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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

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
How do you think they cut?
Not by heat transfer.

A penetrator rod effective burns through armor where the impact causes micro explosions and thin layer of plasma. That isn't a "heat transfer" either.

I think that line of argument well closed.
Your example doesn't work. Though go look up "there is no stealth in space". This is a tangent to the subject of armor, however.

... because they weren't expecting to be in gun-lines anymore?
It wasn't effective.

They have, have they?
MRAP's v-shaped under hull is to ward a blast wave, not an impact.

... but instead is in it's usual trade-off situation.
The trade is mass (armor) for delta-v, and the vehicle with the most delta-v wins.

but they still use control surfaces because it adds free directional acceleration, and that acceleration is key.
You decelerate in a turn, change in vector loses forward momentum.
 

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Hussar

Legend
Angled armor was to increase thickness by geometry, even AFV's have largely abandoned it.
But, you're ignoring why AFVs have done that - Chobham armor - ceramic slab armor used for armored vehicles. It can't be made at angles. That's why tanks like the Leopard II are basically just boxes.

On the plus side, nothing short of missiles or sabot rounds penetrates the armor. Certainly very little man portable can penetrate main battle tank armor these days. There is always a race between weapons and armor and, right now, armor is winning. The days of "spalding" haven't been true since WWII.

And, against missiles, kinetic weapons do extremely well. That's why naval vessels generally have done away with heavier armors. Placing anti-missile systems on ships has proven to be very effective. Missile is come towards your space ship, you simply shoot a stream of dumb bullets in its way and it shreds and explodes long before it reaches you. And, without air, missiles only damage so long as they can impact the target.
 

Ace

Adventurer
In a hard SF setting armor good enough for serious defense is probably impossible since every ounce of armor means less propulsion and that faster ship can just run away from you by burning longer and faster than you can or your missiles can manage . Something like the hull plating for Enterprise is super science, sounds good but not realistic.

And yes this means anti matter rockets too. Every ounce counts. Heck every gram counts.

For folks with a strong interest in the topic, try Atomic Rockets which has near everything anyone could want on the topic as well as some discussion of soft SF tropes as well.
 


dragoner

Dying in Chargen
In a hard SF setting armor good enough for serious defense is probably impossible since every ounce of armor means less propulsion and that faster ship can just run away from you by burning longer and faster than you can or your missiles can manage . Something like the hull plating for Enterprise is super science, sounds good but not realistic.

And yes this means anti matter rockets too. Every ounce counts. Heck every gram counts.

For folks with a strong interest in the topic, try Atomic Rockets which has near everything anyone could want on the topic as well as some discussion of soft SF tropes as well.
I follow Winchell on twitter and we talk sometimes there, his site is full of good info.

Generally the spacecraft enthusiast community finds armor unrealistic for the reasons you stated, simply put, the vehicle with the most delta-v, will be dominant.

The simplest way to express something like this in game would be to have some tables to compute a burn budget for a vessel, and then compare those numbers vs range.

But, you're ignoring why AFVs have done that - Chobham armor - ceramic slab armor used for armored vehicles. It can't be made at angles. That's why tanks like the Leopard II are basically just boxes.

On the plus side, nothing short of missiles or sabot rounds penetrates the armor. Certainly very little man portable can penetrate main battle tank armor these days. There is always a race between weapons and armor and, right now, armor is winning. The days of "spalding" haven't been true since WWII.

And, against missiles, kinetic weapons do extremely well. That's why naval vessels generally have done away with heavier armors. Placing anti-missile systems on ships has proven to be very effective. Missile is come towards your space ship, you simply shoot a stream of dumb bullets in its way and it shreds and explodes long before it reaches you. And, without air, missiles only damage so long as they can impact the target.
I am not in fact ignoring composite armors such as chobham, it is just not totally relevant to the subject.

A lot of portable weapons can be a threat to AFV's, usually they explode above the vehicles and use an EFP to penetrate the top. There are other "kills" such as a mobility kill vs tracks, or a claymore vs vision systems/sights, to blind a vehicle. AFV's generally have an anti-spall liner now, except a hard hit can still have a spall-effect from interior equipment breaking loose and bouncing around the inside of the vehicle.

Active defenses are 100% a good solution against missiles, I can totally see spacecraft having phalanx type point defense systems.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Not by heat transfer.

A penetrator rod effective burns through armor where the impact causes micro explosions and thin layer of plasma. That isn't a "heat transfer" either.
Well, penrods are a very different thing from lasers, but here a lot of the damage caused by the penrod is due to the heat transfer you're talking about here. Forming a plasma is all about pressure and heat, and the release of that pressure and heat is what does the majority of the damage from a penrod round. It creates an over-pressure fireball in the target.


Your example doesn't work. Though go look up "there is no stealth in space". This is a tangent to the subject of armor, however.
Um, okay. Stealth in space is very much the big thing -- it's what we're doing now with milsats. IR radiation can be very much controlled so that unless you have a direct view of the emitter, you can't see it. It's like a flashlight -- unless you're in the beam you won't see it. Exhaust so rapidly cools that the bloom effect is minimal unless you have an after shot of the target.

Stealth is very much a big deal for future space combat.


It wasn't effective.
Gun-lines? The were super effective, and dominated naval combat for centuries, from the age of sail through the WWII, when aircraft made direct gun engagements obsolete. When you're not expected to have to survive and fight in the gun line, you don't have as much need of armor. Modern naval vessels still mount armor, though, just not as much. It's still very effective against a lot of things even as it's less effective against high explosive shaped charge warheads on modern shipkiller missiles. Armor can be effective against such things, but ship design is such that the trade-off isn't worth it. Instead, you see a proliferation of point-defense and other countermeasures.

In space, though, you don't have to have a hull that can cut through water, with large vertical sides that are difficult to armor well. You can adapt a number of different shapes that can maximize armor effectiveness.


MRAP's v-shaped under hull is to ward a blast wave, not an impact.
And their sloped armored sides, designed to protect the troops inside from direct fire? I mean, even if we're just going to accept that you think all IEDs are just blast waves and no penetrators are involved, you've ignored that the angled armor faces are everywhere in modern armor, which cuts against your statement that they're no longer used.

Modern heavy armor often includes reactive components that can defeat penetrators. Have we discarded that as useful alongside angled armor faces? What else do we need to toss out so that you can keep your argument that armor is useless?


The trade is mass (armor) for delta-v, and the vehicle with the most delta-v wins.
You're arguing against your earlier points. The limit on ship dV isn't available thrust, it's the crew's frailty. If I can produce enough thrust to get the same max dV with armor as without because the crew is the limit, then your argument here fails -- my max dV is already capped by something that isn't mass.

And, in space, the most dV wins only after you've managed to get into the right positions and only if you can use that dV to bring your hit on their weakness. When you postulate hyperV missiles that can blow through any armor, you're also reducing the effectiveness of any dV you can bring to bear because of the speed of the object will cause it to clear the engagement area too quickly. The faster you go, the more dV you need for terminal engagement maneuvers, and you can only pack so much into a missile body. Fuel and structural issues will rapidly limit the available final V and engagement percentages.

The better argument here is for slower missiles that use shaped charged warheads with penrods. Which, coincidentally, armor is actually useful against.

You decelerate in a turn, change in vector loses forward momentum.
No, this is space. Applying thrust in a new vector does not cause you to decelerate unless it's applied against the original vector. You would only decelerate if there was a force, like air resistance, acting against your line of travel. And, unless you're applying a deceleration force, you will not lose any momentum along the original line of travel. In other words, until I cross 90 degrees vector change, I would lose no forward momentum from a purely lateral acceleration.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
In a hard SF setting armor good enough for serious defense is probably impossible since every ounce of armor means less propulsion and that faster ship can just run away from you by burning longer and faster than you can or your missiles can manage . Something like the hull plating for Enterprise is super science, sounds good but not realistic.

And yes this means anti matter rockets too. Every ounce counts. Heck every gram counts.

For folks with a strong interest in the topic, try Atomic Rockets which has near everything anyone could want on the topic as well as some discussion of soft SF tropes as well.
The amusing thing about this is that the site you link talks about armor vs both hyper kinetic weapons and against beam weapons. Against beam weapons, it talks about the most effective armor being one that resists heat the best, and discusses the three ways a laser scores a kill: heat it to death (thermal kill), heat it explosively (impluse kill), and drill into it (burn through it with heat).

For hyper v rounds, it talks about modified versions of Whipple shields, which are physical, not energy. The concept here is that a thin outer layer will catch the hyper v round, blowing off and protecting the main hull. In other words: armor.
 

Ace

Adventurer
The amusing thing about this is that the site you link talks about armor vs both hyper kinetic weapons and against beam weapons. Against beam weapons, it talks about the most effective armor being one that resists heat the best, and discusses the three ways a laser scores a kill: heat it to death (thermal kill), heat it explosively (impluse kill), and drill into it (burn through it with heat).

For hyper v rounds, it talks about modified versions of Whipple shields, which are physical, not energy. The concept here is that a thin outer layer will catch the hyper v round, blowing off and protecting the main hull. In other words: armor.
My opinion varies from theirs a bit as I'm the speed vs firepower category. . Also I'm not sure it would be possible to easily force an engagement against a fast vehicle with the kind of kinetic kill weapons or lasers. I may well be wrong though. We'll find out if/when it every happens I guess. ;)

RPG wise I don't play hard SF settings though. In such settings very different rules apply.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
My opinion varies from theirs a bit as I'm the speed vs firepower category. . Also I'm not sure it would be possible to easily force an engagement against a fast vehicle with the kind of kinetic kill weapons or lasers. I may well be wrong though. We'll find out if/when it every happens I guess. ;)

RPG wise I don't play hard SF settings though. In such settings very different rules apply.
Define fast, and why the other side isn't as fast? Remember, it's space, so relative frames can be pretty slow. It doesn't matter if we're stationary, 100 m/s or 100km/s, the relative frame is the same, C is still C, and having a KKV that can boost 30g will travel between us in the same time in all frames. If you're talking about dV, that's still going to be limited by crew frailty. There's a reason why any sci-fi setting with ship-to-ship combat invents inertial dampeners. At the point you're using inertial dampeners, you're off to the races and the limits are what you decide, not what's "realistic".
 

Ace

Adventurer
Define fast, and why the other side isn't as fast? Remember, it's space, so relative frames can be pretty slow. It doesn't matter if we're stationary, 100 m/s or 100km/s, the relative frame is the same, C is still C, and having a KKV that can boost 30g will travel between us in the same time in all frames. If you're talking about dV, that's still going to be limited by crew frailty. There's a reason why any sci-fi setting with ship-to-ship combat invents inertial dampeners. At the point you're using inertial dampeners, you're off to the races and the limits are what you decide, not what's "realistic".
There are so many calculations, how much fuel vs how fast you can accelerate (in some circumstances either could be what I meant by faster) weapons related, hull related stuff and so on it makes realistic SF far from fun. Sure I could fake it with good charts or an old copy of Triplanetary but its not worth it. I also think it won't happen often if at all if/when we get back to space travel in depth so realism won't suffer.
 


Ace

Adventurer
Like aircraft are, close enough to spacecraft to be in the same discipline of aerospace.
For realistic settings I must cordially disagree do to the enormous distance vs speed and fuel ratios. The battles in the Expanse for example have more than a little realism baked in but do not resemble aircraft fights in my eyes at least. They also aren't ultra realistic but good as TV is gonna get.

My guess is that if there would be a space fight it would be completely computer controlled anyway and go something like this.

You "Computer. Destroy Ace's Ship, the S.S. Grognard."

Computer "I'm sorry Captain dragoner , no calculable firing solution exists that has more than a possible 20% success ratio. Attack is prohibited by policy directive."

You "Override."

Computer "I am sorry sir, you do not have the clearance, It will require executive override which is not available while in operations."

You ":mad: piece of junk computer!"

Me "Computer. Escape Vector please."

My Computer "Yes Captain, quarter burn engaged to safe location 3"

Me "Whew. Close Call."
 

Hussar

Legend
Well, if we really want to start injecting realism in here, barring Star Trek style magic technology, the simple cost of interplanetary conflict would be astronomical. The idea that a state would have the resources to build, not one, but dozens, possibly hundreds, of craft capable of traversing planetary distances, is largely laughable.

Good grief, it takes billions of dollars just to put a remote rover about the size of a car on Mars. Weaponized? We'd have to start inventing new numbers to keep up with the costs.

1. You'd need orbital construction facilities - you can't make these things inside of a gravity well - too expensive to get off the ground. That, right there, is a significant investment of decades.

2. The ships themselves have to keep their crews alive - not an easy feat. Look at how difficult it is just to land a few people on Mars. And no one is shooting at them.

3. The ships have to be able to survive being attacked. Again, no mean feat. Simply accelerating rocks could easily destroy a spacecraft. IOW, it would be vastly cheaper to destroy spaceships than build them. Not really something you want to go to war with.
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
2. The ships themselves have to keep their crews alive - not an easy feat. Look at how difficult it is just to land a few people on Mars. And no one is shooting at them.
Due to advances in AI, I expect that most spaceships (including asteroid miners) won't have human crews. Humans will only be onboard a ship in order to get from one place to another. Not only will this dispense with costly life-support systems, it will enable spacecraft to accelerate much faster too, provided they have enough fuel (probably nuclear or, perhaps, antimatter drive).
 

MarkB

Legend
Due to advances in AI, I expect that most spaceships (including asteroid miners) won't have human crews. Humans will only be onboard a ship in order to get from one place to another. Not only will this dispense with costly life-support systems, it will enable spacecraft to accelerate much faster too, provided they have enough fuel (probably nuclear or, perhaps, antimatter drive).
For the latter, you definitely don't want to be building or fuelling them on the ground then. For any significant-scale antimatter production facility, I'd probably want it way out past Lunar orbit - preferably in orbit of some other planet that doesn't have people on it.
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
For the latter, you definitely don't want to be building or fuelling them on the ground then. For any significant-scale antimatter production facility, I'd probably want it way out past Lunar orbit - preferably in orbit of some other planet that doesn't have people on it.
Correct. Antimatter drive is a huge "if" anyway, given the difficulty of producing any appreciable amount of the stuff. All in all, it looks as though a hard sci-fi game that's set in outer space would be rather boring.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Like aircraft are, close enough to spacecraft to be in the same discipline of aerospace.



Sounds like you are arguing for the Space Battleship Yamato, you do you.
A selective edit, re-contextulized, and then turned into a strawman? That's a trifecta! Why did you even bother responding if you had to work so hard to make-up something to respond to?
 


Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
There are so many things wrong with your posts that it is impossible to tell if your are trolling
I see. As you haven't actually refuted any of those things, it's hard to tell what might be wrong with them outside of you saying they're wrong. I mean, between the two of us, I've provided examples and explanations and even an equation and you've provided one line "you're wrong" responses or you've retreated to strawmen. Now, my responses that include explanations of my thinking and examples to back them up are called "trolling." It's an interesting bit of projection, to be sure.
 

Ace

Adventurer
Correct. Antimatter drive is a huge "if" anyway, given the difficulty of producing any appreciable amount of the stuff. All in all, it looks as though a hard sci-fi game that's set in outer space would be rather boring.
Pretty much.

If you want a harder feeling game there are alternatives Blue Planet is one planet/wormhole Avatar on water world and feels plausible . It has its own system and a GURPS book and GURPS Terradyne while older and "solar system" is pretty cool. Otherwise Firefly and Aliens and no doubt others I've missed should do nicely ,

Hard Interstellar SF while not impossible by understood physics, i.e we can get to near stars with the right tech and enough time ought to be regarded is fantasy.

There are too many conditions that have to be "just right" to make it happen , material science, propulsion, social conditions , money and so on.

Also the freewheeling kind of DF that makes for fun games , TV and movies is right out. There are a lot of reasons but the recent unpleasantness has shown us the danger of disease. Some minor thing from Tau Ceti (which may be inhabitable BTW) could be many magnitudes more dangerous than what we have ever faced. in human history. The Andromeda Strain covers this topic both book and movie ad there could be much worse out there.

I won't even mention the doomsday device potential of reactionless drives.

The way I figure it, its best to accept that Interstellar SF is fantasy like movie/TV people do and use what's cool for your game.
 

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