Clarke’s Law and SF Roleplaying

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Clarke’s Third Law

Any technology indistinguishable from magic might as well be fantasy. – Macy’s RPG Corollary

Old-time SF author E.C. Tubb died on September 10th, 2010, which prompted me to begin reading his most famous series: Dumarest of Terra.  Dumarest was the inspiration for several  features of the early SF RPG Traveller, most notably the concepts of “Low” (risky but cheap cryogenic suspension) and “High” (expensive but safely awake) passage on starships, but a lot of the feel of the setting as well, with humanity spread out so far among the stars that there’s no central political control and Terra is just a legend.

Dumarest is entertaining enough in a pulpish way, but one of the things that strikes me when reading it is how much it feels like science fiction, despite having no recognizably “hard” science elements. The mechanics of interstellar travel, for instance, isn’t explained at all, not even in the hand-waving way of “hyper-space” or “FTL” drive.  All you really know about it is that it takes a long time: not so long as to make interstellar tourism impossible, at least if you’re rich enough, but long enough that even  in “High passage” people have to take a drug called Quick-Time to slow their metabolism and perception to endure the journey.  Worlds exist with unusual features such as not rotating that aren’t worked out at all, let alone with Hal Clement-style rigor. So what makes it feel science-fictional, in a way that many modern SF stories and RPGs do not?

I think the thing is that even without any attempt at explanation or justification in terms of real science, the technology is portrayed as having limits and inconveniences that give it a distinctly un-magical feel.  Cryogenic suspension isn’t a Sleeping Beauty spell. Besides having a 15% fatality rate per trip and being incredibly painful to wake from, such that without pain-killing drugs passengers will scream their lungs raw as they wake, low passage takes its toll on the body.  Low-travel passengers such as Dumarest have used up a lot of their body’s reserves, and are literally half-starved.  High-travel passengers, no matter how wealthy, even be they princes of their home planets, must endure side-effects from the Quick-Time drug slowing their reflexes fractionally for days afterwards.  Solar storms can make travel impossible, even for the most heavily shielded starships, high winds on a planet can make air-travel impractical even though there is anti-grav technology, and so on.

It further seems to me that this sense of the limitations of technology and science is something missing from a lot of recent SF and SF RPGs.  It’s as if people have taken Clarke’s Third Law too much to heart and decided that if any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, the best way to go about imagining advanced technology is to treat it as if it were magic and anything is possible.  This may be exacerbated by movies, TV, and computer games, which powerfully influence our imaginations when it comes to picturing SF worlds. Advances in CGI mean that anything we can imagine depicting can now be shown on screen, with no real constraints.  A space-station the size of the moon is no harder or more costly to depict than a space-station the size of an oil tanker.  Or maybe not: it was always possible to write about a space-station the size of the moon with no more effort than a more reasonably-sized one.  And yet I wonder…did convincing the reader take more effort before people were used to seeing photo-realistic depictions of such wonders, moving in real time?

It’s not that I think SF games are better if you have to plot realistic Newtonian orbits, or if they have no tech that you can’t point to at least a pop-sci article in the paper to justify…Heaven knows Dumarest doesn’t even make gestures in that direction. It’s that what’s missing is the sense that the physical universe places constraints on technology that cannot be overcome with “sufficiently advanced” tech.  The result is that all these SF worlds feel as if they’re taking place in a virtual reality, and if that’s the case then for all practical purposes they might as well be fantasy games instead of SF… the  difference coming down to nothing more than the style of accompanying illustration.  There’s nothing wrong with playing fantasy with SF trappings, after all that’s more or less the point of my whole Elves and Espers campaign setting, but I can’t help feeling that a steady diet of it isn’t taking full advantage of the unique features of SF as a genre.

Take Firefly, for example.  There’s nothing the least bit realistic about some of the basic features of the setting, such as all the terraformed asteroids and moon-lets of the ‘Verse, or the ease with which ships travel between them or run across each other while travelling (c.f. Pournelle’s Those Pesky Belters and Their Torch Ships), but there are features that give it a strongly SF flavor despite it being largely and unapologetically a Western in Space.  The biggest thing is that ships require fuel and constant maintenance, and both of those require money.  (This was an important feature of Traveller, as well.)  Even Star Trek, which makes worries about fuel and maintenance irrelevant except for the occasional plot-point, and which introduced truly fantastic tech such as transporter beams at least took the trouble to include limitations such as being unable to beam through shields which made it feel a little more “grounded”–even if the limitations were really there to plug the plot holes that having an instant “Get Out of Jail Free” card would have introduced.

I think this gets exaggerated in SF RPGs, because there is a tendency to gloss over such limitations and difficulties that are implied to exist in the technology as being irrelevant to, or worse detracting from, the sense of adventure.  That tends to happen even in fantasy games, where logistical rules such as encumbrance or spell components are often the first things to get tossed aside in the pursuit of more “heroic” feeling games, but at least there the typical low-tech setting implies constraints that the characters tend to live with.  Without a spell, nobody tries to converse with somebody in a city hundreds of miles away; in a modern setting, people think nothing of pulling out a cell phone… in a future setting, players now tend to assume that they ought to be able to do at least that much, but without stopping to consider whether that implies infrastructure such as cell towers and satellites that the world they’re exploring might not have.  Surely whatever far-future they’re in where they’re exploring worlds ought to have licked whatever technical problems that might present?   The recent Doctor Who series (in)famously introduced a cell-phone that could make calls not only across whatever planet they are on, but even across time itself.  That’s a bit magical even for Doctor Who fans.

I think that, especially for RPGs, even if you’re really aiming for SF with no hard science at all along the lines of Star Wars or Doctor Who, it’s helpful to avoid falling back on Clarke’s Law to justify all your tech doing whatever is most convenient at the moment.  Think about some limits that might be implied by the fact that this is dealing with physical objects in a “real” world, and not CGI or magic, and enforce them.  Consider whether the items require power and how much,  or have limitations on range, reliability, maintenance, and so forth.  RPGs are about making interesting decisions, preferably ones informed by your character’s beliefs and personality, but at least ones with tactical and strategic trade-offs  It just strikes me as more interesting if your communicators can only contact the ship as long as it’s in line of sight above you and not when it’s blocked by the bulk of the planet, unless you take the trouble of dropping a bunch of geosynchronous relay satellites in orbit first.  Even more so if they’re expensive enough that it’s worth the trouble to retrieve them when you leave, and it takes time to do so, so that one day you might be faced with the choice of cutting and running when some enemy shows up or leaving your comm net satellites behind and it’s actually a hard choice.  Every game should have interesting decisions the characters face, but game that aim to be SF should make an extra effort to make those decisions feel like they’re grounded in the science of the setting however outre.  Bonus points if the players can reason about the “science” to arrive at true conclusions and workable plans…such as by tricking the enemy into thinking the landing party is still on the planet by programming the abandoned comm satellites to keep pretending to relay messages.  Avoiding the reckless application of Clarke’s law is, in my opinion, a big help in keeping your SF feeling like SF.

One thought on “Clarke’s Law and SF Roleplaying

  1. Great post, very thoughtful.

    And yet I wonder…did convincing the reader take more effort before people were used to seeing photo-realistic depictions of such wonders, moving in real time?

    To read is to ponder & contemplate. Seeing is believing?

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