From paper to screen

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a trend at my DnD table as more players have moved from the traditional pen(cil) and paper to having a laptop, notebook or, more frequently, a netbook or smartphone in front of them instead. In this article, I’ll explore some of the tools available to facilitate this move and explore my own experiences.

Since the first days of DnD the character sheet has been the entry point for the game. This is where you start to see your character form as you roll the dice, make notes, erase mistakes. This is the first thing your older brother/sister/cousin/friend will have put in front of you and taken you through as an introduction. I have a binder full of character sheets from my old games and in some cases the paper has visibly thinned from the amount of erasing and rewriting (mostly around the hit-point area, funnily enough). Just looking at those sheets brings back memories of old campaigns and a nostalgia for those retired, or in some cases deceased, characters. It makes sense, then, that this is where we should start looking for electronic versions.

Wizards of the Coast have just released a Character Builder tool for DnD Insider subscribers. It has its limitations [1, It only runs on Windows, though there are ways around that] but contains within its database all rules, items, feats and powers from every released 4th edition book. In fact, before I could get out to buy the Player’s Handbook 2 on launch day, the Character Builder was already updating with new classes and powers. One of the major limitations that stops this from being the tool of choice for character sheet management is that it is really focused on the building and maintenance of characters. I.e., it’s great for building a character, leveling up, or buying/selling equipment between sessions, but not so great for the minute-to-minute changes necessary at the table.

For these minute-to-minute changes, I have moved away from paper but not yet to an electronic method. I keep my character sheet as a pdf file on screen and use 2d10 for hit-point tracking, 1d12 for healing surges, 1d4 for action points and 1d8 for tracking any temporary hit points. The character sheet is then merely a reference for my powers, skills and defenses.

However, there is a significant benefit to the Character Builder created character sheet which is that the exported sheet contains customized cards, similar to the Power Cards that are available commercially, with my powers on them. The extra little cherry on top is that they specify exactly what dice to roll and what bonuses to add for my character, taking into account stats and feats. Of course, if a stat should change, or if I lose my weapon, I’m back to manual recalculation, but those instances are rare.

So what about the player who wants to go the fully-electronic route? A couple of the players around my table have taken to using spreadsheet-based character sheets. Depending on which one you choose, you get all of the information you need but can also change any stats or skills as necessary. The beauty of this approach is that the spreadsheet format allows for formulae that can keep all of the character’s stats up to date without any game-stalling recalculation. The downside is that leveling up or buying equipment is still very much a manual process.

Of course, there are some players who will continue to roll a character on the floor surrounded by books and dice, and in fact I did exactly that when first starting my current character. Once I had finished that initial creation, however, I moved him over to the Character Builder and continue to use that for maintenance. There are players who have developed effective techniques for managing their character on paper thanks to years of experience and for them a switch to an electronic method would be more jarring. I never felt completely comfortable running my character purely on paper and having my netbook set up with my character sheet, alongside using dice for my more dynamic statistics [2, A trick I picked up from a staunchly paper-based player], has led to me being able to spend more time enjoying the game and less time figuring out how to play.

One possible criticism to the spread of computers at the playing table is that it creates a barrier between the players and the DM. To those who would claim that, I will merely point to the DM screen that has been a significant barrier between the DM and player from the early days of the game and suggest that in fact laptops and netbooks are keeping the table more free of clutter than ever before. Certainly the table that I play at feels more organized and less busy than other games I’ve played in the past.

One thing is clear: As much as technology advances the possibilities of table-top gaming, and no matter how much technology brings to the table, if you’ll pardon the pun, there’s room for both paper and screens at the gaming table. There are many more options for how DnD is played now than ever before, and that can only be a good thing for the game as a whole.

In future articles in this series I’ll look at other opportunities for technology to advance or impose on the world of table-top gaming, including dice-rolling applications and the possibility of driving entire tables through technology. Also, I’ll take a look at playing games with people internationally and what options exist for people without the benefit of local games to join.

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