Friday, May 27, 2016

Magic, Technological Stagnation, and Guns

When you look at some homebrew settings people make, or published settings like Golarion or Faerun, there is a common question asked by a lot of fans. Why is the setting still in the medieval times? In our own history, 8,000 years brought us from clay pots to smartphones, but in many of these settings, 8,000 years have passed and there are still swords and knights. Not to mention that unlike the real world, there is magic in these settings. Eberron gets into this and I actually really like it as a setting. A lot of the reason for this technological stagnation is so that people can play in the fantasy genre they want. Swords and arrows and fireballs. But lately, I've been thinking about an in-game reason for it and I think I have something I like.

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Mortals in these settings can have magic and that is a huge game changer. People capable of slinging spells is a big game changer, even in settings where magic is dangerous. I'd imagine that most people in charge are going to be magic users. Wizards, clerics, psions. With the capability of magic plus some less than positive human tenancies, mages would essentially be in charge. Religious casters would probably wield even greater political power than their real world counterparts did in our history, since they can cast spells.

When you are in charge, you don't want to lose that power. You want to stay on top and will do some pretty questionable things to stay on top. So imagine all of the things magic rulers of a kingdom would do to keep their subjects loyal. Keeping everyone uneducated is a number one priority, and that's where this stagnation of technological advances come in. Technology is a great equalizer against magic. Both can provide for a community and give people power when used. Imagine the fear a wizard would get when staring down the barrel of a rifle. Men and mage alike would fall to a bullet to the brain. So, mages do their best to keep mundane people hindered and uneducated. Depending on how powerful (or dangerous) magic is, it would be best for mages to keep a large amount of loyal allies to help control their kingdom. Even with the powers of a god at your fingertips, there are still a lot more mundanes than mages. So you want a loyal retinue kept happy to put down any revolts. So I feel this would be a good reason for a large scale lack of technological advancements. A fear of the peasants successfully overthrowing magocracies would make any caster quake in their boots.

Where do guns fit in this?

Well, I had an idea of running an ACKS game, but set in a time period similar to our 1910s-20s. I have it in my head that many influential thinkers, both magic and mundane, wanted something more for their communities and kingdoms than thatch huts and feudalism. So many formed a sort of Freemason group to subvert the control of mages and clerics by developing innovative technologies and art. Imagine people similar to Da Vinci, Newton, and Benjamin Franklin working to better all mortals, not just those that wield magic. 

A printing press. Source: Wikipedia
Their biggest tool to fight them? Well there are two. The first is more cultural. The printing press. This helped to spread knowledge and education, and like our founding father did, these thinkers would create pamphlets decrying the magocracy and spurring other mundanes to join their fight. The other invention?

Guns.

Maxim Machine Gun
Guns in this setting are more than just a weapon. They are a symbol of the downtrodden, a sword against the tyranny of casters, the weapon of the proletariat. They are the great equalizer, requiring less training to use than a bow and killing mages very quickly. With the advent of firearms, you'll start seeing frontiersman taking down chimeras, manticores, and even dragons with powerful cannons. The minuteman and musketeer are now almost mythological figures that represent freedom, manifest destiny, and liberty.

Of course, things don't always go this well and that's where I have an idea of a Great War styled D&D game. A pulp era World War of squabbling kingdoms and nations fighting each other for supremacy. It's not necessarily a magic vs technology war, though that certainly is there. But two large groups of nations coming to blows while simultaneously making sure that their own allies don't stab them in the back. There's also a focus on the negative side of industrialization, especially with new weapons that make it easier to kill each other. Tanks, machine guns, and mustard gas go head to head against hydras, elementals, and dragon's breath. Biplanes and zeppelins getting knocked out of the sky by griffins and drakes, with tanks busting through the hides of ankhegs. Centuries old dynastic kingdoms making a fight against the newly risen industrialized nation states. It could be awesome.

The game doesn't have to focus on war either. There's plenty of adventure to be had in this war torn, pulp era world of imperialism. The world may be more connected and smaller, but there are still areas that need exploring. I think this could be fun. I've even entertained a WWII styled game with similar themes, and even a modern day fantasy game which I do want to blog about another time.