Sci-fi / Modern consideration: Does everyone have a phone?

At the start of my first ever Monsterhearts one-shot (which went for about ten sessions in the end) I had to answer a few questions about when it was set. My answer: the computers are beige boxes, and mobile phones are rare and exciting.

It’s the second one that I’ve been given more thinking to as I try and get Finders Keepers In Space closer to seeing the light of day. During the Monsterhearts “one-shot” the popular rich kid having a mobile phone was a pretty big deal. They could contact anybody at their home, on the go, and theoretically summon the authorities or an ambulance if required. A powerful tool! Especially since I’m much more used to gritty low-fantasy (as were the players) it was a nice way to show how technology could be a big boon, without over-flowing. If everyone had a phone however, I get a feeling that there would be no “space” to play around in, no separation between who knew what was going on and who didn’t.

Considering a generic sci-fi setting, the question is, does everyone have a comm-pad that can instantly access a datasphere spanning a whole solar system? Is it limited to a single planet? A single station? Can you purchase FTL “calls”? I’m not sure.

One facet of Finders Keepers is all about having as few assumptions that the players can trip up on or not. If everyone is assumed to have a phone, then that will be going on their equipment list. If only some people will, then I’ll be throwing together a dozen different sorts of communication device and chuck that in the “standard equipment” list. I’ve got a few bits of specialised communication gear going on the “hi-tech” list, like relays, scanners, jammers and encrypted communicators. But the question is: should everyone have a phone?


i have Alien level tech in my games. Speed of information < speed of travel. so its actually faster to go somewhere than to contact it. databases of info exist onboard but are usually vague or confidential.


Phones sure are an useful tool for the PCs, but I don’t find them game-breaking because they still have numerous limitations.

First and foremost, they aren’t secure, any tech-inclined foe could spy on your conversations, or even intercept and edit them. I am running a modern-day Esoteric Enterprises campaign right now, and the group never shares important information over the phone, fearing a leak if they were to do so. This kind of risk is even easier to leverage in a sci-fi setting where super-tech hacking terminals are readily available.

Then, there is the issue of signal strength: cellphones do not work underground or in the countryside. They can also be jammed by a strong enough electromagnetic field. I’d wager that in sci-fi a nearby star, gravity engine or neutrino reactor would be enough to get them out of commission too.

A dead battery might be less of an issue in a sci-fi setting with near-infinite energy, but can still be an annoyance nowadays. I mainly use it as a convenient way to explain why a PC cannot be contacted when their player could not come to the game session.
That being said, a futuristic comm-pad could run out of other resources instead of energy: quantum-entangled bits for FTL communication could be scarce for example, limiting the user to local communication whenever their are in short supply.

The abundance of information comes with the difficulty to parse it: you might be able to access the galactic equivalent of Wikipedia, but finding the information you actually need isn’t necessarily easy. And if you are exploring uncharted regions of the universe, the article on that strange life form you encountered might not even exist at all.

All in all, while phones solve a lot of issues, they also bring new challenges and adventure opportunities. I would put them in a standard equipment list without any hesitation.


Is lack of communication/isolation a theme of the game/setting?
If it is, go for the several different pieces of specilized equipment. Cellphones could exist but be so unreliable in the conditions PCs usually work to be dismissed as useless.
If it’s not, then I’d just handwave It.

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When I run Call of Cthulhu in modern days, I let players have mobile phones — but they’ll need to roll equal to or lower than their charge level for it to be on / in signal

(As such, players who are more likely to default to phones will have a harder time using them)


Comm-pads should be restricted access. Regular jones and janes can access most trivial, general knowledge, but higher ranks of authority, hackers, capitalists and the rich, can have more access levels.

What’s more, the should not exist any unified superinternet for all the galaxy, every planet, even allied planets, should have their own, as a mark of sovereignity.

In the Vampire game game I play in, everyone has a phone, but all phone companies are rigged, so your your calls are recorded and heard.

Finally, no matter how advanced techonoly is, in plain 2020, when we have the best internet ever and games that look like they were made by the gods, something as simple like playing Tekken 7 vs real persons who are not sitting in a coach next to yours, is not something smoothly achieved. I have one of the fastest internet services in my city and more than half the time, when I heard the word “Fight”, I had been dead for 3 or 4 seconds. Now imagine communication with another planet, system or galaxy! It might be not possible at all, or the delay would be tremendous, from a few days to a few years.

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Alright, I have an idea, combining together a few ideas here. It’s the year 2XXX, and you’re on a space station or in a habitat, just like the vast majority of the population. The station-mind has enough projectors and sensors that anywhere you go, you can just wave you hand and get your “phone”, which is just a holographic interface that you can customise as you like. Having specific hardware to deal with the net is seen as a weird and archaic thing, and often treated with a bit of suspicion. The concept of “once you’ve got your hands on the hardware, security is worthless” is quite real due to quantum cryptography. So most of the time, anything you do with station-run software is relatively secure, unless you are going directly against the station itself or its enforcers. Naturally there’s corruption and leaks, but it’s still pretty fine if you want to send innocuous messages, browse the web, that sort of thing.
If you want to send a very secure message or do something illegal, you’ll need your own tech on a secure line, but if you lose hold of it, you’ll be painting a bullseye on yourself.

FTL communication will require massive amounts of power to open the tiny wormholes used. Some massive ships might have that capability, but usually only big stations have it.


I like players to have access to phones and the internet, when playing in modern or sci-fi settings, but there are some realistic limitations (beside the danger of leaks):

  1. Battery. As the past years in phone design have shown, the more battery power can be put in a phone, the more power hungry elements will follow. Battery capacity has been steadily increasing for years, battery duration has remained more or less constant (sometimes it has decreased). So, I assume that even in a sci-fi setting battery is going to be an issue. The 3D holo-projector drains a lot of battery, and this doesn’t take into account the FTL communication pack or the 128 CPU cores you need for the internal AI. I usually handle this as I handle the other slots in game (usage dice, fixed number of slots and so on).
  2. Connectivity. I assume that at some point in the far future we can finally find a workaround for phones not working in the bathroom and in the country, but jams and incidents exist. This is usually a chance/luck roll, with modifiers for network and phone quality.
  3. Time and skill. Finding the right information in the wealth of the current internet takes time and quite a bit of skill, unless the argument is trivial. You have to follow links, reformulate queries, cross-check sources and so on. I usually employ an extended roll for this: you have to get X successful rolls (critical success count as 2, critical failure as -1) with the appropriate skill to complete your research and each roll takes one round and drains phone battery (if on the phone).