Technology and Plot
In any high technology setting there are some serious considerations about having too much or too little help from technology. In particular, Star Trek's conventions with transporters and such can be a serious pain to write plot around. Other instances also have replicators, holograms, phasers, photon torpedoes, cloaking devices, and any number of other high tech devices from the Star Trek universe (and others) which can get in the way of plot. No one wants to play a game where someone can just beam a hostage out without getting in the fray or replicate enough food for everyone rather than have characters need to come up with methods of survival.
Tricorders can also be of particular concern, the ability to scan, identify, and process large quantities of information can really pose a problem for some plot lines, figuring out ways to avoid technological conflicts.
The best stories always involve people. Star Trek has always focused on this aspect of a story, even to the detriment of the technological consistency. This is how stories should be focused, on the people. As such, this page is created to help give ideas on how to avoid technological pitfalls in technology.
I'm going to just put this out here. We use fudge a lot here (see the article call The Fudge), to smooth things over and keep things going. Everyone knows that it isn't the most accurate thing in the world but it works. Don't be afraid to use the fudge to avoid technological issues. Transporters can fail, tricorders can be calibrated badly, people can simply misinterpret the data, and a freak accident with an asteroid can take out a communications array. These are the best to use on a regular basis, but if you're running a story and get into the thick of things it's ok to use Storyteller Prerogative and just say something fails.
Now, as a note, I always recommend giving players a chance - even if infinitesimally slim - to overcome such a thing. In D&D if a player roles a Natural 20 on an impossible role, it goes to the player even if it screws with my story. This is going to happen very rarely in practice however.
The Set Up
An important thing to do at the outset is to set up the problem. This can be hard but in Trek we see this all the time, someone is running a diagnostic that has the entire sensor array down, the warp core is offline for maintenance, the main computer is shut down after a minor malfunction needs to be tracked down, and so on, and so on.
Instantly sets things up for what can and cannot be used in the current scenario and the limiting factor comes before the outset of the story and thus feels more natural during the game than fudging something later.
Gives players an indication of something bad is going to happen, and that there will be some kind of "oh shit" moment where whatever is down will be needed. Some players will not have an issue with this, others will try to game it.
Best Laid Plans
Sometimes it is also helpful to interrupt the best laid plans with something unexpected. Allow players to come up with the simple solution that uses all the technology at their disposal. Sure, try to beam the hostages out, use the replicator to get food for everyone, use a phaser to cut through that rock face and try and get out, etc.. This works because while the players are going to intuitively know that something is going to go wrong, they won't know what.
Then once the plan is put in place, throw something at them. This works best if it comes from the nature of what they are doing, replicating enough food could go wrong if a computer malfunction replicates tainted food, players would be unaware until people started to get sick. Trying to slice through a rock face to escape a cave system with a phaser could cause a cave-in or an explosion if the wrong kind of rock is hit. Don't want the hostages beamed out? Transport inhibitors or natural rock formations which block transporter signals, if that gets old then have a malfunction where even some hostages die to increase the tension.
Players will have to role with the punches on this one. They are allowed to come up with a plan A that just doesn't work and will have to regroup.
Players are going to know that something is going to go wrong. The most trouble is going to come in from players trying to game the system - that is ones that think of what the most likely things to go wrong are and avoid the pitfalls before you put them in place.
I don't really know of "System Gamer" is a word, but if it isn't, it should be. A system gamer is a person who walks the edge on meta-gaming and godmodding. This is the kind of person that is going to try to predict what the storyteller is going to do and avoid those problems before they come up. This can work fine for such a person a lot of times, assuming the character has the ability to come up with these things on their own.
Storytellers should be on the look out for these kinds of gamers and keep an eye on things they do to avoid plot twists and the like. Sometimes it is questionable but not really actionable, that is to say that as a storyteller you know what they are doing but it doesn't rise high enough to call it meta-gaming or anything else. It can be extremely annoying to any storyteller but one risks fracturing the role playing group if such a thing is acted upon without proper cause.
Later we'll cover ways to mitigate these problems and, in a way, train your players.
Rule Nazi's and Science Types
There are just some people that can hold a lot of concrete information in their minds, able to distribute that information at will in every way that is going to screw with some the plans of a storyteller. For the most part these are the Rule Nazi's, but a sort-of subgroup of that is the Science Types. Both of these kinds of player are going to try to use what they know about either the rules or science to control the gaming scenario in favor of their characters. This control will be exerted through mentioning plot issues that they see or outright challenging the rulings of the storyteller.
Don't ever let a Rule Nazi or Science Type gain the upper hand in controlling a scenario, if you do you will be handing control to them for the rest of the session. That isn't to say that one cannot give in a revamp something that was just said to better fit in with the rules, but there is a line. A rule nazi is going to try and tell a storyteller that some action cannot be done, or does not work that way, in an effort to avoid the effects of said action. A science type is going to attempt the same thing using their knowledge of some aspect of science to even say the rules are incorrect or that the storyteller doesn't have the required background to know how some event would actually work.
Of course, both of these instances take away from playing the game. Most of the time, a player bringing up a potential problem is not a bad thing, so long as it is done respectfully and the player does not have an issue if things do not go their way. What really sets either of these types of players aside from normal, run of the mill, players is their steadfast insistence that they should get their way and the force with which they try to do so.
Dealing with Problems
Really any time a storyteller makes things harder on players that is bound to be push back. It isn't bad to give into that push back occasionally, but it gets old and tiring if it happens a lot. One excellent method is dealing with this is to have several even worse contingencies for if players get upset at what is happening. I remember a favorite saying of one of the Game Master's for a Rifts campaign that I played back in 1999 or so was, "Oh, I forgot they had that many mini-missiles."
If a player or a group of players consistently attempt to take control of the game through whatever method, it can be good to sometimes let them and have it turn out very badly for them. A great example of this is when a storyteller sets it up so transporters are not working, forcing characters to go directly into danger to do something. Players then use rules, science, or meta-gaming methods to avoid this problem in some way that disrupts game play, let them. Transporters go back online, but then using the transporter has some horrific consequence for everyone involved.
Now, in the end, there are only 2 rules to every game:
- The Storyteller is always right.
- If the Storyteller is wrong, see rule 1.
I am not a big fan of being heavy handed, in some cases though it is necessary to just end up saying that your rulings stand because, well, you said so. This is a problem to use a lot, but when used sparingly it can be very effective (especially if one tries to compromise with players and listens to concerns openly).