TableTech #1: Character Apps and the Question of Distraction

Last Updated July 10th, 2021

Welcome to TableTech! For this ongoing series of articles, we’ll be looking at different ways to incorporate technology into the traditionally analog world of tabletop roleplaying games. There’s a big overlap between video game fans and tabletop fans, of course, and it wasn’t hard at all to round up five players in the office for a new 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

By the way, 5th edition D&D is fantastic, and the starter set is super cheap and does a great job of introducing new players into the game.

In each installment of TableTech, we’ll tell you about our latest experiment with bringing tech into our tabletop RPG, and share our thoughts about how it went. Teching up tabletop games is a burgeoning subculture of gaming, and can involve things as simple as tablets playing suitable ambient music to complicated set-ups with projectors suspended from the ceiling to display battle maps — and we want to try it all.

I’ll be playing the dungeon master role in our campaign, and for the first session I instructed the players to seek online resources for learning the game and creating their characters. They also explored the world of character sheet applications for Android and iOS devices.

Learning the rules

The newest edition of Dungeons and Dragons, known as 5th edition or 5e, does a lot right, and has received well-deserved acclaim since its release in 2014. Among those many things it does right is being new-player friendly in a variety of ways including, most importantly for our purposes, putting the basic rules of the game and a variety of other helpful information online for free. The excellent RPG-focused website Tribality keeps track of all these online resources (far better than Wizards itself does) in one of the most important single links on the entire Internet for the tech-savvy 5e player.

These digital documents are fantastic resources, especially since our campaign features several players who are new to 5e rules. I was able to send them links to these documents to help them learn the rules in advance, and players could put these PDFs on their phones or tablets for quick reference during the game.

Of course, as many people online have lamented, the lack of official PDF versions of the full rulebooks — the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide — is a serious disappointment in the digital age. Having authorized digital copies of these books on my laptop would be an enormous help to me as a DM, but sadly that’s not a possibility at the moment. Of course, as is always the case, unofficial PDF versions of the books have popped up online, but I don’t want to go down that road. I’d gladly give Wizards of the Coast (the company behind D&D) money to have legal digital copies, but until that’s possible I’ll just have to do without.

Apps with character

There are a variety of mobile apps and websites that can help new players design characters and manage their character sheets, and while I personally didn’t find any of them to be totally superior to the experience of pencil, paper, and dice-based character creation, they clearly offer some advantages that shouldn’t be overlooked.

If you’re interested in a character creation and character sheet app for an Android device, the 5th Edition Character Sheet app is basically your only option. Several of our players tried this out, and a couple even bought the premium version which allows you to level up through your app (otherwise you have to re-enter info manually upon level-up). Opinions on the app varied widely in our group. While everyone agreed that it did the bare-minimum job of storing all the information you would normally keep on a character sheet, the fact that it didn’t offer much else, still required reference books for elements of the character creation process, and wasn’t always clear or intuitive to use were knocks against it.

On the positive side though, it did make character creation much easier for new players, as the app moves smoothly from step to step and eliminates a lot of the flipping back and forth through the Player’s Handbook that would otherwise be necessary.

Our players had much higher opinions of the iOS-only Fight Club 5th Edition app, which offered more robust features and a nicer visual interface than the Android alternatives. While both applications do essentially the same things, the extra visual flair and ease-of-use offered by Fight Club make it the clear choice for anyone who has their choice between iOS and Android options.

Beyond the world of mobile apps, our players found a variety of useful utilities online to help them plan out their characters. Pathguy.com offers a robust (though crash-prone) character creator application, which incorporates material freely available online. The forums at Giant in the Playground have a ton of useful RPG info, which our druid player used as inspiration and guidance for his character. We also used a quick reference to 5th edition weapons, a point-buy calculator for ability scores, and the player guides on the official Wizards forums.

Finally, as a DM, I’ve found the D&D reddit communities to be invaluable for planning a campaign and for tech-based tabletop ideas. Some of the invaluable subreddits I’ve referenced are r/rpg, r/DnD, r/DungeonsAndDragons, and r/DnDBehindTheScreen.

Is it worth it?

The central dilemma involved with bringing technological advancements into the traditionally paper and pencil-based world of tabletop role-playing games is whether or not the utility or wow factor provided is worth the distraction of having a tablet, laptop, or other gadget at the table.

In this modern gaming era, a big appeal of tabletop RPGs is precisely that they aren’t dependent on technology. Many of us spend hours every week playing games on our computers, televisions, or phones, and tabletop RPGs are a way to scratch that same gaming itch that doesn’t involve melting your eyeballs out of your skull in front of a monitor, or whatever. A Dungeon and Dragons session where everybody keeps their phones in their pockets for a few hours and uses their actual imaginations can be a fantastic experience, and it’s one that’s becoming rarer and rare as more things in life become digitized.

So, since bringing tech into the tabletop world takes away from that escape that some players enjoy in tabletop RPGs, you need to seriously consider the benefit that particular tech brings to the table. While some modern innovations, such as 3D printing, offer nothing but upside, there are others, including phone-based character sheets, that threaten to distract and undercut part of what’s great about tabletop gaming.

In TableTech, one of our goals will be to figure out how to maximize the benefits of technology at the gaming table while minimizing its distractions and interference with the core experience. We’ll try things out so you don’t have to, then offer our perspectives on the good and bad sides of each innovation.

Stay tuned.

What tabletop tech would you like to see us try out in TableTech? Share your suggestions in the comments!