The Educated Designer

Thoth, ancient Egyptian god often depicted as ...

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If You Don’t Know Something – Learn!

In Thoth’s recent article on Infravision, he stated:

Sure, you can say that the physics of your world works some other way – but then you’re going to have to build and explain that physics as soon as someone starts experimenting (if you want to go that route, here’s an article on Elemental Physics to give you a start, and a followup on Dimensional Traits). You may get lucky and not have to deal with that, but if you run enough games, sooner or later you’ll get some players who keep wanting to know “why” and “how”. Those are the ones who want to try another route to problem solving; figuring out how things work in the setting and how they can take advantage of whatever you come up with – in other words, engineering.

This is a major point.

At one time, many of the people making games were in fact, nerds. Well, they’re still nerds, but they used to be nerds who often studied computer science, engineering, and mathematics, or at least tinkered with radio kits. This had a profound impact on the games they made and how they built worlds.

You can look at earlier editions of Shadowrun, for instance, and see that it was designed by people knew technology. Most of the technology which went into the original three editions was pretty sensible. Sure – it was almost magic by the standards of the 1980’s. But in terms of what computers were capable of and what people could program in, it isn’t too far-fetched.  You can see they had insane notions about law and politics, but they knew technology in and out. They understated how much technology would change life – and got the basics of extreme connectivity right  We might never design cybernetic limbs which can run on body sugars, but it’s not outright impossible and the theoretical technology exists. We might never be able to jack in and control computers with our minds, but it’s not outright impossible and early experiments have already been done.

Likewise, the magic system was quite internally consistent – it was an inhuman “technology,” just like any other. Sure, there were a few oddities. Still, there was rarely an NPC who did something you couldn’t (though they did stretch NPC power to the ludicrous level at times). If it could be done by science, it could usually be replicated by magic, and vice versa. (at least in theory). The big difference was in the focus of each. Magic was personal but let you bend the rules of this universe. Science was universal but stable. But magic still had its own explicit rules. Despite characters sometimes claiming that they were “doing the impossible,” they weren’t. They simply pushed the limits by developing improved techniques and variants of old ones.

Spells were even consistently categorized, and this division wasn’t invisible to spirits and actual in-game characters. There was no neat dividing line between system and setting, because the world didn’t need one. The relationships which held true for one held true for the other.

More interestingly, magic and science had explicit interactions. In fact, science held the ultimate trump card: space. Outer space? No magic. Period. Trying to use magic in space was less safe than actively shooting yourself in the head. Nor was this the only interaction, but it was the most vivid one.

In essence*, Shadowrun used the principle that energy was energy. You (consistently) used a fireball spell just like you used an ice spell, or for that matter a transformation spell, because they were all Manipulation magic. The actual effect of that fireball was about the same as that of n incendiary grenade (but more variable depending on your skill and bonuses). Armor would indeed help, just as it helped against an incendiary weapon. Likewise, spells in the Combat spell category could hit you directly – but even then the same toughness which let you survive a bullet or avoid a concussion let you resist the spell. Magic in the physical universe used the same rules as everything else. Magic in nearby astral space bent those rules. Magic in a far dimension had totally different rules.

This kind of consistency was perfect for players. You didn’t have to be a genius or prophet to guess how your new spell would work, both mechanically and in the game world. You didn’t have to understand everything about science or peer into the minds of the designers to “get” how things worked. It was both consistent enough to encourage new development and familiar enough to make sense to players.

Now, Shadowrun wasn’t perfect. As mentioned, it was completely insane in several other respects. This game has the Supreme Court handing out Extra-Territoriality for Corporations as a result of a Criminal Case. It has AmerIndians mysteriously getting millions of new people, then engaging the American government in a guerrilla war with bows and arrows (I am not making this up) alongside the odd bit of major magic – and winning against a couple million troops and armored assault forces. And then they somehow took their population from nowhere and kicked out all the non-Indians living in the west, most of whom then vanished from the population figures.

Well, you get the idea. They built a coherent game with rules which made sense and allowed consistent interaction with the world. That’s a long and big-worded way of saying “It made sense and you didn’t have to house-rule everything.” They actually did make a coherent world in the present – it was the history which didn’t make sense, along with the odd nonsensical background note. (An author misunderstanding Diplomatic Immunity, for example, led to a hilarious scene in one early published adventure where sane or attentive parties would shortcut the entire session.)

So, after all this talk about what they did and didn’t do, who cares?

You should. You’re either a gamer, or you’re not. If you are, you’re either a GM or player or both, and if not, you should go start. But as a gamer, it’s in your interests to have a consistent setting. It means you can step outside the moment’s action. You can look ahead to the future, change your strategy based on the technology and rules, and come up with new solutions. It means you have a framework for what your magic, technology, and skills can accomplish. It means you have the option of being a co-creator along with your GM.

And for GM’s, this takes a load off your shoulders. You don’t have to explain everything, but you still have reasons for everything. You don’t have to houserule blind anytime someone tries something strange. You have a framework – one you can expand on if necessary – but which ties the players together. Ever wonder why so many D&D games fizzle? It’s because there’s not much to do unless the Dungeon Master goes to the trouble of making a coherent world on his lonesome. Apart from that, you’re just rampaging through corridors killing and looting, which gets tiresome if you play any one class too long.

As a consequence, knowing what you’re talking about is crucial for a designer. You don’t need a degree in political science to write about politics. That’s a good way to make sure you never understand politics whatsoever. Don’t read some textbook. Read the originals. Read von Clausewitz as he discusses war and politics. Read Machiavelli in translation, and listen as he talks about the hard choices that leaders face. Read the Bible and listen to the words of the Hebrews when they were in distress, and how their kings rose to and fell from greatness. Read Cicero’s Letters, and Caeser’s Gallic Wars (or de Bello Gallico) and you’ll understand what revolution means to people who lived it and fought for and against it on the battlefield and the Senate hall.

Likewise, know something about technology, science, and engineering – more than you can learn from a pop-science book. Here you do want a textbook. Learn how Newtonian physics work – and then learn why they don’t work (but mostly are close enough anyway). Get down into the structure of atoms. Look at how bio-chemicals, DNA, tissues, tissues, organs work and how insanely complex life really is.

In the end, this will make you a better designer. And it doesn’t take that much – a few weeks of reading.  You’ll probably have a lot of fun with it, because Machiavelli, Caesar, and Judges are gripping histories and stories. If you haven’t looked how matter and energy actually work (to the limited degree our puny minds can conceive), you may be very surprised and intrigued. And it may lead you to new ways of thinking and new idea about your world.

In this world, physical reality flows from natural law. Now, natural law may not be all that natural depending on your religious or meta-physical view, but the short version is that we have rules.  Likewise, human civilization has rules, if more flexible ones. And everything flows from these rules. Energy is mobile, always moving from an area of higher concentration to lower.

Now, for your game you don’t have to attempt to build an entire universe. For one, you won’t succeed: it’s vastly more complex than all the humans ever born working in concert to manage. But you should lay down some basic principles. Do you have “magic?” What IS magic anyway? Is it the will of the Gods, who define and reshape reality? Is it an energy which responds to your mind? Is it extra-dimensional spirits intruding their reality on our own? All these have impacts on the characters, the stories, and what magic should do in the setting. Thus, your rules and background can work together. Shadowrun sometimes took this too far in having in-universe characters talk about game concepts, but you can’t argue they didn’t mesh the rules and world.

This isn’t always so complex. Star Wars is a fantasy story with a sci-fi gloss. And George Lucas basically shrugged, said his ships had really huge guns, and left it at that. And because he had a reasonably clear idea of how it worked and he was the only writer, it was pretty consistent (then they opened up the universe for novel writers and things got messy). Star Trek ran into some trouble because there wasn’t much agreement on what the technology could do (not how it worked but its raw capabilities) from one episode writer to another. So the best Star Trek episodes were about human/alien society, science fiction in its rawest form, not technology per se.

*Ba-dum-ksssh! Shadowrun Players get it.

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