Saturday, 5 October 2013

Deathwatch: The Price of Hubris, part 03

Contains spoilers for, funnily enough, The Price of Hubris from The Emperor Protects.

As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, and features a fair amount of background noise, if that sort of thing bothers you.

The Episode

This mystery-investigating bit was fun. Arthur handled some restrictive material well, I thought, and gave out material that the scenario didn't really allow for because it just made sense. I enjoyed the way he presented the scene, the various characters, and the scraps of mystery. There is always a strong temptation to turn into Columbo or someone regardless what character you're playing, at least if you're me... it's always tricky to decide exactly how much of an investigator you ought to be, both for characterisation and metagame reasons, because of course if you play too much in-character you might dismiss the clues and ruin the adventure. But I think we got this one about right.

I do think it's interesting how much of the Deathwatch game was stuff other than War! - more than some of our less War!-based RPGs, I'm tempted to say. There was a lot of talking to NPCs, using skills, research, investigating the area and other such fun and games. I think this sort of thing does go to show that whatever system you pick, you can roleplay if you want to.

This is one of the rare sessions where we did have a bit of a disagreement, which I think came partly down to K's unsureness of quite how to handle being a Spess Marine, since she doesn't have years of exposure to the setting like the rest of us. I can absolutely see why she thought it was sensible to fry the disrespectful locals, and you could maybe justify it in canon, but it really didn't feel to me quite on the right side of the delicate heroic/dictatorial balance. For outright and deliberate heresy, possibly, but even then Marines don't generally go around doing actual executions. But this is the sort of thing that is very difficult to pick up when you're new to a setting.

Link to Episode 03.

Tech in 40K

Note: I seem to have written two separate posts for this episode, and just discovered the draft of the previous one. As it has a moderately interesting bit about technology, I'm going to stick it on here.

It occurs to me, listening back to this episode, that the Warhammer 40,000 take on technology is not only fun, but also makes it easier to deal with certain difficulties of high-tech settings. Even in modern-day games (or stories), it can easily get tricky to justify why various problems can't be overcome with technology. Mobile phones offer easy instant communication, fast transport is readily available, the Internet can track down all kinds of information (including crackpot theories and personal details), we can provide audio or visual proof of various goings-on, use forensics to track and identify individuals, identify suspects from their gait or linguistic tics, unthinkable quantities of information can be held in the palm of your hand, and modern weapons would realistically kill most legendary monsters with ease. In higher-tech settings, things like handheld scannners, nanotech, AIs, smart databases, fist-sized drones, universal tracking, forcefields, antigrav, teleportation, recording implants, brain-scanners and all kinds of other developments can make it tricky to create convincing problems.

An associated difficulty is extrapolation. Inventing a cool sci-fi toy can leave the audience wondering why the same science can't be used for some related purpose that would immediately solve some in-story problem.

But Warhammer 40,000, or at least the Imperium of Mankind, is deeply suspicious of technology, has only a crude and rote-learned understanding of science, cultivates ignorance amongst its populations, and keeps much of its technology at the level of bare functionality. It's not surprising when most characters have no idea how to operate an auspex - they've been taught to avoid curiosity and treat devices with superstitious awe, and only those inducted into its mysteries will understand it. With no such thing as a "general scientific education", most don't have the knowledge or transferrable skills to deduce an unknown device's function, or generalise from one piece of technology to another.

Moreover, the same traits mean that machinery ends up working inconsistently and idiosyncratically; there aren't necessarily logical connections or similarities in how machines work, as people simply keep doing "something that works", gradually repairing and adjusting legacy machines over the centuries until similar starting-points end up producing wildly divergent bits of tech. Each device must be learned independently.

Finally, the widespread ignorance and fear means that there's a perfect in-universe explanation for gaping holes in technology, as for quirks of capability. The remaining scientists and engineers understand only a fraction of what their technology can do, and the most advanced technologies are simply maintained blindly. Many secrets are lost to the aeons, and even relatively straightforward equipment is sometimes beyond their ability to produce - some editions of the game have power axes as precious artefacts, while other power weapons can readily be manufactured. Lacking the theoretical background, people have little idea of alternative capabilities of their science, and the Imperium blows hot and cold on innovation.

In a setting like this, I find it much easier to accept that many problems must be solved with human muscle and mind, or through relatively crude technology, while retaining some of the useful and fun capabilities of high technology.

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