Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Tech Levels, Part 3 of 3

Technological index may vary from 0 to 18, more commonly ranging from 4 through about 10.  Higher numbers indicate greater capacity….The technological index is used in conjunction with the technological level table to determine the general quality and capability of local industry.  The tables indicate the general types or categories of goods in general use on the world.  In most cases, such goods are the best which may be produced locally, although better goods may be imported by local organizations or businesses when a specific need is felt.  In most case, the local citizenry will not be armed with weapons of a type which cannot be produced locally, although police or military units may be armed with weapons up to several levels above local technology.  Technological level also indicates the general ability of local technology to repair or maintain items which have failed or malfunctioned….The technological level tables have several spaces or holes, and such gaps should be filled in by the referee or the players when they discover items or devices of interest.

Worlds and Adventures, pp. 9-11
Traveller, 1977 Edition

Terse.  That’s about the best way to describe this section of the original Traveller rules.  What did we get?  A sense of general technological development, the use of local conditions as a context for technological capacity, and a specific suggestion to “fill in the blanks.”  It’s also quite clear that this entire section is written with the referee as the intended audience.  Just three short paragraphs and a couple of charts – it might as well have been labeled, “not to be left unfinished.”
I recall quite distinctly several debates about how easy it would be to get ships repaired on planets with tech levels of 7 or under.  Generally speaking, tech level was used as a limiting factor – while there was considerable variety between tech levels of different planets, most of the time, tech level wasn’t thought of as the basis for suggestion, but rather as the end of discussion.  “I want to get my ship repaired.” “Yeah, well, the planet is tech level 8.”  “They have spaceships, right?”  “Your jump drive is tech level 10 – too bad.”
This attitude was reflected in the reviews of the time.  Here’s Don Turnbull in White Dwarf # 6:

Tech. Index: 5. They have developed gunpowder (they have SMGs) but don’t know how to make chain armour; they have simple computers and radio, but no television, and despite the fact that there is quite a lot of water about they haven’t invented the submersible. They have fixed-wing aircraft but no nuclear fission. Altogether this is a pretty improbable world. Interesting to know, for instance, how those fixed-wing aircraft fly in what is virtually a vacuum, and what do the bureaucrats breathe?

Or Tom Wham’s more positive review in The Dragon #18:

Technology: 14 (very high) Non-industrial world…As you can see, “Grendal” nearly created herself.  The small population, high technology and government type seemed to dictate to me that Grendal is some sort of research base on a fairly inhospitable little world. And so she shall be when any adventurers land upon her.

So, technological level was seen as a suggestion to the referee about what could be expected from place to place.  The idea that technological levels might be shared from one star system to another, or that tech levels might get improved over time, were not easily grasped (though some referees did do both of these things). Even so, within those three paragraphs was a lot of implications to act as a guide for the aspiring referee:

  • Tech levels range from 4 (roughly c. 1900 AD) to 10 (beginning interstellar flight).  That meant that a lot of planets were of not high enough tech level to produce their own starships.  This in turn meant that a few planets of high enough tech level (and population) probably would dominate interstellar relations.
  • Local planetary conditions would shape how technology was used – Marc Miller would later refer to Fritz Leiber’s short story “A Pail of Air” to show how even a low tech level could be plausible on an (seemingly) airless world.  This particular aspect of “fleshing things out” was something generally observed in the breach by most referees in 1977.
  • Higher tech level stuff might be available on a planet, but would likely cost more, due to importation and scarcity.  This in turn would provide a trade opportunity, for those ready to see it.
  • Tech level would shape and limit the technology in use in interstellar relations.  If you had a really high tech item, you’d have to be prepared to either take it back to its planet of origin to get fixed, or be ready to make the repair yourself.
There were some limitations and lacunae in the technological index scheme.  “Star Trek” tech – matter transport, artificial intelligence, anti-matter power sources – were all off the chart, so to speak.  Any sense of how aliens might develop technology was missing – referees were to assume that alien races would develop like humans – or not.  (In fact, there were no rules for the development of aliens, at all – I’ll come back to that in another post.)  The effect of law level on technology and availability was also left to the referee to determine.  The relative terseness of the technological index system seems ideal from an “old school” perspective.  Fill in those blanks, make up your own stuff, and don’t look back.
Looking at the technological level table today, I’m struck by those empty spots in various columns.  Blasters, particle beam weapons, and yes, light sabers, all suggest themselves in the personal weapons column.  There are other possibilities: combat armor of different sorts; larger shipboard weapons, tightbeam communications, neural nets, cloning, medical advances, different kinds of water, land, and air transport.

But its the second-order derivatives that seem even more interesting today.  What tech level would be assumed to be the interstellar standard?  What choices would be made regarding tech level and availability, that would then shape the products available?  How would people notice tech level differences?  Might there be two or more tech levels in common use?  Some thought given to this before the start of a campaign could make a lot of difference in how the world feels to the players.

One thought on “Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Tech Levels, Part 3 of 3

  1. I never had a problem with the – "this is a Tech 8 world and your J-Drive is Tech 10, you'll have to order the parts from the Tech 10 world 2 parsecs away" thing. Probably because we live in a country with next to no industrial base and we were always having to wait for parts to come from the US, Japan or where-ever for what ever appliance or machine had broken down.

    In a lot of cases, the increasing level of computerisation in cars, for example, has seen the closure of the backyard mechanics who (with J-o-T/1 and Mechanical/1) could be usually relied upon to knock up a needed part. Now, the mechanic carries a laptop and wears a spotless white coat (and is called a service technician)!

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