Friday, August 8, 2008

Computerized Tools at the Table

Before I start this post, let me lay out my credentials for anyone who isn't aware of them. I'm the guy who wrote Virtual Dice Tray, a program that has at least a few fans in the tabletop sphere. I've even considered trying to make a career out of writing software tools for tabletop gaming.

So it might surprise you, dear reader (as it surprises me), that the 4e games I've been running have been done with almost no computerized assistance. I keep my laptop at the table, but it has only two simple tasks, neither of which is critical to the game:
  1. Drive a small monitor that faces the group where I can display scene-setting images
  2. Run an old version of iTunes and play a mix of movie scores and other background music
What caused this change? How did I wind up not even using a program, hailed by one user with "I don't know how I'll ever DM without Virtual Dice Tray", that I wrote myself?

I think it has to do with the campaign I played in from January to June of this year. By the third session there were 4 laptops at the table for 4 players and the DM. The DM was running DM's Familiar and had pdfs open. One player was trying to chronicle what was happening in-game as we were playing. My wife and I were running Virtual Dice Tray and I had my character sheet open in TextPad.

There were certain problems that kept cropping up for everyone. I had to keep flipping between my dice and my character sheet. My wife was using a screen smaller than the Dice Tray was designed for and kept running into problems. Our chronicler kept needing things repeated that were said during flurries of typing. During combat the DM would stare into his screen and then announce "You take 12 points of damage" because DM's Familiar had already decided whether his monster hit whoever was being attacked and rolled damage silently.

Maybe if we had kept going we could have kept the computers and found our way around some of these issues. Maybe not. All I know is that when we play now my laptop is the only computer at the table and, as noted above, it's not working nearly as hard.

And when I throw handfuls of dice down on the table in front of everyone, I don't have to worry about the players getting the weird empty feeling I used to get, wondering what was happening on the DM's laptop screen.

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