GMing Without Devices


When I was running games for my adult friends, I didn’t worry about phones or laptops at the table. Sure, they checked social media and texts during most sessions, but they were mostly attentive, and I didn’t want to be “that GM” with them.

However, when I started this campaign with teens, I wanted to set a norm for having no devices at the table. I didn’t want to police their behavior, but I wanted them to see we could all have fun by immersing ourselves in the game without a device in sight.

They actually were completely fine with it. In fact, the biggest hurdle for me as a GM was to run a game without any devices.

GMing with Devices

My first serious campaign started online, so from the beginning, I have always run games with devices. At the time, there wasn’t a rich ecosystem of apps, references, and utilities for D&D. We at least had dice, character sheets, and shared battle maps to move around in.

I can’t be certain, but I think this might be my first digital battle map ever

Next, I incorporated more digital tools into my prep. I stored my campaign notes digitally for ease of updating. Rather than coming up with content and encounters from scratch or by rifling through the rulebooks, I used sites like donjon, Kobold Fight Club, and Fantasy Name Generators. These were all boons for getting me out of GM writer’s block.

The last big step was using devices as part of my live in-person games. In addition to my notes, I used Game Master 5 for building and tracking encounters, found various RPG playlists on Spotify, and always had D&D Beyond up for rules and spells.

Overall, I was pleased with my setup and happily brought my iPad along as required GM equipment. Then, I tried to do without it.

Going cold turkey

I suspect I could have used my iPad in this device-less game without any of the teen players complaining. I obviously was too busy running the game to be distracted, and I needed it for different reasons than my players. However, I took it on as a challenge for whether I too was dependent on devices.

First, I had to replace my notes. I dug up an old spiral-bound notebook from college with all of the notes torn out leaving me with about half of the pages empty. I bring it to every session, but since I prepare and run so little each week, I barely have to look it.

Second, I stopped playing music. I can’t really think of a substitute other than just being more engaging and dramatic as a narrator.

Third, instead of D&D Beyond, I carry my core rulebooks plus Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. At the Angry GM’s suggestion, before starting the campaign, I re-read much of these four rulebooks. Angry says it’s to have grist for the game, but I mostly wanted to re-acclimate myself to the rules. I was actually surprised by how many rules I had previously missed, like how to identify items or how to handle group checks. I recommend re-reading: the rulebooks are quite thorough.

I honestly somewhat forgot that I could just use the actual books.

Fourth, instead of Game Master 5, I also added a bunch of tabs to the books for important references and random tables. During the game, I usually don’t need to read rules, but I have to throw things at the players and pull up the monster stat blocks for the fight. Previously, I rationalized that it was more efficient tracking and rolling in an app, but now I have real dice in my hands, it is nice to roll sometimes, too.

How it’s going

Prior to the pandemic, I was running several online games. When the pandemic started, I was already prepared and transitioned all of my games. However, that experience burned me out on online games, and even though I miss my remote players, I am currently committed to running games strictly in-person.

Going completely device-less at the table is the final step back to classic tabletop gaming. And it was surprisingly seamless to go entirely to paper. There’s something deeply engaging and immersive about trying to run a game in its purest, most basic form.

At a less strict table, I certainly might bring it all back. In a different game, I really might need all of the tools. However, I really don’t miss it for this particular game, and I hope my players are none the wiser.

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