Paying Attention vs. Having Immediate Resources at Hand
It’s a computer driven world. It’s inescapable, even in a hobby that holds tightly to the physical resources of its early days. PDF’s are every bit as important as tangible books, and games like Fantasy Flight’s Edge of the Empire offer up virtual dice apps for cell phones and tablets as an alternative to buying expensive polyhedrals. Where once the players had to either photocopy character sheets from the back of the book or hand draw them in spiral bound notebooks, the simple solution these days involves a laser printer and the ability to find the publisher’s website. Hells, with tablet computers, it’s an easy solution to simply work with a form-fillable PDF rather than bother with actually messing around with pencil and paper.
This is taken further with the easy accessibility of resources like D20 SRD, where all of the requisite rules of the main rulebooks are posted up in quickly navigable HTML. Between a PDF of the applicable adventure and the right website, all I need to run Pathfinder is a set of dice and a number of players.
On the other side of the screen, I’ve found my players resorting to extensive spreadsheets for their character builds in Pathfinder, as the different modifiers for different situations require better tracking that perhaps a simple paper character sheet could offer. This becomes especially true with certain Druid builds, where their shifted form takes on all manner of new stat adjustments and abilities and their animal companions undergo the various enchantments for battle. Rather than try to memorize the myriad of situational modifiers, they simply note it down in the relevant cells and focus their attention on what’s happening.
And while I maintain an extensive library, I have even more in the way of PDF’s for the different games, using them to preview purchases or save my physical books from the expected wear and tear. I’ve run numerous games from the screen of my netbook, a vaguely bothersome affair at first as I tried to get used to the speed of referencing information, but something I’ve grown used to over the years. It’s a lot easier to use a book for a game that I’m less familiar with, but once I’ve mastered the rules to my satisfaction, it becomes an easy resource for the stickier rules that I’m less familiar with.
So, all in all, having the digital resources available is a positive thing, one that helps to equalize players and GM’s for having easy access to necessary information. Or at least it would seem.
To my experience, it’s also a bit of a bane for any GM, same as it is for any college professor trying to teach to a room full of students engrossed in their laptops or tablets. No matter what useful and game relevant material the computer in question makes available, it’s also a portal to social media and an assortment of games.
In my perception, the problem started slowly. Some years back, one of our players happened to be unable to unplug himself from his phone. While he was a decent player for the most part, he couldn’t fathom turning it off for any real length of time, and the result was that he’d periodically fish it out of his pocket during the session to text a reply to whomever had just messaged him. It had gotten to the point that it was largely autonomic, and the rest of the group wondered if he even noticed that he’d been distracted. The net effect was that, any time he got a text, he’d be largely oblivious to what was going on at the table until his phone returned to his pocket.
From there, it progressed to individual players laying hands on laptops or netbooks for work or school, integrating them into the flow of the game as I’ve mentioned above, and subsuming themselves into the interface. At first, they were mainly accessing their computers for the sake of their own PDF copies of the rulebooks or pulling up the SRD for reference purposes. Then, bit by bit, attention would waver onto other things, perhaps because of needing to check some important news item or email, until such point as the game itself was the distraction.
One of my current players takes this practice to the extreme, seemingly justifying his distraction as needing to amuse himself whenever his character isn’t in the direct spotlight. Depending on the night, he can be counted on to have some Flash game going in one window, if he hasn’t decided to play a few rounds of Starcraft while he’s waiting. It should come as no surprise that the player in question rarely interacts with the rest of the players, even though he’s stated that his game nights are the most important thing in his weekly schedule.
The best thing that can be offered in his defense is that, even without a computer, he was easily distracted by poring through different rulebooks during the games. Most of the time, it was simply time killing, since he had a tendency to focus on irrelevant esoterica, or looking up monster stats while the GM was running an encounter. Either way, it was generally unnecessary for the purposes of the session as it was playing out.
My experience with this one player has pushed me in the direction of banning all digital access during the course of a gaming session, but the reality of it all is that this would probably do more harm than good, across the board. Being that my players are usually pretty good about what sort of access they maintain, it would be a case of punishing the entire group for the sins of a single player. And since my players would then have to put out the extra money for a physical book, it would have a bit of a chilling effect on that aspect of the game as well.
For the time being, the only solution has been to simply let the one player sink into quiet obsolescence with his laptop, as it is easier to have a person warming a chair than it is to restrict the rest of the group. (And yeah, the problem has been brought up at different points, to little avail. He’s either legitimately unaware of his habits or playing ignorant to maintain access to his computer. And all things being equal, it’s more trouble than it’s worth to try to throw him out of the group.)