Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part II: FAE Approaches in Cortex Prime

For the first post in this series, click here.

Rather than use Shadowrun’s attributes, I’ve opted to use Approaches as introduced in Fate Accelerated. There are several reasons for this choice. First, Approaches are exceedingly helpful to a gamemaster running a fiction-first type of game—by its very nature an Approach suggests potential Consequences and results of particular actions. Second, I think that Approaches provide more guidance for players about the characterization of their in-world persona. That a character favors a “Dynamic” approach over a “Covert” one tells us more about a character than a high Strength attribute and lower Agillity attribute does. There is a versatility to Approaches that, at some level, tells us how a character views the world, or at least how that character prefers to solve problems. And rolls in narrative fiction should be resorted to for resolving actions intended to solve particular problems more than anything else. Otherwise, narrate a result and move on.

There is a much-discussed downside to the use of Approaches—that some players will “Approach Spam,” arguing for the use of their highest-rated Approach for every action. This is narratively appropriate and realistic: as rational beings, humans prefer the path of least resistance, choosing to employ their best skills and aptitudes to solve their problems and only resorting to their weaker abilities when forced to by circumstance.

And this suggests the remedy to players who resort only to their “best” Approach: show them that “best” doesn’t mean “highest-rated.” Remind them that, just because you have a hammer and everything is starting to look like a nail, not everything is a nail and treating a non-nail as a nail can easily result in catastrophic consequences.

“Yes, Player, your character can use Dynamic to try talk his way out of a Lone Star vehicle search. But what does that look like? The Dynamic Approach is about force, sudden action, and overwhelming the problem. In a social context, I bet that looks like screaming and yelling, pretending to be crazy, or trying to scare your target into submission. Is that really how you want to deal with these Lone Star officers?”

Whether you have this kind of conversation and give the player a chance to change his mind or you let it ride and narrate consequences the player never considered is a matter of the style of the game you run.

The specific Approaches I’ll be using are as follows:

Covert

The Covert Approach emphasizes stealth and subtlety. This could              include “Hacking on the Fly,” “Spoofing,” and other Sleaze-type Matrix actions, dissembling and verbal deceit, infiltration, etc.

Expedient           

An Expedient Approach focuses on speed above all else, favoring clever tricks and finesse over brute force (which falls under the “Dynamic” Approach). Use Expedient whenever you are trying to act before another character or in the quickest manner possible.

Dynamic             

The Dynamic Approach represents the application of direct force—whether physical, social, Matrix, magical, etc. When the action relies on strength or direct confrontation with an obstacle (or person), the Dynamic Approach prevails.

Cunning              

An action using the Cunning Approach focuses on outmaneuvering and outwitting your opposition. Where Covert represents the lie with a straight face, Cunning is the mixture of half-truths and misinformation to confuse the opponent into belief. Where Dynamic represents the hardest, most aggressive response to an obstacle, Cunning relies on applying force to the target’s vulnerabilities for maximum effect. Where Expedient operates with a concern for speed, Cunning focuses on maximizing the end result without concern for the time it takes to get there.

Deliberate          

The Deliberate Approach takes its time, considering possibilities, using awareness and focus to reduce risk. Deliberate actions take more time but result in more predictable outcomes and fewer mistakes. When there are a million ways a task could go sideways and the “slow and steady” strategy seems best, choose a Deliberate Approach.

Daring                 

The Daring Approach relies on audacity, surprise, unpredictability and more than a little luck. Feats of debatable bravery and stupidity and unorthodox tactics use the Daring Approach. Examples might include: fast-talking or intimidating a security guard, charging headlong into a room spraying gunfire wildly, or winning a race by taking the more dangerous (but shorter) route.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Sci-Fi Christianity, Part III: (Re-)Making Ourselves

For the preceding post in this series, click here.

I’m a fan of the cyberpunk genre. I grew up playing the Shadowrun tabletop roleplaying game, which probably is what started my love for the genre–it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started reading the progenitors and great writers of this brand of sci-fi (Stephenson, Gibson and Morgan, for instance).

One of the key aspects of the genre is cyberware (and/or bioware and/or nanotech)–the ability for humans to replace or supplement their physical bodies to achieve superhuman abilities through technology.

Unless you haven’t been paying attention, you know that we’re there in real life–or very close to. Les Baugh, Neil Harbisson and the number of patients with installed brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are proof of this. On the biological side, CRISPR may allow us to undo some of the infelicities of genetic processes, essentially eliminating some genetic disorders or diseases.

So far, these technologies are concerned with restoring lost faculties, but is perfectly conceivable that there will be some willing to lose their meatbody (to use the cyberpunk nomenclature) arm to replace it with one that can perform at a much higher level than the one with which nature provided our subject–and without the constant need to prevent muscle atrophy.

To be clear, these technologies are in their infancy, and we really don’t know yet how far we’ll be able to go in synching man and machine–without sufficient neurological feedback, a cybernetic arm is as much a liability as an asset. Imagine not being able to gauge how hard you’re gripping something when you want to hold that ceramic coffee mug.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the technology described in cyberpunk fiction becomes available. Since we’re in a realm of speculation here, let’s assume that such technology becomes available at a price point that a majority of people can afford it if they want to. Can you imagine the person who treats body modification in the same way he might have treated souping up a street racer or a mudding truck? If the technology is there, it seems rather inevitable to me.

From a Christian perspective, how do we address this potential? How can our theology and desire to follow Christ inform our response?

Well, that depends on the theology, I suppose. The easiest argument, one I expect to be made by many, is that voluntary body modification is an abomination; a rejection of being made “in the image of God” and a rejection of the principle that “our body is a temple.”

But let’s think about those ideas, starting with the latter. Paul’s exhortation that we should view our bodies as the temples of the Lord (in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20) is used as an argument for sexual purity. Leaving the specific context aside for a moment, let’s think about the metaphysical and theological meaning of the statement itself. When we incorporate the sweep of the Gospels, Christ’s reference to his own body as the Temple and his death and resurrection in John 2:21-22, and the promise of the Holy Spirit, the major thrust of such a metaphor is that God enters into us through the Holy Spirit. One valid interpretation of this, yes, is to say that we ought to keep God’s new Temple beautiful and pure just as the Jews did for the Temple in Jerusalem. But isn’t it more important that the statement reminds us that God is always with us, always seeking relationship with us, and is not in some distant place to which we must walk though valleys and over broken hills to commune with? At the end of the day, these interpretations should probably be considered “both/and” rather than “either/or,” but this still leaves us with the necessity of determining the details of how our individual temples to God ought to be kept.

That Genesis tells us that we are made “in the image of God” might provide some interpretative assistance, but we must unlock the secret of this enigma as well. How are we in the image of God? First, we must accept that we are in the image of God in some form, but certainly not in degree. With this understanding, it seems foolish to believe that our being in God’s image is somehow related to our physical form–are we saying that the infinite, sovereign God is shaped like us but moreso? Or bigger?

No, we must look to something more existential to properly understand this question. Is it that we are able to think on a higher level than the rest of Creation? That we may philosophize and theologize? Perhaps, but we must approach such a conclusion with some trepidation, for those abilities ultimately remind us of our finitude and God’s infinitude.

As Paul Tilich writes, “Our power of being is limited. We are a mixture of being and nonbeing. This is precisely what is meant when we say that we are finite. It is man in his finitude who asks the question of being. He who is infinite does not ask the question of being for, as infinite, he has the complete power of being. He is identical with it; he is God” Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality, pp. 11-12.

So what must it be, then? It is our power to create, I would argue. We, like God, make meaning in Creation, particularly through the creation of narratives that define us and our world. Unlike God, we do not do so ex nihilo, but by recombining the things that are in new and unforeseen ways. That is a difference in degree but not kind.

This minor power of creation, coupled with freedom of the will, forms the basis of the need for God’s action in us through Jesus Christ–so that we might be both free and independent and good. But that is a discussion for another time.

We already spend most of our time creating identify for ourselves: every time you tell a story about something that happened to you, you are using that story to create some idea about who you are for others to absorb. If you don’t believe that, think about the last story you told a friend about something that happened to you and honestly count the number of ways you might have “massaged” the truth a little to get across a certain point.

We already use much of our technology in the quest to find or make meaning and identity. What are Facebook, Instagram and Twitter but media for the construction of identity.

“Look at what I had for lunch today, and what that says about me.”

“Look at what I tweet about.”

“Look at what I like.”

“Look at me.”

That being the case, isn’t control over our bodies simply another form of self-creation? How we choose (or choose not) to modify our bodies with the technology we have available to us is not, I think, an issue of categorical morality.

That does not relieve us of moral responsibility. The questions of intent and consequence, common to all moral questions in Christianity, remain to confront us in relation to any particular choice about body modification. Just as there are good and bad reasons to get a tattoo, or to have elective surgery, or to wear makeup, the morality of a choice to augment human capabilities through advanced technology is a highly contextual calculus.

We must walk a fine line here. Jesus came to us as a human, so we must see that embodiment and incarnation constitute important aspects of God’s Creation. At the same time, we must not distort such an idea into the belief that there is only one right way to be an embodied human being–that there is only one type of body that is good.

The theology (at least in very simplified form as argued above) of human enhancement reminds us that morality–that sin–is not composed of easy categories, of boxes into which a particular action does or does not fit. We ought, then, to look at sin as a state of being, of disassociation from the right relationships with our neighbors, with ourselves, with God, with Creation. We enter into sin not because we have crossed some clear demarcation but because we have stopped considering our intentions towards ourselves and all other beings and have avoided concern about the consequences on Creation (and all that is within it) of our actions. Yes, the state of sin leads to hurtful actions and destructive or antisocial behavior, but let’s look past the symptoms to the disease.

Sci-Fi Christianity, Part II: Mind Uploading and Mind/Body Dualism

For the previous post in this series, click here.

If you’ve read the second post in my sci-fi example of worldbuilding (to which I’ll likely return in the near future) or my highly-critical post of a certain brand of materialist science, you know that I’m highly skeptical of ideas about the “Singularity” and particulary prophecy about the future potential of uploading minds into computers to achieve digital immortality. Yesterday, as I binge-watched the released episodes of the second season of Westworld with some friends, I was reminded of this issue (though, if you’re as interested in both technology and sci-fi as much as I am, it’s an idea that’s never too far from hand). I think also of Altered Carbon (both the book and the Netflix show, but especially the book, to which I’ll return shortly).

For a short recap, here are my condensed criticisms of mind uploading as touted by Ray Kurtzweil and others.

First, we simply do not understand consciousness well enough to make such far-fetched claims with anything but wild speculation. The Kurtzweil paradigm assumes a materialist basis–that the mind is merely an emergent function of its underlying physical parts (i.e. the brain). This approach allows us to assume that replicating the (arguably) underlying material components of consciousness will lead to a replication of the consciouness itself.

To be sure, there are some scientific studies that, taken uncritically, might lead one to such a belief. In particular, Google has been working on “mind-reading” technology, which uses high-resolution brain-mapping to predict what a person is thinking about in more-or-less real time. Google has been experimenting with reading mental images and unvocalized commands. In the realm of images, Google’s development allows a sophisticated system to make guesses with high accuracy about what image a person is holding in his mind by looking at those brain scans. In command inputs, Google’s AlterEgo prototype allows someone to command Alexa or Siri without any physical or verbal component–with 92 percent accuracy (which is far better than the accuracy I get when trying to speak to either).

But when we look closer, these technologies are far more primitive than we might expect. For the image-reading programs to work, they must be extensively trained–by looking at particular pre-selected images. The brain scans of activity when looking at these photos are then used in a sophisticated game of “match” when trying to predict which image(s) the subject is thinking on. With AlterEgo, the system actually reads electric signals to muscles generated when a person mentally (but not physically) says certain words.

When it comes down to it, these devices are using highly-impressive algorithms, artificial intelligences (though not the sci-fi kind) and neural networks to read physical corrolaries to thought to deduce the thoughts themselves. I do not mean to sound like this is not amazing research and development, but it is not true “mind-reading” and it does not require an understanding of the dynamics between brain and mind. Nor does it offer any special insight into that relationship.

And that leads to my second criticism: We just don’t understand enough about the relationship between brain and mind to have any authority whatsoever to predict what is and isn’t possible in regards to mind uploading. It has been definitively established, I think, and cannot be questioned that chemical states in the brain influence experienced consciousness–my own journey with depression is a constant personal reminder of this. But there’s also a number of scientific studies that show that this is a two-way street–the action of the mind also affects the physical brain. Dr. Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain presents some evidence of this, as does the entire field of cognitive psychology. There’s nothing wrong with Kurzweil and his fellows speculating, of course, but a line is crossed when such speculation is offered as having been established on an indisputable and fully-understood foundation. Current science simply isn’t equipped to prove or disprove mind uploading theory.

Which conveniently leads to my third–and most important–criticism: we’re dealing with issues of consciousness here. Even without the kink in the hose caused by the thought of consciousness transfer, we already have no means by which to verify consciousness. We can test for the “symptoms” of consciousness–a la the Turing test–but we cannot definitively establish that any person or thing is or is not possessed of independent essence and consciousness. We do–and must, I think–for means of living life well and maintaining some semblance of sanity assume the full consciousness of other human beings (and probably also animals), reject solipsistic ideas and treat questions of what is “real” and what “actually exists” as fodder for creative fiction but not the sort of thing that should actually keep us up at night.

But when it comes to transferring consciousnesses as predicted by projections of mind uploading, we have no means by which to verify that such a transaction has been successful. I’m reminded of China Mieville’s Kraken, where a character and fan of Star Trek is haunted by the ghosts of all the times he’s killed himself using teleportation magic in imitation of the show. The difference is that we would never know if our “mind uploading” is just murder followed by the creation of very good imposters. That alone should be enough to keep us wary.

But this post is not (merely) an opportunity for me to rehash my criticisms of the idea of mind uploading, but to use this idea (in its many forms) to discuss mind/body dualism in Christianity.

Mind/body dualism is the idea that the mind and body are independent of one another but linked together somehow–they are not the same substance or material. In other words, the death of the body does not necessarily mean the death of the mind. This is in contrast to materialism, which is a form of monism (assertion that there is only one type of substance, material or essence) and the idea that the mind is merely an artifact of the activity of the physical brain.

For a quick example of mind/body dualism, let’s look at the novel version of Altered Carbon. In that novel, the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, previously served as an Envoy, a political/espionage/military operator tasked with handling senstive missions for the UN (which is hinted at being responsible for human government across planets). Note that the TV show alters what an “Envoy” is substantially. Because the fastest way to travel is to have your mind uploaded and sent as pure information before being downloaded into a new “sleeve” (slang for both “natural” and artificial bodies), part of Envoy training includes a number of mental adaptations and cognitive trainings desgined to make the Envoy especially effective no matter what sort of sleeve he is in. Though this does not necessitate belief in mind/body dualism, it certainly suggests such–it goes unquestioned that the uploading and downloading of minds creates an absolute continuity of consciousness and being–even being downloaded from an old backup means only a loss of recent memories, not a loss of self. If you would like to look at this approach in all of its terror and nuance, consider the effect on selfhood of dementia, Alzheimer’s or amnesia. For our purposes, however, Altered Carbon seems to treat the mind and body as separate–the mind can be separated from the body and rejoined to a new body and, because the mind half of the equation is the true self, the download to the new sleeve simple incarnates the mind again.

As a side note, Altered Carbon (both show and book) deals somewhat with Christian views on mind uploading and “resleeving”–though the book really only treats a conservative view that mind uploading (though apparently permitted by God under the laws of the universe) somehow condemns the person uploaded and downloaded to hell (regardless of their own intent or say in the matter).

The idea of dualism between mind and body is deeply entrenched in Christian thought, but I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that it is necessary to the faith. In the Old Testament, the Jews speak of “going down to Sheol”–a very depressive and Mesopotamian-style view of the afterlife as existing as a shadow of the living self that, at least in certain references, may be intended only as metaphor. Elsewhere, there are indications that an afterlife does await at least those who are righteous.

Certainly, in the time of Jesus the Sadducees taught that there was no afterlife, and some Biblical scholars assert that the idea of an afterlife developed mostly in the folk practice of Judaism rather than through the “official” theologies of the faith. I don’t find the Scriptures particularly determinative on this front–again we reference the Sadducees, but Jesus also points to the Scriptures as evidence that they are mistaken in the denial of the afterlife.

On the other hand, Jesus does not talk about heaven in the colloquial sense we tend to think of it in in modern American Christianity–as the place you go to experience the afterlife. Jesus talks about the Resurrection, and many passages seem to indicate that that Resurrection would be bodily and incarnate. At least some of the medieval theologians believed the Resurrection to be bodily on a restored Earth–if you look at the marginal illustrations in certain manuscripts, you’ll see wolves coughing up limbs so that they may be reunited with their owners in the Resurrection. If I am not mistaken, a large part of the Christian practice of burial (aside from being at least partially inherited from Jewish practice) is based on belief in the bodily Resurrection–or at least doubt about the ability to be resurrected if your body had been utterly destroyed.

Much of our dualistic (as in mind/body duality; dualism can mean a number of other very different things in religion) thought comes from the writings of Paul (here, for expedience in argument, I’m using “Paul” to mean the collective writers of the Pauline Epistles). There is much scholarship on Paul’s background in Platonic philosophy (i.e., the philosophies expounded upon by Plato) and the extent to which it influences his theology. I’ll just make a few points about this.

Platonic philosophy is staunchly dualistic; it posits a realm of the “Forms” where the perfect version (or Form) of each thing that exists in the perceivable (embodied) world resides. Everything that we experience around us is an imperfect instantiation (incarnation, we might say) of a perfect Form. The chair you’re sitting in right now; it’s an emanation many times removed from the perfect Chair that exists in the realm of the Forms. Perhaps the most famous explanation of this idea is in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul tells us that “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” If this doesn’t line up well with the Allegory of the Cave, I don’t know what does.

Elsewhere, Paul makes much about the difference between flesh (often categorized as weak and sinful) and spirit (desiring to be more righteous but constantly tempted by the desires of the flesh). In Romans 8:1-4, Paul writes, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Paul’s words in Romans mirror at least some statements made by Jesus. In Matthew 26:41, in scolding the disciples for falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemen, Jesus tells them, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Of course, the language above in context is not just about the disciples, for Jesus himself immediately goes away again and asks the Father to spare him from the suffering to come–it seems reasonable to assert here that Jesus is struggling with the temptation of his own Incarnation here, as he does before he begins his ministry.

As I said above, my own experiences have given me intuition that there is a divide (but also a dialectic relationship) between mind and body. And we’ve all, I think, had experiences of being young and hormonal–feeling the tug of fleshly desires against our better judgment. At the end of the day, it’s not a difficult argument to make that Christianity assumes mind/body dualism, with its focus on the perceivable world and the unseen God. Of course, there are monist (though not necessarily materialist, though there could be, I suppose) Christians–as a footnote, John Milton was one such. He believed that spirit was a more refined version of the same material substance all around us. To what extent that view is a matter of semantics, I am unsure.

Why does all of this matter? Admittedly, for the most part, much of the monist versus dualist debate regarding mind and body may be fodder for the theologians and not much more. At the same time, though, there are very complex issues surrounding one’s stance on such a matter, and some of these may affect ideas that directly impact how your order yourself on your journey to follow Jesus.

Here’s the rub: I think it’s far easier to make a mind/body dualism argument for Christianity (and existence in general)–this matches with my understanding of scripture, of Jesus, of my own experiences, and of church tradition. The existence of mind/body dualism should tell us that there is some important to that split and that both mind and body are valuable. We must remember, that, even as Jesus talks about the difference between the flesh and the spirit, he himself Incarnated as an embodied spirit in flesh as the crux (forgive the pun, reader and God) of God’s redemptive plan–a combination of flesh and spirit that God viewed as somehow fundamental to God’s plan.

And yet, there is a strong temptation to belittle the flesh and laud only the spirit. When we think of the physical world as a fallen, sinful, irredeemable place and only the spiritual having value, we are forgetting that God created the physical world, too, and called it “good,” that God created first bodies into which God’s spirit was breathed to create humans, that our goal in sanctification is not to mortify or disavow our flesh in embracing spirit, but to bring the spiritual heaven into being as an embodied physical heaven through our following of Christ.

Failing to do so leads to a failure to be proper stewards for the Earth as we’ve been called to, leads us to ignore the different experiences of embodiment humans because of perceived racial divides instead of celebrating that diversity as purposeful and meaningful but in need of greater justice, leads us to take a Gnostic approach that rejects the world instead of trying to heal it.

Yes, sometimes we may need our spirit to overcome our flesh, the mind to be over matter. But the end goal is a righteous and proper relationship between mind and body, spirit and flesh, just as the end goal is a righteous and proper relationship with each other, with God, and with all creation.

Let me attempt to bring this back to mind uploading. To really work in a meaningful way as the singularists seem to argue, mind uploading requires a dualist approach when it comes to mind and body. A monist, materialist, approach dehumanizes saying that destroying you and booting up a program that operates convincingly as you is just as good. The dualist approach, however, would say that the digital uploading and downloading of consciousness (assuming for the sake of argument that we could be sure of consciousness) is the severing of the bond between the mind and one body and the instantiation of the mind in another body, with the continuity of the existence of the mind providing the philosophical bridge that overcomes the third criticism I voiced above.

Even in such a situation, many dangers lie in even a dualistic mind uploading paradigm. We would risk seeing our bodies as fungible, seeing them as useful only for their functionality instead of what they mean as part of who we are. We would risk seeing all physical things as subordinate and relatively unimportant compared to ephemeral data–and this dehumanizes as well. We would forget to see the value of protecting things as they are–of healing what is–rather than simply replacing it. This is a direction modern society already pushes us; mind uploading technology would simple urge us farther down the path.

So, the mind uploading idea–especially in speculative fiction where it is usually accompanied by appropriate dystopic ideas and (often) a cyberpunk aesthetic–reminds us that we need both flesh and spirit, and we need to paradoxically hold the value of each in tension.

Sci-Fi Christianity, Part I: Inverse Xenotheology, or, Anticipating First Contact

Okay, I have to admit here that the title is a little bit of a stretch, and I’m using it more because there are so few opportunities to (seriously) write words like “xenotheology” in non-fiction work.

“Xenotheology” is the word for the burgeoning (yet speculative and perhaps still a little premature) field of the study of alien religious systems and theologies. By the inverse of xenotheology, I mean to look at the repercussions in Christian theology that might result in the instance that we make contact with other intelligent lifeforms in the universe (or multiverse, if the physicists are right). See; the title’s a stretch.

Nevertheless, I continue. I read an article this morning that piqued my interest and spurred me to write this post; you can find it here. In the article, scientists at NASA discuss the ways in which an ancient but advanced civilization might be detectable millions of years down the line–what they call the “Silurian Hypothesis” after Doctor Who (sounds like the name of a “Big Bang Theory” episode). That, of course, got me thinking about the Fermi equation, and the likelihood of eventually encountering some alien species. And that (again, of course, because most things do) got me thinking about Christian theology.

To be fair, there are plenty of scientists (and speculative fiction writers) who believe that if we find other intelligent life “out there,” we still might not be able to communicate with or understand them. Their existential position (as a perceptual framework or paradigm for understanding existence as a whole) might be so different from ours that there are so few common points that real communication might be difficult at best. How could that be, you ask? That’s perhaps the most troubling aspect of this thought–the whole point is that their understanding of existence would be so different from ours that we could not readily conceive of it (nor them of ours)!

This in and of itself would beg a deep theological question: if Christianity is the true faith, how could it be applicable and accurate to something so radically differently situated from us? I say this without intending to devalue other religions, which I do believe have valuable things to offer the seeker of truth while maintaining that the person (divine and human) of Jesus Christ gives us the most truthful understanding of God and the cosmos. A troubling prospect, indeed; a seed of doubt that, by its very nature, could not be resolved by human minds. Is that an insurmountable issue? Of course not, there are many existential questions that we humans are incapable of resolving without divine revelation–the problem of evil and suffering, for existence. Becuase of all of this, I can only point out the question without offering any potential resolution except to say that it, like many other things, must be a matter of faith.

Lesser (in terms of difficulty in resolving, at least) existential questions follow. In such a situation, we would have to work out a new understanding of the relationship of Scriptures and Jesus to our suddenly-expanded reality. Here are a few scary (and, thankfully, improper) resolutions: (1) Christianity is proof that God favors humanity, allowing for crusades and persecution of alien species, or at least latent and continuing racism. While we no longer live in a society of monolithic religion, it is possible that Judaism and Islam could reach the same conclusion (because of human nature, not because of the nature of those religions, just as with Christianity), resulting in a hostile stance for humanity as a whole. I think it’s more likely, though, that some maintain such a belief privately, resulting in continuing issues of race (though in a slightly-new context) for centuries or millenia to come. (2) The “baby with the bathwater” approach: Scripture doesn’t tell us about aliens and neither does Jesus, so none of it must be true. This, of course, is a logical fallacy–there are plenty of things Jesus doesn’t talk about (molecular biology, cars, computers, black holes, particle physics, string theory) that nevertheless exist and that have not (at least when intellectual rigor and honesty is employed) destroyed the plausibility of Christian belief, despite how much the Enlightenment (and modern materialists) may have attempted such. (3) Christianity is supplanted by alien religion (assuming we could understand it) under the idea that a culture more advanced than us technologically must be more advanced than us spiritually–one only needs to read the Old Testament and look at the world around us to know that people generally have not changed much, if at all, in their nature because of technology. There are more possibilities than could be recounted here; I’ll leave you to your imagination.

Additionally, there’s the possibility that an alien culture that is like us enough that we can relate to them has had their own revelations from God that mirror those from our own Scriptures and the Incarnation. If that were the case, the type of thought I’m concerned with in this post might be moot.

However, my understanding of God sees great purpose in God’s remaining often hidden from us and not directly revealing the nature of all existence to us in some undeniable way. This makes room for faith, and it is possible that some of life’s ambiguity is necessary for our free will to exist in the way that allows for meaningful relationship with God and for following Jesus on the path of sanctification. That’s a topic for another time.

I think it more likely that we find alien religion much like we find other human religions–not devoid of some existential truth and not without some ability to point the seeker to the reality of the Creator, but mixed in with misunderstandings and fallacies that result in a system of belief that misses more than it gets right. Again, being subject to human failings in interpretation, I certainly wouldn’t say that Christianity has everything right–far from it. But, God’s revelation through the Incarnation lays bear more existential truth and gives us more to work with in the search for capital “T” Truth than any other system of belief or understanding of God known to man.

Rather than revel in the negative possibilities (which doesn’t seem very Christian at all, does it?) perhaps we should discuss theological principles that might need adjustment to conform our understand of God and the meaning of Scriptures and Jesus in light of new experience.

The most fundamental question of all would be to decide whether Christianity retains applicability given the existence of other intelligent lifeforms. I think most Christians would unhesitatingly answer, “Yes.” If we believe that the God’s revelation through Christ is True, no new understanding of our universe should change that. The second question, then, is whether Christianity should be viewed as applicable to aliens. Again, if we believe that Jesus, as He claims to be, is “the way, the truth and the life,” we must answer this question affirmatively. Which means that we must come to an understanding of God’s salvific work in Jesus (and God’s overall Great Plan for existence) that applies equally to all sentient beings capable of understanding (I’m willing to believe and hope that my pet, Berwyn, is an innocent subject to Grace despite how frequently he’s a “bad little dog.”).

These questions answered, we must look to ways in which Biblical interpretation must change to account for the new situation. I’m going to argue that some (admittedly more progressive) interpretations of the faith would not have to change at all.

In light of the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrials, we would do well not to interpret the story of Creation literally. Instead, we should seek to understand what early Genesis tells us about the existential condition of sentient beings (I use this phrase as a more-expansive variant of “the human condition”), the foundation upon which God’s plan for all Creation builds. As we would by necessity need to presume that Christ had a hand in creating all alien species as well (following the beginning of the Gospel of John), we would need to accept that the metaphors contained within Genesis are equally applicable to aliens and that, likewise, the path to salvation is open to them.

Alongside this, we ought to be less concerned with historicity in the Bible and more concerned with what the Bible tells us about the existential condition, as the latter will be far more universally applicable than the former. The ancient context of the writings will continue to be an important interpretive tool, but even this is entirely separable from historicity.

We would also have to find ways in which the experiences of alien cultures and beings help us to better understand Jesus and Scriptures–otherwise, we prove ourselves hypocrites in the belief that there is divine revelation (however difficult to discern) through existential experience.

Certain things might need to be interpreted more generously than current trends allow. If there are species that are not biologically binary (as in, distinctly “male” and “female”), then our understanding of sex and gender ought to expand. Otherwise, we might have to exclude entire species as “against the law of God.” In such a light, finding that homosexuality, transgendered people and other non-cisgendered folk are somehow abhorrent to God seems downright foolish.

We would also have to find a new humility–if we find that the Incarnation is not a common feature somewhere within the religions of all alien societies, we will have to sort out why God chose to condescend to humanity and not some other species in a way that impresses upon us the need to “make disciples” while not becoming self-righteously arrogant or assuming that our species has some special favor from God. This, I think, would be a great struggle but a fascinating aspect of the path of santification.

There are many more (and more specific) aspects of Christian theology that will need re-evaluation (as they perenially do anyway) to account for such a new discovery, and this post is admittedly a stream-of-conciousness response to something I came across this morning, so I must admit that this post is a collection of initial impressions–not a researched and long-considered topic like some of my other posts.

Still, I find it interesting (though this could be my own bias), that it appears that a more liberal/progressive theology is already better situated to account for the existence of other intelligent life in the universe than a more conservative theology. That by itself cannot be considered proof of the superiority of one interpretation over the other, but it is something worth pondering.

Worldbuilding Exercise, Part V: Development of a Community

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Having spent some time looking at high-level issues for the course of this sci-fi setting, I’m now going to shift gears in this post and “zoom in” to create one of the lower-tiered communities I’ve vaguely described before.

This community will be one that, because of its value systems, largely stands alone from the tiered system entirely, as those communities with extreme ideologies, experimental societies or strong adherence to values of self-sufficiency tend to do.

This community starts with a social movement that arose just as body augmentation began to become a regular part of society. While all augmentations—including cybernetics and bio-engineered prostheses—caused a deepening in the already-wide gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the pinnacle of this technologically-based fracturing occurred with high-level genetic manipulation.

Those who could afford to have themselves or their children genegineered, as the neologism went, created individuals who were smarter, more attractive, more physically capable, and less susceptible to disease and injury than “baseline” humans, perpetuating the regime of dominance they already enjoyed through social influence and wealth.

The community we’re concerned with developed as a backlash and form of social resistance to the so-called genobles. This began in traditional punk fashion: the incorporation of alternative political ideologies—anarchist, socialist and otherwise—with other value systems and a look that set them apart from “mainstream” society. The loose community of like-minded individuals challenged the “perfected human” ideal through their own forms of body modification and augmentation. Members of the community sought to outdo one another with extensive and grotesque physical forms that questioned the meaning of humanity and brought attention to their cause. They styled themselves Revoltists, both because of their revolt against mainstream values and because of their practice of adopting revolting physical forms.

As society evolved toward the tier system, so did the Revoltist movement. Anarchist ideology became dominant among members, and a system of meaning crept into the physical forms adopted by adherents. Eventually, the scientists involved with the Revoltist movement created genetic templates for different physiognomies, further standardizing the various “looks” of Revoltists. The technologies of body augmentation had become less expensive and more affordable as the decades passed, further enabling the consolidation of the movement.

During this time, the Revoltists co-opted parts of the Otherkin community (some of whom had used body augmentation to create bodies that matched the creatures they believed they really were; this nevertheless caused a schism in the Otherkin community) and decided that the use of faery mythology provided a symbolism readily-adaptable to their ideologies. Revoltists began to create themselves as elves, goblins, trolls, and all other manner of creature connected with the various faery mythologies of the world, with each different physiology representing certain sub-ideologies, arguments or schools of thought within the collective.

Following the faery paradigm, the Revoltists divided themselves into a Seelie Court and Unseelie Court, with the Seelie Court representing collectivist anarchists and the Unseelie Court representing individualist anarchists. Further subcategories—trouping faeries and solitary faeries, seasonal “courts” and other constructs borrowed from faery mythology—provided further categories for belief systems within the larger whole of Revoltist anarchy.

Eventually, the group began to refer to themselves as the Fae, dropping the Revoltist moniker altogether. As humanity established colonies on other worlds, the Fae participated by establishing their own communities, though the majority of the organization elected to make their home in a massive flotilla of ships, often referred to as the “Faery Fleet.”

The problem with genetic modification is that—without intervention—you pass to your children the traits you’ve chosen for yourself. The latest generation of the Fae have many members who are Fae in appearance only—they do not subscribe to the values and ideologies on which their community was founded, leading many of them to leave the Faery Fleet or other Faery colonies to find a place where they can feel that they belong. Some undergo the genetic modification to return to more human physiologies, but a great many take their look with them, a reminder of where they came from even if it is not a place they can remain. This new diaspora has resulted in a sort of “manufactured racism,” as members of the Fae who attempt to reincorporate into “mainstream” societies still represent the other, physically, socially and ideologically.

Worldbuilding Exercise, Part IV: Warfare

For the previous post in this series, click here.

To fully understand the politics of a setting, one must also understand warfare. For now, I’m not going to address space-based combat—though I’ll have to eventually. Here are some notes upon the general nature of modern warfare in this setting:

Large-scale battles are a rarity, but they do exist. Because of the privatization of military resources, warfare in the common sense of the term only occurs when there are broad-scale clashes between high-tier associations and/or powerful corporations that have not been resolved by diplomatic measures or arbitration. Most often, large-scale warfare occurs when one or more parties attempts to resist abiding by their contractual agreements and refuses to accept arbitration of differences.

Instead, asymmetric warfare is the order of the day. Mass communication networks and the prevalence of virtual reality interfaces mean that anyone with determination, time and access can learn combat skills individually—anyone can become a trained soldier or killer. Meanwhile, body augmentation allows for individuals to become capable of exceptional physical and mental feats without the dedication necessary for grueling athletic training.

Autonomous manufacturing resources allow the untraceable (or at least not-easily-traceable) production of weapons, armor and militarized devices. The tiered-system of communities makes the regulation of such items difficult at best. Even anti-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction seems almost a lost cause, with humans’ best solace the fact that the diaspora amongst the stars makes extinction of the entire human race through warfare or weaponry extremely unlikely.

This means that small, motivated groups have all the tools they need to become effective fighters on a small scale. This is true of regular citizens with above-board defensive interests, criminal organizations, terrorist groups, and communities built around militaristic principles.

Thus, skirmishes and small-scale actions between highly-trained and well equipped teams are far more common than wholesale warfare.

This style of combat lends itself to operations that would have fallen to “special operations soldiers” in the 20th and 21st centuries. The limited resources (all considered) of smaller teams of operators influence mission types, which are more often focused on strategic, infrastructure, economic or political targets over “take & hold” missions that require large groups of infantry and other personnel to maintain. Quick, surgical strikes and terrorist-style attacks are unfortunately common, as these allow even the smallest of communities to influence sociopolitics without having to secure the support of their higher-tier patrons.

Informatics and informational warfare are of course key. Ubiquitous connectivity incentivizes hacking attacks as much as more traditionally-combative ones—though it is increasingly the case that information warfare has become in inseparable part of tactical operations rather than an independent means of warfare.

As with all asymmetric warfare, identification of combatants and non-combatants is a constant issue. Despite the use of special tactics and technologies, innocent bystanders are common victims of the disputes—ideological, political, economic—between small and self-contained tactical teams composed of individuals armed-to-the-teeth.

Despite heightened awareness of the psychological maladies that stem from participation in combat and new treatment techniques, post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions remain a constant personal and social issue. Psychologists attribute this in part to empathic atrophy caused by the overuse of technological communication over interpersonal, face-to-face encounters, but also by the fact that many who learn their combative skills do so through games and simulations that allow for training in the physical methodologies of combat without preparing participants for the psychic stress of walking the edge between life and death and the taking of human lives.

Even though most military encounters are fought by small groups of people—often between four and thirty to a side—combined arms tactics and strategies remain at the forefront of the most effective warfare techniques. The use of semi-autonomous robots, such as drones, computerized artillery, and adaptive vehicles gives tactical teams opportunities to use combined-arms resources even on small scales with requiring the dedication to a large number of people to control those aspects of the fight. A single operator assigned toward informatics and hacking needs and a second set to supervise and coordinate the operation of drones and other automata is often enough to allow the rest of the team to focus on taking the fight directly to the enemy.

For the next post in the series, click here.

Worldbuilding Exercise, Part III: Politics in Broad Strokes

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Having addressed some of the preliminary issues, and having decided that this setting will deal with political and ideological struggles, it’s time to let the rubber start to hit the road. I prefer to start with the big ideas first and then see how multiple big ideas influence one another to determine the details.

Today, then, we’re going to look at politics in the setting.

I’ve done a fair bit of research on the speculations of political scholars and futurists about what kind of government systems the future will hold. Here’re some brief conclusions from that research that will influence the choices that follow:

(1) Francis Fukuyama’s “End of the World” hypothesis is dead. In fact, I’m of the mind that it was DOA.

(2) A number of writers see an end to nationalism in the globalization of society because technology allows us to form bonds that transcend national boundaries through newfound communicative outlets. These writers see ideologies and interests as the boundaries on which future sociopolitical groups will define themselves.

At the same time, we’ve witnessed in the start of the 21st century a decided throwback to nationalist sentiment, largely as a response to mass emigrations of refugees from middle-eastern countries in conflict, but also as a response to a feeling that the East is reaching greater parity in influence with the West, ending centuries-old Euro-/Anglo-centrism. We can point to Trump’s election and the rise of extremist nationalist organizations (some of which ought to be classified as terrorist groups) as well as the growing anti-immigration, cultural-supremacy and nationalist sentiments expressed in Germany and France.

I am curious as to whether these phenomena represent the death throes of historic nationalism or refute the “end of nationalism” theories espoused above.

(3) If nationalism does—at least for the most part—die in our future, what do governmental systems look like?

Some of the writers above see a sort of neo-feudalism in our future, where patron-vassal relationships on various scales replace strict national boundaries.

Other scholars note growing dissatisfaction (justified or not) with the ability of governments to effectively provide the essential services demanded by their citizens. These thinkers see an increase in private organizations providing services formerly the purview of government agencies. There’s plenty of evidence to support this—Space-X and Blackwater come immediately to mind.

While this latter idea appeals to my inner cyberpunk, I have significant doubts about the extent to which corporations and other businesses would insert themselves into direct governance. Why? Because the goal of corporations is to make money; the bureaucracy of governance and the tasks associated with providing for the common good are good ways to sap the bottom line. If recent American politics is any indication, corporations seem to be better served wielding great influence over governance without the attached responsibility.

With those things in mind, here’s what I’ve decided on for this sci-fi setting:

Free Association and Tiered-Relationships: I’m going with the idea that enhanced communication, the interchange of cultural ideas and opportunities to colonize other worlds and/or find secluded places for experimental societies will indeed cause newer communities to form based on ideological constructs over nationalism. Of course, some of these ideological constructs will be based on religion; ethnicity and traditional language and culture and even, sometimes, nationality. But, on the whole, we would expect to see a greater number of smaller ideologically-organized communities rather than a smaller number of larger “nations.”

Economics would dictate that these smaller communities would find an advantage to organizing for the provision of traditional governmental services—infrastructure, defense, etc. Those communities closest to one another (provided that they can get along) will have a common interest in local matters and may have resources enough to direct provide some services to citizens either collectively or individually.

For larger scale needs—long range shipping and post, military defense and security, medical care and the like—the average small scale community cannot provide alone. By collectivizing—at least in terms of bargaining and paying for traditionally-governmental services—small communities may retain their individuality and autonomy while enjoying infrastructure and services benefits formerly only provided by larger-scale government organizations.

Not all services would be bargained for at the same level. A collection of a handful of communities—micro-city-states, if you will—might band into an association for the provision of waste removal services and local utility provision. For larger scale needs, though, they need a larger collective, so their association joins with other similarly-sized associations to form a bigger bargaining bloc—a higher tier of collectivization. This larger association may then negotiate for the provision of more expensive services—long-range communication or healthcare, for instance.

Three or four tiers of associations would be sufficient to provide for the majority of services and governmental functions needed by the average community, meaning that a community (in addition to being an autonomous “local government”) would belong to several tiers of organizations, each higher tier acting as a sort of patron to its lower-member tiers in what we might call a collective feudalism.

Privatized Service Providers

Some corporations have developed specifically to provide various governmental functions by contract with the tiered associations described above. One corporation might specialize in security and law-enforcement services, another in medical services and hospital maintenance, another in data-management and bureaucratic processes (licensing, maintenance of health and safety codes, etc.) and a fourth might maintain s standing army for the defense of its contracted communities.

Of course, the savviest corporate directors and executives will diversify their business interests, with a “mega-” or “hyper-” corporation having a plethora of subsidiaries involved in various fields. By forming subsidiaries to provide governmental services, these larger corporations enjoy a number of benefits. They gain influence over civilian governments while being paid by those same communities for the privilege of the services. This allows the corporations an influential role in many aspects of daily life without requiring a loss to the bottom line for purchasing such influence. Additionally, when a subsidiary provides government services to a community or association, that naturally creates a market for the goods and services of the corporation’s other subsidiary operations.

The New Transparency

The system of collective bargaining with privatized service providers does not provide corporations with a tyranny over civil life. Because they operate by contract, they have a responsibility to their customers to show that they are providing for the consumer’s best interests and performing their functions efficiently and effectively.

In theory, this is simply a formalization of the social contract philosophy espoused by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. Some scholars argue that, at least in the abstract, this system provides definite democratic advantages—the governed may sever the relationship with a governmental agency that seems inept or corrupt without the necessity of bloody revolution—renegotiated contracts and legal maneuvers now serve a function that formerly required musket or machinegun.

In practice, however, the system—like perhaps any human system of government—has its share of flaws and disadvantages as well. At their heart, corporations are driven by the profit motive rather than a desire to selflessly better the lives of others. While many corporate directors hope to accomplish both ends simultaneously, there is a natural conflict of interest here that requires strict scrutiny from the governed to keep in check. The less scrupulous see only the need to provide the appearance of a fair and equitable provision of government services, and the governing ideals of some communities and associations reject traditional democratic ideas anyway, allowing for as broad a range of abuses and exploitations as any found in the 21st century.

Subscription Citizenship

While the diversity of ideologies behind the myriad communities in existence across known space makes generalization a typically foolhardy task, it is nevertheless true that the majority of autonomous communities have resorted to subscription memberships for citizenship rather than traditional taxation. Beyond the general idea of “pay to belong,” are an ever-expanding list of variables in how citizenship subscriptions are handled, including: non-monetary contribution requirements, exclusivity of citizenship, the effect of criminal conviction, whether tiers of citizens are available, the method of calculating the cost of a citizenship subscription and the scope of governmental services provided for citizens.

Citizenship in a particular community naturally entails membership in the tiered associations to which the community belongs—allowing both associations and individual communities to deal with non-citizens based upon the legal and economic relationships between the various associations at each tier, much as certain countries once favored some foreign nations over others.

Additionally, a community’s attitude toward and treatment of those without any citizenship varies greatly, with some communities or associations requiring the provision of at least basic support and rights to those without citizenship and others treating them as non-persons.

Those who lack citizenship in any collective or combine—and there are plenty—are known by various names: scavs, scavvers, wastrels, wastelanders, outcasts and more. As one might surmise, most of these epithets originate from the fact that these individuals often live in the wasteland between communities, where they must forage and scavenge for their basic needs. Non-associated communities—those who belong to none of the tiered collectives of mainstream communities, must be self-sufficient or rely upon the benevolence of other communities for their continued survival. Without a powerful defense force, these communities may be forced away from valuable resources or “annexed” by those communities whose ideologies make a place for slaves or other subclasses of citizens.

The largest corporations have citizenships of their own, though not everyone involved in their company (or companies) has (or is even eligible for) corporate citizenship.

If both communities and tiered associations allow, one may change one’s citizenship as easily as redirecting the destination of one’s subscription payments (and the amount, as necessary). The extent to which this is possible varies greatly even within the same associations.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

All of these contractual and negotiated relationships require some mechanism for their enforcement. To that end, several independent judiciary bodies have developed. Professional jurists and scholars of jurisprudence in the employ of these organizations have developed uniform codes of law and a privatized system of courts—based on the old concept of civil arbitration—to provide a framework for the relationships and contracts between communities, their associations, and service providers.

Each contract designates the specific organization whose law and arbiters will be used to resolve disputes and to control contract interpretation for that relationship. There are several such organizations, some specialized in particular types of law—interplanetary shipping, employment, healthcare, etc. The most powerful judiciary organizations are Curia Ultima, the Interplanetary Arbitration Syndicate (IAS) and Secured Transactions and Relationships (STR).

These organizations deal only in what we might call “civil” law—providing for money damages and the redistribution of property to compensate for contractual breaches or tort offenses—criminal punishment is not addressed by the arbitration organizations and is usually a matter of international diplomacy.

On the other hand, the arbitration organizations do have their own military forces and the ability to hire mercenary outfits to enforce their judgments. While small-scale skirmishes sometimes result when a losing party resists enforcement of a judgment, large-scale confrontations are rare as they are likely to bring the contracted militaries of the mega-corporations and community associations to bear for the sake of preserving this entire system, which operates based on consent.

The arbitration organizations are funded in several ways. First, those organizations wishing to use them must premiums—not unlike insurance payments—based on that organizations estimated use of the system. Second, the arbitration organizations are themselves the recipients of fines levied for bad behavior (as opposed to damages awarded to the other party as compensation for wrongdoing).

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A Worldbuilding Example – Part II: Sci-Fi Technology

For the previous post in this series, click here.

We’ve got a lot of high-level decisions to make before we get into the gritty details. Since this’ll be a sci-fi setting, deciding on the availability and prevalence of various technologies—particularly those staples of the genre—seems a good next step. What follows are the decisions I’ve made for the setting.

Consciousness Transfer/Mind Uploading: This is a popular topic lately, both in speculative science and fiction. Ray Kurzweil and his like assure us that we will soon be able to digitally transfer our minds into mechanical bodies and live forever. The ability to do this is an important facet of Altered Carbon and the Eclipse Phase RPG. I, however, don’t believe that this will ever be possible. Most important, we’ll never actually know if it works—I cannot with surety know that another person is actually conscious. Yes, this is somewhat solipsistic, but we simply don’t have an objective test to prove consciousness, just a set of tools that leads us to assume consciousness. This leads to some problems when a “transfer” of consciousness could result in a resemblance of transferred consciousness but with the actual result of killing the actual possessor of the consciousness.

The Kurzweil argument, while having a strangely spiritual component, is a materialist one. As I’ve discussed on the theological side of the blog, I don’t find materialist science to be very convincing when it comes to existential questions.

Add to this that we don’t really understand the origin or nature of consciousness (see the “hard problem” of qualia, for instance) and I have substantial doubts about the possibility of mind uploading.

Possible or not (and, in all candor, we don’t know whether it is or not and maybe advances in science will find some way to answer the question definitively), there is no denying that mind-transference makes for interesting stories. If digital immortality is included in your world, you have the potential to create some truly mythopoeic stories.

Nevertheless, I have decided that, in this setting, this technology has either been proved to be unsuccessful or that there is insufficient confidence in the effectiveness of the available technologies for anything to have been widely adopted. This preserves the dramatic power of death and the threat thereof and helps push us toward some grit in the setting.

DNI (Direct Neural Interface): Current science is making great strides in the interface between the brain and technology for multiple purposes—prosthetics, mental control of computers, even devices that—with training—can roughly predict what a person is looking at based on brainwaves.

Whatever the possibility of transferring consciousness from a meat-brain, there’s no question about the possibility of the brain interacting with computerized devices. Thus, this technology will be prevalent and in many forms—electronic “telepathy,” direct mental control of devices and machines, full-immersion virtual reality (almost indistinguishable from “real” reality), memory recording and transference (think Strange Days).

Ubiquitous Computing: We’re already starting to see more and more devices connected to the internet to gain even the slightest of advantages over offline versions. With inventions such as “smart dust” and more effective signals transmission, very few places would be out of the reach of the equivalent of the internet. Combined with “standard” augmentations, most people have the opportunity to be “online” to the extent that they wish to be and to mentally interface with most constructed objects (systems security aside, of course) in their immediate environment.

FTL Travel and Communication: I don’t know what it is, exactly, but I find the possibility of being unable to travel to the vast majority of the universe kind of depressing. While there are a few theoretical methods for beating Einstein’s speed limit (like the Alcubierre Drive), it seems that faster-than-light travel is not in our near future.

I don’t care. Faster-than-light travel is fun and I don’t want to get into the existential horror of relativistic time. I’m going to use the classic “hyperspace/slipspace” conceit—a spacecraft with the proper type of engine can shift into a physical dimension with a different geometry or rules of physics than our own that, with caveats and complications, allows for travel at much greater than speed of light.

Under the rationale for FTL travel, I could potentially see some ability to send data through the same medium for instantaneous communication. However, I want to complicate things somewhat—a delay in the receipt of an important message may have Shakespearean proportions of drama, and I’d like to capture some of that. So here’s what I’m going to say: FTL communication requires an open connection between two places in “normal” space through “hyperspace.” Data can’t simply be converted into data in hyperspace and transmitted, it must be “beamed through” a wormlike tunnel through hyperspace.

This means that ships will need to have the capability to send messages by opening up temporary connections to known communications hubs to send messages. This makes the manufacture and control of those communications hubs strategically valuable, provides for some time-delay for communications, requires spaceships to hold a position to receive reply messages and requires ships communicating through FTL to route through communications hubs. This nuance I think will give us some ready story hooks.

Human Augmentation: The types and qualities of human augmentation will be extensive. The cyberpunk genre has focused on “chrome” and mechanically-based augmentations or bio-engineered alternatives. Certainly there will be some of each, but current research seems to indicate that much human augmentation will be a hybrid of the biological and digital, with researchers working on making biological computer analogues (on a small-scale, of course) and the embedding of artificial substances in biological ones (like enhanced eye lenses or retinal structures).

I’m not sure that any sentient alien species in this setting will necessarily have much real communication and contact with humanity, so augmentation will provide for a broad array of differentiated “subspecies” of the Homo genus.

Human augmentation will also be responsible for a widened socio-economic gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Manufacturing techniques (see below) may be in the process of democratizing augmentation, but the sharp divide in wealth exacerbated by the earliest waves of limited-availability augmentations still has continuing effects.

In addition to having practical benefits, I expect human augmentation to have become an important means of self-expression—tattoos and piercings on the next level, so to speak.

Terraforming: Human colonization will have been heavily supported by the science of terraforming. Planets must have certain inherent characteristics (like being in the habitable zone of a star) to be eligible for such transformation, but the process itself (probably provided by AI) has been mostly successful.

When first set to thinking about this setting, I thought to avoid space opera “one-terrain” worlds—the jungle moon of Endor, the one-massive-desert of Tatooine that people still somehow decided was a good place to make a home, etc. However, when I decided that terraforming would be a distinct technology, I started to think about places with artificially-created and not-entirely-but-close homogenous biomes. This makes sense especially for small “luxury” worlds

Manufacturing: Nanofactories, or “nanofacs” are essentially highly-advanced 3-d printers. With the proper raw materials, a nanofac can construct anything that will fit within it and for which it has the schematics. Contemporary design (as is largely already the case) is computer-based rather than through the construction of physical prototypes.

This creates some subissues for economics and society that I’ll have to work through: How are schematics controlled? What is the current state of intellectual property law and how extensive is schematic piracy? Is the economy based almost solely on the provision of raw materials and services?

AI and Robotics: There is much fear about artificial intelligence in our modern society (and perhaps rightly so). Reference I, Robot or Terminator. However, I’m going to go a different direction from many sci-fiction settings:

The major qualm about “artificial intelligence” is that we can’t really know if the highest-level hardware/software programs are actually sentient or only very good Turing machines. Nevertheless, humans actually managed to achieve what AI they have in a responsible and precautionary manner. Only limited AI with strict programming protocols and protections from “emergent” features are allowed any autonomy or connectivity. Agent/Assistant programs and robots alike are significantly limited in their capacities—usually only able to perform a limited number of tasks with superhuman effectiveness and otherwise possessing capabilities below that of the average human.

“True AI” as humans think of it are built in self-contained units without any wireless or general connectivity to the world at large. Data is input either by hand or through portable storage devices rather than through the kinds of free data-exchanges used by most technological devices.

AI is used only for research—for the creation and analysis of large-scale simulations to improve scientific and technological understanding. Much of the work of AI research is “catching up” to an understanding of the data output by an AI to make something useful from the machine’s own conclusions.

Rather than approach things from the robot’s side, as Aasimov and others have done, I want to look more at how humans react to living in proximity to artificially created entities that probably aren’t really sentient but about which one cannot truly tell. Some recent sci-fi work has already started to explore this topic (Robot and Frank; Her).

Spaceships: Spacecraft capable of FTL travel will be too large and heavy to exit the gravity of most planets upon landing, so smaller “landers” and “lifters” are used to transport people and goods from a planet to a true starship.

I have identified a need to do some research into what current scientist think that ship-to-ship warfare between starships would look like. While I like the idea of age-of-sail-in-space type combats, I have a distinct feeling that actual starship battles would be far more like a big game of Battleship—trying to find the enemy at extreme range before he finds you.

Artificial Gravity: I have to admit being pretty torn about this one. There are really two things we’re talking about when we talk about artificial gravity. The first is essentially “anti-gravity,” the ability to provide lift significant-enough to allow hovering without the heat and energy of some sort of thruster. There are enough alternatives with actual scientific plausibility (ground effect vehicles and the like) to provide this without resorting to the scientifically implausible, and I appreciate that.

The rub comes about with “true” artificial gravity—the ability to simulate gravity in a spaceship and thus avoid the inconvenience and strangeness of weightlessness in space. While there are ways (rotating structures, for instance) to simulate gravity, current science predicts that—because gravity is a part of the shape of the cosmos and not particle-based force—artificial gravitic fields are essentially impossible.

I remain undecided whether to use artificial gravity anyway or resort to more real-world solutions.

Power Sources: I’m going to use antimatter as a source for large-scale power, fusion for smaller applications and very advanced batteries for most portable power solutions.

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A Worldbuilding Example – Part I: Introduction and Influences

As I’m procrastinating from some of my other projects, I thought it might be fun to go through the worldbuilding process instead of only writing about doing so. This will be the first post in a series to do just that.

Initial disclaimer and caveats

There are many different ways to go about the process of worldbuilding, approaches and philosophies of creative work, foci and areas of interest in fleshing out a world, etc. I make no claim to be doing things the “right” or “best” way. I’m going to do this in the way that I’ve discovered works for me. I hope it helps you, even if how it helps is in causing you to do things a different way. Failing that, I hope it entertains.

A Starting Place: Purpose

We have a few high-level choices to make before we really get into it. The first is what we’re building a setting for. As I’ve mentioned many times, Avar Narn is the world I’ve been building for a long time and the main setting for much of my writing. Here, I’m going to try to do something different. To a great extent, I foresee that there will be some similar themes and ideas in both settings simply based upon the things that interest me. However, I’m going to try to keep this from being a rehash of the exact same ideas.

Those sidebar comments…aside…I’ve decided that I want to build this setting for a combination of creating a space to write in, a setting to use for roleplaying games should I so choose, and also simply for the enjoyment of the process. You might note that this hits on the main three reasons for worldbuildng I’ve discussed in other posts. The attempt to equally address these concerns I hope will make this series more helpful for others seeking to glean ideas from it.

Knowing my purpose, I’m going to now pick a loose genre. The emphasis is on “loose” here because I really like mixing genre conceits, as is already somewhat and will become more evident in my Avar Narn writings. As Avar Narn is loosely fantasy, this setting will be loosely sci-fi.

A Guide: Genre

A sci-fi setting for writing, gaming and art for its own sake. So far so good. There’re a lot of subgenres in sci-fi that are important to audiences, so I’m going to make some additional choices here to help allay what could become future obstacles.

I like my stories to be closer to the personal, the “realistic” (whatever that is) and the gritty. I’m not a scientist and, while I like theoretical physics and the like, I do not want to have to do any more math than is absolutely necessary. Consequential decisions: I will lean toward “hard” sci-fi but not slavishly so. I’ll try to avoid anything that blatantly violates the laws of the universe as we understand them, but I won’t avoid occasional handwavium if it serves the setting as a whole.

I’ve also decided that I’m going to use the shortcut here—so that the majority of my creative focus remains on Avar Narn—of using a future version of our world (and worlds beyond) rather than creating a sci-fi universe whole-cloth.

A Mission Statement: Theme

The setting needs a good core theme or set of themes to tie it together, much like an organization’s mission statement or the thesis of a scholarly work. We could just create bits of the world and see what themes float to the surface, but I find it far more efficient to decide what you want your world to do and then fill in the details to align with that.

Fortunately, I have a few themes to address with the setting:

  1. If humans have the technology to recreate themselves, what does that look like? How far will humans go and what are the reasons they’ll have for doing so.
  2. How does ideology (philosophic, religious, political, moral) drive history and individuals? What about vice versa? What makes us choose (or leave) an ideology? Do we choose our ideologies for emotional reasons, or practical ones, or something more complex? How strongly are we committed to ideology—what ideologies will we kill and die for, and why?
  3. Control—over culture, technology, relationships, even self. Do we really have it at all? If so, how do we take (or relinquish) control? What is the morality of control?
  4. The macro versus the micro—should humans prioritize large-scale constructs (governments, societies, institutions) or individuals? What do different prioritizations look like?

Four is plenty of high level themes, I think. This will give us a lot to play with but still have enough coherence for the setting to avoid the “kitchen sink” approach.

Assembling Building Blocks: Influences

And now I plan a heist. I’ve already spent a lot of time casing my targets, so it’s just a matter of infiltrating, stealing what I want, and getting back out. Here are some of the sources I’ll steal ideas from:

Novels

Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan) – billed as “hardboiled cyberpunk”, this fast-paced sci-fi noir story hits a lot of my sweet spots and (as far as I know) inspired the Eclipse Phase game mentioned below. As we’ll parse out later, I have some serious conflict about the idea of digital-brain transfers, but there’s much in this novel that inspires.

Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson) – Both of these novels have influenced me—both as writer and a theological thinker, believe it or not—so I can’t imagine but that I’ll draw some inspiration from them, though I think my own preferences and approach vary significantly from Stephenson.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – I’m a big fan of almost all of Phillip K. Dick’s work (strange as some of it is), but this one seems to fit some of the themes and ideas I’m interested in for this setting well.

Old Man’s War (John Scalzi), Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card), Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein) – I love military sci-fi and, based on the themes above, there’s a significant role for military conflict to play in this setting.

World War Z (Max Brooks) – no, I don’t intend to have zombies. What I want to draw from this book is how it starts from a fictitious situation (here, zombies) and builds rational and believable sociopolitical events and histories on top. Please, for the love of God, ignore the movie.

Embedded (Dan Abnett) – I like Abnett’s writing for the Warhammer 40K universe, and this military sci-fi novel does a lot really well and has a feel and setting with a lot I’d like to use.

Non-Fiction Books

Future of the Mind, Physics of the Future and Physics of the Impossible (Michio Kaku) — Kaku has for some time been a popularizer of scientific ideas, particularly through his TV appearances. These books contain speculations from the well-researched to the wild and almost certainly unfounded—perfect for sci-fi.

Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems & the Economic World (Kevin Kelly) – a Wired magazine editor’s part celebration, part warning about future technologies.

Movies and TV

Alien Series – I love the industrial look of spaceships in these films, where (if I’m to think about it perhaps overmuch) the ship reminds us of the horrors of a soulless industrial society that places profits above people just as we’re faced with an alien threat.

Blade Runner and Minority Report – As I said, I’m a big fan of PKD and while the films often miss some of his more poignant inquiries, they perhaps make up for that in inspirational visuals.

Inception – as we come closer and closer to virtual reality—and virtual reality difficult to distinguish from real reality being soon to follow—this film has plenty of ideas in it that makes sense in almost any sci-fi setting (especially when combined with the sort of nasty tortures and interrogations that virtual spaces are used for in Altered Carbon).

Firefly and Serenity – while I want to steer clear of the “Western in Space” idea (despite it working so well for these stories), there’re are many ways in which FTL travel would create some Old-West-like frontiers, and stories one might not think of—like Revenant (in SPAAAACCCEEE!) could also abound. In fact, why are there so few “classic” wilderness survival stories in sci-fi? Plenty of spacefaring hard-sci-fi survival stories, but not so many in the wilderness (unless I just don’t know them).

Battlestar Galactica – I have to say that, despite greatly enjoying this series, there’s a lot from it I wouldn’t use in my own sci-fi stories. Nevertheless, I’m sure there’s something to glean from the dross, I’m sure.

Tabletop Games

Infinity – if you haven’t seen the 28mm skirmish game (and upcoming RPG) Infinity, take a look. I typically have a hard time getting into anime, but despite the anime influence on this setting, it’s fascinating and I love the art style.

Shadowrun – this game was really my introduction to the cyberpunk genre and there’re some cool ideas here. As I mentioned above, though, I don’t intend this setting to be strictly cyberpunk, despite some of the influences mentioned.

Video Games

I take a lot of my writing inspiration from visual experiences, so the art style and consequential “feel” of film and games often helps my creative juices flow. When I think of doing a sci-fi setting, I think of Mass Effect (how could one not), Dead Space and Titanfall.

Futurist Reports

To a great extent, I think calling oneself a futurist or futurologist is a way to indulge in sci-fi imagination while still retaining some scientific credibility. Regardless, there are a number of futurologists whose reports provide ready fodder for thinking about human society and technology in the near future. I’ll be drawing on futurist reports, articles, speculative timelines, etc. for inspiration.

Art

As I said above, I’m very visual in my imagination, so I spend a lot of time creating collections of inspirational art and photos, most often pulling them from DeviantArt.com. For this setting, the two artists there that immediately come to mind are Shimmering-Sword and StTheo. Careful going down the DeviantArt rabbithole—you can lose hours wandering through the works of all of the talented artists there (or sorting through the crap that gets posted alongside them).

Other

TED Talks will also play some role I’m sure, as I tend to enjoy listening to them and they do relate to technology, after all. To some extent, I may find other podcasts or programs with something to contribute.

NEXT TIME: Some high-level choices about the particulars of the setting.

For the next post in this series, click here.

RPGs for Writers, Part I

This topic comes to mind because I’m currently spending a good deal of time writing short stories for the world of Avar Narn and have also just started GMing a roleplaying game in the same setting.

I’ve always had a love for both roleplaying games and for writing, and I’m convicted that my experience in one medium has influenced (if not shaped) the other. If, like me, you’d like to be a professional writer–particularly, but not exclusively, in the fantasy or sci-fi genres, I highly recommend that running roleplaying games becomes part of your curriculum of self-education. The reasons are myriad, videlicet:

Roleplaying Games Have Heavily Influenced the Modern Fantasy Genre

When watching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, I amusedly observed a certain dialectic that had formed between Tolkien’s works and Dungeons and Dragons (and also the Warhammer Fantasy setting). D&D most certainly drew heavy inspiration from Tolkien (though a look at Gygax’s Appendix N shows that that’s far from the only source). The idea of pointy-eared elves, stubborn dwarves (or dwarfs, if you prefer) and long overland quests all originated in Middle-Earth but found a new home in D&D and its derivatives. Likewise, Games Workshop’s much-beloved Old World setting of Warhammer Fantasy began as an close spin-off of Tolkien, and closely associated with Dungeons and Dragons as well (Citadel miniatures where sculpted and cast for D&D use before they ever had their own setting and style).

In the past few decades, D&D (and again, Warhammer) has become as much a part of mainstream culture as Tolkien has (look to Stranger Things or the fact that D&D got its own movies–however awful they might have been). The tropes of D&D now often stand alone, indebted to but moved beyond the original source material J.R.R. provided.

And so, in a strange reversal, I find several points in Jackson’s films that seem to be inspired far more by the over-the-top “epic” fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons than by the rather low-magic setting of The Lord of the Rings books. A few examples: stone giants attacking one another as the Dwarves and Bilbo  traverse the mountains, Legolas skating down the trunk of an oliphaunt, the boar-riding in the Battle of Five Armies and some of the action-oriented scenes involving Tauriel (who is far more a product of modern gaming than of Tolkien).

What this tells me is that fantasy roleplaying and wargaming have become so ingrained in (at least gamer-) culture that we know look back to the original inspirations (Tolkien, Vance, Lord Dunsany, George McDonald) through the lens of the tropes and ideas of these more-modern creations.

It’s not just the fantasy genre where roleplaying games have had a hand in shaping pop culture. The horror game Vampire: The Masquerade had its own TV series in the 90’s (called Kindred: The Embraced and produced through Aaron Spelling’s production company–find a copy if you can!) and certainly has had a hand in the 21st century vomitorium of vampire novels, TV shows and movies (True Blood, Twilight, etc.).

My point is this: to borrow a quotation from The Music Man, “You have to know the territory!” I’d wager that there are more people who have played D&D than who have read The Name of the Wind or Mistborn: The Final Empire, though both are of a vastly-higher literary quality than any RPG I’ve run or played. There is a certain fantasy mindset that D&D and other games engenders that leaves people with certain expectations (R.A. Salvatore’s sold a lot of books, after all). I’m not encouraging you to emulate the tropes of D&D in your own fantasy works (for the love of God, please don’t!), but you need to know what readers’ expectations and assumptions might be so that you can prey on them (in a completely benign literary sense, of course).

Practice Makes Perfect

In my experience, there are few harsher critics than nerds, and that’s a good thing. Every one of us has our own ideas about what tropes, genres and ideas are cool (or kewl) and which are lame. I love it when nerds find ways to call one another out: “You like Star Trek? How lame! There’s only Firefly.”

Practicing storytelling in front of a tough audience will help you to hone your skills, and RPGs provide a prime opportunity for this. Serious roleplayers (and a discussion of serious versus casual roleplayers merits its own post–but let’s say for now that both are categories are full of respected and valued people) will call you out (or complain behind your back, which is always easy to check on) if your characters are flat or your plot is full of holes. Even those players who prefer to avoid confrontation (in real life–they often play some of the bloody-mindedest characters!) will be happy to help you improve your skills if you ask.

And, as we’ll further discuss below, running a roleplaying game is a very different animal from writing a story on a page. Notice that I called it “storytelling” above–GMing a game is storytelling without the same rigor of grammar, syntax and style of the written text (although it is full of its own set of nuance and stylistic conventions).

I’m a firm believer that style and substance are inseparable in writing (particularly in fiction, when words must evoke a feeling or atmosphere as much as describe events, people and places), but that doesn’t mean that improving the substance by itself–which is possible in some ways at least in the RPG medium–won’t make your writing better as a whole.

Working on the Building Blocks

Outlining a plot for written fiction is a tough task. Making sure you don’t leave any gaps or loose ends, that the narrative flows up and down in drama and tension and that both the logic of events and the characters move in believable ways prove daunting, to say the least.

What can help with that? Having developed characters whose own motivations and personalities suggest the plot and push the story to its conclusion through seemingly-inevitable (but often surprising) actions. Well developed settings that intrude upon the narrative, providing both obstacles and the means to overcome them. Situations that arise organically from the nuance of the setting, creating plot hooks. And, of course, sometimes it comes to a whole lot of creative pondering, brainstorming and working back and forth through the plot as currently written.

Skillfully creating characters, setting and ideas for the beginnings of a story before attempting to sketch out a plot is more efficient (and artistically successful) than starting with a plot and pigeonholing characters and events into it.

As a (good) GM, what are you responsible for: creating memorable characters in an evocative setting and letting the plot develop organically (and often chaotically) out of the intervening actions of the player characters. In other words, creating all of the building blocks for a strong plot and then letting it go, responsively building events and scenes from the characters’ preceding actions.

This is difficult to do at all, much less to do well. But so is writing, and you didn’t decide you wanted to take up writing because you thought it would be easy and relaxing. You decided to take it up because it’s demanding and rewarding and, dammit, you’ll explode if you don’t get some of your ideas out of you and onto paper.

Creative Juices

Because the plot of an RPG develops through the back-and-forth between players and GM, you can only go in with strong building blocks (characters and setting) and a vague idea of plot direction, because no plan will survive contact with the enemy–er, players. The spontaneity demanded of a good GM means that you will have to develop your ability to improvise, synthesize and dramatize quickly and meaningfully. If you become able to do those things well on the fly, just think about your abilities when you’ve got time to sit down and slowly develop and rework a story.

Alongside this, the worldbuilding aspect of roleplaying is, potentially, far more extensive than it is for typical fiction. Tolkien’s example aside, the fiction writer really only has to do enough worldbuilding as will appear “on-screen.” You only need as much culture as will influence the plot and characters, as much geography as suits the story, as much depth as bolsters the fourth wall.

This is not true of a roleplaying game. If your characters wander to the edge of the map (or, more likely, the edge of the scene) and find blank space, they’ve lost all sense of immersion, and the most important aspect of a profound roleplaying experience has been lost–probably never to be recovered. Because of player agency, you need to know what is (or at least, what could and what could not be) on the other side of that hill, what the heretofore unnamed NPC’s life is like if the characters somehow decide he’s more important than you originally intended, what the foreign cultures that the players’ characters may hail from are like. Your worldbuilding has to be far more complete, because the players are not sitting captive in a movie theater exposed only to what appears on the screen–they are holding the camera and may turn it unexpectedly at a whim.

Is deeper worldbuilding always better? No, not necessarily. If you’re writing a standalone story based more on an idea than a setting, it’s probably a waste of time to go into the kind of detail a roleplaying setting demands. But, on the other hand, if the setting itself is part of the fiction you want to weave, why not become adept at doing the thing right?

Go to Amazon and search for books on worldbuilding. If you search well, you’ll find far more books written for roleplaying games with deep discussions of worldbuilding than those for writers. More to the point, you’ll often find the works with “games” in mind deeper and more developed than those with “literature” in mind. This is admittedly changing as Tolkien-esque worldbuilding (along with fantasy map-making and conlanging) becomes more mainstream, though I’d argue that this is another facet of my first point, that roleplaying games have pushed certain aspects of fantasy to the forefront.

A Feel for Narrative

There are plenty of books on “proper” narrative structure. You can find formulae for stories in any kind of genre you can imagine. Plenty of theorists or writers will tell you that there’s only a limited number of dramatic situations (sometimes so few you can count them on fingers and toes) that get recycled from story to story.

Theory is well and good, and I don’t intend to argue with any particular formula or convention here. However, there’s more to plot than the mechanics of dramatic beats and intervening beats, of a rising action and a denouement. The best narrative is like a rollercoaster–it goes up and down, sometimes twists suddenly to the side, gathers momentum or slows, and sometimes, just sometimes, curls back on itself or hangs upside down.

There are even successful stories that in many ways should be described as lacking a plot–Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, for instance.

Of course, roleplaying games without plots really don’t work except for players fastidiously (perhaps narcissistically) concerned with their own characters. The point is really that plot must be felt as much as coldly planned.

Running a roleplaying game (well) requires the development of a keen sense of narrative structure, when to rise, when to fall, when to zig and zag. This relies on a sense of mood and audience as much as “rules” of plot.

Sometimes Rules Help to Control the Fun

By this, I do not mean that a novelist should create roleplaying statistics for all his characters and then have them roll against each other to determine how the plot moves. But, especially in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, a lack of consistency can destroy the suspension of disbelief.

Rules in (good) roleplaying games are designed specifically for consistency–to constrain the possible results and ensure that two similar situations have similar odds of resolving in various possible ways. For a game, this is in part a matter of “fairness,” though the best roleplaying games (I find, and so does John Wick–the game designer and roleplayer, not the Keanu Reeves hitman) are patently unfair in ways that mimic real life (and may or may not be codified within the rules). Regardless of origin, though, the consistency of the rules contributes to the consistency of the world, which contributes to willing suspension of disbelief. Nobody likes a hypocrit; even fewer people like a hypocritical fiction.

The “mundane” rules necessary to roleplaying games are unnecessary in fiction writing–logic can help a writer determine when a character dies of thirst without the need to roll dice or consult charts. On the other hand, certain aspects of speculative fiction–particularly systems of magic and superscience–can benefit from a codified rulesystem that ensures consistency. This does not mean that the fiction writer needs to create a mathematical resolution system for these aspects of a fantasy story, but the principles of creating a well-realized and consistent magic system for written fiction and a workable magic system for a roleplaying game overlap so significantly that experience handling one will certainly help with the other. Speaking from experience, the complex systems of magic in the Avar Narn setting are deeply nuanced and influenced by my own inspirations from and criticisms of magic as portrayed both in fiction and in RPGs (I’m looking at you, D&D; your magic is stupid and lacks the fantastic).

Jim Butcher, author of the wildly successful Dresden Files, helped translate his fictional magic system into RPG rules through the FATE-powered Dresden Files RPG. Given his frequent references to roleplaying games in the novel, it’s clear he’s a fan, so I can’t help but wonder if his roleplaying experiences shaped the way he thought about magic for his setting.

To rag on D&D (and its derivatives) again in this section, sometimes a roleplaying game can tell you how not to structure your world. From a standpoint of game design, I have a lot of bones to pick with Dungeons & Dragons (level- and class-based systems, character growth based on violence, etc.), but the worst of it is that (probably more through players’ fault than the games’ writers) the rules of D&D are usually scene as the physics of the work, rather than the rules attempting to model the physics of a fictional world. What I mean by this is that, if the rules say that something is possible, or even vaguely imply that things should work in a certain way, or the history of those rules carries with it such an implication, then some players assume that the rule trumps all logic and narrative coherence. Hence jokes of leveling up by pouring boiling water on an ant mound (millions of 1XP kills, right?) and far less funny arguments between player and GM about the results of some seemingly ludicrous action supported by the black-letter reading of the rules. This experience may be an artifact of my own biases and agenda when running a roleplaying game, but D&D does seem to be susceptible to this occurrence more than any other game I’ve ever run.

Still, there’re several lessons here. First, you’ve got to be aware that the rules can cut both ways, whether codified in RPG mechanics or simply narrative restrictions–if something works once, you can’t complain when it working again hampers the story you want to tell. Second, as mentioned before, audience expectations must be managed carefully. If you’ve indicated to them in one scene that your story or game is going to be zany and over-the-top in its fantasy tropes, readers or players will be confused and upset when later you try to make things too gritty.

The Future of Entertainment?

While I’d prefer to avoid making decisions based on the commercial aspects of writing, it is worth considering that there is good work for writers to do in emerging media. Video games are becoming more and more concerned with strong storytelling and literary elements–see The Witcher 3 (in my opinion, the best video game made to date, particularly on the storytelling front).

With the impending boom of virtual reality, I think that we can expect a corresponding boom in second-person storytelling in ways previously unavailable to writers and storytellers–except through roleplaying games. Responsive narrative crafted through alternatives of player agency marks an opportunity to tell multiple stories through the same outlet, to examine issues from multiple perspectives and approaches in literary style, and to leave a more powerful impression on the audience than words alone (possibly–I’m willing to accept the possibility that technology will never surpass the power of raw imagination).

Without all the visual and haptic special effects, roleplaying games already do this. I know gamers who have had experiences in roleplaying games that have changed them as people, so powerful was the narrative created at the table. In that sense, a good roleplaying game has the same potential to effect change as a good novel–albeit on a smaller and more intimate scale.

Conclusion

So, have I convinced you, dear fellow writer, that you ought to consider picking up an RPG rulebook, getting some friends together and playing a game? I hope so.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore some different RPG rulesets, systems and settings to think about when selecting which game to play. In the post after that, we’ll talk about the benefits and drawbacks of using the same setting you intend to write in to run roleplaying games.