Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 06, 2016
Tabletop game companion apps

A reader wrote me in response to my previous post and asked me to look at another area of overlap between video games and board games: The board games companion apps that are more and more available these days. Board Game Geek has a long list. These companion apps are supposed to be running on a tablet next to your board game on the table, fulfilling various functions like scoring, rolling dice or other things.

Fantasy Flight Games has even announced a companion app for Descent which replaces the "Overlord" aka DM of that game. That means you need one less player available, and it changes the nature of the game from antagonistic (one player vs. the other players) to cooperative (all players vs. the computer).

Roleplaying games without a "Dungeon Master" or "Game Master" have become quite popular. As my previous journal entry from my D&D campaign showed, even the most well-meaning DM can sometimes come into conflict with his players, because the perception of where the line between dangerous and unfair is varies from player to player. If you don't create danger as the DM you fail in your job to create an interesting heroic story, but if you push it too far your players can get frustrated and angry. The same can happen with players getting angry about random events in a DM-less game, but at least the anger isn't directed against one of the people around the table.

Companion apps that replace a DM open some new doors to DM-less games, with an app replacing the DM. Of course that has many of the same limitations as playing a computer RPG, that is your actions are limited to what the rules say you can do, and you can't have a human DM giving you a creative response to your creative idea that goes beyond rolling dice and the information on your character sheet. As an interactive storytelling game, DM-less games are less suited. But if your interest is mostly in the cooperative tactical game of exploring dungeons and killing monsters for loot, a DM-less game with or without a companion app can be a good solution.

Note that even for pen & paper roleplaying games *with* a DM there are companion apps and other software to help the DM, for example with keeping score or managing monsters and characters. You could even build yourself a table with a touch screen embedded for digital maps! Or install a projector on your ceiling for the same effect.

In short, just because you prefer to play with friends around a table rather than playing a videogame online or solo doesn't mean you can't use the power of computers for some help and added effects.

DM-less games have been around for a long time, almost as long as D&D itself.

Take the Avalon Hill boardgame Magic Realm, for instance, which was AH's attempt to create a boardgame that mimicked the D&D experience.

Then there's GW's (and now FFG's) Talisman and FFG's Runebound. Both attempt to create the adventure game experience without requiring a DM. Still, apps have their place in gaming; like you said, they allow people to all play on the same side. If there's only three of you, then you can get a better game of Descent with all three on one side as opposed to 2 on 1.

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