I became a member of the home-computing age the same year I became a member of the role-playing game community; 1993. My first computer, a very sprightly (at the time) x386, didn't have a modem, but I did have a decent graphical word processing program and a fairly good dot-matrix printer, and while I did write a lot of gaming material in notebooks at first, my gaming development quickly moved into the digital age. A year later, my father bought a laptop (I wonder where that 15-year old laptop is now...) and an AOL account, and I was able to connect to the "internet community" through the D&D portal that AOL had created.
Of course, by 1995, I was in college at a large metropolitan university, and I would spend hours a day digging through Usenet boards and joining e-mail lists, eager for contact with the wider gaming world. I was also writing my gaming files on both my home computer and via Emacs, and even building a small website on my university web account and posting game-related content for my players. This isn't to say I didn't put pen to paper; much of my gaming material was handwritten, scrawled in the corners of school notebooks or in a dedicated "gaming notes" notebook that I'd always have with me. But in 16 years of gaming, there has always been a digital component to my gaming work.
Of course, I realize I was one of the "new breed"; the generation that grew into the Computer Age. Even when I didn't have a computer at home, we had computers in school and a number of my friends had them before we got around to buying one. And of course, RPGs had existed for a good 20 years or so before I got into the hobby. While I'm sure using computers for gaming had been going on as long as there have been RPGs, the real utility of the computer as an aid to GMs developing campaigns, beyond simply being used as a word processor, has probably only really come into its own in the last 10-12 years, and probably most prominently in the last 5-6, with the advent of true "Web 2.0" functionality, increasingly more prevalent WiFi access, mobile devices, and broadband widely supplanting dial-up connections.
My column about maps and map-making yesterday definitely struck a nostalgic chord with me, and it had me thinking about pre-computer driven campaigns and the tools of the GMing trade before the age of the Internet. I realized I'd never developed and run a campaign completely sans-computer, and wondered what it would be like. I knew I had all the tools you needed, it was just a matter of bringing it all together.
What does the Luddite GM need?
- A notebook. A well-made, sturdy, spiral-bound notebook, preferably with an internal pocket and three-hole punched. This is the creative canvas upon which all your ideas are born. You may want to take this a step further and keep an added "travel notebook" that you could keep in pocket or purse or whatever, for those moments when you suddenly have an idea and need to write it down, to be transcribed to the main notebook later on.
- A sketch pad. Nice thick paper that will take pencil or pen. Anything that needs to be drawn freehand that you don't want cluttering up your notebook should go in here. Heraldry, weapon sketches, maps, drawings of monsters, and just whatever doodles you want wind up in the sketch pad.
- Graph paper. Four squares to the inch is pretty common, although some people prefer a finer grid. I like the kind that's also three-hole punched in case you want to put it in a binder. Here's where your more precise drawings live, the dungeon diagrams or the more exacting maps, the castle blueprints and tavern floorplans.
- A 3-ring binder. You can probably get away without using one for a while, but once the campaign starts coming together, you're going to want to start bringing your sketches and maps and written notes and character sheets together into one place, where you can order them and re-order them as needed. A good sturdy 3-ring binder, at least 1" in size, is going to become a necessity.
- A three-hole punch. For keeping sketches and other documents in your binder, you'll need one of these unless you use nothing but pre-punched paper. You will want to get a nice sturdy one, but another handy idea is to get one of the really minimalist punches that actually fits on the rings of your 3-ring binder, good for punching a page or two at a time and always at hand if you need it. In the same vein, a stapler might also be handy for keeping all of a player's paperwork together.
- Writing and drawing tools. Good pens and pencils, fine and broad-tipped, preferably in both black and a couple of other colors (usually red, green, and blue). A good drawing ruler, as well as a few other drafting tools like a compass and one of those nifty half-circle rulers whose name always escapes me. Scissors, tape, and glue if you're making bigger maps than your sketch pad or graph paper can provide. A sturdy stoppered document tube for keeping larger items safe is always a good idea.
- A calculator. Yes, it's "technology", but I'm willing to let a simple arithmetic calculator slip by here for systems like Rolemaster where you can have significant amounts of mid-double digit addition and subtraction going on. If you're using a simpler system, forget it - use your head, or at the very least, scratch paper!
- Dice. I know it's silly, but with laptops and mobile devices becoming more prevalent, computerized dice-rollers have taken the place of physical dice for a number of people. While most GMs probably don't trust these devices, they are probably, in all honesty, far more mathematically random (if the program is written right) than your average physical die. Still, dice are a must have for the Luddite GM.
- Reference books. A good set of classic Encyclopedia Britannica volumes would be the perfect GMing tool. Lacking these, a goodly selection of reference works appropriate to your campaign type is a requirement. Books on antique weapons and armor, histories of kingdoms and battles, books showing period clothing, art, architecture, and daily life are invaluable. An atlas or three is also important, especially something with good topographical maps, climate maps, ocean currents and resources, all the good stuff a world-building GM needs to be able to look at, even if creating a fantasy world, so a sense of at least pseudo-realism can be achieved. For reference books, the more pictures, the better; being able to show your players a picture of what you're trying in vain to describe is a priceless time-saver. In many respects, a library card is going to be, ounce for ounce, the most important item a GM could have in a pre-Internet world.
- Last but not least, a printed version of the RPG in question. While most of us still like to have a physical copy of the rules at hand, many of us who work for a living in front of a computer also enjoy having PDF copies of their rulebooks available for perusing, especially if, like me, you're able and willing to do a little campaign development in between work-related tasks. And, I'm sure there are people out there who have gone so digital that they no longer use print copies of their system of choice. For the Luddite GM, of course, this isn't an option, so a good, sturdy copy of the rules is invaluable. A smart GM keeps two copies - one for use while "on the road", and a shelf copy that doesn't get as much abuse.
After reading through that list, it's no wonder that computers and the internet have become so popular amongst gamers. Everything above can be handled, or at least simulated, with a laptop that takes up less space than that 3-ring binder, weighs less than a fair-sized hardcover reference book. It can serve as notebook, sketch pad, graph paper, 3-ring binder, and also has the informational recources of, well, pretty much the whole world at its disposal.
So at last, we come to the heart of the matter, and my question to you, gentle readers: how much of an RPG Luddite are you? And, more to the point, how many of you would be willing to set aside your technological aids and put in some old-fashioned "analog" GMing work in this day and age? I have to admit, as handy as the computer is (I'm writing this as a Google Doc, before uploading it to Blogger), there really are some days when I don't want to be "online" or working at a keyboard, and when push comes to shove, I find I can be my most creative in the least amount of time not in front of a screen, but with pen or pencil in hand, with a notebook in front of me. With this in consideration, a purely "low-tech" campaign experiement, as a GM, might be a refreshing change.
Anyone interested in taking the Luddite GMing Challenge? Anyone there already?