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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

jasper

Rotten DM
I first thought the op was going to talk about the tech of the game. Cardboard chits to d20 running 0-9 twice to dice sets in multiple sets, to phones rolling dice for us.
 
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Ace

Adventurer
I first thought the op was going to talk about the tech of the game. Cardboard chits to d20 running 0-9 twice to dice sets in multiple sets, to phones rolling dice for us.
I had the same thought at first. I was still going to read it. I mean its Lew Pulsipher , the man is a legend to us old grogs.
 

cbwjm

Hero
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)
You can shoot through shields in star trek, it requires having the correct shields frequency and modulating your weapons to bypass it. There was an episode in TNG where the klingon sisters learnt the shield frequencies of the enterprise allowing them to bypass their shields.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
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...
You can't transport through shields. And if I remember correctly, in the Star Fleet Battles game adaption, I believe the Romulans had space mines that they transported out in front of enemy ships.
 

Hussar

Legend
Battletech was brutal for this. I ADORE the game. I really do. But, I really have to turn off my brain whenever I play it. You have 35th century giant robots, but, you don't have fire and forget missile technology? Seriously? ((Ok, I get it, in order to make the game fun, we have to strip out 99% of the modern technology that would mean that most mech combat would last about 10 seconds, but it still makes my teeth grind))

2e D&D had some pretty egregious examples, mostly because a lot of the magic descriptions were vague and easily abused. Item spells shrunk things down to 1/12th their size and turned them into bits of cloth that could be thrown down to return them to form. The spell description included a lit fire. We decided that lit barrels of oil would be pretty much the same thing and then would rain down massive explosions.
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
This issue isn't really important for home-brew settings, where the wider impact might be irrelevant for the players. However, it does become problematical for published settings, which have to accommodate a wide variety of gaming styles and where the background lore can become very important. That's why I never liked FR - a medieval setting with that much magic everywhere? I don't think so...
Tolkien's Middle Earth makes much more sense by comparison, because magic is very rare there.
Star Wars/Star Trek were originally only meant to be entertaining films/shows. The problems didn't really arise until people demanded "canon lore". If you want to make it all fit, it's practically like trying to square a circle.
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
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....
These are excuses, not believable reasons. Small chance of working? Space combat is at close quarters - easy to hit something when you're miles away or less. "Gravity shadow" (what?), just have varied size missiles. Virtually every comment I've ever seen about the fiasco of the hyperspace attack remarks that it breaks the setting.
 


MarkB

Legend
These are excuses, not believable reasons. Small chance of working? Space combat is at close quarters - easy to hit something when you're miles away or less. "Gravity shadow" (what?), just have varied size missiles. Virtually every comment I've ever seen about the fiasco of the hyperspace attack remarks that it breaks the setting.
Maybe there's simply a minimum size. You need at least something close to the size, power and durability of the Raddus as your sacrifice ship, and you need to be targeting something in the size class of the Supremacy - and then you still need to get lucky.

The point is, we saw it done once, under a particular set of circumstances. That doesn't mean it can be done routinely, under different circumstances.
 


Stormonu

Legend
In Rogue One, we see Vader's ship drop out of hyperspace right on top of some Rebel ships attempting to escape into hyperspace. One of the rebel ships explodes against Vader's ship instead of ripping a hole through it, so there's something going on there with mass - and distance travelled.

Likewise as inconsistant as Rise is, near the beginning we see the falcon "blit" through obstacles at point-blank range by hyper-skipping. There's something about timing the hyperjump as well so you don't miss the target. However Hondo did it, it had to be difficult and rare enough that neither side decided to make it into a tactical option - either with sentient, droid or automated pilots at the helm.

Unfortunately we don't have the information why it only came about - and nobody bothered to think of a reason why -because it was a case of Rule of Cool, where story came first and the reasons (or consequences) were even pondered. It happens a lot in all genres as one person can't be knowledgeable about all things, and sometimes what's more important is the story you're telling - not the physics, economics or whatnot that makes it "believable".

Heck, most people still like their sci-fi where starships make whooshing sounds in the vacuum of space.
 
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Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
These are excuses, not believable reasons. Small chance of working? Space combat is at close quarters - easy to hit something when you're miles away or less. "Gravity shadow" (what?), just have varied size missiles. Virtually every comment I've ever seen about the fiasco of the hyperspace attack remarks that it breaks the setting.
There could be any number of reasons, though - you're assuming that hyperspace just works like normal acceleration, instead of being some kind of tech-magic.


And I meant Mass Shadow:


You're not exactly going to be running around with missiles that have the mass of Star Destroyers, eh?

Again, for these reasons, I don't think it has to break the setting at all.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
What about those phasers shooting in warp in that one Star Trek? That's a neat bit of physics.

You're not exactly going to be running around with missiles that have the mass of Star Destroyers, eh?
Yet you could take a asteroid and accelerate it at hyperspace to hit a planet or big ship/station whatever, and those are essentially free in the kuiper belt.

I'll add here too that the movies gravity and the martian are a lot less hard sf than what people are saying, in the martian, the whole storm would have been less than 30 kph, because there is not air pressure for more, gravity, when on the tether and reaching the end of it and swinging around, nope, she would have rebounded in a linear fashion, according to newtonian mechanics.
 
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lewpuls

Adventurer
We all know Star Wars is much more fantasy than SF (magic swords=light sabers, spells=The Force). And its military aspects make virtually no sense. But from what I know of historical weapons development, once something is seen (the hyperspace massacre of the giant ship), weapon makers take advantage of it. And if it can be done, it's likely to have been done early rather than after 4,000 years of spaceflight.

As I may have said, my standard for something making sense is much above most people's, perhaps the history Ph.D. has something to do with that.
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
We all know Star Wars is much more fantasy than SF (magic swords=light sabers, spells=The Force). And its military aspects make virtually no sense. But from what I know of historical weapons development, once something is seen (the hyperspace massacre of the giant ship), weapon makers take advantage of it. And if it can be done, it's likely to have been done early rather than after 4,000 years of spaceflight.
Or maybe it's a one-in-a-million maneuver. This could make sense


As I may have said, my standard for something making sense is much above most people's, perhaps the history Ph.D. has something to do with that.
I don't expect stories to be any more consistent than life, which generally isn't either, in most cases due to informational asymmetry. Perhaps being a trader rather than an academic has something to do with that. ;)
 


dragoner

Dying in Chargen
We all know Star Wars is much more fantasy than SF (magic swords=light sabers, spells=The Force). And its military aspects make virtually no sense. But from what I know of historical weapons development, once something is seen (the hyperspace massacre of the giant ship), weapon makers take advantage of it. And if it can be done, it's likely to have been done early rather than after 4,000 years of spaceflight.

As I may have said, my standard for something making sense is much above most people's, perhaps the history Ph.D. has something to do with that.
Are you sure it is the right criticism? It was done for a sense of drama, and not by scientific principle, which as you state, Star Wars does not follow. Such as reducing it to an equation x + y = 0 where x equals fantasy, and y equals scientific principles; yes, they cancel each other out, except the real result is x + y = 1, so that x is fantasy and y is dramatic story telling. That makes much more sense, because the criticism of using scientific principles would have precluded Star Was after A New Hope, thus accepting Star Wars at all means disregarding anything except it's own internal consistency.
 

MarkB

Legend
So what setting does actually do a good job of changing with the impacts of it's technology or magic?
Eberron is pretty much built on the concept of exploring the consequences of the wide availability of magic. It doesn't exactly change with it, since the setting keeps to a fixed point in time, but it does go out of its way to encourage DMs and players to consider and explore how developments in magic can affect everyday life.
 

Eberron is pretty much built on the concept of exploring the consequences of the wide availability of magic. It doesn't exactly change with it, since the setting keeps to a fixed point in time, but it does go out of its way to encourage DMs and players to consider and explore how developments in magic can affect everyday life.
Ok, but does the history of the setting show development? How long have the lightning rails been around? What about the airships? Have they impacted history and warfare?

I'm asking because other than DDO, never played in an Eberron game.
 

MarkB

Legend
Ok, but does the history of the setting show development? How long have the lightning rails been around? What about the airships? Have they impacted history and warfare?

I'm asking because other than DDO, never played in an Eberron game.
Lightning Rails have been around for several decades, but elemental airships were only developed around 15 years ago, and Warforged aren't much older. In both cases, development was driven by the Last War.
 

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