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Paper, Silicon, or Cardstock?

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On December 3, 2010 @ 3:08 am In Tools for GMs | 25 Comments

Some GMs would never tolerate a computer at their game table; if a notepad worked for E. Gary, it’ll work for them. Some would be lost without a browser opened up to thirteen tabs, and multiple Excel sheets for calculating THAC0. And some, perhaps living out some brash fantasy as a librarian, swear by the lowly index card.

So what’s the best way to run a game – Paper, Silicon, or Cardstock?

That coffee cup is way too full for a real GM.

Like many gaming topics, this is a trick question; there is no right answer. It depends entirely on personal preference, background, game system, and campaign style.

I’ve used all three approaches; each has benefits and drawbacks. This is all my opinion, nothing more…

  • Laptops work best with information-heavy systems and styles (such as D&D 3.5 or a political game with many different factions). Nothing puts tons of information at the GM’s fingertips like a laptop. On the other hand, laptops can distract the GM or insulate him from the players. They can also crash at just the wrong damned time.
  • Paper (whether in binders or printouts) works best for organized GMs, or for adventures such as dungeon crawls where player options are limited. They’re also used by GMs who’ve been developing their game world since before geeks had computers. At a certain point on the complexity curve, however, it’s surprisingly easy to lose that critical bit of information in a pile of papers.
  • Index cards work best for experienced GMs, improvisationalists, and simple gaming systems. Index cards make encounter prep a breeze: grab a location card, a few critter cards, and maybe some information or treasure cards. Like paper, index cards are progress-proof; they will never be outdated. However, index cards do not work well with stat-heavy systems, nor do they necessarily provide a framework for the adventure. Like paper, enough index cards can easily hide information from you, and there’s no ‘search’ function for either.

It’s possible to combine these, especially in preparation, but when you run the game, which medium will be carrying your notes – Paper, Silicon, or Cardstock?

Got an opinon, or another option? Sound off in the comments 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."




25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "Paper, Silicon, or Cardstock?"

#1 Comment By maggy_lee On December 3, 2010 @ 6:14 am

Hi !!

For preparation the laptop , in my opinion, is the best instrument for a GM, i’m not the kind of GM who spend hours thinking on the adventure, i prefer something in real time.

For GMing adventures in a more combat focus system (like DD 4E) i prefer the laptop, all the buff and debuffs running, and +1 until the end of turn drives me crazy without my laptop. However, for a more RP adventure like Mage or any storyteller scenario i just have some printed information about the scenario and some procs to give to my players.

#2 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On December 3, 2010 @ 8:34 am

@maggy_lee

A white board works very well for a lot of the “+1 until end of turn” stuff.

#3 Comment By Ravenbow On December 3, 2010 @ 8:39 am

We had a lot of issues with electronic anything in our group so they are no longer allowed. Cell phones are kept on vibrate in the kitchen and we only check them during breaks.

It works for us.

#4 Comment By Vance On December 3, 2010 @ 8:51 am

DD4E: I GM with a laptop, but no other electronic devices are allowed at the table. I started using OneNote recently to map out the campaign, and I love it! Between that, my Initiative/Combat Tracker, Obsidian portal, and PDF’s of all the reference material, I’d be lost without the laptop. I use DropBox to back everything up in case the laptop crashes (but that’s never really been a concern).

I close the laptop screen constantly at the table. If we aren’t in combat, or I don’t have to refer to any materials, I keep it closed.

The laptop is never a distraction for me…I only look at what I have to to keep the game moving. But it would be a distraction for my players, so they don’t use them.

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 3, 2010 @ 9:06 am

I don’t think the reference medium matters so much as whether or not the GM retreats inside her notes, hides behind her screen, etc., and stops engaging with the players in meaningful ways. A GMs references should be more of a safety blanket, not a firewall, to borrow a computing term.

I think there’s a lot of merit in how you’ve divided the types of GMs by their approach. My question is this: Has the laptop or portable device enabled some people to be GMs who might not otherwise done so? Are these devices liberating?

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 3, 2010 @ 9:19 am

I use all three. I use software to run my games with, provide paper handouts for the players, and I print stat blocks out onto index cards for monsters and treasure.

Different game systems will skew this of course. Some games I don’t need a laptop at all, such as Dread which I use only index cards and paper to run games with.

#7 Comment By evil On December 3, 2010 @ 9:25 am

The short answer is all four of the media mentioned above. I use my laptop for keeping the detailed notes, including faction maps, dungeon maps, and enemy stat lists. I use paper for notes, player stats and notes, and keeping track of enemy life points. I use notecards for simple tradeables or status effects that can come and go. The whiteboard is mainly used to track player notes or ammo counts throughout.

Since most of my games are a mash of various rules from different sources this works for me.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On December 3, 2010 @ 9:52 am

I run primarily games with a central mystery, often one that is obscured by antithetically-inclined NPCs. These games use lots of physical, hands-on clues (deeds, wills, pocket garbage from corpses and so forth) so a computer is essential to me for the adventure design process at every stage; from banging out the plot points and scene notes to hanging it all together in a coherent back-story – which will probably only ever be fully apparent to me of course – and creating the documents, ticket stubs, matchbooks and whatever that will be the web of evidence for the team to follow, a computer (with, at some stage, a printer) is a vital tool.

But until recently I didn’t use one at the game table.

Then, I had a Delta Green adventure to present at a con that was conceived as being a series of scenes that could be experienced in any order. The scenes would be written on large index cards. Said cards would be produced from text on my computer.

If only I had printed them before the day of the con.

If only my brand new printer hadn’t decided to commit seppuku that morning.

I consoled myself that all the bad luck had obviously been sucked out of my dice bag and into my IT infrastructure that day. My NPCs were going to be making out like bandits (including the ones that were actually bandits).

So I propped my laptop on the table behind my GM screen, but angled it outward so I could sit with the players and still see it. Then I opened the Open Office Writer document on which I had banged out the cards, one to a page, and set the magnification to “geezer sitting four feet from the screen”.

By using my wireless scroll mouse’s wheel (and holding the mouse out of sight) I could quickly and unobtrusively scroll to a given “card” and read it to the players as though I were extemporizing the whole thing.

I’ve realized that for me, using the laptop as a teleprompter is a very useful technique and I take it with me to all games now (I run at a local game store 90% of the time).

But I don’t use it to keep track of the game. I use paper , pencils and the vinyl mat for that because it is quicker and doesn’t let my players gain the impression I’d rather be surfing the web than running their game for them.

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On December 3, 2010 @ 10:02 am

I’m also a recent convert to PDF rulebooks. For Dresden Files RPG I now use the PDF mostly.

I find PDF documents much harder on the old eyeballs and I hate having to scroll back and forth to cater for screen-unfriendly twin-column text on a lappy screen, but the ability to search the text is invaluable.

I expect that as I become more familiar with this system and setting the need for anything at all will diminish to the point the book can be the prime resource and the computer can stay at home, since DFRPG is more of a mediation exercise than a trad RPG from the GM’s POV.

#10 Comment By nolandda On December 3, 2010 @ 11:21 am

I agree with several earlier posters. Since laptops proved distracting to players we outlawed them; and I cannot in good conscience have a laptop open in front of me while discouraging them from doing the same.

#11 Comment By BishopOfBattle On December 3, 2010 @ 11:54 am

I’m a die hard paper fan. I do most of my document writing on the computer as well as some of the other prep (photoshop comes in handy for whipping up professional looking floor layouts to hand to the players as “intelligence”). But when it comes to running the games, I print everything out so I’ll have paper in hand.

The games I run tend to be a series of set piece scenes, though. I’ll print out documents describing the scene, the chain of events that will occur (not how the players and NPCs will react; but more of when their contact arrives, what they want to talk about, if they get interrupted when and by whom, etc). If the team wants to do something that doesn’t fit into one of the scenes I’ve laid out, then usually its a supporting action that is leading to one of the scenes and I’ll improv it.

#12 Comment By outrider11 On December 3, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

I use all of them myself. I am old school in that most of my campaign information is still on paper in a filing cabinet. I in the last couple of years have started to put information on Obisidianportal to have it more accessible to me and others.

I love to draw maps and also have them in files but in the last couple of years have gotten into the Cartography programs. I use Fractal Mapper and am happy with it.

I have the 4×6 cards for encounters and such but am now cutting and pasting the monster stats or bad guy stats from online sources.

I never used to bring my laptop to my game but i do now in case somebody is not there so we have his character available for somebody to run. (our group is very good about running other folks characters for the most part.)

I am very old school about a lot of things but am learning to adapt and change with the times.

#13 Comment By Redcrow On December 3, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

I use a bit of everything, though because of my gaming area setup using a Laptop during the game can be a bit cumbersome sometimes. So mostly I use good old pen ‘n paper.

I also use OneNote for mapping out campaigns and it has several features (like tying sound files to entries) that I’m dying to try out.

I’ve only recently started looking into Cardstock maps and scenery to add to my game, so most of my maps to date tend to be hand drawn on a battlemat.

#14 Comment By CannonMagnet On December 4, 2010 @ 12:06 am

I use them all but some of my favorites have to be:
– White post-its for quick status effects or notes that I can stick to the DM screen or table.
– Quad-ruled hardcover journal.
– …and my favorite silicon based tool has to be my campaign wiki. I highly recommend checking out Tiddlywiki. Its like 3×5 notes on steroids: http://www.tiddlywiki.com

#15 Comment By Razjah On December 4, 2010 @ 10:43 am

\\I have used laptops and paper. I do appreciate how much information the laptop can hold, but I find it bulk and in the way at the table. Using Obsidian Portal, and other similar programs, makes a laptop really nice at the table. But laptops just don’t mesh with me. I can’t explain it aside from that it just feels wrong.

I do use paper and pen a lot. I have a folder with the binder clips and paper protectors that I put cheat sheets, charts, maps, and other things like naming charts in. Then I have a note book with all the information that I need. I find that this really reduces the feeling of clutter at the table. Also, becasue it “feels better” I tend to GM better because I am more comfortable.

#16 Comment By Chando42 On December 4, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

In my games, my laptop finds only a place in my prep, and barely at that. I use a character generator online to stat out important NPCs, but those sheets are printed and slotted into my notebook. All of my more minor characters are statted by hand onto index cards. And I would never ever dream of prepping solely on my laptop. Mostly because I hate doing creative things on anything but notebook paper, but also because it’s too heavy and big to set at the table.
However, this says nothing about my iPod Touch, which I use to access online versions of my players’ character sheets and play background music.
So, no bulky laptops, but mini-electronics work well for me.

#17 Comment By Rynoa On December 4, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

I’m a huge fan of index cards. I’m quite busy during the week and my prep time is often limited to the 45 minutes before people start showing up, so I don’t even write stats out. I just come up a symbol for each encounter, draw it on the top of the card and stick it in the monster manual bookmark-style. I write out a few key personality traits on the bottom half, picking the most appropriate one to play up for however my party winds up dealing with the encounter. Plot-important knowledge the creature possesses ends up on the back. Almost all other details are made-up on the spot, which can be a bit stressful at times, but when you have a party that use Tree Stride to lynch a poor hobgoblin from the other side of the battlefield, you learn to be flexible.

#18 Comment By Roxysteve On December 5, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

Thought you’d all get a laugh out of this, coming as it did on the heels of this GS article. Yesterday I ran Delta Green at my LHS. Because I want a more pulp feel to the times when combat must happen, I run it as a D20 game using the Monte Cook/John Tynes et al rules.

These are long out of print, so I keep my eyes skinned for cheap copies on Amazon and now have three – one for me and two as “player manuals” (D20 means that unlike BRP players really must have access to a rulebook occasionally).

So, there’s the three D20 books, the Delta Green book, my home-made bullet-resistant GM screen, four envelopes of notes because I haven’t done enough prep and have to have all previous “case histories” to hand for when someone asks about them, a box containing a few Bags O Zombies!! for actors, a pouch of pens, pencils and wet-erase felt tips, clips to hold everything to the screen, my dice pouch (huge and getting huger every time I walk past the store dice display dammit, my SLR because I wanted mug shots for a refacing of the campaign web page, snacks for everyone in the form of Girl Scout cookies, my computer because I forgot to print this month’s adventure notes, my dice tray adn my vinyl mat.

It all fit into a carry-on wheelie suitcase and two shoulder bags, except for the rolled up mat. I looked like I was moving into the store.

And I forgot the computer power cord so it died in hour four of the game.

#19 Comment By Roxysteve On December 5, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

@Roxysteve – And I forgot the computer power cord so it died in hour four of the game.

The computer, that was.

#20 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 5, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

Thanks for the comments and opinions and ideas. Y’all rock.

My story: I started with paper (the Apple ][+ wasn’t up to the task), using mostly hand-written notes and published adventures.

When I got back into gaming in 2003 or so, I was working with computers, so I used a laptop. I even bought one with a high-res screen so I could have two docs open at once. I also contributed to the HeroForge spreadsheet, since I used it so much.

Now that I’m running Savage Worlds, it’s index cards all the way. I use a computer to plan, but there’s no laptop at the table.

#21 Comment By Katana_Geldar On December 5, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

I plan Star Wars using a computer, as it’s so easy dragging the archetypes onto my campaign from the PDFs and printing them. I only have to bring one book to the game!

For D&D I use paper. For Paranoia I use paper, lots of it but it’s that sort of game.

Laptops are banned from being on in game time in my group, while they can be brought when I say we are starting that computer goes off NOW. And cell phones are on silent, as I recall a very frustrating GM who answered the phone, mid encounter, and talked to his girl friend for 20 mins.

#22 Comment By Scott Martin On December 6, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

I haven’t converted to a laptop at the table, but a lot of the chronicle organizing that used to be paper is now a wiki. Almost everything at the table is run off note cards– tricky to do with D20, and not worth it if you can just print out a stat block– but that’s a recent conversion for me.

#23 Comment By troy812 On December 7, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

I’m old schuul.
I use paper. …then transfer to computer … but then I run a game, I prefer to print it off and go paper again.
I just get too distracted on my computer.

#24 Comment By Squeejee On December 12, 2010 @ 3:48 am

I try not to use my computer, but the more I fight it the more I need to reference pdfs of books that are all the way back at my house. One place I will never relent is my dice, however – electronic number generators seem to suck all the fun from the game for me, despite the fact that many members of my regular group swear by them when they GM.

Fearing electronic failure (which has never happened to me during a game *knockonwood*), I always keep my most vital notes scribed to a notepad. Because I’m incredibly lazy, those notes are almost never duplicated on my computer – turning my notebook and hard drive into two very distinct sets of files.

#25 Comment By black campbell On March 6, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

Laptop until recently, now the iPad.


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