24 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 16: She blinded me with science

(I'm really tempted to go back through this whole series and rename every post after a song title)

Before we get into what the characters actually look like, let’s consider technology.

At this stage, we could apply a wide range of technology levels to the setting. It seems pretty obvious that we’d be looking at 16th to 18th century levels, post renaissance – pre industrialisation; after all, there are pirates and privateers, concepts such as democracy, and we’ve mentioned steampunk as well. But the developmental concepts used so far could just as easily be applied to an ancient world setting, modern era, sci-fi…we could even apply one of these technology levels to the current game, and just maintain the “aesthetic of steampunk” like so many other games on the market.

But in this particular case, the aesthetic was not an afterthought, it was a specific choice based on the idea that I wanted to create a LARP where nerf weapons could be used as analogues for flintlock pistols and rifles, along with boffer blades for duelling. Any kind of higher technology in the setting could be mimicked through real world analogues, if they can be described in terms of suitably steampunk technology in the setting. So we’re probably looking closer to the Napoleonic era with effective black powder weapons and some mechanisation, some innovations in things like standardised screw threads, reliable clockworks, that sort of thing. We don’t need historical accuracy regarding a specific year, this is a fantasy setting, but a quick look at a book or website where invention dates are recorded might be a good starting point to determine what might be viable in the setting.

If we look at late Napoleonic times (circa 1815) and allow 20 years either side for technical innovations, and maybe up to 50 years ahead to account for magical enhancement of technologies, that gives us plenty of interesting things to add into the setting while maintaining the right feel. Armour isn’t really used except for ceremonial purposes because firearms are generally too reliable and too powerful for it. There are some basic vaccines, experimentation with electricity (which gives us the potential for “Frankenstein”-style characters), newspapers, steam ships…the old world might have trains, but they just aren’t feasible here yet (not enough population or movement of resources to justify the expense of building a rail line, and possibly too much spirit/monster activity to clear a safe path between towns anyway). Pushing forward with magic, we might get analogues of the Babbage engine, possibly even rapid communication within town through encoded messages transmitted by wire and dot code cyphers (an analogue for Morse code). If we want to push things, we could use magic to refine the designs of daVinci, thus allowing gliding wings, crude wheeled tanks, and submarines, such things would be quite rare though and probably the focus of stories in their own right. In this way, the Warhammer Fantasy world might be a good analogue for the technological style we’re going for (especially since it’s been referenced a few times already), maybe a bit more advanced generally, but not by a whole lot. Another approximation of the technology level might be Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld”.

Generally, I find that a technology level doesn’t do a lot to change the types of stories that can be told in a world, in most cases the various technologies just change the names of the macguffins that the characters will be chasing, the actual story still comes from the interactions of people with each other and with their world. Still, technology can set the mood for the game, and can get people onto the right page by providing them with tools to latch onto within the narrative, those elements are pretty important for the health of a story. A consistent and coherent level of technology also helps to keep immersion during the course of play and eases the imaginary world’s suspension of disbelief.  

As a side note, Spain went metric in the 1850s, which means I can use metric measurements on my map without being too anachronistic (it easily fits into the “50 years ahead” boundary for magical innovations). Having a religious group that focuses on knowledge (and a cult that does similar), reinforces the idea that a streamlined measuring system might be used. You might debate that since this is a fantasy world that is unrelated to Earth, why would they se a measuring system that is based on the radius of the earth (if I remember correctly, the metre is based on a distance of 1/10,000,000th the average distance from pole to equator). The rebuttal is simple, if we assume that gravity in this fantasy world is roughly equivalent to gravity on earth (give or take up to 5%), then we can assume that the fantasy planet’s size is roughly equivalent to that of the earth. If it’s smaller, the distance is less, but it’s still a regular fraction of that planetary circumference. I don’t think you need to worry about the maths. We also haven’t specified the height and weight of our planetary citizens with regard to “our metres”, nor have I indicated any connection between this fantasy world and our own. And since I’m not planning to base any kind of story around these concepts, basically this is all just getting picky for no real reason. Better to just stick with a recognised measuring system and move on.
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