Distinguishing It From Magic

I keep bringing up Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” when I talk about Numenera. It’s a lynchpin for the entire game and its associated setting.

Does that mean that the technology of the Ninth World is just simply fantasy with the serial numbers filed off?

Not exactly.

The Limits of the Limitless

As lead editor Shanna Germain and I continue to develop Numenera and the Ninth World, we are setting parameters and developing guidelines. And “what is possible?” is certainly an important one. It would be easy to say, with the amount of time involved, anything is possible. And perhaps that’s true. And if someone ran a Numenera campaign and had anything that might happen in a traditional fantasy game, I wouldn’t tell them that they were doing it wrong.

But it’s not exactly the way we’re going with it. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The fantastic, far-future technology left over in the Ninth World gives us floating crystal mountain ranges, teleportation, creatures that should be too large to sustain their own weight, and all sorts of “impossible” things. But there are a few things that we’re not letting even the wildly advanced tech directly mess around with.

Life after death: Traditional fantasy often involves magic that works upon the souls of creatures–including and perhaps in particular, bringing them back from the dead, either as a restorative, as a way to gain information, or in the form of some kind of undead monstrosity. In Numenera, you could conceivably use technology or even telepathy to access the memories (and even personality) stored in the brain of a dead person. You could have biological or technological means to animate a corpse, and even give it some kind of drive or will, accessing those prior memories and personality. But you won’t find the traditional wights, animate skeletons, liches, or other such undead. You won’t find mediums who communicate with the spirits of the departed or necromancer priests that can return your dead comrade to life for you. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t mediums or necromancers that claim to be able to do those things, and might even use technology to achieve them in some semblance. Or that the vast majority of people living in the setting are going to call it “magic” either way. So it comes down to this: traditional voodoo zombie raised by the dark arts, or “walking dead” corpse, animated by a sophisticated virus that can activate nerve endings, muscles, and even memories? From the viewpoint of many people, this is nothing but a rather pedantic splitting of hairs, and I’m well aware of that. It’s more a designer’s mindset than something that really distinguishes the setting. This kind of philosophical discussion isn’t going to help you while the thing tries to chew your face off.

Sympathetic magic: In most fantasy magical systems, like begets like. A feather from a pegasus allows you to fly. The touch of water sprite allows you to breathe underwater. The dust of the remains of a saint in a holy shrine is needed to dispel a curse. That’s all really cool–but it has no place in the Ninth World. In Numenera you might end up with a small, hand-held device that looses ferocious gouts of flame, just like in a fantasy setting, but it’s only in the latter that the device is the tooth of an ancient red dragon soaked in the blood of an efreet. In Numenera it’s a mechanical device. Just because the wielder doesn’t understand how it works, and believes the latter to be true, doesn’t mean that it is. So again, however, this is more a matter of perception versus reality than anything else. Someone might feel the need to chant the names of ancient saints and burn appropriate incense before using the magical gestures (activating the control pad) that opens the sealed door. This is, of course, wonderful character and story fodder. Because what does the person do when they see that the associated rituals and “mystical connections” they thought existed suddenly don’t, but the “magic” remains. In other words, what does the person who’s been reciting the chants and burning the incense to open the door believe when she sees someone just push the right buttons on the control panel and get the same result? (Or to look at it from the other side, what does the person who tries to just push the buttons do when he sees that it doesn’t work, and that the chants and incense–activating unseen audio and chemical receptors in the door–ARE required?)

Faeries, spirits, or traditional myth: While extradimensional, incorporeal entities exist in the Ninth World as a result of the prior worlds’ inhabitants experimenting with gates and other means to access other levels of reality, that doesn’t make them sylphs, ghosts, angels, or demons. And to be sure–as with the other issues–people might even call them that, but as a designer (and a gamemaster), I’m not limited to what tradition tells us about those beings, because they aren’t those beings. I might create something that seems very much like a spirit dwelling in a lake, but I don’t have to cleave to the myths of selkies or the nymphs when I do so. In fact, the situation offers me the great gift of creative space in order to do something different with the idea.

The Benefits of Limitations

Strangely, I have found that putting even the slightest limitations on the setting (and more specifically, the power behind the setting–the causes of all the perceived effects) has broadened it, not diminished it. Somehow, imagining the power it would take to work with gravity, material strength, power resources, and other factors makes putting a floating city in the sky more interesting than having it just be the result of some powerful spell. It encourages me to think about the strange-looking gravity repulsors on the bottom of the city, and what the effects might be of being near them. It makes me think about the invisible force-field supports and bridges that connect the towers of glass, constantly repaired by fields of nanobots, so that they can take virtually any insane shape I can conceive. It makes me think about what might come to live in such a city after its creators are gone.

Spending time trying to imagine these–unimaginable–advanced civilizations that could build (almost) anything they wished spurs on creativity in ways that thinking about powerful wizards who could accomplish anything never did. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a condemnation of traditional fantasy. I love that stuff (obviously). But right now, I’m head over heels about ultra-advanced technology and the setting its remnants can provide.

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