Ten Rules of Thumb for Dealing with Drastic Technological Advances in your RPG Game

Eventually, somebody’s going to blow the whole thing up. Maybe it’ll be your player-characters (PCs); maybe it’ll be non-player characters (NPCs) in cahoots with the PCs; and maybe it’ll just be you because that’s what your roleplaying game (RPG) campaign will be all about.  Any which way, suddenly you’re in a situation where technological development has rapidly accelerated.  How do you factor that in?

Well, there are some general rules of thumb to remember:

1. ‘Diffusion of innovation’ is a remarkable thing.  It took a while for scurvy to get fully wiped out, even once the incredibly simple methods of fighting it were found.  On the other hand, pretty much everybody dropped what they were doing to wipe out smallpox, virtually the instant that a safe inoculation method was discovered. Admittedly, smallpox is also infinitely scarier than scurvy is, but the basic point is this: instant, or even near-rapid universal adoption of a new technological process or concept probably just won’t happen on its own.  All of this means that you can safely assume an uneven adoption of whichever technology that you want your campaign world to unevenly adopt.

2. Swapping out for new technology is expensive. It’s expensive in new materials, it’s expensive in building infrastructure, and it’s expensive in training new workers.  This means, in practical terms, that if you drop gas turbines in Napoleonic-era England it will still be a while before the British Navy will start putting them on their ships… even if you’re giving them the fuel for free. It also means that new technology enclaves have a tendency to cluster a bit.  Spies and saboteurs, take note.

3. The rapid adoption of technology can often come down to one individual. Would England have won the Battle of Britain if Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding had slipped on the soap in 1935 and broken his neck?  Quite possibly: they’d still have had radar, but it was Dowding that figured out how to turn it into an effective air warning system.  In other words, it’s perfectly acceptable to make the adoption of a particular technological advance the baby of one particular NPC.  It’s also perfectly acceptable to make that NPC somewhat, or even deeply, weird: going back to that example, Hugh Dowding happened to believe in fairies.

4. There will always be somebody who gets thoroughly inconvenienced by the new technology.  That person — or persons, which is infinitely more problematic — will rather justifiably feel that they have been unfairly treated by The New Ways.  Whether it’s a riot in the industrial district or a vengeful vendetta in court (of either type), there’s always an excuse to have a bona fide enemy of the new technology around.

5. Prototypes blow up a lot. Or melt down, or shatter, or otherwise collapse in a heap.  Hand an AK-47 to Erskine Allin, and he could have generally recreated everything except the primer for the ammunition — but it’d probably take several tries before he could create a gun that wouldn’t fall apart when fired. This is largely unavoidable.

More on the next page.

6. Militaries are faster to adopt new technologies than they are to learn how to use them effectively.  See: World War I, History of.  There was no particular excuse for European General Staffs not understanding that machine guns and barbed wire would comprehensively change how infantry could fight; after all, the American Civil War had happened within living memory. Likewise, mustard gas was introduced into combat situations by the Germans before an effective protection against it was also developed, despite the fact that such a thing would have been useful for the Germans themselves to have.

7. Just because somebody did something one way doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to do it that way.  Eric Flint’s 16XX alternate history series revels in this concept. The basic concept — late 20th Century technology and ideas gets dumped right in the middle of Thirty Years’ War Germany — inevitably and organically lends itself to a culture where people apply new scientific principles to create different technologies. Why? Because…

8. Knowing how to build something is not the same as being able to do so. If your time-traveling PCs want to build, uh, PCs in ancient Rome then they had better start out by figuring out how to mine the rare earths needed, how to construct the electronics needed, how to get a reliable power grid up… or else they can just hijack a cargo ship full of laptops and the USS John F Kennedy.  Then all the PCs have to do is wire Rome for power and Internet.  This is a much easier task to accomplish.  On the other hand…

9. Knowing that you can build something gets you half the distance towards being able to do so.  The first time somebody was ever air bombed (and survived), three thoughts likely flowed through his head: first, What is that!?! Second, That’s impossible!  Third, …we have got to get something like this.  And the fact that they know that it’s not actually impossible will act as a powerful spur for development.

10. Eventually the tech gets out. It will get stolen, duplicated, bought, scavenged, or simply reverse-engineered.  If it’s juicy enough, alliances won’t matter. Unless the technology is capable of literally conquering the world, there will be ‘foreign’ versions of it.  Probably not as good, but possibly serviceable enough.

Bottom line is, of course, that it’s your campaign world, which means that things happen the way that you want them to.  But if they happen in a reasonably organic and plausible way, then you don’t have to think quite so much about the world-building.  This can be handy when you have to make something up on the fly…