Friday, October 16, 2009

Campaign Management For Luddite GMs: Part 1

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?


Mothman's Dog said...

I do things the old-fashioned way. Pencils, paper, dice, and books are far more convenient, and as the ad on the back of the box says they're all you need (in addition to your imagination, of course).

I experimented with using a yahoogroup in conjunction with my last major AD&D campaign, and found it unsatisfying. The play at the gaming table is what counts.

Also, I would consider it a personal insult if someone brought a laptop to the gaming table, or asked to play by webcam. This is role-playing, not computer gaming.

taichara said...

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?

Being perfectly honest?

Completely ;3

The one time technology comes into play, aside from my posting things on my blog, is when I make the odd notes on my PDA when I'm at work and can't pull out a scribbler. And then they usually get expended on in handwriting anyway --

Chris said...

Blogging and forums aside I'm a total gaming Luddite.

Game notes exist on paper. Game maths is done something done on your fingers. Dice, not RNGs. Handouts, not attachments. The most technical things at our table are mechanical pencils.

One guy brought a laser pointer to our game once. (for LOS, touch-free indication, and such) His flagrant technolatry was met with suspicion and displeasure. The harvest was good that year. ;)

I'll happily use pdfs and all the magical gadgetry of the interwebs during prep. But it's not *real* gaming material until it's been printed onto actual dead tree.

Secular Transhumanist said...

I confess I've moved on to a word processor for my longer works (like Castle of the Mad Archmage), but my day-to-day gaming is still done in a notebook, by hand.

In fact, I still harken back to a conceit from my high school days; I schlep all my AD&D books (including spare PH's for the rest of the crew) around in a milk crate. A real one, not one of those Crate & Barrel knock-offs.

If anyone tried to bring a laptop to one of my games, they'd look as out of place as if they had just stepped out of a UFO.

One bit of technology I do use is a Dragonbone electronic die-roller. I use it when I want to roll and not have the players hear the THUNK! of my solid pewter dice. But I'm not sure if that counts, considering I think I bought the thing in 1982 (and it still works!)...

Anonymous said...

I'd suggest instead of three-hol-punch graph paper you just use those plastic sleeves. I can't stand having those three little holes in the way, even conceptually.

And I'd suggest that instead of a spiral notebook you use lined paper in folders corresponding to topic. You'd have a folder of new spells, a folder of magic items, a folder for Country X, etc. Each spell / item / monster / town would have its own page. If you can't fit what you want on one page you should consider making it a folder instead.

For example, I'd consider Waterdeep to be a page until I started developing it. Expecially Undermountain. After that I'd make it a folder.

Keep all your folders in one of those paper accordion cases.

And once you've set some things in stone, like a spell that's been well-playtested, type it up (on a typewriter of course) so it takes up much less space and so it can be easily copied using a Ditto machine.

Once you get a large amount of goodies of one type that you've typed up, type them up again in saddle-stitched booklet form and you have a nice little game supplement. This would work on a more limited basis for things that evolve like towns and countries.

Kameron said...

No laptops at my gaming table. Some of the players brought them to do character generation, but once the game started, it's been paper, pencils, and dice (and battlegraph tiles and dry erase markers and plastic miniatures).

I'll admit I'm starting to give in to the temptation to use a digital tool for initiative tracking, but that's the extent of technology's lure for me at the game table.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

Bah! Paper, pens, and dice are technology too. For me it's:

Game prep - all tech all the time.

Game play - no electronics at all.

I've been typing and editing on computers since I was a pre-teen. It's just so much more massively productive and intuitive for me. spell check, theosaurus, wikipedia, multiple backups couldn't live without'm. But when I'm gaming I'm all about the interaction with the players. I don't even use my books much and always forget to take decent notes.

rainswept said...

I have to agree with Norman. I use the internet a lot when prepping a session, and I like to print off maps and such; I also use my blog to address players before the game.

But at the table it is strictly pencil, paper and dice.

j_king said...

I prefer the old fashioned way for the same reasons I prefer a typewriter for writing.

1. Simple archival of your process. No need to manage VCS or backup systems and you can see every stroke you scribbled out or every liner note you made.

2. Paper lasts. Hundreds of years if its a decent quality and you use the right inks, pencils, etc.

3. It's distraction free. No email, facebook, IRC, or what have you.

4. No boot up time. No shortcuts. Hardware failures. Etc.

Granted I have written campaigns using Emacs' org-mode and love it; but the best way to build lasting material is to do it on paper.

Anonymous said...

I think you're overstating the required materials for a Luddite GM. Notebook, pencil, maybe some graph paper. That's about all you'd need in actual practice. Perhaps your admission to having never prepared a game without a computer shows why you'd consider all the rest to be necessary. Personally I would feel horribly overburdened with the materials you list.

And yeah, I am mostly a Luddite GM, only using the PC occasionally while planning out details of the campaign (research online) or maybe designing a character sheet or a house rules printout for players so they can easily read it. I actually find that my creativity suffers the more I rely on technology.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

> I think you're overstating the required materials for a Luddite GM. Notebook, pencil, maybe some graph paper.

I was going to make similar comment paper, pencil, dice + imagination. But, I took the thrust of the article to be not "What is the least needed" but rather "What are the most helpful non-electronic tools". Still can't fathom the calculator (maybe I'm good doing math in head?) and couldn't live without 3x5 index cards.

Also, all opinion everywhere has an implied YMMV tacked onto the end.

Jack Badelaire said...

For those of you who think I'm tacking on too much, what would you actually leave out?

A notebook is nice, but as several people have said, once things get going and you reach a certain scale, you need to organize things. A binder does a way better job.

I always preferred to draw non-tactical maps on blank paper, not graph paper. That's why I included a sketch pad. And I'll agree about putting things in a plastic sleeve - I've done that for some of the color maps I've drawn.

Aside from this, what are you going to leave out? Staplers? Three-hold punches? Pens? Maybe my campaign prep in general is just larger scale, and maybe I need a ruler to draw a straight line, but not needing basic office supplies strikes me as somewhat impossible.

What else would you leave out? Reference books? I suppose if you're that good at making stuff up, but if you're trying to emulate a certain real-world analogue, it always helps to have a reference at hand.

I'm sure many people can get by with less, and I know I have in the past for smaller "from scratch" campaigns, but when I want to prep a major campaign undertaking, having a wealth of resources at hand makes life a lot easier.

Unknown said...

Increasingly I use the computer for writing adventures and keeping records, though I usually have hand written notes as well. maps are all drawn by hand, try to keep the computer away from the table.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I ran as a Luddite for 23 years ... that's all there was. I'm fairly hopeless now. I have built into the campaign so many excel shortcuts that I simply couldn't run the campaign I now run without them.

Yes, I could give them all up. But these are labor saving devices - they save me time, too. Time which I can spend on texture and mood instead of pencil number crunching.

Wouldn't be a Luddite if you paid me. And when it comes to that ... if I were a Luddite, should I be responding to you right now?

Keith Sloan said...

I prefer to think of myself as a Luddite. However, I have been using computers ever since the early 80's when I used a computer at school to generate my first character record sheet. For most of the time since I have used a computer to keep background information in convenient files that are easy to update as things change. Campaign Cartographer (and similar) software has been a big boon for making numerous, complex maps. Still, I keep a paper copy of everything for reference, and my master campaign map is a hand drawn monstrosity framed on my office wall.

More recently, I have begun a campaign played completely over Skype. Certainly not my ideal, but with my players literally scattered across the country, it has proven to be a great way to have regular games. For that game, one of my players maps my megadungeon on Excel, with other pages tracking his character, communal treasure and items, notes, etc. It is a very handy means to rapidly disseminate the map to all the players when needed.

Still, I will take face-to-face and lots of paper any day!