Role-playing games (RPGs) have long been the domain of the geek and nerd. Since many of the same people who have been playing RPGs for the past three decades are also the same people who have been advancing the world of computers, it should come as no surprise that some of the earliest games for computers were RPGs.
While a great deal has changed since the days of playing Ultima on the Apple II, computer RPGs are still limited by the fact that a fundamentally unimaginative computer is running the show. Classic paper & pencil RPGs have continued to thrive because of the simple fact that human beings have the ability to improvise. A human game master (or dungeon master or whatever) can adapt to a player's desire to devise a unique spell, craft a personalized weapon, or write their name on the wall with a lightsaber. While computer RPGs will not make their paper & pencil sibling obsolete any time soon, computers do have many advantages over a human that can be exploited for classic RPG play. Over the years many applications have sprung up to allow those who have a computer (usually a laptop) available during a session to largely bypass the old fashioned number crunching and paperwork that can slow gameplay.
In this article I'd like to highlight some of those applications to help developers and potential users find each other. To keep things manageable, I limited the list to applications which can run natively in OS X (I'm running 10.3.7 at the time of writing). I've included my impressions of each application but my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt as I am not familiar with many of the RPGs for which the applications were created. This list is not intended to be comprehensive so please don't be upset if your favorite utility isn't listed. Anyone interested in this subject is encouraged to do their own supplemental research. Where applicable I've included a link to the application's homepage. In any case, most of the applications mentioned can be found on IMG's sister site MacGameFiles.
Dice UtilitiesOne of the most logical uses for computing power in an RPG is to produce random numbers. One of the more time consuming aspects of game play can be all of the surprisingly complicated calculations needed to determine the results of attacks, skill use, and all the other activities which include a random element. The nice thing about dedicated dice apps is that they can be used with just about any RPG. You can't swing a dead rat on the net without hitting a dice utility that someone slapped together. Here are a few of the more noteworthy ones:
Very straight forward and effective dice program. Allows the rolling of up to 255 dice (each having up to 255 sides) with the additional options of adding a bonus to the total (once again, up to 255) or dropping the lowest or highest roll. A nice feature of this app is the detailed log which is given of each roll which displays a roll's total as well as the result of each individual die. You can even export the log to a text file if you like (though I have a hard time imagining how that would be useful). Besides being a simple and effective dice roller, DiceX is also free.
The main attraction of this little app is that it actually has graphics, which lifts it head and shoulders above the competition in that department. Unfortunately, the rest of the experience can be a bit awkward. Though it does have some nice features (you can use custom graphics for the dice for example), they take a little bit of work to implement properly. If you've got too much time on your hands, you can probably have a lot of fun with this one. If you're more interested in something that will save you time, consider other options. DiceBag X is free.
Dice Roller 188.8.131.52
While there are many options for d20 systems or similar games, there are fewer options if you play games like Shadowrun or White Wolf with a success/failure per die system. While Dice Roller does support d20 style rolling, its primary benefit is its ability to support the alternative mechanic of those "other" games. While not as polished as some other programs, it is still very usable. Although free, it does require registration after the trial expires (don't ask me why). If nothing else fills your needs, Dice Roller is certainly worth a look.
Xiphoid Dice Roller 0.2d
While this one is definitely not for everybody, I found it an interesting departure from traditional dice apps. The unique feature of this utility is its support for the creation and execution of complex dice equations using a mathematic-style syntax. For example, "(2d4+1d6+2)*2" will roll two four-sided dice, add the result of a six-sided die, add two then multiply the subtotal by two. "4d6k3" would roll four six-sided dice and keep the three highest results. It takes a special kind of nerd to appreciate this kind of mumbo jumbo; be sure to read the "Read Me" to make use of it. As the version number would suggest (and the developer warns), this is still in the alpha phase so there are still unimplemented features, and quirks can be expected.