Monday, November 18, 2019

Sci-fi Treasure

Treasure is easy in fantasy realms. Usually, it's great piles of gold coins, gleaming gems, and works of art. If you're doing a more Bronze Age thing, it can be cauldrons and tripods and drinking vessels like you see in The Odyssey. But what's treasure in a sci-fi universe? Large stacks of credit-vouchers just don't have the same feel as tumbled piles of doubloons and ancient crowns.

Back in the middle of the 20th century, when the future was nuclear, space powers feuded over fissionables the way 20th century powers fought over oil. Later, when the power of the future shifted from fission to fusion, He3 became the thing to fight over.

There's been all sorts of unobtaniums associated with power generation or FTL travel, such as Star Trek's dilithium crystals or the floaty magic rocks in the Avatar movie. This is a common and accepted way of expressing great value in space opera these days.

Mass-to-energy conversion makes this sort of thing difficult (unless the unobtanium is a key component in the process). Energy-to-mass conversion essentially makes anything dirt cheap. At that point, your treasure is going to be works of rare art, especially if you can verify the authenticity of original works. (While AIs might be able to churn out amazing art at astounding speed, the assumption here is that the original creations of idolized artists will still command great value, though potentially only to eccentric collectors.)

There's also the secrets-of-ancient-antiquity version, whether that's the knowledge of a lost (often but not always Golden) age (like the STCs of the Warhammer 40k universe), or dead alien civilizations.

While gemstones can still work (especially if you have a magical tech that can distinguish between natural and artificial) it takes more work. Keep in mind that diamonds are worth as much as they are today in the real world due to the bulk of the natural supply being dribbled out slowly by the principle mine-owners. They're actually quite common, just not in circulation.

Finally, while there's lots of gold and other precious metals potentially floating about, if you're talking about a galaxy-spanning civilization(s) with a population measured in the vigintillions, and most especially if there are practical applications for these metals (conducting electricity is still a thing), demand could still drive up price. This can be especially true if something is disrupting mining efforts; local pirate activity or warfare could drive up the price locally, double so if your FTL travel isn't instantaneous.

I've been casting about for other ideas of what future treasure might look like. If anyone has other suggestions, please feel free to share in the comments.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

They Were Wargamers

It’s a fact that the earliest players of D&D were wargamers, and that D&D sprang, not full-fledged from the brow of Gygax, but rather as variations on fantasy medieval wargaming. It’s easy, therefore, to extrapolate some assumptions based on what we know about wargaming. But if you don’t do much wargaming, or you’ve only been exposed to certain flavors of wargaming, the keyhole you’re looking through might be too skinny for you to get the full view of things.

Let’s take a look at one of the most popular wargames (at least in the US) out today: Warhammer 40,000. Thing is, when it was first released, it wasn’t really a wargame. Rogue Trader was billed as more of an RPG. Today we’d recognize it as a skirmish-level, campaign focused wargame with RPG elements. The idea was you’d create these stories of the 41st Millennium by playing out clashes between freebooters, criminals, space marines, and orks on the backworlds and seedy alleys of a dark and distant tomorrow. And stories need characters. In order to create interesting stories, you need interesting characters. That requires a certain amount of customization, if only in the ability to name and outfit your dudemans to personalize them. So if you flip through a copy of Rogue Trader, you’ll see all kinds of weirdness: Space Marines wielding shuriken catapults and rolling after a fight to see if your character was just laid up in a medical vat for a week or is truly, really, completely dead.

That’s likely what the first iterations of proto-D&D were: rules for personalizing your fantasy army’s captains and lieutenants, so you could create your own Elric and Conan and Aragorn and pit them against each other. They would acquire a history and rivalries and bosom companions and such from the stories of their battles, which would spin off new adventures (very much the way The Temple of Elemental Evil was spawned by the wargaming of a fantasy siege).

But note that this is a desire to imbue these characters with personality and hang stories on them. This is not the disposable cypher miniature of just another grunt in your horde. So how do we reconcile this desire for story with the very disposable nature of early D&D characters?

Quite simply this: the story a wargamer is telling isn’t so much the story of any particular individual, but rather the story of a battle, a campaign, an army, or a family. The death of any individual doesn’t end the story, but merely marks the ending of a chapter in a broader, possibly multigenerational story.

This is why AD&D has rules for things like constructing strongholds, for stat adjustments when characters age, for followers and henchmen and the like. Early D&D may not have been about fighter Joebob III, son of Joebob II, son of Joebob, but it could very much be about the dynasty of Joebob, the effect it had on the Gran Marches, and its eventual corruption and destruction at the hands of the black wyrm Mavelant.