Monday, December 28, 2020

Computer-Assisted Gaming

I've mentioned before that the very first issue of Dragon I remember buying (as opposed to owning or reading) was issue #62 (June 1982), in part because of its glorious Larry Elmore cover. I carried that issue around everywhere with me and read it cover to cover so many times that it literally fell apart. The other day I was reading the PDF version of the issue included in the Dragon Magazine Archive I got back in 1999 – one of the best purchases I've ever made – and, while doing so, I came across an advertisement I hadn't thought about in decades. It's for a program called Game Master, produced by a company called Alkazar Associates of Arlington, Virginia, USA. 

At the time this ad appeared, personal computers were pretty uncommon, at least among my friend group. A classmate of mine was an early adopter of PCs, having a TRS-80 on which we used to play a Star Trek (or perhaps Star Trek-inspired) game that I thought was the most amazing thing ever. Another friend, whose older brother was an early (albeit reluctant) gaming mentor and whose father was a wargamer, owned an Atari 800 (I believe; it's possible it was a 400). But I didn't have a computer of my own till I was in graduate school a decade later. Consequently, ads like these intrigued me mightily. The very idea that there were computer programs that might assist one in playing a roleplaying game was equal parts baffling and exhilarating and I tried to imagine how they might work.

Though I never did see Game Master, which, after a little digging online, I learned came in "basic" and "advanced" versions, I did eventually see a very good computer program produced for the Amiga in the early '90s. Called "Chargen," it was an exceptionally easy to use and functional character generation program for use with Second Edition AD&D. The program, as I recall, allowed the user to determine which rulebooks and supplements to use, in addition to providing the means to add one's own material. That was a huge bonus and one that made the program quite attractive to me at the time, since I had been elected referee of a Forgotten Realms campaign that had been running for several years prior to my arrival and had been heavily house-ruled during the course of its existence. 

In the years since, I've made only intermittent use of computers in running or playing roleplaying games. I have a few programs that automate aspects of Traveller, for example, one of which – a character generator – I sometimes idly "play" to pass the time, but these days I mostly prefer to do things "by hand" and roll my own dice. Mind you, I don't play any games that would really require the use of computer assistance, which may well bias my feelings on the matter. At the same time, I pretty strongly feel that roleplaying games are an "analog" form of entertainment and that the introduction of computers and other forms of digital or electronic technology warps game play in various ways, some obvious, some subtle. I say this even as someone who has played in or refereed multiple long-running campaigns online, so I'm not speaking out of ignorance on the matter. It's a subject I find myself thinking about throughout 2020, since face-to-face gaming hasn't really been an option and likely won't be for some time to come. 


  1. When i play i dont wanna eletronics be envolved.

  2. I have a recollection--perhaps fogged by advancing middle age--of a classmate in junior high (this would have been in the 1980s) who had a parent who worked for IBM, resulting in said classmate having an IBM PCJr., an exotic gizmo at the time. And my recollection is that this classmate used a BASIC program in his DMing that (I think) he'd come across in a magazine and painstakingly typed in one line at a time.

    What this DM helper did--rolled dice, had random monster tables, generated NPCs, or what--I have no idea. I may be misremembering altogether. But I believe this was my first exposure to the idea of computer-assisted tabletop gaming.

    Years later, I found myself using a character generation program for D&D 3.5 (which generated nice printouts for players) and Campaign Cartographer (which generated nicer maps than I'm capable of drawing). More recently, there's a neat website for Call of Cthulhu players that is a great way to come up with quick pregens and important NPCs.

    I dunno. I get the old school appeal of keeping the tabletop tabletop. On the other hand, PDFs are a huge spacesaver and a OneNote "binder" is a bit easier to keep organized than a physical notebook.

    The strangest thing, considering the overlap between tabletop gamers and the computer-savvy, may be how clonky the integration of software and tabletop gaming has been. You'd think we'd be better at this--the most useful piece of gamemaster software out there may be OneNote, an application that isn't specifically designed for gamemastering at all.


  3. I remember the ad. Funny thing is, that address not too far from my family's business when I was young and I travelled on Lynn street a few times as I got older. It is (used to be? IDK- nowadays) a residential area, so probably somebody cooking something up in their basement.

  4. I'm heavily reliant on technology for gaming. We play Basic Fantasy on Maptool, using an extensive framework of macros to speed play. Plus, I use an Excel app I also built to track the passage of game time, which serves to trigger random encounters, light source usage, food & water usage, and weather. Plus, it handles all their equipment. I get the appeal of going full analog when gaming, cause I get tired of sitting in front of a screen for work and then doing it again for fun. But, I'd rather minimize game time calculating, referencing tables and tracking stuff. It's rather nice letting a machine do most of the grunt work, so I can focus on aspects of gaming that are really fun.

  5. I'm with NorwoldFan in some of the stuff. I don't like character sheets on smartphones or online playing. But I do use a bunch of random generators that I made on excel or IPO to speed up prep. Rolling for treasure and random room contents take a lot of time that I could use with more creative work (like developing these treasures and contents).

    But when I'm running the game, everything is there printed for me and my players.

  6. I use a laptop to keep my notes on, as if they were on paper I fear that I'd quickly lose track of them.

  7. I was always anti computers until the pandemic came to call, preferring note making and log keeping. But then when I was forced to game online I had no choice but to embrace it. I must say that I have found the tools available mighty impressive. I can only speak for roll20 but we've run a 5e and a star wars campaign with great success. The links from the character sheets to the dice rolling is really good and automatically adds bonuses etc. It enhances online play but once able to meet in a group again I know that we won't use it again. My AD&D game with my son is proper old school and never used technology... And it feels so much better for it.