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Article - 'Article Grab Bag, Series Three' by Death Ritual

An item about Miscellanious posted on Oct 7, 2004


4 nice varied articles, in one.


Series Three

I hope you’ve found something good in the last two Article Grab Bags. If you haven’t yet, you might find something here. As usual, the four topics today will be quite varied.

Today, I’m going to pick some nits on magic vs. technology, Da Vinci Code­-style puzzles, heroic imperfection, and my first recurring article, “Writing Science Fiction.” This time, the SF article will focus on FTL (faster-than-light travel).

Opposites Attract: Magic versus Technology
I remember one character in Arcanum, a computer RPG, saying of magic and technology, “Well, you see, one TWISTS nature, that being magic, and the other USES it.” I personally think he’s lying. Generally speaking, magic cannot use a force that does not exist within the bounds of its environment. For example, where there is no air, you cannot create a tornado from magic (on the off chance that you could survive in an airless room). Here’s how to implement such a heated debate in games.

- For the most part, technology is a more “real” force than magic. This is a simple point to start with, but it must be made. The reason is because with magic, you only get to see the end effect. With technology, the pumping pistons, the screeching gears, the roaring engines and the billowing steam tell you what is happening to cause that result. So overall, technology is more believable than magic, at least to humans. Unless, of course, humans in your world can sense magical waves (or whatever medium you use to cast spells).

- Referring back to Ristezze (don’t ask) up there, technology does use nature in a way. Technology, at least in the beginning, was meant to emulate the abilities humans had lost to other animals (for example, chariots used horses to emulate the equines’ speed; airplanes for the flight of birds; submarines for the underwater capabilities of fish; and SONAR to imitate dolphin echolocation.) On the other hand, magic gives humans powers they are not meant to have, albeit doing so by the use of nature’s forces (conjuring huge meteor storms and blizzards out of thin air is hardly what God intended for our puny little race).

- Given these two arguments, it’s obvious that people will flock to technology as it develops. Magic might hold the people in sway, but when a more believable and (supposedly) safer force can replace it, people will rapidly switch to this new form. Hence the Industrial Revolution. Magic became a backward thought, a synonym for “passé,” and people just became machinists, in a way.

- Even after the development of technology, there are always places where magic will continue to hold power. In Arcanum there was Cumbria, the dying feudal kingdom, and Tulla, the city of mages. In Final Fantasy VI there was Esper World. If your world history includes wars between two kingdoms, a technological kingdom would (normally) always win over a magical kingdom. The magic kingdom then tends to prohibit technology as retribution, which of course only hastens its demise.

- There are interesting possibilities for magic, especially because it is usually considered to be an ancient force. But what if your world moved from technology to magic? That would make your game very interesting indeed. Picture the Magical Revolution, the creation of magocracies, an United Nations whose leader is the most powerful mage among the members’ ambassadors . . .

- To end this, what if you were to meld the two forces? Magic and technology are never supposed to mix, but if someone tried, the result would certainly be interesting. Think about it. An Illusionist with a flash-bang grenade launcher to emulate his magical powers, a Trickster (mage/thief) equipped with a dart gun, or a Paladin equipping a rifle blessed by his deity. Of course, let’s not forget that this is not likely to happen by any means. Magic and technology mixing often have some strange side effects, to say the least, so any fusion you make of the two had better be a small one, unless you are prepared to explain why they coexist peacefully.

House of Fun and (Mini-)Games: Da Vinci Code-style Codes

The book The Da Vinci Code has sent shockwaves across the religious communities and everyday worlds by creating an intricate web of codes and solutions that ultimately all lead to a single result. If you want to include a similar type of puzzle or code in your game, here are some tips on its implementation (possible spoiler alert!):

- Remember that Jacques Sauniére (the man who created all these puzzles) made it a sequence. The solution to one puzzle led to the next. This isn’t so much implementation as planning the puzzle. My personal solution is to work backwards. Start with the result, make a code that leads to that result, then create a code that leads to that code, et cetera.

- This kind of puzzle is hard to implement in any game maker because codes are very hard to solve if you don’t have them with you. I suggest you create an item (i.e. “Code #191,” “Criptex,” “Hebrew Symbols”) that, when activated, allows you to see the code and gives you a chance to input the solution (in the case of the criptex, at least). This, at least, lets the player see the code whenever he/she wishes. Of course, using RM2K3, you could have a key (say, the period key) that displays the current code.

- The puzzle must fit within the world of your story. For example, if your game is set in medieval times, you can’t put a riddle that would point you to an Internet address, even outside of the game. The primary effect is that it breaks continuity. The secondary effect, obviously, is that you look like an idiot. I can personally guarantee the majority of us would never play another game by you.

- Always give the player at least two ways to find the solution. For example, if the code is a group of Greek letters that spell out “Pharos” (an island off the coast of ancient Alexandria, Egypt), then give clues as to what Pharos is. One possible clue is a lighthouse – after all, the lighthouse built on Pharos became known as Pharos itself, much as the house of Hades eventually became known as Hades itself. This way, if the player doesn’t catch on to the Greek letters, he can still try to figure it out (notice how here I neatly sidestep the issue of the factor of the player’s knowledge).

- Although you can have a puzzle leading to a code, never have a code leading to a puzzle. The intellectual accomplishment the player feels at having figured out your tough code (well, I assume it’s tough) will quickly be annihilated by some cliché puzzle. Would you like to solve an intricate riddle that forces you to use every last scrap of knowledge you possess . . . and find it leads to a room where you have to push boxes onto switches to push a lever (or whatever)? The one exception to this rule that I remember is Indiana Jones, because he has to actually use his knowledge to solve the puzzles (stepping onto the right letters to spell out a certain name, pressing the symbol indicated, etc.).

- While I’m telling you how not to use these codes, they never belong in lighthearted games. Codes like this are for serious games with a true plot, and every code should tie completely into this storyline. A fun game meant only to be published quickly (fun as in “lighthearted”) or a quasi-serious game a la Legendary Adventure does not have any need for this. The jokes make the game. Because there is no plot, there is no reason for the seriousness of such codes.

- One last point, after having read Angels & Demons: Everything in your codes must be interconnected. One of Dan Brown’s literary gifts is to bring everything together into one huge tapestry, intricately weaving every code and every solution together. Notice his use of the cruciform in Angels & Demons: he told us of it in the beginning, several times, and emphasized its importance, but then it seems to drop off the face of the novel – until Robert Langdon uses a cruciform pattern to find the last location. Do this, and players who play will your game will think “Damn!” – but it’ll be directed at themselves, for not thinking of it earlier.

Building Character(s): Heroic Imperfection
“Everything is perfect in its imperfections.” I’m not sure where I got that from (feel free to tell me), but regardless of where, its message remains true. Humans are the most imperfect beings on earth, in my opinion. Why? We’re unbalanced. We have not yet completely shed our animal impulses (hence the famous “fight or flight” response), yet we have a higher level of intellect, so to speak. I’m not saying we should become Vulcans (think Mr. Spock).

This entire roundabout paragraph has to do with the most important part of your game, in popular opinion: the characters. Human imperfection may be a common truth, but in your characters, who are paragons of certain ideals or virtues of humanity, this imperfection is marked even more strongly. Here’s looking at heroic imperfection:

- Everyone has something wrong with them. Face it. Your heroes are not perfect, no matter how much you would like them to be. Until recently, Superman remained the lone holdout of perfection, since his little encounter with the Phantom Zone guys was just a skeleton in the closet (as far as fans were concerned). Despite a hero being imperfect, you can definitely grow to like him/her/it. If you can’t like one of your characters, ask yourself why. Can you like the disenfranchised knight despite his horrible temper (Gawaine)? Can you find it in your heart to like the exotic queen despite her preference for seducing and then dumping men like bad habits (no pun intended; Cleopatra). If the answer is no to either, reconsider your venue – and your time period. You should be writing the New Testament, not making a game.

- Everyone makes mistakes. I recently had a talk with someone about this. If your hero has a flaw, and you don’t recognize the story juice that flaw contains, you’re hugely ignoring what could make your story close to 600 percent (or more!) deeper. Flaws are what cause mistakes, what bring them about. Let’s think about the two examples I used. How could their flaws lead to a mistake? Gawaine once killed a woman in a fit of rage, because he could not check his down-sweep in time; of course, had he not been enraged so, it would have turned out differently. And Cleopatra? When she seduced Mark Antony and led her lover – and Egypt – to disaster by challenging Julius Caesar, Cleopatra’s habit of picking up powerful men screwed her, both literally and figuratively. (She killed herself, legend has it, with an asp’s bite. Asp is the Latin name for a cobra, I believe.)

- There is one point in every game – the tragic point, the “Oh, crap, everyone’s dying!” moment – where the characters make their biggest mistake. Guess what causes that? Right! Their flaws! This point is not only the near-fatal mistake, but then the results that stem from it. Gawaine, for example, might go crazy and kill an ally, resulting in a war. Cleopatra might seduce a man whose kingdom is at war with Rome and end up at war herself. (Okay, so the last one isn’t too good, and it happened.) To use RPGs as an example, let’s take Dark Cloud. The tragic point is when you kill the Dark Genie and find out that wasn’t really him. Toan’s flaw of innocence and naïveté led to this little mistake (and the fact that no one else knew it wasn’t the Dark Genie, but that’s beside the point.) Or let’s use Freedom Force. This would be the part where Liberty Lad takes a few bullets for Minute Man, almost dying in the process. Guess what his flaw was? Not hotheadedness – just a fan’s obsession.

- Taking a cue from this last point, your characters should become human because of their flaws, not inhuman. I suggest the method of having every character embody one virtue and one defect. You can do this by creating the character and then assigning him this flaw. For example, Gawaine in an RPG would be a chivalrous, valiant knight – until you factor his temper in. Cleopatra would be a beautiful, exotic woman – until you reveal her promiscuity. Akin to that would be creating a priest character and assigning him the virtue of charity, but then making him a bigot who doesn’t trust anyone of a faith different from his own.

Writing Science Fiction: FTL Travel
Everyone knows that all good science fiction has FTL travel in it. What does FTL stand for? Why, faster-than-light travel. Think about it. Star Trek’s warp engines, Star Wars’ double-space (hyper/real) system, Andromeda’s quantum slipstreams . . . Whatever. The point is, FTL travel will become extremely hard, at least for the next few millennia, because by accepted physics, absolutely nothing can go faster than light. In other words, light is the fastest possible speed attainable (300,000,000 m/s). So how can you put FTL travel in a science fiction game? Here are some pointers.

- Physics, like every science, is subject to change without reason or explicit purpose. Notice I said “accepted physics” up there. We’re talking Einstein, Newton and the rest. To understand what I’ll say next, you must be able to visualize physics as a way to understand the universe and nothing more. What if somebody develops a sensible picture of the universe – that allows us to travel faster than light? The implications would be enormous – a lot of physical concepts would have to be retooled if this happened – yet it is plausible, if humanity is given enough time. I’d think it worth the wait.

- Think about the implications such a discovery would entail. Not only would the scientist gain international and interstellar renown, but FTL technology has many other applications beside interstellar travel. For example, this could be used to create particle hyper-accelerators, allowing science to research these effects. And let’s not forget one property of particle acceleration; antimatter as a byproduct. So because of FTL technology, antimatter becomes a viable weapon. (It already is; its blast radius would just be too big to use on Earth.)

- Be original when creating your FTL device of choice. No “warp engines,” no “hyperspace,” nothing even remotely like it. Personally, I used beryllium ions combined with a recirculating generator and three magnetization cores to create a reasonably good FTL system, at least within the new physics I created. (If the last sentence sounded like gibberish to you, it should. Remember that techno-babble is an important part of all science fiction, but if you looked hard at it and you still can’t figure out, then you weren’t made to write SF).

- Make sure at least some of these new physics fit with the accepted ideas about the world, and if they don’t, give a damn good reason why. For example, if your new realm of physics requires gravity to work a different way, you had better be ready to explain why. Trust me, it’ll come out somehow, and you’ll want to be ready.

Well, now that we’ve finished with this third part of the Article Grab Bag, I have to sign off for the time being. Next Article Grab Bag will be just another issue, but I’m not sure exactly what I’ll be putting in it as of yet. Expect the unexpected. Until then, this is Death Ritual, signing off.

Above all, remember: this is your world, your masterpiece, and ultimately, you are its creator. There is no greater power.

- Death Ritual’s credo