Saturday, 13th October, 2012, 02:36 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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