Ask The Readers: Netbook at the gaming table

Medion Akoya E1210 Recently I have been thinking about whether I should buy a netbook or not. As you probably all know I love all kinds of technical toys and I am still missing a netbook in my collection. But of course I don’t want to just put it into a display cabinet.

If possible I want to put it to good use at the game table. Aside the obvious uses like using it as a PDF reader or music jukebox, what have you used your netbook for? Are there any must have programs that come in handy at the game table? Have you read any good articles about this topic that you can recommend? What are your experiences with netbooks at the gaming table?

As always I would love to read your comments, so feel free to post your thoughts below. Any comment is appreciated!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

22 thoughts on “Ask The Readers: Netbook at the gaming table”

  1. I think you should not spend money on it. I don't like people bringing their laptops to the gaming table. I don't forbid it, but I mock those who use a laptop. If the rules are so complicated to require a computer, I'd rather simplify the rules. Then again, smartphones are ok to access the campaign wiki or to roll 15d6… 🙂
    .-= Alex Schroeder´s last blog ..Comments on Old School Hex Map Tutorial =-.

  2. Personally, I like having my laptop at the table. I don't like having my netbook at the table at all… the screen is so small that it is irritating. I'd rather have the laptop taking up a bit more space than having to squint to see (or zoom in so much that you have to scroll around constantly).

  3. I love my shiny new netbook and use it extensively for planning and pre-game preparation. The simple fact that it's so portable and has a hella long battery life means it's the perfect go anywhere computer for me. Give me 20 minutes on a train or in a cafe and I can whip up a quick monster, scenario idea or encounter without having to lug a huge laptop bag around and worry about the p-poor battery life – as I used to with my previous laptop.

    But at the gaming table I operate a strict "no computers" policy. We've found that the distraction potential far outweighs their use in-game, and feel it's only fair that I adhere to the same uses I impose on my players. That means all prework is printed out ahead of time and there's no computer in sight when we get down to play.

    Hope that helps!
    .-= greywulf´s last blog ..Word of Orcraft =-.

  4. I have a netbook and used it as a GM a couple of times. As a PDF reader it is very sluggish, small screen, not quick to look up stuff.

    For access to prep-work in .doc (I usually prep on a computer anyway) it was decent. Paper is easier to find relevant bits and pieces but it was very workable to do it on the netbook.

    For adding comments and details about how things played out during the session straight into the prep sheet it is great. Really helps keeping everything together. (I dont GM at my place, so usually a lot of my session notes are on the paper copy of my prep sheet out of my reach till I get there.)

    Reasons I dont use it anymore for GM tasks… mainly cause I didnt like it for taking temporary notes (combat) and typing didn't help keeping the sessions flowing. I can write a lot quicker.

  5. I agree with Alex – if everyone had a laptop at the game table, you might at well have a LAN party. 🙂

    Having said that I think a smartphone (eg. iPhone etc) for some reference material can speed things up and not take away from the tabletop experience too much.
    .-= Stuart´s last blog ..Spellbook iPhone App =-.

  6. I have found my laptop (it's not a netbook but it's an ultra-light one) useful for running 4E since with software like Masterplan and DDI you can have all the things you need to run a pretty data intensive game at your fingertips. However, for virtually everything else I've ever tried to use it for, I just find it an unnecessary distraction that takes away from my focus on the game and the story unfolding.

    So to answer your question: If you're running a lot of 4E (and probably 3.5 stuff since it's probably even worse), it could be very useful at the table. OTOH, if you're not (e.g., running PDQ which you like), I think it would be a waste of money if you're just buying it for the table. Now prep on the go is another question altogether….
    .-= MJ Harnish´s last blog ..Steampunk Tales Issue 4 is now available =-.

  7. The invitation to distraction a netbook offers outweighs any benefits by consulting PDFs or dynamic character sheets, in my experience. When the whole point of playing the game is interactions between people, having a shiny thing to play with gets in the way.
    .-= Tyler´s last blog ..Got Con? Part One =-.

  8. I've got an Acer Aspire One, one of the early versions. The original battery was pretty wimpy and barely lasted a couple of hours. I purchased an after market battery and now get around 7 hours. In know the newer systems come with better batteries now. I use it all the time, for gaming, twitter, general browsing and streaming video.

    As a GM I've got the Savage Worlds Explorer on pdf, my notes in Open Office. My notes have images & maps linked to the net and I can just pull them up when I need them. I also keep NPC, allies and other assorted critters in Open Office spreadsheet with multiple tabs. All this can be searched and if by some chance the players go in an unexpected direction I can get on the interweb and download an image or hit wikipedia.

    Oh, by the way all the files are on Dropbox and can be updated from work, my home desktop on siting in the recliner in front of the TV on the netbook.

    Non-gaming application I can lay in bed or have it running on the side at a desktop and watch Hulu.

    Other than having to send it back to get a hard drive replaced it's within reach most of the time.

    Love it.

  9. We have laptops at the table all the time, and since we are all fairly mature gamers (well, at least the ones that can afford laptops), they aren't much of a distraction.

    The complexity of the rules isn't why I use one either; I use the laptop to save ink/paper and to keep all my NPCs, maps with DM notes, and make campaign notes during the game. Of course, being able to quickly reference rules is nice too for the peeps that don't want to water down the complexity.

    I usually just have a spreadsheet and PDF running that I created before the game with all the player's adversaries to track HPs and effects. I keep all my NPCs and related maps and notes in the PDF. Of course I usually have the rules in PDF format too, since my hard copy is usually in use at the table by a player.

    I have been thinking about reducing the footprint of my laptop by getting a netbook, and the Always Innovating Touchbook looks awful attractive. It can be bought as just a touch sensitive tablet or with a removable keyboard unit ($299 and $399 respectively). It's instant on, completely silent, and when paired with the keyboard has 10 hours of battery life. Oh and it has internal USB ports so if you get 3G internet you can hide/protect the dongle.

    The only reason I haven't made the purchase is because I haven't researched how well the included PDF reader performs or how compatible the word processor is with MS Word.

  10. And for the record, I find cell phones are more of a distraction at the table… SMS texting, checking email, and the constant buzzing when someone receives an email or text message is more annoying to me than someone silently reading some reference material.

  11. Thanks for all the great comments, guys. And I don't think a notebook/netbook is such a big distraction at the table. It can't be worse than three adorable cats, for example. 😉

  12. Chat programs, when run with the sound off, seriously cut down on metagaming, particularly when you run a game where the characters are keeping secrets from one another. Too often if a character passes a note to the DM, the other characters ask themselves "What's up? Is so-and-so about to stab the rest of us in the back?"

    Chat programs allow you pass notes without anyone being aware that notes are being passed.

  13. @Walker: Intriguing idea, but I doubt I will be able to provide all my players with notebooks, too. 😉

  14. Lots of great points, here’s my two cents. I did NOT use a laptop at the gaming table at all until two years ago. I’ve been doing prep with computers since I got my first desktop back in the early 90’s. When I DM/GM (95% of the time) I take copious notes during my games, so even the note taking forms I used sometimes made managing information difficult at best. When I started playing Star Wars Saga System I decided to use the computer as a tool/screen/gaming aide with mixed results.

    Note taking was slower and I felt as if the computer was another thing to manage during a session. However as time has passed and I’ve tweaked the tools I use, it’s blended into the background and right now I think I would miss it if I couldn’t have it with me.

    The tools I do use are mostly MS Office tools, Word and Publisher documents and my campaign management (list of NPCS, attendance, XP Awards, level ups, that sort of thing) is done in Excel. I’ve heard that MS One Page is an excellent tool, I’ve seen the demos and it looks promising but I’m yet to spend money in it. I do SOME PDF reading on the laptop, but that is mostly during prep, if I have the book at the table I’d rather consult it.

    Besides those programs I use the internet extensively, the Pathfinder SRD to look up rules, Wookieepedia as a reference for Star Wars, Google and Wikipedia for general references. I’ve tried some of the software out there like PC Gen and audio file management, but end up falling back on the typical PC tools for my games.

    One thing I do NOT manage with my laptop is music. I create playlists and folders in iTunes but then export them to an OLD iPod and play them with a set of speakers. If I have the music blasting from the speakers I feel it’s a distraction, I’d rather have the music playing at the other side of the room.

    My players don’t use laptops at my game. I’ve never asked them NOT to, I think they see it as a distraction for them .

    I do NOT have a notebook, but I work with them at work. Though I think they are great for some things they don’t meet my needs. I’m a big guy and typing quickly on a smaller keyboard is not as quick, I turn the laptop around to show some images, and a small screen simply will not do for the players across the room. I’m a convert to using laptops it my game.

  15. Every player at our table has a laptop out. We run our maps on Maptools, which frees up more room on the table for snacks. Lately we have been running some one off adventures at various different levels, with different characters. As a result I don't print the character sheet, I just load up Character Builder and off I go.
    .-= Wimwick´s last blog ..Always Train Your Worst Skills =-.

  16. I use my notebooks for all my games. I use excel character sheets so I can keep track of everything. Especially useful for penalties and bonuses. I can bring a boatload of PDF's without any extra encumbrance.

    One of our games is in a house with a toddler. We all have laptops and use a virtual battlemat. Not having dice and figures around is very helpful.

  17. I am RPGer from Korea. May be you know Korean love IT tech.

    As I know there will be at least two labtop or netbook on the any rpg team's table.

  18. No one that we game with has a netbook, but often laptops are at the table. For me, a laptop at the table is distracting it interfers with the social aspect of table-top gaming. And unlike madbrews group not everyone is mature enough to handle having their machine at the table – when there's a pause all you hear is the start of a game or some chatter from something someone else is watching.
    .-= pb´s last blog ..For Blog and Cleavage =-.

  19. A netbook would have some advantages over a notebook for this. It's smaller and it can't run the most involving games. When I run, I make a rule that people don't play computer games when their characters are present. And if people tune out, then I ask them if they'd rather be doing something else. Another suggestion is to keep the laptops out of people's sightlines. It helps to keep the group active.

  20. I use my netbook as GM at the gaming table because we run a friend's handy javascript initiative application. It is quiet, has a small footprint next to the GM (leaving room for GMs screen, dice, papers, rulebooks) and I can consult my session notes and make new ones on it.

    PCs are baneful for the players as they tend to lead to people not acting starting up side conversations, games, surfing the net, so we banned PCs for everyone but the GM who is fully game-engaged all the time and thus not distracting himself or other players from the game.

    3.5 D&D Initiative Tool (should work for any D20 games, I use it for Stargate without modification although I do not use Stargate's fluid initiative rules).


    Because I often do a lot of Skype gaming as well, using forums and web pages for characters and house rules, my group frequently uses computers for those games.

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