Tablets at the Table, 2011 Edition

When the iPad hit a little over a year ago, there was a flurry of posts in RPG circles about tablet gaming. Since then we haven’t seen a lot of talk about them – I’m not sure if folks grew bored with the topic, or if they’ve now become so common place that they’re not worth commenting on any more.

I suspect it could be the latter. At my game table we have three iPads (two first generation, one second) and an Android tablet. For my last two sessions I ran Paizo’s Crypt of the Everflame for Pathfinder almost entirely off the iPad, using the PDF of the module and the iTunes Remote app to control music playlists on my Mac. I wasn’t entirely digital – I still used index cards to track initiative (old habits diehard) and looked up a few rules in the Pathfinder core book and the Bestiary, but I was just as likely to look up something in the Pathfinder SRD.

I haven’t given up my dice – I enjoy that part of the game too much – but when I run Star Wars: Saga Edition I often use the Dicenomicon to roll big damage for starship combat (when you’re rolling 6d10x2, it’s faster to let the tablet to the math).

I like the changes I’m seeing at my table. Yes, people are as likely to goof around with their tablets as they were with their laptops, but the tablets take up far, far less space. Behind the screen, the space savings are a huge benefit for me. Instead of having to keep a big binder of adventure notes, I can keep all of that information on the iPad. Less clutter means I can be much more efficient as a game master.

When it comes to game prep, I love having the Pathfinder and Savage Worlds rules with me everywhere. This is less the case with Star Wars: Saga Edition, which never had legal PDFs available for download; for that game I still carry around hardcovers when I want to work on something over lunch. In fact, the easy, cheap availability of core PDFs for Pathfinder is a major selling point for the game, and very attractive to me as the GM. I’ll still buy their print books, but I love the fact that I was able to pick up the core rules, Bestiary, and Inner Sea Campaign Guide for $10 a piece.

There are other tabletop advantages as well. Before the iPad, I was constantly swiveling back and forth between the table and my laptop. Now I can focus my attention on the table, relying on the iPad for at a glance things like Twitter updates. Twitter may seem like a distraction rather than a tool, but in fact I’ve found it a good resource for rules questions and clarifications. During my Dragon Age and Pathfinder playtests I was able to rely on the community of both games to receive real-time answers to rules questions. Heck, Dragon Age lead designer Chris Pramas responded to a rules tweet a minute or two after I posted it.

Of course, you can tweet from anywhere, but the advantage to the iPad – rather than say my iPhone or my MacBook – is that it’s part of my workflow. My notes are there, my PDFs are there, and thanks to Twitter alerts, my rules answers are there too.

Away from the table, the iPad’s proven to be a capable PDF reader. I’ve read more game PDFs in the last year using the iPad than I had in the previous five. It’s far easier – and more comfortable – to read a PDF on a tablet than a desktop computer, laptop or even netbook. The iPad renders PDFs at about 80 percent of their full size, but in most cases the text remains crisp and readable. I’ve had a few issues with PDFs not rendering correctly – most notably Pinnacle’s Savage Worlds Super Powers Companion and Adamant’s Savage Worlds-powered MARS pdf – but others, like Paizo’s Inner Sea World Guide or Pinnacle’s Savage World of Solomon Kane, render beautifully.

There are some disadvantages to using tablets at the table. When running Crpyt of the Everflame, I had some trouble flipping back and forth between pages. While you can do it, virtual flipping from a location one page to a statblock 20 pages away is awkward. Next time I run a PDF module, I think I’m going to make better use of bookmarks, which could help me keep virtual fingers stuck in the pages I need.

Syncing adventure notes with the iPad is a pain; I use Pages to write my adventures, and it can’t open files from a remote server (or even sync those files with a remote server). Even using Apple’s iDisk app for the iPad, I can only view files; if I want to be able to edit them, I have to copy them into Pages. If I want any changes I made to be editable elsewhere, I have to manually copy them back. Google Docs is a possible work around, but support on the iPad is shaky at best; it maybe better on Android-powered tablets. I’m experimenting with alternatives, namely Dropbox and Evernote.

That said, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Tablets are a worthwhile tool, and one that any technophile GM should look into.

What’s been your experience? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

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