- Jun 2005 -
19235 Posts

Dungeontech, Innovators and Anachronisms

This is the third article in my ongoing series on introducing fanatastic technology into your D&D campaign.

An important consideration when introducing tech into a campaign is whether there is a disparity between the technological level of different segments of society, particularly if there is a disparity between the technology available to the player characters and to the non-player characters. Any choice the Dungeon Master elects can have wide-ranging implications for a campaign and thus deserves special consideration.

In the prior article, it was suggested that anachronistic technology be represented, to the extent it impacts combat, by reflavoring weapons and tools that currently exist in the game. This is complicated when such technology is available only to some of the characters in the world. First, it may restrict the types of viable character types available to players. If rifles are represented by longbows, but player characters are not allowed access to rifles reflavored as longbows, the archery ranger build is limited in utility. Second, if player characters have access to technology that other characters cannot possess, it may grant an unfair advantage to players, because the monsters should not be prepared for this technology. The Dungeon Master would have to carefully tailor each encounter knowing that the antagonists should be utterly ignorant of this player’s unique capabilities (at least until the character gains a reputation for possessing unique powers). However, if the players are game to restricting themselves from certain weapons in order to allow a campaign that mixes magic and technology, the benefits in the form of a new, innovative, inspiring campaign world, can far outweigh the costs.

One can simulate some technology simply by using magic items to represent this new technology. By restricting certain types of weapons and armor to the new technology, and ensuring that the weapons and armor remain in the hands of characters of the appropriate level, an advanced technology can be easily approximated. Again, the Dungeon Master should consult with the players before restricting the world in this way, as some players may have anticipated having easy access to certain types of items when developing a character concept.

Another way to simulate this new technology is to restrict some of the special weapon qualities described in this blog series to the new innovative technology. Introducing weapons with the Suppressive keyword, or developing radioactive hazards half-way through a campaign can be an interesting twist for some groups.

Player Characters as Innovators

Ever since Mark Twain penned A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, people have wanted to imagine themselves as individuals from the modern age thrust into a world of magic and monsters. After all, what is fantasy role-playing, but thrusting our modern selves (through the alter egos of our characters) into a fantasy realm? It is not a big step to allow players to play themselves as modern personae trapped in a fantasy realm.

Before the Dungeon Master embarks on such an ambitious campaign, he has to consider how this might disrupt a campaign. First, consider to what extent our modern technology will even work in your fantasy realm. Can the player characters create guns? Combustion engines? Turbines? Nuclear weapons? Even if the technology lacks a direct application to combat, it can shatter the reality of the world, much as did Twain’s Connecticut Yankee. It is strongly advised that the Dungeon Master rule that the laws of physics in the fantasy campaign resemble, but do not precisely mirror the laws of physics in the real world, in order to limit such anachronisms.

Players as Anachronisms

As fun as it is to propel a modern man into a fantasy realm, it is just as much a temptation to pull a fantasy hero into the modern world. However, this is even more difficult to pull off than transposing a modern man into a fantasy world. On the one hand, you cannot describe modern technology by reflavoring standard equipment because, by the time you are done, there will be very little left for the player characters to use. On the other hand, if you try to create new mechanics to represent every new piece of technology the game will quickly get bogged down in all the details and extra rules that will have to be created.

Here are two solutions to this problem, although neither of them is perfectly satisfactory. First, if the characters are to journey to the modern world for a single adventure, then you can determine which technology they are likely to encounter during their journeys and prepare rules solely for that technology. For example, ensure that suppressive weapons are not otherwise allowed in your campaign and introduce these weapons as firearms in the new era. Any other technology should be introduced solely as skill challenges and you can rule that the player characters are unable to learn how to operate the technology in their short time in this strange new world. When the characters return to their time, any future technology ceases to work (unless you choose to award some anachronistic bits of technology as treasure for the adventure).

Second, if you intend to spend an entire campaign arc (or an entire campaign) with the players as fantasy characters in a modern world, perhaps it would be better to play a role-playing game that is designed to be played in the modern world. For good or ill, Dungeons and Dragons, Fourth Edition is designed for a heroic fantasy world. Games like d20 Modern, GURPS, and Hero are better equipped to approximate fantasy heroes in a modern milieu.

Introducing Disruptive Technology Mid-Campaign

It is important to note that not every piece of technology needs to be described in mechanical detail. Unless the players are going to fight it, or fight with it, the object need only be described physically. For instance, a party is unlikely to fight a catapult. Catapults are siege engines most often used to assault the stone walls of castles, forts and settlements. When confronted by a catapult, the players are more likely to assault the crew operating the catapult, rather than the catapult itself. At most, a character with the Thievery Skill might try to disable the siege engine. Such attempts are best handled as skill checks and skill challenges, which the standard rules accommodate without resorting to unique rules for this technology. At most, if the character is dealing with technology that is more advanced than the technology to which the character is accustomed, the Skill Check might be made at a penalty of -5 (such as a Bronze Age rogue disabling an Iron Age siege engine) to -10 (for a character unfamiliar with electricity trying to disarm a bomb).

In the next article, I will discuss the concept of realism and advanced technology in D&D and present my own rules for gunfire.

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