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Four Good Reasons to Run Your D&D Game With a Laptop

Written by Ben Arnold - Published on March 18, 2008

Guest post by Ben Arnold. Ben has been a DM for seven years and is particularly fond of phase spiders.

The digital age is upon us!

Still encumbered with books and paper? Here are four good reasons to adopt the practice of bringing your laptop to the gaming table.

4. Wizards of the Coast Online Tools

Wizards of the Coast offers a multitude of random generators, dice rollers, and other D&D aids for use in game play or preparation. Many of the tools can be downloaded to your computer and run from your hard drive, thus no longer requiring an internet connection. Although not the fastest or most intuitive of its kind, the Wizards’ character name generator is great for those times when the PCs pester you for a name you hadn’t planned ahead of time (the nerve!).

Check out their online (and offline) tools.

3. PDF Rule Books and Supplements

It’s getting to be a more common practice that RPG companies produce electronic versions of their books in PDF (Portable Document Format). Even Wizards of the Coast’s D&D books are now available online at DriveThruRPG. RPGNow offers a large array of books and supplements from indie game designers and companies. Although there will always be some books that you’ll most likely want a physical copy of, PDF versions are almost always searchable and some grant you the ability to copy and paste text. Plus what DM doesn’t want to cut down on the large number of books that he or she has to bring to the table each session? Lighten your load, go to PDF format books!

2. Google (or Microsoft) Online Apps

Companies like Google and Microsoft are now offering a wide array of very useful tools online – for free. Microsoft just took their SkyDrive service out of Beta and now offers 5GB of storage online for free. Google Docs is an online application (actually, more like a suite of applications) that allow you to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations online and store everything in their service, accessible from anywhere. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy apps to mention here is Google NoteBook. It allows you to create different notebooks with different sections – just as you would in a spiral bound notebook. I’ve used this app to take notes, organize NPC stats and information, and generaly keep my campaign information in one place. These apps can really help make the difference in running a coherent and organized campaign. These apps will really help you cut down on the paper clutter and when you’re ready, eliminate it from your game entirely.

1. The Hypertext D20 SRD

The tool that I’ve found to be most useful in running my D&D game from my laptop is the Hypertext D20 SRD. Jans Carton has created a wonderful resource in this iteration of the System Reference Document. It’s completely searchable and easy to navigate. As a DM, I have a hard enough time keeping my story lines straight, let alone trying to ensure I have all the rules for the various special combat actions or the assortment of conditions memorized. The Hypertext D20 SRD makes it easy to navigate these rules and find exactly what you’re looking for. I know that I no longer pass a game session by without having this site open in at least two browser tabs.

And the tools will keep coming

With Wizards of the Coast’s digital initiative and now the announcement and arrival of Fourth Edition – it looks like technology will continue to be an increasingly important factor in table top D&D play. I started using my laptop to run my D&D campaign set in Monte Cook’s Ptolus setting about a year ago. It took me a few weeks to get used to the idea – no more DM screen, no more paper in front of me, only dice. Now that I’ve been in the habit for a while, I dont know that I could ever go back.

Tell us about your laptop DMing resources

What additional resources would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments!

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Written by Ben Arnold

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27 Responses to “Four Good Reasons to Run Your D&D Game With a Laptop”
  1. Asmor says:

    You know, despite (maybe because of?) being a CS minor and spending almost my entire day on a computer, I really don’t care for using a laptop during a game. It also annoys the hell out of me when my players do.

    I use my computer for prep-work of course. I have PDFs of every D&D book I own (the PDFs were not exactly acquired legally, but considering I own hard copies of the books I don’t feel too bad about it). d20srd.org is infinitely better than the books as far as prep work goes, too.

    Of course, that last paragraph should probably be past tense since I’m not playing D&D anymore until 4th edition hits.

  2. Ben says:

    Asmor, that’s an interesting comment. I work in computer support and thus spend my entire day staring at LCD monitors too. However, there’s just an efficiency in running a game with a laptop that I can’t deny. I currently don’t let my players bring a laptop, but perhaps some day, like when 4th edition arrives. Who knows? Private messages via the IM service of your choice?

  3. DNAphil says:

    I love using my laptop for running my games. I develop all my session notes using TiddlyWiki and have all my RPG rules (Iron Heroes) in PDF, for quick referencing. I also use my laptop to run background music during the session, to help set the tone of the game.

    One of my players uses a laptop, but our rule is that, during the narrative portions of the game, and as much as possible, screens say tilted down, so that we have all have face time. My laptop sits to the side of me on a table, so that I can face all my players as well as have the battle map directly in front of me. No DM screen to lean over during the game.

  4. Ully says:

    I’ve gone whole hog using my MacBook Pro to help me run Paizo’s excellent Shackled City adventure path. Being a Mac user, I appreciate that there are now tons of cross-platform and Java-based tools available.

    In addition to the aforementioned d20srd.org site, here’s a list of the other tools that I currently use:

    HeroForge and SpellForge – Amazing Excel spreadsheets for character and NPC generation/tracking, with support for gestalt character builds, campaign-specific feats for Paizo’s Pathfinder adventure paths, at-the-table buff support and much more (unfortunately really Windows only now, as Excel for Mac has not kept up)

    MapTool, TokenTool, InitTool – Java-based applications for computer-based encounter mapping and tracking, with support for LAN or Internet-based play (have completely superseded our use of the battlemat and minis)

    A Wiki – We use one online to keep track of session notes, NPCs encountered, clues, etc., and it’s completely searchable

    The Monster Lore Compendium – A great reference put together by players that covers what PCs can learn about a specific creature by making a successful Knowledge check; a great time-saver (incomplete data, but it’s growing)

    There are probably more tools worth mentioning, but those are the ones that come to mind. Check ’em out.

  5. BugBrain says:

    I tend to agree with Asmor. I work in the IT sector and sit in front of a PC all day (and usually a good portion of the evening too much to the chagrin of my wife). I use my PC for preparing for games but I prefer not to use it during play. I’ll use my tablet PC with OneNote for taking notes so I don’t have to transcribe them but other than that, I like to play without a PC.

  6. Yax says:

    I recently made thecswitch to PC and I don’t think I’ll be switching back. It just saves me time.

  7. Ben says:

    I had completely forgotten about TiddlyWiki! What an awesome piece of software. *goes out to download it and get re-aquainted*

  8. Asmor says:

    I love Tiddlywiki. Particularly the MonkeyPirateTiddlyWiki with Tagglytagging. Automatic navigation creation? Yes please!

  9. Templeton says:

    I also like to use my laptop for gaming. I switch back and forth between using it at table and just for prep. I may switch back, as I had not used the idea of the screen off to the side. I have used DM Genie but just to tracking my dungeon maps and notes. The system is too bogged down with fluff to work well to manage the entire game. I may try Tiddywiki sounds like it is getting good reviews here.

    I even set up an intro Power point with the pcs listed as heros in the credits. We recently added a slide with the “fallen” on it for the dead pcs to be remembered on.
    I play it at the start of the game for the pcs and usually will throw in a hint as to what may be coming in the next few sessions (i.e. background may be of dungeon entrance, important npc listed as “guest star”, etc.).

  10. Kane says:

    I have started using my laptop for my games, both for dming and playing. I have most of the 3.5 books in pdf, along with all my notes, story arcs, and such. I have been using Hero Workshop for my characters, so now I just load that up and I am all set, no more paper character sheets to worry about and level up time goes fast, click click!

  11. James says:

    I use a PC when gaming and it’s a major addition. Between notepad and rulebooks online everything runs a lot faster. There’s also a ton of random generators out there for when the players do the unexpected.

    My site (click the name on my comment) has a bunch of generators and links to tools. The ones on the lefthand menu I wrote, of which only the NPC generator is going to be applicable to D&D. The main page has a bunch of other tools that I’ve enjoyed in the past.

  12. Micah says:

    Don’t forget about Obsidian Portal – http://www.obsidianportal.com

    I put all my adventure notes and plans up prior to a game, then reference them from the site. Also, as NPCs are encountered, I toss them into the character tracker along with a quick bio.

    If I’m a player, I live-blog the adventure as it’s going on. Not that I think anyone is paying attention, but it’s just easier than taking notes and then turning them into a blog post afterwards.

  13. Copyrite says:

    I use my MacBook Pro as a DM Screen and for note taking. Plus I always have soundtracks for all my games so I almost can’t play without my computer or iPod nearby… it just feels too silent now.

  14. ScottM says:

    I’m a fan of using a computer for prep (though recently, I’ve been tending to hand prep, even spell lists). During the session though, I’m for having all electronics off and focusing on each other– character and player.

  15. Ryan Reid says:

    I agree with ScottM. I like to use google docs to make notes and write adventures. (I use google docs so I can work on it at home, at work, or the library without the need of a flash drive.)
    Once I am done with the prep work, I print it and turn the computers off. Their is a reason we play pen and paper games and a reason why they are called PEN AND PAPER games ;)

    I don’t disagree with the use of a laptop. It depends on the DMs comfort level and if the group can stay on task to be able to use laptops themselves.

  16. Yax says:

    I personally don’t mind to dump the “pen” and “paper” elements of D&D. The “battlemap” and “minis” is more important to me. And I’ve run games without that too.

    Pens and papers are means to an end. Computers can replace them.

    Granted, computers are loaded with potentially game-disruptive features too.

  17. Ben says:

    Very thoughtful comments from everyone. You guys have reminded me of a few other good reasons for using your laptop. I especially enjoyed the idea of having session sound tracks pre-created in iTunes or some such program and playing them right from your laptop. This gives you more control over the music – skipping to the parts you’re looking for, pausing faster, etc, than if you were playing a CD or even hooking your iPod up to a dock of some sort.

    A good point was raised pertaining to the potential disruptive uses of a laptop. I’m a self prescribed RSS feed junkie and it takes a lot of will power to not tab over to Google Reader and start reading through some feeds while characters are making up their minds in combat. So I agree, if you can get over the disruptive features, a laptop will do more good than harm, in my opinion.

  18. Ryan Reid says:

    I agree Yax, great site btw, the PC has taken over the role of pen and paper in every facet of life, why not gaming?

    For me, I am an old schooler at heart and I sill love have a #2 pencil and a paper character sheet in front of me. With that being said, my group doesn’t even do that anymore. We all use digital character sheets and print them off.

    Anyways I would agree with you guys the good out weights the bad, I just worry that the more the computer works its way into the game the more the game becomes something else.

  19. Trask says:

    I am a luddite, so gaming is still low-tech for me. Technology tends to overwhelm the game in my experience.

    Trask

  20. big_hungry says:

    Unlike Trask, I’m not a luddite, I’m just a cheap bastard that won’t spring for a used laptop. I’ve been playing pen & paper for over 30 years. It’s comfortable that way. But, I have caught myself setting up the game on my desktop the day prior to my evening’s torture test of my PCs wills and emotions.

    Maybe I will go up to the pawn shop and grab an old laptop, if only for the easy record keeping that makes the game into an accountant’s nightmare. Hmm…

  21. Danny says:

    I’m running a modified 2E, custom undermountain campaign at the moment. The map is made up of 25 8×11 pages per level (4 10′ squares per inch) six levels deep. Doesn’t count the sewers. For obvious reasons, it makes sense to make the map on my laptop and use it from there – when making the maps I split them up into sheets rather than one huge block for my players’ sake but each level is one .png on my laptop. I have room descriptions for most of level 1, a quarter of level 3, and a tenth of level 2. The document is 270 pages long and I’m not halfway done yet. It takes about 30 hours of work just to map out a level.

    There are just too many reasons to design the adventure / campaign / whatever digitally. Try cut-pasting a room description into another level in your spiral notebook. It just doesn’t work, chief. Besides, if I wrote this out in spiral notebooks it would take up a bookshelf of them.

    On the other hand, I will never use a dice roller program. That’s some of the fun of D&D right there!

  22. Bird says:

    You mind me asking what program you use to make up your levels and floorplans, Danny?

  23. Jeff says:

    Similar to the soundtrack idea, a laptop provides some other multimedia opportunities. If you have an extra monitor or a TV near your gaming table, I find it handy to connect it as an extended desktop. You can post images, maps, etc. for your players to see while keeping all the important stuff hidden safely on your screen.

  24. Klaive says:

    I know I’m late to posting on this one… But I’m with Yax and Ully on this one. The computer age is upon us. I personally use the RPTools; specifically MapTool and InitTool. I run the game from my laptop connect via a LAN to another broadcasting onto a big-screen TV. I found this saves tremendous amounts of time. I am able to set up all the maps I believe the party will encounter during a set day ahead of time. so no more wasting time as I draw a map for the group, or wasting time having to continuously describe the scene if line of sight become an issue. With programs such as MapTool and OpenRPG you can assign PCs there vision and they only see that far so you can realistically tract movements of NPCs off scene as they surround the party to ambush or attempt to sneak out without being seen.

    Ive personally been able to cut my groups normal 6-8 game day down to 3-4 hours and get twice the amount accomplished in a session. That being said we still game typically for 6-8hrs but now OoC interruptions don’t bog us down as much and the story still progresses.

    I also believe there is a point you must stop I mean this isn’t a PC or console game so don’t treat it like one… I tried running my campaign for about two months remotely via MapTool and I almost lost my entire game group luckily I was able to salvage it slightly and we are gaming again in person I still just use the tool (and that is what it is, a Tool) for my mapping, line of sight, and general trackers. the time saved out ways the the time lost (wasted)

  25. Happymunda says:

    I personally love the game but, playing in front of a screen ruins it, the game is meant to be a group of friends and a table with some dice. When you take it online you lose so much of the game, such as forgetting a rule but, coming up with an interesting fix, actually talking with people with people and enjoying their company, or even rolling a dice. The game is suppose to be a pencil and paper game, (the best one in the world), but, when its just having to click Attack1 you miss out on mixing things up. I’ve played Dnd for six years, and an average adventure can take up to a year, yet online adventures finish in half that time. Maybe because you don’t need to record everything, or the rooms are all mapped out, but I think it is because the players involved are so focused on reaching the end because, its the only thing left from the original game, leveling up is already planned, dice rolls are in sets so you pick which weapon and it does all the work, and there are no other people in the room, so you miss out on company, and atmosphere. DMing an Insider adventure (That’s what I tried) made we feel as if I was dming a bunch of robots, it was silent and routine, I would throw an encounter and they would set up formation, as the ranger used his daily, while the fighter and paladin block the enemies and go defensive till they can use their encounter. Now this rant has gone on for longer than I wanted so to sum it all up, old timers will find the online Dnd distasteful and a cheap imitation of fun, while newcomers might find it a lot like other RPG’s online, ( which could be good or bad) but, I think they will all agree on one thing, that it feels as though you are playing alone. (again could be good or bad)

  26. laptop games says:

    A lot of thanks for you Ben for clarifying to us this issue I always have a different point of view but now I don’t think so !

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