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A campaign should have a logical and consistent level of technology. The rules assume a roughly medieval tech base, with steel and sailing common, but few clockworks and no gunpowder. Many fantasy settings play with this assumption, adding steam engines, gear-based machines, wind power, flintlocks, modern clothing, advanced architecture designs or even giant spring-driven robots. Others prefer to maintain a classic level of technology, with bronze or iron the metal of choice and steel unknown, or a prehistoric Stone Age technology.

In some cases, changing a game’s tech level has game consequences. For example, a game set in the Bronze Age is unlikely to have cold-iron weapons, making creatures with damage reduction vulnerable to that material particularly powerful. Similarly, a game eliminating crossbows as too high-tech removes the most effective ranged weapon for sorcerers and wizards. To maintain game balance, replace anything eliminated with a lower-tech equivalent (ash wood for cold iron, atl-atls for crossbows, and so on).

A consistent level of technology need not be a uniform level of technology. You can set up a campaign in numerous ways so a particular group or region has a higher tech base than others. The technology could depend on natural resources not available elsewhere (such as needing particular metals or minerals). It could be new to a region, and thus not have spread too extensively yet. Isolated groups can simply have a different tech base because they don’t trade or communicate much with outsiders (an isolated group having a lower tech base rather than a higher one is just as easy to justify). Come up with some reason why differing tech levels exist if you want to maintain them, however. Otherwise, players are sure to carry high tech to lower tech areas and set up shop making and selling it.

When deciding on one or more tech levels, look at what you can easily support. Unless writing up dozens of higher-tech gadgets sounds like fun, stick with a technology level you have rules to define. Luckily, rules for everything from the Stone Age to futuristic technology are available, so you will have little difficulty getting rules for what you want. The second potential problem is players who wish to push the level of technology higher than you’re comfortable with. Many players, when faced with flintlocks, decide their gnome inventor should be able to invent fully automatic machine rifles for instance.

If you allow these kinds of advances, all you need is to modify some set of rules to cover invention. Spell research and Craft rules are both likely candidates, assigning an effective “spell level” or Craft (inventor) DC and gold piece value to various designs. You’re well within your rights, however, to forbid major advances in technology. Although things advance quite quickly in our modern world, progress is much slower at lower technology levels. The prevalence and power of magic also draws resources away from technology. (Why would a noble spend his money on researching guns when he can just hire wizards?)

Another option is to have the trappings of a more advanced technology without actually advancing the overall tech level. For example, if you want to allow flintlock firearms, you may not want the rest of the advances present in real-world history during the period when flintlocks were common. Rather than decide your campaign has all the technology flintlocks need, you may opt to have the weapons be special magical devices built by dwarves. Instead of black powder, the weapons use a powdered magic rock (boompowder) only dwarves know how to mine, and the barrels may need to be made of adamantine to withstand the force of the boompowder charge. Not only does this choice avoid real-world advances of chemistry and metallurgy, it allows limitations of the weapons to a few numbers and specific regions. (Also, the weapons logically wouldn’t work in an antimagic field, since boompowder is magic — giving high-level wizards some defense against the technology.)

Similarly, the role of technology can be filled by obviously magical devices. Bracelets that tell time, wands of magic missile that can be used by anyone, amulets that allow those holding them to communicate over great distances, and magic books that store and manipulate information can all replace watches, guns, cell phones, and computers. In fact, you could create a campaign world with no advanced technology per se, but full of magical equivalents. Such a game might have a very modern or futuristic look, with democracy spreading (driven by the fact most peasants don’t need to work all day nor require a lord’s direct protection, and information can be freely and quickly disseminated) and kingdoms forced to use diplomacy to settle their differences to avoid the use of weapons of magical destruction. This campaign could follow the model of anything from gritty noir detective films (with hard-luck adventurers hired by fat merchants to find their missing torch-singer wives, who just happen to be cultists) to cyberpunk games, with mega-guilds wielding more power than kingdoms and golem-like replacement limbs commonplace.

Finally, you could opt to have just a few pieces of high tech exist and treat them like rare magic items. Indeed, characters in worlds with a single laser pistol may well treat it like a minor artifact — a wand used by anyone that cannot be dispelled. Such items might come from dimensional travelers from other realities, crashed starships from other worlds, or leftovers from advanced civilizations that destroyed themselves. As long as the items are rare and so advanced that they can’t be duplicated, they should have little more impact than powerful magic items.


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