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Worlds of Design: When Technology Changes the Game

Any change you make from the real world will have consequences, possibly massive consequences. If you want your world to hold together, you have to figure out those consequences, which is hard to do. Please Note: This article contains spoilers for the Blood in the Stars and Star Wars series.


Technology Matters

The impact of technology can be a challenge for world builders, especially those who don’t know much about real world history. Any change you make from the real world will have consequences, possibly massive consequences. If you want your world to hold together, you have to figure out those consequences, which admittedly is hard to do.

There’s a tendency for fantasy and science fiction settings to be set in stone, to be unchangeable in technology and culture, in order to simplify the narrative. The Star Wars universe has seen space travel be used for thousands of years with very little technological change. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is similarly stuck in a technological rut.

But unchanging technology is somewhere between completely unbelievable and simply unbelievable. Things change over time, and as things change that causes other things to change. Something as minor as the development of a horse collar that didn’t choke draft horses (during the Middle Ages) meant that Germany with its heavy soils could be opened up to farming and big population growth. If your world is going to be believable, you have to consider the consequences of the state of technology and culture.

Some Examples

The author of the Temeraire series, where dragons are added to the real world, struggled with consequences. At her starting point, in the Napoleonic Wars, history had been entirely unaffected by the presence of large numbers of dragons in warfare for centuries! But as she went along, history and her world diverged drastically because of the consequences of dragons.

Jay Allen’s “Blood on the Stars” series is a sci-fi example. Fighters armed with “plasma torpedoes” are very dangerous to 4 million-ton battleships. Surely then, in a setting so devoted to warfare, the spacefaring nations would have developed AI controlled missiles similar to fighters but both smaller and with higher acceleration (no need to accommodate a pilot), and carrying a bomb. Yet missiles of any kind are nowhere to be seen, except in fighter to fighter combat! The consequences of this should be that capital ships are relatively small and are more or less like aircraft carriers, not behemoths that rely on what amount to big guns to pound similar enemy ships.

Worst of these examples is the sudden discovery (after thousands of years of space travel) in Last of the Jedi that a spaceship could be used as a hyperspace missile and destroy the most powerful ship in the galaxy (the “Holdo Maneuver”). The consequences of this should have been that warships are relatively small and carry lots of hyperspace missiles guided by artificial intelligence. Star Destroyers would never exist. And this would have been discovered thousands of years before, of course, whether accidentally or through deliberate experimentation.

Of course, story writers manipulate things to work for their story and don’t worry about the consequences. But does that work in the long run? The writer/director of The Last Jedi wanted Admiral Holdo to die gloriously, so he invented a way for that to happen even though it’s highly destructive to the setting. Jay Allen wanted exciting things to happen to his hero’s battleship, even though long-term consequences made some of it nonsense.

Tech in RPGs

In fantasy role-playing games the obvious case of consequences being ignored by advanced technology is the addition of magic to what is otherwise a medieval setting. In D&D, the addition of fireballs and lightning bolts (and powerful monsters) would mean that a typical high medieval castle would not exist. Fortresses would be dug in the way 17th and 18th-century fortresses were dug in, even though the latter didn’t have to deal with explosive shells or precision explosives, just with cannonballs.

Then let’s consider D&D’s old Spelljammer setting. The adventurers discover a way to make a seagoing ship fly anywhere, even hover almost effortlessly. What is that going to do to warfare? Adventurers would likely use the ship to their advantage at their home world, where they can dominate warfare or trade; they are unlikely to fly off into interplanetary space and compete with a lot of other people who have flying ships. Multiply this by lots of adventurers with lots of flying ships, and warfare is entirely different from the typical medieval situation. It significantly changes transportation and communication, to name just a few factors.

Magic Items as Tech

Magic items often amount to a technological advantage that breaks the rules of the game, as well as breaking how the setting works, except that they are usually one-offs. If there’s only one magic item of the type then it can only have so much influence. Even though we have a few magical long-distance communication devices (certain kinds of crystal balls), they don’t change the default setting’s very slow communication.

If there is only one wand of fireballs in the world, and individual spell casters can’t generate fireballs, then that single wand doesn’t change the development of fortresses. One spelljammer ship might not affect the world as a whole, where many such ships would. But if crystal balls, fireballs, or flying carpets are common, then the implications for the world are significant.

Figuring out consequences of changes is certainly not easy. I think my knowledge of how change has worked in real world history helps a lot. The more you know about history—not just dates and events, but what actually happened and why—the better you’ll be able to make new worlds.

Can you describe a case where failure to anticipate consequences of technological change became obvious in an RPG campaign? If you were the GM, what did you do about it?
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Laurefindel

Adventurer
Many times I've wondered how military defenses and battlements would have evolved given the preponderance of flying and borrowing creatures, as well as the relative availability of spells allowing to move foundations, liquefy (muddify?) stone, and pierce dimensional holes in walls. That's when the creature isn't incorporeal and ignore walls completely...

Most of the times is just raised my shoulders thinking "meh, castle battlements look cool with my knights", and blissfully ignore the issue.
 
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Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
"Worst of these examples is the sudden discovery (after thousands of years of space travel) in Last of the Jedi that a spaceship could be used as a hyperspace missile and destroy the most powerful ship in the galaxy (the “Holdo Maneuver”). The consequences of this should have been that warships are relatively small and carry lots of hyperspace missiles guided by artificial intelligence. Star Destroyers would never exist. And this would have been discovered thousands of years before, of course, whether accidentally or through deliberate experimentation. "

Maybe. Or it could be that this wasn't done because such a maneuver only had a tiny chance of actually working (and this was the rare instance in which it did). It could also be that it requires something with a comparable mass, so tiny hyperspace missiles (or, say, hyperspace-ramming X-wings at the Death Star) wouldn't work because the gravity shadow of a ship with a much larger mass would harmlessly shred the missile or the fighter, etc....

...there are plenty of explanations that don't require breaking the setup. Not that much of anything about Star Wars is very logical to begin with.
 

We can speak about fantasy alchemy crafting newest materials from real life, for example the graphene, or adding to motor to the war carriots would be the end of the chilvary. Or how magic to create counter-measures against technology, for example summoning swarns against shooters, pieces of ectoplasm to block cannons, or illusory magic to create effects as smoke grenades. Or gods of wars could punish the firearms (fight without honor) summoning petitiones from Walhalla with bulletproof traits.

Other radical change is the digital inmortality and mind uploading. After buying my Eclipse Phase RPG corebook the sci-fi RPG is totally different.
 

Ulfgeir

Adventurer
Or take Star Trek. You have the ability to teleport persons and objects. So if the spaceships come inte conflict, what is to stop one of them to teleport either an assault-squad of their own to the other ships command center/engingineering bay and simply take everyone there prisoners, or teleport the other ships crew into space or holding cells. Or if they want to destroy the other ship, teleport a nuke onto that ship.

Combine that with cloaking-technology...
 

A world with dragons and castles is hard to envision .... I've spent time considering this, and time ignoring it. A world with lots of magic and castles is hard to envision also......so I mostly ignore it, as I'm not writing a book or movie......
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
Or take Star Trek. You have the ability to teleport persons and objects. So if the spaceships come inte conflict, what is to stop one of them to teleport either an assault-squad of their own to the other ships command center/engingineering bay and simply take everyone there prisoners, or teleport the other ships crew into space or holding cells. Or if they want to destroy the other ship, teleport a nuke onto that ship.

Combine that with cloaking-technology...
It's long been established that you can't transport through shields, so you'd have to have the jump on them to pull this off.
 

Ulfgeir

Adventurer
It's long been established that you can't transport through shields, so you'd have to have the jump on them to pull this off.
Not a Trekkie, but I gather that they at least in one episode had a way of teleporting through shields, but it wasn't used because it could hurt people who were teleported that way.

It ha salso been established that you can't shoot when you have your shields up, so that gives a window of opportunity. And if they use a bomb, don't have it on a timer, have it so a it will explode when it does not receive a certain signal (that the shields would block)
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a great examination of magic being introduced to the real world. Whether a technology is developed for military use first or not, things tend to end up on the battlefield anyway. During WWI the car was a new and novel thing, and while the car itself was not designed for combat, the French used Parisian taxis to get to the battle front quickly (though their direct impact has been rather overblown).

I prefer low magic/low tech settings myself because I do start taking the implications of fantastic magic and tech to their inevitable conclusions. The game Eclipse Phase for instance, while a very good game, I find the whole idea of post-humanism a struggle. It makes every one immortal and lowers the stakes a bit for the players. Its the same old problem some have with resurrection in high level D&D games.
 

I've always found such instances to be inspiration for coming up with further details that explain the seeming inconsistency. In a world with dragons, why do castles still exist? Why can't you transport forces onto opposing ships?

Instead of dismissing these points as "unrealistic", I'd rather come up with ways to make them work.
 

DMMike

Guide of Modos
Worst of these examples is the sudden discovery (after thousands of years of space travel) in Last of the Jedi that a spaceship could be used as a hyperspace missile and destroy the most powerful ship in the galaxy (the “Holdo Maneuver”). The consequences of this should have been that warships are relatively small and carry lots of hyperspace missiles guided by artificial intelligence. Star Destroyers would never exist. And this would have been discovered thousands of years before, of course, whether accidentally or through deliberate experimentation.

In fantasy role-playing games the obvious case of consequences being ignored by advanced technology is the addition of magic to what is otherwise a medieval setting. In D&D, the addition of fireballs and lightning bolts (and powerful monsters) would mean that a typical high medieval castle would not exist. Fortresses would be dug in the way 17th and 18th-century fortresses were dug in, even though the latter didn’t have to deal with explosive shells or precision explosives, just with cannonballs.

If there is only one wand of fireballs in the world, and individual spell casters can’t generate fireballs, then that single wand doesn’t change the development of fortresses. One spelljammer ship might not affect the world as a whole, where many such ships would. But if crystal balls, fireballs, or flying carpets are common, then the implications for the world are significant.

Can you describe a case where failure to anticipate consequences of technological change became obvious in an RPG campaign? If you were the GM, what did you do about it?
Fascinating tidbit about Germany's development! Anyone also digging on that (no pun intended) should read Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I'm due for a re-read.

I'm not sure I'd include the Last Jedi (assuming lewpuls meant episode VIII) in my Star Wars universe. But -as an element of a stand-alone movie- the Holdo Maneuver had a decent reason (if not a good one) why it hadn't been used before: suicide isn't popular. And, hopefully behind the script, navigation computers had several failsafes that prevented those types of activities...?

Magic destroying walls and keeps (I don't know about entire castles) is fair, but fireballs and lightning bolts aren't the magic to do it. Neither has much effect on rock or brick. Water-based lifeforms though - pretty harmful!

Re: one wand of fireball
This is my preferred method of magic/tech control. Most of the Matrix breaks down when you change too many rules or just one big rule, and widespread magic is a big rule. The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire wisely contain low amounts of magic due to the points lewpuls makes about tech. (By the way, I'm offering an excuse for LotR's non-development: technology progresses at an accelerating rate. So low tech = slow progress.)

As GM, I'd try to weave an unanticipated technological consequence into a mystery or plot hook. I wouldn't avoid it - I'd say it's intentional. Then, while the PCs try to figure out the reason for it, I'd do the exact same thing!
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Or take Star Trek. You have the ability to teleport persons and objects. So if the spaceships come inte conflict, what is to stop one of them to teleport either an assault-squad of their own to the other ships command center/engingineering bay and simply take everyone there prisoners, or teleport the other ships crew into space or holding cells. Or if they want to destroy the other ship, teleport a nuke onto that ship.
Shields. You can’t transport onto a ship that doesn’t want you to.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
I only read the first in Jay Allan books. Star Trek, Wars, etc universes which have multiple authors are always hard to stay to one tech level. Hey even David's Weber Honor Harrington begins with a uber weapon. Which is swept under the rug and never mention again once it became a series.
I did a traveller T20 campaign. I was going to strand them at the former landing field. When someone looked up the tech level of the world and asked, 'They have satellites and big cargo air shuttles, Right?" OOPS. I scrambled quickly. Sats were up so they could talk to the real spaceport. But the attack which force them to crash land damaged the space ports shuttles. It be a week before they were repaired. See Tukera Tour of Terror write up I posted around 2004. The result was it killed most of the campaign. I was going have the walk 5,000 + KM to the port. But by the 8th session they were back in port. And looking for a space ship.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
The employment of tech is not always well understood. I had a player that would throw smoke grenades at the drop of a hat, as the magic cure all for combat: facing a 30mm auto-cannon? Smoke. Enemy mechanized platoon? Smoke. Then they seemed frustrated when things didn't work out the way they wanted, such as the auto-cannon (AA gun) "firing at smoke" where, they were actually firing on the 2nd turn vs getting fired on, the smoke grenades coming from the armored monorail car only alerted them to swivel the gun towards them on the 1st turn. In the real world, smoke is usually of two types, to conceal movement, or to signal; but sitting right there when area fire weapons are already aimed at you, it is fairly pointless. It gets worse as GM when you have to meta-nerf the situation so it isn't a TPK.

4. Pop Smoke

To “pop smoke” means to leave or retreat. In the field, it means “you throw out a smoke grenade and vector in on it for extraction from a hot area,” Army Staff Sgt. Adam Dillon told Public Radio International. Whenever you find yourself in a situation and are looking to get out, just tell your party it’s time to “pop smoke,” and then get the hell outta there.
 
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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I only read the first in Jay Allan books. Star Trek, Wars, etc universes which have multiple authors are always hard to stay to one tech level. Hey even David's Weber Honor Harrington begins with a uber weapon. Which is swept under the rug and never mention again once it became a series.
I did a traveller T20 campaign. I was going to strand them at the former landing field. When someone looked up the tech level of the world and asked, 'They have satellites and big cargo air shuttles, Right?" OOPS. I scrambled quickly. Sats were up so they could talk to the real spaceport. But the attack which force them to crash land damaged the space ports shuttles. It be a week before they were repaired. See Tukera Tour of Terror write up I posted around 2004. The result was it killed most of the campaign. I was going have the walk 5,000 + KM to the port. But by the 8th session they were back in port. And looking for a space ship.
Re: the Honor series, are you talking about the plasma cannon that feature heavily in the first book -- a weapon that was devastating if you could get in close enough to use it, a trick Honor pulls off first by essentially doing a suicide run in a training exercise (simulating a kill on the oppo flagship) and secondly by actually doing a suicide run on a Q-ship with a destroyer? Yes, the "super" part of that weapon was clearly marked out as very much not "super."

Also, I have now decided to dislike you because you've made me defend the Honor Harrington books. Made me, I say! Joking aside, I read Weber because he does fantastic combat and suffer Weber because of everything else. His military fiction, though, top notch.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
It does speak to GMs designing adventures and problems/puzzles that don't require specific solutions. Because players will always figure out something not expected... Always.
 

MarkB

Legend
Or take Star Trek. You have the ability to teleport persons and objects. So if the spaceships come inte conflict, what is to stop one of them to teleport either an assault-squad of their own to the other ships command center/engingineering bay and simply take everyone there prisoners, or teleport the other ships crew into space or holding cells. Or if they want to destroy the other ship, teleport a nuke onto that ship.

Combine that with cloaking-technology...
That's not exactly an unanticipated consequence though, is it? Even sticking to just the movies, Star Trek VI, First Contact, Nemesis, JJ Abrams' Star Trek and Star Trek Beyond all feature personnel being beamed aboard a vessel while its shields are down, either due to combat damage or because they're caught unawares.
 

Ace

Adventurer
Being a game Judge/GM requires a flexible enough mind to keep up with players who are a notoriously devious lot. This is why a lot of people back in the day wouldn't even bother and always a Judge/GM never a player was a thing.

As a general rule it helps to make sure that anything the player's understand the settings premises.

Things like Iron Dude's Blasters can wreck stuff but aren't used to kill or that certain types of tech just aren't used for the same reason that nerve agent isn't commonly used and its a big deal when it is help a lot.

Another example guns are considered to attract attention when used in monster hunting, can be used against you and if you are caught with illegal suppressors (I'm in the US and they are federally regulated) and auto weapons you are getting time but no one notices swords and bows.

Also making sure that really problematic tech is dealt with or dealt out helps. Scry/Buff/Teleport was a D&D 3.5 kill switch at high level and it occurs in other games, If high level's even exists, it has to be dealt with. Allowing PC's to use it very occasionally lets them enjoy the investment but its a niche tactic.

In higher tech settings, basically anything that shows up on paranoid radio/Internet shows, Black Mirror or the like needs to be given a long look. My settings don't have tracking/correction nano vaccines, ubiquitous surveillance , combat robotics or items that would make adventuring go bye bye even if they are somewhat now or near future tech, The game play comes first.

This tends to make SF look like Traveller or maybe Firefly but that's good as it gives PC's plenty to do,

The last thing is that anything the PC's do, the other guy will and this includes tactics. If PC's pop HC smoke grenades or nageteppo so can the other guys. If the PC's kill NPC's in their sleep, the NPC's will respond and so on.
 

Tonguez

Legend
Also making sure that really problematic tech is dealt with or dealt out helps. Scry/Buff/Teleport was a D&D 3.5 kill switch at high level and it occurs in other games, If high level's even exists, it has to be dealt with. Allowing PC's to use it very occasionally lets them enjoy the investment but its a niche tactic.
Hallow and Forbidance protect against Teleport and would explain why their are so many abandoned temples and random clergy around:)

Also people tend to forget that gunpower was invented in 800AD but its first recorded use in combat was 904 AD and then it took a good 600-odd years before guns became ubiquitous. In a world with magic theres even less reason to develop technology beyond rudimentary curiosity.

Also for nostalgia check out EN Worlds historic Fantasy Arms Race which was initiated by Ranger Wickett on the old boards (20 years ago!!!). The premise was to look at how combat would be influenced by a Magical D&D world
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Re: the Honor series, are you talking about the plasma cannon that feature heavily in the first book -- a weapon that was devastating if you could get in close enough to use it, a trick Honor pulls off first by essentially doing a suicide run in a training exercise (simulating a kill on the oppo flagship) and secondly by actually doing a suicide run on a Q-ship with a destroyer? Yes, the "super" part of that weapon was clearly marked out as very much not "super."

Also, I have now decided to dislike you because you've made me defend the Honor Harrington books. Made me, I say! Joking aside, I read Weber because he does fantastic combat and suffer Weber because of everything else. His military fiction, though, top notch.
Yes. the Plasma the weapon. Which once the books reintroduced planes which could be torpedo bombers/plasma cannon. never did use the plasma cannon. For those who don't read Weber, Harrington was done to honor "Hornblower".
 

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