Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Tech levels

Tech levels in Classic Traveller have always been a subject of debate.  Back in 1977, what was interesting was seeing the range of tech levels, and what they meant.  Because of the relatively "gritty" feel of the original game - firearms and cutlasses on the ground, lasers and missiles in space - there was a lot of room for experimentation and creativity in the higher tech levels.  It was clear to most of us that Traveller was not a game for Star Trek simulation, since matter transport and anti-matter were "off the chart", essentially - TL 16 and 17, respectively.  However, that left a lot of room for referees to work in, and I recall people taking advantage of that.  But the play of the game tended to revolve around more easily grasped tech levels; TL 12 and under, mostly.

What emerged from re-reading the 1977 edition of the rules is shown above.  It shows the one example planet in the entire game: Earth.  Earth has an E class starport, 8000 miles in diameter, a clean standard atmosphere, 70% hydrographics, roughly a billion inhabitants, a balkanized government structure, a law level of two - and a tech level of five.  Now maybe that's a typo; in the 1981 edition, the tech level is eight, so perhaps this is just off.  However, what this suggests is that, overall, Earth's technological capabilities are not simply the highest level possible, but more what can be commonly produced.  (Remember, this is all conjecture.) What does TL 5 represent? Firearms for personal weapons, cloth armor, sandcasters and mortars (but not rockets), the very earliest computers, radio and television, ground cars, fixed wing aircraft, and oil as a major fuel.  Roughly 1940's level of technology - which is okay, if you accept that this was a planet-wide average - and that the entire system of tech levels itself was at best an approximation.

Needless to say, getting the highest quality high tech stuff was important - but the scale of tech levels themselves made game play more interesting, as we tried finding the "sweet spot" between different tech levels, available gear and trade goods, and how to take advantage of that, whether trading or raiding.  What I recall most clearly was that most "star empires" operated around tech level 12 or so - that being seen as the "upper edge" of what was easily developed.  There were a lot of star systems with much lower tech levels, making them interesting places to visit (and potentially sign up for lucrative trading deals, or consider for raiding purposes).  Since books like Space Viking and The Mote in God's Eye and Trader to the Stars were our inspiration, we were all trying the tramp freighter route, trying to get enough credits to buy a Type C mercenary cruiser, and then go raid planets for their wealth.

I recall quite distinctly rolling up a character who was a Navy Admiral, who then got several boosts to his social standing as he mustered out.  I presented this character to my friend Rick, who was running a Traveller campaign - could this fellow be a planetary ruler?  Rick grudgingly allowed this; my admiral ended up with a planet with a relatively lower tech level - 7 or 8, if I recall correctly.  There was some discussion of what the admiral's planetary government could build up, without me having a really good grasp of what was possible.  It ended somewhat abruptly with the arrival of pirates/Space Vikings of a sort, and the discovery that I had made some poor decisions as the planetary ruler, building trading ships without having planetary defenses.  In the end, the lower tech level of the planet made it difficult if not impossible to actually get what I wanted - rather unfortunate to the teenager I was back then!  I've often wondered what it would be like to play this scenario out again, knowing what I know now.  With a Classic Traveller revival, that might be possible - I can only hope!

Next Tuesday: 1977 Edition Encounters
Previous Tuesday: 1977 Edition Worlds, Part Two


  1. The question of tech level is an interesting one. Is it a planetary average (the default assumption in Traveller) or the leading edge (aka "commanding heights") for that particular planet.

    It is also interesting that many SF rpgs such as Traveller are amenable to the notion that different planets will have different levels of technical or social development (leaving aside the teleological and civilizational biases here), but unlike most real world civilizations/world economies, have these occur randomly with respect to the map.

    Unlike real world civilizations, different levels of technology and social development in SF games are often not positioned on the map with an axial division of labor with distinct regions that could be characterized as core, periphery, and semiperiphery (Star Wars seems to be a prominent exception to this, although social development still seems to be stagnant).

    This is probably because homogeneity is boring, but it probably also reflects a more or less sandbox philosophy of gradual filling-in of the map.

  2. It also behooves interstellar Travellers to keep the hillbillies down, and not trade high tech to them. Or at least to trade only finished goods without giving them the ability to create their own high tech goods.

    It also brings up the point that the TL of a world should be the most advanced locale, probably the spaceport area, and that other areas should be less advanced. There should be a number in the planetary code that describes the disparity in tech distribution, most easily just a number that shows the minimum tech for people living there.

    Earth for example features large countries with quite low technology, and large countries with quite high technology. So our disparity would be great. A world with just one inhabited colony would have virtually no disparity, simply because there are no other people.

    "People" here meaning sentient creatures who can trade, work, and be victimized.

    Note that this is not economic disparity, but the availability of the tech for Travellers who come to buy and sell. We must assume in many cases that there will be economic disparity but that Travellers will be uninterested in areas with no wealth of any kind.