Thursday, June 6, 2019

Sufficiently Advanced

May is over, June has begun, and I am way behind on my self-assigned quota of new posts. 

Real life has been busy, I've been kinda down, and when I sit at my computer to write I inadvertently get distracted and lose focus in regards to what I wanted to say. This has been happening more and more lately. It's getting a bit discouraging. Or it would, if I wasn't highly focused in other areas. 

I am working on a new 'Blockbuster' campaign. It's going to be a big to-do with all the stops pulled out. The plan is to run it at The Compleat Strategist, my FLGS here in The Big Apple, beginning in July. I will tell you guys more about it as we get closer to the launch date. 

For now, let me shake out the cobwebs with a another post inspired by my pal Leo Jenicek. I mentioned Leo recently as he did an essay on his blog about preferring smaller gaming groups when it comes time to roll the dice and adventure into the unknown. I on the other hand like larger groups, even going so far as to enjoy a group size many other GMs find unwieldy. Here is his post and my 'counter-post' as it were. 

Now he posts on an subject I find particularly interesting; the idea that for the purposes of entertainment fiction (books, movies, RPGs, etc.), Magic and Advanced Science are essentially one and the same. Once again our viewpoints differ somewhat but I can totally see where he's coming from. Go check it out. It will not only be well worth your time, it will give this post extra context. 

Let's start where Leo starts...with Clarke's Third Law:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

A caveat of sorts to this incredibly famous statement is that one must think carefully on the first part and what it means  - 'Sufficiently Advanced'. 

To be 'sufficiently advanced', advanced enough to seem like magic, it would have to be generations ahead of the prevailing level of technology available to the general populace. It would also, very specifically, have to be a technology that is sufficiently advanced to the viewer viewing the tech for that individual to think its magic.

For example, if you traveled back in time to the European Middle Ages with your cell phone you would clearly be marked a wizard, witch, or perhaps even a demon. Even without telecommunications access or the ability to connect to the internet, the small item in your hand may have saved images, videos, or music that could be displayed for the locals to see or hear. There was literally and figuratively nothing like it in the Medieval Period of Europe. Nothing even close. This device is sufficiently advanced to appear to be magic.

However, If you traveled to the late 1960s, the device, while still far beyond the technology of the time, would still be reasonably received as some advanced form of the telephone, walkie-talkie, cameras, computers, or even the television. It would seem amazingly advanced but I would argue that it would not seem like magic. 

Why? Because technology is the product of scientific understanding. It is what we, the Human species, can construct once we comprehend certain particulars in the fields of chemistry, physics, metallurgy, etc. The people of the Middle Ages did not possess anywhere near the level of scientific knowledge that we have today. The people of the 1960s had the fundamentals in the areas that lead to our cell phones, many of which were first developed before their time. 

The modern computer had its origins in the late 1930s. The ancestor of the modern electronic television was first operational in 1927, though not perfected until 1931. Mobile phone technology was first developed in the 1940s, though it would be well after the 60s (specifically the 1980s) when it would become a viable means of communication for the common civilian use. 

My point is that with the existence of practical scientists, visionary and theoretical scientists, and even science fiction authors, for something to seem like magic it would have to be...magic. It would have to be something intelligent, knowledgeable, well informed individuals can not explain. There would have to be no way to analyze it, comprehend it, test it to see if the effect can be reliably reproduced, etc. 

What makes a thing magic and not science or vice versa? My friend Leo is essentially putting forth the idea that for the purposes of narrative, there doesn't have to be a difference. A fire ball hurling magic wand and a hand held, flame-thrower pistol are basically the same.

Sure, they have the same effect - fire damage caused at range by an item - but they shouldn't (in My Humble Opinion) be the same. There doesn't have to be a difference but isn't it more fun if there is?

I am a huge advocate of the idea that things should feel different from each other. If things don't have their own flavor and identity, their own rules, rhyme and reason, they don't hold much interest for me. If Magic is just Science and Science is Magic, why should I get excited or care about either?

Returning to my example with the cell phone, imagine traveling forward in time to the mid-to-late 2100s. Your device is not magic, it's probably junk. It's an outdated antique. The key though is that it is still Science. The Scientific Method can be applied to device. The construction and operation of a cell phone is something anyone can learn. You don't need 'The Gift' or whatever causes you to be 'A Wizard Harry'.

To some it up as it's already gone longer then planned, there is nothing wrong with Magic and Science being interchangeable, but for me that isn't my preference. I prefer them to be different, perhaps very different. I want separate rules (both world-building and mechanics wise) that makes each a unique element of your game. 

I end with a quote from Neil DeGrasse Tyson that helps define Science for me...

"The good thing about Science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."

See you soon,

Barking Alien

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