Words from the Wise (Guys)

Copyright Nicholas HM Caldwell © 2005

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion


To the seventy-fourth issue of The Guild Companion. I was asked recently on ICE's forums about the flexibility of HARP SF's technology level, but as the question coincided with my vacation, my answer there was necessarily brief. I've decided to provide a more detailed answer as this month's editorial.

Technology Levels

"Tech levels" are a feature of many science-fiction RPGs, existing in both original Spacemaster, Spacemaster: Privateers, GURPS, and others. They represent attempts to classify the future shape of technology, providing a means of measuring how far advanced a particular world or society is in specific areas, such as computing, transport, medicine, or overall. In a sense, they carry on the tradition of naming early historical periods after technological achievements, e.g. Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age.

"Tech levels" aren't restricted to role-playing games as they have a fine tradition in science-fiction literature. In Sir Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise, the Starglider probe (and its makers, the Starholmers) classify societies by their general technology level as it is the only sensible method for comparison. For the curious, the categories are:

  1. Stone tools
  2. Metals, fire
  3. Writing, handicrafts, ships
  4. Steam power, basic science
  5. Atomic energy, space travel
  6. Total conversion of matter to energy and transmutation of all elements on an industrial scale

The Starglider probe hints at the existence of a Category Seven, but is not permitted to inform less advanced societies of higher categories.

Technology Stages

For the science-fiction version of HARP, we've decided to avoid tech levels, partly for simplicity, partly to provide more differentiation between HARP SF and other SF RPGs. However, a single frame of technological development would stifle the SysOp's freedom in creating their own universes and would be unbelievable in Tintamar, ICE's projected official setting for HARP SF as well. (The SysOp or System Operator is the HARP SF term for GM.) So, instead of tech levels, HARP SF will have five stages of development for technology.

Unavailable is the lowest stage and represents technology that is out of reach for a particular race or world. Perhaps they believe it is impossible, perhaps they simply have never thought about it.

Prototype represents the cutting edge of experimentation where a technology or device has just been invented. Prototype technology works some of the time but needs substantial attention from its inventors to stay working without failing catastrophically. Player-characters might invent Prototype equipment, or be unfortunate enough to be involved in its field-testing.

Early technology describes equipment which has entered mass production and can now be bought off-the-shelf. Getting from Prototype to Early won't be easy for player-characters - at the very least, they can expect to say goodbye to their careers as galactic troubleshooters and spend years as stolid businessmen. Having ultra-rich adventurers is bad for any game, but especially so in science-fiction role-playing where enough money can buy almost anything or anyone.

Mature technology is the next step upwards in terms of improved efficiency, lowered costs, reduced size, and so forth for equipment. When a particular technology becomes Mature, it has become accepted into a society.

Advanced technology is a further improvement upon its Mature antecedents. Advanced technology is often ubiquitous in a society.

In keeping with HARP's trademark simplicity, the distinctions in game mechanics among Early, Mature, and Advanced technology are relatively straightforward. For instance, Early versions of high-tech weapons have a higher fumble range than Mature versions whereas Advanced weapons have a reduced fumble range. In the case of armor, Early and Advanced increase and reduce respectively the maximum and minimum maneuver penalties for fitted armor. In the case of medical equipment, the healing/recovery times and species applicability change with technological improvement - an Early suture pen takes two rounds per point of bleeding to close a wound, a Mature suture pen takes one round per point of bleeding, and an Advanced suture pen can either heal two points of bleeding per round or be used on multiple species safely. For other categories of personal equipment, cost and/or mass are the usual modifiers.

To make life simpler for SysOps, Mature will be the default stage for all equipment in most of the human societies of the Tintamar universe.

Farewell for now ...

My todo list for HARP SF is singing its siren song, so I'll leave you to enjoy this month's articles. Our next issue will be published in May 2005, but until then ...

Keep gaming and have fun,
Nicholas HM Caldwell
General Editor for The Guild Companion