Does game-mechanical equipment exist at all? What equipment exists? What is treated as Equipment rather than just stuff you have? How do you get Equipment in the first place? How easy is it to get more, both in the long term and the short term? Maintenance? Breakages? Upkeep costs? Do these things exist, and if so, how do they work? How reliable is equipment? Is equipment assumed and subtractive from, or optional and additive to die rolls? How crucial is the possession or otherwise of specific equipment to success? Are activities, or even missions, allowed to fail because PCs don't have particular items?
- What technology is assumed to exist, to be available to PCs, and to be available to common NPCs?
- What is assumed normal equipment for a PC? How useful is it compared to what NPCs have? How much and how often does it affect the basic resolution mechanics? (are you adding bonuses to every roll? etc.)
- What non-mechanical capabilities can equipment provide?
- How vulnerable is a PC without their equipment?
- How, if at all, is equipment limited?
What stuff do people have?
I've posited Monitors as a shiny future setting, but there's a pretty wide variety of these available. They've been offered for about a century, and each incarnation typically features basically the same technology and society as the writer, except better. Also, flying cars. That's a little unfair, but you get the gist: I can set a wide range of technologies as the baseline for civilians, simply by assuming the better stuff is too expensive/inconvenient/unfashionable/illegal.
I think you can probably break down important technology into some very broad groups. There are others that will shape societies in powerful ways (horse collar, anyone?) but I'm nowhere near clever enough to discuss those, even though this is the kind of history that is absolutely fascinating. I'm going to think mostly about things likely to affect games.
At this point I wrote out a swathe of text discussing some specific technologies, then realised that most of it would be more appropriate to a discussion on setting, rather than one on the role of equipment in establishing the feel of a game. So I'm moving it, and starting again.
Transport and travel
How easily can people get around? This is a combination of infrastructure and vehicle technology, which interacts with the local terrain. A planet of volcanic swamps filled with dragons and vast glacial mountain ridges requires rather better technology than a flat, temperate planet for the same ease of travel. In some cases, restrictions may include fuel shortages, legal restrictions (for political reasons, quarantine and so on) or simple cost.
If nobody can get around that easily, then this will tend to emphasise either location or journeys as foci for play. Travel is limited, so your concerns chiefly focus on your immediate surroundings: local politics, monsters or enemies plaguing the area, rumoured treasures or areas of scientific interest, interpersonal issues, and so on.
Alternatively, you spend a fair proportion of your time travelling from place to place, and that fact distinguishes the character from mere NPCs. Because travel is difficult, then arranging journeys or making them is likely to be part of the game: you must obtain permits, plan routes through little-known territory, obtain supplies for long periods, deal with natural hazards and antagonists, negotiate terrain, perhaps make repairs or cope with disasters. Travel may also offer hooks, such as guiding and guarding other travellers, transporting goods or messages, or forging new paths.
Moreover, you'll probably have to think carefully about your plans and movements. You need to complete activities in one region before moving on, and may have to choose where to focus your efforts. The journey time means two planets cannot both be evacuated in time, or that if you pick the wrong city to investigate, the fugitive's trail will be long cold.
It's more common in sci-fi that travel is relatively easy. This will tend to downplay the relevance of moving from place to place, and so it's much easier for adventures to take place over a wide area. Isolation, shortages and lonely places are less common. If it only takes an hour (rather than a week) for supplies to come from City A, then when a problem arises, you can get them from City B in two hours (rather than two weeks). There is often a short/long dichotomy, with local travel pretty simple, but interplanetary travel controlled by private companies or possession of jump technology. Moving from place to place is typically a case of saying "we go to x", usually interrupted only for plot purposes. NPCs of interest may move around a lot too, making them harder to pin down.
Again, PCs are generally more mobile than NPCs. They may planet-hop while others merely globe-trot. They often have faster or more sophisticated vehicles, allowing them to enter remote areas or to quickly tackle problems. This helps to establish them as the people to solve problems; at the same time, facing said problems often encourages them to acquire such technology, so it's a self-perpetuating cycle. PCs will tend to form part of a fast-travelling elite.
If everyone is basically equal in ease of travel, then PCs aren't distinguished by their travel capabilities. That being said, in most cases PCs effectively have this advantage because they don't do normal jobs or have normal commitments, allowing them to travel on a whim. It's likely that other factors will become important in explaining why the PCs are the PCs: power, training, connections, fate, profession or inclincation.
This is an important aspect of sci-fi settings. Can anyone just get into space, or do you need an expensive ship, or a rare licence, or even to buy tickets on a transport?
Licences will tend to lock down space travel to specific individuals and organizations, making the PCs (assuming they get a licence) part of the elite. It's also likely to offer a limit to PC actions, since they need to consider their licence may be revoked, giving the authorities leverage over them short of declaring them criminals. Tickets create a financial limit, and the price point will make the difference between a plot lock (no travel until a client pays) or an operating expense. If you're limited to working with passenger companies, then your destinations are also limited.
Pricy ships (bought, rented or chartered) are another financial lock, but there are many ways to run this. Traveller makes ship ownership more or less core to the setting, and uses plausible financing arrangements to allow this. You can also just start with a ship for some reason; this avoids bothering the players, while neatly separating them from shipless NPCs.
Universal star-hopping sets a very different tone, often going in tandem with fast and easy travel (otherwise, who'd bother?). This allows for a wider range of plot hooks - lost tourists, mischievous kids, space can be full of private travellers, as well as the more common traders. It also helps support setting elements like pirates, who are harder to explain away the less shipping there is. From another angle, this offers more of a smokescreen to people seeking secrecy - instead of following the one ship that travelled from Jupiter to Pluto this month, the authorities need to work out who might have done something and where they might have gone. The same advantage applies to PCs wanting to avoid notice from their antagonists.
Any private spaceflight will tend to offer much greater freedom than mass transport. This allows for exploration (outside sponsored expeditions), discovery, and personal ownership of whatever might happen on the way. A strange event encountered by a passenger ferry affects everyone onboard, and the PCs have little right to control what happens; much easier if you're in your four-seat shuttle at the time.
Teleportation is, as I've discussed before, a game-altering ability. It combines a number of powerful abilities into one.
- Solid barriers are no longer an obstacle to movement. This can potentially remove an entire category of obstacle from the game.
- Teleportation may bypass other controls, such as restricted access to an area, monitoring systems, guards or paperwork. Again, this tends to reduce potential game content.
- NPCs typically receive no warning of your arrival, unlike mundane movement, and can be caught unawares.
- Travel is usually instantaneous, saving time.
- The obstacles, dangers and activities of a journey are bypassed, reducing the ability of antagonists (or the GM) to affect PCs' plans.
- Teleportation often avoids fuel use, the hardship of travel, and other costs.
Where teleportation exists, antagonists generally also should logically be able to use it. However, allowing antagonists to confront the PCs in this way may feel unfair. Failing to do so may make them seem stupid. This is a tricky one to balance; the PCs are mechanically modelling their activities, while antagonists are generally not, so it's very easy for antagonists to teleport in at the right time. On the other hand, how often do PCs teleport in and discover they zapped into the main drill hall just as firearms training was beginning, or some other really inconvenient point? So it cuts both ways.
If teleportation is present, then the capabilities and availability of the tech will all be important factors. Too complex for me to want to go into just now, I think.
A shiny future naturally has good medical care, making its citizens optimistic, but how good? Have they found a cure for cancer and mastered organ regeneration, or just got really good antivirals? Is re-attaching a severed limb unthinkable, unusual and crude, or commonplace? Are bionics wooden legs, articulated limbs, Luke Skywalker hands or microcomputer eyes with an array of specialist lenses that actually enhance vision? How long are lifespans? Are there rejuvenation bays?
Rejuvenation-level medical technology trivialises non-lethal injury, and means you're not likely to find many scars or injuries around; it could also actually encourage violence, because anything non-lethal isn't permanent. In game terms, this is where a lot of sci-fi and fantasy games sit: tech or magic means the long-term physical consequences for serious injury are pretty limited, so the key is to survive at all. In games without such technology, PCs tend to be warier, because even if you survive a situation, you might still be permanently crippled. Ultra-tech like cloning and brain uploads can make massive differences to a game, and their precise implementation will be a big factor in the setting.
Cure-all medical care offers a convenient handwave for minor ailments, side-effects, and lingering injuries. That shot leg heals right up, rather than leaving a limp. Your torso injury doesn't cause permanent hormonal imbalances and digestive disorders. Getting bitten by an ant-thing in a tropical swamp doesn't lead to necrotising fascitis. That being said, many games quietly handwave the existence of such things for NPCs, either by tacit agreement, or by pricing healing above what most NPCs can afford. Again, implementation (is healthcare universal and free, American, or available only to the oligarchy?) makes a big difference to tone.
This technology will also affect plot points: sufficiently advanced technology makes it much harder to get people out of the way! NPCs who discovered some plot can't simply be shoved aside with crippling injuries, comas or a debilitating disease, leaving it in the hands of the players. It can even be hard to kill them off, short of disintegration, if really good regeneration is available. So it's potentially harder to explain why the civilian (or prisoner) can't guide you to a location, talk to their contacts instead of making you do it, or just sort out their own affairs.
Aaaaaand we're getting long, so let's draw off there for now. This means my next post will continue on the subject of Stuff What People Have, probably for several posts...