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Leveraging Tech at the Table

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 tablet.

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 Screen Capture

GoodReader Toolbar

GoodReader Outline View Screen Capture

GoodReader Outline View

GoodReader Bookmark View Screen Capture

GoodReader Bookmark View

GoodReader Search Feature Screen Capture

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 Screen Capture

GoodNotes Toolbar

GoodNotes Notes Screen Capture

GoodNotes Notes

GoodNotes Map Screen Capture

GoodNotes Map

GoodNotes Character Sheet Screen Capture

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!

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Leveraging Tech at the Table"

#1 Comment By Ellie Osterman On April 15, 2019 @ 7:34 am

Microsoft OneNote is my life. It easily allows me to input and arrange information, converts handwriting to searchable text, and auto-syncs to the cloud so I can access it with any of my computers. Back when I was running games I hadn’t written myself, I snipped relavent parts of the rulebooks into OneNote for even quicker reference.

OneNote also computes simple expressions, so I can do all the math I might need without switching to another app.

#2 Comment By J.T. Evans On April 15, 2019 @ 8:58 am

Excellent recommendation, Ellie! Thanks for sharing that with the Gnome Stew community. I’ve heard good things about OneNote, but it’s outside my circle of technology that I leverage on a daily basis. Like I said in the article, I hesitate to recommend things that I don’t personally use, but I’m glad you chimed in with your thoughts!

Thanks a ton.

#3 Comment By Vicente On April 15, 2019 @ 9:47 am

Another OneNote user here, it is simply awesome to store and organize any type of information. We play sometimes in rooms where I can project my screen into a larger projector or TV, and when doing that, I love Microsoft Whiteboard to draw maps and diagrams, super handy too (specially if you use the grid background).

#4 Comment By J.T. Evans On April 15, 2019 @ 10:06 am

Looks like another vote for OneNote! Thanks for chiming in, Vicente.

#5 Comment By Tanner On April 15, 2019 @ 1:18 pm

On the suggestion of another GS article, I’ve started using Trello to keep track of major game events (I have separate lists for the main story, subplots, PCs, and NPCs). I tend to use my laptop at the table as I don’t have a tablet, but it is *definitely* easier to have PDFs. It’s easy to search stuff on PDF by using the shortcut CTRL+F to find specific topics or spells.

#6 Comment By J.T. Evans On April 15, 2019 @ 5:01 pm

Tanner. Good reference to one of John Arcadian’s articles. I was using Trello for a short bit before his article hit. I wanted to make sure it worked for me before I wrote my own article… and John beat me to the punch. 🙂

I also highly endorse using Trello (or something similar) for keeping track of NPCs, PCs, locations, plot arcs, story ideas, and so on. It’s also really good at keeping track of “historical” elements such as dead NPCs, places visited, enemies defeated, etc.

#7 Comment By Paul On April 17, 2019 @ 5:06 pm

I looked at Goodnotes and Goodreader but I have to say I didn’t like many of the negative review comments I found for them. I used to use Evernote but the Basic plan didn’t have enough flexibility and the Premium plan is just too damn expensive ($120 CAD/year). OneNote on Mac/iOS is just gutted of all useful features and unreliable (I kept losing notes for no apparent reason).

So now I settle on using Bear – which is Mac/iOS only, but that’s fine. It’s $20 CAD/year, syncs across all devices, lots of import/export features and allows freehand drawings on an iPad Pro. Only disadvantage so far is no tables allowed in notes – but they are working on that.

#8 Comment By J.T. Evans On April 17, 2019 @ 5:40 pm

I’ll admit the the most recent version of GoodNotes (version 5) has had some issues since its recent release. Version 4 was ROCK SOLID, but version 5 added quite a few new features that I’ve found speed up my note taking and context switching between highlighter, pen, colors, eraser, etc. that I’ll put up with the defects. Also, the team behind GoodNotes has been very responsive and has release quick fixes for some of the more serious issues.

I’ve not had any issues with GoodReader. I do wish it was a /little/ faster, but I also understand that I’m on a tablet, not a full-blown computer with more RAM and faster CPU.

Having said this, I completely understand listening to the community at large and their reviews. That’s a wise move.

I’m glad to see you’ve found something that works for you, though. To each their own on their choices in what makes them the most efficient. I don’t come near thinking that other folks’ brains work like mine. 🙂

#9 Pingback By Leveraging Tech at the Table – Spotile On April 27, 2019 @ 10:33 pm

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#10 Comment By GK On May 6, 2019 @ 3:50 am

I just started implementing technology into my games to reduce paper required and have all the info stored in one place instead of having it in my head as bits and pieces.
My device to go ASUS Transformer Book T100HA – this is one of those devices which are a 10″ widnows 10 tablet with a detachable QWERTY keyboard. Good thing is that you can type quite quickly on this one, or you can just detach the keyboard and use a stylus or handwriting in tablet mode as written above.
I looked through a couple of campaign organiser and worldbuilder tools but for now I am sticking with Trello as this seems to fit my style the most.
I am running my own board for the current adventure, one board for the players (which represents information given out at the table) and each player has their own boards and they can freely edit them as they like. Private information can also be sent to each player’s private board.

The good thing with Trello that is very easy and quick to create and edit content on the go and this content can be shared very easily. If you create a card for an encounter, item, npc, or piece of information, you can send this accross to the player board – Having touchscreen and a keyboard is very handy.

I was also thinking about implementing the information in the rulebook directly into Trello onto cards. For example I can create a list ‘Armory’ where each item is a separate card entry witch the screenshot from the PDF rulebook as the cover image. This can also be sent to any of the boards I’d like – so when a player acquires this piece of gear in-game it’s just two clicks and it appears on their board.
I can also run multiple boards at the same time via different tabs.

#11 Comment By J.T. Evans On May 6, 2019 @ 3:06 pm

Another great vote for using Trello as a GM. I love your breakdown of the hardware you use and exactly how you’re leveraging the different boards in Trello. Thanks for sharing your experiences with other Gnome Stew readers!