Social Science and Fiction Part 5: Of The Supernatural Limits Of Ambition

Men are creatures of avarice. Less cynical writers than me bend this tendency toward explorers’ curiosity, or quests for enlightenment, or in the pursuit of fame. Regardless of its expression, heroes in science fiction and fantasy settings typically start from humble origins to obtain status as they proceed. Indeed, tabletop role-playing games are often designed to slake players’ own yearning for advancement. Loot, levels, and land all tend to increase in a typical campaign (try reversing this trend for a fun twist on a pen and paper campaign: wars of attrition enjoy the benefit of verisimilitude). What stops demigod-tier player characters from dominating your entire fictional world?

If you were one of Gygax’s players in his original homebrew campaigns in the 70s, the answer is pretty simple: nothing. Mordenkainen, Heward, Bigby, Otiluke, Tenser, heck, the whole Circle of Eight found themselves enmeshed in world-altering politics, pitted against similarly puissant foes such as the dread lich Vecna. Imagine a real-world equivalent of such far-flung temporal authority. To maintain even a modest empire requires hordes of administrators, lackeys, lickspittles, and functionaries. Worlds with scrying magic or subspace communications or long-range telepathy can hand-wave empire-breaking problems with communications lag, but these technologies cannot help with the scarcity of attention problem. Nor are they of much use with principal-agent problems.

Do you remember that scene from Bruce Almighty when Morgan Freeman warned Jim Carrey about answering prayers, yet Carrey spent all night doing just that? One wizard monitoring a sufficiently large dominion using a scrying pool would replay that scene night after sleepless night, leaving precious little time to accomplish much else. Some sort of assistance would be mandatory.

Typically, this labor of attention is offloaded onto an external mind. In our mundane world, we use the hive mind of bureaucracy. Science fiction worlds punt to AI. Dystopias rely on totalitarian citizen surveillance. And high fantasy settings either ignore the question, or spackle the issue with magic.

An oft-overlooked question in many high fantasy games concerns the efficacy of supernatural bureaucratic assistance. Science fiction takes the problem more seriously, as hostile, corrupt, or compromised AI systems are routine elements of the genre. Why not include them in your sword and sorcery adventures too? Maybe the god your party’s cleric serves is under the influence of a rival deity or is toying with the idea of retiring. Maybe the gods are slowly losing their grips on sanity.

Better yet, how about you tinker with your world’s cosmology a little bit? The “gods” are actually remnant AI from a dead civilization and they grant favors as demanded by ancient, possibly corrupted OS protocols programmed by long-lost aliens. Maybe there’s some trigger event that throws the equilibrium of these entities into turmoil. What would happen to political boundaries when the sovereign loses a key technology of government? How long can inertia sustain solutions to principal-agent problems? What incentives would such a crisis present to hostile foreigners?

More curiously, looking down the game tree, to what extent would the gods in your world be willing to expose themselves to deicide for the sake of throwing their support behind the fragile institutions of mortals?

Do interventionist gods even make sense in a well-developed fantasy world?

Let’s explore that question in greater detail in the next installment as we move away from politics and into religion.

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10 thoughts on “Social Science and Fiction Part 5: Of The Supernatural Limits Of Ambition

  1. An oft-overlooked question in many high fantasy games concerns the efficacy of supernatural bureaucratic assistance.

    Having pre-made spells is a surprisingly elegant solution. Level 1 Cleric? Congrats! You’ve got Cure Light Wounds. Knock yourself out. Oh, you want a bigger spell? Sure ya do, Sparky. People in Hell want ice water. Get to level 3 and we’ll talk.

    There’s also a thing where you need Wisdom of 10+Spell Level to cast any given spell. Wanna cast a level 1 spell? Need a Wisdom 11. You’ve got a Wisdom 11? Great! Wanna cast a level 2 spell? Sure ya do, Sparky. People in Hell want ice water.

    So if you want to cast the level 8 spell Control Weather and make the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall soft upon your fields, you’d best have an 18 Wisdom score.

    And then you can get into whether its wise to cast the spell to maintain economic stability given the social realities of the culture you’re surrounded by.

    But Wisdom is one of those things that is even harder to roleplay than Charisma.

    We have gods who are spell dispensers in a universe where people without wisdom are pulling the knobs on the vending machine because they have the Wisdom coin to put in the slot but they don’t have the actual Wisdom Mint that makes the coins.

    If I may use an analogy that breaks down almost immediately.

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  2. I always used the Godzilla[1] approach. My universe always has a big bad that exists solely to squash players who get a bit too big for their britches. I’ve used Tarrasque, or legendary Assassins, or the fantasy equivalent of an Oceans 11 team (because a great way to knock a player down a peg or two is to rob them blind). The player always has a chance to avoid destruction, but more often than not, their own hubris ended them. One character, an annoying level Bard, trusted his low Saving Throws a bit too much and would take stupid risks for the sake of ‘Cool’ — right up until he unleashed a massive sonic attack, inside a cavern, and rolled a one – I wouldn’t let him resurrect, since his body was under a half mile of rock. The player wouldn’t talk to me for a month.

    [1] From the 2014 movie, where it is theorized that Godzilla is the Alpha Kaiju who appears whenever other Kaiju arise and threaten the balance of the world.

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      • I’ve never had a Tarassque beaten. At best, a sufficiently powerful and crafty character can figure a way to avoid it, but at the expense of everything they’ve built (when a Tarassque comes to town, your stronghold is in for a world of hurt).

        It’s a reliable critter, and I don’t just drop it as a random encounter, I make sure the players attract it’s attention in some way (usually when they think they are being oh, so clever and awesome), and they get a warning that the given course of action is bound to attract unpleasant attention.

        ETA: The new characters always thought it would be a demigod, or a demon or devil, and they figured they could handle that. But I like my god killers to be like the Spanish Inquisition.

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    • “[A] great way to knock a player down a peg or two is to rob them blind”. I always thought the most clever D&D module was the one that begins with the players waking up naked somewhere, with no idea how they got there and none of their fancy gadgets, armor, spells, or other ability-enhancing tools. IIRC there was something to take away the magic users’ spell casting abilities too.

      The players had to use their wits.

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      • One of my favorite adventures as a kid was a mission to remove a regent and install the rightful prince. We got captured and woke up in our underwear in a cell.

        We eventually escaped (and not because the guards were incompetent, or we had outside help) and found most of our stuff (the DM used the opportunity to permanently remove a couple a of items he’d had just about enough of), but oh boy was that a fun (albeit anxious) romp through a prison and the attached fortress.

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  3. The “gods” are actually remnant AI from a dead civilization and they grant favors as demanded by ancient, possibly corrupted OS protocols programmed by long-lost aliens.

    Oh I love that!

    I’ve designed a game world (never did get to DM it) that was premised on the idea that the monotheists used to be right, but then the one true god collapsed and burst like a big bang of godly power – so now the place is lousy with little tiny gods – there are lots of somewhat powerful beings around, and a few gods so mighty that it would take all day to walk through their domains; any power that extends beyond that requires the squabbling gods to band together into a pantheon

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  4. What stops demigod-tier player characters from dominating your entire fictional world?

    This is where I hang my head in shame and acknowledge that I have approximately 1000 characters who have made it to second level, approximately 5 that have made it to fifth level, and none who have made it to tenth.

    Well, at the table-top.

    For video games? Well, those tend to have a goal with an ending cinematic. Hurray! You beat the (whatever)! Everybody lived happily ever after. The end.

    When it comes to player characters who go through and decide they want to eliminate various entries in the Deities and Demigods book… well, they can lose and die or they can win and… then what?

    There’s that great Genghis Khan quote: “Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.”

    But if they don’t want to govern, well, at that point they’ve gotten all of the loot, killed all of the gods, and left with a world that they don’t want to govern.

    I suppose it’d be a nice place to visit.

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  5. One of my favourite ways of handling high-powered characters comes from Adventurer, Conqueror King, a D&D retro-clone. In that system political power and being high-level go together – characters gain XP from ruling over a domain, and once they reach higher level, most adventurers will claim land to rule over. So if the PCs want to try and take over a kingdom, that’s fine but the King will be a high level NPC and his court magician, vassals and High Priest will be be high level NPCs too.

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