Behind the Mask: Science, technology and fantasy

Champions Online screenshot

Last week's Behind the Mask generated quite a bit of controversy over fantasy and the suspension of disbelief. This week, I'm going to follow up. We'll cover how the Champions Online universe deals with fantasy in its lore and why realism is important.

We'll also cover how fantasy elements can use realism to expand -- rather than subtract -- your options for roleplaying. Last week, we only covered weapons technology, but there's a lot more to any fictional setting than just weapons. Everything from communications and transportation to food production is important to discuss, and while we can't touch on everything, we can look at the hows and whys of the superhero genre.

Champions Online Screenshot

The real world

One of the largest problems with modern fiction is that we know a lot about the way our world works. I think that at any point in history, humans have thought this. However, most of the sci-fi elements addressed in fiction actually exist in real life.

For instance, supermetals that are 10 times as strong as steel actually exist in real life. They are used in expensive aircraft components, but we don't use them as building materials in construction because they are too expensive to produce on a huge scale and these materials are hard to shape outside of a vacuum. These metals aren't magic, but they're so expensive that we just can't use them for everything. This is also typical of materials like tungsten; it's common enough that we use it in drill bits and saw blades, but it's too expensive to be use in making things like military ammunition (we still use tungsten in bullets, but they're specialty armor-piercing bullets).

There are many areas of science that we know tons about; if it has to do with "real" science (physics/chemistry/biology), humanity is pretty advanced. Although there are a lot of theories about higher-end science (e.g., quantum mechanics), we don't know enough about that yet, which makes things that have to do with alternate dimensions, subspace travel or "warp speed" much more plausible, since science can't disprove those things.

For the things we do know, it makes no sense not to obey the laws of the universe, especially when the Champions universe is our own. It's not a made-up world where humans breathe carbon dioxide, fish have lungs and granite is a semiconductor. It's a world that closely parallels the real world; while Detroit is Millennium City and Vibora Bay is a totally new city plopped on the map, the CO universe is pretty much our Earth.

In CO, people drive to work in cars that use gas and have wheels. Those people do mundane jobs like waiting tables at restaurants or day trading on the stock exchange. People watch TV, read comic books, and play MMORPGs. There is an internet, and it's about as advanced as the one today. People believe in Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism; they go to churches (or the equivalent) and express religious faith in their own ways. Numerous other religions exist too, just like in the real world. In fact, CO's mysticism even covers Judaism, which is a rarity in any game setting.

The only real deviations in the CO universe are the presence of magic (and all the strange interactions that causes) and the existence of certain massive super organizations, like VIPER. Even VIPER finds its roots in mystical elements.

It's magic, I don't got to 'splain...

Magic is magical. While we have a moderately reasonable understanding of quantum mechanics, virtually no scholars agree on how magic works, unless they agree that it does not exist at all. However, in the Champions universe, we know better. All superpowers in CO's Earth exist because of magic, and aliens with strange biological traits that emulate superpowers might still have them because of magical exposure.

Magic in CO draws from the primal sources of existence. Therefore, it can pretty much totally violate any physical law we might have. If a physical law says that gravity must pull toward a larger body, magic can say "I'd rather fall sideways or up" instead. This is the power of magic in fiction; it's a true fictional element that no amount of science or real understanding can explain (at least not yet, anyway). Even if science absolutely proved that magic does not exist (which is basically impossible), fantasy worlds can get away with magic because its existence is a key element of the mythos.

With magic, a gun can shoot shiny blue blasts of energy instead of bullets. With magic, literally anything is possible, especially in CO where anything that exists or doesn't exist is possible with magic because magic draws on thoughts and imagination.

Champions Online screenshot

Backstory for the Champions Universe

One of the main things that divorces CO from the Champions universe is that superheroes are much more common in CO. In the general Champions universe, a person with metapowers of any kind is a one in a million lucky prodigy. This still allows for thousands of superbeings worldwide, with extra concessions for aliens and dimensional beings.

Champions Online has thousands of superbeings in Millennium City at any given time. Even discounting non-roleplayers, MC has hundreds of active heroes. This is a far larger number than is suggested in the lore, which is sort of a problem because people beyond the norm play a much bigger role and thus distort reality quite a bit more.

Metahumans in CO all possess the "magic gene," a handwave that basically allows mutations to occur. The magic gene lets people draw on primal energy to create superscience items, fly without wings, or fire bolts of heat energy from their eyes. The main issue with violating science isn't that it's impossible (because magic lets it happen) but that mass-produced things like energy weapons all would require handcrafting by someone with the magic gene.

Is this possible for an organization like VIPER? I'm not sure that it is. I'm definitely sure that it's not possible for UNTIL due to the way government production projects work, but as I said above, with so many superheroes, reality gets pretty distorted. It's hard to say what exactly is reasonable because if there are hundreds or thousands of superheroes in MC alone, how many super-scientists are there behind the scenes? If there are dozens of super-scientists producing energy guns, what happens when they retire and other, non-superpowered people go to take their place?

More than anything else, this is why I don't understand the presence of superscience in the general public. Millennium City makes sense; it's a city built by superbeings in the wake of a terrible supervillain attack. It has many fictional elements, but none are really wild and unreasonable. It still has its slums and street gangs, and it's not Star Trek, where currency no longer applies because anything can be created from thin air.

Actually, almost anything can -- because magic can do anything.

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.