I don’t remember the first time I heard the phrase “standing on the shoulder of giants,” but it’s a concept that has stayed with me ever since. Everything we know, everything we have, is the byproduct of decades, if not centuries, of experimentation and refinement. I do, however, remember the first time I metagamed my knowledge of science in a roleplaying game. That campaign was defined by the wide river that divided the realm into duchies and the bridges along the king’s road that crossed it were actually small forts. One of the king’s couriers had been attacked just outside one of these forts and tumbled into the water as he died. We needed his sealed diplomatic scroll case. The scenario was that we needed to test our Constitution as we dove down looking for it.
I said, “why don’t we just buy a couple of sheep’s stomachs and use them as breathing bladders?” Looking back, the scathing look I got from my GM was entirely warranted. My character was a Magic-User (strange to type that name) who was supposed to have been especially cloistered during his apprenticeship. Given that my character had a 19 Intelligence, I thought it perfectly reasonable that he would know about the science of diving, but what I was really doing was using my personal knowledge in-game. These days, I’m smart enough to cross my fingers (our group’s sign that we’re speaking out-of-character) and ask my GM if my character would know about such things.
The weird thing about most fantasy settings is that they’re stuck technologically, both in the sense in which we utilize technology and in the logical outgrowths of a world where magic is real. I can understand not wanting to play in a slightly more rural version of Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series, which is a modern world in which magic and science work in parallel, but I’ve always found it befuddling that more GMs don’t take into account the way the world would be different with magic.
Communication is one of the areas I think would be most profoundly affected. Can you imagine a Pony Express where they are riding magically animated horses? How about birds that have been ensorcelled to carry messages? If the message isn’t secret, would Druids have their own version of skywriting? Would generals use magical mirrors to communicate with their troops?
The main reason I don’t highlight communications technology in my game is that I like the idea of the PCs being the bearer of news. I like them having a story to tell, should they feel so inclined. It’s a way of maintaining the theme of “Points of Light,” which is a perspective on worldbuilding that I especially like.
There’s a scene in Big Bang Theory where Raj is musing about where Aquaman poops and where does it go. I’m not usually one to be amused by toilet humor in any form, but I always get a chuckle when I hear this. Honestly, it seems like most people treat civil engineering like magic anyhow. Every time you take a shower or flush a toilet, you’re utilizing centuries of technology. Further, you can’t have real metropolitan areas without someplace for the poop to go… That’s a real issue for me, actually. Most of the time, players seem to imagine population densities that just didn’t exist until much later in history. I had a teacher who used to refer to this as the “Three F’s of Civil Engineering: Food, Feces and Fire.” Until you manage those things, there’s a limit to how big a city can get.
Speaking of food, that’s another of my irritations with fantasy settings: people don’t think enough about where there next meal is coming from. As someone who had to go through wilderness survival training in Boy Scouts, I can tell you that, once you are separated from technology, your perspective changes. Large percentages of your waking hours are consumed by the finding and storing of food. Most of the time we just handwave this, but there are stories to tell here.
Moreover, I think there’s something to be said for focusing on the common man’s connection to food and nature. Many of the peasants of our fantasy worlds are going to be farmers and herders. These people are only concerned about the greater world when it directly affects them. The rest of the time they’re going to be talking about rain, predators and each other. Consider also how much social ceremony centers around meals. Every culture has traditions about what you’re supposed to eat, how you’re supposed to eat it, when you’re supposed to eat and who you’re supposed to eat it with. Knowing the traditions of the table is just as important to fitting in as anything else.
While belief in the divine isn’t actually a technology, I feel it’s another area where a fantasy world should differ from ours. There’s no way for us to verify the afterlife or to talk to the Great Architect. That’s not true of the characters. I think this distinction is an important protection against offending people. What the players believe and the characters believe is split in a way that is impossible to bridge. Pelor might be a really, really powerful being, but he’s more akin to the President of the United States than the Almighty.
That said, I think that faith in a roleplaying game should have a moderately transactional feel. That’s not to diminish the depth of the characters’ convictions, however. I simply feel that the characters’ connection to the divine should be molded by what they know of it.
Any fantasy world can be made more real by considering how magic makes that world different from ours.