Interstellar Technology

Games like Traveller use the concept of a Technology Level (or TL) to worlds to determine the level of technology available there. This is often a simple number which represents what sort of technology is available, and provides a broad indication of what the world is like compared to other worlds in an interstellar empire.

Since I discovered GURPS before Traveller, I tend to use the TL descriptions used by that system for my own settings. For example:

  • TL 5 – Industrial revolution
  • TL 6 – Early 20th century mechanical age.
  • TL 7 – Mid to late 20th century atomic power and electronics.
  • TL 8 – Late 20th to early 21st
  • TL 9+ – The future

YAGS SciFi (and the WorldGen software I use to build worlds for it) assumes that the height of technology for the interstellar empire is around TL 16. Much like on Earth, the technology is not evenly distributed with core worlds and those on major trade routes having access to the best technology, and those on the fringes being behind the times.

Distribution of Technology

Some technology can be found everywhere. On Earth, Kalashnikovs are a common staple of pretty much any developing world army. They are cheap to mass produce, and simple to maintain, so they could be easily purchased by any nation that wanted them, even if they couldn’t produce them themselves (and why would they even try, when it was cheaper to buy from those that do).

There’s no reason a world with a pre-industrial civilisation would not want to buy in higher tech weapons in a similar way. Indeed, there would probably be certain models that are built on numerous worlds under license for sale to anyone who wants them. Real high tech weaponry (particle fusion rifles, anti-matter cannons, nuclear disintegrators etc) probably has both restrictions on sale, and practical limitations due to power and exotic component requirements.

Similarly, mobile phones have seen common use across the world. Not only are they relatively cheap and easy to transport, they need less infrastructure than a communications network based on landlines. For an interstellar trader, putting a world wide satellite network in place around some medieval dirt ball, and selling handsets and subscriptions to instant communications in return for precious metals or simply hunting rights, could be cheaper than a land based network.

There will be low tech colonies which look like a medieval viking settlement or an ‘American West’ township, because local raw materials and skills have been used to build the housing and roads, but high tech firearms, communication devices and even medicines (such as antibiotics) will be available. Anything which is durable or easily replaced, or which can be supported by local technology, will be present.

A few people may even have electric vehicles (powered from solar energy because petroleum is difficult to source without the infrastructure), but this will be mixed in with horses or equivalent riding animals because they are much easier to maintain and replace. The rich may even have modern built houses.

Unless there is a good reason for a society to spurn such technology, it will be present. The biggest barrier may be such worlds not having anything to offer potential traders. Most natural resources may be easier to obtain from asteroids however, so finding things a low tech world can offer the galaxy at large may be challenging.

Production of Technology

Looking at how things work on Earth, the distribution of technology is uneven and also messy. The USA may be the most technologically advanced nation, but most of the electronics are actually produced abroad where it is cheaper. The same sort of thing will probably happen at the world level in an interstellar empire.

Whole technologies might count as higher TL than the world at large, because they are funded or supplied from off world. A TL 4 pre-industrial rural colony may have a TL 15 agricultural system that is fully managed by robotic agricultural facility, because they bought in the technology to do that. They don’t have the capability to support such machinery, so rely on external support contracts, whilst the majority of the population live in some idealised (at least for the wealthy) rural pre-industrial culture. An asteroid base may need TL 9 life support systems, whilst having no industrial capacity of its own to replace things when bits break.

Supporting a TL of 7+ would probably require a population in at least the millions, and the population requirements will go up for higher TLs. Many small settlements may be rated at a low TL, despite making heavy use of high tech material. A small research station or military outpost may be TL 5, even though all its equipment and technology is TL 16.

Given the easy availability of knowledge, settlements below TL 5 will probably be rare. A single person can have the knowledge and skills to forge metal and build a steam engine, basic disease theory is hard to unlearn which is the main difference between medicine at TL 6 and TL 0. Explosives, black powder firearms, printing, farming techniques and similar technologies require very little in terms of infrastructure to build and maintain. Once learned, a settlement of a few hundred people could keep at this level indefinitely.

Defining Tech Levels and Trade

So WorldGen will define a basic TL for each civilised world, but also record a TL for different aspects of that world. The base TL is the level of technology that the world can support on its own. Each world has a number of facilities, such as Residential, Industry, Agriculture, StarPort, Military Outpost etc and these can each have their own TL defined.

This allows a world to have particular facets which are operating at a level of technology that the world can’t support without outside trade. If a facility’s TL is well beyond the TL of the world, then it will need a lot of off-world imports to maintain the running of that facility, as well as the usual requirements for a facility of that type.

This will all feed in to the trade system, which means I’ll need a way of defining what imports are needed to keep things running at each tech level. That is something to consider later though.

Samuel Penn