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.