Compartmentalized/Defecting Luddite

I’ve always been one of those role players who hates any laptops/smartphones at the table when we game. I see them as distracting & therefore damaging to the immersion we seek. Gaming online right now (which we finally decided to try since returning to gaming & 2 of my gaming friends are not in my town) sucks compared to all-in-the-same-room sessions.


I’ve realized that the old war of having the nuances of realism (which we love) vs. sessions getting slogged down by “crunch” (which we hate) has a trapdoor: using an app.  Of course, RPers have been doing this for many years now, & I’ve avoided it. Why go digital and lose the “pre-20th Century” feeling at the table?

But just over the past 6 weeks I have created an Excel combat tool (which I would transform into an app) that totally turned me around on this. During combat, this tool requires just one entry [a number] (from the players when they’re being attacked), and it instantly spits out a specific result by looking at all of that (stored) character’s information (stats/body/armor on each part of the body) to tell me exactly where they were hit, how severe that damage is, if they are knocked back/down/out/shock/blood loss, etc. I fell in love & can’t imagine going back now that we’ve used it.

I can play this with just the GM using the app, thus preserving the players’ “old-time” feeling. Or, I can also see a version where all players are using apps which are networked. I’m ambivalent. If you had proposed this to me even 6 months ago I would have balked. But now I can see a choice: Gain all the realism (in combat) I want (even more than I dared implementing in the past) with 1 second of entering a number, or stick to my old “sacred table” mentality (which is, at least in strong part, romanticized nostalgia).  

I believe my group will end up with the GM-only app-usage. Smartphone possession (let alone, use) at the table is just inviting distraction.

But I’d like to hear what your gut-reactions to the use of an app as a part of a system would be. (Combat works without the app, of course, but not with that degree of specificity.)




2 responses to “Compartmentalized/Defecting Luddite”

  1. Necessary questions

    Hi, and welcome to posting here.

    There are a few places in your post and comments so far that I think would yield a productive discussion, even slightly confrontational debate, but I’d like to address those slowly and thoughtfully rather than just dumping them out here.

    In this post, you and I are starting at the same point: general dislike for technologizing table-top role-playing. I only started playing by screen out of necessity, when I first moved to Sweden and didn’t find local players. That’s changed now, but I have adjusted and now play by screen as much as in person. However, I am clearly still an old dog because we don’t use apps or otherwise tech up details – the screen is simply a way for us to sit around a table, so we roll dice or use other instrumentation individually and use ordinary old character sheets. We share documents for images or similar things just as we’d pass them out at the table.

    This is perhaps the opposite of what you’re describing, right? You’re talking about in-person play using high-tech devices there, not by-screen play using low-tech devices. If I’m understanding that correctly, you and I present a useful comparative reverse-image. But then you mentioned some on-screen play technique too, so maybe not exactly.

    Anyway, to get to your direct question, I’ll start by saying “gut response” is essentially not what happens at this site. We have a zillion ways to get gut responses online these days, and I’d rather not see them here. Instead, and I hope not against your wishes, let’s get some comparisons among what people actually do.

    For my part, during in-person play, some people have used dice apps on their phones, including some which are operating by shaking the phone and even make rattling noices. I guess the main benefit is not carrying dice around, and although I couldn’t see much point besides the amusement value, the player I’m thinking of really liked it and apparently felt it made play more fun for her. Using it had no logistic effect on anyone else and I can’t see how it specifically facilitated any aspect of the imagined contribution or commitment, aside from the non-trivial point of being fun for that person.

    All that said, it seems to me as if your point about using your app has very little to do with the technology as such. You are referring to the processing of numbers at the table as a negative, what I’ve called “search time” and in this case especially “handling time” – and first, yes, I agree, historically a lot of that kind of processing is agonizing in play. The app cleans up personal effort for those calculations, which certainly makes sense for not shifting one’s focus to the processing. I’ll make a mild but blunt point here: the exact same effect is achieved by using mechanics which don’t require that kind of processing in the first place.

    I’ll go further by saying such mechanics have no claim to being realistic, either. Role-players have long believed that the more processing of that particular kind, the more realism, which is simply and flatly mistaken. Mechanics oriented toward realism (which I will qualify as defined “for you” or “for this group”) can be built without forcing a dozen post-role acts, math, and rules-checks into play. Good examples go back pretty far, with honorable mention to the first edition of Cyberpunk, and I’ll add the less modest example of my own recent game, Circle of Hands.

    All of which leads me to ask more specifically, how does the game you’re playing process results of resolution? Let’s look at two things: order/announcement of actions, and physical damage. Help me out! Please describe, briefly, what the table does under these situations:

    • A small group of reasonably powerful, individualized foes and the player-characters are beginning a motivated, dedicated fight. No one is trying to get away. Everyone is committed to taking down the people on the other side. How do you know who is doing what, and in what order their actions will or do occur?
    • Someone’s axe-blow has penetrated my character’s defenses, with a good solid hit, however that may have been determined. Now what? What happens to my character, what procedures do we follow at the table (analogue or by app, doesn’t matter), and who performs them?
    • I hate to interject myself,

      I hate to interject myself, sorry, but the last 2 questions are so damn intriguing! I hope the author of the post will come back to explain because the possible evolutions of that chain of processess is precisely what I've been exploring in the last iterations of my design.

      As for the main question, I think I'm also in the field of those who feel technology is at odds with my ideal of tabletop roleplaying experience. At the same time, I've been wondering about the issue on two levels:

      • the first is that cellphone usage has become so pervasive that it's almost impossible to contrast. I'm regularly seeing people playing with their cellphones on the table, checking messages, googling images and rules… so on one hand, having a dedicated app that absorbs that cellphone usage may actually diminish the level of distraction. If the phone stops being this extremely immanent item that reminds you of the outside world and becomes part of the game, then maybe you'll be more inclined to stay in the fiction.
      • The second aspect is tied to an amateurish theory I've developed on roleplaying games, which in short is that (when considering them from a design perspective) they can be fundamentally split in two different parts: Engine and Interface. Now discussing the ins and outs of this would be long, and roleplaying gamers (and authors) have long been inamored with the idea of having incredible transparency in communicating the mechanics* of the game (oddly enough, there's often more transparency in communicating the mechanics than what is put in actually exposing and communicating the rules, but that's another discussion), so in most case Engine and Interface are the same. Bluntly, the Engine is how the mechanics of the game work – how do I get to hit the troll, how my odds of deciphering the ancient text are calculated, how often I can invoke a certain narrative mechanics and so on. The Interface is how this is presented to the player, how the table actually interacts with said mechanics.
        Now this distinction may seem useless because since tabletop roleplaying games are not an automated process, these mechanics need to be in your face because you're rolling the math, deciphering the outcomes and so on. But what if I had an app doing that? What if the Game Master would be running his own "server" app, sending the prompt for a test to the individual player, communicating informations filtered by the character's own fictional positioning and so on? What if when the button lights up you'd be able to press it and receive an already calculated outcome, showing you only the info that is relevant (for example, in a PbtA, the list of different effects I get to choose from after a test, whether I need to compromise and so on)?
        What if, thanks to this technology, I wasn't limited as a designer to create something that needs to be calculated and remembered at the table in real time, and was allowed to go wild with my design?
        What if instead of being stuck in a mathematical system that reasons in terms of 1d20+ something or roll 3 dice and pick on result I could have incredibly complex systems that use 0.5%s as the level of precision, because the player never gets to see that?
        Would this be an ultimately liberating process, that allows the player to focus on what to do with the data the system processed and presented to him in conveniently packaged results, or the loss of the knowledge of what is actually happening under the hood would turn the game into a "videogame"?
        I have no clear answer on this. I'm not a fan of the idea, for sure, but I do wonder if there's a future ahead of us where this could become the norm.

        Again sorry for the intrusion!

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