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How to Play D&D or Pathfinder in Your Pocket

We live in a wireless age, meaning we can carry our junk around, like our computers, our phones, and our nose hair trimmers. Suck it, walls!

I mean, who lives their lives according to some stupid walls? Roleplaying games can’t box me in, man. I’m shoving D&D into my pocket and taking it outside and everywhere I go! I can play tabletop pen and pencil RPGs in the barbershop, at my favorite burger joint, or during a walk around one of Minnesota’s 14,000 lakes.

I’ll tell you how you can do the same thing.

How to Play D&D or Pathfinder in Your Pocket: The Apps

STEP 1: Slack it. Nerds on Earth uses Slack as our sole communication tool. As a collection of RPG nerds, we wondered if we could also use Slack to host a game of Pathfinder.

Creating the #pathfinder channel took 4 seconds and it allowed 5 of us (me as GM, plus 4 players) to have a real-time chat environment.

Slack is free, so you’d simply need to download the app on your phone and set up an account.

STEP 2: Create a character. We are huge fans of Hero Lab, so I used that on my iPad and simply double-tapped my iPhone’s home button to quickly switch between Slack and Hero Lab.

Some of the players created their characters and simply used a PDF in Dropbox, using the same quick switch technique to go from Slack to the PDF character sheet. Another option is to create another channel in Slack and type your character sheet in there.

The point is to have your character sheet handy on your mobile device.

STEP 3: Digital dice roller. There are tons of digital dice rollers you can download to your phone. Once you have a means to chat and a character sheet on your phone, the only other thing you need is a way to roll dice. If you are old school, just carry a d20 in your pocket. That’s cool too.

Update: Or just use a dice roller within Slack. /roll d20

How to Play D&D or Pathfinder on Your Phone: The Tactics

We played the first through scenarios of Curse of the Crimson Throne, an adventure that I preloaded into Hero Lab on my iPad. But you could home-brew a simple story to give it a go.

TECHNIQUE 1: DM Descriptions. I’d simply type the exposition into Slack, copy and pasting the exact descriptions from CofCT when available. The descriptions were most often of the very recognizable RPG types, such as, “You enter in a sparsely furnished room with one door to the east and another to the south.”

The difference, of course, is that instead of face-to-face, you are reading the DM’s description on your phone and wholly relying on the theatre of the mind.

TECHNIQUE 2: Character Actions. We utilized the features specific to Slack, in order to make directions be crystal clear.

  1. I’d address the entire party using @channel in order to assure everyone in the Slack channel got the notification.
  2. I’d instruct a particular player to make an action using the @name command, so there would be no confusion as to who was was talking to.

A rapid moving group chat can quickly get out of hand if each player isn’t sure about whose turn it is and what they are expected to do. Fortunately, Slack is a perfect tool to use to bring order to the potential chaos.

TECHNIQUE 3: Relax expectations and hand wave where possible. I’m sure you’ve already picked up on the fact that you don’t get the full D&D or Pathfinder experience by sinking around on your phone. But if you go into knowing that, you will have a wonderful time.

Also, a game of Pocket Pathfinder is not the place where you can flip through two dozen rule books to look up fiddly +/- rules. On so many things I took the most straight-forward DM approach and hand waved anything fiddly I could. I was aiming for story, not crunch.

Notably, I almost entirely hand waved all grid / hex / distance rules. I explained at the beginning that if I asked for a player to act, that they could be confident that it meant they were in position to act.

How to Play D&D or Pathfinder on Your Phone: Pros and Cons

CON: You have to relax some rules. For some players, I could tell it was difficult not to be able to really suss out and converse about all the little rules details. Clearly, playing face-to-face is the absolute best way to play D&D or Pathfinder.

CON: Waiting is the hardest part. Slack is typically rapid-fire, so it could feel like forever when you were waiting for a single player to return the result of a die roll. Sometimes a player might be in a meeting or eating dinner or something. Meanwhile, the other folks were ready to go, so even a 15 minute wait could feel long.

PRO: Not waiting was the best part. But the wait only felt long because we literally were getting to play Pathfinder in real time even though we were all in different states!

There was zero scheduling involved. Even on visual tables like Roll20, you have to schedule a time when you are all present. But we have our phones with us at all times. I’d be standing in line at Target, only to glance down because one of the players made an attack roll. It was super cool to have a game of Pathfinder that was literally running at all times no matter where we were.

PRO: It was super imaginative. All the visuals we have can sometimes let our imaginations off the hook. Being that this was fully theatre of the mind, it certainly made me more aware that I needed to be clear and, ahem, descriptive in my descriptions. And I could tell that the players were exercising their imagination as they had to visualize the scenario, rather then have it drawn out for them.

How to Play D&D or Pathfinder on Your Phone: Final Thoughts

I had a good time as DM, for two reasons. Paizo writes some wonderful adventures, so it was an ease to simply use what Curse of the Crimson Throne had for us. Second, it was a lot of fun to experiment with technology to create a new way to play RPGs.

We all wish we had more time to play D&D or Pathfinder. But scheduling time to get together (even around a visual table like Roll20) is difficult. Why not play on our phones? We have them with us at all times and everywhere we go.

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