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A GM’s Guide to the iPad, Part 1

In case you hadn’t heard, Apple [1] released another life-changing device this weekend, the near-mythical iPad. There exist any number of reviews that can answer your general questions as to whether the iPad has a place in your life, but fortunately for you our crack team of gnome engineers have been putting the device through its paces and show how the iPad might change the way you run your role-playing games!

By The Numbers

At its essence the iPad is, unashamedly, a giant iPod touch. Or, perhaps more accurately, a giant iPhone without the phone or camera component. For anyone who’s used an iPhone you already have a good understanding of what the iPad is capable of. The larger, 9.7” diagonal screen does make all the difference and opens the device up to deeper, more content-driven applications.

The iPad’s quick pitch is that of a media consumption device. You can create on it, by using the virtual keyboard or via the very pleasant touch interface, but most of your usage will be by flicking or scrolling your way through content. Once you become accustomed to the UI which melts into the background, this consumption becomes almost surreally pleasant.

We already have laptops and netbooks aplenty at our gaming tables. What does the iPad do that’s different? For nearly every example we’ll be providing you can certainly parrot back “my laptop/netbook does that.” It’s true, the functionality isn’t necessarily unique. It’s the ease of use and form factor that the iPad really nails. And, without question, because of its closed nature, the iPad is one of the fastest and most stable devices you’ll use.

The iPad iPod app [2]

Out the gate the iPad has one huge limitation: lack of multitasking. From a gaming usage scenario (with some notable exceptions), you’ll be using the iPad for one task at a time. This may be addressed in a future OS update, as rumored, but for now only Apple’s internal applications can work in the background.

Of them is the iPod application. Once you load content on the iPad (you currently cannot stream from your home iTunes library) you essentially have a very large iPod. While in other applications the iPod will continue to play. You can configure the Home button—just like on an iPhone/iPod Touch—to bring up the playback controls on a double-press. Connect to speakers to play your campaign background music.

Unique? No. Cool as hell? Ooooooohhhhh yea!

Books, Books, Books

The iPad has an iBooks [3] (iTunes link) application, available through the iTunes Store at no charge. This is the virtual bookshelf you’ve seen in the ads where you can purchase and download books from the virtual bookstore. The iBooks application uses the ePub format. You can load (“sideload”) your own books into the iPad; the iBooks content isn’t entirely locked off.

Usage and reading is very pleasant. Compared to an e-ink reader, the iPad’s display is larger (or the same if you’re coming from a Kindle DX), substantially faster, and full color. All the usual suspects are there: the ability to change fonts, size, and rotating the iPad shows you either facing or single page views. How does it read? Well, my Nook [4] will probably go on eBay this week. Sure, the iPad doesn’t have battery life measured in weeks like the Kindle [5], but the reading experience is considerably more pleasant.

However ePub really is of limited use; what you want to know is PDF support because 99% of the digital RPG content is published that way. Apple’s OS X has always had great internal support for PDF natively and the iPad is no exception. The frustrating manner is that the closed nature of the iPad makes getting to your PDF content more difficult than it needs to be.

The iBooks application does not read PDFs. Opening a PDF via, say, the email application will give you very basic functionality. For anything else you’ll need to get a 3rd party application that fully supports PDF.

It’s the Apps, Silly

The iTunes Store has a library of over 180,000 applications, of which, at the time of this writing, some 3,000 are specifically for the iPad. While the iPad will run most iPhone applications (either 1:1 scale or at x2, “enlarged”), many don’t feel right on the iPad or support the expanded real estate. The native iPad apps really feel more appropriate.

The aforementioned iBooks app is a free download from the Store. Many others are also free but quite a few are for-pay. Since the iPad app ecosystem is in its infancy, prices are in a heavy degree of flux. Keep an eye on AppShopper [6] to track pricing trends and alerts on your favorite apps.

Speaking of which, I’ll share a few with you.


The GoodReader [7] (iTunes link) application is, currently, a $0.99 purchase. It’s a robust application that allows you to sideload documents—in this case PDFs—from iTunes. You can also download content into GoodReader from the web, sync into your Google Docs account, or even Dropbox. It has a nice interface to navigate your PDF library. Of all the PDF applications I tried, GoodReader was the best at the $1-or-less (free) price point. Hey, gnomes don’t have deep bank accounts!


GoodReader’s performance? Excellent. You can single finger swipe up or down from page to page in your PDF, full support of internal bookmarks, pinch and zoom, all lightening quick. Where PDF rendering on a Nook or Kindle is measured in seconds (painfully slow), the iPad renders near-instantly. PDFs retain all of their formatting and with embedded fonts, you can zoom in as close as you need without any loss of detail (graphics not withstanding).

For my D&D game—where I prep everything electronically—I exported my campaign notes and encounters for the evening into a single PDF and loaded onto the iPad. From a player perspective one could easily print their character sheet from the Wizards of the Coast [9] Character Builder into PDF and load all their characters. With a simple swipe have access to all your characters at your fingertips.

PDF handouts are, obviously, a big deal on the iPad. Queue them up and pass the iPad around. Do I even need to mention the potential application within a Star Trek game? *feints*

Desktop Connect

So you obviously can’t run the D&D Character Builder [10] on the iPad…or can you? Well, you can actually, with some caveats.

If you have a desktop running the application (or even a Mac running a virtual machine of Windows with Character Builder running) you can use a Microsoft Remote Desktop (RDP) or VNC to connect to a Windows or Mac/Linux machine, respectively.

Essentially you’re running Character Builder—or any application—on the host machine and using your iPad as a window into that other machine, controlling remotely. Now your iPad can run essentially any program you already own. Performance will become gradually worse the more graphically-intensive your host application is.

There are a few options, but Desktop Connect [11] (iTunes link) is the early frontrunner. Navigation of mimicking a mouse via a touch interface takes some getting used to and the price, $11.99 currently, might put a few people off. But if you think outside the box you can VNC to a remote machine and do pretty much anything.


Here’s another outside-the-box way of using the iPad. How about using it as a virtual window into your existing gaming laptop? A clever app with a clever name is iDisplay. The concept is fairly simple: run a client application on your Mac (sorry Windows owners) and extend your desktop display onto the iDisaply [12] iPad app. Thus the iPad becomes a virtual display off of your host machine. What to display a map on the iPad? Drag it onto the virtual display and pass the iPad around the table. Have a graphical handout to share with a player, drag the output into the display area. Need to, literally, show someone a website? Well, you get the idea.

Only caveat is that iDisplay isn’t fully baked; it’s buggy as heck and at $4.99, a little pricy to be a beta tester.


If you’re familiar with OS X and Apple products there’s a good chance you’ve used their flagship presentation software, Keynote. There is an iPad version [13] (iTunes link) as well, with many of the features one is accustomed to. Going back to my own D&D game, I use Keynote to display a graphical initiative tracker onto a mounted LCD television. (Gnome Geek Factor Five!) For any visual aids, using Keynote on the iPad gives you another vector to display high quality content, either to pass around or output via the VGA connector. Yes, the iPad can output its video signal. In this mode Keynote displays your presentation on the external display and the iPad becomes a secondary, speaker presenter. Not quite as useful, I’ll grant you.

Keynote is made by Apple and runs $9.99.

Dice, Dice, Baby

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ability to use the iPad as a die roller. Any virtual polyhedron you can imagine. Sure, plenty of websites do this too but with your iPad you can, literally, shake the iPad to make it roll your dice.

Right now there’s nothing native for the iPad, but there are some notable iPhone/iPod Touch applications that do this; hopefully they’ll see some iPad versions soon. There’s Dice 3D [14], The Dicenomicon [15] (awesome name!), and Dice Roller [16] to name a few. I imagine you’ll be able to literally flick the dice on the virtual tabletop for your roll.


Oh, we’re not done yet, not by a long shot! Coming up in Part Two we’ll spend some more time on specific use case scenarios as well as some “what if” options of how the iPad could be used at your gaming table.

We’re also soliciting any questions for our final video walkthrough that will demonstrate many of the items discussed. Please pose your questions in the comments below! The gnomes slave away so you don’t have to!

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "A GM’s Guide to the iPad, Part 1"

#1 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On April 5, 2010 @ 5:52 am

All of this does sound neat, and admittedly, an ipad seems like it would be a lot easier to keep at the table than a laptop (smaller, so less real estate).

I have a pair of questions maybe you can answer in part two:
-How waterproof/easy to clean is the ipad? Gadgets at the gaming table often get messy. Will this destroy an ipad?
-Is there a stand of some sort for the ipad? It seems like it would be useful to have your ipad propped up from time to time, especially if you’re using it to display maps, etc… does it come with a stand or do you have to make one yourself?

I am however, aghast at the lack of multi-tasking on the ipad. Multi-tasking has been a major feature of every operating system since DOS, and to release a “computer” without the capacity for it is relatively unthinkable. The only things that makes that limitation bearable, is the clumsy workaround via remote desktop applications, the fact that it was probably done due to hardware limitations (ie: too much work would probably turn an ipad into a puddle or create a noticeably un-user friendly kludgey experience), and the fact that given historical examples, it’s really not surprising to see apple drop support for major features.

#2 Comment By Don Mappin On April 5, 2010 @ 9:43 am

Most cases, including the Apple one, double as iPad stands, ether in portrait or landscape mode. There’s also an iPad dock that holds the iPad in portrait mode, or a dock+keyboard that also acts as a stand. Alternately you could use/make your own stand and pair a Bluetooth keyboard to the iPad for entry. I’ll be covering many of these accessories in the next part.

Multitasking seems like a big deal but the reality is that in many cases you’re only doing one thing at a time. Multitasking makes moving between activities easier. It does take some getting used to but isn’t entirely a deal-breaker. I think the video will demonstrate some typical usage scenarios and how you can get around/live without it.

#3 Comment By BishopOfBattle On April 5, 2010 @ 11:21 am

Very cool! I’m looking forward to the second half of the article.

I personally would love to see an iPad character sheet app (as a player) for any number of tabletop games. The PDF reader work around you mentioned could work, but it would be cool to be able to edit inventory sheets or status (current hit point totals to name one example) right on the digital character sheet. Potentially such an app could include dice rolling mechanics that automatically factor in skill / abilitiy modifiers, though, admittedly, my use of them would be limited (rolling real dice is half the fun!).

As a media sharing device, being able to display images and (especially) maps for the players to see could be very fun and useful. I would be afraid they might accidentally flip a picture to the side though and cycle to the next one in sequence, which might give away your plot.

I’m definately excited for the potential the iPad offers… though I fear my biggest dreams for them may require that I brush up on that high school programming class I took years ago and learn to make my own apps. 😉

#4 Comment By Nojo On April 5, 2010 @ 11:37 am

I’m 54, and my eyes do not ever, ever want to read a book on a backlit display. eInk is no problem for me.

Looks like I’ll be keeping my Kindle DX for reading books.

#5 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On April 5, 2010 @ 11:44 am


#6 Comment By registrationsucks On April 5, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

If you want to move the any sort of files very quickly (and wirelessly) I recommend the Dropbox application (no affiliation). It has iPhone, Windows, Mac, and Linux clients.

One of the features I like is the ability to view previous versions of files.

Disclaimer: This is a referral link, I get +250MB towards my account for each signup.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 5, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

And to prove that we Gnomes are not one big echo chamber, I see the iPad as a cool solution in search of a problem. There’s nothing magical or revolutionary (Apple’s marketing words, not mine) about a tablet PC, even one with a slicked-up interface.

That said, I’m looking forward to the Part Two. Tabletop gaming and tablet PCs are made for each other. Like chocolate and peanut butter. Or donkeys and 4E.

#8 Comment By Don Mappin On April 5, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

@BishopOfBattle yes, that would be cool. Unless there’s some pocket of app developers out there for our admittedly niche hobby/industry, that doesn’t seem too likely, however. Better IMO to focus on existing standards that are out there and utilize, such as PDFs with form fields and annotation. With very little effort you have an editable character sheet that works across nearly all platforms.

@Nojo for many, e-ink still has a valuable role. In my experience the refresh delay made it unsuitable for my gaming needs. The iPad doesn’t have that. Plus at a slightly higher price point you get many of the features of the ebook reader and more (and lose a few, such as battery life and e-ink).

@registrationsucks: There is a Dropbox app for the iPhone and one for the iPad on its way. One of the cool things about GoodReader is that it has Dropbox support (and Google Docs, MobileMe iDisk, box.net, FilesAnywhere.com, and box.net) built-in. So if you use any of those services you can get to your files quickly and easily, then sync onto your iPad.

@Kurt, you may be surprised by the conclusion in part 3. It’s not all sunshine and unicorns for the iPad. But for a 3-day old product it’s pretty cool! (Donkey’s not withstanding!)

#9 Comment By allen On April 5, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

I know in writing this you are going to be drawing a lot of fire from people who think the iPad is getting undeserved hype. And I’m one of those people- but I am going to try to keep it productive with the following questions.

“And, without question, because of its closed nature, the iPad is one of the fastest and most stable devices you’ll use.”

Why does that claim defy questioning? I can see the argument for stability, but being closed does not have any impact on how fast the thing runs (which is a function of the hardware, software, and OS). I’ll believe you that it is fast and likely to be stable- but… the rest is a little hyperbolic.

Secondly- display. I think it’s important to note that the display is smaller than 8.5×11, and based on back-projection lcd. You do a disservice to e-ink if all you do is evaluate display size and color content. I’m glad you like it but it’s not “just better”- it’s “just different”. BUT- it’s good to hear that your PDFs are readable even at the reduced size, I’m sure many people want to know that about the ipad.

Like Kurt Schneider above, I would love to see a follow-up article asking which tablet device is right for you, that compares and contrasts capabilities, price points, and form factors. There are several netbooks at the same price point that I think offer more functionality for a gamer (and the actual laptop products are a joy)- but I will admit that the iPad form factor is compelling.

#10 Comment By zencorners On April 5, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

Anyone run a game on a Windows 7 Tablet? Or any tablet PC for that matter? I’ve been in the market for a similar form factor and have the iPad, the HP Slate and the HP tm2t on my radar for purchase. I’m leaning towards the proper “laptop/tablet” in the tm2t because of a couple of factors:
1. Screen size 12.1″
2. Storage upgrade available up to 500GB
3. Ability to work off-line

Granted, I <3 the COOL factor of Apple products, but can't justify the price bump between the iPad and other devices with similar function.

#11 Comment By havoclad On April 5, 2010 @ 10:47 pm

Try SketchPad HD for usable graph paper. Looks like it will be great for a player wanting to do the mapping.

You can also add notes to the map, unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to move the notes around.

Just $0.99 tho, so its pretty cheap to try out.


#12 Comment By Don Mappin On April 6, 2010 @ 12:40 am

@allen I can understand you (and a number of people) suffering from iPad fatigue. I consider the statement factual, not hyperbolic at all. The design nature of the iPad/iPhone OS (rooted from OS X, itself derived from Unix) firewalls applications in their own space. Should an app crash–and they do–they don’t take the entire platform with it. You quit back to the springboard app and continue on. And most certainly the software design contributes to the speed of a device. Apple’s OS upgrades over the years become smaller in size and run faster, counter to the traditional trend. The philosophy of Apple is truly summarized by “it just works.” If that sounds appealing you need to be prepared to give up some control. It’s not an open platform and never will be. But if you’re willing to take a little leap of faith and play by Apple’s rules, you may be pleasantly surprised.

We’re a bit off tangent here but I’ll stand by the statement that the iPhone OS is one of the most stable you’ll use. The iPad is instantly on, responds effortlessly to your input, and with three years of historical data behind us, the OS has already proven itself to be quite stable.

You’re quite right in that the entire device is smaller than an 8.5×11 piece of paper. The LCD is an IPS design. I’d go into detail as to its quality, but I’ll probably sound hyperbolic again. 😉 Suffice it to say that it provides superior color matching, image quality, and viewing angle versus your traditional TN display (which is what most desktop and laptop monitors use today). Amazingly the device really does run for 10+ hours with continuous usage.

e-ink will continue to fill a necessary role and will continue to improve with time.

@havoclad, nice catch. SketchPad looks like another app to add to the list for some basic map-drawing functionality.

#13 Comment By Taellosse On April 6, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

[19] – I’d be all over the iPad if it actually were a tablet PC. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Tablet PCs are, essentially, laptops with a non-keyboard interface (most of them use a stylus rather than direct touch). In other words, they’re full-fledged computers, not giant-size smartphones sans phone capability.

When the rumors about what has become the iPad first started getting serious, I was hoping pretty hard that it would be an Apple tablet–that the screen would be pressure sensitive, a stylus would be available (having the touch interface is cool, but has limited value in certain areas), and most of all, it would be a full-fledged computer. I’ve got a 5-year old Toshiba tablet PC that I’d love to replace with a Mac, but the iPad won’t cut it for me. The biggest reason a tablet is attractive to me is I like to draw, but you need a stylus and pressure sensitivity to do that.

I might find an iPad attractive if I traveled a lot. A highly portable internet browser/e-reader with the ability to play basic games would be a great thing to have if I did. But as it is, I don’t see it being a thing I need, unfortunately.

#14 Comment By zencorners On April 6, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

[20] – What are some of your biggest “Perks” you’ve found working on the iPad? Are there any out-of-the-box features that are really interesting? Anything “handcuffed” by the nature of the beast (app store, form factor)?

#15 Comment By Don Mappin On April 6, 2010 @ 6:15 pm

@zencorners, thus far it’s the speed and ease of use. While it’s not as fast in raw processing power as my 8-core Mac Pro, the iPad screams at doing a lot of my “lite” work. It’s more pleasant to use as a web browser, sitting on the couch with my wife or, ahem, taking a break in the restroom. 🙂 Twitter is a lot more fun to use via Twitteriffic and I’ve been blown away by the remote client, LogMeIn Ignition. GoodReader continues to amaze as a launch app for PDF and document management. It’s a steal for $0.99. (All of these will be demoed in our iPad video blog later this week.)

Out-of-the-box the iPhone v3 OS on the iPad feels a little tacked on. The Springboard is a little barren with all this real estate and small icons. Your dock can now hold five icons, but it does feel at times like the iPhone OS shoehorned into a larger display. With Apple’s announcement of the iPhone OS 4 preview this week, it seems that we’ll be seeing what the software development team has been spending their time on. I expect a number of upgrades to OS 4 will be iPad-driven.

Battery life is crazy good. I’m using this thing constantly and am getting about 11 hours a charge.

I find myself very thankful of the layout agnostic design of the iPad. There is no “up” or “down.” Whatever way you grab and hold the device, it senses and flows content accordingly. My usage is about 80/20 in landscape mode because the device feels more natural to hold that way.

Downsides? This may come as a surprise, but I’m having a hard time becoming accustomed to the virtual keyboard. I have no issues with the iPhone and really just FLY typing on that device. In fact I find myself wishing that the iPad had an option to bring up the iPhone-sized virtual keyboard. The larger, full sized keys are strange to get used to. (But syncing the Apple Bluetooth keyboard with the iPad? Pure win!)

The app store is a little frustrating to navigate right now, culling between iPhone-only and iPhone/iPad Universal apps. Plus prices are all out of wack. Ports of iPhone apps have doubled in cost. As competition increases I expect the undercutting to begin and pricing to level out.

iTunes syncing is slooooooooow. Sideloading files into apps is not intuitive at all. The iPad “manual” is a web bookmark hidden in Safari.

I love the form factor. It feels so natural and so thin. That much power in the palm of your hands. 🙂

One thing I really dislike? When the display is off the screen is a fingerprint magnet. It’s mega covered in your greasy palm prints. You can’t tell while using the device, but afterwards it’s like a horde of pixies have breakdanced on its surface.

Look for part 2 tomorrow!

#16 Comment By havoclad On April 6, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

One other note: VPN’ing to a windows machine to run character builder is an interesting use case, but I’ll bet that 95%+ of the time you’d be better off using iplay4e.com

I used Safari to make it an app. First game with the iPad is tomorrow…can’t wait!

@Don – you’re completely right about the fingerprints. I have no complaints when its on, but it does look pretty filthy when I turn it off 🙂


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