This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
I’m still not sure where I come down on the whole laptop at the gaming table issue. Maybe my mind would be definitively made up if I were to see a GM make brilliant use of one. My main fear, I guess, is one of focus. I’ve always felt that one trait distinguishing really great GMs is their personal attention to the emotional dynamic of the room. Are the players rapt? Bored? Is a jolt of energy required, or maybe a snack break? I worry that a laptop serves as an even more formidable barrier between moderator and player than an oversized or overused GM screen.
Then again, it could be my Luddite side showing. I haven’t observed such a thing in the field, but I’m willing to admit to the possibility that there’s a new generation of instinctive multi-taskers coming up through the ranks who can keep one eye on their combat trackers, another on the minis table, and a third on their players’ attention spans. Or is that one eye too many? Sorry, I was busy checking my email in mid-paragraph and lost track of my number of eyes.
Maybe, with universal wireless connectivity lurking just around the corner, the GMing future lies in handheld devices. I already consider my PDA as my backup brain, and that’s without a wireless connection for instant net browsing. Whether it’s a mobile phone, a hyped-up pager or micro computer, we’re all used to seeing our friends fiddle with their devices of choice, to such an extent that they hardly steal focus in the course of a game session. You can consult a smaller device unobtrusively, without hiding your eyes, the key to your connection with others, from your players.
I’m already using a handheld program to track initiative order, that notorious bugaboo of smooth pacing, in my current D&D campaign. I don’t need to tell you about the wide variety of utilities for the wired GM, or the handy availability of searchable d20 rules.
Although it’s exciting to see solutions to game mechanical complexity appearing in mobile devices, other less obvious cheats and shortcuts await the wired GM. Rules rule in combat situations, but it’s when I’m inventing new plot material on the fly that I often find myself lusting for seamless, invisible browser access.
Real-sounding contemporary names are an example so obvious I only include it so you know I gave this list some thought. It’s tough to dream up authentic and memorable names without a cheat sheet. When caught without one, I often find my eye drifting to the bookcase. The authors of my film book collection, which is right at my elbow as I game, have lent their names to minor characters for ages. With a browser ready, mix and match names are waiting at any newspaper’s dot.com location. Avoid international and entertainment news stories, whose surnames are all too familiar, and instead head for the local news. Experts responding to science stories often have fabulous names. Naturally if you’re planning on published these names you need to swap out first and last names, so you’re not labeling that nice environmental science prof commenting on global warming as a cultist of Dagon.
A name is only the beginning when you’re suddenly called upon to flesh out a walk-on character. Without external prompting I find myself defaulting to a couple of standard characterizations: the dumb guy, the disinterested cynical guy, and the insinuatingly mocking villain. To find other personalities for minor characters, I hit the Internet Movie Database. I start by clicking on the first name I see on the site’s front page; then into their filmography, then down the cast list of a title somewhere in the middle of that list. (Top-most items for active performers are usually for films that don’t exist yet, and lack suitably long cast lists.) If I then need another actor to serve as inspiration, I alter one of the numbers in the film’s URL at random. That takes me to another film, which hopefully will be in English or include foreign actors I recognize. So instead of another dumb guy, that vendor at the market turns out to be played by booming-voiced comedy player Eugene Pallette. For a non-standard villain, I might cast against type when I stumble across the name of shambling genius thespian John C. Reilly. This trick works best for those pre-equipped with a deep knowledge of obscure character actors, but even the casual cinephile should be able to match up major stars with enough personality traits to distinguish a minor character.
Ebay is a great source of detailed descriptions for treasures. Need a McGuffin? Try its antiquities section. The jewelry and art categories allow you to pull up images and info on all manner of exotic loot.
Images provide not only a concrete sense of reality to stimulate your player’s imaginations, but can answer questions so that you don’t have to.
Real estate listings, including sites geared to apartment hunters, provide copious photos of contemporary building interiors. An afternoon of bookmarking will put the appropriate rental sites at your fingertips.
To get an image of what you really want, Google’s image source provides more reliable results. The photosharing site Flickr is good for shots of random, mostly young, contemporary people.
For imagistic inspiration, though, Flickr provides a free-associative paradise. Its large user base and often wonky self-defined tag system brings up a wealth of unexpected visuals at the input of a single word. It works best as a prompt for improv, helping out on nights when you’re completely flying by the seat of your pants. After a raw search result comes in, click on “most interesting” to get the most evocative images. Nearly any term, no matter how abstract, yields something that might spark an idea. As of this writing, Cthulhu had 399 photos in his gallery. “Mortality” got 155 hits; “treasure”, upwards of 1300.
I’ll depart with an exercise. Create an adventure hook for your favorite contemporary setting, drawing your inspiration from three images that come up on Flickr, one for each of the following tags: burden, hellfire, forget. Those interested in proving their free-associative superiority to all comers are urged to post their results to the Pelgrane Forum. [Ed. — this forum is no longer live.]