12/23/14

Why is the OTU so "low tech"?


One critique I hear about Traveller (and other old school era Sci Fi games, to be totally fair) is that the technology is dated, based on 1970s expectations of futuristic technology and unable to keep up with rapid advances in computing, robotics and other applied sciences in the nearly 40 years since the game was first published.

I imagine the first temptation for most players and GMs of Classic Traveller is to try and shoehorn more advanced technology into the rules, often borrowing from games and sources like cyberpunk to represent cutting edge computer technology, but in my mind, this changes the scope and feel of the Traveller experience too much to be worthwhile.

I prefer to give some thought to justify why the OTU has the technological standards that it does, so that the mechanics of the game remain unchanged, but players can accept the tech level of their campaign as plausible. Here's a few thoughts on specific technological topics:

Computer Technology.
In the 1970s, when Traveller was written, even the home "microcomputer" was a pretty bulky piece of equipment that usually had to be plugged into an equally bulky cathode ray tube television set. Opening the computer's case revealed a series of circuit board "cards" that plugged into slots on the main board providing and expanding many of the system's functions. Those circuit boards were familiar to anyone who took high school electronics shop class or spent their hobby hours hanging around the local Radio Shack talking transistors with their fellow radio geeks. I mention Radio Shack for an important reason. While you could very easily go buy an Apple II or Commodore home computer that came, essentially, ready to use, Tandy/Radio Shack's systems often came as DIY kits, with the buyer expected to have the electronics basic skills needed to assemble the device according to their needs. Anyone with a modest workbench and selection of basic, cheap tools could build, and more importantly, repair, their TRS80 (Tandy - Radio Shack, get it?)

When you are hurtling through space, light years from the nearest repair facility and restricted by practical matters of available space on your ship to a fairly basic selection of tools and spare parts, you need to be able to fix things yourself. "Old school" computer components, such as the circuit boards I mentioned above, can be assembled or repaired with pretty basic tools: wire snips, screw drivers, soldering irons and a handful of spare resistors, transistors and wire. An engineer PC is expected to be able to fix most problems with the ship's computers with little more than these parts. Keeping computer component technology at the levels given in the game makes this plausible.

Even today's state of the art computers have reached the point where they are no longer user serviceable, if your iPhone malfunctions, you send it off to some mythical service center where they use expensive, high tech tool to fix it, or more often, replace it, since that is often cheaper than fixing the broken unit. This service model is completely unworkable on a small starship. The bulky advanced equipment used to service micro and nano technology is too big and expensive to build into a ship's engineering room, and what happens when that equipment breaks?

Ship Software.
For many similar reasons, advanced computer programming is unwieldy and inconvenient for the crew of a small starship. Where most computer programs could be coded or troubleshooted by anyone with a basic education in programming and a bit of time to go through the code in the 1970s, today's programs are complex and often generated by other programs to a user's specifications. If you're the computer tech on a starship and the software gets buggy, you need to be able to troubleshoot it quickly and easily before your life support, drive controls or weapon systems go offline.

In our "After the Rim War" campaign, we also retrofit the Traveller: The New Era ideas on Virus into the setting's history, as a minor contributing factor to the onset of the Long Night. Complex, integrated systems are a hacker or intelligent virus's dream, while simpler, isolated and dedicated programs make those cyber attacks less effective and easier to combat. Since the Long Night ended and the starfaring races recovered from its horrors, it is very rare for computer builders to interconnect every system on a ship with arcane and impossible to troubleshoot computer programming.

Cybernetics.
The previous two points on hardware and software pretty much explain the reason cybernetic gear doesn't permeate the OTU setting. If your cyber-arm's metallic frame breaks, who can repair it out in the field? If you suffer brain trauma and the programs controlling your cyber-eyes go buggy, who can plug in and troubleshoot the code?

Another major point is the assumed cost of these devices. How many average citizens can afford this gear? Sure, wealthy nobles and merchants probably get fancy cybernetic items installed in order to flaunt their wealth, but 99% of the folk you meet while Travelling simply can't afford the stuff, especially when life extending and enhancing drugs and medical treatments can achieve similar results much more safely and cheaply.

I think it's fun and cool to have the PCs encounter really high tech gear now and then, but that's what the tech level mechanics in the game are for. My players will run into TL15+ worlds once in a while, but overall, I'm going to keep things in the TL10-12 ballpark.

Your thoughts?

6 comments:

Samwise said...

For the hardware, just carry spares.
Particularly at the volume suggested for computers in Traveller, switching from 70s era to 10s era tech you should be able to stockpile a dozen replacements for every critical part with no trouble, especially if you don't have to also equip an electronics workbench.

For the software, again, that's what backups are for.
And not just backup disks to reinstall the whole system when you have an hour or three of "safe" time, but a simple whole backup hard drive with everything already installed. Just flip a switch and go to the alternate system. Since you are already assuming a high level of independence among systems that should make doing such switches even easier.

Cybernetics would be more difficult, particularly when the default for low berths is so egregiously murderous. (Though that does make it curious as to why the panaceas and life-extenders are so reliable.) The software should still be easily replaceable with modules, though you'd need a staff surgeon to repair hardware damage.

Christine Mayfeld said...

Using even a model 1bis computer, which costs 4mCr, having basically a dozen spare computers on board would get pretty expensive for a ship crew that's barely making ends meet anyway. You could also introduce regulations which require computer components not be sold retail and requiring installation by authorized starport facilities.

I prefer the story over the mechanics though, and to me, having the crew make skill checks to creatively repair the ship, maybe even just jury-rigging it enough to limp to a starport, is more exciting than simply going to the cargo hold and replacing a part every time something breaks.

Rich Trickey said...

Also remember cargo space. If you're operating a free trader or far trader, it's not an issue, but that 4mCr spare 1bis computer takes up 1 ton of cargo space. A Scout/Courier only has 3 tons of cargo space, a safari ship only has 6. That's a big chunk of cargo space used up just for spare parts.

Sam said...

The cost of computer equipment in Traveller also reflects the '70s paradigm, as does the space. What was a 4MCR, room-sized computer then, is a 4000CR, oversized workstation now.
Buying extras and storing them is simply not going to be an issue unless you assume that the raw computing power to operate a starship is as many iterations greater than the raw computing power needed to run an aircraft carrier and consequently equal to the iterations of cost reductions and power/storage increases.

As for story over mechanics, first bear in mind that this really only applies to computers. Those expand in power and storage dramatically. Other things don't. Carrying a backup HD is nothing. Carrying a backup engine is significantly different, and things like that will still need the damage control and field repairs.
Second, suspension of disbelief has its limits. After a certain point, players won't be able to reconcile their cell phones having more computing power than their starship.

Rich Trickey said...

Valid points, but the whole idea of this topic was how to justify NOT updating the tech. That Apple 2e in the picture Christine used in the article was pretty state of the art for home PCs in 1980, but now even a no frills cell phone or mp3 player has exponentially more power and utility, but I think if you want to totally update the tech you can just play a game like D20 Future, that doesn't even define most of the variables that CT did, flaws aside. D20 Modern/Future can't even precisely define a money system!

GURPS and T20 don't do much for me mechanically (too crunchy and too vague, respectively), but I'll have to review Mongoose Trav and T5 to see how they've updated this stuff, maybe there's a compromise to be had there.

Craig A. Glesner said...

What is wrong with keeping up with the real world TLs and just assume that starship components are triple redundant and basically safe? Also, why do folks seem to have this love for TL-A to C and don't want TL-D>? The whole point for me playing games is to get away from my low tech life, not play in a world that is just barely where the real world is. Me I want the high tech worlds and computers that work and starships that are outside of combat safe (low berths too at high enough TLs).

Post a Comment

TNN on Twitter