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Be the Phone Nazi

I’m not a fan of taking calls during gaming sessions, nor of other folks answering their phones. Call me old-fashioned, but unless the caller is on fire (or you think they might be on fire), let it go to voicemail and listen to the message at the next break — and ask your players to do the same.

I don’t expect everyone to leave their phones at home (mine’s usually on, and right next to my chair), but breaking for phone calls is just one more distraction — and if we only have four hours, I want as few distractions as possible.

Am I just being curmudgeonly, or do you feel the same way when you game?

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#1 Comment By blackheart On August 11, 2007 @ 5:29 am

Phone calls can make a good flowing game come to a screeching halt. I don’t enforceme not answering phone calls, but to me… if you answer, make it quick and to the point. Tell em your gaming, and you’ll call em back later.

I did formally have a player who apparently thought he was good enough to carry on a whole lengthy call while we were playing. It happened several times, but after I stressed our time contraints a few times, he figured it out.

Probably should’ve been more forward with him, looking back on it now… oh well.

#2 Comment By Jervis Pax On August 11, 2007 @ 7:06 am

This is definitely a pet peeve whether I’m the GM or a player. My group of players only gets together once or twice a month, but we tend to play about twelve hours (a whole Saturday or Sunday). We take breaks for full meals and to take care of necessary tasks (like telling family that we’ll be another five hours), but the sessions can get so intense sometimes, especially when long-time plots and sub-plots are coming together in such a way that everyone knows something BIG is about to happen. The last thing we need is a telephone ring to interfere with our little slice of alternate reality. Dealing with it as a GM is easy. Phones are put on vibrate and any call that isn’t truly an emergency results in very nasty outcomes for the whole party. Peer pressure is amazing. As a player, I find that a sledge hammer or chain saw is a subtle but effective way to deal with unwanted calls.

#3 Comment By bignose On August 11, 2007 @ 8:01 am

Answering the phone, rather than letting the caller leaver a message, when you’re socially engaged with people in the room is flat out rude. Getting together to do an activity together take planning and effort, and prevents everyone present from doing anything else; that needs to be respected.

With an RPG, it’s even more so. Unless it’s a throwaway beer-and-pretzels game, the other players are trying to immerse themselves in the activity. You will all lose a lot more than just a minute or two when a phone call interrupts this; you lose the zone that everyone has developed during the course of the session. Often, you don’t get it back, and the session ends flat.

The flip side is that you do need to allow breaks for checking voicemail or returning calls, and make sure everyone knows this at the start of the session so they can quickly dismiss an ill-timed incoming call without agonising about it.

#4 Comment By Walt C On August 11, 2007 @ 8:47 am

I think this ties in nicely with Gamer Maturity.

My wife is understanding enough to let me travel to an every-other-Sunday game for 6-7 hours while she watches our 18 month old. I GM that game, but if she calls, you better believe I’m answering the phone regardless of whether we are in the middle of an epic battle or engaged in intense negotiations. I don’t want to explain later why I blew off hearing about my daughter’s accident because the PCs were busy storming the Keep of Ku’Cara and defeating the Dracolich.

Granted, I’ll keep the conversation short and sweet, but my family comes first. I also know that my wife wouldn’t be calling unless it was important. I am just as understanding toward my players. They are all mature enough to keep their phones on vibrate and will only take calls when it looks important (usually with a “sorry, but I need to take this” before answering) and they keep their conversations short as well.

On a lighter note bathroom trips are often more frequent and distracting than cell phone calls, but I wouldn’t implement a “no one pees until the two hour mark” rule either. 🙂

#5 Comment By Abulia On August 11, 2007 @ 10:13 am

Where do you fall on checking e-mail or web surfing on a phone? It’s silent and isn’t as obtrusive as a call but can still be distracting.

#6 Comment By Sien On August 11, 2007 @ 10:31 am

I hate phones ringing in my games! Luckily it doesn’t happen too often, though I usually have to put up with it because sometimes the call is important. It completely stops the game and gets on everybody’s nerves as they wait for an unknown period doing nothing.For me it was never a big enough problem to rule it out.

I also don’t think bathroom trips are that annoying because: 1.There is no ring, 2.You don’t hear the person talking and laughing unless they do this kind of thing 🙂 which would most likely be more funny than annoying, and 3. Generally this kind of break is short so you feel less compelled to stop playing.

#7 Comment By Wik On August 11, 2007 @ 1:06 pm

Well, we just stop play when someone gets a call, because we can’t really expect people to avoid them (especially two players in my group, who need to keep in touch with their employers regarding work).

However, when any player gets called, they make it quick – less than a minute. And if I get called, I do the same (I also take a quick break when my girlfriend gets home from work – “how was your day?” and all that jazz).

That being said, I have one player who will talk, for up to five minutes, on her cell phone. First time, we all waited patiently. Second time… we just kept on playing. ANd when her action came up… I NPC’ed her. WIth the player sitting right beside me.

Which set a precedent – 30 seconds after the phone call, gameplay resumes.

#8 Comment By Darrin On August 11, 2007 @ 2:21 pm

This has not been a big issue for me. I prefer my games to be much more casual and brief interruptions are not a big deal. I would agree anything over a minute should be taken away from the table and let the game resume. If I am GMing, I can focus on other players or use the time to discuss other gaming issues such as rules questions or experience awards.

I have never been in a game that was so intense that a phone call completely disrupted it. Honestly, that kind of intensity would creep me out a bit.

#9 Comment By Scot Newbury On August 11, 2007 @ 4:23 pm

Thankfully our group gets very few phone interruptions, and when those do occur we all just drop into “break mode” until whomever got the call is finished as most are done in a minute or two.

My wife and I have taken to text messaging on those night when I’m not the host as they are much less intrusive – unless it’s an emergency in which case the phone does ring.

#10 Comment By stupidranger On August 11, 2007 @ 6:47 pm

We don’t have a no-phone policy, mostly because it hasn’t been a problem. We have two people who are periodically on-call for work, but they’re good about telling us ahead of time that they might have to work.

We did have a problem for awhile with people using their laptops for non-game activities. We support the use of laptops for passing messages to the DM, but some people would do other, distracting activities. So we took a vote to discuss to continuing presence of laptops and came to a group consensus on their inclusion at the table. Since then, they have been used for less-distracting activities.

Anything that breaks the game – phone or laptop or otherwise – should be controlled so as to not ruin everyone else’s experience.

#11 Comment By Tom On August 12, 2007 @ 9:50 am

In our group, we all come to the table with our laptops. It’s great to be able to carry on a private conversation with another player through MSN Messenger, but can also be the biggest distraction ever.

On more than one occasion I found myself writing blogs, responding to email, or just random surfing, and suddenly my character is on the spot.

#12 Comment By Heather On August 12, 2007 @ 3:31 pm

Jervis: eek! I’ll keep that in mind when we’re both players in Jeffrey’s game!

Anyway, I always have my phone on me when I’m playing in the game Jervis GMs, but what I do is let it ring through to voice mail, then during a convenient break I check my voice mail just to make sure it isn’t an emergency. The most I might do is flip up my phone just so I know who’s calling; that way I know how urgently I should check my voice mail when the opportunity arises.

To me, if someone has gone to the trouble of preparing and running a game for you, then it’s rude to go carry on a phone conversation unless it’s something urgent or time-critical, and then you keep it as short as possible. But then I feel the same way about carrying on a phone conversation while you’re eating dinner at a restaurant with someone, and I see folks do that all the time. *sigh*

#13 Comment By Walt C On August 12, 2007 @ 8:12 pm

It seems to me that there are really two issues here: 1) whether you should answer a cell phone during the game, and 2) the length of your cell conversation.

In my games, answering a cell phone is really no big deal. Players generally see who it is and either let it go to voice mail or answer and get off the phone quickly. In this case, the disruption caused is really no greater than using the bathroom or heading into the kitchen for more food and drink.

While the people I game with don’t do it, I can certainly see how long conversations and/or frequent calls could be a major problem.

Again, it’s a maturity thing.

#14 Comment By ScottM On August 12, 2007 @ 9:19 pm

I’m with the short responses majority; most of the time the call is something quickly handled and important, so it works out pretty well. We’re fortunate in that we usually get no more than 2-3 total calls during a session.

#15 Comment By Calybos On August 13, 2007 @ 5:39 am

Our group has come SO close to actually confiscating phones during a session. Only the plea of special circumstances (kids at a babysitter’s, sick relative, etc.) have prevented it.

But common courtesy is no longer common. Sometimes you need to spell it out: DON’T TAKE CALLS DURING THE GAME.

#16 Comment By Walt C On August 13, 2007 @ 7:01 am


Checking emails and websurfing cell phones haven’t come up, but I imagine it would be similar to reading a magazine/gamebook or watching TV (things we used to do in the Dark Ages of Gaming).

I normally don’t have a problem with it if the player’s character is not actively engaged in the event of the moment, or if the PC is sidelined (and would not have access to the knowledge learned anyway).

I’ve often found that a great number of distractions is a symptom of something greater: general lack of interest in the game. That’s something that can’t simply be fixed by outlawing the distractions.

#17 Comment By Stephen Ward On August 13, 2007 @ 8:38 am

In my brother’s D&D game, it was traditional for him to threaten a player with negative levels if their phone so much as rang audibly. It escalated to killing their character in a fiery conflagration if they opted to pick it up. Of course, he never carried out his threats, but it was funny to see the offending players’ faces, and it promoted a distraction-free environment.

#18 Comment By Frank Filz On August 13, 2007 @ 9:40 am

It’s sad what the cellphone culture has done to us. Not only do people feel compelled to ignore people they are visiting in person, but the people who call them are sometimes inconsiderate also. I have been on the disrupted end when people who KNOW their friend/spouse/partner/whatever is at a social event (in fact, my family has been guilty). It’s one thing to get a random call from a friend or relative that isn’t aware of one’s schedule. It took me a while to convince my dad NOT to call Saturday afternoon since I was 90% sure to either have a game in progress OR be out of town.

Even the disruption of emergency calls is to some extent a sad fact of the cellphone culture. Back in my high school years when I gamed at MIT, my fellow gamers and I would have pretty much been innaccessible for an emergency call, short of perhaps someone dying or so (campus security could probably have been called and asked to fetch us for a very very serious emergency).

On the flip side of that, the cellphone does allow a measure of ability to go and socialize to someone who otherwise would be tied down at home due to the potential of a call (family member on their deathbed, pregnant family member who is immanently due, etc.).

Somehow, we as a culture, have to find a better place on the use of cellphones. People should consider whether their emergency justifies calling RIGTH NOW, or if it could wait until the person gets home (or even just a scheduled break). People should try more often to turn their cellphones off, and if not, secure permission and understanding from the people they are socializing in person with, and then the phone should be set on vibrate if at all possible. Cellphone companies could perhaps also make this easier by making it easy to turn on and off blocking of callers so people could allow only calls from those who might have a legitimate cause to call an emergency (immediate family, someone in some kind of watch situation).

Also, seriously, all cellphone models really should have a window that lets one see who is calling without having to open the phone (and thus answer the call). I don’t have such a feature on my phone, and it’s beginning to be very annoying.


#19 Comment By Martin On August 13, 2007 @ 1:47 pm

(Walt C.) On a lighter note bathroom trips are often more frequent and distracting than cell phone calls, but I wouldn’t implement a “no one pees until the two hour mark” rule either.

Yep, moderation is key. Based on the comments so far, it seems like as GMs we generally have a pretty good sense for this stuff.

Some breaks (like pee breaks) you can’t avoid — for phone calls, though, you usually can.

(Abulia) Where do you fall on checking e-mail or web surfing on a phone?

That one’s never really come up for me, but I’d put it in the same category as flipping through books during the game (idly, not looking for anything specific): unless I’ve established that the player in question can do it without losing focus, it irritates me.

I’ve prepped for the game, we’ve all devoted time to being at the session…so why are you texting people? It could be a sign of player boredom, too.

#20 Comment By Joe of Obelheim On August 19, 2007 @ 9:10 am

No question, I’m Gestapo-esque even in my tactics of the no phone calls rule. Die penalties. Tougher encounters.

Like Martin the infrequency and short sessions make time at the table premium.