I was recently tinkering to see if ICONS could be used to run a science fiction RPG, with superpower effects—to the extent they exist at all—being handled by devices. I prefer my futuristic settings to be places I’d actually want to visit. In the same way, I want this setting to be a place Player Characters (“PCs”) would actually want to live in and protect as opposed to the dystopian hellscapes that dominate our imaginations so thoroughly these days.
To give the setting a sense of post-scarcity, I wanted to model 3D printers or similar auto-fabrication (“autofab”) technology with which PCs (or their enemies) could easily manufacture most anything. Here’s what I was looking for from our autofab:
- Handled as a mechanic rather than narratively.
- Operates differently from the Gadgets superpower.
The first of these might be a little counterintuitive. ICONS has two time metrics: Narrative Time and Action Time. Action Time is when fights or similar confrontations occur—basically, the rolling of dice to determine outcome and effect that most people associate with tabletop RPGs. Narrative Time is largely the connective tissue between Action Times—the story between our action scenes. An autofab wouldn’t be used during Action Time as it’s not a weapon, so why not just handle it in Narrative Time (and without a mechanic)?
First, using a mechanic rather than handling it narratively with ICONS’s Qualities would help make the technology more grounded—crunchy?—than Star Trek: The Next Generation’s nigh-magical replicators. Making the tech feel real would similarly help the setting feel more real.
Second, by mechanically creating measurable limited by production ability, it’ll place a narrative obstacle with which PCs will have to contend. For instance, if 100 battledrones would be enough to handle an adversary but the PCs only have (narrative) time to fabricate 20, do they go ahead with the making 1/5 of the necessary force? Or do they spend the time doing something else, like manufacturing more armor plate for their vehicles? In other words, the mechanic engages your players in strategic decision making, giving them another way to impact how the story unfolds.
Lastly, I wanted it to run differently than a Device with the Gadgets superpower. This is because I think a gadgeteer could work in the setting, and I didn’t want to diminish any PC with that power/ability by simply duplicating it in a machine.
Of Production and Power Scales
For our 3D printers—or really any fabrication process—we want to measure time against amount to find out how fast we can create our goal production. As always, we use ICONS’s standard 1 (Weak) to 10 (Supreme) power scale:
That being the case, our production scale actually consists of two power-level scales: one measures time, and the other mass:
For mass, we’re using ICONS’s standard strength/weight benchmarks. For time, we’re reversing a slightly modified version of the Great Power! sourcebook’s Post-Cognition superpower.
We’re reversing the scale because with Post-Cognition, seeing further back in time is preferred and thus takes more power. With production on the other hand, the faster/nearer in time you can manufacture something is preferred/takes more power, and so moves us up the scale.
First, determine a baseline for production. Assuming it has access to necessary raw resources (through scrap, asteroid mining, or whatever your sci-fi setting demands), how much can your autofab produce in a given unit of time? For stories, it probably makes sense to calculate this baseline for a day or an hour.
In the above example, let’s say I’m producing a suit of titanium, diamond, or graphine-plate armor for an upcoming battle. Note that despite the material, this is fairly simple product. We’re talking about plate armor like a knight, not power armor like Iron Man’s—we’ll get to more complex productions shortly.
Our autofab’s Fair (4) amount of material (somewhere between 100–300lbs on ICONS’s deliberately abstract power scale) would probably be too much to wear, so I can easily make my production deadline and be ready for battle in less than a day.
But say I want to outfit a bunch of my friends in similar armor? Once we know our baseline, we simply move the mass level of our production scale up or down inversely to the time level. For example, if we had a week to make graphine-plate armor instead of just a day, we would adjust production thusly:
Note that we always adjust time and mass by the same amount of power levels. So if we had a month (Fair (4) time) we could fabricate a jet or train’s worth of material (Amazing (8) mass):
Remember this inverse scale works in the other direction too. If this was a rush job where I only had an hour (Fantastic (9) time), I’d only be able to manufacture an Average (3) amount.
But let’s say instead of plate armor or a similarly simple item I want to produce an internal combustion engine or robot. In other words, not just parts but functioning complex machines. In such cases, enhanced complexity results in an enhanced time cost:
Weak (1) to Average (3) complexity has no additional time cost as we assume any futuristic autofab can produce such simple objects as a matter of course. Once we hit Fair (4) complexity, it starts to affect our production time.
Going back to our original example, if I want to make a quantum computer-operated robot-friend of Fair (4) mass, its complexity results in a +3 cost to time. The same amount of plate armor would have taken a day, but I’ll have to wait a couple weeks for fabrication of my new robot pal to be complete:
Because once you hit Fantastic (7) on ICONS’s scale you’re at superhuman power levels, I’ve capped this complexity scale at Great (6). This isn’t to say PCs can’t create superscience tech in a sci-fi setting, but they’re probably inventions rather than things mass produced in an autofab. (Though they could certainly use autofab-made parts while making their Fantastic (7) and greater tech wonders.)
I find post-scarcity and its (correctly or not) hoped-for cousin, post-discontent, endlessly fascinating. Futurist and space exploration-advocate Issac Arthur has a video on post-scarcity civilizations that is worth your time.
While not exclusively about post-scarcity, Mark Manson’s Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope makes a convincing argument that our physical plenty and information overload is resulting in Western society’s current social breakdown.
Sourcebooks referenced in this article: