Friday, January 11, 2013

The Surfacing Game Master

Our household recently acquired a Microsoft Surface RT tablet. I say "household", because the Fiancee actually acquired it, but I have been the one doing most of the using.

The Surface is Microsoft's entry into the increasingly crowded tablet market that is still dominated by the iPad. The characteristics of the Surface v. iPad seem to mirror the characteristics of PCs v. Macs. In both cases, the Apple offering is glossy and geared towards intuitive use (i.e. simple enough that a not-particularly-bright 3 year old can get it) The Surface, on the other hand, has a bit of a learning curve just like its PC older brother. Get past that initial curve, however, and there are some pretty damn cool custom things you can do with the Surface such as multi-task, run full wordprocessing and other business-oriented programs, etc. In a nutshell, it does more than run apps and play movies.

Last night was my first time back in the GM chair since before the holidays and I had been itching to try my hand at running a game from the Surface. 

Here's how it went:

The tablet works really well as a GM platform and I managed to run the whole game without physical game books or a GM screen at my end of the table. The touch keyboard is almost as efficient as a full-size keyboard and the kickstand on the back allowed me to set up the tablet at an angle I could see but that my players could not. The tablet is smaller than a laptop and held my game notes, DM screen and game books, thus reducing my personal footprint at the table. My players mentioned that they felt they could see me a lot better without a larger laptop or GM screen in the way.

Running from the Surface produced a couple of rough spots, mostly due to oversights or errors on my part. For instance, I was running two different pdf readers but chose the wrong one to display my game books (more on that below). This made it slower than anticipated when I needed to look up a rule or stat.

I also had been using the Surface a bunch at work that day and had forgotten to plug it in the night before, so the battery was at about half power. The tablet generally has amazing battery life, but because I had tweaked the power settings to keep it from going to sleep, and because I was expecting to run multiple programs on it, I decided to plug it in. Next time I know that wont be necessary, and so I wont be limited to positioning it within reach of the plug. I could even walk around the table!?

Here's the setup I used:

Two OneNote windows running in the desktop view
The main OneNote window held my pre-planned session notes.
The other was a new page in a docked window where I kept a running account of the session.

main notebook on the left, running notes on the right

Two pdf readers
I have both the built-in Reader app and the official Adobe Reader app on the machine, which I used last night to pdf versions of my game books and GM screen. Now, as I mentioned, I got the readers backwards. I should have opened the DM screen in the official Adobe reader and the game books in the Microsoft Reader app. The Microsoft Reader is more user-friendly when it comes to switching between pdfs.

The side-by-side view lets you switch window by sliding the bar between them


An IE window with the D&D wiki open to the 3.5 SRD. 
This was also really handy for quickly looking up rules and stats.

I also have a grouping of live tiles on the start screen just for D&D stuff. 
These include a bookmarked name generator, a map generator and a couple other resources I might want close at hand but don't need all the time.

Everything I need in one handy group!
I definitely plan to continue using the Surface and refining my setup in order to optimize its capabilities. I still need to figure out the best way for incorporating my usual game night soundtrack into the setup and I really need a scanner so I can upload my hand-drawn maps!


  1. Nice to hear a review from a real user!
    Windows 8 is perfect for the tablet but sucks on home computers.
    Since I am on my third iPad, I'll probably stick with Apple for tablets.

  2. Alex,

    That's another big reason I chose to make this post. It seems like all the information out there about the Surface is either MS Propaganda, which generally overestimates the device's intuitiveness or from Windows 8 haters who spend all their time waving the poor sales figures around.

    My experience is that once you get past the learning curve,and figure out which 3rd party apps are reliable (since a lot of "official" apps have yet to come on board) this thing is quite a solid little device. The ability to run OneNote was also a MAJOR selling point for me.


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