Monday, May 28, 2018

Ultra-Tech Framework Post-Script and Comments

I wrote my Ultra-Tech Framework articles with a couple of readers/patrons in mind, who often had questions about how I put together my own technology frameworks in my campaigns, so I thought it might be nice to loosely document how I handled it.  It is, of course, more art than science, and I could do an entire series on game design elements, but I hoped it was useful.

Given that it might be useful to them, it might be useful to you as well, dear reader, so I thought it might be nice to make it generally available, and I was right!  It seems quite well received, and it generated quite some discussion.  I wanted to tackle, broadly, some of the comments and questions I received over the course of the series.  All the questions are paraphrased, because I received many of them on Discord, and I didn't save them at the time, thus they are remembered, rather than directly quoted.  Apologies if this makes some inaccurate.


You say to start with the background tech and move on the big, setting-changing tech.  Shouldn't it be the other way around?

This is an interesting point.  First, I must say that I got this sort of question from the broken up articles, rather than the complete document, as seen on Patreon.  I imagine this is so because if you see that advice in isolation, you might become confused.

The first step in the ultra-tech creation process should be defining your concept and framework.  So, yes, you're "starting" with what makes your setting distinct and different.  Once you know that, for example, you're going to feature advanced AI in a campaign that focuses on murder mysteries, then you move on to detailing your technology.  Only once you have this worked out, I recommend starting with the simplest choices and moving on from there: pick your tech level, lay down the most basic tech and work out the tech at increasing complexity and concern.  This is the point where some people object: why not do this in reverse?  Hit the "most important part first."

I recommend starting simple to establish a familiar, setting baseline.  The "trick" of coming up with the setting defining technology was handled in the concept phase.  Now, we're working out things like setting implications.  But to understand the setting implications of a setting, we need to know the setting.  Thus, I recommend that as a foundation.  You might see the earlier steps as "getting the obvious stuff out of the way."  In our AI-who-solves-crime example, we know the TL (say, 10), and we know the feel (more or less like modern procedural crimes, but with an AI).  So we know that we should mostly have familiar TL 10 tech, we can have a few convenience techs (we might make forensics a little easier so a single duo can do quite a lot of it on their own), and certainly some standard sci-fi tropes, like hover-cars and beam weapon side-arms.  Now that we have an idea of what our setting is like, it's safer for us to go into what the AI is like, and how it impacts the setting.

This has several advantages.  First, I find it tends to "tame" the concept of the setting.  If you challenge a GM to come up with a TL 12 space opera, most will freeze, because there's way too many choices available, most of which are crazy.  So we start by removing the crazy and adding the TL 12 we find most palatable, the "familiar" technology that helps us grasp how our setting will work.  Once we have that bedrock, once our setting is in our grasp, then we can bring in the crazy.  Miracle tech also tends to be labor intensive.  You need to consider where things go wrong, or how players might use or abuse your technology.  If you use up your energy and time working out the details on your miracle tech, you have no game or setting to run; if instead, you use up your time and energy on all the rest of the tech, you can at least run the baseline setting you created.  Our AI procedural is at least a TL 10 procedural if we don't have AI.

This isn't to say you can't work that way.  If you don't like a specific piece of advice in a recipe or an advice column, but the rest of it is good, use the rest of it.  I often instruct stumped writers to "write what they know."  If you know your setting is going to have advanced AI and that's where your focus is, write that.  If you don't know what the rest is, you can "grab and go," especially if you understand the concept of familiar tech, convenience tech and standard-issue sci-fi tech.  So, we know we're going to have super-advanced AI, and we can work that out in detail.  What's the rest like? Oh, TL 10, but with a modern feel.  So, you can use modern cars, only they hover; you can use modern guns, only they deal burning (2) damage, or whatever.  If it's not important, you can "fill in the blanks" later.  This isn't bad advice; it just pre-supposes you have a good handle on the concepts I outline in my series.

This seems really complicated. Why do you have to make things so complicated? Why do you overprep? Why can't you just fudge it, like I do?

First, I want to say up front that there are many "right" ways to run an RPG.  I've got my style and approach and it works very well for me, and given my views and patronage, I have a sufficient audience that I can safely conclude that my approach has a sufficient audience to justify my continued blogging.  But that doesn't mean that I expect my approach to have universal appeal.  If you don't want detailed and richly complex works, then you're probably in the wrong place.  I understand that my "start simple, get complex" approach can feel like a bait-and-switch, but this is how complexity is built: it emerges naturally from simplicity.

My mother told me to go to the store and buy a dozen eggs and that if they had milk, to buy two.  I returned with 24 eggs and no milk.  She asked me why I bought so many eggs, to which I replied "They had milk!"

That said, there's an important principle that I want to highlight: humans tend to be good at hiding complexity.  We do ridiculously complicated things all of the time without being consciously aware of what we're doing.  If asked a difficult math question, a student might respond, correctly, with the answer, without knowing how he arrived at that answer: he might remember it from when someone else answered it, or the answer might simply make sense to him.  Even so, most teachers will dock you points if you cannot "show your work," which means to go through each step and explain how you came to those conclusions. The difference between logic and intuition is that the former is explicit while the latter is implicit, but both deal with complicated things.

The problem arises if someone doesn't understand the process at all.  How do you teach someone about the complexities involved.  An intuitive person cannot; they can only show the person what they do and hope the other person gets it (this is similar to memorizing all the answers to a math test).  A logical person can explicitly explain each step.  This makes it a more powerful teaching tool: you can understand the principles behind handling complexities, and then apply them on your own.

People don't always like facing complexities, but they are there whether you want to admit them or not.  My article is explaining what I've seen done in every successful ultra-tech game.  A simpler way of explaining it, the sort of advice I more often see is "Pick a concept, throw out all the tech you don't need, and just keep it simple.  Oh, and be honest about the implications of the technology you do choose."  Well, how do you pick out a concept?  What tech do I need and what don't I need and how do I handle them?  What is "simple" and is it always advisable to keep it as simple as possible? If so, why do we have so many different types of guns? Wouldn't it be simpler to have only a single gun type? And what about the realist/honesty of technological implications? If I introduce a technology am I stuck with all of the "implications?" Is there no good way to control those? Is there a good way to figure out what those are?

When I write, I'm trying to outline all the possible steps, cases and tools you might need.  Sometimes, I worry I'll come across as patronizing in how much I try to simplify matters, and worry that I assume to much foreknowledge.  I find a lot of people who criticize me assume far, far more foreknowledge, usually either because they're fairly experienced (but unconscious of that experience), or they simply dismiss the levels of details I offer ("There's nothing wrong with having just one gun, or faking all the different guns by using a single stat-line and making up bonuses and maluses on the fly"), which is fine, but as an article that seeks to help as many people as possible, I need to assume less foreknowledge not more, and assume more interest in detail, not less.

It's easier to ignore uninteresting details than it is to fill in blanks, thus more useful to people to be overly detailed rather than not detailed enough (though, naturally, this must be balanced for readability).

How can you say that increasingly complex computers aren't transformative? I think having a server in hand is pretty transformative!

I didn't say it wasn't, I said it didn't have to be.

This highlights a core and important principle: this series isn't about what is, it's about what you want.  It's about building a setting to your specifications.  You need to pick and choose your technology to highlight the story elements you want, and the rest, where possible, should remain familiar.  Advanced computers are a good example of a technology that can believably stay familiar.

Let's break down the specifics of that.  If you pull out  your mobile phone and look up a location on google maps, your phone doesn't know where that location is.  It just has a link to an API that talks to a server that returns that information to you. This is called a thin client.  As mobile devices get better, they get thicker clients, but most of that "thickness" is in clever display tricks (like handling screen rotation) or caching information than it is in complex calculations.  Siri does not live on your phone, she lives in a server, but she can talk to your phone.

If you suddenly had a phone with the capacity of a server: suddenly, you could have Siri and Google Maps loaded directly into your phone and that's... convenient, but not much more.  The capabilities of someone with a mobile device in such a setting aren't dramatically different from the capabilities they would have in the present.  A good example of this would be desktop computers, which in the 1990s could engage in gaming, hacking, programming and surfing the internet and today, can engage in gaming, hacking, programming and surfing the internet.  The gaming looks better today, hacking uses different tricks and different exploits, and the internet is better and more useful than it was, but there's no transformative change here.  If you asked someone in the 1990s to imagine the capabilities of the computers of the early 2020s and he imagined them like the present "only incrementally better," he'd be pretty spot on.

This doesn't mean that I believe computers cannot be transformative.  Our 1990s fellow would be dead wrong when it came to how mobile devices would revolutionize the world, as well as the impact of things like social media.  If we create new applications of our technology, that will have implications.  The mobile device turned the desktop into something you could carry around with you, which meant that the world became far more interconnected than before.  Imagine a TL 12 computer that fits in your skull and talks directly to your mind that is as powerful as a modern server, or imagine a TL 10 computer that fits in a pair of glasses and projects images directly in your field of view, layering a digital reality over the real one ("Augmented Reality") and it has the power of a mobile device.  Imagine a desktop computer that contained programs that weren't designed, but that were, instead, taught, and could be "taught" in seconds.  This could automate away almost any task in but moments, and would have major implications.  Any similar technologies introduced into a setting have the potential to be a transformative technology around which your story could be told.

The point of my article is not to dismiss the transformative power of computers, medicine, weapons, or any technology you want, but to help you tame that transformative power so you can highlight the transformations you want.  If you want to explore how future computers will change us (a typical theme of cyberpunk), then do that.  But if you don't, then you shouldn't.  Most sci-fi out there assumes future computers won't completely transform how we live our lives, and that's fair.

Speaking of which:

I think technology should be depicted as realistically as possible; ignoring the transformative nature of any technology is unrealistic, thus to be avoided.

Nobody actually said this, but it felt like an undercurrent of commentary from a few specific quarters.  I've seen this sort of commentary and themes before, especially when I get into discussions about "what sci-fi is."  So I want to address these quickly; this will necessarily involve some definitions, which not everyone will agree with, but I offer them primarily to model how you can handle various forms of science fiction.

First, science fiction is, to me, any fiction that explores the implications of science and technology.  A lot of people like to use the terms "hard" and "soft" sci-fi to define a continuum of how "realistically" or "respectfully" you handle the science and technology vs how loose and fast you play with those rules, but traditionally "hard sci-fi" was fiction about the hard sciences, like chemistry or physics, while "soft sci-fi" was fiction about soft sciences like psychology or sociology.  The desire for intense realism in sci-fi, the other use of the term "hard" in sci-fi is associated with a subgenre that I would like to dub "futurism." This is not a discussion about a scientific concept, rather an attempt to synthesize all the various advances going on in the present, and attempting to predict what the world will look like in the future, generally (but not necessarily) in narrative for,.  Fans of this genre want their fiction to be as realistic as possible and as authentic as possible.  They will dismiss blue-skinned space princesses as utterly unrealistic, and will concede that while terraforming Mars is possible, will argue that it will not happen on short time tables and might even question whether or not it would be practical given the feasibility of orbital colonies and so on.

I point out this genre not to suggest that it's a "bad" genre, but to point out that it is not the only possible genre, or even desirable in your specific case.  Many fans of futurism seem to behave as though their genre is the best or most desirable.  I'm a big fan of Isaac Arthur, and in his world-building discussion, he's as guilty as the rest of doing the same, while I'm quite sure that if you pointed it out, he would realize he finds perfectly unrealistic works quite entertaining. Isaac Asimov is famous for this.  For example, his Foundation series features atomic ray guns and force screens and interstellar civilizations spanning into the deep future, but also printed newspapers; his robots series depicts what is essentially the 1950s and 1960s, only with robots.  In neither case was his fiction "bad."  It was just focused.  Asimov wanted to talk about the cycles of civilization and the idea of psychohistory (foundation) or the implications of robotics and AI programming (I, Robot).  Good sci-fi authors try to pick and choose what they want to talk about.  There's nothing wrong with this approach.

My series is about how to minimize your workload and to focus down on the technologies you want for your setting.  This is not to say it cannot handle the "futurism" genre, but that there are more genres than that, and futurism is a remarkably unforgiving genre (it seems to exist primarily so smart people can criticize works in the genre, which is not meant to disparage it: by criticizing works of the genre, you sharpen your own knowledge, provided your criticisms are accurate).  Thus, I disagree with the assessment that "realism is always better."  Targeted realism that helps you tell the story you want to tell is "always better."  Unimportant realism represents excessive details threatens to get in the way of your storytelling unless handled very well. There are some genres were no amount of realism is "unimportant," even if it derails the story you were trying to tell, because that means that the story you were trying to tell was the wrong one.  But this is not the approach every GM will take, nor should you feel compelled to follow it.

This is cool!  Let me tell you about my setting and the technology I used then!

I know the boorish gamer who goes on and on about his character, setting or campaign is a time-honored trope, but I personally never liked the idea of finding such people "boring" or "irritating." I think if you don't want to hear the stories of other players, you're in the wrong hobby!  As a GM, I love it when my work inspired others, either to create their own works, to compare their works to yours, or just offer up their own.  It means my work spoke to them, and I like it when they speak back to me.

What I'm trying to do with my blog is encourage more people to build settings, to master the intricacies of GURPS and campaign design.  Worked examples, whether using my material directly or not, are always welcome. Always.

There have been several such works posted in comments.  You can go back and sift through my posts to find them, but if you post a link to a blog post or a google document here in the comments, or just send it to me, I'll link it here.
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