Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Monitors: technicalities

At this point, I seem to have something that roughly resembles a functioning system for Monitors, and should start thinking about trying to scrape together a top-secret alpha test of my game of anthropomorphic armoured warlock lizard cybo...

Oh yeah.

So as I stated in an earlier post:

Magic and technology are two key ways of interacting with the world. The conceit behind these two elements in Monitors is basically their contrast. Technology is modern, exciting, comprehensible, relatively shiny, mostly safe and mostly reliable: a product of the genius and hard work of countless experts. Magic is antediluvian, arcane and potentially sinister: scraps of secret knowledge that occasionally drift to the surface.

So in a game, I'd like these two to feel substantially different. I want technology (barring experiments and so on) to feel sleek, reliable, and generally cool. I want magic to feel exotic, mysterious, significant, and maybe a little subversive.



Because I think it was helpful last time, I was planning to glance at some implementations of technology in other games. However, I fairly soon felt like it wasn't doing much - I've not actually played much in the way of sci-fi games, and speculating wildly on games I haven't played won't be helpful. So just the one for you.

Technology in Deathwatch

The Imperium of Mankind has a deeply suspicious, superstitious and ignorant attitude towards technology. As a result, while they possess technology capable of many marvellous things, they generally don't have the science to connect it all. Devices tend to have individual abilities, rather than forming part of a logically coherent set of capabilities across society. Most people have very limited understanding of technology, able to use devices through rote training rather than understanding, and entirely unable to maintain them short of the most basic field repairs. Even the scientifically literate tend to handle technology in highly ritualistic terms, knowing what has worked before and repeating it obediently, and mixing engineering with religion at all times. Devices are encrusted with holy symbols and sigils in the hopes of persuading them to function, expensive sanctified oils are used, censers wafted and even reboots administered with reverence. Much of the technology is beyond their capability to recreate, and must be maintained and studied constantly, in the vain hope of rediscovering lost knowledge.

In practice, much of the technology functions fairly readily (though I've mostly only encountered simple gear so far). There are jamming rules for weapons, and some are more prone to malfunctions than others, especially plasma weaponry. A distinctive feature of the universe is that alien species differ considerably in their take on technology. Orks have enthusiastic and ludicrous technology that works because they believe it will, but is astonishingly unreliable; Eldar have technology refined to amazing heights of elegance, though not mechanically better than anyone else; Necrons have "sufficiently advanced technology"; and Tau are an up-and-coming species whose freshly-researched technology is within (considerable) spitting distance of our real technology. Each take highlights a different kind of culture, and gives each race a different feel.


So I'm looking for shiny shiny tech. What sort of traits will make technology feel like a sleek, safe, reliable counterpart to the twisting esoteries of magic?


The general run of technology that characters encounter should be more or less perfectly reliable - and when it isn't, it should at least be predictable, and any problems should be explicable. I don't think it particularly undermines the reliability aspect if technology has limited charge, or can be countered in logical ways, or if sabotage causes an engine failure. What I don't want is for the technology to feel unpredictable and its results uncertain, because that's venturing too close to the tone of magic.

In mechanical terms, this is going to mean that things like malfunctions should be extremely rare, and I think also suggests that players shouldn't usually have to worry about things like batteries or ammunition. If you're always wondering whether your weapon will jam, it's hard to treat technology as an ever-reliable friend and ally, in the spirit of the cheery Golden Age science fiction I'm inspired by.

The natural exception here is plot-tech, which is an essential part of any sci-fi game. Monitors are very likely to be called in to investigate technological mishaps, or experimental technology. Similarly, freak accidents might render reliable tech unreliable in order to enable a plotline, such as the classic Deepjump-gone-awry or an engine failure that strands them on a remote world. To maintain the feel I'm looking for, the unusual nature of these occurrences should be emphasised by the GM - a solar storm affected the Deepjump engine, or perhaps a piece of space debris with an unusual chemical composition managed to pass through the shields and damage the engine (a potential plot hook in itself).

There are also a handful of cutting-edge or extreme technologies that are a big deal, in particular the intersystem and intergalactic Deepjumps that form part of the background to the setting. Deepjumps are inherently stressful, physically demanding and technologically complex, which is why they're such a rare event. Other alternatives exist, slower and safer. Here, the game can set up a pleasing contrast and mood, by emphasising the precautions and preparations necessary for a Deepjump, and the strain it places on the jumpers. Because everyday technology is so very reliable and safe, this should make Deepjumps feel special.

Comprehensibility and familiarity

It isn't at all necessary for players to understand the science in the game, or even for the science to be accurate (accurate science doesn't necessarily play well with adventure). However, the characters should be au fait with the technology they use, having a broad understanding of what it does and how it does it. This is sort of the converse of Deathwatch, where tech-use is a matter of rote learning and conviction, leaving tech mysterious and arcane. Essentially, in terms of social position, most Monitors technology should feel like the sort of everyday tech we take for granted ourselves - lighting, heating, transport, the Internet, plumbing - there when you need it. A hovercar chase through a city of spires is no more dangerous than a car chase, and almost certainly much less so, since the vehicles' AI systems will swerve them around civilians, while data networks will quickly try to clear the road. Making an intrasystem jump is no more of an event than taking a flight.

There are again a couple of deliberate exceptions to this rule. Rare alien technology may be beyond the understanding of the characters, either too advanced or simply too differently-conceived for its principles to make sense to them. In many cases, though, alien technology should be fairly straightforward to analyse and understand - it's using the same laws of reality, after all. The second exception is again extreme technology, which may be really understood only by a handful of experts and geniuses throughout the Universe. Again, Deepjumps are likely to be an example of this.


Given reasonable circumstances, characters should be able to repair most of the technology they use. All Monitors are trained in technology, and simple jobs like soldering, rewiring, fitting new powerpacks, sealing holes or swapping out circuit boards should be no problem for them. More advanced jobs will require a bit of time and training, but a Monitor with a medium to high Tech skill (or Science, if appropriate) should be able to fix most things, given sufficient time and resources.


It's hard to accept that science and technology are everyday parts of life if characters can only use what's put in front of them. To really accept that, you need to be able to take that technology and put it to new and unexpected uses. I think this comes in two parts. Firstly, creative use of technology should be encouraged, which means in GMing terms, being fairly generous about using things in unexpected ways. Secondly, characters should be able to use their skills to jury-rig devices out of what's available. Reversing polarities, aligning fields, feeding signals back into themselves to cancel them out, overcharging powerpacks and plugging primary education-level AIs into military mechs are classic bits of sci-fi that reinforce the idea that characters know about technology and are comfortable using it creatively. Generally speaking, I think creativity is one of the major signs that you actually understand something and can move beyond simply following procedures.


This isn't strictly necessary - you could vary the aesthetics of the tech if you want - but the sort of clean-living optimism of classic sci-fi really calls for tech to be shiny, sleek and cheerful. Weapons should be rounded rather than spiky, and fire beams of gleaming energy rather than bolts of necrotic energy. Engines should roar enthusiastically and hurl vehicles forward on smokeless beams of blue light, rather than billowing clouds of sulphurous smoke. Machines should run on solar power, cold fusion and safe-for-children pseudofuels, rather than coal and fission and the souls of the living. Equipment should need little or no safety precautions, because it's just that well-engineered and goshdarned safe. And people should say things like "goshdarned" rather than turning the air blue.

This will have little direct mechanical impact. Things like fuel sources may make some difference in play, despite having no numeric effect - it's certainly easier to get solar power than coal. Things like combat descriptions, or the effects of accidents, will be affected by these aesthetic choices, although there's no reason why accidents can't in fact have nasty consequences for bystanders - flying shards of metal are, after all, flying shards of metal.

Next time I will think about some actual examples of Monitors technology.

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