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The Future is Small


Updates: Since my February column, "Apocalypse Never," it's finally begun to sink in that people are actually reading what I have to say. The number of e-mails that I have received, both pro and con, is both astounding and gratifying. It's also kind of frightening: I suspect that more people will read my musings on the world of SF roleplaying than will ever pour over my Ph.D. dissertation on the role of unconscious perceptions in the epistemology of Gottfried von Leibniz (that really is how I've chosen to spend my spare time!). Then again, perhaps that isn't so frightening. If only turning out monthly columns of this sort paid as well as studying 17th century philosophers, I'd be in business. As always, prospective employers can reach me at the e-mail address above.

First off, let me report that those swell guys at Dream Pod 9, specifically Philippe Boulle, sent me a review copies of some of their Tribe 8 materials. I'd like to thank them publicly for doing this and promise my readers that a review of said materials will be forthcoming here on RPGnet. A lot of you blasted me for intoning the requiem for the post-apocalyptic genre without having looked at DP9's latest. You can rest assured that I am already deeply immersed in my review copies and will pronounce my verdict soon. Stay tuned.

Secondly, I'd like thank all of you who offered suggestions about running a Star Wars game using rules other than those I mentioned in my last column. A lot of people included Palladium's Rifts as an alternative. Another popular choice was TSR's SAGA system, as featured in Dragonlance and Marvel Superheroes. I hadn't considered this option, but should have, as I am a fan of the system. You can check out Steve Lenson's site for some simple conversion rules. One fellow, Jason Driver by name, suggested using Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu (as a joke). Being the trusting sort that I am, I believed Jason, who then claimed to have become inspired enough to try to do the very thing he had joked about. Needless to say, I feel a bit like Victor Frankenstein right now.

I also received a nice e-mail from Christian Moore of Last Unicorn Games, who wanted to know why I hadn't suggested the Icon System used in their nifty Star Trek: The Next Generation Roleplaying Game. As I told him, I refrained from making the suggestion out of concern that I seem like a shill for LUG. Anyone who reads my stuff regularly knows of my admiration for their work and my desire to be assimilated into their collective. Boosting the game any more than I already do seemed at the time to go beyond the limits of what even I will do to get a job in the gaming industry. I realize  now that I missed a valuable opportunity to collect brownie points and regret it greatly. Mr. Moore mentioned in his note that LUG has created some in-house rules for using the Icon System with Star Wars. If LUG would ever like to share these rules, I am sure that we can find a home for them on RPGnet.

As a derivative medium, roleplaying games are usually a few years behind the curve when it comes to incorporating new ideas from science and literature. A good case in point is nanotechnology. Nanotechnology, as every SF fan knows by now, is a future technology predicated upon the idea that any chemically stable structure that can be specified can, in fact, be built. Thus, as the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman put it

"The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom."

Although most people credit Feynman with the initial idea behind nanotechnology, it is K. Eric Drexler who has been one of nanotechnology's chief popularizers and proponents. His ground-breaking book, Engines of Creation, made the argument that nanotechnology is not only possible, as Feynman thought, but also inevitable. Drexler's work also created much of the terminology that is used in discussing nanotech and is, therefore, a touchstone for later theorists and commentators.

Among other things, Drexler proposed  a device called an "assembler." An assembler is a sub-microscopic robot capable of holding and positioning reactive compounds in order to control the precise location at which chemical reactions take place. The creation of assemblers should allow for the construction of large, atomically precise objects by a sequence of precisely controlled chemical reactions. In essence, assemblers would allow Man to build objects molecule by molecule. Furthermore, assemblers might also be able to build copies of themselves, thereby creating vast numbers of additional assemblers to continue in the work of molecular construction.

Because they will be able to copy themselves, assemblers will be inexpensive. Working together in large numbers, assemblers and more specialized nanomachines will be able to build objects cheaply. By ensuring that each atom is properly placed, they will manufacture products of high quality and reliability. Left-over molecules would be subject to this strict control as well, making the manufacturing process extremely clean.

It's not hard to see why the ideas behind nanotechnology are so attractive to science fiction authors. If Drexler is right, nanotechnology will change the world more than almost any other technology that Humanity has ever produced. That, of course, is one of the reasons why you rarely see nanotechnology used effectively in a roleplaying setting, If you allow cheap, efficient construction of extremely high-quality items, trade and commerce as we know it will cease to exist. For that matter, whole industries and sectors of the economy will be rendered obsolete. You can't really have interstellar merchants hauling stuff half-way across the galaxy when nanotechnology will allow you to build it at home with a minimum of fuss. Given this, it's no wonder that GURPS Traveller from Steve Jackson Games explicitly rejects nanotechnology as inimical to the very structure of its 1950's-style SF Third Imperium. Without the traditional free trader plying the spacelanes, many game settings will fall apart.

Of course, it's not just its ease and lack of expense that strikes terror into the hearts of game designers. It's also the nature of the items that can be manufactured using assemblers. Think about it. Why build things out of steel when you can build them out of artificial diamond? Artificial diamond, without the imperfections of natural diamond, has at least 10 to 15 times the tensile strength of steel, about 10 times the hardness, and a greater degree of flexibility. With nanotech, you can construct buildings out of diamond, as well as incredible personal and vehicle armor. In fact, the possibilities are nearly endless, causing no end of headaches for designers worried about "game balance." But then Neal Stephenson didn't call his book The Diamond Age for nothing!

Likewise, nanotech robots ("nanites") could be used as weapons. After all, they're small and cheap and can easily enter a humanoid body, where they could cause all manner of unpleasantness. Alternatively, these nanites could be employed in aerial attacks, as "intelligent fog" that seeks out targets and then systematically disassemble them on a molecular level. While great from the perspective of storytelling, it's little wonder that few games have ever taken up the military applications of nanotechnology. The prospects of this cool bit of science wreaking havoc with your nicely-planned galactic empire and its 20th century-style economy and social structure are too great. Better to pretend nanotech doesn't exist than to allow it free rein.

This is what most games do. Besides, GURPS Traveller, many others refuse to deal with nanotech. If they do deal with it, they do so in an innocuous way. Many games include nanotech medical technologies (such as Holistic Design's Fading Suns), but not weaponry or construction techniques. Nanites have appeared on Star Trek in several forms, but do not appear to have altered the nature of Federation life very much. I could say the same thing about replicator technology, but that would be cruel and unnecessary (especially if I ever want to write for that particular setting). Alternity's Star*Drive setting does not appear to have much in the way of nanotechnology, nor do most cyberpunk settings. You can forget about Star Wars: it's really a science fantasy setting anyway. Technology is just a way to dress up the new fairy tales that Lucas has chosen to tell.

The fact of the matter is that, even if I included an exhaustive list of SF RPGs, you would see the same pattern over and over again. Despite claims to the contrary, SF is rarely about the future: it's usually about some element of the present. That's why so many SF futures look like 20th century North America with laser guns and aliens. To deal with the effects of a technology like assemblers would alter that equation in ways that few people are prepared to deal with, especially in roleplaying games. Everyone wants merchants and hovertanks slugging it out in pitched battles. Magical matter compilers that can create whole starships in minutes or nano-seeds that can grow houses are really neat ideas and worthy additions to the worlds of roleplaying. Yet, to include such things, you have to wrap your mind around nanotechnology and come to grips with the ways that it might forever alter the human race. Not many people are willing to do that. Don't believe me: look around. How many games do you see that deal with nanotech head-on?

As I see it, there are three ways to deal with nanotech in a gaming setting. Not counting Traveller's "Nanotech? What nanotech?" approach, there are no others. The first is to explicitly state that nanotech doesn't work. Drexler was overly optimistic and Mankind never gained the ability to re-arrange molecules at will. This is a valid option, but I think it should be stated. That nanotech doesn't work is no different than saying there are no FTL communications or non-human aliens. It's a principle of the universe in question. Believe me, there are plenty of scientific theories out there right now that I don't accept and would never include in a SF setting. I don't see why nanotech should be any different.

The second option is to say that it works, but not as well as people had hoped. This seems to me to be the coward's way out. Still, it is an option that can be considered and is a way of including nanotech without having to toss out the many of the verities we've come to expect.

The third option is to buckle down and deal with the effects of nanotechnology on Humanity. This third way is the one I chose for my personal SF setting, Fourth Millennium. Rather than avoid confronting nanotechnology and its effects, I decided (along with my co-creator, Kevin Brennan) to embrace these things. Admittedly, we opted for a setting where Mankind saw the effects that nanotech (and other technologies) would have on himself and recoiled in horror. You might think this too is a cop-out and perhaps it is. Yet, Kevin and I purposefully chose to make the question of "What does it mean to be Human?" the center of our fictional setting. Nanotech became a tool to explore that issue, because of its profound potential to alter the things that, until now, we have come to accept about ourselves without question. I won't claim that this idea is revolutionary or even wholly original, but I have yet to see a published SF RPG that uses nanotech in this way.

Perhaps now, someone else will get the idea and do something about it. Either that or a wealthy benefactor will give me the money I need to publish Fourth Millennium. If you don't see a new column from me next month, you'll know where I am.

James M.

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