Monday, April 14, 2014

D&D v. Technology

If you would be willing to indulge me, I would like to begin this article with a little trip down memory lane. I began playing D&D in the fall of 1995 with 2nd Edition. At that time, we didn't have cell phones, tablets, projectors, fancy computers, or even the internet! (I personally didn't get connected to the internet until mid-1996. Wow, I feel old now!) So we played with paper (both lined and graphed), pencils, dice, magazines (like Dragon or Dungeon) and piles upon piles of books. In fact, I believe the most sophisticated bit of gadgetry we had in our gaming room was a CD player usually pumping out Queen, Guns and Roses, Alanis Morissette (long story), or Metallica. Yet despite our lack of technology, we had an absolute blast.

Fast forward fifteen years to 2010. At this time, during an average session of 4th Edition, I would be using a laptop connected to a flat-screen television to run the MapTool program for miniatures; a smart phone connected to my wifi to look up quick references; all of my books on PDF; and the Lord of the Rings Soundtrack pumping out of Winamp. Not to mention all of my players using their smart phones to send each other messages and even a few using tablets to run their character sheets and Player’s Handbooks. With all of this powerful technology at our fingertips we were still having fun but, to me personally anyway, it felt a bit off. You may call it nostalgia or maybe I’m just old-fashioned but I found something missing when we used all of that technology.

Fast forward another four years to present and I am currently playing D&D Next. I have a tablet which keeps my maps and PDFs running but other than that I use no technology. I’m back to paper, dice, and pencils. I no longer use miniatures of any kind as I much prefer the “theatre of the mind” system and I have deliberately cut out the use of anything I can do without. I find, as a DM, this makes me happier and more focused on what really matters: the players and the story. But this brings about a very interesting question: what place does technology have in a D&D game? In my opinion, it’s whatever makes the story better but that answer may not be as straightforward as it seems.

Originally, I thought that projecting miniatures and well-drawn 3D maps onto a flat-screen television would “up” my game; and while I’m sure that some of my players loved it, I hated it. It was a constant distraction for me during a session (making sure everything looked/worked right) and took up 2-3 hours of preparation time per session outside of the game. Additionally, I found that it also took away from the game on the player level. My players were so focused on the maps and miniatures up on the screen that they would go into what I like to call “head-space mode”. They would stare at the screen and plan their next round more akin to a game of Warhammer or Risk than D&D. I also found that inter-group interaction waned and improvisation in combat was almost non-existent. The players began to forget that D&D was a dynamic roleplaying game and began to treat it as a miniature/strategy game instead. In essence, the technology changed the nature of the game. The words of Marshall McLuhan (see here) began to ring loud and clear in my mind.

Now I realize that part of the problem was the 4th Edition system itself, which was a very miniature based game; however, I have no illusions that any edition using too much technology could easily fall prey to “head-space mode”. So, when the D&D Next playtest jumped onto the scene in May 2012, I decided to do a full 180 and go back to basics. I stopped using miniatures, 3D maps, my laptop, and flat-screen televisions. I went back to paper, a DM screen, and printed booklets. My conclusion: I was a lot happier.

At present, not much has changed. I have deliberately limited myself to one-piece of technology at the gaming table. It used to be my smartphone for looking up things on the web and at but now it’s my tablet for doing the same and having a few reference maps/PDFs close at hand. I've limited myself like this because I’d like to think I've learned a valuable lesson: D&D is sociable and technology is not. When I DM there are three critical things I feel I must keep an eye on: 1) What is happening with the story; 2) What is happening with the characters; and 3) Am I maintaining my players interest/involvement with the game? However, when I throw a lot of technology into the mix, I suddenly have to start splitting my attention into four parts (looking after the technology itself) instead of three and the difference is huge. Now some people may point out that good technology will make things easier/faster than pencil and paper and this will free up the DM’s time to concentrate on the other areas. I suppose that may be true but, from my own experiences, the trade-off is unnoticeable.

To clarify, I’m not giving all technology in D&D the thumbs down. What I’m saying is: all things in moderation and in harmony. Don’t immerse yourself in the “bells and whistles” of programs, apps, videos, and animations at the cost of losing the foundation of the game. D&D is a game about people and stories so keep the people and the stories the main attractions. I’m currently having more fun now than I have been since the beginning. I’d like to think that part of that turnaround is due to finding the right level of technology, i.e. the sweet spot where it helps but doesn't distract. Thankfully, D&D Next seems to be geared toward this kind of outlook and that makes me very excited!

Do you have a D&D/Technology story? Please share it below. 

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