Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Putting more High Tech into Traveller

Fantastic Technology for Traveller? Why Not?

It has been observed over the years that the Classic Traveller Technology seems dated. Like stuck in the 1970's dated. We all know about the computers. Someone I know recently compared the CT equipment section to a 1970's hardware store.

Well what should be done about this? Simple: Add More! Add in anything you like. If you see it in another sci-fi property, put it in.

Really? Won't that wreck the game, or make it silly or something? With very few exceptions, no it won't 'ruin' Traveller. I say the opposite – that it will make Traveller even better.

Remember that the Referee gets the final say in whether a particular gadget will be in the game. Players should suggest and advocate for things they want to see. Make your case to the Referee and use your real-life Liaison skill to convince him to add it in.

Some are easy. I had a player a few years back who wanted a pole weapon, a boarding axe. We talked over the details of what the axe could do. I decided that it was like a Pike and in combat simply used the Pike line on the combat matrices. The player was happy, and it took very little work. The PC paid a weapon-smith on a planet to build it. I charged a premium price for it, but the player got what they wanted so it was fine.

Other things might be more complicated. The Referee must consider carefully before agreeing when anyone suggests a new gadget for the game.

Do you remember trans-warp beaming, introduced in Star Trek Into Darkness? Or the de-aging process shown in ST:TNG Season 2? The first renders Starlfleet irrelevant; the second grants everyone immortality! Talk about overturning the setting! This is why neither of these gadgets appeared again after that movie and episode. Easiest way to avoid destroying the setting; pretend like it didn't happen.

All new technologies should have a TL, assigned by the Referee. Does this mean that a TL-12 device should now be available on every TL-12+ world the PCs visit? No. A planet with TL -12 has not constructed or conceived of all the devices that possibly could be invented at TL-12. The planet has the potential to construct it but not automatic possession of it.

Let's say we have two planets both with Population code 7, and Tech Level 12. They are a Jump-1 apart. Do you think that the two planet's technology outputs will be identical? Of course not. One planet is Large (high gravity) and has an Earth type atmosphere. The other is tiny (low gravity) and has almost no atmosphere at all. The two planets' Tech foci will be quite different. One will emphasize mitigating the crushing gravity. The other will prefer tech to support the atmosphere and protect against cosmic radiation. Lots of overlap, but not identical.

Government, Law Level, language and culture will all influence how technology develops. Even for ubiquitous tech like starships and Jump drives, the TL code describes the functional ability of the device. It does not say how it looks or the mechanisms or methodologies it utilizes. The Tech Level is a scaled indicator of technological potential, not a comprehensive listing.

A horseshoe is at best a TL-3 device. We live at TL-8. Can you make a horseshoe? I bet you can't. There are people (I know some) who can, but I can't. The technical feasibility of making something does not guarantee its ubiquity. It is the same with anti-gravity boots or portable wormhole generators.

They exit only when an NPC makes them, and the Referee decides how often that happens.

Ways to Avoid a Setting-wrecker Gadget

First things first: when you play Traveller, get out of the mindset of easy and fast communication.

Traveller grew out of the pulp science fiction of the first half of the 20th century, in its aesthetic and tone. In Traveller, the one central concept that a new gadget must not violate is this: travel and communication are slow. If the new gadget doesn't change this one central conceit, you can make it work in your game.

Let me elaborate on why you should protect this central concept.

One, it reflects the game's heritage in fiction. There are many lists of books and authors that influenced Traveller. Some other time I'll share mine. All this old fiction acknowledges that travel and communication are slow because Space is Vast, and traversing it takes a long time. As a result of this, my favorite symbol of sci-fi, the starship, is a place where adventure happens. And that is a very good thing.

Digression: sci-fi movies and TV spend comparatively little time on the journey from here to there. They are constrained by the run-time of the episode. I am not here criticizing TV or movie sci-fi for this; it's just a difference in the mediums.

The starship is more often a plot device to move the characters around. I don't say that they never show action aboard, but it is not typical. The journey to New interesting Planet A or B takes exactly as long as the writers need it to.

With gaming, the trip can take as long as the Referee needs it to, for the adventure aboard the ship. Traveling there can be the adventure in itself. The game can afford a slow pace. Maybe that's why the name of the game is Traveller.

Two, slow communication and travel is very liberating for Traveller. Slow speed of information sharing means there is actually a frontier. The PCs have far more agency, and can face more danger when the police or rescue squads are not 'just over the hill', or 'just a phone call away'.

Three, slow communication also means that any new invention needs a long time to propagate out to the wider setting. Planets that are even one week apart are isolated from each other. Professor Robotnik of Cadawala invents a Portal Gun. It may take months or years for the news to make it to Stavanger. It could take longer before someone on Stavanger acquires one or builds a duplicate.

This is why the Communication Routes or Trade Routes rule from Book 3 is so important. It establishes which planets are in regular communication with which others, and which worlds are out of the loop. Information to or from those worlds will move erratically, and some information won't move at all.

The consequences of Space being Vast

With slow communication, months may pass before other scientists get familiar with Robotnik's work. General awareness of his invention will take even longer. How many of you read Science or Nature or even Popular Mechanics on a regular basis? How about the British or Indian versions of the same?

Your PCs might catch a rumor on Worosha about a new invention over on Lanhzhou. Were they planning to go to Lanzhou? How fast can they get there? By the time the PCs arrive, their intelligence may be months out of date.

If the data has passed through information brokers, it may have become garbled. It could now be edited, or be incorrect as well as outdated. If you want to know the truth, your PCs must travel to Lanzhou and investigate the rumor in person. Hey presto, adventure happens!

Here on Earth we take for granted up-to-the-minute communication around the world. In Traveller that does not happen from planet to planet. It should not be hard to imagine why a world's government might not want to have a planetary information network. Consider the way Communist China and North Korea censor their people's access to information.

Governments might not want to share information or technology with neighbor worlds. Consider how Wakanda declined to share its magical-space-rocks technology with its neighbors.

Even on a Trade Route, any news from Planet A to Planet B, next down the line, will be at least a week old by the time you get it, and any response to that news will be at least two weeks old when it arrives back at A. The situation will have changed, and the change may be dramatic. B's response may be 'too little too late' or rendered irrelevant by the events taking place while information was travelling.

For this reason, few people on A or B will be paying attention to what goes on at the other planet, since they have so little ability to respond or interact with it.

It is possible for two worlds to work out a fleet of couriers, each leaving 1 day after the last, to reduce the information lag. Why would that be the case? What connection could they have to make it worth that level of effort? This won't be the typical case.

Start Inventing!

Referees, if you want to include a new gadget in your game, don't have it appear in the equivalent of a Sears catalog or in a vendor stall in the Class-D starport. Throw the players a rumor, just the idea of a device that does Effect Q. The PCs can pursue it or not. “Wow, a portal gun sounds like it would be very useful. We should find out if it's real and then buy/borrow/steal it. Or destroy it because a Patron wants it gone.” All of these are adventures, which is the point.

Referees should put some limitations on any particularly powerful or dangerous items. The easiest to use is the Law Level. This may be all you need. Governments outlaw and restrict things they don't like all the time. I wrote a post about Banned Starship Weapons. The Law Level explains why you haven't encountered a Gravitic Imploder yet. The Referee might allow one to exist, but you'd best believe it's going to be the focus of an adventure.

If the PCs get their hands on one, then proceed to use it before witnesses, the Law will be after them. That's a good restraint on powerful gadgets. It's also the recipe for more adventure.

Any device, whether rare or not, can be stolen or broken. Do the PCs have the skills to repair the gadget? If not, they're off on an adventure to find an NPC who can.

I recommend that Referees disallow any device that would substitute for a PC's skill. Skills are the PC's main asset; substituting a gadget devalues the PCs' agency in the game. It is a form of cheating; Traveller has mechanisms for gaining or improving skills. Do not let the players go around that with gadgetry.

Many gadgets will not have much in the way of destructive potential. If an upgraded weapon makes your player happy, let them have their custom job. Don't let them have it for free! Charge premium prices and occasionally throw a repair job at them.

Another simple way to keep PCs from getting out of hand with their new gadgets is to provide NPCs with them as well. I have heard that PCs on a low-tech planet may want to run amok with lasers and grenade launchers. Arm some NPCs with similar weapons and you will restore caution and sense to the PCs. 

Whatever the gadget may be, do not let the players use it without consequence. The Portal Gun I mentioned earlier has a hidden deadly flaw. A PC using the portals might get stuck between the entry and exit portals! The PCs got a hint of this while investigating the device when they discovered it. It may have kept the players from being overly enthusiastic about using it.

NPCs may not have the same gadget, but they can know about it, and want it. Traveller characters are not super-human. Adversaries with conventional weapons are a threat. If the PCs go on a spree with their new super gadget, send pursuing agents after them.

In the end, new gadgets should add to the fun of the game, not take it away. Traveller is about adventure, and new gadgets can be a great reason for the PCs to go out and have an adventure. They can also be rewards for great adventures.

In the comments, share some fantastic High Tech wonders you'd like to see in Traveller.

Space Station image by Pixabay  Wormhole image by Pixabay  Robot image by Pixabay


  1. I do feel that cyberpunk breaks the setting a bit too. Traveller is people (or people with a slight twist) doing people stuff.

    1. Yes, people not machines should be front & center. I didn't care for cyberpunk myself, but I think that it does not violate the First Rule, so it could work. Because each planet is isolated by time/distance, there's no way for the 'Net to expand beyond one planet. Other planets in the same solar system would be hard to access because of the time lag. Therefore I'd be okay with such a subsystem existing in my TU, but I wouldn't use it for anything.

    2. exactly - the point of Traveller was really ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I do agree that the tech can be moved around a lot, though I really don't mind huge ship computers (look up the size of the computers in Star Trek!). But technology took off in ways not anticipated by the authors. Though I did have an "everything watch" back in the 80's college days that was basically a very smart watch with a lot of potentially expensive options.

  2. I liked Stars Without Number's approach to cyber-implants (they are about, but mostly people just buy a device that does the same thing without the cost of surgery)
    Artificial intelligences could mess things up, though Andy Slack's solo Traveller game has had an intelligent scout ship for a while without messing things up (it means they don't need an engineer who only sits round and fixes the ship)

    1. How would you see AI as messing things up?

    2. I was thinking of the game version of 'robots are taking our jobs'. If intelligent computers/smart maintenance droids/autopilots are widespread, you need to rethink what the PCs' job/role is. As in real life, maybe some of those stolen jobs are no great loss (driving rosters for overland travel; maintenance rolls for the ship)

  3. Just on the computers - I compromised by positing that modern computers can't handle the jump into and out of hyperspace. Something about it scrambles them and they become unreliable if powered up during a jump.

    So passengers can be walking around with supercomputer laptops and hyper-phones or whatever during travel, but the computer room of the ship is constructed out of ancient and bulky systems that will keep performing through jumps.

    This also means that an unexpected jump into or drop out of hyperspace might scramble any of the nice "modern" equipment if it's powered up at the time.

    It also limits robot usage on ships, but not on planets.

    1. Thanks! That's as sensible as needs be. I have read several interpretations of why the computers are so large. Any of them work, in my opinion. Even if you wanted in your TU to have the computers take up only one Dton regardless of model number, that works! Small computers don't break the setting, which was my point in this post. As long as you don't break the setting, put in/take out whatever you want/don't want to be there.

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