“The Digital GM leverages technology to synergistically empower him or herself while proactively providing a world-class suite of solutions to today and tomorrow’s complex challenges.”

OK, so maybe you don’t quite yet need a mission statement, but you are considering life as a digital gamer. You’re thinking about joining the ranks of the double-barrel geeks (computers AND gaming). You’re looking to enter the virtual virtual world. In other words, you’re bringing a laptop to the table.

Now what?

Hardware: If you haven’t bought or otherwise acquired a laptop, some advice before you do…

  • Screen Size — The size of a laptop’s screen pretty much defines everything else about the laptop, so it’s the most important decision to make. There are obvious advantages to each category (ultra-portable, mainstream, desktop replacement), but I’ve been happiest with a 15.4” wide screen at the highest resolution I can find. A higher resolution means you can fit more on the screen, but it’s smaller. The catch here is that really high resolutions (1920×1200 pixels) have gotten hard to find outside of the high-priced CAD or gamer models. If you want a small laptop, I suggest trying to type on it first; conversely, if you want a huge (17”) laptop, I suggest trying to carry and find room for it first.
  • CPU — Some of the single-core chips have amazing battery life, but aren’t the fastest. Conversely, a high-end dual or even quad core might have just enough battery life to let you finish a shutdown when the power goes out.
  • Memory — The more, the better. On a laptop, the data bottleneck is the hard drive; the more memory you have, the less you need to use the hard drive, and the faster your system will be. Don’t let anyone talk you out of 4GB by telling you that your 32 bit operating system can’t use all of it; the computer will actually use space outside the 32 bit limit for other things.
  • Hard Drive Size — Hard drive space is pretty inexpensive, but backing up a large hard drive can take hours. Ask yourself: How many PDFs or other documents do you have? How many do you actually need access to from your laptop?
  • Accessories — You can go nuts here, but I’ve got a few bits of advice:  Get a spare power supply, and leave it at your desk. Get a good wireless mouse; they’re a godsend. External ‘travel’ hard drives are inexpensive and handy. Just about any set of external speakers will be better than the ones on your laptop. And I’ve been thinking of using a cheap 15” LCD screen to show images to the players as I’m GMing.

Software: Okay, so we’ve got the ideal laptop, and we want to load it up with… what?

  • Character Management — If your game has crunch, you need something to help manage it. If you’re running D&D 3.5, I strongly suggest you use the HeroForge spreadsheets. The HF sheets are by far the best character management systems for d20-based games. Be advised that they are Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and usually work best on Excel 2007. Most of the advanced sheets will not run on OpenOffice. If you’re looking at an integrated GMing suite, I wish I could help you more, but my experience is limited in that area.  Some GM suites have integrated character management systems, however.
  • Combat Management — When I last GMed a D&D 3.5 game, I was using a custom Excel sheet for managing initiative, hit points, and other conditions. I was spending too much time with the computer and not with the game; today, I’d use the computer for either initiative OR hit points, but not both. As mentioned earlier, there are a few GMing suites that have integrated systems for hit points, initiative, character stats, etc.  This is definitely an area where the GM’s tastes and preferences will come first, so try as many combinations as possible.
  • Websites — If you’re lucky (or foresighted) enough to run a game with a resource like the Hypertext d20 SRD, then a laptop is a no-brainer. Even if your game doesn’t have something quite as handy, there are probably plenty of websites on whatever system, setting, or genre you’re running. You probably don’t need access to the entire internet while mid-game, but a quick Googling has saved my GMing cred many a time. (For what it’s worth, I have over 150 bookmarks directly related to gaming, and who knows how many that are indirectly related.)
  • Chat — Need to send a note to a player who happens to have a laptop, or even a cellphone? Players got you backed into a corner, and you need to “phone a friend”? Just want to touch base with the wife and kids occasionally? Everyone’s got a favorite chat client; I prefer Pidgin – it’s free and universal.
  • Email — If I’m in your game, I’ll probably email you my updated character sheet about fifteen minutes into the session… If you want to catch that feat I’m using from “Compleat Munchkin” before it goes into play, you might want to check your email at the table.
  • PDFs — Many gaming books are available as PDF files, and some are only available as PDF. Trust me on this — nothing is faster at finding that obscure rule than a “Search Box” and a PDF file. There’s also the matter of security: the players don’t need to know that you’ve got the Monstrous Manual open to the section on Dragons…  If you don’t like the footprint of Adobe Reader or Acrobat, try Foxit Reader.
  • Dice Rollers — Want to make a dice roll, but don’t want to tell the players? One of the first things to hit the Internet (after porn, of course) were automated dice rollers. They’re still there.
  • Wiki-wiki-wiki! — Borrow someone else’s, or roll your own. Wikis are quickly becoming the future of RPG campaigns. This topic is worthy of its own Gnome Stew entry, so I’ll leave it be for now.

Gamers are nothing if not creative, and I’m sure y’all have your own tricks and advice for using a laptop at the gaming table, whether as a GM or as a player. Have I missed anything, or have you found That One Thing that makes it all worthwhile? Then sound off and let us know!