The blognards draw water from a tainted well, oftentimes contaminating their thoughts with the same infectious waters and turning the blogosphere into an electronic equivalent of the 1854 London Cholera outbreak. Sometimes this infection is by design; one of us riffing of the thoughts of another, while other times it’s an accidental outbreak, the seeds of the contagion growing in separate mental Petri dishes. The current blog infection that’s making the rounds is that of Science Fiction’s place in the grand game. This subject has been covered recently over at Grognardia, Monsters and Manuals, and Greyhawk Grognard in one form or another. Now I’d like to ramble a bit on the topic myself, as my own particular brand of Sci-Fi/Fantasy mashup hasn’t been mentioned.
Noisms from Monsters and Manuals gets close with his discussion of steampunk, but it’s not quite what I think of when I consider adding obvious technological advancements to the fundamentally fantastical world of D&D. Like a lot of folks, I can’t quite make the leap to commit myself to adding ray guns and androids to my homebrew campaign world. Despite D&D having deep roots in both the pulp genre, which often featured such mashups, and the precedent-setting Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, there remains a deep chasm that I’d have to leap before being willing to mix Science Fiction and Fantasy and present it for players’ consumption.
Science!, however, is a completely different story.
Science!, a term first coined in GURPS IOU and GURPS Atomic Horror, refers to that broad school of technological innovation that covers every scientific advancement ever achieved in 1950s sci-fi films. Science! Is not about lasers, masers, teleportation and hyper-drives. It’s about brains in a jar, Teslatrons, thought-transference with wire-adorned colanders and the like. It is white-coated scientists tampering where man should not tread. It’s gonzo, stinks of ozone, and usually overloads, causing the destruction of the model castle that housed it. I have no problem mixing Science! with my fantasy.
Science! is of itself fantastical and therefore slips quickly and easily into place amongst the fantasy tropes of the game. It’s not quite as jarring to discover that the crazy sorcerer down on sub-level six is wielding a lightning cannon while his mento-enhanced white apes clean the clocks of the party, then it would be to face a horde of androids armed with Mark V blasters. As the 21st century rolls along, the latter become much more feasible than the former and thus remains more firmly rooted in the realm of plausible rather than fantastical.
I also prefer Science! to Science Fiction because, with no disrespect to Arthur C. Clarke, I like my technology to be discernable from the magical. I don’t wish to beat the players over the head with it, but I enjoy the look in their eyes when they see that they’re facing something that’s obviously mechanical, not magical, rather than waiting for them to slowly realize that their wand of fireballs is actually a ray gun. We’re in this game to stretch the imagination, so let’s get the stretching out of the way early. That way it cuts down on pulled mental muscles when we really start to run.
To give you an example of the way that I’ve slipped Science! into the game, I should mention the god Wonder, who occupies a place in the local pantheon of my homebrew setting. A long time back, I established the idea that not all the gods of R’Nis are local and that some of the gods and goddesses, heroes and saints had taken up residence in this section of the multiverse after previously existing somewhere else. Wonder is one such deity. He’s often depicted in statuary as a thin, mustachioed human male, dressed in strange, otherworldly clothing. His temples are adorned with the Holy Words that read “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does all the work.” Cagy readers will have deduced the real identity of this god. With a plot device like that, it becomes pretty easy to wander into the realm of Science! to challenge and thrill the players.
This topic has been on my mind a bit as of late because I’ve been reading Fred Saberhagen’s Empire of the East. The first book of that trilogy features a local satrap searching for “The Elephant”, an article of Old World technology that could threaten his reign. I’m not spoiling the plot much by revealing that “The Elephant” turns out to be a futuristic nuclear-powered armored tank. While introducing such a device into my own game would be a little much for me, I could probably see myself doing something similar. Rather than a future tank, I would consider the possibility of having the party come across a World War I era tank that had arrived via some magical gate. The idea is attractive to me because of the wonky, clunky factor that a WWI tank would have over an obviously sci-fi armored vehicle. It serves the same purpose in the grand scheme, but without the stigma of being a piece of futuristic high tech. For me, wonky and clunky seems more at home in a mixed genre setting than smooth and streamlined.
So take this as a warning should you ever find yourselves wandering the lands of R’Nis: the orangutan men have lightning guns!