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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

Silicon Spirits - Gods and Demons as Intelligent Interfaces

by Dan Bayn
Nov 06,2002


Silicon Spirits - Gods & Demons as Intelligent Interfaces

The Problem

Most of the traditional tropes of the sci-fi and fantasy genres are excessively well known to gamers. This makes it hard to surprise players who have been around the block a few times, and it can make settings feel worn out and boring after a while. None of this is particularly good for your game. (Unless your players like to wrap themselves in the familiar and predictable, like a comfortable old sweater... In that case, stay the course, Neddy. You're doin' great!)

This month's column uses sci-fi technology and good user interface design to create an unexpected twist for a fantasy game, or an interesting change of pace for a sci-fi game. I'm sure it's been done before, but I've never seen it, so here we go...

The Solution: Silicon Spirits

The advent of artificial intelligence will herald more than just the enslavement of all human life, it will also bring about a revolution in user interface design. Computers are devices of mind boggling complexity. Programming languages and user interfaces exist to translate between the language of machines and languages that humans can understand. If computers could understand human languages, there would be nothing to translate.

There's no reason to memorize commands, navigate through nested menus, or type on a keyboard when you can simply ask your computer for what you want, in plain language. "What's playing this weekend," I might ask my computer. "That Jet Li movie you've been waiting for opens on Friday," it would reply. "Showtimes are noon, three o'clock, and seven o' clock." My computer knows what I like. Oh yeah.

And it even works for more complex tasks, like programming. Instead of writing, testing, and debugging every damn line of code, all a programmer would need to do is describe to the AI what they want to accomplish and any specific ideas they have on the implementation. The AI would create and test the code on its own, then ask for feedback and direction from the user. The entire process would be like a conversation between an artist (the human) and a technical expert (the AI).

This means that users would not even have to understand how their machines do what they do. All they need to know is the end result they desire. This should be sounding familiar; it's the same way humans have interacted with gods, demons, and spirits since before the dawn of history. Our wish is their command, but their methods are a mystery.

The interface itself could take many forms. Holographic images would fit the mold for a variety of traditional apparitions, particularly demons and djinni. A more potent effect could be produced through direct interface with the mind: hallucinations instead of holograms. Robotic drones aren't quite as exotic, but they get the job done.

Of course, such fantasy facades are just for the players. GMs will also need sci-fi mechanism to explain their "gods'" cosmic powers. Nanotech makes a great magic wand: It's powerful and invisible, able to remake objects on a molecular level and create matter seemingly from nothing. Force fields are another likely candidate; they can produce barriers, explosions, and other feats of telekinesis. Beyond that, there are entire dimensions of space-time we know nothing about. Those with the knowledge to manipulate them could mold reality itself like clay. Any sufficiently advanced science...

In a fantasy game, you could use these "silicon spirits" as a revelation... gods or demons that are really interfaces for devices left on Earth by alien visitors. The same could work in a modern occult game (see the Pyramid example below). It might even give your intrepid heroes a way to defeat seemingly omnipotent foes. Locate the machines behind the gods, and you can destroy the gods themselves.

In a sci-fi game, the appearance of "magical" beings could throw your players for a loop, without actually having to shoehorn magic into your setting. Perhaps the AIs destroyed their creators long ago and play at being gods to intimidate "lesser species." They might even have cultists or other decidedly non-sci-fi minions running about, making trouble. When your hacker characters figure out their deific nemeses can hacked, the tables turn dramatically!

Inspirational Examples

The Pyramid - Millennia ago, an alien race came to Earth and enslaved the humans of the Nile. They built structures of stone and used them to house nanotech devices of incredible power. Some of these were medical centers capable of repairing devastating injuries, curing all manners of diseases, and preserving youth indefinitely. Then, mysteriously, they left.

The Egyptians tried in vain to capture and preserve the knowledge of the ancients. They built their own pyramids, developed their own methods of preserving the body, and worshipped the silicon spirits of the pyramid as gods. But the sands of time eventually buried the ancients' miracles, and history swallowed their secrets. Some say the immortality machines still sleep beneath the desert, awaiting the commands of one who knows the ancient tongue...

The Fey Wood - Earth's distant future is a fetid bog of pollution and blighted wasteland. Its inhabitants fled backwards in time, colonizing pristine environments in the distant past. They used an army of tiny robots to tame their new homelands without having to spoil them with houses, cities, or civil infrastructures. To later generations and immigrants who could not hope to fathom such science, it would seem as if these places possessed a life, an intelligence, all their own.

The Fey Wood is just one such "enchanted" location. The tiny robots who maintain it appear to humans as points of light, disembodied voices, or ghostly apparitions. They don't consider present-day humans their masters, and seem to delight in tormenting them. Intruders often find themselves lost and their gear missing, but someone who discovers the trick of hacking into their command codes could rule the wood like a god... - Some of the entities commonly called "demons" are really interfaces for an alien computer network cut into the extra-dimensional fabric of space-time. Accessible from anywhere, if you know the right code words and symbols, the AIs projects their images directly into the mind as full sensory hallucinations. However, they often trick would-be human "wizards" into thinking they are real, material beings. It helps intimidate the more self-confident sorcerers.

These "demons" have no ability to affect the material world, but they do have access to a virtually limitless library of knowledge on billions of topics. Unfortunately, they seem to consider use of their services a privilege that humanity does not deserve. Most of their interactions with men have been riddled with half-truths and misdirection. They appear unable to lie, but they are also masters of deception. Those who deal with them do so at their own peril...

Next Time: Using combat-focused game mechanics for non-combat actions! - Loath Your Fellow Man

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond