The Shrieking Harridan called Technology

Ok, the title is a bit much, but today is a Tuesday that feels like a Monday preceded by a whole week of Wednesdays; please bear with me.

I like Science Fiction, and I have greatly enjoyed playing in games of Shadowrun and Trinity, and as I have mentioned elsewhere, I look forward to someday getting a chance to play in other systems such as Blue Planet, or Prime Directive. I would kill for a chance to get into a good Serenity game. Seriously, I would totally blow a new crater in a terraformed moon with my unarmed transport ship if we could get a Serenity game going, but… I digress.

I am currently running my second Trinity Series (although work keeps getting in the way of gaming), and am enjoying the hell out of the setting… except for all that damned technology. This is not a new problem for me, and I have heard more than once from others – in a variety of settings – that technology is the major stumbling block for many a GM. While unlike many, I do not feel out-of-place running settings based in the 1100s through to the 1990’s, and while I frequently set my games in the present for the sake of player convenience,  I do start to get annoyed by technology’s effect on in-game actions and options after the meteoric rise of the personal computer and cell phone during the last 15 years.

To be uncharacteristically brief, I can trace dissatisfaction to two key elements:

  • No Future Technology list can ever be complete or expansive enough to significantly and interestingly remove the bias of the present from the experience.
  • Few players have the time to invest in becoming as conversant with printed in-game technology and its capabilities as they need to be to fully enhance the game.

In a historical or fantasy setting, we can work within the parametres of what has and has yet to be invented, and act within the scope of what we know to be the defining social mores of the period or choose to embrace anachronistic attitudes. We are more clearly able to conceive what could and could not be done in those settings than we are able to consistently conceive what we might and might not be able to do in a future setting. Perhaps this seems a little like splitting hairs, but this next example ought to make it clear:


Player: Will I be able to contact the police to let them know the location of the cultist’s temple?

GM: Yes, although it might take a long time. The nearest phone you would be aware of is at the Dry Goods Store, 5 miles away. They  close at 5pm, so you’ll have to break in, or find and wake the proprietor in order to use the phone. Squad cars in this rural area are not yet equipped with radios, so one will have to be dispatched from HQ.


23rd Century

Player: What exactly can I do with my minicomp?

GM: Well…

Other player: What is this pistol made from? Will I be able to smuggle it through customs? How does customs work, anyway?

GM: Just a sec…

Third player: Are we going to use the gear from the Tech Manual? I know you don’t have it yet, but…

GM: *sigh*

Know what I mean?

How do we keep the future from feeling like the present, without having all the gaps in our conceptions of possible and probable technology from getting in the way?

Solutions that I have tried are simple, and fairly effective, but I am always on the lookout for more.

  • Decide to have future tech take on roles analogous to current tech, and pass it off as a retro revival in design philosophy. While we are pushing for convergence right now, that does not necessarily mean that we will be able to surf the 5.0 Web on our cellphone/object fabricator/juicer/media console/comb. Stick to types of product, and dress up those types with interesting-sounding imaginary brands and their competitors.
  • Keep everything simple. Yes they can put a warhead in your pen. They didn’t though.
  • Do not watch the last 5 minutes of any Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes where technology saves the day by reversing the polarity of something you have to pipe through something else to augment whatever effect you need. Stick to the personal interactions, and let the stories be about more than flipping switches and really, really big ventilation fans.
  • Write short, descriptive pieces reflecting life in the future setting as you see it, and give the players time to read and digest it.
  • Take the time to go over the setting material in the core book and discuss what life is like in this imaginary world. If possible, do it before character generation – for your own sanity.
  • If you are just getting used to a setting, do not be afraid to set limitations on character generation to exclude options which will complicate things beyond your comfort level. Vanilla is a damn successful flavour. Try it again for the first time.
  • Avoid the ‘Ogle the Ship’ scene. Let the exploration of the world and setting occur naturally, as if the characters actually lived there, and do not get strangely aroused by a nearly pornographic inspection of curvaceous ships.

How do you handle technology and its nearly endless possibilities in your SF games?

2 Responses to “The Shrieking Harridan called Technology”
  1. jeffro says:

    In Traveller and Serenity, your most common methods are to…

    A) Have the players living hand to mouth. If they are poor, they can’t afford the plot breaking goodies!

    B) Keep players on the edge. The frontier is where the opportunities and action is. Tech is rare out there… and the authorities are going to be trouble if the players get too close to civilization.

    C) Have the PC’s equipment break. Broken jump drives… computer viruses… whatever it takes. Turn it into an adventure just to get the techy stuff to *work*! (See the Empire Strikes Back for a classic example.)

    D) Have natural disasters upset the local order. Earthquakes, solar flares… something. This shuts down key infrastructure for the duration of the adventure.

    E) Make it too dangerous to use techy solutions. (“Sure you can look that up on the data-net… but you don’t know who might notice your digging around for such an unusual topic…!”)

    F) Steal all your plots from Westerns.

    G) Only deal with one oddball setting based techo-thingy at a time. (It took Joss an entire episode to show what the Reavers would do to a lone ship.)

    • Runeslinger says:

      I am not sure that I see tech as a plot-breaker, and if I am using an SF or future setting, I actually want them to have the cool tech. That said, the trouble with being able to adequately prepare for the use of it in the game, does bring up some significant problems.

      The suggestions you make, do allow for the group to slowly incorporate more and more tech into the game at a sustainable pace, and highlight its utility and effect when it occasionally absents itself.

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