Sunday, July 10, 2011

House Rule: Some Thoughts on Tech Levels

The following post details some simple rules to make Technology Levels (or “Tech Levels”) as I’ll subsequently refer to them) more significant in game terms (beyond the obvious equipment-related effects detailed on pp 65-66 of the Gamemaster’s Guide). These optional rules first started life as a series of thoughts and ruminations on the effects of the Time Traveller trait in game terms, rather than as rules on Tech Levels per se.

The following paragraphs make frequent reference to a character’s “most advanced Tech Level”. This normally refers to the Technology Level of the character’s culture of origin (i.e. TL 5 for 21st century humans) – but for characters with the Time Traveller trait, this refers to the highest Tech Level their time travelling experience has allowed them to master. Thus, if a 21st century character acquires the Time Traveller trait for Tech Levels 3, 4, 7 and 9, his most advanced Tech Level will be 9.

Tech Levels & Equipment

Although no skill is specifically mentioned in this section, the rules detailed on p 66 of the Gamemaster’s Guide obviously refer to the Technology skill, which governs the use and repair of most technological items.

While this is not explicitly mentioned in the game, it also makes sense to expand these rules to the Transport skill. Thus, a flying ace from WW1 (Tech Level 4) would incur a -4 penalty when trying to fly a Tech Level 6 spaceship, while a character from the early 21st century (Tech Level 5) would suffer a -2 penalty when handling a sailing ship from the age of exploration (Tech Level 3).

Tech Levels & Weaponry

Following that same line of reasoning, it would also make sense to apply similar penalties to the Marksman skill – yet, one might also argue that the technological differences between missile weapons of different eras are less complex (at least in terms of use and operation) than between vehicles and other machines. Or, in other words, a pistol is a pistol is a pistol, regardless of how many technological refinements you add to its basic working principles. To reflect this, the penalty for using a missile weapon of a higher Tech Level than your most advanced TL should be reduced to -1 for each TL of difference (instead of the usual -2).

Thus, a swashbuckling pirate from the 17th century (Tech Level 3) would only incur a -3 penalty when using a Tech Level 6 energy blaster (instead of a massive -6). The -1 penalty for each TL of difference for lower Tech Levels would, however, remain unaffected, so that a 21st century character (Tech Level 5) would suffer a -3 penalty to his Marksman skill when attempting to use a medieval English longbow (Tech Level 2).

Tech Levels & Science

Since technology is a direct byproduct of science, a character’s most advanced TL should also set the upper limit as to what his Science skill covers. Even the greatest scientists of our period (TL 5) would probably find it impossible to comprehend the complexities of Time Lord science (TL 10) – at least without some hefty Story points expenditure.

Gamemasters who wish to reflect this in game terms may give some important scientific concepts a minimum Tech Level representing the point at which that particular concept becomes a full part of the Science skill. Let’s take the example of time travel. The Technology Levels chart given on p 32 of the Gamemaster’s Guide identifies Tech Level 8 as the first “time faring” level: thus, only characters whose most advanced TL is 8 or higher could apply their Science skill to time-travelling concepts – at least without incurring some penalties. Scientists whose most advanced TL is less than this minimum would suffer the usual -2 penalty per TL of difference.

Thus, a 21st century scientist (Tech Level 5) would suffer a -6 penalty to his Science skill when dealing with the basics of temporal science – meaning that a scientific genius with 5 or 6 in both Science and Ingenuity might actually have a chance here, especially if he has a few Story points in store. Thus, under exceptional circumstances, historical geniuses like Albert Einstein could have a more than reasonable chance of working out the solution to some tricky temporal theory problem.

Unlike equipment, however, scientific concepts available to lower Tech Levels obviously give no penalties. Once a concept or discovery (such as Newton’s law of gravity or Einstein’s theory of relativity) becomes part of the established body of scientific knowledge, it remains there and does not constantly ‘improve’ the way equipment tends to. In other words, as Tech Levels increase, Technology changes (reflected by the -1 penalty per TL of difference for using technology from a lower Tech Level), while Science (which concerns itself with the basic truths of how the universe works) merely expands (no penalty for dealing with scientific concepts of a lower TL).

Gamemasters who wish to bother with such minutiae could even decide to give a corresponding bonus of +1 per TL of difference in such cases: if, for instance, we classify the basic principles of how planets and stars interact with each other as a TL 3 concept (since that would be the TL corresponding to characters like Galileo or Copernic), a scientist from the 21st century (TL 5) would get a +2 bonus to his Science skill when dealing with such basic notions, while a scientist from a far more advanced culture (say, a TL 10 Time Lord) would get a massive +7.

Thus, a Time Lord from Gallifrey would not simply be someone with a high Science skill but would be able to take full advantage from the extraordinary scientific advancement of his native culture: using these rules, a character’s Science skill level no longer reflects an absolute measure of his scientific knowledge but a relative one (i.e. within the conceptual boundaries of his native culture, as represented by its Tech Level), so that a Gallifreyan student with 1 or 2 in Science could comprehend and operate concepts which would normally be beyond the reach of the greatest scientists from 21st century Earth.

Of course, such penalties and bonuses for scientific concepts should only be used in situations where such concepts have a major dramatic impact on the story – but in such situations, they give a more significant edge to characters who originate from technologically (and scientifically) advanced cultures, which seems only fair in game terms as well as from a dramatic perspective. This also means that Time Travelling scientists (i.e. characters with the Science skill and the Time Traveller trait) who have become familiar with cultures more advanced than their own will automatically broaden their “scientific horizons” (by becoming familiar with a higher TL than their native one), without necessarily improving their Science skill itself.

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