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Laptops at the Gaming Table, part 2 of 2

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On November 10, 2008 @ 3:08 am In Tools for GMs | 14 Comments

“The Digital GM leverages technology to synergistically empower him or herself while proactively providing a world-class suite of solutions to today and tomorrow’s complex challenges.”

OK, so maybe you don’t quite yet need a mission statement, but you are considering life as a digital gamer. You’re thinking about joining the ranks of the double-barrel geeks (computers AND gaming). You’re looking to enter the virtual virtual world. In other words, you’re bringing a laptop to the table.

Now what?

Hardware: If you haven’t bought or otherwise acquired a laptop, some advice before you do…

  • Screen Size – The size of a laptop’s screen pretty much defines everything else about the laptop, so it’s the most important decision to make. There are obvious advantages to each category (ultra-portable, mainstream, desktop replacement), but I’ve been happiest with a 15.4” wide screen at the highest resolution I can find. A higher resolution means you can fit more on the screen, but it’s smaller. The catch here is that really high resolutions (1920×1200 pixels) have gotten hard to find outside of the high-priced CAD or gamer models. If you want a small laptop, I suggest trying to type on it first; conversely, if you want a huge (17”) laptop, I suggest trying to carry and find room for it first.
  • CPU – Some of the single-core chips have amazing battery life, but aren’t the fastest. Conversely, a high-end dual or even quad core might have just enough battery life to let you finish a shutdown when the power goes out.
  • Memory – The more, the better. On a laptop, the data bottleneck is the hard drive; the more memory you have, the less you need to use the hard drive, and the faster your system will be. Don’t let anyone talk you out of 4GB by telling you that your 32 bit operating system can’t use all of it; the computer will actually use space outside the 32 bit limit for other things.
  • Hard Drive Size – Hard drive space is pretty inexpensive, but backing up a large hard drive can take hours. Ask yourself: How many PDFs or other documents do you have? How many do you actually need access to from your laptop?
  • Accessories – You can go nuts here, but I’ve got a few bits of advice:  Get a spare power supply, and leave it at your desk. Get a good wireless mouse; they’re a godsend. External ‘travel’ hard drives are inexpensive and handy. Just about any set of external speakers will be better than the ones on your laptop. And I’ve been thinking of using a cheap 15” LCD screen to show images to the players as I’m GMing.

Software: Okay, so we’ve got the ideal laptop, and we want to load it up with… what?

  • Character Management – If your game has crunch, you need something to help manage it. If you’re running D&D 3.5, I strongly suggest you use the HeroForge spreadsheets. The HF sheets are by far the best character management systems for d20-based games. Be advised that they are Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and usually work best on Excel 2007. Most of the advanced sheets will not run on OpenOffice. If you’re looking at an integrated GMing suite, I wish I could help you more, but my experience is limited in that area.  Some GM suites have integrated character management systems, however.
  • Combat Management – When I last GMed a D&D 3.5 game, I was using a custom Excel sheet for managing initiative, hit points, and other conditions. I was spending too much time with the computer and not with the game; today, I’d use the computer for either initiative OR hit points, but not both. As mentioned earlier, there are a few GMing suites that have integrated systems for hit points, initiative, character stats, etc.  This is definitely an area where the GM’s tastes and preferences will come first, so try as many combinations as possible.
  • Websites – If you’re lucky (or foresighted) enough to run a game with a resource like the Hypertext d20 SRD, then a laptop is a no-brainer. Even if your game doesn’t have something quite as handy, there are probably plenty of websites on whatever system, setting, or genre you’re running. You probably don’t need access to the entire internet while mid-game, but a quick Googling has saved my GMing cred many a time. (For what it’s worth, I have over 150 bookmarks directly related to gaming, and who knows how many that are indirectly related.)
  • Chat – Need to send a note to a player who happens to have a laptop, or even a cellphone? Players got you backed into a corner, and you need to “phone a friend”? Just want to touch base with the wife and kids occasionally? Everyone’s got a favorite chat client; I prefer Pidgin – it’s free and universal.
  • Email – If I’m in your game, I’ll probably email you my updated character sheet about fifteen minutes into the session… If you want to catch that feat I’m using from “Compleat Munchkin” before it goes into play, you might want to check your email at the table.
  • PDFs – Many gaming books are available as PDF files, and some are only available as PDF. Trust me on this – nothing is faster at finding that obscure rule than a “Search Box” and a PDF file. There’s also the matter of security: the players don’t need to know that you’ve got the Monstrous Manual open to the section on Dragons…  If you don’t like the footprint of Adobe Reader or Acrobat, try Foxit Reader.
  • Dice Rollers – Want to make a dice roll, but don’t want to tell the players? One of the first things to hit the Internet (after porn, of course) were automated dice rollers. They’re still there.
  • Wiki-wiki-wiki! – Borrow someone else’s, or roll your own. Wikis are quickly becoming the future of RPG campaigns. This topic is worthy of its own Gnome Stew entry, so I’ll leave it be for now.

Gamers are nothing if not creative, and I’m sure y’all have your own tricks and advice for using a laptop at the gaming table, whether as a GM or as a player. Have I missed anything, or have you found That One Thing that makes it all worthwhile? Then sound off and let us know!

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."

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Laptops at the Gaming Table, part 2 of 2"

#1 Comment By nblade On November 10, 2008 @ 7:32 am

I love laptops. As a systems programmer and database administrator, I have to. Still space is the biggest drawback of the laptop at the table. Your right about lugging a huge laptop around. I have a work laptop that’s listed as a mobile workstation. Let me tell, while it a great machine, it really is too huge to have at a gaming table. It’s like dropping a load of bricks on someone’s table. For some reason, most of the places I play have limited space, which is why I’ve been looking at the Netbooks, even though they have some of the limitations you mentioned.

Your right about Wikis becoming a standard tool. The hardest thing about them, is finding one that’s right for you. One of the more interesting one I’ve found is http://www.tiddlywiki.com/ . It is a single file Wiki that uses JavaScript to handle adding and deletion of data. It’s single file nature means its something a normal GM have on his laptop without an Internet connection.

The Hypertext D20 SRD is an excellent site, if you run a DnD 3.5ed game. There are few others like it, such as http://www.systemreferencedocuments.org/35/sovelior_sage/home.html (which has a version you can download)

PDFs are nice. I know I’ve paid good money to get a PDF of a book I already own. Which is why, I tend to buy Paizo stuff direct, nothing like a free PDF version with your printed book order. I wish there was a way to prove you brought a book and then go to a website and get the PDF version.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On November 10, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

While I fear its distraction potential, you’re making laptops at the table sound awfully tempting. It sounds like you embrace a laptop for everyone, rather than just the GM– since you’re sending the GM character sheets during the session. Does it work if half the group has laptions, or is it better as an every player or none kind of thing?

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On November 10, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

(er, laptops, not laptions)

#4 Comment By nblade On November 10, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

They are tempting. Personally, I haven’t had one at the table because I don’t have one small enough to fit the space requirements of the places I play. I’ve been considering getting on of the netbook (like the ASUS EEE) type laptops so I can use it at the gaming table. Like Kurt said though screen resolution is always a problem. The current netbooks operate at around 1024 X 600, which is not great, but something I may work with because of my space requirements.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 10, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

I don’t recommend using (or not using) a laptop at all; I’m just pointing out what to do if you choose that option. Part 1 of 2 was more about the strengths and weaknesses of laptops in general.

That said, I think that GMs get a lot more out of laptops than players. They also have fewer temptations and distractions, as a GM always has to be “on stage”.

As I mentioned, I GM off of a 15.4″ widescreen laptop with 1920×1200 resolution; I can fit view two full sheets of ‘paper’ side by side on it. I was going to sell this laptop, but kept it strictly for GMins. For playing, I’m currently using a 13.3″ with 1280×800 resolution; I can’t even see an entire character sheet on it, so it’s pretty frustrating. But there’s not enough room at the table to go with the 15.4″ laptop, so I may actually go with paper and cards (it’s a 4E game).

Another option, that I left out mainly because of my inexperience with them, is a tablet PC. I’ve seen players with tablet PCs which display a character sheet perfectly. That said, if the software isn’t there to support it, you’re just using a thick and expensive piece of paper…

#6 Comment By Swordgleam On November 10, 2008 @ 7:10 pm

I used to DM with my laptop at the table, which is the primary reason I created my website – to be able to access my generators everywhere. I’m bad at coming up with names and taverns on the fly, so those were two of the first generators up.

Aside from that, I’ll usually have up .pdf rulebooks and all the baddies’ character sheets.

I’m DMing without a laptop at the moment, and finding it really enjoyable. There’s something about rifling through papers, or cracking open a book – I know as a player, one thing that always gets my attention is when the GM digs out some big book from halfway down the stack.

Some things are harder, and some things are easier. If my laptop wasn’t a gigantic monstrousity, I’d probably bring it along, if only to have a couple websites up, and a notepad file for things like initiative that I have to erase and rewrite frequently.

#7 Comment By baron On November 11, 2008 @ 8:17 am

I would recommend using a laptop for running a game. For D&D, having a site like d20srd.org is a brilliant. Especially when combined with a tabbed browser. The amount of time saved for looking up obscure rules or even common things like spell effects is worth it.

If players starts talking about a spell I haven’t prepared for, I can look it up without them even knowing. And I can do it quickly. I can also stack up a load of spells and monsters that I might be about to use.

Even if you’re not using a site like d20srd.org, I’d still advocate them for note taking, combat tracking, die rolling etc.

I use a 15″ laptop and find it is no more an obstacle than a DM screen. In fact it’s normally less of an obstacle. With smaller laptops coming out all the time that can only get better.

Having said that there is nothing better than a real life book for having a read. PDFs do not replace core rule books IMO for being able to read them out of the game as you try and become familiar with the rules. Laptops come into their own as when they speed up rule finding and therefore increase the fluidity of the game. At that point, you almost forget they’re there.

#8 Comment By GeeksDreamGirl On November 11, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

I DM with my laptop, using my friend Anubis’ program. I also have the PDF of the module I’m using (shhh, I’m new, I get to use a module!), and a Word doc to take notes quickly. My handwriting is awful, so it’s all about typing!

#9 Comment By Bookkeeper On November 11, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

I am in love with using my laptop for D&D. I keep Initiative on Gamemastery’s Init tracker, but almost everything else is on the screen in front of me. The “tactical page” system of the later D&D modules actually made data entry a lot easier.

Also, Obsidian Portal is the bee’s knees for Wiki and Institutional Memory.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 11, 2008 @ 11:46 pm

@Bookkeeper – Gah! How could I forget Obsidian Portal! I even have an account there…

#11 Comment By zozeer On November 14, 2008 @ 1:49 am

I have been using a tablet laptop for the better part of the last 2 years to DM and it is hands down the best tool. The whole rig is the size of a dnd book and it has the whole kit and kabodle right there. it has the feature of a stylus so I can write what I need too or type when I have both hands free.

For my upcoming Traveller game I am thinking about building an old laptop in to a web/ DNS server so I can have an “internet in a bubble” at the table. The idea is that all the important game data is on the server and the players can “log in” via the ships connection to the net. Though this game type would require all players to bring in a laptop.

#12 Comment By DocRyder On November 16, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

@Scott Martin – Just what is a “laption,” Scott? :-)

I myself use Timpani (here) for SRD 3.5 gaming, but it does require a version of Excel that handles MSBasic programing (i.e. it won’t run on OpenOffice).

I haven’t DM’d in a while, but my experience is that it can work for you. Our group’s last couple of DM have used their laptops extensively. The biggest problem for one of them has been placement versus player interaction. He is DMing for the first time, and it’s taken a while for him to get the hang of setting up his laptop so he is facing the players most of the time, instead of having his back turned to them.

Also, I’ve found the whole “PDF” thing is overrated. Players can find stuff in a book infinitely faster than a computer can, even with the search function. Usually, the search function comes back with so many hits to sort through that by the time you have, the player has found the thing he needs to reference before you can get to the item you want from the search function.

#13 Comment By GiacomoArt On July 7, 2009 @ 8:46 am

I’ll second the plug for Tiddlywiki, and it becomes better yet if you’re comfortable enough with JavaScript to extend the utility with your own custom macros. Not only does it let you build a complete, portable, operating-system-independent custom reference for your entire campaign and rules set (with all your house rules in one place) that you can carry around on a keychain, you can build your own random generators and tracking tools right into the reference book. The possibilities are pretty much endless.

#14 Comment By black campbell On March 6, 2011 @ 9:46 pm

I prefer the ultraportable to small laptop (between 11-13″ screen size), partly because it doesn’t isolate you, spatially, from the other players, and because — after a decade of getting about by motorcycle, I like to pack light. Most modern laptops will do the job just fine — it was common for me to have WordPerfect, Adobe Acrobat, Rock n Roll Dice, a browser, and a media player open at the same time without crash or incident.

Currently, I’m using the iPad — 10″ screen is big enough to read notes and it’ll swap between my notes (usually on Dropbox), a pdf reader for game books or character sheets, and the dice program (Diceshaker, in this case.) Battery life is robust enough for a long session (hell, I got from Edinburgh to Albuquerque on a single charge, using it the whole 15 hours.)

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