Tablets

I noticed during our game last weekend that Dan uses a tablet or e-Reader of some sort when DMing.  The DM of my regular game actually has a full-on computer at his side (no really, giant monitor and everything, it’s like the great wall of DM screens).  Incorporating some kind of into my DMing is something I’ve tried many times in the past.  Geez, this blog entry from 7 years ago (7 years!  holy crap!) is probably my most recent attempt where I put some crazy HTML-ified version of a module onto a netbook.  That lasted, well, not quite as long as netbooks.

So I started thinking maybe it was time for another try.  While to date I’ve found nothing quite as versatile and easy as paper, I do use a lot of it, and that always feels just a tad wasteful.  Especially with longer material like the Stonehell PDFs, or the DCC book, etc. I’d love to have a lighter / faster method to have more of that material on hand quickly.  So I did a little poking around on the inter-webs.  I was curious to see what was out there for tablets or similar that would be useful specifically for gaming.

My primary requirement was a long battery life — it’s got to last through an entire gaming session, even better if it could last a whole day of gaming at a convention without needing charging.  The actual software requirements are pretty light.  Mostly I just want a good PDF reader and access to my cloud data (I run a personal owncloud server, because I like my bits where I can see them and the cloud is just someone else’s computer).  In fact, inability to play games or run other fancy/expensive software is probably a good thing here, so I’d be less tempted to multi-purpose the device and then be frustrated that it doesn’t do everything amazingly well.  

Honestly I wasn’t really considering buying something, it was just mild curiosity and boredom driven web browsing, but I made a startling discovery.  In most reviews I read, after the very expensive latest iPads in positions #1 and #2 for best battery life, many rated #3 as the humble Amazon Fire HD 8, which retails for a pretty conservative $80 on Amazon right now.  I guess this makes sense, Amazon’s target has always been the e-Reader market.  Kindle has more brand recognition than Fire I would think.  Also, as the Fire is ultimately an Android, I know I can get access to the software I’m already used to for my phone and/or develop my own.  On that point, while Amazon is pretty lacking in apps (and as a developer I know too well how crappy the value proposition is for supporting Amazon devices) I did find that it’s pretty easy to just install the Google Play store onto a Fire device.

Since it’s my birthday, and it was so inexpensive, I figured what the heck and ordered one.  It came in yesterday (on my birthday, what a happy coincidence!) and so far I’ve not played with it very much.  One immediate downside I’ve found is that it’s a bit smaller than I anticipated.  Perhaps I’m just used to iPad size of tablets from work, but the 8″ 16:10 screen seems pretty small and narrow for a tablet.  On the plus side I was happy to discover that it has an SDHC slot, so there’s no good reason to pay the extra for the 32 GB size.  In fact, I had a stray 32 GB SDHC card just lying around that I was happy to chuck into it.  

Here’s the software I’ve installed so far, I’d be curious to hear any other recommendations from DMs used to using a tablet behind the screen:

  1. ezPDF Reader – First and foremost I need a good PDF reader.  I’ve tried a lot of them, and the free ones are fine, but this one is my favorite so I forked over the $4 for it.  Features I love:
    • Fit Text to Column – this is amazing for D&D modules.  You double-tap on a page containing multiple columns of text, which is a classic and much-used module layout, and it zooms the view to fit one column across the entire screen.  Then it gives you navigation buttons to page along by column, moving between columns correctly to give an even flow of text.
    • Annotations – ability to write/draw on top of your PDF is pretty common feature these days.  I’ve never really used this, but I think this may be the time I start.
    • Text to Voice – silly I know, but sometimes if I’m in the car or painting minis or something it’s nice to have someone read a module to me.  As this uses the device’s built-in voice software, it appears Alexa is reading modules to me, which is actually much better than other computer voices I’ve heard.
    • Page Turning Animations – another silly one, but I love the verisimilitude of a nice page turning animation that looks like real pages in a book.
  2. ownCloud – Access to all my stuff.  You probably want DropBox or GoogleDrive or whatever Amazon has.  Everyone has cloud storage these days.  Personally, I’ll pay the $1 for access to the 12 TB raid array I have plugged in at home.  Yet another reason 16 GB on the device really isn’t a limitation.
  3. Inspiration Pad Pro – Best table rolling app out there.  I’ve written a lot of tables for this thing, from an adaptation of my favorite fantasy name generator, to the OD&D treasure tables, to a complete character generator.  It’s super powerful and a great tool, and amazingly the desktop version is completely free.
  4. DiceShaker D&D – No, I totally prefer real physical dice, but in the rare case I don’t or can’t use real dice, this is a reasonable substitute.  I’m sure there are plenty of free dice apps out there that are just as good.  What can I say, I’m a sucker for good digital emulation of real physical objects.
  5. Evernote – This is a new one for me, I found online someone saying they used Evernote behind the screen and its laissez-faire attitude towards collecting scraps of information does strike me as pretty well aligned with DMing.  I haven’t yet had the lightning stroke that makes me think this is a totally required DM tool, but I’m giving it a shot.  I’ll make sure to follow up on this one in the future, even if it’s just to say that I’m abandoning it.

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3 Comments

  1. For what it’s worth (Dan here for other readers), what you saw last weekend was my first experiment running a game from a tablet — motivations being (a) the 500 page Rappan Athuk PDF, and (b) moving to having more digital materials in the future (acquiring fewer paper books). I’m quite happy with that experiment, although the original plan of having paper printed maps in my DM screen, and using the tablet for text, got foiled due to unexpected player agency and I was swiping back-and-forth between map & text all the time. And if you didn’t have the extension cord when I ran out of power then there would have been a problem.

    What I have myself is a Kindle Fire (first generation… gift from a family member). I get quite a lot a use out of it — all my teaching materials, syllabi, open education textbooks, journal articles, etc. All my digital gaming rulebooks in case I ever need them. The DCC Beta rules for Max’s game.

    I wish it were easier to install new software. And that the thing didn’t update itself uncontrollably without my permission. I’ve never activated an Amazon account with it. The only thing I have installed for software is File Expert file-system exposure. A few months back I researched for a purely open-source tablet option. The Fire was getting really crunky to use; I opeted to do a complete factory reset and that did solve the problem.

    1. I’d swear I saw you using it at HelgaCon in the past, maybe just for castle maps in the outdoor spoliation game?

      … the original plan of having paper printed maps in my DM screen, and using the tablet for text, got foiled due to unexpected player agency and I was swiping back-and-forth between map & text all the time

      Is there any format where jumping between map and text was not painful? I think only TSR actually got it right by putting maps inside their removable module covers so they could be used as screens and thus separate map navigation from text navigation. I think like you I will likely still try printing maps on paper to have separate physical objects to look at for the two.

      I wish it were easier to install new software. And that the thing didn’t update itself uncontrollably without my permission.

      Hm, those sound like polar opposites to me. Perhaps I’m just too used to auto-update being a dev of mobile software, but man, having to manually update stuff and keep up with the million things is just too painful. I long ago switched my phone to auto-update everything and would never go back. Side note – on the creepy “it does too much” note, when I received my new tablet and turned it on, the first screen said “Are you Paul Siegel?” I was like, how the hell does this thing know who I am? In retrospect, I purchased an Amazon tablet from Amazon. The purchasing interface and the device are both innately linked to my account, so I probably shouldn’t be too surprised. By I seriously wonder at the tech – I’m guessing maybe the device used info from my wifi to draw the connection between the order and the actual device?

      Amazon is a bit over the top with hand-holding and forcing stuff on you. I have a work iPad for development, and with both that and my Fire the first thing I did was create a folder of “crap I’ll never care about” and shoved as many icons into it as possible. Wish I could uninstall the bloat-ware. The only device I’ve seen be good about this is my Google phone. Google is pretty cool about just giving you the bear essentials and letting you install only what you want. But I’m not paying $600 for a tablet that I expect to do little more than read and annotate PDFs.

  2. You’re right — I did use that for castles in one game. I think that’s an example of a resource that I didn’t initially plan to use, but had it just in case. Last weekend was the first where the primary adventure text was on the tablet.

    For a long time I’ve been printing maps on paper and slid them on the inside of my DM screen, separate from the text. Even the G-series cover maps I would make a reduced copy like that and annotate (wandering monsters, terrain/height notes, name of monster in each area).

    I’ve got to admit that I’m really grognardy with wanting control over my devices/updates. I have a “quarterly chore” item in my scheduling database that pops up with a checklist that I just go through for a bunch of stuff like that. One of those things I kind of fantasize that more people did so as to make that sustainable long-term, but I realize it’s truly not.

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