What’s on my Laptop

Monday I talked about my GM kit and contents thereof, and I mentioned my laptop as the second part of my game mastering load out. Ever since my friend David (Hi, David!) gave me this laptop, I have been adding, tweaking and expanding its potential for tabletop use. And while I can still GM without it, I’m not sure why I’d want to at this point. So I thought I’d talk a bit today about the things I keep on my laptop that make my GMing life easier. Some of these things cost money, and when that happens I’ll try to suggest a cheaper or free alternative I have also used and liked.

1) MS Office – I know, doesn’t seem terribly game oriented. But a good word processor can be a GM’s best friend. I open a doc every session and use it to keep notes. Then I will take those notes and refer to them when I expand other docs, like “NPCs Met.doc” or “How Cursed is the Party Now.doc”. Plus a good word processor allows you to make cool player hand-outs: coded messages, messages in other languages, different hand-writing. You are limited only by how much time you want to spend on free font sites. Plus, the other aspects of MS Office, like Excel and Powerpoint, can be useful as well. Little known fact: you can use Excel to make quick and dirty dungeon maps. True story.

I use MS Office because that is what came pre-loaded on the laptop. Since I’m already comfortable working in the MS Office environment, I saw no reason to switch it out. But if you don’t currently have it and want something about 95% as robust, I’d suggest Open Office. I currently use it on my desktop computer and it is every bit as useful a WP as Office, and free. Just remember to save your files as something other than Open Office files, or you won’t be able to open them elsewhere.

2) Hero Lab (Lone Wolf Development) – Now we get into the gamer programs. If you are a player using Hero Lab, you already know it is a genius character creation tool. But it is a genius combat tracker as well, and while I don’t use it as such all the time, I am starting to embrace those new-found charms. What I primarily use it for is the aforementioned character creation, but for non-player characters. In the Pathfinder settings it allows me to choose whether I’m making a PC or NPC, as well as whether this is a normal NPC or a more challenging heroic NPC. Hero Lab will also allow me to track the Challenge Rating of the NPC, so I can determine if I’ve made it challenging enough for my group (almost never, more challenge!). Basically, Hero Lab speeds up both my down-time and at-the-table time as a GM, and I find it super useful.

Hero Lab isn’t cheap, though, and while I think it is worth the price of admission you may not have the wherewithal to jump on board. Good alternatives are PCGen, a free character creator; and GMGen, which allows you to track combat and make copious campaign notes, and comes with PCGen. PC/GMGen is open-source software and easily customized by those so inclined (I am not). Both also allow you to add information to the program easily, which is good since they don’t come with as much info pre-loaded as Hero Lab. But they are just as robust if you have the time to fill them in, and I’ve used them to good effect at the table.

3) Virtual Dice – Admittedly I almost never use virtual dice. Given my perhaps unhealthy obsession perfectly normal interest in real dice, I haven’t had much cause to need eDice. But I have one cued up just in case, for those time when I maybe need to roll something but the dice are already packed away, or my dice are just sucking. I use a very straightforward site called Roll Dice Online, which pretty much says it all. What I like about this virtual roller is that I can set any number of sides (between 2 and 100), any number of dice, and any number of rolls of said dice. So if I need five quick Fort saves, I ask for one d20 rolled five times and bam! Done. Actually, the times I use it in-game are with my higher level campaigns, where the NPC spell-casters are chucking around those spells that need 15d6 and such. I roll the number of physical dice so the players (okay, and me) still get the nerve-wracking rattle of dice behind the GM screen. Then I ignore those dice and read what the generator tells me. I also use it to pre-generate a bunch of d20 rolls that I can use for NPCs and monsters in-game for saving throws, Perception checks and so on. When I need to make a roll I just grab the next number off the list, add modifiers and I’m done. Keeps the table trucking along, especially during high level play.

4) Music Player – I use iTunes, but really, anything will do. I will often play game appropriate music at a low volume during games, because I feel it sets the right mood. I also have certain tracks flagged so I can jump to them at certain moments (start of combat, jump scares, creeping dread) to heighten the moment. Lately, I have also begun experimenting with recording NPC dialogue and fiddling with it in Audacity, to add a certain special feel. Example (possible spoilers): in my Rise of the Runelords campaign the party just discovered a 10,000 year old library, with one remaining clockwork librarian. I could have just read the boxed text of his greeting, but I chose instead to record it, add some mechanical and dripping noises overlapping it, and change his voice to be higher-pitched and mechanical. It wasn’t perfect, but I think it captured a bit more of the creature’s nature than just my voice would have. Obviously your mileage may vary, but if you’ve ever considered adding music and sounds to your game, I highly recommend getting Audacity.

5) My PDFs – Don’t get me wrong, my love of physical game books will never die. There is something I get from lazing on the couch on a Sunday morning, sipping a coffee with a game book in my hand that just isn’t the same if I’m reading off a laptop. But I am more and more getting into the use of PDFs at the game table for two important reasons: portability and searchability. I have a PDF of almost every game book I own on my laptop, the equivalent of many tens of pounds of bulky books. If I am travelling somewhere to GM and my choice is between bringing all those books or my 3lb. laptop, that’s not really a choice. But beyond that, having these resources in PDF form allows me, through the use of bookmarking and tabbing, to have the information I need available almost instantly. And any time I can save at the table, say by not needing to flip through books looking for rules, means more time focused on the fun things involving the players.

Extra bonus of having game book PDFs: errata updates. Most if not all companies do automatic errata updates of rulebook PDFs, so your PDF will always remain the most current version of the rules.

And that’s that. I’m still adding, subtracting and modifying laptop content all the time, trying to find a perfect blend of functionality and ease of use. If you have any questions about anything I’ve mentioned please drop it in the comments. Also, if you have a must-use piece of gaming software you want to share with us, comments. See you next week and good gaming!