Thursday, January 14, 2010

GMing Digitally: 2b or not 2b?

I'm getting ready for my Risus Henchmen-for-Hire campaign. I have a few pages of notes, and I'm getting ready to stat out some NPCs (which, in Risus, takes all of a couple minutes per PC, if you've got a good grasp on what they are when you pull out that "character sheet" (3" x 5" card).  But I've got a dilemma. Should I go paper or electronic for my notes?

I grew up in the halcyon days of the original, white-box D&D, and so carried around a loose-leaf notebook full of maps and one-line dungeon keys in that notebook. (I also carried around a grocery bag with all my Judges' Guild products and issues of The Dragon and White Dwarf, back when WD covered D&D).  IIRC, I did a lot of GMing on the fly. In college, I learned some BASIC computer programming by typing in some crude character generators, so I could create reams of NPCs on the fly.  But most of what I put down on paper didn't have anything to do with plot; we didn't keep campaign logs, and I kept what few notes I needed in that binder.

But now I'm getting back into GMing, and I have some other options.  Besides my 15.4" laptop, I also have a 10" netbook.  I don't think I'd be comfortable using the larger one at a game table -- too big, for the space at the table -- but the netbook opens up the possibility.  I am concerned, though, that using a computer at the table might be distracting, but I'm still interested in trying it out. (Though I have seen a really good GM use one at a one-shot game last year, without seeming to be distracted at all.)

I have a couple of programs that I'm trying out. Both of these programs have a lot in common: they're good at organizing all kinds of notes, from handouts to maps to NPC stats to maps.  They can both be installed on a flash drive (and I splurged for a 64 gig Patriot drive, so I can put a lot of notes on there).

The first is Microsoft OneNote, which is an information organizer that handles all kinds of files (txt, Word, PDF, graphics, sound, etc.). There's a thread about using it for gaming on EnWorld , and I was fortunate enough to have a copy of it on my Microsoft Office disk.

The second program is NBOS Software's The Keep 1.0, which is written specifically for gamers.  Instead of tabbed entries, as OneNote uses, it has a tree-style organization system.  It can handle most of the file types that OneNote can, but it also has a few features that gamers can appreciate: an automatic dice roller, a campaign logger, and the ability to tie into NBOS other gaing products, such as Fractal Mapper, Inspiration Pad, Character Sheet Designer, Screenmonkey, etc. 

I haven't used either of these programs during a game yet, but I think I might go with The Keep.  I suspect that the tie-in with the other NBOS programs will be too much for me to resist, although I don't think I'll use the dice roller at all. That's OK, because I can hide it, which frees up more room for display (which is important on a 10" screen).

What do the readers think about digital GM tools? What's your gaming style? Let the comments flow freely, like the blood of your enemies.


Brelas said...

I started off just as you did. Paper, lots of it.

I transferred all of my gaming stuff to digital format in the late 90s. It was a lot of typing and scanning of maps and pictures.

It was great. I was able to organize, develop spreadsheets, new software came out - metacreator, hero creator, mapping software, dice rollers etc. Everything was at my fingertips. But then so was the internet, the other distractions of having to show off pictures, 'look at this'
moments, and so on.

Basically, the computer was an excellent tool for game prepping. It was not great to have the laptop accessible to me during DM/GMing. It was a HUGE distraction.

For D&D, I learned quickly that I just need to print out my spreadsheets, my character sheets, etc, put them in a binder, and roll to the game. My laptops were left at home.

While for my HERO games, I had character pictures (from City of Heroes character design) that were useful. But even then, it was a distraction. So limited use.

My two cents

xwd said...

Here at the Rochester Institute of Technology, laptops naturally show up at gaming sessions. (Not the LAN parties. We bring our desktops to those.) I've seen several groups where everyone at the table brought a laptop. Our GM has experimented with using his laptop to run games, and he's found it very helpful for keeping track of NPC stats, turn order, and other information. He likes it. So I'd say, for something crunchier than Risus, it'd probably be a good idea. For Risus? Try it, you can always just print out your notes later if you don't like it. Plus if you lock your computer you can keep people from peeking at your notes while you're in the bathroom.

I did try running a game of Risus last week using notes from my netbook, and it worked okay. I only had one page of notes, so I didn't really need to refer to them. My main problem was that I neglected to factor in exactly how insane my gaming buddies are. (On average, significantly less so than me.) I can't recommend any software for you because I'm running a stripped-down version of Linux on it and I'm limited to text and image files.

Also note that letting players use laptops during game sessions can be problematic. It's handy not having to lug around books, and being able to write programs to roll dice and add for you is fun, but a 7" screen (yes, my netbook is tiny) doesn't compare to actual paper for looking stuff up fast. Also, if a laptop is too big, it tends to hide you from the other players, which is not a good thing. Our GM has considered banning laptops from the table for exactly that reason. Other problems encountered included people playing games, checking Facebook, and chatting on IRC instead of paying attention.

The main advantage of a laptop is that you can use it to blast some jams in all kinds of crazy formats, like .xm or .mod or .sid. Demoscene style, yo.

Risus Monkey said...

I'd echo Brelas' comments, for the most part. I do almost all my prep work on my PC (now Mac) and I currently only print off the essentials for actual sessions. I've used Laptops before and didn't find them distracting but I am just quicker with paper. It is nice to have PDFs available if I need to refer to them (and other folks in the group have those if needed).

Outside of prep work (where I typically go crazy with websites, spreadsheets, and whatever tool-of-the-month I now fancy), my actual play materials are rather limited. I take a session outline (often hand-written as typically do it last and when I'm away from my computer), vital NPC stats, the occasional map, and a list of names.

I should note that for chat games I (obviously) have full access to my electronic prep notes (and the Internet) and it works great. But the pace of a chat game feels different than face-to-face.

Brelas said...

I was thinking about this again today.

If the DM had a tablet (one of those laptops where the screen would rotate and then fold over the keys to lay flat), that may be a more usable option.

That layout would give the DM access to certain pages that he could flip through, including a digital map, and it wouldn't be as 'interactive/distracting' since he wouldn't have the keys and thus feel the need to input or surf or become otherwise distracted.

Ultimately, a combination of many digital books + maps + character sheets easily accessed by flipping digital pages.

Guy Hoyle said...

The Kindle DX handles a number of different formats, such as PDF, TXT, DOC, GIF, JPG, and others. I've never even seen a Kindle up close, so I wonder if that would be a viable option.