Gamehackery: Convention Gear

Today, while I write this, I'm preparing myself for Winter Fantasy (Jan 23-26, Fort Wayne Indiana). I'll be flying out there, playing and DMing for three full days, and hoping not to catch the damn flu that has been stalking me all season.

The way we play at home is changing -- at least for those of us that are taking advantage of a lot of the benefits of newer technology and the latest ideas in gaming gadgets.

The same might be said for convention gaming, although the need for portability often sends even the most dedicated gadget nerd back to his old school pen and paper tools.


The Almighty iPad

There's no way around it -- the iPad is the single most revolutionary tool for a traveling gamer. Almost everything that you need for gaming can be handled on an iPad.

Reference Material -- whether it's PDFs of sourcebooks, access to online databases like the 4e Compendium, and iPad is a much more sensible, reasonable way to carry around the references you might need for a game. It's still possible to do without, of course -- and I should admit that I'm packing my Rules Compendium with me for my 4e games at Winter Fantasy -- but any other references documents I need I'm planning to access through my iPad.

Character Sheets -- There are many solutions available, and at this point I'd say you would have to be playing a small, edge case game to not be able to find some sort of character sheet app available for the iPad. For 4e, I'ma big fan of "i4e", by Cordax software, which takes character builder imports so I don't have to do any manual data entry -- although it's still possible to do manual data entry if I need to.

Dice -- This is one I don't like to use -- and I'm sure most of you would agree that it's a whole lot more fun to roll dice than it is to shake your iPad to pretend to roll digital dice. But, in a pinch, there are a ton of different dice apps out there. It might not be a terrible idea for some more complicated rolls, especially for those of us that don't do the math very quickly, to use an app for those rolls in the interest of keeping the game moving quickly.

Maps & Minis -- This is perhaps the most theoretical possibility for convention gaming, but it might be a real possibility in a few years. What's fun is that right now we actually have the technology.

With apps like the new version of Razeware's Battle Map, a iPad can host a game that is then shared through a cloud server to other iPads and iPhones. BM2 has both maps and figure tokens, so everything needed to represent the tactical map could be played out in the App, and accessed by players on their own devices.

This year, that's not something I'll expect to see. The app is fairly expensive, and there's no guarantee that enough players at the table will have iPads or iPhones to make it work. Also, a iPad is pretty small for a map display at a typical 8-10 seat round convention game table. At least there would be plenty of room for everyone's snacks.

But some of the biggest news coming out of CES this year was big touchscreens and larger scale tablets. In the next few years, this sort of digitally enabled play will become much more reasonable.

Fart Jokes -- Actually, what I mean by Fart Jokes is something much grander -- the fun we all have at the table, in and out of character. This is a big part of why we play, and it's the one thing that I can't imagine a technological replacement for in the near future.

The Down Sides

Multitasking With Devices - The biggest problem, with using an iPad for many of these roles -- character sheets, reference docs, dice, and even tactical tools like initiative, maps and tokens -- is that if you're trying to do all of this on one device, it can really show things down. If you have to switch back and forth between apps to look at your character sheet, and then look up the spell you'd like to cast, for example, it's going to be a little more frustrating than if you could have the book open to the spell while holding a paper character sheet.

Clearly, the dedicated gadget gamer is going to need a couple of devices to play convention games in a nearly-all-digital way.

Battery Life -- At conventions, we are used to playing for AT LEAST 12 hours in a day -- but it can be difficult to squeeze that kind of time out of an iPad if you're using it all day. You can dramatically improve the lifespan of a battery charge by being really judicious about what you have turned on, though. For one thing, you're probably best served keeping it in Airplane mode. Consider shutting down other services you might not really need -- Location services, for one thing, cane a big power drain.

Wifi -- Wireless service is not a guarantee on the convention floor. In a lot of cases, it's not necessary to have your device be useful, but it does mean that you need to think ahead. Even if a convention center does have Wifi, odds are it will be molasses-slow. If you have access to alternative ways to access the web -- through a personal access point or using a phone as a personal hotspot, etc -- you can make sure you have emergency web.But that tends to drain power quickly on both devices, so it should be kept off and used only when you need it.

Android and Windows Tablets

The app selections for Android and windows tablets isn't quite as well developed as it is for iOS devices, but it's coming along, and most of the important functions I've mentioned can be delivered on either alternative platform. Certainly PDF readers and eReaders are available on either, and dice apps are some of the earliest to come along. What's missing is the map sharing functionality that is still pretty bleeding edge, and hard to imagine using in a convention setting anytime soon.


Bottom Line:

Gadgets are getting cheaper, smaller, and more ubiquitous. It's not at all unusual to see an iPad at a convention table these days, and it's only a matter of time until it's safe to bet that more than half the players at the table will have a tablet of some sort -- and those that don't will probably at least have a smartphone. It's an exciting time, looking ahead to ways these devices will continue to improve our game experience, even when we're traveling to play.

What can you see yourself bringing to a convention?
 

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Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Yeah, I have to agree -- the multitasking issue is a killer for me. Especially the way the iPad often *doesn't* multitask, meaning you end up repeatedly opening and closing sequential apps.
 

If D+D Next wants a real shot at success, it will need to have a tight iPad app or complimenting apps that have at minimum a sweet Character Generator, Campaign Manager, Monster Creator, Initiative Tracker, Treasure generator. Best would be if it also had a condition/effect tracker. Without a first class digital aide--D+D Next might bankrupt WoTC.
 

Radiating Gnome

Adventurer
If D+D Next wants a real shot at success, it will need to have a tight iPad app or complimenting apps that have at minimum a sweet Character Generator, Campaign Manager, Monster Creator, Initiative Tracker, Treasure generator. Best would be if it also had a condition/effect tracker. Without a first class digital aide--D+D Next might bankrupt WoTC.

As I've said in earlier columns, I think the digital tools are going to be really important. But the new game design seems to really be reaching for a much more old school game -- much more about imagination and less about carefully measured tactics. With that kind of game in mind, I don't know if all of the tools you suggest make sense.

But, the more they can develop, maintain, and support those sorts of tools, the better. But the work is not trivial, and it takes time. After all, it's hard to create a character builder before you've nailed down how you want character creation to work. So, do you develop te game and wait for the app development to be completed?

With some luck, the designers are meeting with the web dev teams and talking about how to start planning, and developing what they can.

Still, I'm a big believer in open source, and the power of the community to develop tools. There's every chance that the best solution for these tools won't be a WOTC product.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
If D+D Next wants a real shot at success, it will need to have a tight iPad app or complimenting apps that have at minimum a sweet Character Generator, Campaign Manager, Monster Creator, Initiative Tracker, Treasure generator. Best would be if it also had a condition/effect tracker. Without a first class digital aide--D+D Next might bankrupt WoTC.

That conclusion assumes rather too much about WotC's financials.
 

Thanks Morrus. I shouldn't be presumptuous. I just think that a lot of us older players were justifiably cautious with 4e, and some jumped to Pathfinder. I know I won't buy any D+D Next products until I see a favorable review of their supporting digital aide.

Radiating gnome-the problem with 3rd Party apps is that WoTC will lock down any of its own data, maybe even the core rules.
 

Radiating Gnome

Adventurer
Radiating gnome-the problem with 3rd Party apps is that WoTC will lock down any of its own data, maybe even the core rules.

Actually, that isn't entirely true, at least not historically. They make their 4e data available via an API that's been used by a few fan developers -- for instance, the excellent Compendium App (iPhone and iPad) or the Power2ools website (www.power2ools.com). Sure, the license is a lot more restrictive, but the data isn't quite locked down.

-rg
 

biotech66

Explorer
Ran my first con with my Ipad. I will never, ever go back to the old way. For one I now only have about 50 lbs of gear compared to the old 200+ lbs with all the books!
 

Radiating Gnome

Adventurer
Ran my first con with my Ipad. I will never, ever go back to the old way. For one I now only have about 50 lbs of gear compared to the old 200+ lbs with all the books!

It makes a HUGE difference. I ran the Battle Interactive with a combination of iPad and paper, and it worked great.
 

Silverwulfe

First Post
Prepping ahead of time makes a huge difference in what you can take. One of the reasons I really like the Pathfinder universe so much. Everything is in PDF easily (and cheaply), there are really solid tools to produce characters (go go Hero Labs!) and if someone is using BattleMaps, I'm all in and can bring it up on my phone. I haven't pushed for a solid 12 hours, but maybe that's cause I realize my limitations these days and will take a break in the middle somewhere to go to the room, plug in the iPad and go out to eat (cause let's face it... if I'm travelling these days, at least 1/3 of my budget is for food). If I were ever to be some rockstar and people brought me stuff, then I'd have a second iPad ready and waiting to go... lol
I too will stick to my dice. There's nothing like being streaky (which I am, going both directions) and after a really bad one people start watching the dice to see if it's going to be awesome or woeful! You just can't that same satisfaction from a dice app... people in my regular group really hate for me to be the only healer around... bwaaahaaaa... they might be perfectly healed, or it might be a long long day...
I'm not opposed to using other tablets, but so far the iPad has the best tools for use at the table and I do it every week. Yep, I still have my scratch pad and yes I will usually have a printed out version of my character sheet so I can markup changes easily, but more often than not I use my notes in my sketch pad (which doubles as a great pencil holder) for updating my electronic character sheets.
Before I started running into space problems, I was easily carrying over 500 rulebooks with me and could pull up nearly any setup I needed. Yes, bouncing back and forth is a pain, so you should bookmark and memorize very well (or even create subfolders in GoodReader and dump them all in one spot) but it works and works really well.
I do take more kit as a GM, but I'm not running Con games, so it's no biggie. As a character, I have not had a problem looking up any kind of spell or reference as my turn approaches and have the ability to have any needed information without 20-50 lbs of paper. Often I'll take my books, but that's mostly so other people can use them (which can be a real bonus when new people are playing).
 

Madmaxneo

Explorer
I agree that tech has made gaming so.much easier over the years. I started using my laptops back in 2003 & 4. I even hardwired my laptop to my tv for mapping stuff. Duinjinni and campaign cartographer were extremely helpful. Though nowadays wireless is an amazing boon. Though I would suggest simply keeping the device plugged in. That is still better than lugging all those bopks around.

A little something abou wotc: Interesting thing, some years after wotc acquired TSR (makers of d&d) they started to go bankrupt but then hasbro acquired wotc. Then sometime later the entire d&d line was in danger of being dropped because of some poor decisions on hasbros part, the poor start up of one of their card games and a few other minor things. Of course the real culprit behind the fall of the great gaming companies was "magic the gathering"..... nuff said.

Bruce
 

Madmaxneo

Explorer
Errata to the above post: Dundjinni (sp) was one of the mapping programs and the comment about plugging in your device was about power drainage in case anyone was a little confused by that. It would have frustrated me.

PS I use dice apps also but I still to this day carry a set of d10's in my pocket everywhere I go, they're my security dice....lol :)
 

Nytmare

David Jose
I have two questions.

First, Radiating Gnome, is there a reason why you ranked the iPad above, or instead of laptops and tablets in general? I know that as a DM, I'd greatly prefer the versatility and power of a laptop over an iPad. In addition, I've always liked the fact that a laptop is set up to operate more readily as a DM screen, generally keeping information from my players. But, as a DM, I really despise my players having electronic devices out on the table for anything other than reference material. it always seems that they are used far more frequently as a toy than a tool. I know that's less the device's fault than it is the person operating it, but I'm always happier when that temptation isn't there.

Secondly, and I'm not sure if this has already started since I haven't been to Gencon in a while, do people think that any kind of market exists for a company that rents "killer" DM table setups in a convention setting? I know how popular tricked out game table threads get, and know how much my players and geek visitors to my house liked it when I was operating one myself. I'm just imagining a company like a high-tech Geek Chic with a handful of game tables built around something approximating a Microsoft Surface table.
 

Radiating Gnome

Adventurer
I have two questions.

First, Radiating Gnome, is there a reason why you ranked the iPad above, or instead of laptops and tablets in general? I know that as a DM, I'd greatly prefer the versatility and power of a laptop over an iPad. In addition, I've always liked the fact that a laptop is set up to operate more readily as a DM screen, generally keeping information from my players. But, as a DM, I really despise my players having electronic devices out on the table for anything other than reference material. it always seems that they are used far more frequently as a toy than a tool. I know that's less the device's fault than it is the person operating it, but I'm always happier when that temptation isn't there.

Well -- there are a couple of reasons - but a case could be made for either.
1. Battery Life - A fully charged iPad can easily make it through a 4-5 hour game session. I've yet to have a notebook computer that could really last that long. If you expect to be able to plug in, depending upon the conference and the setting you may be disappointed. Especially for the big D&D halls at cons like Gencon and Winter Fantasy, it's very difficult to get permission to run power cords. They're a tripping hazard, so plugging in tends to be reserved for special cases like handicapped players and DMs who need assistive devices, etc.
2. Easy to Carry - My iPad is lighter and easier to haul around than my macbook air, and the air is pretty easy.
3. Integration - this is pretty subjective, but for me, when I run a game off my notebook, the notebook becomes the one tool I'm using -- everything else is just clutter. But an iPad works much better with other packets, papers, notepads, etc. Maybe I'm revealing my age when I say this, but I much prefer making notes and tracking things like HPs with pen and paper than on a device, so it's important to me to have a good, Paper Plus Tech environment rather than a Paperless environment to DM in.

I'm also not a big fan of DM screens, personally. But ... I'm short, so go figure. That also means I don't like the notebooks screen between me and the players any more than I like the DM screen there.

Still, if the notebook is working for you, run with it.

Secondly, and I'm not sure if this has already started since I haven't been to Gencon in a while, do people think that any kind of market exists for a company that rents "killer" DM table setups in a convention setting? I know how popular tricked out game table threads get, and know how much my players and geek visitors to my house liked it when I was operating one myself. I'm just imagining a company like a high-tech Geek Chic with a handful of game tables built around something approximating a Microsoft Surface table.

As a consumer that might be fun to see, but it sounds like really dodgy business to me. It's going to be very expensive to ship and handle and setup that equipment for the convention -- so if the rental were going to be the primary way that was making money, the rental feels would have to be so high that very few players would be interested.

If, on the other hand, they brought it and wanted it to be a marketing demonstration piece, they way Geekchic has their tables on display in the vendor hall, the last thing they would want to do is let the same half-dozen players rent the table for four hours and monopolize it. They would want to keep any given person's time at the table down to a few minutes so they can expose more potential buyers to the technology.

PLUS, if you rent it out to a group for four hours, they're going to get it sticky. Mountain Dew is terrible for a microsoft surface. ;)

-rg
 

Nytmare

David Jose
As a consumer that might be fun to see, but it sounds like really dodgy business to me.


I don't know, it seems like those all sound like easily tackle-able logistics issues. I'm not sure how compact Geek Chic is able to pack, or how many sales they deal with at the conventions themselves, but I can easily imagine that a company with a product aimed at consumers below Geek Chic's threshold with a single show model as well as a handful of more robust demo tables.

Transport can be expensive, but no more so than any of the other retailers shipping big screen TVs and computer networks.

One of the local museums here has several multi-player, touch screen video games that survive god only knows how many thousands of sticky, sweaty, germ infested children and adults day in and day out. If they're showcasing the technology and experience more than they're trying to show how pretty the demo tables are, I can imagine it working.
 

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