Tech Levels: A Comparison

Posted: 2023-06-06
Word Count: 1440
Tags: rpg

Table of Contents

It’s impossible to know the future, but various science fiction and multi-genre games have tried. Below are six radically different “Technology Level” or “Progress Level” systems from five different tabletop role playing games and one guy who just thinks about them a lot.

d20 Modern Progress Levels

From the d20 Future SRD.

PL Title Key Technologies
0 Stone Age fire, textiles, domestication, agriculture
1 Bronze/Iron Age metal working, communication, empires
2 Middle Ages printing, sea travel, middle class
3 Age of Reason “science”
4 Industrial Age steam, electricity
5 Information Age computers, fission, internal combustion engine
6 Fusion Age fusion power, intra-solar travel, cyberwear, gene-splicing
7 Gravity Age “gravity induction reactor”, star drives
8 Energy Age “power plants the size of marbles”
9 “beyond reach or comprehension” subatomic assembly, folding space, time travel

Verdict on d20 PLs

Progress Levels give equal attention to past and future eras, but lack detail.

GURPS Tech Levels

From “GURPS Lite”, 4th Ed and GURPS Basic Set: Campaigns.

TL Earth History (C.E.) Description Examples
0 prehistory+ Stone Age counting, oral tradition.
1 -3500+ Bronze Age arithmetic, writing.
2 -1200+ Iron Age geometry, scrolls.
3 600+ Medieval algebra, books.
4 1450+ Age of Sail calculus, movable type.
5 1730+ Industrial Revolution mechanical calculators, telegraph.
6 1880+ Mechanized Age electrical calculators, telephone and radio.
7 1940+ Nuclear Age mainframe computers, television.
8 1980+ Digital Age personal computers, global networks.
9 2025+? Microtech Age artificial intelligence, real-time virtuality.
10 2070+? Robotic Age “Nanotechnology or other advances start to blur distinctions between technologies …”
11 Age of Exotic Matter
12 Sufficiently Advanced Technology “Whatever the GM likes!”

Notations for Variant and Divergent Tech

  1. Technologies lead or lag the general tech level get a parenthetical note, e.g. TL8 (Communications TL7, Medical TL9) (p. 512, GBSC).

  2. Borrowed technologies use a slash, e.g. TL2/3 (p 513, GBSC) to indicate a society generally at TL 2 but has skills to use TL 3.

  3. Divergent tech uses a plus sign, e.g. TL5+1 (ibid) means technology diverged at TL 5 to produce an effectively TL 6 society, but with steampunk or something.

  4. Superscience tech – advancements that violate known physical laws – use a carat after the TL, e.g. TL3^ means that the general world is TL 3 but somebody “invented” FTL, telepathic communication, rays that levitate stone blocks, etc.

Verdict on GURPS TLs

GURPS TLs give a good thumbnail sketch of historical eras, and even have a notation for alternative histories and divergent technologies. It doesn’t give a framework for future eras though, and by TL 12 it simply gives up. (Earlier editions designated TL 10 as Sufficiently Advanced.)

SWN Tech Levels

From Stars Without Number Revised.

TL Description Technologies
0 Neolithic stone tools, carved wood, textiles, domestication
1 Pre-Gunpowder metallurgy, wind & water power
2 Early Industrial steam, internal combustion, telegraphs, gunpowder
3 21st Century fission power, nuclear weapons, computers, telecoms, primitive spaceflight
4 Postech Baseline; interstellar starships, cyberware, gene-tech, fusion power, energy weapons
5 Pretech true AIs, psi-tech, jump gates, nanotech, immortality, limited time manipulation
6 Pretech-Plus “Impossible effects indistinguishable from magic”

Verdict on SWN TLs

SWN’s tech levels are tied to its future history in which the wondrous “Pretech” era collapsed, and space colonies cobbled together “Postech” in the wake of the disaster. It’s short and sweet, but compresses all historical technology (and then some) into TLs 1-3.

Traveller Tech Levels

Adapted from the Cepheus Engine SRD.

TL Descriptor Notable Characteristics
0 Primitive No technology
1 Primitive Bronze Age, Iron Age
2 Primitive Renaissance
3 Primitive mass production, standardization, steam power
5 Industrial plastics, radio
5 Industrial widespread electrification, tele-communications, internal combustion
6 Industrial fission power, advanced computing
7 Pre-Stellar planetary orbit, telecom satellites
8 Pre-Stellar primitive interplanetary flight
9 Pre-Stellar gravity control, early Jump Drive
10 Early Stellar interstellar travel
11 Early Stellar primitive “low autonomous” AIs
12 Average Stellar weather control
13 Average Stellar “high autonomous” AIs, battle dress
14 Average Stellar man-portable fusion weapons
15 High Stellar synthetic anagathics, Black Globe generators

Verdict on Traveller TLs

Like TLs in other games, Traveller invents its own future history. TLs 8 seems like plausible near-future tech, but at TL 9 the system takes a left turn at antigravity and Jump Drives. Likewise TL 15, “High Stellar”, merely lists what the Original Traveller Universe regarded as the next steps in technology.

That said, TLs 0-7 give as good a breakdown of historical technology as GURPS, although I question the assignment of the Bronze Age and Iron Age to one TL, and the Renaissance to the next, with no space for technological advancements in the Late Medieval period like water wheels and windmills. I supect it’s the “Dark Ages” canard once again.

Diaspora Planet Generator

Adapted from the Diaspora SRD.

Rating Technology Environment Resources
+4 On the verge of collapse Many garden worlds All you could want
+3 Slipstream mastery Some garden worlds Multiple exports
+2 Slipstream use One garden and several survivable worlds One significant export
+1 Exploiting the system One garden and several hostile environments Rich
0 Exploring the system One garden world (perhaps additional barren worlds) Sustainable
-1 Atomic power Survivable world Almost viable
-2 Industrialization Hostile environment (gravity but dangerous atmosphere) Needs imports
-3 Metallurgy Barren world (gravity, no atmosphere) Multiple dependencies
-4 Stone Age No habitable gravity or atmosphere No resources


Verdict on Diaspora Planet Generator

I like that Diaspora has three variables for the technological and industrial capabilities of a planet. See “Life on Theta Priori” for one world generated by this method … and a lot of thinking and writing.

That said, it commits the twin “sins” of compressing historical technology and relying too much on its assumptions about future technology. In particular it assumes that after +4 civilizations will either collapse or reach some sort of technological transhumanist Singularity, which from the perspective of less advanced worlds looks identical.

My Tech Levels

From The Stellar Alliance.

Tech Level, a rough guide to the technological capabilities of a civilization and the sophistication of their artifacts.
Relative Tech Levels, i.e. difference between the average for interstellar civilizations and a particular TL.
TL RTL Description Earth History / Other Civilizations
0 -5 Stone Age < -3000
1 -4 Bronze Age, Iron Age, Medieval -3000 … 1450
2 -3 Age of Sail, Industrial Age 1450 … 1950
3 -2 Information Age, Space Age 1950 … 2200
4 -1 Interplanetary Age 21001 … 2300
5 0 Interstellar Age 2300 … 2400
6 +1 Alliance Age 2400 … ????
7 +2 Transhuman Age Transhuman Commonwealth
8 +3 Teletransport Age (Outer Ones?)
9 +4 Sufficiently Advanced Technology Dominion of the First
10 +5 Weakly Godlike Entities Ylem Wraiths2

Assessment of My TLs

I wrote this version mainly to support a space opera campaign inspired by Star Trek and The Orville. I don’t vouch for its historical accuracy.

After I defined technologies leading up to the Stellar Alliance, I ran out of inspiration for technologies beyond the Alliance. I only knew I wanted the galaxy’s average technology to be one step below the Alliance and that I wanted an equal number of levels above and below that point for random rolls and the like. (RTL was obviously inspired by Diaspora.)

Because of this the Earth / Solar System timeline is all messed up and historical technologies are just as compressed as in SWN TLs. So not a great job.

Also I’m not sure why I originally put this in the Mini-Six rules not the general ones. Maybe because Cepheus (Traveller) has its own TLs? Everywhen, the next system to which I was planning to port the setting, doesn’t have much of a list of future weapons, so I can probably just punt on TLs. In Alliance Space, there’s Alliance Tech (with warp drives, exo-beams, and other miracles) and everyone else (with jump drives or hyperdrives and gritty Star Wars / Firefly kit).

  1. Overlap with prior era reflects regression of Earth relative to Mars. Or I just screwed up. – Past Frank ↩︎

  2. Mysterious and unsettlingly friendly beings from another dimension. ↩︎