All RPGs and Storygames by Tod Foley are now available at DrivethruRPG. Bring these games to your table!
I know a few (probably more than a few) GMs who don’t want or allow technology at their table. That’s their call, and I urge players to respect it. This is because devices, especially those with online capability, can lead to distractions in the form of text messages, phone calls, social media, web browsing, and watching funny cat videos. I get it. I really do.
However, there is a place and time for technology at the table. If you, as a player, have a GM that doesn’t want technology at the table, build a case for streamlined play, quick rule lookups, online tools/utilities, electronic character builders/sheets, and easy-to-reach references. If they still don’t relent, respect their desires and move on.
Having said all that, let’s assume technology is allowed at the table and explore its extensive capabilities and uses.Technology and Limitations
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the word “technology” quite a bit. What I’m referring to here are the portable electronic devices most of us carry everyday. This will include laptops, tablets, smart phones, and the like. I’m mainly going to focus on using a tablet, though.
This is because I find smart phones too clunky for smooth use at the table when information is needed on-demand. Character sheets are too small (or require massive pinch-zooming and swipe-scrolling) to effectively make use of. PDFs can be read on smart phones, but when you’re reading half a paragraph per screen, it’s not that speedy. Also, taking notes on a smart phone just isn’t efficient. I have a hard time composing a tweet in any reasonable amount of time on my phone, let alone trying to capture the rapid-fire events of what’s going on at the table. Of course, you may be a world-class typist on your phone, so give it a whirl.
On the flip-side, laptops tend to be too large and consume tons of table space, especially if someone lugs out their massive 17-inch gaming laptop. They can’t easily be set aside and then pulled back out for quick reference. They’re great for note taking because of the keyboard, but doing dynamic notes (like maps) on a laptop is still problematic unless you have a touchscreen variant.
In the middle-ground between smart phones and laptops exist, of course, tablets. They’re great. They lie flat on the table, don’t take up tons of room on the table, and can be set aside or propped against a chair leg when space is needed. Tablets also have the same advantage of laptops with a larger screen allowing for easy reading of rulebook PDFs, interacting with electronic character sheets, and taking notes in a document, especially if you have a stylus or other writing device that works with your table.Specifications
For the remainder of this article, I’m going to dive into details about how I use a tablet and stylus at the table. I currently have a an 11-inch iPad Pro and use an Apple Pencil. The screenshots I’m going to throw your way come from an app called GoodNotes 5. I also use an app called GoodReader for viewing, bookmarking, and annotating PDFs. With these bits of technology and just these two apps, I can do everything I need at the table as a player or GM. I still keep a small notepad and pencil nearby for passing notes when appropriate. Oh. Dice. Yeah. Lots and lots of dice are part of my kit, but that’s not the point of this article.
For you Android/Microsoft users, I apologize for focusing on Apple products here. I don’t like recommending or pointing people to apps or hardware that I have no experience with in case I lead them astray. I’m certain there are options out there for Android and Microsoft tablets, styluses, and applications that can perform in a similar fashion to what I do here. A search along the lines of “GoodReader for Android table” or “GoodNotes for Microsoft Surface” might lead you in the right direction.GoodReader
When I can, I buy the PDFs of rulebooks. This is because my days of carrying 150+ pounds (no exaggeration) of books with me to the FLGS are over. I’m tired of doing that, and my back isn’t getting any younger. Where I can’t find legal PDFs, I suck it up and lug the books, but this article is about electronics, not calisthenics with a bag o’ books.
GoodReader is my application of choice for reading and marking up PDFs. It’s fast to load even the largest books. In my current campaign, I’m a player in a game of Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea. The PDF is 68 megabytes in size. Not small, but I’ve seen bigger. If I don’t have the PDF open, it takes about 5 seconds to load. Once loaded, page transitions and scrolling through the document is rapid-fire fast. It can also have multiple PDFs open at once in tabbed layout like in your web browser. That’s super handy for leaping between multiple source materials.
There is also a bookmark feature where you can save links to pages that are frequently referenced, and if the bookmark is properly outlined with an electronic table of contents, then the outline feature comes in very handy.
Here are some screenshots with captions about what the various functions do:GoodNotes 5
For my handwritten notes, I use GoodNotes 5. Version 4 was great, but the upgrade to version 5 is a whole new world of note taking! I use it at the table, during classes, at conferences, and anywhere else I need to scribble something down for later review or sharing.
GoodNotes comes with a wide variety of “backgrounds.” Of course, I go with the gridded background for all RPG notes even when I’m not mapping. It helps me align the notes and indentations and such as I go. For mapping, the obvious choice is the gridded background. Another fantastic feature is that you can use a PDF as a “background.” Just import the PDF and start writing on it. The “eraser” feature won’t delete the PDF text/lines because it’s the background. This allows me to import the PDF version of a game’s character sheet and just use my iPad for the character sheet as well. This importing of a PDF as a background also works great for your GM maps. This allows you to take notes on the maps and highlight areas without worrying about accidentally erasing or messing up the original map.
GoodNotes, like GoodReader, allows multiple files to be open at once in a tabbed interface. In addition to being able to track notes, maps, and character stats on the fly, I can export the files to PDF format and save it on a cloud drive for sharing with the rest of the group between sessions. This is a fantastic feature since I track the campaign notes, treasure gained, maps, and my character in GoodNotes.
The main features I like about GoodNotes is the different line widths and colors available for the pen. I can also highlight in different colors. The eraser tool is handy when my handwriting gets super messy or I misplace a door on the map and need to redraw it. There is also a lasso tool that allows you to select an area and then drag ‘n’ drop it or cut/copy/paste it to another page or elsewhere on the same page. If you’re into type-written notes, but still want the ability to draw lines between text boxes to link things together, you can do that too.
Here are some screenshots of files I’ve created in GoodNotes, so you can get a flavor of what they look like. I apologize for the horrid handwriting, but I want you to see the different pen colors, highlighter colors, and so on.What Do You Use?
What technology do you use at your in-person games? Let us, and your fellow readers, know what you have in your hands!
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Recently, I signed up for DC Universe, primarily so I could watch the new season of Young Justice, but I’ve also taken advantage of all the DC animated movies available on the streaming service. There’s also an excitement in the air related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what with Captain Marvel having come out last month and Avengers: End Game arriving in just a couple weeks. It’s made me think quite a bit about superheroes and gaming.
Anyone who’s gamed with me for any length of time knows I love superheroes and their games. In recent years, I developed a reputation for running Masks at cons, and my regular group often asks me to pick up the GM cape once more and run a supers game for them. Heck, the very first campaign I ever ran was a Mutants & Masterminds campaign.
Thing is, superhero stories are not this monolithic, single type of story or game. While it is easy for many to mistakenly make this assumption, when you really dig down into it, superhero stories are more of a framework you hang over other stories. This is one of the secrets to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’ve focused on telling interesting stories with compelling characters that just happen to have special abilities, rather than focusing on only the special abilities. It doesn’t matter how cool the costumes are or how awesome the special effects for the abilities are, if the story is boring or the characters just caricatures of people no one is going to care.
(Another open secret to MCU’s success is in how they know how to be true to the essence of the characters and then nail the casting for that character. I could wax poetic about these movies for hours, so I’ll keep a lid on it.)
Back in the late 80’s and 90’s, when RPGs all seemed to be obsessed with simulation, superhero games like Champions did everything they could to provide meticulous ways to emulate the powers of all our favorite heroes. Unfortunately, this often pushed the heart of the story and characters into the background, losing the spark that makes us love super heroics. I’m very careful about the superhero games I sign up for at conventions, because too often, that spark is lost and the game just ends up being a simulation for a superhero smash up fight. There’s nothing wrong with a fun, bombastic combat, but that’s not necessarily the only kind of game I’m looking to play or run.
If you, like me, are considering running a supers game in the near future, here’s a few things to consider before bringing the game to the table for your players:
- Tone: Once you decide the tone of your game, other things will fall into place easier. Are you looking for a light hearted romp around the cosmos, or a gritty and complicated story of difficult choices? Take a look at the first season of the Justice League animated series from the early 2000’s compared to the first season of Daredevil on Netflix. Yeah, they’re both superhero stories, but that’s about the only thing they have in common. If you don’t establish the tone you’re looking for from the get-go, you’re going to have problems. Your players also have a wild and wide understanding of the superhero genre, and they may be all over the place in the tone they’re expecting. Their characters will reflect that and while it’s not impossible to make a game work with characters of varying tone, it’s difficult to maintain that for the long haul.
- Setting: Some superhero stories take place in a single city, or even just a single neighborhood. Others span galaxies, taking the heroes from planet to planet, galaxy to galaxy. As you can imagine, deciding the scope of your game’s setting can help determine the types of stories your game is going to be telling and the types of characters that should come into play. Setting a game in an afro-futuristic city like Wakanda guides the themes and characters in very specific ways. Or imagine using a setting like Smallville, telling the stories of some young heroes learning who they are and what they can do.
- Don’t let them get lost in the minutia of what powers they have and what those powers do, because WHO the character is beneath the costume and abilities is what makes the game truly heroic.Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailLimits: What are the limits of the characters you want in play? Can your game handle Batman and Superman in the league together? Can you provide a variety of challenges for both Thor and Hawkeye? Or do you want to limit the origin stories for your players and have them all have some common bond like being students at an upstate boarding school for ‘special’ students? The options for this are almost limitless (ha!), but if you take a look at the best superhero stories, they keep all the characters within a certain framework, at least to start with. We may enjoy the idea of having Captain Marvel and Jessica Jones in the same universe, but you’re going to have to sacrifice something to run a game that includes both of them. Put Jessica in the far-flung cosmic encounters Carol is capable of and she’s going to be a little lost. And annoyed since there’s no alcohol. Put Cap in Hell’s Kitchen and she’s going to have to limit her capabilities to not just obliterate the neighborhood. It’s not that it can’t work, it’s just that you’re going to have to make choices and sacrifices with the stories your game tells.
- Character: Last, but absolutely not least. Don’t forget that everything you do still boils down to the characters the players bring to the table. What I mean is that while Captain Marvel’s powers are cool, she wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without her in-your-face determination to do what’s right. Batman may have all those wonderful toys, but his best stories are fed by the gravitas of his tragedies. When your players start working on their characters, don’t let them get lost in the minutia of what powers they have and what those powers do, because WHO the character is beneath the costume and abilities is what makes the game truly heroic.
There are so many options out there for superhero games. So many. Many games come with tone, setting, and limits established within the design of the game, while others come to your more as a toolset to build your own world. Another consideration is the level of crunch that you’re comfortable. I lean more towards the narrative games these days, but I can understand the draw of a crunchier game. Make sure whichever game you pick actually works with the tone, setting and limits you want to try for in your game. The wrong combination can be painful to work through.
After several of my regular group saw Captain Marvel, they cornered me and said, “Ang, you’ve GOT to run another supers game.” Honestly, I can’t disagree with them, because I certainly feel that pull as well. Between now and when I start, I’ve got quite a few things to figure out. What about you and your gaming crew? Any super heroics on your horizon? We’d love to hear about it.
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