Is the iPad the Messiah of Roleplaying?

Apple's iPad
Apple's iPad

When Apple unveiled their new multi-touch tablet device [1], the [horribly named] iPad, I watched as half of the internet sung praises of Apple to the heavens while the other half spoke of disappointment. In the tabletop roleplaying community, I saw a trend of tech-minded gamers [2] [3] hail the tablet as the messiah of digital roleplaying.

My personal opinion is, much like the internet, divided between praise and disappointment. However, I strongly disagree that the iPad will be the savior that shepherds tabletop roleplaying into the digital Promised Land. This article assumes there is such a place, but does not serve as an argument concerning any debate over whether there is, or is not, a digital paradise for tabletop roleplaying games.

Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

Tablets are not new, and a good friend of mine has used his touch screen Lenovo ThinkPad tablet [4] as a digital library for gaming for last five years or more. It’s not as slim as an iPad, but it’s not unwieldy either. The iPad looks fantastic as a document reader, but I fear I wouldn’t be able to read any of my existing e-books on it nor could I transfer anything bought through their iBooks [5] app on any of my other devices.

Defective by Design Org
Defective by Design Org

The iPad does offer a multi-touch display, but that is not new either. Regular (single) touch screens have been available on tablet notebooks for years and multi-touch became available on tablet netbooks [6] last year (primarily with the release of Windows 7 which supports multi-touch [7]). I do think that Natural User Interfaces are a revolution in computing, but the fact that the iPad uses it is not.

The iPad does offer an accelerometer, which is great for when you switch between landscape or portrait orientation and for video gaming. The base model (sans 3G and with only 16 GB of storage) did surprise me with its price of only $500. But it’s lack of support for Flash, incapacity to multitask, inability to install apps outside their app store, and Apple’s penchant for DRM [8] all prevent me from hopping aboard the iPad fanboy train (the lack of a camera or GPS doesn’t affect me though).

Besides, I think the Always Innovating TouchBook [9] does a good job of providing all the features of the iPad I like (sans multi-touch) while still being able to have control over my content/software for a $100 less ($200 less if you don’t want the attachable keyboard) and it’s been on the market since last fall.

iPad, the False Prophet?

If Apple’s tablet is not really anything new, can it still show the path to the digital nirvana of tabletop roleplaying? It’s possible, but the iPad would have some very big obstacles to overcome. First, this assumes there is a financially viable market of gamers that are looking, whether they realize it or not, for the Digital Promised Land of Roleplaying. Second, this market needs to be willing to purchase an iPad for this game or they need to have already purchased an iPad for other reasons (read: market penetration).

Third, there would have to be a company that would develop the platform and publish a game that targets this market. But just targeting the iPad wielding digital roleplaying pilgrims would not be enough. The game would have to be fucking awesome. So awesome, people are blinded by its divine light when they play it. What is more, this divine game would still have to be a roleplaying game (preferably one that meets my definition [10]), because that is the only way it could urge the rest of the tabletop roleplaying industry to embrace such a platform… which would truly make Apple’s tablet a messiah.

I do not see all the previously mentioned components becoming a reality; therefore, I do not believe the iPad is the Messiah of the Digital Promised Land of Roleplaying. At best, it is another herald that whispers in the ears of technophile gamers and Macphiles. Publishers looking at utilizing tablet devices to enhance or facilitate tabletop roleplaying would be best served at developing device agnostic platforms that can support any web browser.

Regardless of its impact on tabletop roleplaying, it’s sleek form factor and price point is an important harbinger for things to come in the world of web and document devices.


[1] Apple unveiled the multi-touch iPad tablet device Wednesday, January 27th, 2010.

[2] The Apple iPad: It Will Change the Way We Play. The Core Mechanic. 2010-01-27.

[3] Is iPad a Game-Changer. ICv2. 2010-01-28.

[4] The Lenovo ThinkPad multi-touch tablet.

[5] Apple’s iBooks, a storefront/app that provides e-pub format books for purchase.

[6] The ASUS T91MT is a tablet netbook with an 8.9” multi-touch display for $484.

[7] MultiTouch Capabilities in Windows 7. MSDN Magazine. 2009-08-01.

[8] A Look at Apple’s Love for DRM. Ars Technica. 2010-01-04.

[9] The Always Innovating TouchBook is a touch screen tablet with an accelerometer.

[10] RPP 101: Defining Roleplaying Games. Mad Brew Labs. 2009-01-15.

Listening to: Machine Head – The More Things Change… – Take My Scars

12 thoughts on “Is the iPad the Messiah of Roleplaying?

  1. @MJ Harnish: I’m not so quick to dismiss the size. I hate navigating the web via my Blackberry, but something the size of the iPad hit’s the “big enough to make sense of content but small enough to be comfortable” sweet spot. That being said, for me to invest in something with the single purpose of reading documents, it has to be cheap (less than $200), support at 16 bit color, read multiple formats (especially .PDF), have a screen at least the size of a US Letter page and last at least 10 hours before needing a recharge. Reduce any of those requirements and I’m not spending a dime over $99.

  2. I don’t really get what the iPad is FOR. It doesn’t have e-ink, so it’s not much good as an e-reader. It can’t multitask, so it can’t replace netbooks and definitely not laptops. It doesn’t appear to be a phone and it has less storage than mp3 players at a comparable price point. Portable DVD players of a similar size are also much cheaper. So what exactly does the iPad do better – or even as good as – any existing products? What niche does it fill?

  3. The IPad does nothing for me – as far as I can tell it’s pretty much just a big Itouch. What makes an eReader appealing to me is that it’s much easier on the eyes thanks to the screen technology – the Ipad’s color screen might be cool but it’s going to be just as rough for reading as the computer screen I’m looking at. I’m just waiting for the day for a full-sized (ala the Kindle DX) eReader that provides full-featured, native pdf support before making the jump.
    .-= MJ Harnish´s last blog ..D&D Gamma World RPG – Now there’s an idea I like =-.

  4. There does seem to be a certain amount of excitement over the iPad amongst a segment of the RPG crowd. I myself am pondering what the device could bring to the game table (in fact, I hope to write some apps for it in that vein). However, no single device is going to deliver any kind of deliverance, and since it is not actually out yet, it is hard to determine exactly what it will and will not do.

    I highly suspect there are a lot of features we have not yet heard about as they will be part of iPhone OS 4.0 (the iPad is only running 3.2) which will come out this summer (likely to be announced first week of June). There are some fairly obvious areas where Apple is playing its cards close to its chest.

    However, MadBrew, I do think you’d be able to bring a lot of your stuff to the device. iPhone OS already has native support for PDF’s, and the iBook application will use ePub, thus I’m going to go out on a limb and guess iBook will read any non-DRM ePub and PDF (based on the fact that the iPod application will play any non-DRM AAC and MP3, and the video application will play any non-DRM h.264 and MPEG-2 in the right format).

    The publishers likely will demand Apple uses DRM on the books it sells. I really don’t think if all the publishers said “really Apple, no DRM at all please” that Apple would invest the time, effort, and money into the losing battle that DRM is. Aside from Apps, the “lock-in” they provide is an (usually) awesome end-to-end user experience.

    I’ll have more to say about these topics on my blogs, and enjoy reading everyone else’s view as well, later…

    .-= awmyhr´s last blog ..When RPGs Meet SMGs, Part One =-.

  5. No way that the iPad is the answer to everyone’s problems, but like the iPhone, it provides a platform for answers. The hardware itself is slick, but not groundbreaking in any way. What makes the iPhone so popular, and I suspect might continue with the iPad, is that you choose the apps that you find useful. It’s like a Swiss Army knife where you choose the blades.

    I’ve DM’d a session using only my iPhone. I put my notes in a tiddlywiki format. The iPhone kept going into sleep mode (I didn’t want to risk running out the battery) and even with my precautions, the battery barely lasted a four hour session. Looking at the little screen wasn’t ideal, but it worked.

    The iPad has the potential to answer all those complaints. I use my iPhone about 90% as a web-surfing/e-reading utility (and about 10% as a phone). For me, the iPad seems like a nice solution. That said, because of the storage limitations, I’m going to look seriously at a netbook instead.
    .-= anarkeith´s last blog ..Obtaining a Miniature for your D&D Character =-.

  6. @Swordgleam: The “another sexy Apple gadget” niche?

    @anarkeith: Was there an advantage in there somewhere? The app doesn’t have an app for me.

    @Awmyhr: Does it support FLAC? A ton of my music is in that format. Besides, I wouldn’t purchase an iPad to be a glorified MP3 player or PDF reader; I already possess tools to do that. This may sound elitist, but the lock-in Apple provides doesn’t equate to a spectacular user experience for me. I think it boils down to the same reason I refuse to drive/maintain a car with an automatic transmission. I prefer the greater control and precision of the manual and easier (and often cheaper) to maintain than the automatic (a much more internally complicated device). Half stolen idea from John Gruber.

  7. @MadBrew: No, it doesn’t support FLAC — from what I understand part of it deals with the legal concerns regarding so-called “free” codecs, they have not been tested legally speaking, thus supporting them is risky and only important to a relatively small group of people (not disparaging your use of it, just a market reality). I would agree, if the iPad were a glorified MP3 player, or just an e-book reader, or any other kind of single-use device, it would not interest me. But it is a multi-purpose device that lets me focus on a single purpose at a time.

    I believe you’ve hit the crux of it when you state you’d rather have “the greater control and precision of the manual.” The iPad is designed for more people who need to achieve what it can do without being distracted by themes, task managers, widgets, and other fiddly bits. They don’t really *want* to run ten programs at once, they want to look up some info and get on with their lives. It sounds like you’re the type of person who likes to fiddle with those bits, and that’s fine, a netbook running Windows or Linux certainly sounds like it would be better for that role.

    In the use cases where I’d want to do what an iPad can do (say interact w/web via surfing, e-mail, etc), I would not be happy with a netbook. In the use cases where I’d want to do things the iPad can not do (say, programming), I would still not be happy with a netbook. Heck, right now I’d rather be surfing your site, adding to this conversation, with an iPad then my laptop. Later, when I’m working on one of my projects, I’ll be happy to be on my full, 15″ notebook.

    However when we are not talking about either you or me, but the hypothetical “RPGer,” I can think of many ideas for apps that could enhance their experience without getting in the way like laptops tend to. Laptops and netbooks siting around the gaming table are mostly distractions, an iPad can be more like an electronic piece of paper.
    .-= awmyhr´s last blog ..When RPGs Meet SMGs, Part One =-.

  8. I recently bought an ebook reader for reasons of convenience, travel, etc., and I like it but one of the first flaws about it to strike me was that it makes my bookcase vulnerable to DRM, just as my iPod rendered my music collection vulnerable to this. I don’t like that aspect of this technology, though it’s probably made up for by the convenience (I seem to live between two or 3 countries, so not having boxes full of books is a boon).

    I’m also amenable to the view that a good tablet computer could significantly improve gaming. One of my DMs already used his iPhone to access rules, but it was cumbersome and a bigger game device would have been better. On the other hand, the only thing that really is amenable to digital improvement is the seamless application of rules to dice rolls, and this means making the dice rolls digital, which a lot of players object to.

    I think iPads would improve the game if they had a networkable app which enabled a kind of open game table type of device to be used, so everyone could view their character sheets and make dice rolls on the app. But ultimately I think that this would still run afoul of many players’ objection to virtual dice. I’m an Apple computer fan (I use an iMac with windows installed for games, and I really like OS X) but I don’t think the iPad is the killer technology that Apple claim it is.
    .-= faustusnotes´s last blog ..Current reading: The Court of The Air =-.

  9. awmyhr, that sounds rather like cheating to me 🙂

    I don’t have a problem with virtual die rolling, but many players do – there’s a physical pleasure to casting one’s luck that they want to keep. Putting that aside, though, the main benefit of an iPad would only arise if there were some software that could be used to help everyone share the gaming tasks. For example an iPad could remove all the trouble that usually occurs in Rolemaster, turning it into an actually playable system. That would be great!!!
    .-= faustusnotes´s last blog ..Current reading: The Court of The Air =-.

  10. I think that I’m actually looking forward to it. Of course, I think that mine will have to be cracked like any good iPhone about 15 minutes into ownership, but once you do that and things like multitasking become available, then I’m pretty sure that it will do everything that I’m looking for it to do.

    Of course, living outside Steve’s rules does seem like a necessity, and the fact that you would need to do that to get at the device’s full functionality does seem… odd at best.
    .-= MrLich´s last blog ..Sketchwork Dumpage =-.

  11. @MrLich: The only thing good I see about the iPad is that it has jump-started the tablet market. Besides, considering the progression of technology/pricing with their previous endeavors (iPhone/iPod touch), I think it would very foolish for anyone to purchase the first or second generation of iPod (hell, they announced iPhone OS 4 RIGHT after the iPad released).

    I figure this time next year will be good time to purchase a tablet, right after all the tech companies launch gadgets for Xmas.

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