Monday, March 22, 2010


In this article, I don’t want to dwell on the five basic machines – the lever, the pulley, the inclined plane, the wedge or the wheel – simply because I can’t think of a great many sexy applications with regards to D&D. It’s only natural when we think of machinery and its influence on the game, we think of devices requiring moving parts, or devices which transform energy into work. The most obvious and interesting D&D machine is, of course, the golem ... which I’ve always assumed transfers ‘energy’ from a non-material plane of existence, powering a near-sentient creature made of various materials into a killing machine.

But I’m not going to talk about golems, either ... there’s been enough written on them, and I’m almost certainly to step on someone’s pre-existing canonical perception (no doubt invented in the Dragon. To date, I think I’ve thrown something like three golems at parties as a DM, and two of them were almost certainly in those heady hack and slash days of my youth, when all we cared about was number of attacks and damage. I’ve never had a party member seriously commit to making a golem ... and that’s probably because there’s enough evidence out there to suggest that golems don’t last long enough in combat to make the effort worthwhile. But – and this is my last word on the subject – the amount of incidental damage a 12’ tall iron golem might do in my world would be terrific (the thing would weigh 15,000 lbs. or thereabouts).

Starting on the subject of machines, I begin to move out of technologies from the past into technologies in the future ... bringing up an issue I began when I started this series: namely, when do the technologies stop applying to D&D, and start applying to games like Traveller?

I am curious to see if I would like to continue writing about technologies which would apply to Traveller (which I did play for some years), because I know I have readers who would be interested. So I shall try beginning here to keep in mind I’m writing for a second RPG beyond the fantasy setting.

A number of fairly complicated machines were very common by the 12th century: water clocks, water and wind turbines, ship rigging, siege weapons, the crossbow (the weapon gained in Civ IV with this technology), wind organs, even steam-powered robotics (including some which were coin operated). The late middle ages saw a flowering of clever mechanical devices which were most evident in mechanical town clocks and upgrades of those things just mentioned ... just the sort of thing imagined with artefacts such as the Machine of Lum the Mad, or the mechanical owl from the original Clash of the Titans. I personally like the idea of a mechanical hand which can be bought by players to replace a lost appendage – very expensive naturally, but still obtainable.

While it is a common tendency to presume that a particular mechanical device came into existence at a certain set moment in time (brought out by a given inventor), the truth is that some kind of machinery performing every given function probably existed long before it was practical for distribution. That is the key condition. If we take something like the cotton gin ‘invented’ by Ely Whitney, it behoves us to remember that likely a kind of machine meant to separate cotton from seeds existed for at least a century before Whitney was born. Not a very good machine, not a reliable machine, not a machine that separated out every seed. When it comes to machinery, the key feature is not whether it does the job or not, but in how continuously functional that machine is.

Consider the automobile through the 20th century. We generally give some date in the 1890s for the invention of the automobile (invented by a variety of different makers who all claim to have done it first), but the automobile built in 1896 by Daimler has very little to do with the one the gentle reader drives today. Cranking the car to start it, different varieties and clarities of fuel (cars have been built to run on wood), wooden/metal/plastic construction, tires, potential driving distances and speeds ... each decade of car production has created and recreated the original invention. Early cars required far more maintenance than present models – if you owned a car, you learned how it functioned so as not to be stranded five miles from anywhere, in a country with very few repair shops (but of course, cars were simpler and most tool shops could and WOULD make what a car owner needed, on the spot ... not so in today’s world).

My point is this: that the creation of a machine does not guarantee the function of that machine. There’s no real reason why a player might not invent a working car or a submarine in the late Middle Ages (Davinci did) ... but making that car run, in all weather, without fail? Not a freaking chance.

Part of the ‘fun’ of machinery is the maintenance thereof. It is a central issue in Traveller, since there are supposed to be just so many engineers for every tonnage of equipment, in order to keep it in running order – with a misjump being possible every time the ship is used. That is why, whatever the particular machine involved, it’s less a question of how much does the machine cost to build, but how often must existing parts be replaced, and how easy is it to do so? Not to mention, how costly is it?

It’s generally overlooked. Suppose you build your iron golem, at 1,000 g.p. per hit point (a rather excessive cost, and it would be different in my world, but we’ll use the Monster Manual for the moment) ... what are the chances of that creature slipping and falling, and needing repairs? Will it still be a thousand g.p. per hit point? That’s just ridiculously expensive, given that the monster might damage its hand tearing down a local fortification (poor Golly, did Golly hurt um hand? Mama pay four thousand and Golly all better).

It’s a bit ridiculous. I would recommend less emphasis on the actual cost of repairs, and assume a lot of the cost could be mitigated with time and expertise. It has to happen that if you’ve fixed golems before, and you get good at it, there have to be shortcuts that will save time. Even if it means Golly’s only good for twenty or twenty-five rounds, before it starts to go a bit wonky.

Because that’s how machinery is – it NEVER works like it’s supposed to. Car doors never close correctly, indicators get stuck, connectors leak, power connections get gunked up and fail, overloads occur, etcetera, etcetera ...

If this kind of thing interests you (it doesn’t me so much), and you want to invent a table which will identify everything that might go wrong with your party’s mechanical rocket launcher (the Chinese built one by the 12th century), or even just the water wheel that runs their armourer’s shop, start a list of words beginning with ‘malfunction’: misfire, snag, defect, disconnect, fail, entangle, unravel, grind, shiver or shudder, split, fracture, rattle, seize, short, leak, interrupt, unbalance, oscillate, run down, weaken, burst, whine, crack, explode or break.

Have fun.


Elton said...

See if you can get a copy of GURPS High Tech.

Mattbot said...

The Top Secret S.I. game had a mechanic I think called "friction" (introduced in the TS4 - Commando Brushfire Wars supplement. Why can I remember these things?) which wonky or unreliable equipment could increase and and sloppy player planning could to contribute as well. There was one running friction score for the entire party which the GM made a check against one per session. Failing the friction check would result in a catastrophic technical failure later in the adventure, maybe triggered by a fumble or GM fiat, I can't recall. The lurking failure could effect any piece of equipment, i.e. taking a bunch of experimental spy gear on the mission could result in the get-away helicopter's engine staling during the extraction. The idea is more complicated things get, the more details get missed in maintaining everything. It's harder to apply in a fantasy setting but something to ponder if you want to go down this route.

Alexis said...

That's a very good point, Matt; seems to me, the 'details missed' element could easily apply to fantasy role play or any other game, simply on the basis that it is easier to keep a good edge on your sword if you don't have a huge amount of accumulated stuff, but instead you travel light. The process extends not just to the vast potential properties you own, but the number of people you depend on to keep stuff working - how many of them will loaf off at the critical moment, simply because you insist having an entourage of 300 instead of a handful of picked men?

tsojcanth said...

Mind if I yoink the list of words for a post on devices? :)

Alexis said...


English = public domain.