Engineering SciFi

10. May, 2009

There are two types of people playing role playing games (RPGs), I call them the “story gamer” and  the “power gamer”. The story gamer likes a grand story while rules and dice rolls are a necessary evil. The power gamer enjoys the story but they relish in taking the rules to the limit. And they have their own definition of “limit”. While a story gamer likes to her “you switch on your personal force field and the bullets bounce off, sparking blue ripples that run over the surface of the field,” the power gamer asks “how does this screen work? Can I fry an eggs on it?”

In traditional SciFi, the inner workings of something are often a mystery. Space ships activate their force fields, protective screens, incoming fire gets deflected — or not, depending on what the author needs. But how do they work? Really? While this might sound like a silly question, it opens a whole new world: When you understand something, you can be creative with it. So how does a force field work? Can it be activated when something is blocking the space it will occupy in a moment? Is it a quantum effect or psionic? Magic? If it’s a personal shield, does it flow around the body or is it like a big bubble? If it’s a big bubble, how do you plan to charge through this door? If it can’t be activated when something is blocking it’s path, do you have to back away from any kind of cover to turn it on? Or if it can be activated, what happens when you lean against a wall? Are you stuck? Can you use the same effect to block a door, then? If nothing can pass through, how do your bullets get out? How about sound? Air?

Is the surface dull or slippery? If it’s slippery, how can you walk? If the field is guided through a mesh in the soles of your boots, how long does it take to rise after stumbling when you hands can’t get a hold? How do you plan to stand up when the enemy knows all this and tries anything to pin you down on the floor like a slippery fish? If it’s dull, what causes this? Is the field uneven? Is it static uneven or is there a ripple which sands off any surface you touch? Does it only stop solid matter? How about liquids? What happens when you’re pushed over a cliff? Get hit by a Molotow-cocktail? If the field stops bullets, how about light? If you can look out, can I blind you with a bright light? Cut you with a laser? If the laser is stopped, how can you see anything? And why is the field clear? Shouldn’t it be completely opaque in this case?

The answers to these questions tell us how a force field works and this gives us the basic blocks to build strategies. If the shield stops all matter, I must avoid lasers and heat weapons. And I need both an air supply and radio, so I can still talk to my team. If the air supply fails, that doesn’t render the screen unusable but I can only keep it up for a few seconds. Don’t forget that, in battle, you need much more oxygen than normal. If air can’t pass, I can use it as a space suit. It also means that the shield is rigid: It must create am opposing force to stop the matter trying to get through. So how can I move? How can the shield tell apart bending an arm from deflecting a baseball bat? Will it help when someone is bending my arm? How about being crushed under a tank? When something comes in, where does the energy go? In this universe, energy can’t be destroyed, it has to go somewhere. So when bullets come in, do I get pummeled? How is the shield projected? Can I put the projector in my pocket or do I have to wear a projector mesh that covers the whole body? Can this mesh have holes for your hands and head? Does that mean these parts are unprotected? That would allow to wear the shield as a flack vest. Or can I have projectors in the sleeves and around my neck which extend over my hands? Is the field perfectly clear or does it have a color? If there are holes, how about malfunction? Is there a chance to cut off my own head by switching it on? If the shield needs a lot of energy, how do I carry that along? How do I camouflage this? Or does a shield turn me into a beacon with a large sign “kill here”?

As you can see, all these questions have an impact on how I can use the shield during a game or in a story. It makes things more complicated, but it makes things more rich because I can start to work with these things. Story gamers expand the horizon but power gamers give it detail.

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