“Save vs. Blue Screen”

It’s the 21st Century, and we still don’t have flying cars, or meal tablets, or robo-maids. (Shut up, Roomba.) But we do have laptops at the gaming table. Ten years ago, only the very rich or slightly crazy (or both) would have a laptop at the table. Today, I’d bet that at least half of the tables out there have a laptop present.

In this article, I’ll cover the basic advantages and disadvantages of a laptop at the gaming table, along with some additional factors. If you do decide to make the digital leap, a future article will cover some of the tips and tricks that the fellow Gnomes and I have picked up over the years, so you can min-max your experience.

Some history: I fix computers for a living, and have had access to a laptop since the last millennium. (OK, it was mid-2000, but that still qualifies.) I’ve GMed and played off a laptop for most of that time, although not exclusively. I currently use a laptop to play in a 4E game.

Advantages of a Laptop:

  • Organization – With a laptop and the right software, it’s much easier to manage the numbers in a crunch-heavy game like D&D v3.5. You can track the effects of multiple conditions on multiple NPCs, have the game rules and adventure notes at your fingertips, manage initiative and combat, and even make changes on the fly. Critical points here include good character-management software, searchable or bookmarked PDFs of game rules, handy websites, and a good combat tracker. It’s no exaggeration to say that a laptop kept me GMing when the party got to higher levels.
  • Flexibility – If something in the game isn’t working, changes can be made immediately. NPCs can be revisited to make them stronger, weaker, or just different. If you can type faster than you write, then you get more out of that fifteen-minute break you called when the party took the wrong turn at Albuquerque. If you’re using a Wiki, you can modify it on the fly as the party interacts with the game world. (Or at least leave quick notes reminding you what to modify.) If you have a dice-rolling program and your party’s skill modifiers, you can roll the dice without the group knowing that they missed a Spot check.
  • Communication – If the rest of the group has laptops, you can easily pass secret information via chat or email. If you’re smooth about it, the rest of the group won’t even notice. Used properly, this can add a whole level of intrigue to a game. If you have to ask a fellow GM a question or look up something online, you’re right there. And if a player is home with a cold or other commitment, he can still occasionally contribute to the game.
  • Creativity – Obviously, a computer helps with game prep, but a laptop in-game can provide sound effects, play incidental or background music, display images of NPCs or important places and items, and even roll intro credits like Walt’s PowerPoint presentations

Disadvantages of a Laptop:

  • Distraction – If you’re the kind of gamer who needs to be doing something, perhaps unlimited access to the Intarwebs is not such a good idea. If you can’t resist the temptation to check your email, chat with friends, or read about the latest whatever, then perhaps you should stick to the pencil and paper.
  • Instability – Laptops are inherently less stable than desktops, and will usually crash when they can do the most damage. (generally in the middle of a fast and furious combat with the BBEG.) Don’t rely on a laptop if you don’t trust it 100%. Even so, print out the critical information before-hand.
  • Space – A laptop takes up the space of roughly two letter-sized pieces of paper, and usually requires access to power. If this doesn’t afford you an advantage over those two stacks of paper, then perhaps it’s not for you.
  • Risk of Loss – Gaming usually involves liquid refreshment. Despite years of technological advances, laptops are notoriously incompatible with liquids. Be advised.

Other factors that may influence your decision to use a laptop at the gaming table:

  • GMing vs. Playing — A typical GM has to manage far more information than a typical player does, and may have more need of a laptop.
  • The “crunch factor” of a game — At higher levels, D&D v3.5 almost requires a laptop. Savage Worlds or Fudge definitely do not. Related to this is the style of gaming; a casual beer-n-pretzels game probably doesn’t require a laptop, while an intense, detailed, high-intrigue game might.
  • The complexity of the game world — How rich and developed is your setting? Does running it require near-constant access to its Wiki or database? Or is your setting pretty much improvised on the spot? (The latter option may still require a laptop, so you can keep track of everything that happened in-game.)
  • The makeup of the group — Does everyone else have a laptop? When it comes to notes and such, there’s definitely a synergy to being internetworked. How does everyone else feel about the use of laptops at the table?

Have you found any additional advantages, disadvantages, or other factors that should be taken into account? I’ll have a future article for actual tips, tricks, and advice, so save those for later…