Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Tech Levels, Part 2

The next morning, he and Harkaman took an aircar and went to look at the city at the forks of the river. It was completely new, in the sense that it had been built since the collapse of Federation civilization and the loss of civilized technologies. It was huddled on a long, irregularly triangular mound, evidently to raise it above flood-level. Generations of labor must have gone into it. To the eyes of a civilization using contragravity and powered equipment it wasn't at all impressive. Fifty to a hundred men with adequate equipment could have gotten the thing up in a summer. It was only by forcing himself to think in terms of spadeful after spadeful of earth, cartload after cartload creaking behind straining beasts, timber after timber cut with axes and dressed with adzes, stone after stone and brick after brick, that he could appreciate it. They even had it walled, with a palisade of tree-trunks behind which earth and rocks had been banked, and along the river were docks, at which boats were moored. The locals simply called it Tradetown.
- Space Viking, 1963
H. Beam Piper

Okay, so I lied.  I was going to talk about encounters this week, until I noticed just how much there is to say about tech levels in Classic Traveller.  There are some interesting assumptions in Book Three, not the least of which is that interstellar travel and contra-gravity become possible in what should be the near future for Earth (despite the assessment of a tech level of 5 in Book Two).  While this might seem somewhat incongruous, it becomes even more curious when you realize that the world generation system results in wildly disparate tech levels for different star systems, right next to one another.  A lot of ink has been spilled over this since 1977, most of it trying to point out how "it ought not work that way."

However, the relatively imminent development of interstellar travel combined with worlds with different tech levels matches Space Viking to a "t" - and also the Demon Prince series by Jack Vance, or King David's Spaceship by Jerry Pournelle, and even the Polesotechnic League stories of Poul Anderson.  The concept of fallen star empires slowly rebuilding, with humans striving for something more, is a powerful theme.  So powerful, in fact, that a lot of campaigns were built around this back in 1977.

What makes this more interesting is incorporating the OSR idea that it is okay to leave descriptions relatively sparse so as to allow for later inspiration or improvisation - the UPP system for stars and planets fits this very nicely. Combined with different tech levels, and the referee can find a myriad different reasons why things are the way they are.  Between 1977 and now, the biggest mistake seems to have been to assume that the Traveller rules and background setting can be used for "reverse-engineering" how things actually work.  Unfortunately, this has mostly led to debacles over money, credits, trading, and whether or not markets could or should get regulated in the future.  This was and is boring.


  1. As always, good stuff.

    But I'm still waiting for your response to the Ship's Boat skill, on page 17 of volume 1. Specifically the second sentence of the Specific Game Effects.

    Verification word: limosi -- a very short limousine.

  2. Will - I'll just go take a look at that...yeah.

    Seriously, I'm not surprised that GDW picked up on this theme when they put together the Third Imperium (more about that in another post). But the mistake that was made - and it was a BIG ONE - was to limit the possibilities of Traveller to fit within that "in-house campaign". It's reminiscent of Gary Gygax's decision to make AD&D an "official" rules set; we've spent decades since then debating how many Beholders can dance on the head of a player-character that we've missed the possibilities in leaving it open to interpretation.

  3. Traveller was such a wonderfully open ended game system back in the day. Even the early 3rd Imperium was open to being anything you liked. Later groups of people insisted on mapping and plotting and quantifying every thing to the point where there were no longer frontiers of the imagination. And then folks began to moan that the 3rd Imperium was boring.

    How can a setting of 11,000 stars be boring? Somewhere along the way, imagination and wonder got squeezed out of Traveller - by both the later publishers and the fans (who literally loved the game to death - see the sterile arguments that still pass as debate on TML, mostly from people who haven't played the game in over a decade) - which I think is a great shame.


  4. Hi Victor:

    I read the first chapter of Piper's "The Space Viking" last week and said, "this is totally Traveller." I also think the setting of Vance's "The Dragon Masters" has a very Traveller feel.

  5. Kobold - the Third Imperium actually suffers from a kind of myopia over what Tolkien referred to as a "secondary reality" - that act of sub-creation that provides a sense of connection back to the real world. It became boring because people wanted the clockwork mechanism of the game to actually order reality, rather than the other way around.

    Tallgeese - Space Viking is definitely Traveller - Vance's stuff, as well. "Smade's World" - the initial setting for his Demon Prince series - can be found in the Solomani Rim, if you look hard enough, by the way.