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Gamehackery: Bringing Tech to the Analog Playtest

One of the players in my home game has physical limitations that make it difficult for him to play in that old school, pen-and-paper way. Our game is 4e, and the wealth of computer and iPad-based tools that are available have made it possible for him to play -- everything from the DDI tools like the Compendium and the Character Builder, and tools that take advantage of the files the character...

One of the players in my home game has physical limitations that make it difficult for him to play in that old school, pen-and-paper way. Our game is 4e, and the wealth of computer and iPad-based tools that are available have made it possible for him to play -- everything from the DDI tools like the Compendium and the Character Builder, and tools that take advantage of the files the character builder creates.

He's not the only player using those tools -- there are about four of us at the table using iPads to manage our characters during play (using the very excellent i4e character sheet app). When I'm DMing, i'm using other tools -- very little of what I do is purely analog.

And Along Comes The Playtest

We're closing in on a year since they announced that they had begun working on a 5th edition of D&D -- and we've been looking at play test material for a good 6 or 8 months. We get a new packet of material every couple of months, and those packets have demonstrated some interesting design ideas.

The DDN playtest has us all paying close attention to what they're trying to do. Our group was 4e playtesters and have loved the whole 4e journey, so we've had some trepidations about the old school movement in baked into the DDN development. Now that more of the qualities that we appreciate about 4e are starting to show up in the play test packets, we are more and more interested in giving the game a try, but we have serious problems trying to go cold turkey on the technology.

It's Not Anyone's Fault

Just to be clear, there's no reasonable way that Wizards or anyone could be expected to develop and maintain any sort of digital tools for character building and tracking during play for a game that changes dramatically every few months -- you'd have to refactor huge sections of your code every time a new packet comes out, and the time it takes to develop that would delay the play testing process. There's just no way to make that work.

So, don't take this as a complaint -- it's just a reality . Even if they had settled on the terms of their new license for 3rd party contributions and use of their content, there's no way it would make sense for anyone to get involved developing tools until the rules are written in stone.

Solutions

Luckily, there are some more or less generic tools out there that we can leverage to iPad enable our games without having to engage quite so closely with the system.

Character Building

At this point in the playtest, character building is fairly simple. You make a handful of choices, and those choices don't quite have the same sort of mathematical connectivity and complexity that 4e choices do.

It's a little more labor intensive, but it's possible to create a character reference document for yourself by copy/pasting the race/class/specialty/backround and other details you choose into a single document. That will save lots of flipping between documents in the playtest PDFs

Get it to your Tablet

It's all about Dropbox. If you haven't discovered it, get thee hence! With dropbox you designate a folder on your computer as your "dropbox" folder. Anything you put in that folder is shared up to the dropbox servers and then back down to any other computers you have your Dropbox account configured on. It's literally the best thing since grilled cheese sandwiches. I'll probably talk more about Dropbox in a later column. But, seriously, check it out. It's a "fremium" service -- you get a few gigs of storage for free, which is enough for a lot of PDFs and documents.

PDF Readers

There are any number of good PDF/document readers out there for iPads and Android-based tablets. They mostly support bookmarking and text search -- so they'll help you find what you're looking for quickly. Most also will connect directly to your Dropbox account an allow you to download your files from there.

If you can take the time to put together a reference document for your character, that will make life a lot easier -- copy and paste the information from your character's class, specialty, background, maneuver and spell descriptions into a single document and you'll have a much more usable reference resource.

Tracking Resources

Each character has a ton of things to track, even in the stripped down DDN play test. Hit points, hit dice, spells, conditions, and so on.

There's an excellent iPhone/iPad app called Gamer's Abacus that provides a great tool for tracking all kinds of data in a very usable format. You can define a variety of different things you're tracking -- it'll take a little experimentation to come up with the best configuration, but it is a very flexible utility for gamers.

gamers-abacus.jpg


If you're on an android, you might try RPG Sidekick -- it's well rated, but I have not used it.

The Big Downside

The major drawback, at this point, is that we're using two apps (a PDF reader and a Tracker) where we had a single integrated app before (i4e, others). Having a printed version of the character reference document you created might make it possible to only use the tracker on the iPad, but it will mean shuffling paper around, which may not be faster.

Still, even if you have to switch between the two from time to time, that's only a matter of a few seconds.

Someday, Over the Rainbow, Way Up High

Someday, there will be integrated tools for DDN -- if they don't come in DDI, there will be 3rd party support of some kind. But there are simply too many good, strategic reasons for Wizards to continue the DDI program and provide Character Builders and other tools for the new game, once the rules and finalized.

Still, there's no reason not to try to keep using your tech while you're play testing (It's NOT an addiction, mom, JEEZE!!!). Just try a few different tools and you're good to go!
 

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