Saturday, April 17, 2010

Computers as a Pen and Paper Gaming Tool

Once upon a time (1971), there was a small start-up company named Intel who produced the 4001 microprocessor. Since the 4001, there have been manysuccessors. The computer as gone from simple formulas to highly complex programs with mind-blowing graphics and sounds. So what does this have to do with pen and paper role-playing? Well, I’m glad you asked, because I was about to tell you anyway.

There are many, many uses for a computer within the constraints of tabletop role-playing games. A computer is a very useful tool for a player or a GM, and I’m going to spend the rest of this article illustrating the pros and cons of computers in the tabletop role-playing environment.

Being that a role-playing group usually sits around a table together, I’m going to just say now that anytime I talk about using a computer for the rest of this article, I am talking specifically about using a laptop as opposed to a desktop machine. It is possible to have a desktop within easy access of the group, but a laptop provides minimal diversion and can be taken to any place your group games.


A laptop can bring an entire new world of possibilities to your gaming sessions—even in terms of simple word processing. Think about the amount of rules, notes, and general written verbiage that you have to have on hand at any given moment for any given game. You could fill an entire notebook with blurbs about your NPCs, relevant information about your players, plans for you campaign, keeping track of time and weather.

A laptop can put all these things at your fingertips. The best parts about having these things on your computer is that there is no paper to lose, damage, to take up space in your binder, fall into the wrong hands and such. With just the simple click of a mouse, you can bring up any one of your documents.

Here is a list of things that you would benefit from having in digital format:

Introduction to your world. This file should not only be an introduction to your world as in "You were born in the Zombiewood forest, and there’s been a war going on for the past…" but also a summary of the way you like to game. In other words "Welcome to my gaming table! No biting, spitting, stabbing, or cross burning at my table… etc."

Game world history. As you probably expect from the title, this file should be filled with the history, or at least the important events from the history of whatever world you are playing in, be it a pre-generated world, or one of your own.

Players’ backgrounds / descriptions. One thing that I like to have players do when I GM is have them generate a background for their characters explaining where they came from, why they left, who they were and how they became who they are now. (See "Characters – Who’s who, what’s what".) If they were kind enough to type these backgrounds up into a text file, ask for a copy and keep it on hand. If they gave you it on paper, see what you can do about making or obtaining an electronic copy of it. Having a copy on hand is also handy for a quick copy and paste into an email. If you plan on incorporating the characters’ pasts, which I suggest that you do, then you are going to need them. As for the descriptions, have detailed information like their personal short and long term goals, physical descriptions, and a brief list of the skills and items that they have. This will come in handy when planning for the next session, as you will have at your disposal a summary of what each character is or is not capable of. You can add pretty much anything you want to this that you think should be there. You could also list a running record of the experience points that you have awarded each player. Highlight the parts of the history or descriptions that you think would make for good tie-ins to your campaign’s story line. If a character grew up in a specific town or city, maybe you would like to have something interesting going on in that city to lure the character back.

People of importance. Skulking about town or plodding down the road, the party is without doubt going to meet NPCs. Some of these people might be people of great importance, such as dukes, earls, lords, kings, queens, doctors, or network administrators. Have a file ready with a list of people that are going to be reoccurring. For example:

  • Ed – Baker. Likes his beer just a little more than what is healthy.
  • Biff – King of town. Likes to wear pink headdress, and no one knows why…
  • Sir Evan – Town guard. Can’t run because of a bum leg, but could hit an acorn at 100 feet with an arrow.
  • Johan – Town handyman. Quick with a smile, suspicious type of guy, always has money and women, but never a job for more than a week.

These are all things that you may want to incorporate at some point in your campaign. The beauty of doing this on a computer is that as the characters evolve, you can go back and just add the little blurbs, instead of having to get out another sheet of paper, writing it down, punching the holes or whatever…

Plans for the party. This is something that you are going to need regardless of how you do it. Pen and paper is fine for something like this, but you may find that you go through a lot of paper as plans for the party will change. As the party moves along, you might have a plan for them to come into money somehow, when for some reason or another, the players all take a vow of poverty. Sure, they can still find the treasure, but the pending visit from the tax collector or the thief-villain-NPC is a moot point because they are doubtlessly going to be giving it away soon anyway. With a text file of some sort, you can highlight, delete, and replace.

Time and weather. You are going to need to keep track of the time of year, the days that pass, and you might want to include the weather if you’d like. Some Wizards of the Coast products have a few calendars already made up and they get fairly descript. Creating a digital calendar is always a possibility.


Random number generation. Instead of rolling dice, which the players can hear and might start to get alarmed, there are programs that you can download that will generate a random number between X and Y (where X and Y are numbers that you define, like X=1 Y=12 – That would be like rolling a d12). This is something that you can use if you like. The advantage to doing this on the computer is that the players cannot see the rolls (if you already use a DM screen, then this is not a problem). You can also pre-generate numbers and keep them in a list.

Music. In planning your adventure, you have a good idea about what is going to happen and when. You can get yourself a little playlist of MP3s or WAVs or just use the albums themselves and play music to go along with what’s going on. It’s easier to do this from a computer because if you are using one already anyway, it is already in front of you and you don’t have to get up and go to the CD player and click buttons or switch CDs. You can also organize all your music beforehand by making playlists of certain types of music. With just a quick click you can go from your traveling play list to your "going to be eaten by trolls" play list. There are many programs with which you can play MP3s, including winAMP and Itunes. You can queue the songs that you want and make a play list. Then when you want to hear that particular genre, you simply click that play list.

Software. There are programs out there on the Internet that are designed to help you do things like quickly generate characters, towns, and cities. I’ve seen character sheets designed as a spread sheet, and when you enter your ability scores, everything else fills in automatically. One program that has been mentioned before on is the DM Genie. Mac has a program called Crystal Ball.


A computer is a good tool to keep track of just about everything you need as a player as well.
Here is a list of some things that you might find a computer useful for as a player:

Character Background. If your GM allows you to come up with your own character’s background, it is a good thing to have on hand as a text file. It is easier to be elaborate on a computer, because you can go back and forth in the text, move it around or change a word here or there without having to write it up all over again by hand.

Character description. This section should be about the physical appearances as well as the dominant personality traits. Include things like eye color, hair color, height, weight, body mass, scars, types of clothing worn, and if she’s generally happy, angry or always worrying… just about anything that someone would notice after a couple minutes of talking to or watching her. Include any possession that is visible.

Item list. Have a section for everything you own. You can include a brief history of where the item came from, or where the character carries it, or how it’s used; just about anything you would like to include.

People of importance. This is going to be much like the list that the GM would have prepared, however it’s going to include some different information. The GM is going to need to know a little more about the NPCs than you are, so their descriptions in the GM’s file is going to be a little more in depth. Most of the townsfolk are going to remain unimportant to you. The things that you would need would generally just be something like, name and station. "Ed – baker" would probably be lengthy enough. What you are going to have that the GM doesn’t would be any plans that you may have regarding any of these contacts. Where the GM’s list might say: "Laran – Librarian" yours could says something like: "Laran – Librarian (need to see if I can get my hands on the history of the broadsword. Laran would be a good person to ask.)

Goals. It’s always a good idea to keep a running list of long term and short term goals for the character so that you don’t lose sight of your character’s motivations. As a role-playing gamer myself, I know that it’s not always convenient to get the whole gaming group together at once, so sometimes a session can get pushed back for quite a while. It’s nearly impossible to keep a thought in your head for as long as it might need to stay there. With weeks or maybe even months between sessions, you will find yourself wondering, "What was it that I wanted this character to be able to do?" or "Which feat did I want to take again?" With your goals listed, all you have to do is check the list. Maybe during character conception, you had had a particular prestige class in mind, but you keep forgetting the required combination of skills—check the list.

Numbers. There are many things in a game that involve numerical values. Character ability scores, experience points, money… etc. A text file is a great way to keep track of these things. Depending on how computer savvy you are, you can set up spread sheets to calculate certain things that depend on other things. For example, you want to know the exact value of money you have, but you want the numbers to refer to the value of 1GP (gold pieces) and all you have is PP (platinum pieces). There are 10BP to 1 PP. On a properly configured spread sheet, you can enter the 40 PP and it will tell you that you have 400GP. Of course, with further configuration, you can add Electrum, silver, and whatever else you would like.

Communication. Assuming everyone at the table has got a computer, and they are networked, there are instant message programs that do not require Internet access that you can install. This way, if you need to, you can send a message that only one or two other people can see. Passing sticky notes can be troublesome if the notes end up with the wrong person! If there is something that you need to tell the GM but you want to keep it between the two of you, this is an excellent way to do it. Yes, I know… those of you who are familiar with computers and networking know that this is going to take a lot of time and effort to set up and may not be worth it. If you do this successfully, you no longer have the right to wonder whether or not you are a geek. There is no longer any question… you ARE a geek.

Everybody now!

This section of this article is full of things that computers can provide for all gamers at the table.

Recording. Every now and again, you are going to wish that you could rewind the session and listen again to the details that you might not have been paying attention to. With a computer and a microphone, you can do exactly that. Get yourself a web cam and not only do you have audio, but video as well. Granted, a gaming session could last hours and hours, but with the proper hard drive space, it can be done. You can then play the antics later for your friends, or to help you keep a log. This brings me to…

Game log. As I stated above, you are going to want to know what happened in the past. This is going to come in handy if you, like myself, only get to play once or twice a month. I keep a log of the game, and I post it on the Internet. This is a great tool for remembering things like people’s names, riddles, clues, and just basic facts of the game. Eventually, if the log gets long enough, it can be turned into a story, and possibly submitted for publication.

Die rolling. Depending on the leniency of you GM, you might be able to get away with using programs to randomly generate your die rolls. There is little reason to want to do this other than you don’t have to take your dice along with you.

Graphics. If you have the time and the talent, you might think about making some graphics for your game. If you are a GM maybe you want to have a drawing of the medallion that you players find. A picture equals a thousand words. If you are not all that handy with a mouse, the Internet is a vast ocean full of graphics that you can use. If you do so, remember to check with the owner or creator of the graphics and give credit where credit is due. On the topic of the Internet and graphics, sometimes a website can be made to store all your gaming information! Most of the time, things that look great on the computer just don’t have the same radiance when printed out. Going along side graphics would be legibility. Those of us who are none too handy with a pen or a pencil (and you know who you are…) might benefit from typing your text up and being able to email it to another person or print it out.

Find an official ruling. If you happen to have an Internet connection at or near the gaming table, you have at your disposal almost countless forums in which you can get information about the gaming rules. Wizards of the Coast have all sorts of downloads for you to use in game.

The Cons
Naturally, as with any technology, there are cons to introducing computers to your role playing world. The cons are the same for both GMs and players and go a little something like this:

Cost. I mentioned something in the section about recording about hard drive space. A video recording of a long gaming session can grow to astronomical sizes, which means that you are going to need a very large hard drive. Of course, once recorded, you could always burn them to CD, or better yet, DVD. That of course means that you are going to need a CD or DVD burner. These are not free. Nor is the blank media. You can print things, but that requires a printer, paper, and ink or toner.

Availability. Many of the things that I had talked about would require either you or everyone to be on a network with Internet access, and that is not always a possibility. Not everyone is going to be able to get a computer or a network connection.

Inherent computer problems. Anyone who owns or operates a computer knows that sometimes computers are not the most reliable things. One might argue that they have never had to run a virus scan on their mechanical pencil, or reboot their notebook. I’m sure you’ve never had your three right binder crash, erasing your data. The connection between your pen and paper never really need a lot of troubleshooting short of changing the ink.

Atmosphere. Gaming, especially in the medieval setting, might be a little difficult with a computer sitting in front of you. Being that you are trying to get into the characters mind in a pre-technology setting, a distraction like a computer might be something that just gets in the way. I have also heard of groups that prefer to play by candlelight. The glow of a laptop screen would certainly impact the ambience.

Granted computers are something that just might not fit into your image of the perfect gaming session, but whatever your personal preferences are, computers are here to make certain jobs easier. As a computer technician myself however, I know just as well as you might find that certain things are simpler without them.

Regardless of this, this article was designed to show you that there are times a computer can help the gaming run a little smoother, make information a little more convenient and the session more enjoyable for both the players and the GM. Time is marching on and technology is advancing in leaps and bounds. Is it something that you welcome, or is it something from which you need a break?

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