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Mon, Feb. 19th, 2007, 11:30 pm
Creative Act, 2/19

I’m massively sick, which is my excuse for missing yesterday. (I passed out on the couch with my computer in front of me while trying to be creative. No fun.) Anyhow, I promised myself that I wouldn’t try to make up for any missed days, but just to get back on that metaphorical wagon. Here’s my game concept for today.

Today’s game concept is a genre I’ll call slavepunk. Think cyberpunk by way of Imperial Rome!

For various reasons - possibly religious, possibly historical, about which more later - the use of anything beyond, say, simple machines is impossible. Mass production is performed by huge ranks of highly trained slaves. Batteries exist, but they’re powered up by slave-driven flywheels and recharged on human muscle power. Wealth is measured in how many slaves you own, not in material goods, since slaves quite literally equal power.

While technology is highly limited by the efficiency of the power output of the human body, the society has developed means for dealing with that. First, this society is capable of a fair amount of biotechnology, using drugs derived from plants and herbs. Slaves are doped up with a variety of compounds to make them healthy, docile, and extremely efficient at converting calories into work. Other drugs make certain select slaves more useful for their functions, such as the mind-enhancing drugs used for teachers and the addicting, aggression-inducing ones for soldiers.

Second, the techniques of social control and organization are extremely efficient. There’s a cyberpunk-like lack of privacy, even for citizens, as slaves must report anything they see and hear to the government anytime they’re asked. This means that the only privacy one has is if one’s a citizen, and even then, one has to be completely alone - the equivalent, in this world, of being by yourself in a sealed room with no technology more advanced than a pencil. Systems of identifying and controlling citizens may take time to work (as three dozen scribe-slaves root through records like a parallel-processing computer), but they’re ruthlessly bureaucratic and immensely effective.

Characters are, in the good old cyberpunk tradition, people who have managed to step outside the system. They may be escaped slaves (with various enhanced abilities and commensurate drug dependencies) or citizens who’ve fallen afoul of the government. Challenges range from buying food to acquiring drugs, some of which may be heavily restricted, to evading government agents of various kinds, and all without access to slaves of one’s own. Imagine a cyberpunk world where the NPCs have cyberware and the PCs have rocks and sticks!

Of course, the PCs have one great advantage, and that’s speed and mobility. Human-powered technology and software just isn’t very fast, and a small group of highly motivated people can easily stay ahead of the game. In fact, the society even has uses for people like that, if the players are willing to cooperate. Missions to other cultures, governmental “dirty tricks” units, megengineer sabotage, and anything else that needs to happen quick and dirty is a possibility for the PCs.

It also may become important to the PCs why the society has grown up this way, and whether they can do anything about it. There are three main ways this could work, which still require some consideration before a decision can be made.

One way would be for this to be a social/religious taboo. In that case the players would be struggling against the religious entity that forbids scientific advancement and trying to understand why it does so. (This might be a standard keep-control-of-the-ignorant maneuver, or it might be a radical environmentalist movement that considers the long-term consequences of technological advancement, or anything in between.)

Another way to consider the matter would be historical. For some reason, the society made a conscious decision to keep their technology simple. For example, this might happen in a post-AI-rebellion world where the people are simply too afraid to let society develop technologically.

Finally, the reasons could be physical. For example, this might not be an alternate Earth, but a very metal-poor planet on which it’s easier to come by people and food for them than it is to manufacture even the simplest machines. In this case, technology might be slightly more advanced, but only made of wood. Imagine hand-cranked wooden Babbage machines and the like!

What charms me about this setting is how it re-envisions both the cyberpunk genre (what’s essential about it, what’s irrelevant) and how it gives us a different way to think about what technology means. Plus I think there’s a lot of interesting ways to build out the world and figure out different roles for the players to have in it.