Archive for August 9, 2019

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

“Any sufficiently advanced technology would to the less advanced be indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clark.

“At various times on your world your scholars have spoken of Magic and later on Technology as if they were two separate things, but on my world they’re one and the same.” – Movie Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

So how do GMs, Administrators and DMs handle the interface of Magic and Technology? Not well. The ones I played with almost universally banned anything more technological than a bag of lit oil.

During the Great Campaign in college, our wizard player was fairly well versed in things like the recipes for at least three different explosives typically cookable at home. I’d forgotten to ask if he’d read The Anarchist’s Cookbook, paid extra close attention to the pipe bombs in The Terminator, or like all of us closely watched the Star Trek episode ‘Arena,’ all possibilities in the 1980s.

Short version of the story, he proposed pipe bombs to solve the eternal problem of dungeons. Each door is a serious obstacle and no one has ever really figured out how to role play the probable truth that the noise from fighting the ogre in the previous encounter means that the dragon in the next room is awake, so don’t even make the First Edition sleep roll. Despite the tactical wisdom from the war games this player was more used to that speed in the dungeon is life, our DM ruled – “the black powder charge fizzles and you get a huge migraine headache out of nowhere as if the gods really hate anything remotely technological.”

In a related incident, this same player suggested lots of lye when the DM had us fight Alien Xenomorphs, acid blood and all. There was some kind of ruling here too. But, our solutions that fully exploited the rules rendered these babies almost like orcs, deadly in theory pushovers in practice…a post for another day.

We could’ve used lit oil by itself, as I remember the fizzle we used a flask of oil as the igniter. But, the player was also well versed in the difference between ignition and detonation. Oil, whether the pseudo-napalm we thought we tossed around or the equally dangerous whale oil or kerosene the rules envisioned, burns. To make something that burns (gunpowder, oil) mimic an explosive, you have to contain the hot gases with a bit of engineering. As I remember it, these contraptions failed too.

Yes, the DM determines the basic physics of the game. In every version of the rules, it’s black letter law that the DM has this authority. Think of it as the Holy Writ inscribed on the inside of the top half of the Monopoly box, though one or two common rules, like the Free Parking payout, aren’t actually on the box lid, just sayin’. And the basic social conventions of playing any game involved agreeing to rules – “right, no clipping, cross checking, rabbit punching or tripping…”

I suppose DMs have a point that we’ve agreed to play in a magic kingdom and not worry about how destabilizing a Sig P226 can be. Possibly because game systems have a way of overstating what guns do or understating their effect. Recent extra rules for D&D set most bullets at about the same damage as solid sword thrusts (D6 or D8), when the spy RPG player or war gamer is shouting that it’s more.

Even regular writers sometimes have this problem. I didn’t get more than a couple episodes into the most recent TV version of The Wizard of Oz. Long enough to remember seeing a character that was either the analogue to The Wicked Witch of the East or another completely original witch (my memory gets hazy for some shows) not in the original books examine Officer Dorothy Gale’s dropped Sig.

Yep, they tried Dorothy as a cop and her patrol unit takes the place of the farmhouse in the twister. The gun/magic problem comes to a head when this witch looks down the gaping barrel the way we hope five-year-olds in our reality are instructed not to do. Said witch took her own head off. Dorothy is later bawled out for the unintentional introduction of such completely destabilizing “magic.” Imagine if she’d brought a nuke or Sarin? Anyway, I don’t remember if this was why I stopped watching the show.

This is not to say that writers and fantasy DMs don’t or can’t make the leap to integrating Magic and Technology. It’s just that either the DM just doesn’t want to or all the ones I played with had a curious failure of imagination. I’ll bet on the former.

So you can pretty much expect that unless you’re playing a non-fantasy RPG, that cooking up charcoal, saltpeter and sulphur on the fly to blow open those stout wooden dungeon doors will always fizzle. A really cranky DM will also rule that the complicated bronze hutch to contain the hot gases from burning oil will also fizzle.

I suppose the supposed Law of Averages says eventually a DM will figure it out the way Tolkien kind of did that in true fashion of the quotes above that gunpowder is the magic. Gandalf just loved his fireworks sweetened by whatever else he did. And Saruman somehow talked a Uruk-Hai (orc) into doing the suicide bomber thing with a black powder cask in the drainage culvert at Helm’s Deep. Where there is a pen there’s a way.

Either way these are my observations about the curious intersections of various possibly oil and water game and story mechanics. You will in the fullness of time decree your own solutions…