff on those big old floppy disks, but that was hardly safe! However, I think that the biggest hassle was moving books around. A player didn’t have that hard of a time, with just the PHB, but as DM I remember hefting around a hundred pound duffle bag stuffed with hardbound books! Did you need them all? No, but the moment that you didn’t bring one, then you’d need that one!

I was one of the first geeks in my group to buy a modern PC, at the time they were still astronomically expensive, but the price was getting more and more reasonable as the months flew by. 2nd Edition was in its last legs, with the 2.5 books that hit the shelves, setting folks up for the 3rd edition. But my point is that Wizards released a CD-ROM that was an interesting experiment. I can’t remember all of the details, as it was so long ago and I some how lost the thing, but I do remember that it had digital copies of the 3 core rule books, the PHB, the DMG, and the MM. I don’t think that the search technology worked all that great, but even if it did it was way ahead of its time. Too far ahead really, because while the prices for desktop PCs were dropping, Laptops were still crazy expensive and way beyond the means of most gamers, thus you couldn’t bring the thing to the table.

This was also the first time that we could actually make our own Character Sheets even better! I remember spending hours creating sheets for all of the classes, now I don’t do that, we just print off standard character sheets which is probably as illegal as hell, which brings up another point. While Wizards may not have the best ideas anymore, they are very giving in regards to their products. I mean how many people are posting copyrighted material and Wizards just looks the other way? Well, for now they are, and I’d like to think that as long as we are doing justice by giving commercials free of charge to them, then they’ll continue not suing me for infringement.

I don’t mean to be negative on anybody, especially the current holder of the D&D franchise, a product that has kept my mind and soul fueled with ideas for years! However, some of their business ideas are just lost on me. Namely the PDF thing. A lot of people were pirating books, so they suffered the folks who were actually paying them, by forcing everybody to pirate books now! I don’t know what they were thinking? That if we couldn’t buy PDFs of out of print books then we’d just go out and buy 4th Edition? That is just crazy!

Besides saving DMs from back problems, PDFs were easily searchable. The Pirate PDFs usually aren’t all that good. You’ve got pages missing, corrupted, or infected with god-knows-what! That, and often the pirated PDFs are just scans of the pages, making them unsearchable half the time. Wizards missed the market on what could be done. Instead of banning them, they could improve them.

One of the greatest Pirates ever made is Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (2nd Edition) Complete Set of 26 Books written by Dorian X. This guy was a madman! He hand-typed out 26 reference books, making it incredibly easy to find anything. There really isn’t any art, with the exception of MM pictures, and a map of Greyhawk, but as far as PDF.s go, this thing is indispensable for me. I own all of the hardcopys, so I really don’t feel all that bad about using it, but I can take all of these books with me on the go, and write my dungeons, or easily solve arguments at the table. I have used this PDF more then I’ve ever used my Tome of Magic book, I’ll tell you that.

My point is, that that PDF could be a model. There are enough fans out there that are willing to hand-type the originals, and they’ll probably do it for free, or be overjoyed with a nominal cut of the sales. You make decent PDFs and folks won’t even bother with the pirated crap anymore, or – sometimes, I just downloaded a pirate to see if I like the book, and if I did then I’d buy a good PDF of it. Finding hardcopies of books these days is getting harder and harder. Some of my original books are falling apart and I don’t want to open them anymore, PDFs, in this case, are superior to hardcopies because they don’t wear out.


Wizards hasn’t always been clueless. All you have to do is go to their website and learn that! The Map-A-Week feature was gold! And their Free Download section is still one of my favorites. Mapping used to be difficult, I remember spending hours drawing basic maps on graph paper, but I am a slob! I’d smear my pencil marks all over the place, and make some of the ugliest maps that you’ve ever seen . . . just to lose them because they were all loose leaf. Now with great mapping programs like AUTORealm, anybody can pump out excellent looking maps which are clean and uniform, so that anybody who looks at it doesn’t have to first decipher my chicken scratches.

I think that TSR started some relationship with a huge mapping program, I remember seeing adds for it in Dungeon Magazine. This program was not just overly complex, outrageously priced (still is), but it was also a hog of one’s computer resources. I believe that this was the program that they used to make their own, professional maps, and they do look good but how many DM’s are skilled enough to use it?

Wizards has always been involved in making mapping cooler. On the CD-ROM which I mentioned above, there was a very crappy and basic mapping tool which, after you were done mapping, you could enter the dungeon in a first person, virtual reality perspective. This was bad ass, however, it was also completely worthless and impractical for how we tabletop gamers play games. Now I see that they are trying to bring this back. There is already a separate market for that, it is called Worlds of Warcraft, and it is its own thing. Let them have it, because the folks who are addicted to WoW still play tabletop games because we DM’s can do things that WoW will never have the tech to do.


Probably the greatest Technical Advancement to tabletop games is, of course, the social networks. These things are bigger then Wizards, or even TSR ever could be. Folks don’t want OFFICIAL, they never did, they want great material, fresh ideas, and a place to express those ideas and get feedback with like-minded folks. In a sense, the social networks have replaced magazines, but they have also further splintered the players. No matter if you prefer 2nd Edition, 4th Edition, or OD&D, there is a network for that. Instead of fighting it, or trying to force folks over to some Official Site where you can charge them, just go with it, which, in a sense, Wizards, if they wanted to, could collect their lawyers and knock down all of the ivory towers. It wouldn’t be good publicity! But they would be fully within their rights to do it.

Folks miss magazines, but lets really look at this? What are your chances of actually getting a letter published in a magazines forum? I also think that the ideas on the web are much better then those published in Dragon. Sure, the art was better, and they were fun to read, but so is the Internet. Now we can also actually talk with the writers and get our own stuff read. No magazine publication on Earth could be this thorough!

As a DM, I can look over what a DM is doing over in Chicago or even in London, and maybe help him play-test his idea. If I have an idea I can usually get feedback from folks who have already tried it but couldn’t get it to work, or are willing to also try it and playtest it faster. Back in the day, you were limited to just the geeks in your Gaming Shop, now the entire world is at your fingertips. I think that the only drawback to this system is that I would love to play under a bunch of the Dungeon Masters that I’ve run into on the Networks, but I never will be able to. Ohhhhhhh Sad face 


I, probably like many Tabletop gamers, was at first, resistant to allowing a PC at the table. I’d write my scenes on WORD and then print them off, keeping a mountain of loose-leaf papers on a side-table, but I’ve now changed that.

Currently I am working from a Module which I don’t have an original copy for, which is fine because I hand-typed the whole thing and just up-dated it to my ruleset as I went. I created separate files for separate chapters, and I only print off things that I reference often and don’t want to go back to, because it is kind of a pain in the but.

Working off of WORD allows me to highlight text, and make changes as I need to. I do kind of miss writing in the margins, now I write on little notepads and I keep losing them.

I print off the maps, and keep them near me at all times. If a room is hard for me to describe, then either I can edit up a hand-out or draw it on a dry-erase board (which is also something new at my table).

I remember struggling with mapmaking software, and initially trying to make do without it, but once I tried AUTORealm, I was sold. I drew my first map at the table, and then reworked it in AUTORealm and it looked so fantastic that I kept using it. With AUTORealm, sometimes it is best to keep the map in the PC, and resize it as I need it. Now one can make some really advanced maps, which replaces those giant poster maps that have always been impractical for actual game use. Hell, the DM literally needed his own table to run many of them. Keeping the map on a laptop allows all of the players to have enough room and it keeps them from stealing a peek at the thing as well. However, when I am using AUTORealm at the table, I like to print off the key to it, this way I don’t have to switch back and forth too often, which slows down my ability to play.

There is also a great program which I use called DM Secretary 2.0. This program was made for 3rd Edition rules, and I’d love to be able to tweak it to reflect my own ruleset, however I’m just not computer savvy enough. It has a diceroller and I can keep track of players with it. Much of the time I prefer to roll real dice, but sometimes it is just easier to use electronic dice. Generating hit points for random encounters is reason enough to keep it open during the game.

When I am at home, I tend to use hardbooks, but most of my work is done at my day job, and PDFs are a godsend! Seriously, digital books are the one thing that I love more then any other technical advancement in regards to table top gaming! They are far from perfect, but the positives overweigh the negatives, which is why it blows my mind that Wizards discontinued their sale.

I have also found that by letting the PC do some of the work, it frees me up to focus on different aspects of the game which I tended to ignore before. Calculating XP, managing Time and tracking Movement just to name a few. After almost 2 years with a PC at the table, I can now say that my personal game has improved great enough to enjoy having it there.

I know that I am not the only person who was resistant to keeping one there, and there are other aspects of it that I haven’t even touched on, such as using pogs, printing maps for miniatures, I’m sure that the list isn’t yet exhausted, so take your own whack at it.

What is your favorite tool?
Can you go back to old-school gaming, or are you just too into drinking the Kool-Aid now?
How has the computer effected your gaming style? Did it make it better, or worse? Inquiring minds want to know!


Nope said...

I make my own kool aid. It's an organic blend of fresh tropical fruits, berries and heavy helpings of alcohol. It's a bit of a homebrew and somewhere between the old and new.

My favorite tech tools right now is one note, google docs, blogger, and currently I'm experimenting with using ning to start a digital meeting ground for local gamers.

I'm digging using computers for collaborating in between sessions, and for referencing as a compact dm screen/binder but on the tabletop I still prefer a tech free environment. I have a laptop set up for sounds and quick referencing on the side and that's about it.

I've played in a game with rptools as the battlemap and that was pretty sweet, though I don't have the hardware to pull it off or the knowledge/skills to make the maps ahead of time it's pretty neat. I still prefer the ole pen and paper and it's awesome cousin the gridded dry erase battle map.

Scott said...

An entire article on WotC and technology, and not one mention of the Character Builder, Compendium, or even D&D Insider? You can't criticize them for their past digital shortcomings and then pretend that these other fantastic digital innovations they've developed over the past couple of years don't exist. WotC has pretty clearly started taking real advantage of the internet and social networking recently - they're on Twitter, Facebook, have some pretty prominent geekdom spokesfans (Penny Arcade, Wil Wheaton, Scott Kurtz, etc.), have created solid digital applications and searchable databases, and have a regular digital content delivery service.

No other tabletop gaming company even comes close in the digital arena in terms of integration, polish and ambition.

Anonymous said...

This isn't really completely addressed towards the meatier points of your post, but my biggest problem with the use of technology and other digital tools on the table is that while they are very convenient, I find that they can easily slow down the game.

(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.)

Too often the game grinds to a halt because people are scrolling through the PDFs to look up something or messing around with the character builder to buy their new items and rituals and they're always insisting it won't take very long.

I think the problem, especially with the massive digital support for 4e -- a system I love -- people haven't actually stopped to memorize what they need to play (powers, items, class features, et al) simply because its assumed that "Hey, it's digital, I can find it quick!" and so the game slows down as the DM has to prompt the player on what his power/item does to a monster and he hasn't bothered to memorize it (because, hey, it's digital, I can find it quick.)

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