Friday, May 18, 2018

Ultra-Tech Frameworks: Step 2 - Choose a Tech Level

The tech levels of the various items in this book should be treated simply as guidelines – a culture may develop some technologies more rapidly than others. --GURPS Ultra-Tech, page 8
The first step most people take when designing a sci-fi setting is to choose an appropriate tech-level. This is fine, but the first thing you must understand is that tech level is only a starting point, at best a loose guideline. You should not treat tech-level as an absolute. The point of tech level is not to define what is available and what isn't, but to describe what is generally available. This, by the way, is true of all TLs. American TL 8 is not really the same as Nigerian TL 8, and Chinese TL 3 is definitely not the same as British TL 3. Even works like Dungeon Fantasy or Action don't precisely hit a single TL: DF is better understood as TL 4 "but without guns," and Action is often "TL 8 but with a sprinkling of select TL 9 super-gadgets." If I say that a setting belongs to a particular TL, it already tells you a lot, but there's a lot it doesn't tell you.

Furthermore, all tech levels assigned to ultra-tech gadgets is ultimately arbitrary. Just because a setting is pegged at a particular TL doesn’t mean it has access to all technology of that TL, or that it has no access to higher TL technology. GURPS explicitly discusses alternate development paths and advocates breaking down TL into categories. Personally, working with split tech-levels is less important than understanding that tech-level is really just setting a baseline of expectations and pointing you in a particular direction. This is especially true of Super-Science technology, as there is no physical basis for them anyway, so you can declare them to be available when and if you want. This is explicitly true of super-science power cells, cosmic power-cells and most psychotronics, but all the tech levels of super-science gadgets in Ultra-Tech are definitely just suggestions.

So, given that all future tech-levels are ultimately arbitrary, the authors of GURPS Ultra-Tech seem to have chosen particular themes around which to wrap the idea of tech levels, guesses at how advanced and strange a society would have to be to gain access to a tech level. If we’re going to use tech levels, it behooves us, then, to understand what the assumptions behind a given TL is. GURPS Ultra-Tech lays this out for us starting on page 6, but allow me to approach them with more explicit themes in mind.

TL 9 – The Microtech Age

This is your "day after tomorrow" technology. In many ways, it is the “minimum futurism,” where we go as far into the future as little as we can possibly go and still feel like we’re playing in a sci-fi setting. It tends to be fairly grounded in both science and engineering, and the only reasons we don't have most of these technologies usually amounts to funding or the fact that not everything has been put into place yet. It's a very grounded tech level, so much so that to many people it will barely feel sci-fi at all: many TV shows “set in the present” make use of many of these technologies, especially if they want to seem “on the cutting edge.” Thematically, then, this technology fits well into spy-thrillers, most dystopian sci-fi, cyberpunk and very early space-faring settings like the Expanse, or it may represent the post-apocalytpic age of an advanced civilization.

TL 10 – The Robotic Age

This is your "perpetually 20 years away" technologies, things like fusion power, railguns and androids. These technologies should be possible, but have major hurdles we have yet to overcome. Such settings tend to feel “solidly futuristic,” but without pushing for truly transformative technologies; in such a setting, we might expect to recognize people and technology, but readily see that it far outstrips our capabilities. We tend to see this sort of technology often in optimistic or “advanced” cyberpunk settings; supers often occupy this tech level: the “government” might have secret advanced technology that’s TL 9, but the gadgeteer hero can eclipse them with his genius and bring TL 10 technology to the table. I also find that most space-based settings tend to gravitate towards this TL, as it feels like a more mature technological setting.

TL 11 – The Age of Exotic Matter

TL 11 technology is beyond our engineering horizon, but not beyond our physics horizon. We know that such a technology might be possible, but we don’t really have any insights into how we’d go about making them. Ultra-Tech also dives into unabashedly transformative technologies at this point, which is one reason a lot of GMs tend to shy away from it, and it’s definitely a TL where you’ll want to start picking and choosing your technology. It seems to be a TL of choice for mature space settings and especially space opera, as it begins to feature many of the technologies one might see in a far flung future with space princesses and plasma swords.

TL 11 – The Age of Miracles

This is honestly a dumping ground for everything that doesn’t fit in the first three tech levels. In GURPS 3e, we had four additional tech-levels, but here, all of that gets squashed into one, which means when people reach for TL 12, they realize that GURPS Ultra-Tech considers grasers and disintegrators roughly equal when they’re obviously not. Here, you must pick and choose your technologies. In principle, this tends to be chosen for extremely advanced settings, like Star Trek, or cosmic civilizations, like the Time Lords. It tends to follow Clarke’s third law that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so we see it often with “ancient aliens who seemed to have unlocked cosmic truths.” We can and should tame it, because there’s room between TL 11 and “Cosmic aliens with all the answers”

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