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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
Do you? You are badgering me about ww2 battleships in a conversation about spacecraft; there is no relevance there, if you want to look at the closest relative to spacecraft in a terrestrial vehicle design-wise, look at aircraft, but ww2 battleships are an entirely different subject. As far as lasers being heat guns or gaining energy by turning, simply put that is not how any of that works, there is no onus on me to explain any of it, and you are just all over the place on multiple tangents, where tbh it looks like obfuscation.

Putting it simply beyond the reasons given in my original post, spacecraft will be unlikely to have armor for the same reasons jet fighters are not armored.
 

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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Do you? You are badgering me about ww2 battleships in a conversation about spacecraft; there is no relevance there, if you want to look at the closest relative to spacecraft in a terrestrial vehicle design-wise, look at aircraft, but ww2 battleships are an entirely different subject. As far as lasers being heat guns or gaining energy by turning, simply put that is not how any of that works, there is no onus on me to explain any of it, and you are just all over the place on multiple tangents, where tbh it looks like obfuscation.

Putting it simply beyond the reasons given in my original post, spacecraft will be unlikely to have armor for the same reasons jet fighters are not armored.
Um, you brought up how naval vessels stopped using armor. I initially pointed out that had no bearing on space, as the reasons for reducing armor on naval vessels was for reasons unique to naval vessels (design requirements and operational changes from needing protection in the gun-line against direct fire shells to better defensive strategy against stand-off weapons). You kept referring to naval vessels, so did I. Don't blame me for the topic you introduced.

And lasers aren't heat guns, they kill by heat transfer. Either thermal bloom, overheating, or drilling, all use energy transfer that creates heat. As for gaining energy when you turn, that's not at all what I said. I countered your claim that momentum is reduced by turning -- it's not unless force is applied against the direction of previous movement. Changing the direction of your thrust doesn't reduce forward momentum until and unless you oppose forward travel. You're just adding lateral momentum via lateral thrust. You absolutely do not slow down in turns without that opposing force.

As for all over the place, I'm directly responding to the things you say. You're welcome to find a single example of something I introduced as a tangent that wasn't first mentioned by you or that didn't directly go to a thing you asserted.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
There is also a video game called Children of a Dead Earth that digs pretty deeply into space combat, if anyone wants to check it out. I don't think things should go in the direction of being that complex, in general my thoughts about armor and power systems in science fiction RPG's are number crunching that doesn't need to be there, as just pointless complexity.
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
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.
I own the Seven Worlds Setting for Savage Worlds. It generally seems to be plausible to me, although I could be wrong.
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
Many Star Wars fans absolutely do not care that the combat/military part of it is utter nonsense (and of course, some don't know enough to even recognize it's nonsense). While I complain about it, I've watched all the Star Wars movies, Clone Wars, Rebels, usually more than once.

Writing about world building is for those who do care that the world makes sense. I'm finishing a video about world-building for my "Game Design" channel on YouTube, and quickly recognized that many people just won't care about what I am talking about, because it doesn't need to make sense, to them. That's what the term "Your mileage may vary" was invented for

Btw, a major reason for limits on the utility of SF for RPGs is automation. Even today, people are less and less important in conflict, automation more and more important. Automation is not much fun.
 

Laurefindel

Adventurer
Many Star Wars fans absolutely do not care that the combat/military part of it is utter nonsense (and of course, some don't know enough to even recognize it's nonsense). While I complain about it, I've watched all the Star Wars movies, Clone Wars, Rebels, usually more than once.

Writing about world building is for those who do care that the world makes sense. I'm finishing a video about world-building for my "Game Design" channel on YouTube, and quickly recognized that many people just won't care about what I am talking about, because it doesn't need to make sense, to them. That's what the term "Your mileage may vary" was invented for

Btw, a major reason for limits on the utility of SF for RPGs is automation. Even today, people are less and less important in conflict, automation more and more important. Automation is not much fun.
While I don't mind the lack of "sense" in world/setting/franchise, I expect a minimum of internal consistency. A flawed premise doesn't bother me as much as a flawed continuation of the said premise.

I agree with your last point. I'd even say that this plays a big part in real-life exploration; despite the difficulty of sending people into space or oceanic depths, we still invest monumental amount of money and energy to do just that. I think that for humans - as a species - experience is just as important as knowledge.
 

Ace

Adventurer
While I don't mind the lack of "sense" in world/setting/franchise, I expect a minimum of internal consistency. A flawed premise doesn't bother me as much as a flawed continuation of the said premise.

I agree with your last point. I'd even say that this plays a big part in real-life exploration; despite the difficulty of sending people into space or oceanic depths, we still invest monumental amount of money and energy to do just that. I think that for humans - as a species - experience is just as important as knowledge.
There are only three people in space right now out of a population of 7.8 billion humans. I'd say its a very small afterthought. Divers are more common but there is money to be made and its useful to use humans. Its still not that common.

Space fiction OTOH needs to have human or humanish protagonists for anything but a niche appeal . No one would enjoy Drone Trek.

Also robotics are normally always dealt away with. There are huge numbers of near future technologies that make adventure settings useless. A population of people who never leave home, are rigidly controlled , rarely have children (developed world fertility rates are very low IRL) and whose needs are met by automated systems is less interesting than Wall E and note this is 2050 tech, not 2500 tech.

Functionally robot heavy settings probably means hyper authoritarian societies with low fertility and a declining population. Great for a polemical novel, lousy for an RPG.
 

Laurefindel

Adventurer
There are only three people in space right now out of a population of 7.8 billion humans. I'd say its a very small afterthought.
Considering the amount of work, money, energy, and dedication it takes to send these 3 people out of 7.8 billion; it shows there is a very strong will to make it happen. That's like the opposite of an afterthought.

But I get your drift; the proportion of humans that get to experience space is negligible. The drive and intention however, isn't.
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
Functionally robot heavy settings probably means hyper authoritarian societies with low fertility and a declining population. Great for a polemical novel, lousy for an RPG.
Or a hyper-nanny state. In a democracy, it would simply be what the majority of the people want (or think they want). Perhaps a kind of Brave New World setting might actually be interesting for an RPG, although the action would primarily take place on Earth. There would be no Deltas and Epsilons, however, as their tasks would be performed by robots. The Alpha-pluses would be genetically enhanced "transhumans". On the downside, the lack of poverty would make such a setting less attractive than, say, Cyberpunk. The masses would mainly spend their time indulging in sex, drugs, and mindless entertainment. The players might simply join them instead of trying to fight against the system.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Many Star Wars fans absolutely do not care that the combat/military part of it is utter nonsense (and of course, some don't know enough to even recognize it's nonsense). While I complain about it, I've watched all the Star Wars movies, Clone Wars, Rebels, usually more than once.

Writing about world building is for those who do care that the world makes sense. I'm finishing a video about world-building for my "Game Design" channel on YouTube, and quickly recognized that many people just won't care about what I am talking about, because it doesn't need to make sense, to them. That's what the term "Your mileage may vary" was invented for

Btw, a major reason for limits on the utility of SF for RPGs is automation. Even today, people are less and less important in conflict, automation more and more important. Automation is not much fun.
I don't think it follows that people are either this concerned about making worlds make sense or uninterested in world building. This is a false dichotomy. There's a large middle ground of sense making that appears to be the norm rather than the exception, Star Wars being a poignant example. It might not fit your, or other's, sensibilities, but that doesn't mean that you've the stronger argument on worldbuilding and making sense, just AN argument.

I think a better approach would be to consider what the technology/magic is going to be used for in-game and adapt your technology from there, not introduce a tech and then adapt the game.. Especially in sci-fi games, where the level of understanding is spotty at best. World-building should always serve the game, not the other way around. Pick a way it works and then adapt to that rather than the other way around.

To your aside, automation is an interesting discussion. If automation is good enough to fight for us, moral questions begin to arise, especially if automated systems will be fighting people rather than just other automated systems. Ultimately, people are the target or you'd just play chess and save the resources consumed in an automation versus automation fight. If we aren't postulating some kind of singularity where even understanding what conflict is will be impossible for us to grasp (and not a good topic for an RPG, if an interesting story concept), people will always be at the crux of things. And, at that crux, you have opportunity, because it might be that one or a few people can command the power of battleships through automation. The reality is that we will never fully trust automation enough to teach it to kill us on its own, or we never should. That mistake could be an interesting setting background point -- rogue automation or a choice, like in Dune, to abandon any 'thinking machines' -- but it doesn't make for a good game (or a good history IRL). If we ever develop general AI, this problem gains multiple moral dimensions, as sending sentient AI out to kill and die for humans is morally akin to forced use of child soldiers. It's an icky place to be.

So, there's plenty of room for games with automation that don't render people useless. If you're going to be designing a game and using technology, make choices that enable the game rather than choices that disable it. It's all fiction, anyway.
 

MEGASONGER

Villager
Insulting other members
Congratulations, this is one of the least insightful, most chicken-headed dipshit articles I've ever read, you nitpicky old hack. I got off my phone at 4 AM to tell you this, because I can't sleep without telling you you're a fucking moron.

You're a fan of cinemasins, aren't you? I bet you get a pavlovian response to blow a wad every time you hear a bell ring because it makes you so giddy to hear a nitpick about a scifi movie where literally every detail wasnt slathered over by a team of nerds who don't know a thing about storytelling or why we tell them at all. Newsflash, you fucking dolt, it wasn't to exhaust ourselves on pointless details about horse collars or agriculture.

It's to tell a goddamn story! We like to read stories because they're exciting and make us think about our lives critically. Your supposition that a writer or team of writers should sit down and exhaustively jerk you off so you stop complaining about the implications of plasma weapons (which don't fucking exist) or magic (which, hey, also doesn't fucking exist) and create totally unfamiliar settings that share no familiar symbolism with our own is wrong-headed on every level. There is not a single point in which anything you are talking about matters or should be considered.

Fuck your slavish devotion to exhausting setting detail. Go argue about kyber crystals or something in Wookieepedia.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Congratulations, this is one of the least insightful, most chicken-headed dipshit articles I've ever read, you nitpicky old hack. I got off my phone at 4 AM to tell you this, because I can't sleep without telling you you're a fucking moron.

You're a fan of cinemasins, aren't you? I bet you get a pavlovian response to blow a wad every time you hear a bell ring because it makes you so giddy to hear a nitpick about a scifi movie where literally every detail wasnt slathered over by a team of nerds who don't know a thing about storytelling or why we tell them at all. Newsflash, you fucking dolt, it wasn't to exhaust ourselves on pointless details about horse collars or agriculture.

It's to tell a goddamn story! We like to read stories because they're exciting and make us think about our lives critically. Your supposition that a writer or team of writers should sit down and exhaustively jerk you off so you stop complaining about the implications of plasma weapons (which don't fucking exist) or magic (which, hey, also doesn't fucking exist) and create totally unfamiliar settings that share no familiar symbolism with our own is wrong-headed on every level. There is not a single point in which anything you are talking about matters or should be considered.

Fuck your slavish devotion to exhausting setting detail. Go argue about kyber crystals or something in Wookieepedia.
Well, bye then.

(Folks, the above individual won't be returning. No need to respond to them.)
 
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lewpuls

Adventurer
Not to respond, really, but wow, that was astonishing. I point out that I didn't know what cinemasins was until I looked it up just now. When people assign likes or dislikes to others, that the target hasn't expressed themselves, they're almost always wrong. At least, when I'm the target. A lesson.
 

kunadam

Explorer
In a fantasy setting, the battlefield use of magic is nicely depicted in the Wheel of Time setting by Robert Jordan.
In the beginning of the series, the magic users are outside of the battlefield scene, in the sense, that they do not interfere with the direct war. Their stronghold was once besieged by conventional armies, and they showed that it was an unwise move.

Then there are an increasing number of magic-users and more and more engagement. The first great description of the shock use of battlefield magic is the battle of Dumai's Wells. Magic-users just mow through conventional troops with fire and stone. Then magic is incorproated at an alarming speed into warcraft from surveillance, through magic transport to direct artillery like support (the fireball). Of course as it should be, quite many of the magic users on both sides are trying to counter the other magic users. Thus there are a lot of fireballs flung around, but few actually hit, and the side which can maintain this exchange the longer will have magic superiority and thus the upper hand.

Unfortunatelly (but please enlighten me!) D&D is not very good at counter spells and dispels.
 

A lot of this conversation has revolved around space settings, whether scifi like the Expanse or handwavy science fantasy like Star Trek or Star Wars. I would have thought that a pretty obvious example of a series dealing with technology in a fantasy setting would be The Legend of Korra.

As a follow-up to Avatar: The Last Airbender it explored the impact of an explosion of industrial technology on, among other things, what had been a fairly classically martial arts based form of elemental magic (bending). It's very interesting to see how, for example, as technology allows normals to simulate some of the bender's powers or generate powers of their own that let them stand toe-to-toe with benders, the ability to bend becomes less spiritual and less dominant and ultimately more more pragmatic and mundane.

Curious to hear what others think.
 

Starfox

Adventurer
In a TORG game we incorporated some old campaigns, one of them based on Star Wars. To do that, we developed world laws for the Star Wars setting - rules a world in the TORG setting has to enforce the gentre of each sub-setting. One of the world rules for our Star Wars knockoff was the "Law of Cyclical Development". Star Wars has continual technological development and numerous local variants of technology that is apparently able to trump the galactic standard, yet there is no overall technologival development. Instead the setting is locked ina rock-paper-scissors type of technological game, where each new technology makes an older technology obsolete, only to be made obsolete itself by later developments - yet the overall level of technology remains the same.

This was back when there were only three Star Wars films, but later development in the brand seems to bear it out even more.
 

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