I use a dual-boot Windows XP Home and Ubuntu Linux system. My computer is very old for a computer nerd, nearly 8 years old, but since I mostly use Linux, it runs a LOT faster than Windows and does not slow down with age. (This may be the year we get a new computer.)
My number one tool is the programmable text editor, NoteTab Pro. It is a Windows program, but runs just fine in Linux via Wine. I keep text files and outlines with lots of my information. I also have customized clips (NoteTab scripts) for generating random names. I used another tool to generate 1,000 names for each of a variety of cultures, real and fantasy. My clip then uses those lists to pick a random name. I have it try again until it picks a name I want. I also have clips to help me build NPCs, Kingdoms, etc. I keep adding to the capabilities of the Clip Library, but it still has too many rough edges to share. It is hard to find enough time to build the campaign — I get caught up in building the tools.
Next would be Open Office. I mainly use Calc, the Excel equivalent, to do what I need with spreadsheets. Open Office is available for Windows, Unix, Linux, and Mac. It can save directly to PDF, which is handy if you have to use Windows. I saw two interesting articles on using spreadsheets for timelines, in this case Googledocs, and for maps (floorplans), just in the past week.
On Linux, one can print to a file, and choose pdf without having to set up another driver to do this like in Windows. The easy way to do this in Windows is with CutePDF. It is a free print driver that lets the user save a PDF of anything they can print, to the directory of their choice.
For graphics it is Gimp, the free graphics editor, which is available for Windows and many other OSes. I have fiddled with my campaign map which I got on the computer using my camera on a tripod, since my scanner is broken. My camera is now out of commission. It is over 6 years old. I can get a 5 megapixel camera for a lot less than I paid for this one. (Sometime after summertime expenses for the family.)
For web browsing, I use Firefox. It too, is a program with native versions for many OSes. I like its tabbed interface, which I have used for over 11 years with NoteTab. I often end up with a few dozen tabs with the various topics I research. I like the ability to save a group of tabs together, so I can re-open all of them at once. It makes it easy to go on the side tracks of research, but not lose your original place. I also like the customizability of all the add-ons. NOTE: I switched to Chrome a few years ago, due to speed issues with Firefox. I was reluctant, but don’t miss it.
I have a couple of one-page wikis, such as ten foot wiki, that I am evaluating to help organize my information. Using such wikis online requires having them secured and backed up regularly to prevent malicious or accidental loss of information. The nice thing is that they can be used locally for the DM to keep all his notes in one place if he has a fast enough computer to handle it. The drawback is no power. The advantage of pen and paper is that you can play by candle light, or the light of a campfire, as my group did in high school, when we stayed at a friend’s house “in the country”. We would beat on each other with sticks for swords. We learned about padding our weapons from an SCA guy at the local Renaissance Festival, and had a few less bruises.
When I started with Basic D&D in 1978, computers were a novelty no one I knew could afford. The well-to-do families had the first Atari game systems. My high school had one Apple II, that we occasionally got to play a Star Trek game, there might have been a couple other games. And we had to write a ten line program to do square and cube roots. It was either my junior or senior year in the 1981-83 time frame that we finally got a TI 99-4A. In college, I was in the first group of freshmen that did not have to use punch cards. It was not until the mid 90s that I had a computer of my own that I was able to type up all my character and other information. I still do maps by hand. I suppose if I had a Wacom Tablet, that might meet my needs. The one thing about us “old-school” gamers is that we can spend a lot less money to have fun. If I had all the game systems and other fancy toys my boys have, I would never have gone outside as a kid. I certainly would never have been bored.
My brothers and others in our game group talked about having computers networked together so that each person only saw things from his character’s perspective, but the GM could see it all. We should have patented that idea, since WOW and others have done it. Oh well. Since those online games require a monthly infusion of cash, I have steered clear of them. RPGs are a big enough time sink if one is not careful. It is all too easy to lose track of the time when engrossed in a project on the computer.
The nice thing about using computers with gaming is that you can consolidate a lot of information in a small space and still read it, all without getting writer’s cramp. I am slowly consolidating all my information so that I only have one binder for my characters, and another for my campaign.
Now there are all kinds of programs for running RPGs online. It is hard not to have that face-to-face. I think I could do a game like that if I could do it with the group I used to play with all the time. If you know each other, such things would be easier. I do have online friendships with people around the world, but playing an RPG online seems quite difficult. I may give it a try sometime, since finding a local group has not yet born fruit. The one benefit is that you don’t have to worry about your wife not approving of the people coming to your house. My wife is not OK with the whole gaming thing, so I have not introduced my kids to it. I think after all our years of marriage, I have finally convinced her that it is not evil, in the sense of all the sensationalism of the 1980’s. The only kinds of games my wife likes are board games and card games.