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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Traveller Tuesday: Tech Levels

To head off the likely first question: Since tech level is an important part of a system's Universal Planetary Profile, and the UPP is administered by the Scout Service, I think it's safe to say that the concept of "tech levels" exists within the setting of the game as well as outside it.

My use of Traveller setting and dress falls under
fair use guidelines for both Mongoose and Far Future Enterprises.
Tech Levels in Traveller are seemingly arbitrary things. For example. TL 1 encompasses everything between bronze-age Greek city-state technology (a la 300), iron-age Roman Empire technology, and Medieval "castles and plate armor" up to but not including the Renaissance -- in other words, TL 1 is "Dungeons & Dragons", and TL 2 begins with the invention of gunpowder. That is a huge spread.

Compare that to the difference between Tech Levels 14 (Zhodani Consulate maximum) and 15 (Third Imperium maximum) and you get... not a lot of difference: Jump-6 vs Jump-5, anagathics, early (read: prototype) black globes, and general quality of life improvements. Essentially, TL 14 vs. TL 15 is the difference between the 1990s and today: we had computers and the internet back then, too, but the tech was slower and its applications had not become essential for daily life the way that global social media, GPS, and portable global telecommunications have today.

In other words, TL 15 is just a fancy way saying "mature TL 14", because the differences as listed are about the same as the difference between early TL 7 (the 1980s) and mature TL 7 (the present).

There are two reasons for this extreme difference at both ends of the spectrum. The first is a mechanical reason: player characters in Traveller exist at the high-TL end of things, and so it's important to know what they, and their opponents, do and do not have access to. (I fondly recall an adventure that my players have taken to calling "Murder Island", where a team of NPC mercs with TL 12 weapons and armor messed up a PC party with access to much higher technology.) Similarly, when protagonists have access to space travel, energy weapons and advanced combat armor, the differences between inferior barbarians becomes academic.

This is Imperial Marine Battledress shrugging off small arms fire.
Do you think it matters to him if your swords are bronze, iron or steel?
No. No, it does not. 
"Differences between inferior barbarians" is actually the second, in-game reason. The Vilani had jump drive (TL 9) while Terrans were building the pyramids (TL 0), and their civilization has lasted for over ten thousand years. If you decide that the fall of the First Imperium and the intermingling of Solomani and Vilani cultures during the Rule of Man counts as the creation of a new, hybrid civilization then it lasted for only eight thousand, but that hybrid has lasted another 3,300+ years. To put that in perspective, the Chinese language & alphabet has existed for only 3,500 years!

Given such an old culture (and the Vilani are ancient -- remind me some day to write a blog post comparing Vilani conservatism /stagnation, Solomani dynamism /instability, and Zhodani stability /homogeneity), there is enormous cultural pressure to equate "oldest" with "best". The entire Major Race/Minor Race division? Entirely a Vilani construct to keep themselves on top as the oldest, and therefore wisest civilization... at least until it was discovered that the Droyne were far older, which may explain some of the Imperial derision towards them that isn't based upon fear and contempt of psionics.

What I am getting after is this: I believe that the Tech Level scale that the Third Imperium uses is deliberately vague and periodically undergoes revisions every few hundred years, compressing the lower ends and lengthening the higher ends. Further, I believe that the Imperium has been TL 15 for so long because it is culturally convenient to have a technological descriptor that is not only large but also a nice, "round" number.  The Imperium is TL 15 because it is important for them to have a higher technology than the other polities around them:
  • Aslan Hierate (peak TL 11, average TL 9)
  • Hiver Federation (peak TL 14, average TL 12)
  • Solomani Confederation (peak TL 14 and estimated to hit TL 15 within a decade, but average is much lower)
  • K'Kree Empire (TL 11, average TL 9)
  • Vargr Extents (balkanized, TLs all over the place)
  • Zhodani Consulate (peak TL 14, average TL 13)
You may note that of the three TL 14 civilizations near the Third Imperium, two of them are hostile and have fought wars with them. (The Hive Federation is more disposed towards psychohistorical manipulation rather than open warfare, and also has to contend with the militant K'krees that it shares a border with.)  In other words, the Imperium MUST have a higher tech level than its enemies for exactly the same reasons that the United States needed a visibly higher technological edge than the Soviet Union: it was good for morale and made opponents think twice about attacking.

The Imperium would be perfectly happily to cruise along at TL 15 forever, slowly compressing lower tech levels downward so that it always stays on top. However, that metric is tied to how Jump drives work in your game, as the key difference between TL 14 and 15 is the creation of the Jump-6 drive:
  • Per first edition Central Supply Catalog, "The ‘Jump-6 limit’ remains in force for some time after the invention of Jump-6 drives. Various promising fields of technology eventually fail to produce a workable Jump-7 or higher drive. However, other technologies continue to advance." (p.6, CSC). 
  • However, second edition High Guard (still in playtest and so subject to change) states that Jump-7, -8 and -9 are feasible at Tech Levels 16, 17 and 18 respectively. This theory is bolstered by Marc Miller's Traveller5 (p.344).
If you adhere to the first school of thought, then the Third Imperium is likely to hover at a stated TL 15 for quite some time, until a significant technological benchmark is reached (such as the invention of antimatter power plants, practical matter-to-energy transmission, or a significant weapons development like a disintegrator0; when that happens, the Imperium is likely to revise its tech level metrics and state "Oh my goodness, look at this, we are actually at TL 17 [or more]." That this will likely leave the Solomani and Zhodani two tech levels behind is deliberate.

However, if you follow the second line of reasoning, things are both more clearly delineated and also more problematic. An additional one parsec in jump distance is hardly worth crowing about unless you're desperate, but if you use this metric then it stands to reason that other developments in Jump can be developed:  perhaps one can reduce the time spent in jump to less than a week. The strategic and logistical advantage inherent in jumping 6 parsecs in four days rather than seven is immediately obvious.

TL;DR the reason Tech Levels are weird in Traveller is because it's beneficial propaganda for the Third Imperium.

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