Thoughts On On-Line Capability


Ever since the host of my regular gaming group put in wireless Internet access (802.11b, affectionately known as "wi-fi"), I've really started thinking about having my gaming notes and various campaign tools stored on the web. My personal laptop is a TiBook with wi-fi card, so it clicked with me at a recent session that there was a wide variety of resources available to a GM so-equipped. From on-line NPC generators through web based forums acting as virtual help lines, access to the web from the gaming table presents a powerful addition to the the GM's arsenal. The capabilities presented by a laptop alone can be of great assistance to overworked GMs. Coupled with a wireless or wired Internet connection, the toolkit is wide and capable.

Ever since the host of my regular gaming group put in wireless Internet access (802.11b, affectionately known as "wi-fi"), I've really started thinking about having my gaming notes and various campaign tools stored on the web. My personal laptop is a TiBook with wi-fi card, so it clicked with me at a recent session that there was a wide variety of resources available to a GM so-equipped. From on-line NPC generators through web based forums acting as virtual help lines, access to the web from the gaming table presents a powerful addition to the the GM's arsenal. The capabilities presented by a laptop alone can be of great assistance to overworked GMs. Coupled with a wireless or wired Internet connection, the toolkit is wide and capable.

Let's talk a little about the laptop experience I'm envisioning. First, I keep referring to a laptop and not a desktop. While a desktop is absolutely viable, I think a laptop is preferable. I tuck my laptop behind my traditional GM screen where it's generally not visible. The "casualness" or "transparency" of the laptop behind the screen isn't easily duplicatable with a desktop and monitor, at least not without a special desk. For the experience in general, consulting the screen has the same impact as when I consult a GM screen - it's not generally noticeable that I'm working a computer. Now, I work with a laptop for the day job so I'm proficient with them - ultimately of course, some level of working proficiency is required with this sort of computer-supported GMing. This is probably a point which can't be stressed too much: being comfortable with the computer is essential. I don't mean "super-power-user who programs Perl at the drop of a hat" - I mean, comfortable as in it's not readily apparent that you're working on a laptop while GMing. If players start to complain, or you find yourself spending too much time playing with the computer, it's time to take a different approach.

So, the laptop's fired up, the screen is in place, you've got your wi-fi or wired LAN connection - now what? Where do we go from here? Well, that's exactly what we'll be exploring in this column - the implementation of technology on the RPG gaming table. It's a broad spectrum to look at, ranging from use of simple applications such as word processors and spreadsheets through databases, online newsletters and community sites, and remotely dialed in players for video conferencing. As the point-man on this expedition, my experience ranges to that of a general power-user. I'm past the general "How To" books, have years of web design under my belt, and am dipping my toe into the Unix/Perl/MySQL worlds. Mainly, I have enthusiasm towards the subject, and have or will be implementing many of the techniques and subjects that we explore in this column. One of the ideas out there I run into frequently, both at online forums as well as in person, is a lack of software for GMs. Specifically, "built for gaming" software. The amount of RPG software on the market is increasing. However, if you're willing to broaden the view of "gaming software", you'll see there's a huge amount of applications available for your use. You likely have many of them already, either built into your operating system or common applications (such as MP3 players). We'll get the juices flowing with a few ideas and examples.

A perennial discussion topic on online forums is "what music are you using for your game?" With the availability of MP3 players, bringing music to the gaming table has never been easier. In the early 90's, I needed to have the stereo available, which limited where we could have the game, or at least the room. Portable stereos helped, but then there was the collection of CDs, cueing them, etc. These days, I bring an iPod loaded with customized playlists for the game. Our current host has a dedicated room for gaming, with a stereo and extra long feed cord just for my iPod (or laptop) output. There are a number of cheap, but decent portable speakers which can be tossed into a GM bag if needed. Small MP3 players are just as useful, thanks to their load-and-unload capabilities. You can delete the gaming music right after each session, and maximize the capacity. I've always found the addition of music to a game to be excellent way to add depth and mood to a session; the latest capabilities in wi-fi, MP3, etc. provide for ease of use in doing so, minimizing or even eliminating the disruption of a GM changing CDs and the like. It also opens the possibility for such bits as easily, secretly cuing "villain theme songs." Everyone knows Darth Vader's song, and if you hear it, you just know he's behind the scene - even if he never appears. Bringing this kind of musical/emotional recognition of NPCs to a game can further enhance the experience.

With access to a printer, an assortment of handouts are available for your use. Every computer system I'm aware of a gamer may use has a text editor and printing capability, even if it's only Notepad (Windows), Textedit (Mac) or Pico, Vi, or emacs (*nix/BSD). With the addition of fonts, and even basic layout control, a GM can print handouts, briefing sheets and notes for a variety of game situations. A desktop or portable printer on a wi-fi hub (available these days for about $50+ US) represents state-of-the-art convenience, but preparing and printing sheets in advance of the game is easy enough given the availability of printers. Even lacking a b&w or color printer, a nearby Kinko's can provide means to print (and prepare) for relatively cheap. Think low tech in terms of output, just to keep the pressure on you as a GM, low. It doesn't need to be a super-fancy, commercial grade handout - just a printed summary of NPCs encounters, places, or even a paragraph summary of the last session can make a huge positive impression on players.

If you have an Internet connection while you game, you have access to all your favorite sites. Random name, NPC, treasure, and other generators are in ready grasp, for quick ideas and stats during play. Some active community sites, such as, can provide relatively quick responses to emergency requests for ideas (just don't overdo it). Answers to questions, ideas, and research are just a Google search away. GM Notes From a plain text editor through relational databases, management of a GM's notes is a powerful capability I highly recommend exploiting.

Since using a laptop at my game sessions, my notes have become better organized, more complete (and readable), and provided me with better payoff and preparation for future sessions. Even just using a computer between sessions is a help, but having the ability to reference and record directly during the sessions has been a real gem. On the fly NPCs are recorded and available for development. Having a "bank" of stock NPCs is of great assistance. Even after years and years of GMing, I find I'm a little more bold when I know I can promptly call up NPC stats for a given situation. We've taken a quick tour of some capabilities and options, but we've obviously only scratched the surface. With the next column, we'll start looking at specific tools - in this case, the almighty spreadsheet. See you in two weeks!

When I was gaming regularly in the 90's a laptop was part of my standard GM kit. In addition to your suggestions I kept a timeline in a simple database I designed and depended upon outliners instead of word processors for adventure generation. My graphics background dictated extensive detailed maps, sometimes built on actual USGS topo maps and supported with photography of the same areas taken during backpack trips. "Dungeon" type maps can leave the graph paper rectangle and be printed ahead of time and cut into pieces, laying down tiles as the group progress; a better method than using a mat and wipe away markers for some situtuations. Rule heavy game systems were much easier to manage with a spreadsheet designed to handle the nit-picky calculations. A second monitor became a flash card to the players for maps and visualization of monsters and NPCS. Historical notes, a custom magic system and any custom rules were posted to a web site. Adventures of much higher complexity became possible instead of cumbersome.

Yes you always need a paper backup- any futzing with a computer is a stall in the game. Also the monitor, no matter how large is smaller than the space a GM generally has behind the screen. Flipping windows back and forth creates delays. Pre planning on how to use the computer is key.

The game companies need to realize the value of this and support the games beyond the books by making available spreadsheets and simple applications to better manage the GM process. We never would have converted to GURPS if there were no support materials available to us.

Wi-Fi has intriguing possibilities in terms of a GM working with a player covertly, if a player has a Wi-Fi device that can be used in an unobtrusive manner (palmtop or smaller).

I've always used a laptop. The screen of the laptop is my GM's screen, and character sheets and things are very easy to modify in word processing. And I don't understand the obsession with keeping the laptop hidden, either. Why not let the players see you're using techonology for THEM? :p

Well, speaking for myself, I don't know that I'm "obsessed" about keeping the laptop hidden. It's not really hidden - my players know the laptop is there. Generally, I just prefer to put three or four panels of the GM screen to work with artwork or something more inspirational in front of the players. Sci-fi games might be different. In a fantasy themed game, sometimes not having the laptop *right there* in the players face helps with the suspension of disbelief.

I also get a good bit of space behind the screen for things other than the laptop. Generally some printed materials (the handouts), dice rolls, and miscellaneous "GM Stuff".

I am currently trying to set up a site with MP3 audio downloads specifically for use in roleplaying. Hopefully there will be some nice sound effects that should stream nicely over dialup.

At the moment there are some classic audio recordings, a song or two, and an "audio review" of a gaming session.

The site has only been in production less than a month, but feel free to vists and leave any comments and suggestions and hopefully it will become a useful resource.

We've been using laptops for years. I agree with the WiFi deal for DM/GM... it has been quite useful.

We've been coding our PC sheets in HTML, too. Recently, we added a low-cost 3-in-1 printer we connect to one of the laptops via USB for scanning in maps and other handouts, which are then linked via HTML to the PC sheets.

Convenient, no? =)

I don't think it's a matter of keeping it hidden (a TiBook would be difficult to hide) as much as keeping it out of the way. Mucking with technology becomes a real distraction- especially as the players are getting used to it.

It's true that the laptop works better in the mood settings for my more often sci-fi/modern games. However, I've found a major advantage of a laptop: The screen glows. This is GREAT for horror games. Turn out all the lights and leave players in near darkness while you have the nice glow of the screen to read your notes by and see die rolls with.

This is one of the more useful articles on GMing tips I've encountered on this site. Well done, Jade Monk.

The discussion so far isn't bad, either.

Articles on computer support for role-playing almost always end up re-hashing character generation, drawing maps, and reference. This article makes a nice change, esp. as it mentions the most under-used tool in the box: a spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets offer more than just automated calculations. You can also use them as simple databases, calendars, music jukeboxes, and idea generators.

For example, I ran a combat-heavy Vampire game about twelve years ago. I used a spreadsheet to design a combat reference sheet showing each important character's relevant abilities. This worked well, as it reduced GM fumbling. Had I had a laptop then, I could have done even better by sorting and searching through records in the spreadsheet. I might have added things such as a bit of code to generate random numbers for every character in the combat. Imagine never needing to pause play to throw dice--just one uninterrupted stream of description, pausing only for the players. This alone would make pacing play easier.
As I had a large library of NPCs in that game, I could have entered all their statistics into a database and used it to generate ideas. For instance, from Excel or OpenOffice one can do searches such as "all vampires of Clan X or Y with Humanity scores between 5 and 8 with a Conscience of 3 or less". By identifying a group of this type, esp. when it includes a PC or two, you can spot characters with similar natures. This doesn't require a relational database, nor any special skills. Just data entry and the ability to use Help.

Another way to use spreadsheets as idea genarators: in most gaming books have a section on different types of campaign styles for the setting. AFMBE and the various GURPS books make good examples. Write a spreadsheet listing each category (e.g., power level) as columns, and each variant (low, middle, high, super-duper) as a row. Randomly pick one from each column, no different than throwing dice, and print the results elsewhere in the spreadsheet. Instant campaign outline!

You can also use spreadsheets as calendars. In the Vampire game mentioned above, I had from six to ten players, all pursuing their own interests within a larger overall plotline. To track everyone, I made a chart with each major character and location along one axis and the time along another. Special events such as sunrise, sunset, moon rise, moon set, and phase all appeared as lines across the sheet. This made meaningful time records very easy to keep. This kind of chart (Gantt chart) is easy to make with a spreadsheet. One could even have it pull data from external sources for weather and time.

By passing information to and from external programs, one can set up a music jukebox. In the combat sheet example above, one could have a button instructing the external mp3 player to play theme songs for characters, sound effects, or different songs depending on how much damage a character might take. At the end of the campaign, burning a CD of the important songs in a game can give each player a souvenir of the story: a soundtrack album.

Other kinds of software can help gaming: wikis, to flesh out a setting collaboratively (Universalis) or to document rules variants; forums, to allow players to continue conversations and to bluebook (; Photoshop/GIMP to draw maps with layers (one for topography, one for political facts, one for GM-only,...); and even custom software such as Aetherco's SpanBook for Continuum.

Perhaps Acrobat counts the most useful piece of software for gaming. An electronic copy of the rules can be searched easily and stored as bits instead of atoms. With enough time to scan and OCR, an entire line of game books will reduce to files on disk. The end result has proved far more convienent and much lighter than paper.

Good article, if you want to incorporate technology into your game. However, I'm an old timer and feel laptops have no business being on a gaming table. Some of my players DM from time to time, and one in particular uses a laptop when he does so. Aside from him, we all felt it takes something away from the atmosphere of the table. Seeing a laptop in place of the venerable DM's Screen isn't the same. Watching your DM typing and clicking for a ruling, or encounter, or whatever he needs for the moment is distracting and hinders the flow of the game. A DM should have papers and notes behind a DM's Screen, not a laptop taking the place of everything. Granted, our laptop player is a lousy DM, but I find it really adds nothing and takes away more than its worth. I probably sound like an old codger!

I myself take advantage of modern technology. Using my computer to print text and create maps is a marvelous timesaver, and a good organizer to boot. I also have an MSN Community dedicated to our group's journeys, and it certainly is a great communication medium. But the tech stuff ends there for me, and doesn't reach our table. I still head downstairs with an expanding file folder and binders filled with character sheets, notes, maps, and all the necessary paperwork. I can't stand seeing a laptop sitting on a table filled with Dwarven Forge mazes, various beastie minis, and so forth. It doesn't fit. Then again, I may be the only DM left in the world that runs 1st Edition:)

There was a SIGGRAPH 2000 CD or DVD with this amazing technology on it, that I would LOVE to have applied to RPGs. (I googled, and looked at the SIGGRAPH2000 web page, but couldn't find it...)

Essentially, it was an overhead projector and video camera, both aimed down on a work-area table. And then little blocks - like LEGO - with colored tags on them, that the camera could see, and distinguish between. The system was pretending that the blocks were buildings, with glass on the walls, and of a certain height for each. Well, as you moved the blocks around, and changed the "time" in the system (by moving around this Twister-style time-piece with its own colored markers), these virtual shadows, and virtual reflections, and virtual wind would move around on the board. It was awesome. They were using it to predict how bad glare would be on the nearby freeway, and how bad wind would be between the buildings.

Then, they changed everything, and the blocks were instead things like lasers, and mirrors - and the overhead projector was drawing virtual laser lines on the table, and they simulated the process of making a hologram.

Well, think about the table everyone plays RPGs around. Hang an overhead projector and camera from the ceiling, aimed at the table. Instead of blocks, you've got these quarter-sized things that the camera can see, and the projector puts virtual miniatures in their place. Or maybe you don't even have the blocks - you just pass around a wireless mouse, and people get to move their virtual miniatures, on their turn. Or, the system recognizes you "grasping" the virtual miniatures, and moving them around (like some SIGGRAPH exhibits have done in the past.)

Anyway, think about measuring the distance between two miniatures. Or simulating a fireball, and seeing what critters are affected. Heck, just think of the virtual miniatures as moving around a little like the "Star Wars Chess" pieces that R2 and Chewie were playing with. Imagine all of the virtual pieces scrolling, as you moved around a dungeon. Imagine the lighting changing. In other words, it's just a virtual miniature system - but it could do a lot of book-keeping.

I know, it sounds more like Neverwinter Nights than it does an RPG - but I think the idea is pretty cool.

Just thought I'd share. =)

Laptops: Not just for GMs anymore! I've been using my laptop (running Gentoo Linux) at the gaming table for quite a while now, and not just as a GM. If you don't let them become a distraction, they can also be very useful to players! When I'm playing with the aid of my laptop, I can quickly type up notes about the game session (I type much faster than I can write - the dubious benefit of programming for a living), I can create maps for the group using any one of a number of excellent mapping tools, and I can use a spreadsheet to track the loot, experience, etc. that our group is earning over the course of the adventure. Not to mention the obivous benefits of having HTML character sheets, HTML linked reference pages, databases, etc. at your fingertips, as mentioned in the article.

One word of warning, though - my laptop can and has become a distraction to the other players in the past, especially when connected to the Internet. So GMs beware! If computers at the table get in way of everyone having fun, then you'll have to soldier on with pen and paper.

PS. The only I don't usually do is use the computer to make die rolls. There's just something about grabbing a handful of dice; doing to rolls "instantly" using the computer just isn't any fun compared to that!

I'll agree on not rolling the dice on the computer. Nothing beats the sound of the dice rolling and the apprehension on my player's faces when I get a gleeful smile on my face looking at the results. It wouldn't be the same without that atmosphere.

I work in the computer field - I like to get away from it for a time. The most I'll use is my PDA for Name Generation and Movement calculations.

In one Conspiracy X game I was in not too long ago, the GM was able to use technology to answer a number of questions that she hadn't considered before. When we asked things like, "Is there a gun club in this part of Atlanta?" she didn't have to pull an answer out of thin air, she just pointed us to her desk and said, "Go look it up." Maps to our next destination could be found the same way, or any of that good stuff. We didn't do this too often, but there were times when it came in useful.

This is one of those things that depends on your group's preferences, of course. We never used a laptop at the table, but I can see the benefits in some areas. On the other hand, we're playing 7th Sea now, and I think I'd find it somewhat disruptive to have a computer at the table with that sort of game.

I personally utilize a computer, have set up a LAN in my traditional gamming spot and have commited the grosses of sins, I've actually cut the binding on many books and scanned them into the computer.

I find them invaluable in a PDF format, and I have the following suggestions for those involved in making the switch.

Acrobrat is a must, it saves time and frustration looking up/confirming rulings. (I used to severely limit the number of prestige classes, equipment, and sometimes spells, because of the daunting prospect of needing to remember the details correctly and then forget some vital ability, side-effect, that either cut the gordian knot, or left me fumbling for confirmation/information at a critical point the in the adventure's pace.

MP3 player - yes, its vital. Flight of valkeries, I went online to find an old Gothic Italian horror movie compilation for a Vampire campaign, sound effects.

* suggestion plan ahead leave yourself notes about the sounds you wish to play and remember that you have to lead the sounds a little to allow most systems to decode/play the sounds (especially the short ones). Some sound cards/speakers provide an analog volume control that you can slowly twist to increase the volume, or decrease... this is as important as the sound (especially if you can control the lights in the room)... that background sound of footsteps approaching is much more effective than you going " the foot steps are getting closer (Louder)" Keep the music files local to increase access speeds, and create a playlist that you can quickly move through.

DO NOT USE DM PROGRAMS - unless you are VERY familiar with them... its a waste of your time. However; I've found the exact opposite is true with Players. ( I roll all the dice -- with the exception of critical or heroic efforts) I believe it focuses the player on the role-playing, and would not remove dice from the game - perhaps I'm old school, but the look of expectation/hope/dread that fills the moments after the sound of the dice being rolled (and specifically the number of dice being rolled >:) ) to me is part of the game. I do you rolling aids occassionally with games like shadowrun, as a friend of mine and I 10+ years ago created a neat system that includes some of the hard to quickly extract calculations, such as the damage explosives do in confined areas.

On the d20 front, I wish I could quote directly, however; those of you you remember the eTools that WOTC developed might be interested. The product that WOTC produced (finally :( ) was as many may have noted a strange drop in quality looking more like a run-time of a partiallyscripted access database - and not like the application that shipped with the v3 player's guide.

I did not make the beta test team, but followed the application's developement closely. The origional plan was to turn the app into a client/server relationship. With dynamic 3d mapping - meaning that the player's client of the program would expose the map on their screen to the degree that it could (line of sight etc.) while the DM had a full view and could manipulate the maps elements in real time (shifting corridors, additional monsters, a new NPC or loot) things that were and are difficult to script into even Neverwinter Night's system, much less dynamically.

Monsters had sounds and areas around them, but it was in essence that traditional feeling of the minatures - the difference was that the minatures could grunt and were animated, and that they actually held inventory so you could see what they were attacking with and loot the corpse, however; combat was - as I remember it turn based and controlled by the DM as to if the program would resolve combat or if done by dice.

There were a variety of other elements of the program that were quickly and quietly cut - along with hundreds of WOTC employees during the downsizing and the program director for the eTools product. The end result was that applet - a bastardized product of the original. That was deemed not be competitive with NWN or any other electronic/computer game which licensing rights were held by Hasbro at that time, and the product was percieved to cross the lines.

I have bought, tried, and summarlized dismissed most of the DM applications out there. I believe in many of the mapping elements, but have not found or believe to exist that next level that eTools may have been able to deliver. If you know of one please let me know.

What is your experience with customization? I have used PCGen in the past because it allowed me to code in all my house rules...certainly not for its great interface or ease of use, I'll grant you. In your experience of DMing applications, which are the easiest ones to customize?

I am a DM, and I have found another use for the laptop at the gametable: a "Digital Whiteboard." I have a Tablet PC, so during the game, I place a monitor in an out-of-the-way corner of the table, and when we come to a battle or anything else that requires a visual aid, I can just draw it on the screen of my laptop, and it will appear instantly on the other monitor, where the players can see. Plus, I can move, resize, add, and delete things in the drawing in real time. My gaming group is very happy with this arrangement, and we all think it is a huge timesaver. But then, we don't use miniatures, either.

BTW, I agree totally about the 'digital dice.' Nothing beats the feel of real dice rolling across the table. Using a random number generator feels somehow less real. I feel as though I can't trust the computer for that (Not that dice are always trustworthy, either :)

Only a bit to add. One thing that seems to help is pictures of monsters, NPCs and locations. Rather than saying the name of the monster or trying to describe a guy, trying to give hints without giving too much away, just plop down a pic and say "this is what you see." Pictures that represent the terrain they're going through or the layout of the castle help too. You can either dump all the pics you might need into a folder and show them on the laptop screen or print them out ahead of time.

I like to browse fantasy art sites and save the ones I like so I have a library of pics to choose from when designing an adventure. Sometimes, I even start with interesting pictures and come up with personalities and plot points from there.

On rolling I prefer real dice and don't see much gain for electronic rollers for single die rolls. But I'd go electronic if I was playing a bucket of dice game.