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The Encyclopedia Galactica defines a robot as a mechanical apparatus designed to do the work of a man. The Marketing Division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as 'Your plastic pal who's fun to be with.'

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Basic Information

A robot is a machine capable of complex movements. Robots are often controlled by an artificial intelligence.

Etymologically the term derives from the Czech word robotnik meaning a serf or slave and comes to English through the 1921 Karel Capek1 play Rossum's Universal Robots - although the "robots" in question would probably be considered bioroids in modern sci-fi terminology.

Sub-types of robot would probably include the android - human-like to some degree - and the drone, traditionally a robot that is only semi-autonomous and depends on input from an external controller to some degree. Note that the robot/drone distinction may well be very important - an army of drones can be shut down by taking out their control centre, whereas robots will remain autonomous, following whatever orders they last received. Likewise, a drone can probably be hi-jacked but can't be tricked or deceived without also misleading the operator/controller at the other end. Note also that both robots and drones can be AI controlled - but in a robot the AI is local and in the drone remote. Until functional AI becomes cheap and routine, expect robots to be a lot more expensive for a given capability.

Confusingly, "robot" is also what South Africans call a traffic light. So don't be too concerned if a South African colleague says that he was delayed by a malfunctioning robot - the war hasn't started yet.

See Robot Roll Call for a list of robot-related tropes.

List of Real-World Robots

List of Fictional Robots

See Also



Game and Story Use

  • Robots make useful antagonists in a combat since unlike with humans, the PCs can shoot them up without worrying about the morality of it (if the PCs worry about that kind of thing… still avoiding a murder or manslaughter charges is worth something, too).
  • Robots can also make very disturbing enemy combatants, since they usually don't have a sense of compassion, are relentless, and if you destroy them, you only cause some equipment damage to the enemy instead of a "real" casualty.
  • Modern-day dictatorships require large armies or police forces to maintain their power. And from the point of view of the dictator, these are unreliable - they might refuse orders that violate their conscience or try to gain power themselves. In a science fiction setting, these might be replaced with robot forces, and a dictator only needs a small number of well-paid specialists to maintain his power. This will likely make the regime more ruthless, and the opposition will find its job a lot harder since they can no longer convince the police or military to stand on their side…
    • On the other hand, a robot unable to ignore orders is also unable to ignore stupid or malicious orders, or to adapt in the field. Something for any rebellion to keep in mind.
  • Military robots raise hacking and other EW/ECM techniques to a whole new level of importance - a skilled PC (or NPC villain, depending whose robots they are) can turn the balance of power on its head in seconds. A gunfight involving robots is also a really bad time to lose your IFF tag…
  • You can recycle most of the ideas and tropes surrounding robots by replacing them with golems in a fantasy setting. Really, they are pretty much the same thing - except that the former is created by technology, and the latter by magic.
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