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The Handheld GM

By Ross Winn. Copyright 2001.

As an early user of the notebook computer, in particular a Powerbook, and as an avid gamer I was immediately interested in the possibilities for Game Mastering opened by the notebook. The notebook allowed me to carry all of my notes all the time. It allowed me to roll dice infinitely. Most importantly, it allowed me to react to my players immediately; I could reconstruct and rearrange scenarios as my players ran forward pell-mell, ignoring many of the situations and scenes I had spent hours writing.

It occurred to me that the handheld computer would make running an RPG a much easier proposition on several fronts. Of course that was in 1996 and PDAs were out of the reach of most of the population. Still, some early adopters and pioneers began to build the tools that would make it possible to be a handheld GM. The handheld was far beyond my means for some time. However I was lucky enough in 1998 to purchase a Newton 130. Since then, smaller, faster options, in the form of handhelds, have become available; as they gained popularity, people have created tools that are useful for GMs. Having only had experience with the Newton and Palm platforms, I will limit my comments to them.

As a writer, the Newton was a very hard tool to replace, and only in the last six months have I found PalmOS tools I am comfortable with that replace my Newton. I seem to be getting ahead of myself. So first we should talk about the Newton. Stand Alone's BigNotes was the first necessity I found for the Newton. BigNotes removes the 4k limit on the Newton Notes application and allows you to use all available memory. If you are lucky enough to have a Newton 2000, 2100 or eMate, the simple outlining features of the Newton Word Processor are more than ample for most tasks.

One of the more usable Newton applications for running games is Notion 2.0. Notion is a list manager that is highly customizable. So customizable in fact that you could design character sheets in Notion should you wish to. Notion also allows you to export to the notepad as well as beam lists to other Notion equipped Newtons.

Dice rolling programs are not as common on the Newton as on the Palm but DD-Dice is a good one. The Newton RPG Page at <> has links to several RPG Utilities. The largest Newton software archive I have found is the United Network of Newton Archives at <>; the only problem at UNNA is that you must know what you are looking for before you go there.

Though the platform is beginning to show its age now in 2001, the Newton Operating System remains years ahead of its time in text recognition, screen size, and adaptability. As a testament to the platform's longevity, new software is still being developed for the Newton.

Now I find myself craving my nineteen-inch display at home, but not wanting to lug around ten or even five pounds of anything. About a year ago I purchased a Palm Vx to replace my aging Newton 130. It changed my life, and the way I GM, yet again. The changes in the way I compose, write, and run games are pretty dramatic. I thought it would be fun to share my experiences as a handheld GM.

Some GMs and players may wonder why use digital tools at all? Many of us have been using simpler tools, paper and pencil, for years. While many of these approaches are perfectly fine, I still think there are advantages to using a handheld. Your outline is your plot line. For this reason I consider a good outliner the single most important tool I use. I can quickly add, delete, and note different items without worrying about what page, or what margin, I have written it in. As you progress through the scenario you can expand and collapse different topics or parts of your outline. As you note these different sections it is also simple to blend in elements that come to you as a GM during play. Using a handheld also makes it harder for your players to read your notes, even seeing subconsciously how many pages you are into your scenario notes. There is almost no practical limit to how much you can store in a newer handheld. Nearly a hundred thousand words can fit into a single megabyte of storage. This also makes it extremely hard to forget certain notes or papers. If you carry a handheld you commonly carry it everywhere. It becomes an extension of yourself like a set of keys or your wallet. Handhelds are also painfully simple to back up. Most, like the PalmOS, even archive information as you delete it from the handheld onto your desktop computer.

So you have decided to take the plunge and become a handheld GM. Great, welcome to the club. To get started you will need a few applications to make your job easier. After searching long and hard I have found a few I consider essential. I hope the information is helpful.

Palm Dice Roller

The first thing I looked for after buying my Palm was a dice roller. I found one in Palm Dice Roller. It is freeware, and it rocks! The buttons are configurable, the interface is simple, and it even calculates running totals and Hero System body totals. If there was an improvement I could make it would be to make each die display separately on multi-die rolls. This would be especially good for the World of Darkness. A fudge die roller might be nice too, but I am not complaining. Palm Die Roller rocks on toast, to quote a friend of mine.

In my experience the die roller was one of if not the single most resisted change in my GM style. Many players felt betrayed or rejected when I didn't roll physical dice. Not for any specific reason, but simply because dice were the game for many of them. After a few weeks of the world not coming to an end, and not feeling cheated by the virtual dice, the players warmed to the idea. In many situations I now feel it is a necessity. It allows me to sit in a chair and run a game without a desk or table to roll dice on. It allows me to roll quickly and to do so without losing dice. Nothing breaks up the flow of a game more than searching for a lost die in an important roll. My players quickly became used to the fact that I didn't roll dice. Many of them, however, chose to keep using analog dice. The act of rolling and choosing which dice to roll was an important part of the roleplaying gestalt for them.


HandWrite is another freeware utility that I really use a lot. You can download this program from the Palm section of I was unable to contact the author of HandWrite, and it is a 0.8 release, however I have found it to be extremely stable and easy to use. Rather than just using the graffiti area, HandWrite allows you to jot quick notes, small pictures, and even handwritten scrawl without having to use the Palm graffiti alphabet. I have found this useful for all types of information, and with several pages available you can even compose cryptic suicide notes or jot down a rough sketch of the room before the session begins. Though it is definitely too small to use for full dungeon maps, a few rooms fit nicely. You can then draw the rooms much larger on your whiteboard or Megamat �. It is also useful to remember how you configured your dungeon tiles or 3d scenery at the end of the last session's play.


Brainforest Professional is the only program I have found available for Palm with both Windows and Macintosh desktop companion versions available. Brainforest is available in two versions. Brainforest Mobile is PalmOS only. Brainforest Professional has a companion program that resides on your desktop computer. Brainforest is, in its simplest form, an outlining program. Once you become comfortable with outlining the rapid organization and project management features become apparent and can really help you run a game. The program uses a tree analogy as is basis, hence the name. Each individual item is a leaf: add a leaf to an item and it becomes a branch, several branches make up a tree, and all of the trees on your Palm make up your own Brainforest.

Outlining acts much like the outlining in Microsoft Word. There is a simple numbering system that can be turned on or off to show the organization of each tree. You can also choose from several additional numbering styles. Individual leaves and branches can be copy and pasted between trees. Branches and leaves can also be dragged and dropped to reorganize. So if the players forgot to chat with the innkeeper, you can drag that event to another place on your outline. That way, you are aware that the clue they would have gotten is still waiting for them. It is also important to note that since each leaf can be a to-do item, checking off individual items can have cumulative effects. The entire Tree, a scenario for example, can then be easily judged. If three of the nine items are complete, then the project tree will show 33% done. Individual branches, leaves, or the whole tree can also be sorted by priority, subject, or completion. Each Item can also have individual notes of up to 32k in attached text. Simply put, I cannot recommend this program highly enough. The mobile edition with limited export capabilities is only US$29.95, and the professional version with more expanded exporting options and the desktop companion is only US$39.95.


Sometimes an outlining and notes program like Brainforest is all you need. Other times a more traditional word processor makes sense. WordSmith is a PalmOS word processor with many of the features of a full-function application. It is as close to a full word processor as I would be interested in carrying on my Palm. Though it does lack spell checking and some advanced text formatting, it takes loads and loads of text and makes it easy translatable to your word processor of choice using text, RTF, Word, or Palm doc files.

There is just not a lot to say about a word processor. It works, and it works well, but it is not incredibly sexy or complex. That may be the greatest compliment I can pay to WordSmith. It works, works flawlessly in my experience, and uses many of the same commands my other word processors use. WordSmith has just released their 2.0.1 version and also added a full-featured ebook reader and advanced memo functions. The ebook reader even includes an auto-scrolling feature so you can read one-handed while holding on to the subway rail. Other improved features include native margin and tab support, including hanging indents. Use of true type fonts through FineType technology greatly improves reading ease by allowing the use of traditional windows fonts on the palm display. Finally, it offers support for direct printing using InStep Print or Bachmann PrintBoy.

With these programs I have found all I need to be a handheld GM, and a better GM at that. I hope that this can be a help to you as well.