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Leveraging Tech at the Table

Gnome Stew - 15 April 2019 - 5:00am
The Obvious: Distraction

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:

GoodReader Toolbar

GoodReader Outline View

GoodReader Bookmark View

GoodReader Search Feature

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.

GoodNotes Toolbar

GoodNotes Notes

GoodNotes Map

GoodNotes Character Sheet

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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