This entry is part 1 in the series Putting The SF Into Sci-Fi

When you get right down to it, there are only three sources you can use when creating the world of tomorrow in a game:

  • Copy something you’ve seen elsewhere, filing off serial numbers as necessary;
  • Get it from the game setting; or
  • Create it yourself.

The Problems:

All three of these solutions have their place when we’re talking about a home RPG, but if you ever hope to publish your adventures, the deficiencies inherent in the first two solutions – over which you have little or no control – can suddenly rise up and smack your credibility around, especially if your serial-filing isn’t as complete as you might wish. Scientific advance is proceeding so quickly these days that anything in print is almost certainly out-of-date.

There’s also a bigger problem: comprehensiveness. With either of the first two solutions you are putting full faith and trust in the hands of the authors and the completeness of their understanding of science. You also need to trust that the source you are using has thought of every possible application and impact of whatever scientific speculation they have based their material apon.

And a third, still bigger problem: integration. You need to see the implications of not just the new development that you are importing into your game setting, but how that development will interact with those technologies that are already present. This again leaves you relying on the thoroughness of the description provided by your original sources, but with an even more complicated maze to unravel.

The Motives:

So why do it at all? Why look beyond the official source?

Once again, there are three primary reasons:

  • Plot – you can derive original stories and plotlines from the consequences of technologies interacting;
  • Uniqueness – Making your world different from anyone else’s enhances its fascination for the players and GM; and
  • Verisimilitude – the more thoroughly understanding the technological foundations and ramifications apon which your gaming environment is founded, the more real and convincing you can make your world and your game.

So there’s good reason to do it, and only one really good way of going about the task. Yet, several people I have spoken to over the years have an inordinate fear of the sci-fi genre because they don’t think they can do it well enough (if at all), and those who have tackled the genre despite this fear have either stuck like glue to the standard information provided by the game system, have minimized the impact of the technology to the occasional detriment of their game, or have charged ahead regardless – and occasionally come unstuck. Even for those who haven’t, they can always do it better.

In this article, I’m going to let you in on my secrets for putting the sci-fi into my SF games and settings. Well, seven or so of them, anyway – and next week, in part 2, I have another seven or so more to share.

Let’s start at the beginning – where do you get your ideas?

Extrapolate an Idea

In 1995, I was between jobs and started getting semi-serious as a writer. I began writing short SF stories. I would write a new story each morning, edit & revise yesterday’s story in the early afternoon, and then review, revise, and polish the story from a week earlier in late afternoon.

My starting point was usually the same: I would look at a piece of everyday, ordinary technology and try to extrapolate how it might change in the future. Was there a key operating principle that could be replaced with something else? Why might such a change occur? Would the change increase functionality, or make manufacture cheaper? Might the product apon which the technology was supposed to operate have changed? I kept going until I had a plausible change in the tech and an equally plausible reason for that change. Eventually, I would build a story around that change. If I couldn’t come up with one, I would start over, and use the first change in the background of the resulting story as an incidental element, or save it, if it didn’t fit that story.

But that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves.

Extrapolate a trend

When I didn’t start from a piece of everyday technology, I started by identifying some trend and extrapolated that into the future, then “invented” the technology to support that extrapolation.

I used the same approach recently in my Superhero campaign, which is currently set in an alternate 2050 – one in which certain technologies are even more advanced than that date might indicate (and others are less advanced, but that’s a whole different subject) by combining the interactivity of modern computer games with the trend towards 3D movies. I speculated that once holographic techniques had advanced sufficiently, the art form of film would evolve to permit the viewer to choose whose characters’ point of view that he experienced. After a few only somewhat successful experiments which simply put the viewer in the heart of the action, there would be one breakthrough movie that did an “Avatar”, popularizing the technology. It would be entirely likely that this advance would immediately revolutionize the pornographic industry – but that’s enough said about that! It would then become the standard approach to entertainment. This would be followed by a wave of “conversion” of the classics. Imagine being “Sam Spade” in The Maltese Falcon, “Luke Skywalker” in Star Wars, or “Scarlett O’Hara” in Gone With The Wind. Cult movies that are already subject to immersive participation, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show would almost certainly be at the forefront. The next step would be for couples and groups to take roles in the same movie at the same time, bringing a tactile element. This is the equivalent of taking movies into the first person. Of course, it’s only a short step from this to the full-blown Holodramas of Star Trek Voyager (e.g. Bride Of Chaotica!), in which the participants don’t just view the action, they direct their character’s behavior (even if restricted to a few key branch points and menu choices, at least at first). Where a studio wasn’t quick enough with an official version, there would be a black market ready to supply what the audience wanted. Hackers would also get involved, introducing behavioral and customization options for the characters that the designers never envisaged. There would be an underground market which provided the tools to fulfill any fantasy, no matter how depraved. Suffice it to say that there would be a few new vices for society to deal with, and some new wrinkles on the old ones. Once again, I’m not going to go any further with that line of thought!

Instead, I’ll call your attention to the marketing benefits of this technology in terms of product placement – you could market Coke so that when your “character” was required by the script to have a drink, you really sipped a serving. You could convey what your new vehicle was really like to drive – when driven by a professional – and perhaps persuade people to buy.

Another technological seed leading to this development path currently exists in Formula 1 coverage (and possibly other forms of motorsport), in which viewers can choose to view the race from the onboard camera of one of a selected group of drivers by pressing a button on their remote controls.

Movies become, in effect, roleplaying games. And all it needs is an improvement in 3D technologies.

Consider the impact on “Reality TV” – “it’s someone else’s life with the boring bits cut out”. Consider the impact on education.

This path has not been fully followed yet in the campaign world – they are still at the “Menu” stage, which have not yet reached the point of being a fully-immersive “gamebook”, but that’s a good thing – if you know where a technological advance could lead, you can show that change taking place in the background.

How does it work?

Believability comes from understanding how the technology works, at least superficially. Once I have decided on a target appliance or technology, gaining that understanding is an essential first step to figuring out how the technology might advance.

For example, you might look at the modern-day toaster, which partially re-cooks bread to change its surface texture and flavor with a Maillard Reaction. It does this by forcing electricity through electrically-resistant coils of wire, which grow hot as a result. As anyone who uses a bar heater knows, this is a fundamentally inefficient approach, but it works, and it results in a reasonably-sized completely portable device. Using any of the alternative heating technologies that have replaced bar heaters as the preferred heating technology within our homes doesn’t work for one of two reasons: either they fail to deliver the same concentration of heat (reverse-cycle heating, oil-column heaters), or they require a more permanent installation for safety reasons which eliminates the portability and intrudes on the user-friendliness of the appliance. Microwave ovens don’t have the same effect on bread because they generate the heat in the object in a different way, by exciting the water molecules (and probably other electrically-biased molecules) within the substance being microwaved.

Most of the advances in toasters over the last 50 years have been directed at redirecting waste heat to offset somewhat the inherent inefficiency of the electric-coil heating system; using thermal sensors to ensure that no matter what thickness of bread slice is placed in the appliance, or whether it is frozen or semi-frozen, the result is bread toasted to the same degree; and modifications to enable the toasting of other foods like teacakes, pop tarts, waffles, and crumpets.

There’s not a whole lot there that’s susceptible to radical technological change, save the product itself. Possibly infrared lasers could replace the heating elements, but that’s reaching and could be dangerous. There’s a reason why there hasn’t been much fundamental change to toasters since the 1925 invention of the pop-up mechanism!

What’s changed in the meantime is the advent of a greater understanding of the chemical processes involved, and the culinary development of Molecular Gastronomy (which I find absolutely fascinating). While we have not yet seen any new products designed to use the radiant heat of a toaster and the principles of Molecular Gastronomy to deliver an unusual or different flavor, it seems inevitable to me that there will eventually be several such products. Self-jamming toast, anyone?

This is a great example of the sort of sci-fi near-future development that doesn’t readily lend itself to a plotline, but which could be part of the background of any breakfast scene in another story, or perhaps a product advertisement that could appear in the background of such a story.

Another possibility is using the waste heat to boil water for a small coffee percolator, combining these two appliances into one – but that seems impractical unless you always have toast with your coffee. Or maybe using some of the waste heat to drive a miniscule turbine in the toaster, reclaiming some of the losses.

The latter could be at the core of a MacGyver-esque solution to the problem of generating electricity in an emergency – using some non-electrical means of heating the water – though it seems either impossible for players to figure out unless you make sure they know there’s a turbine in the toaster, in which case it seems altogether too obvious. But perhaps there’s a way for a prisoner to use the electricity generated to escape from some sort of electrically-operated confinement – the prison authorities not realizing that there was a generator in the toaster either.

I could produce a workable near-future short story from this train of thought, starting at the Warden’s breakfast table, interrupting the breakfast with the news of the escape, then leading to his inspection of the escape scene. Okay, the concept needs more development – a prisoner wouldn’t have a personal toaster. So make it a safe house, and a witness who is being held – but who secretly has some other agenda. The plot still needs an ending, but as a beginning, this isn’t too bad.

What else can be done with the core tech?

Back when I was first starting my superhero campaign, I needed to come up with some explanation for the superhero costumes being more resilient than ordinary cloth. How could they stand up to the rigors of a superhero battle?

One of my players came up with the concept of encasing the threads of the costumes in a precision molecularly-deposited crystal of sapphire. The crystal structure of Sapphire is essentially that of a d8 which shares each of its vertices (corners) with another crystal, forming a 3-dimensional lattice. This idea essentially had threads passing through the flat face of each crystal which locked them together. The layer of crystal would give a shiny, glossy appearance to the cloth, and would make it incredibly resilient, but would not be thick enough to noticeably distort the color of the threads.

From my interest in Formula 1, and awareness of the emerging technologies within that sport, I was able to embellish this concept, replacing the threads with carbon fiber (which has a superior strength-for-weight performance over other materials) in one direction and an elastic fiber in another to ensure a snug fit and hold the color. We called this hypothetical material Saphlar (sometimes spelt with a double p).

A nice piece of throw-away background technology to explain a phenomenon that I wanted to exist within the campaign. No practical value.

Yeah, right.

Look at all the things that carbon fiber gets used for these days – everything from air bags to aircraft and aeronautical components to brakes to bows and arrows to canoes. It seems as if anything that can be made from fiberglass can made in a stronger, more durable, form, using carbon fiber. And many things besides.

Then there’s the fact that Sapphire can be used as the substrate layer of a semiconductor circuit because it has a low conductivity for electricity and a high one for heat, using a process invented in 1963 called Silicone-On-Sapphire.

That means that you could build a computer interface or comms system directly into a costume or uniform – if necessary, sandwiching the circuits between two layers of Saphlar, and the latest generation of superhero costumes are going to take advantage of that technology (It’s worth remembering that the core superhero campaign is set in 1987, having started in 1973 (game time), some 22 years ago (real time). That lets me use modern tech as ‘future tech’ within the campaign, the results of super-scientists).

I find it amusing that a fairly similar process of sapphire-coating to that “invented” in 1981 for my game seems to be currently used in the Flavorstone brand of non-stick cookware :)

All this points to one massively-important question that should be asked of every sci-fi tech development you come up with: What Else Can You Do With It?

To answer this, get creative. Think about the qualities that make this tech suitable for the purpose for which you invented it in the first place – and where else those qualities might be important.

Old products

The sources of ideas that I have advocated can be tremendously helpful in this respect, because they start with a practical real-world object or process and advance it into future-tech terms. Since you already have at least one application for the technology as a starting point, you can look for other appliances and technologies that resemble the initial starting point or are associated with it. The practical starting point makes it easier to identify other industries and products that would be impacted. The one chain of thought can yield dozens of practical differences to describe to the players – and because you took the time to understand the basic principles apon which your “future tech” was based, these will be utterly convincing to both you and your players. The nuts and bolts fit together.

New Tools

So much for the direct consequences of the new technology. Now it’s time to look deeper again, this time at the potential indirect consequences.

These essentially come in two varieties: New Tools and Processes, and New Products. I’ll deal with the latter in the following section.

Any new technology tends to require new tools and processes. Once you have worked out what the new tech is, and how it works, you’re in a position to work out how they build it in the first place. How is manufacture affected? Are there software updates to consider, and how are these accomplished?

A related set of questions involve reliability and safety. How are the products tested? Are there any problems resulting from the application of out-of-date industrial or environmental standards to the new processes? What can happen to these products when they fail? Can any of them fail in particularly interesting ways, from a plot point of view? How many of them will fail testing, and can these, or parts of these, be used for anything else? In modern times and post-modern, recycling potential may be another major issue to consider. What are the business and economic implications of the new technology?

These can all be useful ways of limiting the impact of a technology, or of deriving plotlines and locations from your invented future-tech.

The question then becomes, “What else can be done with those new tools and processes?” What other technologies may evolve or vanish? Which will become more efficient? What common, ordinary appliances and tools will change, becoming cheaper, or more powerful, or more sophisticated, or smaller?

Changing the size of an object can have a major impact on what can be done with it, how easily and frequently it can be integrated with another tech, and so on. If mobile telephones had not reduced in size from the “bricks” way they used to be, they would never have become as popular as they have. Reducing the size of the circuitry involved made room for other circuits within the same, portable case – leading to the smartphones of modern times. When computers became small enough to be put into cars, someone asked if there was anything that a computer could do when placed into a car – and the result is the sophisticated engine electronics of the modern world. Many people don’t realize that mobile phones as we know them would not be possible without a GPS system; the same advances that produce the cell phone lead to GPS Navigation units. My father’s unit automatically updates every couple of minutes to show changing road conditions as he travels – essentially, using mobile phone technology, because the mobile phone tech is now small enough to put into other appliances. Size matters.

New products

This is the trickiest part of the lot. What new products and new ideas become possible? It’s tempting to say none, but we all know that’s not very likely. Fortunately, most products – new and old – fall into distinct categories, and everything around us also falls into those same categories. That gives us a tool for getting inspired.

For a couple of days after you reach this point in the development process (which should not have taken very long), consider everything that you see and interact with, and ask how it and objects and activities like it might be affected by this new technology. As I look around me, right now, I see a fan, a computer, a desk, a TV, a DVD player/recorder, a sound system, music CDs, storage units, a door, bookshelves, books, games, DVDs, some toys, collectables, and decorative items, a table, a chair, a heater, a rubbish bin, a dustpan and brush, a feather duster, pens, medication bottles, a candle, torches, a telephone, a white pages, a yellow pages, notepads, a wallet, keys, and a remote control bay.

Each of these not only represents itself, but also its general class of object, and its function. This one trip around the room wouldn’t get every possible application, but it would give a healthy start to a comprehensive listing of the applications for any new technological advance. Keep this up for only a short period of time and it won’t take long to have covered more than enough.

You don’t need the results to be complete. So long as they are reasonably comprehensive, you can always maintain that any other application that comes to mind later (or in the minds of your players) hasn’t been thought of yet.

Compiling a cornucopia

It doesn’t take too many future tech developments, handled this way, to completely “futurize” a society, while keeping it familiar enough that your players will have no trouble interacting with that future world.

Of course, the real world of tomorrow will have far more than just those few advances, but that doesn’t matter; you aren’t looking to predict the future, you’re looking to plausibly predict the interaction of future technology with the everyday activities that your characters will perform. You don’t have to load your players down with all this information; simply have it on tap so that you can provide it when it becomes necessary, or when it becomes useful color in setting a scene.

Sidebar: The Fantasy Relevance

The maxim, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” cuts both ways. If you imagine the various forms of magic that you have in a fantasy game as a form of futuristic advanced “technology,” you can integrate the consequences of having that magic available into your society using these same techniques. Moreover, since there is no “science” behind the magic to explain how it works in the real world, you can make up whatever seems appropriate. It’s your world, and there’s no-one to contradict you; all you have to do is make sure that the end results include any information provided in the relevant sourcebooks.

Which brings me to the end of part 1 of this two-part article. Join me next week for part 2!

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