Tag: matter transmitter

RPG-ology #31: Screen Wrap

This is RPG-ology #31:  Screen Wrap, for June 2020.


This was originally published on June 29, 2001, at Gaming Outpost, as Game Ideas Unlimited:  Screen Wrap.

I usually call it “recursive occlusion”; but that’s because that’s what Peter Davison’s Doctor called it in Castrovalva, and now that I get around to thinking about what that means he must have been referring to the method of construction—that the Master had built a trap for him by creating a world based on a formula in which each element was dependent on all previous elements, resulting in a blockage of all exits.  But that’s not important.  The idea is a lot simpler than that.

Years ago there was a video game called Tank.  Tanks would wander around the screen trying to shoot each other.  Thing was, in the early versions you could shoot off the top of the screen and the bullet would come in at the bottom; or you could shoot off one end and have it come in the other.  In some versions you could actually drive the tank that way, off one side and on the other.  It wasn’t the only game that did that, and it was a simple solution to a basic problem:  what do you do about the boundaries?

But it’s an idea I’ve used many times to mystify and confuse my players—and in more variations than you might have imagined.  But if you’ll come with me for a moment, I’ll try to help you imagine a few.

The first one’s easy.  The characters enter some sort of complex—a section of tunnels in a dungeon, an area of rooms and hallways in a space station.  As they pass a certain point, they are inside the boxThe box is clearly marked on your map—it shows that any exits to the east connect to those to the west, and those in the north run to those in the south.  If a character walks into that last ten-foot section on the edge of the box, he’s immediately teleported to the first ten foot section on the other side, so going out one side means coming in the other.  Only one of the entrances is also an exit.  You will be surprised at how many times the players will redraw the same configuration of tunnels before they realize that something is amiss.

The second variation takes the idea to another level.  I did this to one player once, and I’m not sure he figured it out even after someone explained it to him.  I put the same room in two different places on the map.  I denoted them with subscripts so I could keep them straight.  Because they were the same room, if you entered the room, you were in both places at once; but when you exited the room, you always left from the other one.  They weren’t far apart in this experiment—which actually added to the confusion, as he entered the first, left the second and walked back to the first, and drew it twice, but in the wrong position.  At one point part of the party left the room and came back, and then when they all left together they got split up, because some had entered the first room and some the second, but they all were together whenever they were in the room.

You could use this idea to move characters very long distances—another dungeon, another space station, another planet.  You don’t even really need the rooms—you can just use some innocuous looking door.  Looking through the door, you see another room; step through the door, you’re in a room that looks just like the one you saw, but isn’t it.

These ideas have basically focused on keeping the player character inside the box.  You can as easily turn it on its head, and use the same principles to keep him out of the box.  For example, If you’re walking down corridor A and reach room 210, you next pass through a transfer point that takes you to corridor A outside room 280; if you reverse, the transfer will take you from 280 back to 210.  If the player doesn’t know the room numbers or layout, he won’t realize that he’s been moved—until he completes other sections of the map which go around this blocked area, and discovers that the distance between two points in the A corridor is an awful lot shorter than it should be.  You can make it so that access to that central area is only from a specific entry direction, such as above or below or a particular lesser-used corridor (but it can be exited at any point at which it connects).  Or you can determine a sequence of events or “switches” that must be activated to open the area to the characters, such as finding the key, or deactivating the grid, or realigning the circuits at every entrance.

I used an idea like this for a Minotaur’s labyrinth once.  My players were good; they could map a maze in a minute, comprehend any convoluted corridors I created.  The worst thing about facing a Minotaur isn’t the beast itself; it’s the fact that you’re on it’s turf, and it knows how to get everywhere while you’re wandering lost.  But once you’ve mapped a bit of it, it’s pretty easy to keep from getting lost, and the beast’s advantage is gone.  So what I did was create a layout of halls that frequently ran the same distance in the same direction, but parallel to each other a dozen feet apart. Then I put “transfer points” in the halls such that if you were going one direction you would get bounced to another hall, but if you were coming back nothing happened.  The creature knew its way around, and could use the magic to its own advantage; the players always knew which direction they were headed, but once they got involved in the tunnels they never knew quite where they were or how to get back.

Doctor Who faced a Minotaur-like beast called the Nimon once (I won’t swear to the spelling).  This time it was Tom Baker finding his way through the maze.  The thing that made that maze so difficult was that it constantly changed—he worked out that it was a huge set of switches in a communications and transmat system.  That’s a very difficult thing to do—but I can think of two good ways to make it work.  One would be to draw up maybe four or five distinct maps that were the same size and shape and had a few good fixed internal landmarks; that way at random intervals you could randomly change which map was in effect.  Of course, jumping from map to map could be tricky.  You might try making one map on paper that had the landmarks and a few fixed walls as reference points, and then getting four or five sheets of clear plastic overlay to put on top of the map, on which you would draw (or maybe if you’re really ambitious line with thin strips of black tape) the details of each position.  When the layout changed you would pop the new overlay on top, see where the characters are, and slide the old one out.

Of course, this idea doesn’t actually fit the pattern of the others, the pattern of moving the players from where they think they are to somewhere else.  But it probably makes them feel like it does, and sometimes that’s even better—especially if you’ve used tricks to move them around before.  They’ll leap to the conclusion that you’ve moved them, and begin trying to work out where they are.  You can get this effect with even simpler tricks.  Try making a matched pair of seemingly unique landmarks a short distance from each other in a confusing section of paths.  Players unaware that there are two (and especially those uncertain about their mapping skills) will come to the second and think they’re back at the first.

Something like that happened in one of my games, when the player was exploring the world we call Tristan’s Labyrinth.  (It was not called so when Tristan was exploring it.)  The labyrinth is endless; it is made of an L-shaped section designed to fit together such that all exposed sides are the same length (well, a single and double length) with doors that match up, so that you can build outward from one to as many as you need.  This means the same patterns of rooms appear, but not always in the same directions.  You can get the same effect with any of a number of random-connect dungeon floor plans; somewhere I’ve got a set of squares and rectangles published by TSR a generation ago, although I was never terribly happy with the way they fit together.  Just use the same piece against itself, turned around.  In the one game, the player found himself in a room with an interesting shape and several exits.  Deciding to use this as the base for his explorations, he traced out one of the exits some distance and back again, and then another.  The third tunnel took him off the map piece onto the adjacent piece, and connected to another tunnel which led to that same room on the next piece of map.  Carefully he followed it, reaching that identical room.  He looked at it.  He studied it carefully.  He compared it to what he had already drawn.

And then he changed his map.

If you use these tricks, there will be many times when your players will start erasing what they’ve charted, changing and fixing and trying to figure out where they are and how they got there.  But there is nothing like realizing you have gotten them so confused they are erasing the map when it was right.


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RPG-ology #25: Transmats

This is RPG-ology #25:  Transmats, for December 2019.


This article has been republished from Gaming Outpost’s Game Ideas Unlimited series from June, 2001, only slightly edited for republication here, originally entitled
Game Ideas Unlimited:  Transmats.

Matter transmitters bug me.  In short, I find them incredible in the most basic meaning of that word:  I don’t believe them.

If by some chance you’ve avoided all science fiction, let me explain the matter transmission concept.  A material object, possibly even a living object, is deconstructed particle by particle, and a complete record of the position, motion, and energy of each particle is recorded and transmitted to another location where an exact copy of the original is constructed particle by particle, having the same energy levels and motions and relative positions.  It’s the teleporter of Star Trek, the transmat encountered on Doctor Who.  Larry Niven envisioned such matter transmission booths replacing telephones.  And there’s something about it all that I just don’t believe.

It actually is not the science.  It is pseudo-science, certainly; someone is going to have to find a way around the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle if it’s going to work.  But there’s a logic to it that suggests to me it will one day be accomplished.  I don’t know that I will live long enough to have my molecules disintegrated and reintegrated, but I would be surprised if no one ever manages it.

What bothers me is the way in which this technology doesn’t matter in the worlds in which it is prevalent.  To have done this is to have accomplished much more, but generally those aspects are not considered or even worse are discounted for insensible reasons.  So bear with me while I take another look at transmat technology.

In order to build a matter transmitter, you have to be able to disintegrate a target.  This may seem obvious; yet in how many settings do they include matter transmitters and don’t include a simple disintegrating weapon?  If I can find and disintegrate a dozen men on the surface of a planet far beneath me, why doesn’t it work as a weapon?  Since I don’t have to worry about reproducing the object disintegrated, I should be able to destroy buildings, structures, perhaps entire cities.

But that’s just the beginning of my interest in disintegration.  After all, I’m quite aware that if you disassemble a molecule, you convert it to an enormous amount of energy.  The problems inherent in containing and controlling such levels of energy are another question; but why can’t this technology be used to generate power?  Given the amount of energy in a mass the size of a human body, the energy required to initiate the disintegration reaction must be a tiny fraction.  When the dilithium crystals are failing, why don’t we just throw furniture into the transporters and convert it to reserve power?

And the weapon use of such power is staggering.  A moment ago I was talking about a disintegrator; but if you start to take apart the molecules of an object, you initiate nuclear decay on a massive scale.  Every building, every person, every rock is a potential nuclear bomb whose massive energy can be explosively released with a bit of prodding from our disintegration technology.  As it says in Multiverser, “a device which disintegrates without containment is a remote nuclear fission reaction stimulator.”

And that leads me to think about the containment.  If I’ve built a transmat, I’ve found a way to contain the energy of complete nuclear collapse.  I don’t know what those force fields will be like, but somehow I think they’ll be able to deflect or absorb unimaginable amounts of power.  We are casually assuming the presence of a shield that could have easily contained the impact of Hiroshima.  We are tossing those shields around as an everyday tool, without any consideration of their real power.

It’s probably not impossible to design a matter transmitter which reintegrates directly from the disintegration pattern; but it makes more sense to include a memory circuit.  And most of the matter transmitters in most fiction at least imply the existence of such memory banks.  That means that whenever you transfer an object from one point to another you also make a data copy of it; and as long as you have that data copy, all you need to do is add energy to it and you can make another–and another, and another, as many as you need.  You can make a hundred dinners, a thousand starships, a million soldiers.  But this is a largely untapped resource, and the excuses used are complete nonsense.  Not enough energy?  Easily rectified:  throw a few rocks into the disintegrator.  Pattern loss?  This is as foolish as those badly-written spy shows where they are passing around the “only copy” of a computer program.  If making a copy of a program deleted the original, it would make sense–but anyone who understands even a little about computer memory knows that even deleted data is still there until something replaces it.  Keeping the file in memory is easier than losing it.  But is the available memory too small?  The memory circuit really only makes sense if it’s large enough for the entire file.

But writers go to great lengths to make it impossible to copy things, especially people.  We are told that complex DNA molecules are imperfectly replicated such that life forms can’t be copied.  But we know that life forms can be copied, because that’s what happens when we teleport them.  Really, we’ve completely destroyed one body and built another identical to it.  Besides, those “tiny molecular changes” are inconsistent with most of the other replication applications we can conceive.  How many water molecules have to accidentally be mis-linked as hydrogen peroxide before the liquid is not merely bitter but deadly?  How many mistakes can you make in the atomic structure of a metal object before the levels of radioactive decay are measurable?  No, molecular copying has to be perfect for it to be useful at all; it doesn’t have to work substantially better to copy life forms than anything else.

Not only can we copy things, we can modify them.  The applications of this have never been adequately explored.  In fact, the medical applications alone are mind boggling.  Did you break a bone?  We disintegrate you, make an adjustment to the program, and reintegrate you with the bone corrected and fully strengthened.  You can do the same thing with a ruptured spleen, or a hernia, or a defective heart valve.  With a filtering program, you can completely remove every trace of a targeted virus or a chemical poison.  If there’s chemical imbalance, whether insulin or hormones or neurotransmitters, you can adjust to correct levels.  Body temperature can be corrected.  With our growing knowledge of the human genome, we would be able not merely to instantly undo the effects of such genetic disorders as sickle-cell anemia or Chrone’s Disease but to reconfigure the genome itself to remove the cause.  And when it comes to cosmetic surgery, well, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”  You want to be taller?  We’ll re-craft your long bones and vertebrae.  Overweight?  We’ll filter out a hundred pounds of fat on one shot.  We can add muscle mass in all the right places, turning a ninety-eight pound weakling to The Incredible Hulk in minutes.  Forget hair dye; we can change the color of your eyes, the pigments in your skin, the length of your fingernails.  Your facial structure can be completely rebuilt.  If we want we can provide you with entirely alien features, or make you look like someone else.  Giving you short blond hair in the morning and long dark hair by dinner is no problem at all.

Let’s consider cooking.  Insert the roast of your choice and enter the program.  We can increase the temperature such that it is fully cooked in seconds.  At the same time, we can screen out gristle and bone while dispersing the ideal amount of fat and moisture for the most tender servings.  And spices can be added not merely to the surface but throughout the meat.  It’s as easy to chill as to heat.  Water can be turned to ice, cream and sugar to ice cream–we can even make Baked Alaska, with the hot cake and meringue surrounding the frozen center.  Spoiled food is no longer a problem, as we can screen toxins from our meat and dairy product far more easily than we could from our bodies and serve them fresh and delicious.

Your wardrobe is as flexible as your imagination.  Oh, there will still be designers; but instead of selling clothes they’ll sell computer files.  And getting dressed won’t take long.  Stumble out of bed in the morning into your transmat and execute the preprogrammed routine.  A few seconds later you arrive at work dressed in a new suit cleaned and pressed, with your hair combed and your teeth clean.  If you like you can even program a shot of caffeine already in your blood, or go one step better and clear those endorphins from your brain.  After work, you enter another program into the transmat and go directly from work to the club; you arrive in a completely different outfit with your makeup redone and even a new hairstyle.

But we don’t have to stop there.  Do you like being thirty-five?  No reason for you to get any older–we’ll just save the pattern of your thirty-five-year-old body and restore you to that physical form with each trip.  Or if you’d prefer being younger, we can probably do that too–maybe not the body you had then, but something very like it.

And of course everything that isn’t true of cloning is true of transmat copies:  they have your personality, your memories, even your fingerprints, and they’re your age.  Today there are people who are highly skilled to the point of indispensable; tomorrow we’ll be able to copy these people so that they can be in several places at once, and if something should happen to one he’s not entirely irreplaceable.

And we could go beyond that:  we could design our own people.  Once we know the basics of the human genome, we can modify it to suit our preferences; and unlike with genetic splicing, we don’t have to wait to see the results of our changes:  we can birth the new person fully grown.  And we don’t have to be limited to people.  We could design and build a faster race horse, a smarter ape.  We could design bodies completely different from anything we’ve seen.  And if we like we can give them human levels of intelligence.

That, of course, leads to a much deeper question.  Why is it that we don’t let our science fiction stories make copies of people?  At least, whenever we do it’s usually an accident, and usually with serious complications.  For television, it may be in part because of the technical problems of having multiple roles played by the same actor.  But there are also moral and theological challenges raised.

As already said, everything that isn’t true about clones is true about transmat duplicates.  At the moment of their creation, they match the pattern exactly.  They will diverge from each other thereafter, as each acquires distinct experiences and memories, but depending on how established their characters are at the time the pattern is made they will always be similar.  Which is the original?  In truth, neither–both are copies, the original having been destroyed in the creation of the pattern.  Neither has any more claim to being that person than the other; each has the same continuity of consciousness up to the moment the original was disintegrated.  And you might argue that it is illegal, immoral, or unethical to make copies of people–but is that going to prevent it from happening, or force it underground?

But there’s a deeper problem, a theological problem which you have to answer before you can use a matter transmitter:  is man merely the sum of his material parts?  Is there nothing more, nothing intangible, what might be called spiritual?  If there is, then when the body is disintegrated it would presumably leave a disembodied spirit; and when it is again reintegrated, some spirit would have to occupy it.  It’s easy to hypothesize some sort of spiritual dimension such that the spirit of the man can travel any distance instantly and so be immediately reunited with the body; but it’s just as easy to imagine that some other disembodied spirit would fight him for that body–one of the dead, perhaps, or something worse.  Also, if a man has one spirit, and you duplicate him, what spirit occupies the other body?

The presence of matter transmission technology in a game world has so many other implications it should be carefully considered before inclusion.  If you’ve got it, you have the basis for uncounted changes to the world from its weapons of warfare to its basic social structure.  You also have some very challenging story ideas from which to build adventures that can be as intellectually compelling as they are exciting.

Technology always changes the world in unanticipated ways.  When you consider the effects it has in your world, make sure you don’t stop with the obvious.

Since the original publication of this article, I have been reliably informed that the property known as quantum non-locality will make it possible to overcome Heisenberg and possibly build a matter transmitter, but probably will not work for the communication system I envisioned in that linked article–although I did give permission to another science fiction author to use it in his work, and it has a plausibility to it.


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