Sunday, February 15, 2009

Out Of The Stone Age

D&D is still living in the stone age, at least in the descriptions or the videos I see on line, made in the last four years. Paper character sheets, graph paper maps, pencils, miniatures…dice…these things made sense for 1979, but here we are thirty years later and embracing these things as though they were the game, as though our imaginations are dependent on the manner in which the mechanics are managed. For three years now I’ve been running my games from a lap top - no paper at all. When I want to give one player a private bit of information, I create a page on the desktop, minimize everything and then show it. Why would I write out a paper note? So the player can remember what he’s been told? Are you given paper notes by the trees and rocks you see, and everyone you converse with?

I realize there is a tight, nostalgic clique for these things. I once mentioned that most of my players showed up for a running with their own lap tops, and was told by DMs - not to specifically name any - that they would punish their players. Me, I think its fabulous.

When I think about what I would do with money applied to the game, along with my secretary, I think electronic interaction. I see the bits with computer-generated graphics in Iron Man and Quantum of Solace (which I didn’t like, by the way), and I think, “When do I get my hands on that?”

Because there ought to be a graphic interface screen in the center of every table. Get rid of the cheap drawings and the paper maps with border limitations and the expensive, soon-to-be-pummelled-into-indistinguishable-lumps miniatures and lets have a table-top battle map which will enable my players to be farther apart than 48 hexes. Lets have maps which can be touched to reveal other maps, and maps which can be three-dimensional.

And let’s have a system whereby every player can individually manipulate his or her movements on that map, without being able to affect anyone else’s movement. Let’s have total interface capabilities, so that I can show an image on each individual’s computer of what THEY and THEY ALONE can see, and force other players to move blind when they don’t have knowledge of what the fighter is going through behind the door.

I have talked it over with players, and I can understand that they don’t want to stop throwing dice. For them, the dice are personal, tangible manifestations of their characters and the physical action of attacking, doing damage, throwing for safety and what have you. I would not, I think, ever insist that players give up the throwing of dice, however archaic they may be.

But I have to say, as a DM, I feel none of that. I don’t give a rat’s ass if the goblin hits or not. I’m throwing for fifty, sixty goblins here, and it’s hard to get emotionally attached. I have already made the concession that it makes sense - algorithms be damned - to generate hit points in Excel. I could happily design an Excel spreadsheet (working on one in my head) that would let me roll as many monsters as I wanted at once, and generate damage, at a click. And then save a lot of time in a mass combat by saying, “These two guys hit, take seven damage, those four guys miss, three of these twelve bowmen hit; the mage takes four, the thief takes two and the ranger takes one.” And just rattle that off so the players can get back to strategy and success without having to sit and wait while I roll and roll and roll.

Oh, sure, there might be some tension lost…watching your friend get stomped while the dice haven’t been rolled on YOU yet. But after enough combats, you know that flavour declines, and mostly you just want the combat to move. I don’t see my players sitting on the edge of their chairs waiting for me to move up the legions against them. For them, it’s mostly a moment to go to the bathroom, stock up on fuel, etc. For myself, after thirty years of die rolling, I don’t care if I ever roll a die as a DM again. I think I, too, would want to roll dice for a character I was playing, but its just a hassle which holds up running a game.

(I know there are those of you who would penalize a player for leaving a table during a combat. I’ve played with people like you. You find that stick comfortable, do you?)

As for role-playing, have you seen Sims 2. This, without question, would be dead fabulous for defining character features, since the game allows you to make not just beautiful avatars, but ugly ones also. Given the money and time to design the application, players without a natural artistic ability (hey, I’m one) could manage a passable figure for their character. As DM, I’d look over their shoulder and suggest they might be a bit uglier or more attractive in keeping with their charisma, with artists much smarter than me providing maybe a grading scale. Or maybe not. Beauty is relative.

The real genius is not the application of an avatar-making program for players, but for NPCs! Ah, if I could have a recognizable image for every NPC I use to interact with the party, something unique and instantly familiar, which the party could actually feel an emotional attachment or revulsion for, that would fit perfectly into campaigning. The textual feeling of having an image to talk to, be in fear of, or hesitate before mindlessly slaughtering (a dozen faces of innocent looking hobgoblin children)…so that the circuitry of the brain might kick in when the player’s are NOT playing. Imagine one of your players saying to you, “Remember when we slaughtered that hobgoblin village? I actually had a dream last night where I saw the faces staring up at me while I cut them to pieces with a sword. I woke up shaking.”

I could probably throw out more. It’s Sunday morning and I’m a bit fried and unmotivated to write. (It’s amazing I wrote this much). I might write more sometime about the application of electronics to D&D, but this should already open a few of those doors. I think we really should be thinking about what we can do with the technology, and let go of our graph paper.

I’m about $4,000 away from having at least a limited enough table-top display with accompanying programs and interfacing that would let me get rid of my canvas graph-board and my miniatures (with their appallingly limited number of wolves, rats, gelatinous cubes, ropers, mind flayers and shedu) forever.

That would be sweet.


JimLotFP said...

Part of the appeal of roleplaying to me is the personal aspect. I never use minis (or any sort of markers), and I wouldn't myself use a computer at the table (some of my players use a calculator and I'm not very happy about that either)... and creating a computer interface for players would defeat the entire purpose in the first place... might as well play a computer game by myself then.

Jeff Rients said...

It seems implicit to your argument here that you can separate an artistic or cultural activity from its physical manifestations.

KenHR said...

I use a laptop when I GM because I suck at keeping an organized folder or notebook of campaign stuff. Hell, even my neat files and Excel generators are scattered all over my hard drive and flash memory stick. Even so, they're a humongous help, especially when confronted with the "rolling for 60 goblins" issue you touch upon.

I don't mind players using laptops, either. I just ask that they stay off the internet and not play friggin' Minesweeper or whatever if they're using computers during a session.

However, I do like my dice, my crappy paper maps (I can make very nice maps on the computer when I'm motivated - a sample of my current WIP is here: - , but I can make them just as nicely and, somehow, faster, by hand, though I miss out on all the conveniences of the digital format) and the (very) occasional minis battle. There's something to be said for the tactile side of the RPG experience.

I grew up writing and drawing with pencils and paper, even though our family had a computer in the house very early on. I suppose that's a big part of it for me...I often find I at least have to start things by hand in order to get the juices flowing.

That said, I'd love to have a flat table display that would let my players and I manipulate virtual figures, take care of showing just how much torchlight reveals underground, etc. When that becomes commonplace and affordable, I'll put my crayons and pencils away.

Rob Conley said...

It called Microsoft Surface and you read about here.

My prediction that in the fullness of time flexible LEDs will lead to "surfaces" that can be unfolded and laid on anything flat. Along one side will be a bar with USB style ports that connect it to a computer or laptop. Perhap even be the computer itself.

Minatures or counters will have cheap chips embedded in the base that will interact with the "surface".

The computer connecting all this will handled the rule and record keeping. That wifi will allow hand computer to access private data that player want to see only for themselves.

This setup will be used from everything from RPGs, traditional board and counter games, miniature game, and even probably some variants like real-time strategy.

Given affordable hardware this will rope in a new market of gamers much like the Nintendo Wii has. Note that the Nintendo Wii is so successful because it doesn't just capture a slice of the existing console market it bring people that never owned console before. The same thing potentially could be with "surface" computers.

And on a more pessimistic note RPGs will be an afterthought not one of the first or second things tried with "surface computers."

Another feature will help with the "I can't get everyone together" physically problem. It would be possible to have separate "surfaces" connected over the Internet with the DM and most of the players in town X and other players sitting in front of their surfaces. With sound equipment everybody can be playing together regardless of location.

Finally the particular surface application that will appeal to US i.e. those reading this blog. Will be very similar to the Virtual Tabletop like Fantasy Grounds.

I.e. the application will be one that displays and managed the information needed to run a RPG but leaves all the rules handling to the GM and the players.

Yesmar said...

I use a laptop during play. I encourage my players to do so as well. We're all computer types, so using a laptop is second nature for us. I have all the OD&D rules loaded up on a web server accessible over a guest WLAN. Everybody can access the rules as necessary. No one needs to track down hard-to-find TLBs or use crappy retro clones. Character data is loaded into a database at the end of each session via a custom Rails web application. This allows for easy tracking. I don't have to borrow character sheets or make copies or whatever. We all use dice. Hell, we like dice. This does not stop me from using Ruby code to randomly generate monsters, treasures, complete parties of NPCs, et al. Use of technology enhances play for us by making things easier. But hey, if you're a Luddite, carry on. Why would we care?

Carl said...


You should be able to get a digital light projector that you can attach to your laptop and run as a second monitor for under $500 USD. I've been doing this for years. You can throw away your battlemats and Vis-a-Vis pens after you make this change.

The level of interactivity you desire won't be available for a few years yet, but a DLP will get you most of the way there.

Check this guy out, if you haven't already:

I was inspired by this guy and went whole-hog for this system. It took me a few sessions to get comfortable with the set up, but it worked.

As my Traveller software develops I'll begin adding in the kind of capability you describe. Obviously, the players won't be able to touch the display and have things happen, but they'll be able to point to a system and ask about it and I'll click on it for them and it will show pictures and data.

Randolph said...

Let's see...laptops ain't cheap and and we're not playing World of Warcraft?

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the necro post, I'm going through the backlog of posts. Your economy posts are amazingly engrossing, and I plan to use a highly similar system in my own world.

Maptool (, in combination with some form of screen (projector, Microsoft Surface, big TV, your player's laptops, et cetera), will do much of what you've described. It's the best virtual tabletop application I've personally come across. It's being actively (if sporadically) improved as well.