The Architect DM: Fantasy Technology & Development

In my last post I talked about how the abandonment of locations and their resettlement can be used to influence the way we design our RPG worlds. The discussion led into the idea of technologies that could be developed and subsequently lost along with a civilization, only to be rediscovered at a later date by different cultures.

I know for a fact that many people have a mental disconnect when it comes to thinking of “technology” and their typical Dungeons & Dragons game world. I often think of technology in an RPG along the same lines as psionics, there seem to be a lot of people who love to use them and a lot of people who avoid using them altogether.

When it comes to technology there is quite a bit of framework that needs to be put forward in order to discuss it adequately.For the purposes of this article I’m going to use the term ‘technology’ in a very general sense. When I say your game includes technology it doesn’t necessarily mean there are dwarves flying around in gyrocopters shooting guns at each other, but that is certainly a distinct level of technology that some games might like to have. We most often hear technology and development described in terms of the Age system, starting with the Three-age System for classifying prehistory (particularly european/mediterranean prehistory) into the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. One of the resources that I like using for this kind of development is the List of archaeological periods over at Wikipedia, which shows you the progression of certain ages across the various continents.

Which Period Does Your Game Take Place In?

The answer to that question is a tough thing to figure out, and a lot of people probably see it as one of the most important questions regarding their game. The answer, in my opinion, is really not that important. Even if you’re attempting to run a game in a historic setting, unless you’ve studied history extensively, you’re not going to be able to get everything right. My observations are that the implied setting of most D&D games is very strongly early-medieval in theme and sticks pretty closely to the kinds of things that were seen throughout the Iron Age. Most people don’t run D&D games using only stone or bronze tools,  but you also don’t often see a castle wall lined with cannons. However, when the characters inevitably end up on a (pirate) ship in the pirate ship-themed adventure, you bet your ass there are going to be cannons there!

How to Include Technology in Your Game

The way I see it there are two methods of inclusion for any particular type of technology into your game. The first method is that the technology exists in what I’ll call an Uncommon-to-Common way, meaning that if the PCs wanted to find this technology they could and it would be fairly reasonable for them to be able to reproduce it or purchase it if they so desire. One key distinction that I have to make is that this doesn’t mean your entire game world has access to this technology. One of the aspects of world building that I think is often overlooked by DMs and players is that civilization doesn’t develop at the same rate in every location. The example I used in my last post illustrates this perfectly, the Romans had means of creating and using Concrete (even advanced methods which allowed it to cure while underwater) which were lost when the empire collapsed and were not seen again until hundreds of years later.

The second method of including technology is that it exists but only in a very rare case. It is not a far stretch to believe in a world where very few printing presses exist or where black powder is incredibly hard to come by but is still used by a small group of people. Just because you include a certain type of technology in your game doesn’t mean you have to raise the general level of technology throughout the game. You can treat technology in exactly the same way as magic items are often treated in the typical D&D game, a specific piece of advanced technology can be a very interesting and unique item to include in your game world. It can be as simple as throwing a Leonardo Da Vinci style NPC into your game that has invented a ton of objects that might not become commonplace until centuries later.

There are a slew of factors to think about once you’ve included the technology, such as who might want to get their hands on it, how it was invented in the first place, or what implications and changes it may cause a specific society or the world at large. If these types of issues come up, they can easily be turned into interesting and fun plot elements in your game. Running an adventure where your players are hired to sneak into a neighboring nation and steal their plans for some new kind of weapon can be a great story to tell that ties directly into this method.

Ask and You Shall Receive (Again)

This topic first came onto my radar for this series thanks to a comment on my World Building By Process post by DarkPlane DM asking:

-How does changing the order and speed of technological development in a fantasy world affect things? How would you represent changing the flow of invention to create a unique blend of time periods? What if, for example, the invention of the printing press happened before the invention of the castle, or something else that wasn’t directly connected? Presumably, you could have a culture that had printed books, but no need for or understanding of castles. Little unexpected connections like that could create an interesting and unique environment. After all, our technological progression is somewhat serendipitous, dependent on individual thinkers. Your thoughts?

-How do you go about molding common social thought and philosophy within a unique culture? Any tips in that regard?

The simplest and perhaps least helpful answer is that changing the order and speed of technological development can be a great way to make your game world unique and interesting. In DarkPlane’s question two types of technological development are compared (the printing press / castle), but my advice would be to avoid worrying about the relation of two disparate elements like those. First you should focus on the primary development that is different from “history as we know it”. In this case the printing press is invented early. Who invented it and how does it work? What are the implications of this invention on its own? The question postulates that you would have a culture with a proliferation of printed books. Look at your typical D&D world and think about it: if all of these books didn’t need to be written by hand, what would the people do instead?

My first thought on this is that Wizards are the biggest D&D and fantasy RPG culprits when it comes to ‘writing a lot of crap in books’. What are they writing exactly? Spells! Well how about a culture in your RPG game world where spellbooks fly off the printing press and every 6-year-old can have a spellbook handy? I’d imagine they’d also be able to print a plethora of “How To” spellcasting books as well. What kind of nation would THAT create? Just thinking about it makes me want to run it in my game. By focusing on the primary invention, you can layer the changes it causes and make it the linchpin of history in your game world.

After all, when we’re all thinking of our assumed fantasy game world we unconsciously base it off of the world around us, so the invention of something like the printing press hundreds of years early should certainly have far reaching consequences no matter when or why castles are built. That doesn’t mean you can’t branch from one invention into others, but I would focus on developing each one in turn so that you don’t lose some of the impact of what you’re changing with the assumed setting.

DarkPlane’s second question is incredibly deep and will probably require a whole post (or a graduate course) to address it appropriately. Besides, I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask with a question like that because I am focusing more on the design and architectural elements of world building, but since I have been asked I will do my best to answer it in the near future!

Seriously, He’s Talking About His Campaign Again?

I really try not to do it that often, but I feel like it is quite relevant to this topic so I would like to share what I’ve done in my current game world when it comes to technology. When I set about designing the various nations that would make up the majority of my campaign world, I wanted the option to be present for players to obtain and interact with a higher level of technology along the same lines as those commonly associated with Gnomes and Goblins in fantasy world (such as World of Warcraft’s gryocopters, bombs, and guns).

What I ended up with was a primarily Dwarven nation nestled between two mountain ranges (meaning ore and other resources were plentiful) that had somehow recently broken free of the Iron Age and into a form of pre-Industrial development. The nation was known for its abundance of airships, gyrocopters, firearms, warforged, and various forms of clockwork technology.

The catch that I set in place to prevent my game world from quickly growing into a collection of pre-Industrial nations is that the technology is prone to falling apart. All the time. What this means in my game world is that a large portion of creating and using any of the advanced technology is that it must be nearly constantly maintained and the only effective repairmen are the Dwarves or Artificers that come from this nation. As a result the technology has stayed largely contained within the borders of the nation and the only extended use of it outside of those borders is attributed to my party that finally got the airship they’d been trying to obtain (with help from a Dwarven Artificer guest player).

I’m actually a bit lukewarm with how this approach has worked in my game so far. None of the players have shown even a passing interest in using firearms because they’re either melee-centric or use magic for their ranged attacks. Several members of the party had the goal of obtaining an airship from the very beginning, and so by the time it happened it was almost a foregone conclusion. I’m happy with how the nation itself, and the adventures within its borders, played out but I don’t think the level of technology contributed very much to them. However, as I anticipate running a countless adventures going forward in the same game world (mostly as limited run chapters set throughout the history of my game world) I am very happy that if someone in the future wants to play a gun slinging Dwarf rogue, that option will be waiting for them.

Is There More to Technology?

Hell yes! There is a lot more ground to cover when it comes to technology and cultural development in RPGs. With that in mind I will most likely explore these topics in future Architect DM posts, but if you’d like to help me out I am incredibly pleased with how reader questions have contributed to this series so far. Please share any questions you might have or your own experiences and observations with incorporating different levels of technology into your game worlds.

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.


  1. This is a great article, and I agree that the idea of a world where there’s tons of spellbooks flying around would be great. I’m imagining a sort of World of Harry Potter meets Eberron. Lots of good ideas can come from mixing and matching technological levels. It’s also kind of funny to me that a lot of people seem to treat the dung ages approach as being their very sacred untouchable monument of fantasy play, but in the same world you had places with steady improvement in culture, mathematics and burgeoning technology, that in my opinion make for just as interesting models for fantasy play.

    I think Firearms occupy a weird space in D&D 4e that renders them incapable of really standing out in play, because magic is easy to use and perfectly balanced with weapons for blasting things. Unless you want to convert the bow-wielding rogues and rangers into guns by reskinning their weapons, you’ll have a ton of melee people (melee people being super awesome in 4e) and magic people who have no use for firearms, and the people who could use them are using string and wood bows. However if you re-skinned the wizard as a crackpot with magic guns and explosives and weird powders you could get some of the flavor of that high technology and make it appear in play as explosive and exotic.


    In my own setting I do some weird stuff with technology. The Adelians vacillate between having cities where you have golems on wheels unloading ships, soldiers with magic rifles alongside soldiers with swords, wizards with magic that is mostly crippled, obtuse and difficult to master, and yet the majority of the world being composed of rural farming villages inspired by India and Asia. The reason I use is religious superstition. In the world religion is The Most Important Thing for nearly everybody, and making a gun takes a month of rituals to insure the gun is well built and doesn’t invoke the wrath of the spirits when you try to reload it (i.e. explodes on your face). But it’s hard to convey this just speaking casually, I’ve written a ton on the subject of magic and technology in The Spirits of Eden.

    Like I said, great article.

  2. BrianLiberge says:

    I think a group of distant, well resourced wizards might employ some elements of New Media. What is the Sending Ritual after all but a really expensive, elitist Twitter?

    Message boards, or blogs could be set up with Magic Mouths in Known locations. Need to reference a particular wizards knowledge but he can’t be bothered? Simply cast View Location on the proper Magic Mouth.

  3. That is an awesome idea, which I shall someday crib.

  4. I too have dabbled in technology with my campaigns, and also found that there’s not really a lot of interest in firearms among my players. Personally I can’t understand this, I would love to play a gunslinging eladrin or a musketeer halfling…

  5. Thanks for answering the question – you were really helpful. What I’ve decided to do is single out the technologies that are/aren’t going to be available in certain parts of my homebrew world, and write a general list of the changes that would/wouldn’t happen based on those specific innovations. It should keep me organized.

    Did you develop any unique powers or even a unique class for gunslingers? I’m curious because I have firearms in my setting, and I ended up spending hours making a unique class that uses guns (martial controller, of course – I couldn’t resist the poetry of it). If you have any interesting ideas for that kind of thing, I’d love to hear them, whether on a post in this column or elsewhere. Thanks again!

  6. @BrianLiberge: If Critical Hits had half the vision facebook or twitter does, I would be able to “like” your comment. As it is, I’m forced to tell you in a much more lengthy and inconvenient way that you’re the man.

  7. I have also found a lack of interest in guns from my players.

    We kept the same world between campaigns, when we switched from 3.5 to 4. So in order to adapt things a bit more to the idea of points of light, I jumped 15 hundred years, and had the world enter a bit of a dark age. Now the guns are gone, but the bits of technology that people liked (flying ships) still exist in certain communities and/or as ancient relics.

    Many thanks for kinds words.

  8. Darkplane: Sorry it took me a while to respond – I didn’t develop any special classes because I don’t think it really needed to be done, instead I designed the weapons just like other Ranged weapons in 4E but distinct enough that there are advantages and disadvantages to using them. That way Rangers, Rogues, and Artificers specifically could use them and change the character’s feel quite a bit while not having to come up with that many more rules.

    Wyatt: Thanks for the long comment, and for the look into how you’ve very interestingly handled guns & technology in your awesome game world!

    BrianLiberge: the beauty there is that you could go for a long time having this “internet of wizardry” in your game and the players may not even realize exactly what it’s supposed to be. 😀

    Krontekag: I know, seriously, I would love to play a gunslinging 4E character given the opportunity!


  1. The Architect DM: Fantasy Technology & Development from Critical Hits » RPG #RPG

  2. Today’s Architect DM post about Technology & Development in RPGs is up on @criticalhits

  3. RT @bartoneus: Today’s Architect DM post about Technology & Development in RPGs is up on @criticalhits

  4. I find it very funny that @FFGames announced a DaVinci game and I saw it just after my post about RPG Technology: