What's the Single Most Disruptive Technology in Role-Playing Games?

What’s the single most disruptive in-game technology in either computer or pen-and-paper roleplaying games (RPGs)?  Easy: it’s the cell phone.  Any game that has them (or an equivalent) is a game that can have endless complications.  Why this is obvious, of course: cell phones were created to help answer the question Why didn’t somebody just tell me that?  Given that RPGs are, in the end, stories; and given that written or filmed stories often rely on Person A not telling Person B a critical piece of information until it’s too late to matter, you can thus safely assume that dealing with a cellular phone network can be a real problem for a gamemaster (GM).

It’s admittedly easier to handle in computer RPGs. In computer RPGs the player has communications when the video game wants them to have communications, and when the plot demands that the communications network go away, the network goes away. Which is quite often sloppy writing on the game’s part, but never mind that right now: suffice it to say that this particular tactic doesn’t always work as well in a tabletop RPG.  The players are going to actively push back on any and all attempts to take their characters’ phones away, because the phones protect them from surprises, and players typically hate surprises.  They’re so rarely good surprises, after all.

None of which helps GMs deal with their players’ ability and obsessive willingness to continually keep each other apprised of everything that happens, obsessively order all supplies, warn ahead of time any and all people who might conceivably need warning, and of course call the Avengers instead of actually going into Certain Death Situations themselves.  But what will help? How do you run a game where you can’t count on a lack of good long-range communication devices in order to move the plot along?

Well, the first thing that you can do is to ask the players to not use perfect communications to short-circuit your plots.  Come up with a reason why they can’t always use their cell phones in a way that the players would like — or, in fact, have the players themselves come up with a suitable reason.  That can get them invested in the game world, which is a good thing right there.  It probably helps if you give them a positive reason to self-regulate their behavior; it never hurts to use a player-character’s insatiable lust for a +1 to their rolls.

If that fails… well, maybe you shouldn’t run plots that can be short-circuited — wait, no, everybody gives that advice. So why not embrace it, instead?  Let the players utterly romp through the campaign by taking full advantage of our modern communications network.  Let them win big, get the rewards, get the fame… then get the tougher jobs, and the projects with the higher stakes, and remind them that people with higher profiles get less leeway to screw things up.  After all, if they’re such great information brokers and fixers, then they shouldn’t have any trouble at all with quickly and discreetly handling difficult or even nigh-impossible tasks. Then, of course, give them all the trouble that they can handle, and then some.

And then there’s one other little trick you can try: you often don’t have to take away their cell phones. You can just as easily set up situations where they’re risking losing their cell phones. Or possibly ones where using their cell phones puts them in additional risk.  The goal there is to make the players think about the consequences of using their tools; if they decide to take the risk anyway, that’s great. And also a possible source of conflict, which is always a nice thing to have in an RPG.

Of course, the most obvious solution is to play in a campaign where there are no cell phones. This works great! Right up to the point where the players invent them, somehow.  The blessed things are simply too useful…

(Artwork created using multiple images.)