Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Pathfinder 2e: Magic vs. Steampunk

Now that we sorted out a theme for our Pathfinder 2e game, what is the game? Of course, we decided on the technology versus magic theme for the world, but I have had so many campaigns die at "great theme, no game" that I am wary.

This is like the Starfinder issue I solved. I got rid of adventure paths and created a sandbox-friendly story and setting, which lends itself exceptionally well to hex-crawling adventures. My new problem for Pathfinder 2e is, "Technology versus magic, so what?"

The "so what" question is one you must have an answer for. I can sit around all day and roleplay angry mages and angry capitalists sneering at each other. Still, the entire campaign is moot without room for adventurers to stake a claim and influence the story.

With Starfinder and the "treasure hunters and hex reclaimers" game, the heroes are directly positioned to make a difference. If they clear an important hex with a resource vital to the colony, like a hydro-generation station, they directly influence the campaign. If they find ancient artifacts, they can shop them around to different factions. They can join any of those factions and try and establish them in their current hex-crawl world. Even if it is just "their job," anything they do will influence events.

That is the key. You are given a start, and you always have that primary job of clearing hexes free for you, but it is up to you from there.

Magic vs. Technology, So What?

Where do you even start? Well, you need to roll back all your basic assumptions. If we are doing skyships and steampunk, then traditional ocean-going ship transport will be disrupted. Unless we assume that the real heavy stuff needs to be hauled by caravan and ship, and skyships are primarily for travel and transportation of people. Traditional sea travel could still be the cheapest way to ship, but let's not cut sky-ships out of the cargo business.

Also, if you are on skyships, you are on the technology side of this conflict. The technology side could still use mages, but the distrust and feeling of inevitable replacement are there. This isn't open warfare (yet), but the lines are being drawn along this theme. Mages who work for sky trading houses could always be told, "You are selling your soul," - but the money is there, so we do what we need to do to survive.

So obviously, our characters will be a part of a sky trading house. Perhaps they are hired adventurers or mercenaries. I can feel a campaign structure coming on, and yes, my beloved hex-crawls are back. The basic design is this:

  1. Sky trading house gets hired to exploit a random world area.
    1. Maybe they have permission to be there from the locals, maybe they don't!
  2. The ships pick a spot, set up a camp, and land.
    1. This is our home base hex.
  3. From here, characters clear hexes, explore, or are tasked with taking care of problems.

A straightforward structure and lets us world-hop around to all the cool places in this world. Since there is more than one sky trading house, rival houses could set up on the same map or hire humanoids or mercenaries to stop the expedition. There may be sky trading houses allied with evil guys, like devils. The problems on the map could be clearing out monsters, exploration, clearing out ruins, or any other mission the company could send them on.

At higher levels, the characters could always set out on their own, or the company may send them to other expedition camps worldwide to help out. This sky trading house will need a spotless reputation as good guys if the players are heroic and never land where they are not wanted (unless it is an evil or lawless area).

And the Beat Goes On...

The conflict between magic and technology should develop over time. In the beginning, mages will be working for the sky trading houses, but that distrust and suspicion will start to settle in. One of the beliefs of the technology side is that magic without technology controlling it is dangerous, subject to personal whims, and could be too much power for one person to handle.

You get this argument with many freedoms, like gun control and limiting the power of weaponry that citizens may possess. The large developing corporations and governments may want to roll back these freedoms as the world shrinks, and they want to control more of the power. Mages may be put under scrutiny, and the use of certain spells limited.

They would say, isn't magic inherently dangerous? Technology should control magic, and only those with the power to create technology will be the ones who grant it. You could accidentally create a gate to Hell in a large city and destroy the kingdom! Don't the people that live there have a say in what magic is known and can be used? The needs of the many outweigh your right to know such things!

Of course, magic-using PCs will start to get rubbed the wrong way (or probably all of them). Absolom will be the British Empire style figure in the story, ever-increasing in size, control, and power. The characters may decide to break free and start their own nation, where magic can be freely used, or start an alliance of magic-free nations. Their trading house may break away as well. They may agree with the technological powers; who knows?

That story is for the characters to create.

It is not for me to push one way or another, and they could ignore it.

But as the characters increase in power, they may find themselves drawn into this conflict of the old ways and the new more and more, and they may discover their own abilities being scrutinized and questioned. The world is changing. Technology is on the march. The world is shrinking.

And the entire notion of who should have power and who should allow it will become one of the defining conflicts of the new age.

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