Wednesday, November 20, 2019

GURPS: Technomancer

Technomancer is a wildly inventive campaign setting that manages to both feel very fresh and charmingly dated. The premise is that, up until 1945, the world is exactly the same as our own, but while testing the first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer inadvertently completed a necromantic ritual with his famous "now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds" line. This opened a rift into another dimension that released a shit ton of mana into the world and made it possible for people to use magic. The Soviets later tested their own atomic bomb in Antarctica and that opened an even bigger rift, though the bulk of the magic was wasted on Antarctica and the open ocean.

In a setting with telepathic Maoist penguins and human-spider hybrids with human genitalia (the book was very specific on that point), this is probably the weirdest choice. Most of the world, people have a 1 in 10,000 chance of being born a mage. In the USA, Mexico, and southern Canada, the chance is 1 in 100. And that's fair enough. Magic has a geographical component. But then you say that there was a second origin point, this one twice as large, and you center it in Antarctica.

Narratively, I like the escalation. Each bomb does geometrically more damage to the Earth's manasphere. A third will probably destroy the human race. However, I can't get the idea out of my head that if Technomancer's Soviets tested their bomb in the same place as the historical Soviets tested their bomb, and if the magic had double the geographic distribution as "Trinity's Shadow," the 2000 mile radius around the US's first test site, then the mage population boom covers all of Eurasia, much of North Africa, and about 80% of the world's population c. 1949.

But the way events played out in the book, it seems a lot like they were trying to set up a world where magic was an American thing. They put the second rift in a place where almost no human beings would gain magic, then implied that it was far too dangerous to risk opening a third, so much so that not even the USA's greatest geopolitical rivals would dare attempt it.

I'm turning this idea around in my head, and I just can't figure out why anyone would want that. On the very first page of the very first chapter, there's a brief bit of fiction that incidentally mentions a battle between Russian Army fire elementals and Stalinist Necromancers. And I think about how much more interesting the magical cold war would have been if the USSR had 3 million mages instead of 30,000.

The only conclusion I can come to is that it was a mistake. I can't be sure they didn't write exactly the setting they wanted to, but "High-Magic Earth with Super-High-Magic North America" was kind of a bad thing to want.

That being said, Technomancer is mostly pretty okay. It does that thing that every fantasy game threatens to do at one point or another and just straight-up industrializes magic item production. Boeing produces a consumer-grade magic broomstick. And DuPont has a whole line of magic carpets, though in a typical bit of GURPS mechanics/setting disconnect, they are marketed as much more middle-class than their price suggests - $241,000 for a "family carpet," means that they probably belong exclusively to the 1%.

There's something here. Technomancer sometimes approaches the feel of a retro future, where technology-driven consumerism leads to ever more baroque luxuries. You can outfit your home with self-cleaning windows, buy an oven enchanted with the Cook spell, and teleport to your favorite vacation destination! Lines of credit are available!

If it had leaned into this just a little bit more, it could almost have justified its focus on America, but Technomancer doesn't have a satirical bone its body. It's not overly self-serious or anything, but its humor mostly comes in sly little jokes, like how applying necromancy and divination to archaeology and history led Alvin Toffler to write his famous book Past Shock or the way "red dragons" are just dragons who worked for the Soviets. They're pretty cute, except when they seem in poor taste, like the implication that "The Son of Sam" really was possessed by a demon named Sam.

I think there's probably a tighter, more polished version of Technomancer that could be made. Instead of having Nazi occultists take over Argentina and found the sinister international corporation, The Condor Group, you could have Operation Paperclip target the Thule Society for recruitment. Instead of wasting their bomb in Antarctica, the USSR could exercise its characteristic hubris and try to create a high magic zone near Moscow, leading to a cold war arms race that was as much about spells as it was about space. The fact that Albuquerque is "The City of Wizards," where anybody, even non-mages, can use spells could be played up a bit more.

However, I don't think it necessarily counts as a fault that some of this game's magic has broader implications that would realistically turn the world completely on its head, were it not carefully ignored. There's a spell, called "Preserve Fuel" that quite explicitly says it works even on nuclear fuels, halting their radioactive decay. I'm no physicist, but I'm pretty sure that's an-eyes-bug-out-the-head-grade miracle, every bit as physically improbable as teleporting into orbit (a cool bit of world-building that has been ruined for me by Kerbal Space Program) or creating matter out of nothing, and people are just toting it around as a second-tier utility spell. Yet there is no meltdown of the physical sciences as both our primitive intuitions and most sophisticated mathematical descriptions completely fail to account for reality. There is no major turmoil from the fact that the Youth spell exists, allowing the rich (and potentially everyone who lives within 200 miles of the Trinity test site) to live essentially forever.

If we're being super methodical about our worldbuilding, the Technomancer world should be completely unrecognizable after 50 years of divergence from our own. The notion that the 1st Iraq war could happen at exactly the same time, and for approximately the same reasons, is absurd. We should really be talking about a human race that is in the midst of an unpredictable shift in the very nature of its being.

But really, what's promised and what's delivered is a funhouse mirror 90s, where mages are using spells to make their tvs show cancelled programs. And that's really all I wanted out of this book to begin with.

Ukss Contribution - Spirit Skull warheads. Take a missile. Put in a human skull, enchanted with a spiritual echo of the horror of its owner's death. Launch it at the enemy. In addition to the damage dealt by the missile as part of its normal operation, the impact site becomes ground zero for a rampaging, bloodthirsty specter, who spends the next 24 hours hunting down and slaying every living thing it can find. A large missile might contain hundreds of Spirit Skulls as its primary payload.

This is exactly the sort of overly-elaborate fantasy weapon that I always hope to see more of. People using what they have and adapting it to make it as nasty as possible.


  1. Holding the possibility of US-USSR Cold-Magic War in your hands and throwing it away is mind-boggling. I just don't get it.

    Also, the spirit skull warheads are cool.


  2. The loss of the magic cold war isn't as egregious as it COULD be, because the game is set in the year of its publication, so one way or the other the cold war is already over by the start date, but I do agree. It's wild that this wasn't a big part of the setting history.