Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Science Is Bad

"Luddite Rule (or, George Lucas Rule):" Speaking of which, technology is inherently evil and is the exclusive property of the Bad Guys.  They're the ones with the robots, factories, cyberpunk megalopolises and floating battle stations, while the Good Guys live in small villages in peaceful harmony with nature.  (Although somehow your guns and/or heavily armed airships are exempted from this.)

Ah, this.

Within my experience, this is far more a trope of film and video game than it is of D&D.  It was advanced for film as a thematic principle for a number of reasons - it creates conflict, first and foremost, and it was important in the 1920s and 30s to establish the main character as someone the audience could identify with ... at a time when audiences were less well off and were largely rural born and living in cities when their parents were not.  Thus, the viewer IS someone who came from a small village, and now found his or her self in a highly technological world (full of switchboards, tubes and typewriters), where the Bad Guys were bosses with the technology who forced farm boys and farm girls to work as operators and secretaries.  So it made sense that they'd go to the moviehouse to watch ordinary rural-derived heroes put down smarmy, know-it-all villains with their honesty, their home-spun good sense and their spunky insight.  This is called the George Lucas rule because he loved those old films and serials that devised those themes.

If the gentle reader will forgive me for not rushing straight into D&D, I'd like to also mention a similar theme, where a technologically dependent city-dweller is presented as a feckless boob when faced with the common sense of the ordinary clodhopper.  It was a favorite theme of O.Henry, and made it's way through successful franchises like Ma & Pa Kettle, right up to the Beverly Hillbillies of the 1960s, where the rich, connected banker wound up being made a fool in every single episode.

So it isn't so much that science is somehow something that only bad people like, it is that science is understood by one kind of person, which is then seen as bad by the sort of people who do not understand science.  And since group B is a lot bigger than group A, and films are dependent upon selling to the largest possible market share ... science is bad.

This has been carried forward into video games largely because many of the front line programmers working out there (and those with money) were born in the 60s and the 70s and are still influenced by those themes that were pounded into their heads at an early age.  That, and the writing for video games is atrociously awful, and hopelessly mired in themes that the writers themselves are plainly too ignorant to understand ... i.e., it was always done this way, this works, let's keep doing it.  As the TV tropes page says, "Writers are not scientists."

But of course video gamers aren't rural born, love technology, don't relate remotely with the whole "I was born in a small village" cliche and generally get mildly sick at all the sappy bullshit.

Which is why D&D seems exempt from this.  I know there are players out there who embrace the concept of happy peasants capable of doing anything a king can do (yes, still pissed about that).  Still, I think most players don't identify their characters as rural hayseeds, but rather fundamentally cosmopolitan and awfully streetwise.  This is because, well, we are, aren't we?  D&D has never been an overly popular game in small towns and villages (woe betide the poor bastard living in Jordan, Montana, population 364) and it is far easier to get a game going in a big city - anything with more than 200,000 is a safe bet there's a game going on somewhere.  As such, the busy ratrace of daily life is ordinary for us and we're tapped into the highest technology available ... there's a shop just down the road that sells it.  So it's a rare player that eschews an artifact of massive power potential on the basis of, 'my character is a simple soul and despises gadgets.'

Moreover, there's a natural reason not to give the enemy too many specialized items; unlike the movies, where everything gets conveniently blown up, many items - after being used by the Bad Guys - fall into the hands of the Good Guys.  A smart DM knows not to load up the villains with too many nice toys, since those toys will have a drama-destroying impact on future obstacles the DM cares to invent.

Going one step further, my players will generally speak of the days when they will have the resources to make their own golems, raise their own remorhaz beasts, build their own underwater submersibles and so on ... so clearly, they're ready to embrace the power.  I don't know one of them who talks of the day when they'll retire their character to some small village somewhere.

I guess they all want to be Bad Guys.


JB said...

Good food for thought. Thanks for that.

Oddbit said...

I know I'm a bit late, but what about the classic trap lined complexes. I have not heard of a game where the PCs patron is forced to disable a trap to let them in, or patiently describe for them where not to go, or how to bypass said traps.

I know you don't do puzzles, therefore this probably is not much of a theme in your games, but it might be seen as the reliable technology that PCs are forced to combat with simple solutions like placing a board over the pit, or shoving a rock in a gear.

On the other side of the spectrum we can look at it as the comic relief if you follow the gnomish inventors with unreliable technology.

Steve Lalanne said...

I interpret differently the role of technology vis-a-vis the bad guys.

Superior technology is a convenient way for the author to establish the dominance of the villains, a dramatic necessity. After all, the heroes' cause must appear hopeless at the outset. (Another typical bad-guy advantage is greater numbers.)

The good guys usually prevail against technology by using moxie, grit, brain power, and/or courage--all of which highlight the earthiness (and, conceptually, the everymanishness) of the heroic personality. Plus, they're just better marksmen and martial artists.

In the swords and sorcery genre, a common villain is the evil wizard. Dramatically, magic is a form of technology (comparable to sci-fi technology) because it is inscrutable. D&D allows PCs to wield magic, too, so you are correct that the game easily breaks the villain-has-the-technology trope. This is largely because PCs in D&D have free will and therefore aren't obligated to operate as crafted story elements.