Nathanael’s First Law

[To my players: This post talks about some of my thought processes behind adapting adventures to our current campaign. There are no specific spoilers, but if you don’t want to peek behind the curtain, as it were, then stop reading now.]

I mentioned in one of my previous posts that my current Numenera Campaign is about 50% my own creation and 50% cannibalised from other sources. One of the issues that I have found when adapting stuff to fit, particularly from other systems, is dealing with the overtly fantasy elements. Numenera very much runs on Clarke’s third law (any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic), so a lot of things are fairly easily translated; magical items become advanced technology, fantastical creatures become extradimensional aliens, and so on. However, sometimes there are fantasy elements that it’s very hard to come up with good scientific (or even psuedo-scientific) explanations for.

As an example, let us suppose that an adventure revolves around a monthly ritual involving the sacrifice of a virgin. It is possible to come up with many non-magical reasons for a monthly sacrifice to be required; perhaps there is an alien that protects the town in exchange for a steady and safe source of food or perhaps the blood from the sacrifice triggers an ancient artifact that benefits the area somehow. However, it’s much harder to come up with good reasons that the sacrifice must be a virgin or why it requires an elaborate ritual; these sorts of ideas come across as pure fantasy.

Now, sometimes these elements can be quietly dropped without much bother. However, in many cases they are quite important to the plot or the pacing of the adventure. The fact that the sacrifice is always a virgin might be a vital clue to the next victim or might provide a reason why the town elders (who are ordinary folk and therefore not inherently cruel) choose innocent victims, as opposed to simply sacrificing convicted criminals. The elaborate ritual provides an in-game reason for there to be multiple combatants present, as well as a decent time window for the PCs to intervene and save the sacrifice; much more exciting than the sacrifice taking thirty seconds on a sunny afternoon, after which the two guys involved head to the pub (though such a situation might have its own place in a different adventure).

This issue bothered me until quite recently, when I had a bit of an epiphany; there’s an excellent explanation why those things are required… they aren’t. All that is actually required is a dead body to feed the alien or a certain quantity of blood in a particular location; everything else is pure human invention. This principle, which I shall refer to as Nathanael’s first law (any sufficient amount of unnecessary mumbo jumbo is indistinguishable from magic), is probably not new to everyone; other GMs must have come up with it, though perhaps with different phrasing (never attribute to magic, what can be attributed to humanity). However, I think it’s an idea that is worth bringing up because it is quite freeing to be able to attribute a certain amount of “colour” simply to humans being human.

So, whenever you find yourself in a game situation where you can’t explain some unnecessary details or strange inconsistencies, just stick to the simplest explanation… a human did it.

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