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Saturday, 13th October, 2012, 01:36 PM #1
Myrmidon (Lvl 10)
Gamehackery: Technology and Winging It: Intro (part 1 of 4)
A new column on Technology and Gadgets in Tabletop Roleplaying. Think of it as Lifehacker for RPGs.
The proliferation of gadgets, game aids, software, and so on, is all great fun and can add a lot to your game. But it comes at a cost: an escalation of tech gadgetry puts DMs in a position where it can become increasingly difficult to run a scene that you have not prepared.
The real beauty of a monster manual and a blank battlemat is being able to do anything you want. Make it up as you go. Need an Inn? Take a few minutes and sketch it out. Need half-orc thugs inside the inn? Flip to the page and you're done.
Technology is cool (who am I kidding, its AWESOME), but a need for preparation creates a uncomfortable pressure to railroad your players into the encounters that have the cool maps on the projector, the ones with the monsters you adjusted specifically to the PC's level, the encounters where you've already prepared the initiative tracker. If they take a left turn, much of that work is wasted, so it's only natural as DM to try to force the players onto the path you've prepared.
4E D&D's focus on encounter design – which created some of the most fun encounters I have played or DMed – exacerbates this problem, but this is a challenge for all game systems. Once you add technology, many game elements require preparation which has a direct impact on a DM's willingness to go off-script and allow the PCs to wander away from a prepared, single path.
So, how do you deal with this? How do you preserve your ability to ad-lib and roll with the vagaries of your players and still get to use cool gadgets at the table?
Prepare to Ad Lib??
One of the obvious pieces of advice on trying to ad-lib with technology is to “have a library of maps prepared ahead of time" or something along those lines. Spend some down time creating maps or storing maps of taverns and gatehouses, mead halls and monster dens so you have them on hand. You know, during all that sitting-around-blowing-spit-bubbles time you have between games.
I'm going to skip that painfully annoying advice – Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's not a bad idea to have that to fall back on, but nothing is more aggravating when you're not prepared than being told "well, if you'd prepared for the unexpected….” Screw that. Assume you've heard all that happy crap and now we consider moments when you're in even deeper doodoo – when your players have decided to explore a location that isn't in your collection of just-in-case maps to face a tribe of something-other-than-I-intended monsters.
Get Play Started Again
For this handful of columns, I'll focus on how best to get play started again when your game goes off-script without sacrificing your gadget-love and cool toys. It won't all be gadgets and tech -- some of the ideas and strategies are downright old school. The main idea, though, is not letting tech control your ability to keep the game going in unpredictable directions. I love gadgets and technology, and want to use it in my games, but it needs to serve the game, not limit it.
When you're not prepared for the scene you're trying to create, you need to be able to whip something up fast – at least as fast as you could create something on a battlemat with a dry erase marker. That should be your ideal – if you can't get the next scene started in the time it would take to sketch out the features of the map by hand with a dry-erase marker, then you need to work on your systems. You're better off laying a battle map on top of your prepared gadget maps and sketching out the map old school style than making your players wait.
The Unthinkable Alternative
Every time you give up and go back to low-tech tools, that the gadget lover inside you dies a little more. Worse, you might have to explain to your wife why you spent so much money on a game surface only to cover it with a $25 battlemat. No, if you want to avoid having to justify your expensive habits to your spouse, you're going to need to figure out how to DM old school style with high tech gadgetry and the rest of your toys.
So, in the next three installments I'll discuss winging it with Maps, Monsters, and Story – areas where with the right choices we can wing it without giving up on our gadgets.
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Saturday, 13th October, 2012, 03:47 PM #2
Waghalter (Lvl 7)
I'm looking forward to this series. I can always use some DMing advice. And I love my gadgets too even though I don't use them extensively at the game. This may change. Staying tuned....
I'm looking for players. Check it out here!
Monday, 15th October, 2012, 12:01 PM #3
Waghalter (Lvl 7)
Is that a flat screen TV as a table top? Keep your Mountain Dew away from the game surface!
"On second thought, let's not go to Camelot. It is a silly place."
Monday, 15th October, 2012, 02:28 PM #4
Myrmidon (Lvl 10)
@Jupp inspired me to take the leap and take the plunge on the TV -- and I'm incredibly glad we did. In our new game room, the projector was just not working for us.
But, yeah, drinks are a danger. The TV is elevated an inch or so off the table, so anything spilled on the table itself won't get into the TV, Anyone who spills directly on the TV is in danger of buying me a new one.
Last time we played I had a player roll dice on the screen. I had to "gently" make sure that doesn't happen again.
It's a work in progress, of course.....
Monday, 15th October, 2012, 05:52 PM #5
Novice (Lvl 1)
I'll also be keeping an eye on what you have to say in the next few articles. I'm a tech geek at heart but have always had a hard time justifying using anything but just battle-mat,markers,minis and rulebooks. The main reason for this is, as you mention, random encounters/'winging it.' I've been playing and GMing so long its not even a hassle to me if my players take a hard right turn when I really wanted them to take a left- I just go into improv mode without missing a beat. Now if I had spent hours setting up digital maps and encounters and the such, I would probably be rather annoyed if they went off-script.
Mild mannered programmer by day, earth’s mightiest gamer by night... he is... the Stupendous Stouthart!
Check out my new weekly EN World column Shut Up and Roll each Friday in October.
“You have nice manners for a thief and a liar," said the dragon.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Monday, 15th October, 2012, 07:34 PM #6
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
Love the TV idea! How big is it? Do all the fingerprints and minis on the screen trash it, or do you use a screen protector of some kind?
Also looking forward to the column.
Monday, 15th October, 2012, 08:06 PM #7
Myrmidon (Lvl 10)
mylar film (linked to the product page where I bought it). It provides a little protection against things like pens and fingerprints and so on -- and you can draw on it in dry erase or pencil and it comes off cleanly. The film also cuts some of the glare we get, but it also cuts down a lot on the brightness of the screen. We toy with the idea of getting rid of it.
When we're not playing, I've cut a couple of sheets of foam board to fit within the frame to protect the screen. This would also double as a workable surface if I were to decide that I needed to us an analog surface to play on (tiles, battlemap, poster map, whatever).
@Jupp, whose post about using the TV was the one that finally got me out of the "thinking about it" stage has one that they pull off it's wall mount for game sessions, but ours stays on the table all week, and isn't used for anything other than gaming (which is a shame, as it's bigger than the one we actually watch TV on, but I'd argue we have our priorities right where they need to be).
Oh, and Johnnfour, I've been a subscriber to your newsletter forever. Thanks for a decade or so of awesome content.
Monday, 15th October, 2012, 08:18 PM #8
Myrmidon (Lvl 10)
I'm sure at some point in the near future I'll write a column about the whole TV experience -- including my considerations around protecting the screen and my not-satisfactorily-productive-yet conversations with a local cabinetmaker to design a game table to hold the TV.
Tuesday, 16th October, 2012, 06:49 PM #9
Gallant (Lvl 3)
The thing I love most about this solution is that you save a ton of time by not having to paint/draw the dungeon on the go while the players explore the map. Given that our time is limited on how much we play this is really a big bonus for us.
As a GM I invest about 2-3 hours in Campaign Cartographer + maptool and I am ready for the next 4 sessions. And the group saves precious time at the table. A perfect win-win. I could save myself the time in Campaign Cartographer and just scan the dungeon to an image file. But that would give me only low res maps. With CC I can tailor everything to the HD resolution of the TV which gives a much better experience to the players.
"It is a mistake to bow to the wishes of munchkins who whine." - E. Gary Gygax 1938-2008, we will never forget you!
"Yes, even at twelve years old, I was already old school... " - The Shaman
"Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious." - S.Hawking
Currently DMing: Rappan Athuk, Kickstarter Version (set in Greyhawk, Castle&Crusade Rules)
Currently Playing: nothing
Last campaign: Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk (Castles & Crusades Ruleset)
Wednesday, 24th October, 2012, 10:18 PM #10
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
I'm working on the wife. "It'll add to our property value." "The basement will be brighter." "Would you rather I spent the money on crack?" "Go ahead, buy those new clothes."
It's a work in progress.