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Laptops at the Gaming Table, Part 1 of 2

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On October 1, 2008 @ 3:08 am In GMing Advice,Tools for GMs | 26 Comments

“Save vs. Blue Screen”

It’s the 21st Century, and we still don’t have flying cars, or meal tablets, or robo-maids. (Shut up, Roomba.) But we do have laptops at the gaming table. Ten years ago, only the very rich or slightly crazy (or both) would have a laptop at the table. Today, I’d bet that at least half of the tables out there have a laptop present.

In this article, I’ll cover the basic advantages and disadvantages of a laptop at the gaming table, along with some additional factors. If you do decide to make the digital leap, a future article will cover some of the tips and tricks that the fellow Gnomes and I have picked up over the years, so you can min-max your experience.

Some history: I fix computers for a living, and have had access to a laptop since the last millennium. (OK, it was mid-2000, but that still qualifies.) I’ve GMed and played off a laptop for most of that time, although not exclusively. I currently use a laptop to play in a 4E game.

Advantages of a Laptop:

  • Organization – With a laptop and the right software, it’s much easier to manage the numbers in a crunch-heavy game like D&D v3.5. You can track the effects of multiple conditions on multiple NPCs, have the game rules and adventure notes at your fingertips, manage initiative and combat, and even make changes on the fly. Critical points here include good character-management software, searchable or bookmarked PDFs of game rules, handy websites, and a good combat tracker. It’s no exaggeration to say that a laptop kept me GMing when the party got to higher levels.
  • Flexibility – If something in the game isn’t working, changes can be made immediately. NPCs can be revisited to make them stronger, weaker, or just different. If you can type faster than you write, then you get more out of that fifteen-minute break you called when the party took the wrong turn at Albuquerque. If you’re using a Wiki, you can modify it on the fly as the party interacts with the game world. (Or at least leave quick notes reminding you what to modify.) If you have a dice-rolling program and your party’s skill modifiers, you can roll the dice without the group knowing that they missed a Spot check.
  • Communication – If the rest of the group has laptops, you can easily pass secret information via chat or email. If you’re smooth about it, the rest of the group won’t even notice. Used properly, this can add a whole level of intrigue to a game. If you have to ask a fellow GM a question or look up something online, you’re right there. And if a player is home with a cold or other commitment, he can still occasionally contribute to the game.
  • Creativity – Obviously, a computer helps with game prep, but a laptop in-game can provide sound effects, play incidental or background music, display images of NPCs or important places and items, and even roll intro credits like Walt’s PowerPoint presentations

Disadvantages of a Laptop:

  • Distraction – If you’re the kind of gamer who needs to be doing something, perhaps unlimited access to the Intarwebs is not such a good idea. If you can’t resist the temptation to check your email, chat with friends, or read about the latest whatever, then perhaps you should stick to the pencil and paper.
  • Instability – Laptops are inherently less stable than desktops, and will usually crash when they can do the most damage. (generally in the middle of a fast and furious combat with the BBEG.) Don’t rely on a laptop if you don’t trust it 100%. Even so, print out the critical information before-hand.
  • Space – A laptop takes up the space of roughly two letter-sized pieces of paper, and usually requires access to power. If this doesn’t afford you an advantage over those two stacks of paper, then perhaps it’s not for you.
  • Risk of Loss – Gaming usually involves liquid refreshment. Despite years of technological advances, laptops are notoriously incompatible with liquids. Be advised.

Other factors that may influence your decision to use a laptop at the gaming table:

  • GMing vs. Playing – A typical GM has to manage far more information than a typical player does, and may have more need of a laptop.
  • The “crunch factor” of a game – At higher levels, D&D v3.5 almost requires a laptop. Savage Worlds or Fudge definitely do not. Related to this is the style of gaming; a casual beer-n-pretzels game probably doesn’t require a laptop, while an intense, detailed, high-intrigue game might.
  • The complexity of the game world – How rich and developed is your setting? Does running it require near-constant access to its Wiki or database? Or is your setting pretty much improvised on the spot? (The latter option may still require a laptop, so you can keep track of everything that happened in-game.)
  • The makeup of the group – Does everyone else have a laptop? When it comes to notes and such, there’s definitely a synergy to being internetworked. How does everyone else feel about the use of laptops at the table?

Have you found any additional advantages, disadvantages, or other factors that should be taken into account? I’ll have a future article for actual tips, tricks, and advice, so save those for later…

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."




26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "Laptops at the Gaming Table, Part 1 of 2"

#1 Comment By Brent On October 1, 2008 @ 7:42 am

I rarely use my laptop, as a player or GM, when preparing for a game. I prefer the convenience of paper.

I do bring my laptop with me when I GM, but I don’t keep it out all the time. I only pull it out when a player needs to look at a PDF, or I need to do some research, or otherwise it’s needed. Once we’ve used it, I close the laptop again.

The question’s never come up, but I’d ban laptops for players, except for specific players in specific circumstances. Even then, I’d ask them to keep the lid closed as much as possible. Too easy to get distracted.

#2 Comment By thebrownshow On October 1, 2008 @ 7:45 am

I think the statement that “laptops are inherently less stable than desktops” is a bit of a stretch. Today’s desktops are just as flaky as any laptop.

#3 Comment By Micah On October 1, 2008 @ 8:09 am

We built Obsidian Portal with the understanding that laptops were going to be more and more prevalent at the gaming table.

I always flipping back and forth in my notebook, usually to find a spur-of-the-moment NPC that I probably didn’t even write down in the first place. With Obsidian Portal, you can add a new NPC in about 5 seconds, and easily organize them for quick retrieval later.

In general, using a wiki instead of a notebook for campaign organization has made things so much easier for me.

#4 Comment By LesInk On October 1, 2008 @ 8:30 am

Screen resolution/space can be a problem with a laptop. Although you can have many applications open in the application, as a GM it sometimes seems like the right information is never up on the screen. With a GM screen, you can at least use paperclips to put up the map, the current encounter, and a fact sheet or two all at once. Therefore, I find it useful to use the laptop AND a GM screen at one time.

I should also point out that when players use laptops, it tends to cause your table to shrink as they want to place it on top of the battlemat. I’ve had games where I’ve had to force people to put the laptops in their lap because the encounter was too big. This caused a fair amount of uncomfortable juggling. At least a player sheet can be regulated to a clipboard.

#5 Comment By nblade On October 1, 2008 @ 8:48 am

Being a computer professional myself, I’ve always amazed that I don’t gain anything with laptop at the game table. I think your selection of advantages and disadvantages seem to be right on.

I think the use of laptop is really a matter of play style and to be honest lifestyle. For example due to the place that I work, I find standard spiral notebooks more accessible to me than any digital data. I’m able to make notes anywhere I can whip it out. Combine that with my busy schedule, I’m not really able to transfer that data to any computer much less a laptop. Even though I’d like to try to use one.

Other people I know use a laptop at the gaming table, and they wouldn’t try to game without it. Of course they are always wanting to look something up, when I’m ready to just make a quick ruling and look it later after the game session. (Call me Old School) That does irritate me a little, I’d rather game than waste time.

I think the major limitation is going to be space. Out of the two place I game, one is fairly small and I don’t think I could even try to use a laptop there (at least my laptop, which is actually classified as a mobile workstation).

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 1, 2008 @ 8:57 am

I have an 8GB USB key drive that I keep all of my gaming stuff on. I run PortableApps off of it and back it up regularly. It makes prep easier in that I just have to be near one of my computers and have the drive in my pocket available for when inspiration strikes.

I’m considering buying some ultraportable solid state laptops (4 total) and adding another VLAN to my network for gaming to see if we can run a completely digital game where we all connect to my wireless network and grab everything (character sheets, books in PDF form, etc.) from a web server on the network. The gaming table I have could be modified to provide power outlets and physical network ports too if that would be better. This is the kind of stuff I used to do as part of my job before moving up, and it is the kind of thing that I enjoy doing. The only problem is that if I set it up would my players bite?

#7 Comment By nblade On October 1, 2008 @ 9:08 am

@Patrick Benson – You know I’ve thought about the same things. I think there is going to be more of things like that going on in the future. As to you players’ reaction, I think it depend on if they interact with computers already. For some of my group, the game type is place where the get away from computers, so for those types of players no.

#8 Comment By itliaf On October 1, 2008 @ 9:13 am

I run a semiregular game through Skype in addition to my regular real life game. In terms of tech level, the two games could not be more different. In the (heavily hack and slash) online game I use a spreadsheet to track initiative, monster hp/conditions, and display screen grabs of monster stat blocks. It’s extremely handy, since on the fly arithmetic has never been my strong point. On the other hand, I spend way more time staring at a spreadsheet than I do visualizing what all the numbers I’m tracking actually might look like and looking for opportunities to add some flavorful descriptions of what is going on.
The tech free game (which has half the players and is much more improv/story centered) finds me tracking initiative and HP on a scrap of paper in full view of my players. This method frees up my hands and eyes, and allows my players to glance over and check the order or make sure that I remembered to mark down their damage. I’m not sure I would want one game to be any less wired, or the other to feature more screen time. I think computers can be really useful in games where the amount of information to manage is extremely high, but it can be dependent on the game you running.

#9 Comment By Sektor On October 1, 2008 @ 9:14 am

I’ve been using a laptop for over a year now, and the ‘big plus’ for me is that I can leave the things that I’m not comfortable with to the laptop.

For example, I’m a rules-freak, and I play everything by the book (I have no house rules, and I have severe difficulties of making rules-decisions on the fly), so I need everything easily searchable. I’ve compiled the most important rules that tend to come up most and that I forget into a searchable text file (actually, it’s a KeyNote file with better organization than just a .txt, but you get the point).

I’m also a big fan of RPTools’ MapTool, which allows a DM to run a server-client setup of a battlemap. The client PC screen is faced towards the players, and they see the map unfold as they move along. It’s also a very handy tool to keep track of combat (both GM and players can move around battle tokens, and look up stats with a quick mouse rollover).

Of course, this adds a LOT of overhead to the preparation, but since I love that anyway (and it’s a great substitute of actually playing, since I’m a father with a demanding job in the video game industry), it’s only a bonus!

Using the laptop has given me a solid basis to learn from. Using it for the stuff that I was uncomfortable with, was a boost to my self-confidence, and in turn that extra self-confidence inspired me to let go of the training wheels step by step. An upward spiral!

#10 Comment By Swordgleam On October 1, 2008 @ 10:09 am

Last year, I ran a campaign almost exclusively off of my laptop, with no other supplies besides dice and props. I’m trying to run my new campaign without the laptop at all, and I like it much better.

It does require more planning, since I have to print out everything I might need, and paging through books is harder than clicking through pdfs. On the other hand, books are easier to pass across the table than pdfs are, so I’m not the only one who can look up rules. And there’s something about having a handful of papers and a DM screen in front of me. It feels right; a laptop feels lazy.

I like to know what’s going on, and D&D is a frentic enough game as it is, at least from the GM’s point of view. I’d feel lost if I had some program handling things, even if it was a program I wrote. If I can’t keep track of what’s going on when it’s scattered through three different notebooks and half a dozen printouts, then I don’t have a solid handle on it, and using a laptop would just be a crutch, not a solution.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On October 1, 2008 @ 10:50 am

I know I’m reaching the point in 3.5 when prep and monster management starts to get oppressive, and the suggestions above are making me reconsider my current opposition to computers at the table.

On the other hand, I find that paying attention to players and managing interest levels is very difficult ordinarily (when I’m also plotting NPC reactions and other GMly duties), and I fear that “having the universe in my lap” would distract me further. One player, my wife, often has a laptop at the table– it can be a big distraction for her, but it’s also mandatory, since her work calls and has her solve things during the session.

#12 Comment By Karizma On October 1, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

I love my laptop, but I love the feeling of thumbing through books more. And at the table, it’s a distraction for me.

However, since my laptop runs Windows (Vista, unfortunately), I was thinking about making an alternate User account with a different desktop background and only desktop icons I would use at the table. Mostly shortcuts to PDFs or programs or whatnot. My laptop is my gateway to the internet and a great deal of my entertainment, if I’m staring at the same old backdrop with the same desktop icons (I’m looking at you FireFox), I’ll be tempted to StumbleUpon until I show my group an adorable puppy De-motivational poster (which would raise some questions since I’d most likely be GMing).

So maybe creating a “Gaming Account” specifically for the weekly grind would veer one away from the distractions of a computer, but be a computing tool for gaming. Just an idea.

#13 Comment By Sarlax On October 1, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

I run my 3.5 from my laptop, in which I have PDF versions of almost all the published books and, most importantly, the Hypertext SRD, which is an awesome tool for 3.5 games. The laptop is easily the best tool I have at the table. Leaving it at home would equate to leaving all my books and campaign notes. The laptop can also substitute for many other elements as necessary – it’s a self-incorporated GM screen, note sheet, and even dice roller.

On the player side, I imagine it would still be remarkably useful for D&D, even though I wouldn’t need as many materials. Right now, though, I’m a player in Mage. I don’t have PDFs of all the books which contain spells I use, so I still ending up hauling a bunch of books. Even with PDFs, White Wolf layout is pretty bad, and it wouldn’t be too easy navigating those files.

All that said, I still find it a useful tool to have. I type faster than I write, so I can be taking notes without eating up too much of my attention.

#14 Comment By Adam On October 1, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

We enjoy using laptops at the table. I generally use mine to look at my game notes, check rules and stuff on my campaign website, and to play background music.

Laptops have the down-side of being a terrible distraction at times. When more than one laptop is present, pornography is usually difficult for my players and me to keep away from.

The internet is a beautiful place.

#15 Comment By GeeksDreamGirl On October 1, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

I use a laptop at the game table when I take notes for my campaign logs. My handwriting is so awful (especially when trying to write quickly) that if I write them out by hand I can’t read them later.

I will admit that the distraction factor can be high. Sometimes I have to switch off my wireless so I’m not tempted to check on my email, facebook, etc etc.

#16 Comment By Omnus On October 1, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

My laptop will never replace my books. I hate referencing hard facts and texts out of a .pdf tome unless I really can’t help it. However, what was loosely touched on in the “creativity” (background music, sound FX, pictures and theme art) is of supreme importance to me. When I DM at a convention and set up my laptop and speakers, the players know that this table has…something extra. (If you do this, however, be mindful of your surrounding tables). Even with an older laptop I find ample resources to enhance my game. I know I’m only using a fraction of the potential of having a computer accessible, but I’m too old-fashioned to switch right now.

As far as a laptop being unstable, you must have been burned in the past, my friend. Running spreadsheets, looking up details in text files and flashing pics is old hat to most laptops, really low-resource stuff. With even a low-mid range laptop, you can do any of the things you mentioned without any real risk that you wouldn’t have playing solitaire (uless you use some dodgy third-party software to enhance your game, but that’s always downloader beware, isn’t it?)

#17 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 2, 2008 @ 12:05 am

Thanks for all the comments; I think the vast majority of them speak for themselves, and don’t require a lot of comment from me.

Regarding laptop instability, I was primarily referring to the issues that are unique to laptops. (In a past life, I did corporate laptop call center support for a large computer company based near Austin.)
- Heat management: I’ve seen how dusty some of your heatsinks and intakes are! Air is cheap; use it.
- Chip creep: #1 cause of laptop failure; easily fixed by reseating the memory.
- Sensitivity to drops or bumps: Yes, the new hard drive ‘drop sensors’ help, but a good bump can still hose a HDD.
- Auto-save of large or complex files. A laptop’s HDD is usually much slower than a desktop’s, and when Excel tries to auto-save your open spreadsheets, it can seem to lock up the entire system for minutes.
- Synchronization: When 80+ GB of “Offline Files” would try to sync over the wireless network, it would bog down my system to about half speed.

I’m already working on Part 2, and should have it by next week.

#18 Comment By Bookkeeper On October 2, 2008 @ 4:02 am

I have not used a laptop as a player, but am using one as the DM of my D&D 3.5 game set in Ptolus.

(Warning, talk that may sound like product plugs to follow)

I use Microsoft OneNote to organize encounters, much in the same way as the tactical encounter format WotC was using near the end of 3.5′s run. I put stat blocks, a picture of the scene, and notes on tactics on a page and have everything at my fingertips. For tracking HP damage, I use a sum function in MS Excel, having the total turn red to let me know when the creature is toast. Using WotC’s dice-roller, I have not yet had to crack open a book while at the table and combat has sped up immensely.

I still track initiative on Gamemastery’s Initiative dry-erase board – too many people hold their actions or make other initiative-adjusting decisions for any of my computer tools to handle it at present. I’m also a big fan of Obsidian Portal, though my Ptolus campaign has not gotten as much attention there as some of the other games I participate in.

#19 Comment By Noumenon On October 2, 2008 @ 4:26 am

Why is a laptop a necessity at higher levels? Do you have a program that recalculates stats for you when a buff gets dispelled, or what?

#20 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 2, 2008 @ 11:42 pm

@Noumenon

Yes. This too will sound like an advertisement.

HeroForge will automagically calculate all of your buffs, and includes just about every D&D 3.5 book that WotC has published.

So a 30th level Fiendish Half-Dragon Drow Cleric-Sorcerer-True Necromancer Lich with 8 magic items and 6 buff spells will have her stats calculated, and will properly adjust when she gets hit with a Dispel Magic.

#21 Comment By Noumenon On October 8, 2008 @ 9:39 am

I’m afraid that HeroForge spreadsheet isn’t gonna work for me. #1, the “Monster Class” dropdown box on the first page is empty, so I can’t generate monsters (Excel 2007). #2, they don’t have any random generation of anything. They don’t even roll your hit points for you. I’m not gonna spend 20 minutes typing in numbers to save 5 minutes of math at the table.

#22 Comment By Eclipse On October 8, 2008 @ 2:52 pm

Generally, as a GM, I’ll have my laptop with me because it’s a convenient way to organize all my notes and have quick access to all of them. I’ve found my sessions run much smoother since bringing the laptop to the game.

I generally allow players to have laptops with a couple of conditions. Those are space and whether or not the players having a laptop will add something to the game or take away from the game. If there’s no space, they’ll have to do without. If there is space, then as long as they aren’t taking away from other people’s enjoyment or derailing the game due to distraction and inattentiveness, they can have them. If it really helps them organize their characters and play them in such a way that the group has fun, then it’s worth it.

When I’m a player, it depends on the system, how many house rules the GM has, and of course whether or not the GM is cool with it. In general, I’ll keep it handy for D&D, but there’s certainly no need to have it around for Toon.

#23 Comment By Joey On October 9, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

As a GM I use a laptop at the table. Though I don’t use it for combat tracking or anythign like that. I use it for my maps and as a book reference (I have post of my books as a PDF file).

As a player I don’t use a laptop at the table. All I have is my character sheet, a pad for some notes and the PHB

I have a question though. I would like to start using my laptop for combat tracking and stuff like that. What software is out there besides Excel, PCGen and HeroForge. Are there any that support Magic of Incarnum?

#24 Comment By theEmrys On November 11, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

When I used to run 3.5 for a large group I found the use of a laptop necessary, just to keep track of everything. I sometimes got too caught up in the mechanics, but once I realized that, I was able to DM more and book keep less. I really found DMGenie to be great to track everything and since many of the modules/adventures I used were in PDF, I could cut and paste them in to have one stop shopping.

#25 Comment By kiel223 On May 28, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

Good discussion here.
I use a laptop when GMing– mainly to take notes (and refer to previous session notes). Everyone’s pretty much covered all of the other potential uses, so I won’t try and add to that list ;)
I find I don’t need the laptop as a player– I usually try to take campaign notes on paper, but find myself ceasing to do so after the first session or two, hehe.

I had a look at the DMGenie website that theEmrys mentioned above… It looks like a great resource! Does anyone know if something similar is available for 4th Edition? :)

#26 Comment By black campbell On March 6, 2011 @ 9:31 pm

I’ve been using a laptop to write adventure notes, pull pictures for characters from the internet, do up form-filled character sheets, roll dice since about 1998, and over the last few years of so, store game books. I have notes from old campaigns on USB or old hard drives and can go back to them whenever. I tend to prefer small machines, since I’m often on a motorcycle — so they are usually an excellent choice rather than lugging tons of books around (and let’s face it, once you get to know a system, you rarely need to access the books…)

Most recently, however, I’ve found the iPad is EXCELLENT GM device — I can drop notes, pics, etc. onto Dropbox for later use, I have a dice program, a PDF reader for game books, and it’s an excellent platform for showing maps, pics, etc. when needed. With the right programs you can draw on maps and the like. The battery life will make it through all but the most lengthy of marathon sessions. And it weighs under 2 lbs.


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