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Against the Steady State Universe

October 12, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

A comment on G+ reminded me of a little bugbear I have with almost all RPG settings:

they tend to have in-built resistance to change. Whether it’s “points of light” or Battletech’s unending, entropic war or even Traveller’s Star Trek – like trawl through multiple tech levels, actual innovation that changes the world is avoided. In fact I strongly suspect that one of the reasons for the perennial popularity of more-or-less medieval settings is that the “medieval” state is (popularly) perceived to be one of stability and stagnation.

Why do we love that so much?

Maybe there’s an elective affinity here with adventure yarns – a static background helps the hero’s dynamism really stand out. The Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or square-jawed Earthling sportsman on Mongo gets to inject his specialness into the passive fantasy world and get validation from it in playtime. The active protagonist’s works can then be isolated and recognized. Or maybe it’s the value that a dynamic community of players gets out of reliably being in sync – we can play DnD or Firefly without much preparation because we’re all on the same page on all important issues right from the start. It’s pretty clear how that’s an advantage for commercial considerations – splatbooks and the like.

Maybe it’s that a static world requires the least metagame knowledge, of the course on which things might change if they were going to change. Lots of video games use some variant on the invention tree to model technological change through the course of play time (an idea which probably traces its origins back equally to Trav’s tech levels (with their logical progression of this before that) and some kind of evolutionary schema), but these things are lame in a tabletop RPG because they short-circuit tactical infinity. And maybe it’s part of the social contract of participating in a world that doesn’t have cellphones – that the players agree not to use their own knowledge to invent them because they accept that the world won’t accommodate them (but if the world might change, then…).

But. If we take history as our guide, then the eras that offer the greatest opportunities to Conan it up from zero to hero are the ones where old systems are being disrupted, where instead of just bobbing along in the tide of human events you can steer a little. Aren’t those potentially the most rewarding campaigns? Ones where you don’t have to stop at becoming king of a province, but might actually change the whole political process and be responsible for saving the serfs from serfdom (or for plunging them into damnation)? Hollywood superheroes tend to be devoted to rescuing the status quo from change but a game doesn’t have to follow suit, right?

So here’s a little metagame knowledge about Tartary (a dangerous thing, for sure), in response to +Stephan Hillenbrand’s critique of primitive post-apocalism in general, to act perhaps as a spur to players’ ambitions. First the critique:

“LosTech” is something I tend to find a rather boring excuse for a stagnating setting. I don’t think people would be in the dark about how a diesel engine works for more than a few months when they have a running example of one lying in front of them, waiting to be dissected.
Also, at least some of the people who understand how trains work should survive any apocalypse. It’s not rocket science, really.

In Tartary there are several obstacles to reforming the world, none of them insurmountable but all of them significant.

First, people are constantly at war. They don’t share information. The size/population of individual cities is limited, so there are limits to the technological work any one of them can do. So a unifier could abruptly change the situation, and something like early 20th century technology could be widely available in short order.

But there are a few other wrinkles to deal with, which actively mess with the effort to settle on a stable scientific paradigm on which disruptive technologies could be based:

1 the physical rules of the universe seem to be a moving target – sometimes visibly as the Weird blows through. Basic devices work reliably, but the more a technology becomes a “black box” the less reliable it becomes. The corollary to this is,

2 “magic” (that is, ways of manipulating the world that are not susceptible to ready explanation) offers a shortcut but one that’s unpredictable, dangerous and encourages secrecy. In practice nobody can resist it because the potential payoff in the short term is wonderful, but it always screws everything up long term, to the extent that

3 it sometimes seems like there’s somebody “up there” keeping things from developing too far, messing with experimental results, putting their thumb on the scale, adding gremlins to devices that get too successful. The really reliable magitech tends to be found rather than made or adapted. Periodically somebody will observe that technologies that render people passive (eg television receivers) tend to be more reliable than those that allow you to actively shape the world (eg recording cameras), but this contention has been made by so many paranoid, power-grubbing mountebanks (with or without funny accents) that nobody serious pays it any mind.

4 there are powerful vested interests who are known to be actively working against large infrastructure projects. There’s no visible Emperor Ming keeping all the princes at each other’s throats but there are nomad hordes and sorcerers and trade networks who profit from the status quo – essentially the buggy whip manufacturers guild has a very good school of  assassins in the back.

Which is all to say that the right enterprising gang of revolutionaries could turn this setting on its head. If they could successfully identify and neutralize the players who are working to keep it… the way up it is now.

  1. trey
    October 12, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    I think another obstacle is a reluctance to “kill one’s darlings.” After the effort that goes into world-building there’s a reluctance, perhaps, to blowing the whole thing up. Sometimes, this may only be because of the work that might be required to put the whole thing together afterward.

    Also, when it goes to changing a world PCs occupy and odd position (at least in D&D-esque games). On one hand, they can obviously get to be pretty powerful. On the other hand, the types of historical and fictional models PCs sort of replicate seldom make any lasting change on a world because of their “murderhobo” lifestyle. The mechanics here seem at odds with the genre emulation.

  2. March 17, 2013 at 7:15 am

    Some really good points here. I generally like to run my games on the cusp of some great change so that the players begin somewhere static and watch it all unfold around them. They may then steer the course of fate through adjustments here and there.

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