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Technology Change In Your Campaign

How long does your campaign run?  What is its duration within the setting?  Is it a burst of bright, intense activity that spans a few short months?  Does it cover a couple of years?  Or does it go on for an extended time, maybe even being measured in decades?  And have you ever thought about if or how the technology of your setting changes over that time period?

I don’t really think this is a big issue for fantasy campaigns unless you want it to be as part of the setting.  The very nature of the fantasy background almost implies a slow rate of technology change.  So unless your campaign does span those decades, the technology at the end will pretty much be the same as what it was at the beginning.  Maybe some slight modifications or improvements in materials and craftsmanship, but probably not any revolutionary tech.  Unless of course that’s part of your plan for the campaign.

Science fiction campaigns, on the other hand, have to deal with this more.  While the campaign timescales may be the same, the rate of technological advancement is quite different, although it won’t be the same for all technologies.  All you have to do is look to our modern society for examples.  A decade ago I was just finishing my Ph.D dissertation and got my first cell phone.  It was a small little “brick” phone when all the cool phones that were coming out at the time were flip phones.  But the idea of a “smart phone” was still science fiction.  Fast forward to today and my two and a half year old Droid X phone, which has more power than the computers I was using to write my dissertation, is old, outdated, and slow.  Ten years is basically 5 doubling times from Moore’s Law (although it’s more like seven) and computers today are at least 32 (128) times as powerful as they were a decade ago.  That kind of technological change should be noticeable within any campaign that lasts more than a year or so of game time.

On the other hand, medical advances don’t seem to have progressed at the same rate.  Being an astronomer and computer programmer, I’ll admit that I’m not as dialed in to medical research as an expert in that field, but when I go to the store, I still basically see the same medicines on the shelves as I did a decade ago.  The change there seems to be a bit slower (and still, even with the new ones that have come out, none of the allergy medicines seem to work for me :) ).  There are some amazing advances being made on the cutting edge of medical research but the trickle down to the everyday lives of most people seems to be much slower.

How does this advance of technology affect your game, or how does it manifest?  How do you handle it?

The first option, of course, is it just ignore it.  The game has an equipment list that corresponds to a specific technology level (whether it be a fantasy or sci-fi or steampunk or whatever) and you just stick with that and ignore the possibility of change.  And that is a perfectly valid solution to the issue.  Especially, as I mentioned above, for a fantasy campaign where the rate of change should probably be slow.  I’ll admit, even for my sci-fi campaigns, this is the route I’ve typically taken.  It makes your job as GM much easier.

But what if you don’t want to have a static technology but want to introduce changes, improvements, new inventions, new technology, or even regressions? (e.g. it’s no longer possible to make supersonic trans-Atlantic flights.  Air travel has actually taken a step backwards in the last decade.)  How do you go about introducing those changes?

Some Things to Consider

I think there are four factors to look at: rate of change, sources and distribution, availability, and relation to existing tech.

Rate of Change

This is simply a measure of how fast the technology is changing.  How often is new stuff injected into the setting.  This factor tells you how often you should be introducing new technology and possibly how quickly prices change over time.  And really it should be judged relative to the length of your campaign.  If the timescale for change is small, then characters should see some changes,  the relative ratios will tell you how much.  If your  tech is changing as fast as modern computers, then when the characters go off on an extended mission that lasts for months or a year and come back, the gear they took with them will already feel slow and outdated compared to what they find in the local shop (This is a great way to get them to burn some of their hard earned cash).  On the other hand, if the rate of change is slow, they may not notice any change at all.

Sources and Distribution

Where does the tech come from?  It is a new manufacturing technique only available from a single sources? Is it coming from multiple sources?  Is it everywhere?  How difficult/long is the journey from the origin to the character’s locale?  And how fast can it be produced?

This topic covers two areas.  Where do you have to go to get the new tech and how long does it take to spread throughout the setting?  If the sources are few and/or restricted and the time/difficulty to get the tech to your character’s location is high, then the rate of adoption will be slow and costs will be high for the cutting edge technology.  Or maybe it won’t even be available (or it’s on backorder and the PC’s have to leave tomorrow).

Limited sources (either in locations or production rate) and long or difficult distribution channels act as throttles and will slow change.  It doesn’t matter how fast your tech is changing at the source, if it can’t be produced and distributed widely, it won’t be changing the setting quickly.

Availability

Here we’re looking not so much at if you can buy it, but rather at how common the item is.  Is it something that anyone could buy given enough money?  i.e. it’s on the shelves at your local department store.  Or is it something that is only available to select audiences?  The lower the availability the slower the rate of change and therefore the slower the adoption (and probably the higher the cost) of the new technology will be.

Relation to Existing Technology

Here we are considering whether the new tech is revolutionary or incremental.  Typically it will be the latter but maybe you want to introduce something that is different from anything else (e.g. gunpowder into a medieval setting). Incremental changes will tend to lower prices on older tech relative to the performance benefits of the new tech but it will still probably stick around.  Revolutionary new technology has the potential to completely make some old tech obsolete or relegate it to a niche market.

Impact

Once you’ve decided on the above factors, you are ready to determine the impact of the new technology on your campaign and how its introduction will ripple outward.  Here you might want to answer the following specific questions:

  • Where can the characters/people in the setting get the new technology when it is first introduced? six months later? a year later? When is it everywhere and just part of the setting?
  • Even if you can get it at a specific location, how available is it?  Are there only a few instances available? Does every villager have one?
  • How does the cost of the technology change with time?  What are the initial costs? Is there variation by region/location?
  • How does this new technology affect the cost/availability of older, related tech?
  • How does the technology affect the balance of power within your setting?  How does it affect the daily lives of the populace? What other impacts might it have?
  • How do the PC’s learn about the new technology?  How does it impact them?

These are are things to consider and may provide plot hooks or at least setting material for you to weave into the background as the PC’s move about your world.

An Example

I’m not actually running any games at the moment but my go to game is Star Frontiers so I’ll use that as an example.  And what I want to introduce is an upgrade in weapon technology, specifically an improvement on the standard laser pistol.  The default laser pistol does 1d10 damage per energy unit used and I’ve decided this new weapon will do +1 damage per energy unit expended and have a 10% range improvement.  (The technobabble I’d used to explain the improvement if asked is a better collimation of the laser beam giving tighter focus resulting in higher energy density at the target and less dispersion in flight.)

The weapon is made by PanGalactic Corporation, a mega corporation in the setting, in an attempt to win back some of the arms business from WarTech, the main weapons mega corp.  Let’s look at some of the factors and questions described above.

The technology is incremental rather than revolutionary, it’s just an improvement on the already existing weapon.  The rate of change here is relatively slow.  The laser pistol is an established part of the setting and has been around for several decades (although in my setting I actually make relatively new).  So this is more of a one-off change rather than something I’ll have to update regularly.  I wouldn’t expect another breakthrough during the campaign.  PanGal has manufacturing centers on nearly every world so the weapon can be produced locally and made available Frontier-wide simultaneously.  Plus it’s not restricted.  If you have the credits, you can get yourself one.

That’s the parameters, what are the impacts?

Costs and impact on other items –   PanGal is trying to cut into the market and gain market share so they are willing to trade reduced profits for increased sales.  As such the pricing of the new laser pistol will be the same as, or at most slightly higher than, the existing model.  This in turn will force the competition to lower the price on their model or risk losing all sales to the new, more efficient gun.  The cost of the new laser pistol will remain fairly fixed over time.  Maybe start just a little (say 5-10%) above the cost of the standard model and drop down to the standard model cost over the course of half a year.  This will force the standard model to drop its price about 10-15% over the next year.

Availablilty – It’s like a Visa card, it’s everywhere you want to be.  It can either be purchased off the shelf at PanGal distributors in large communities or ordered in within days in more rural areas.  There may be some limits on availability when it is first introduced (say up to 1 week wait time) but that will quickly vanish within a month or so.  The only places it may not be immediately available is outpost worlds.  But even there it would only take 2-3 weeks to order in (and have a slight increased cost to cover interstellar shipping).

Introduction of tech to PC’s – This would really depend on where the PC’s were in the campaign.  Maybe they have been out exploring a new world and got back to civilization several months after the new weapon went on sale.  In this case you might introduce it by having them on the receiving end.  Maybe some local thugs try to rough them up and are sporting the new weapon.  Or maybe they just happen to be out weapon shopping and see the new model in the stores and notice that the new pistol they bought just before they left isn’t worth as much.

If they are around civilization when you want to introduce the new weapon, maybe they see an advertisement for it on the holovid stations or are out shopping and there is a big flashy display in the store about the new weapons.  In the end it’s really up to the GM on how they want to introduce it.

Last Thoughts

Introducing new technology into your campaign can be fun.  It is also a way to spice up the campaign background and provide a little variety to the players.  Done well, with a little forethought and planning, it can help to make the setting seem more of a living, breathing entity instead of as a static backdrop the characters just move past which doesn’t change.

 


Categorised as: World Building


3 Comments

  1. neoproxy says:

    I have seen this concept used as flat mechanic called SOTA (State of the Art). Basically it just says, hey your stuff is newer than what was used before, but as it improves so does other things so you don’t really see any adjustment.

    This would be more for incremental advancement than revolutionary. When the laser pistol goes up +1 so does the albedo screen and they cancel each other out, so we’ll just let them be. I like your idea better, but some GMs may have a hard time handling another ‘meta’ mechanic in their game.

    I personally want to see a cool bodycomp with wrist phone integration.

  2. jedion357 says:

    The Space 1889 RPG has rules for characters to invent things and get a patent on it. I believe there is also provision for money earned from the licensing of the technology. One of the ways to lessen the cost of interplanetary travel is to design and invent a new method of propulsion for an ether ship or to simply refine the existing technology.

    Being a big fan of the computer game Civilization (I’ve played all incarnations of it up to number 4 and that included the precurser not called Civilization but I cannot remember its name) I like the idea of technology improving and changing over time in the course of a campaign.

  3. [...] and research introduce a new technology into your world.  As I wrote about in Technology Change In Your Campaign, you need to think about the implications.  If you don’t you may have unintended [...]

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