Development levels rather than tech levels (segué into soft-tech robofac factories)


In general, I like Brett’s guide to DLs. I have some thoughts of dubious value to add:

A. If this is for a player’s guide, the traditional player concerns are about equipment. Obviously, equipment that can be made locally will be cheap, and imports dear, but this document seems more oriented towards economics than retail. Unfortunately, I can’t see a compact way to handle that. Perhaps a table of various important gear types grouped by what DL makes it a “local” manufacture?

B. DL is significantly different than TL, and the whole TL structure is seriously compromised by the fact that most FB colonies are effectively post-apocalyptic. TL isn’t even a good guideline to equipment access since many things are supplied by self-replicating high tech gear. Perhaps something for "high tech stuff almost everyone has: biotech/genefixing/medical theory etc. Even with that, the TL relationship seems very rough at best.

C. Presumably most FB colonies at least had a plan for continued development if supplies from Earth stopped. It seems like most of these failed. I’m not sure this section is the right place to explain why, but my curiosity is piqued.


Tech level systems in GP RPGs such as ForeSight and GURPS are usually oriented towards describing the availability of kit for PCs, but in interstellar SF settings such as the Traveller universe, ForeScene: the Flawed Utopia, and Flat Black they have traditionally also served as an important part of the description of individual worlds, implying things about their development, technical sophistication, and social culture. What I’m doing with DL is trying to break that nexus. So, while DL will have an key influence on the relative prices of different item on different worlds and the absolute availability of weapons¹, it is also an important part of the qualitative description of a planet. The text I posted above it from the “Colonies” chapter, and specialised for that purpose. It answers “Just how poor and backward is this particular muddy hellhole?”.

When time comes for the Big Flat Black Ezi-Buy Catalogue each item will be listed with a price in SVU and a characteristic DL of manufacture, called perhaps its SL or sophistication level. SL will be kind of like TL, except that things that are commonly grown in Flat Black will have the corresponding SL of about 2 or 3. When you are on a colony with a given DL you will be able to buy local products with SL up to DL for the listed price, or one SL at bespoke prices, to two higher at prototype prices; you will be able to buy imports (except for weapons and military supplies) at a price given by the list price, the real exchange rate (0.71^(SL-DL)), and the mass (shipping costs). Or maybe I’ll tabulate an import price in crowns as well as the DLs.

As for the economic catastrophes of the colonies (1) I don’t want to describe it in the players’ guide because it doesn’t matter enough to deserve the word count it would take and I’m trying to minimise the content of history (2) I’d like to discuss it in a different thread.

¹ And to some extent ammunition. Anything that requires HEDM propellants and explosives will be interdicted by the Empire’s refusal to transport weapons even on consignment for governments. But smokeless powder grows on shrubs everywhere that’s DL2 of better. Even if the best weapon you can manage is a handcrafted muzzle-loading smoothbore, you can load it with capsules of gun-gel that you gather from a shrub — or use the same capsules in reloading cartridge-cases.


It seems as if that implies a “who made God” type of question: Do the Matrices reproduce, giving birth to other Matrices? If they do, why have the intermediate level of Beasts? It seems as if a Matrix could, on one hand, bear another Matrix, and on the other, give birth to food packages. Particularly if Matrices are large browsers.

Unless your goal is to harvest smaller or scarcer plants, which might call for a browser smaller than a rhinoceros. But then you might want comparatively small herbivores wandering around eating those plants, and giving birth to single hamburgers rather than roasts—or laying eggs, which are fairly conveniently packaged food sources.

Or are you envisioning the Beast as eating all the vegetation in an area, from herbs up to trees? That may call for a complex array of dentition and digestive apparatus.

It seems to me as if, at a DL where it’s hard to defend a large community, a Matrix, especially a sessile one, may be a single point of failure for a community, and also a single target for attack. That might make it prudent to favor nonsessile Matrices, though perhaps they ought to be sized more like ceratopsians than rhinos.


It helps to think of these things as robots rather than as animals.

Your crop plants are solar-powered organic-nanotech chemical engineering systems. Unless a malfunction has occurred they don’t grow past their design size and you don’t want them eaten. Instead they are made at or grow to design size and then stop growing. Instead of putting their production into stems and leaves and reproduction, they put it into producing specialised bodies containing drugs, perfumes, flavours, nutrients, household chemicals, adhesives, chemical feedstocks etc. at high purity and hygienically-packaged ready-to-eat or ready-to-microwave meals-for-one.

You don’t want your plants eaten. You want them harvested of their produce. You can do that either with a hard-tech machine like a combine harvester, or with a soft-tech robot that looks like a genetically-engineered beast of labour. So one of the things you want plants to produce is fuel/food for the farm machinery.

In most cases plants can produce the products you want directly, and for those you have harvesting biobots that are somewhere between a honeybee and a robotic combine harvester. Only in cases when you want something that won’t grow on a plant (perhaps because of high metabolic oxygen demand), or when production is diffuse, do you have Beasts that collect nutriment and use it to drive animal-like catabolism to grow your rib eyes or your wool.

Matrices are bioroid factories. You have Matrices because is is more efficient to use specialised capital. Beasts and other bioroids that don’t carry around a bunch of reproductive anatomy will be more efficient at their jobs. Bioroid factories that don’t harvest crops will be more efficient bioroid factories. I really prefer the sessile Matrix to the rhinoceros-like one.

Some Matrices are designed to be produced by a similar Matrix, in an incomplete state and then grow to full-size maturity, and they have a built-in self-reproduction function (gonad) and a buffet of built-in products. Others you buy fully-grown from the manufacturer.


Given the desired genre of planetary romance, the equipment used by the locals is probably at least as important as what the PCs can buy.


As far as I can recall FB does not use Biotech directly as weapons. The Empire probably suppresses WMD style bioweapons but killer “beasts” seem like they would be allowed but are absent. You don’t need to explain this in the base material but you might want to have an answer in your back pocket. You may already have one.


There’s a very handy box in GURPS Ultra-Tech for 4e (on page 148) showing, at each TL from 9 to 12, what the typical weapon choices are for personal sidearms, paramilitary forces, infantry, etc. If I were running a game in this setting, I’d find something equivalent most welcome.


In principle it might make sense to describe a world by two axes: first, how developed they are and hence what they can produce for themselves, and second, how integrated they are into trade and so how easily they can obtain things from the outside world. Poor integration might be due to being distant, having no convenient method of travel, etc., or it might reflect a government that deliberately isolates itself from outside influences.

The low-low worlds are primitive backwaters that rarely see spaceships. The high-low worlds are reasonably wealthy but exotic, things can be very cheap or expensive there, and they have odd solutions to the Brave New World problem. The low-high worlds are living off aid from do-gooders in the high-high worlds. The high-high worlds are integrated into a single combined society that looks wonderful, but it has its own solution to the BNWP and everyone is so dependent on each other for their JIT chains that if anything goes badly wrong they might all fall in a heap and catch fire.

I think by assuming a generally constant degree of integration (IS travel slow but cheap) you lose the opportunity for some interesting variation. And variation is the heart of planetary romance.


Or that is interdicted by them, a staple of Traveller. Or that hasn’t been discovered or integrated yet, as you find when you run a Flat Black: Survey campaign set sixty years or so before the usual game date.

Hmm. I have to be careful of cardiomegaly — don’t want to end up with either congestive heart failure or sudden cardiac death.

It seems to me that the problem with *-low worlds is getting PCs to them without making everything too powerful and important. I’m not strongly averse to there being a coma of lost and hiding colonies in the Beyond, but the drive postulates that produce them tend to be fraught with unwanted side-effects. And there turns out to be little way of getting PCs to them other than in an Imperial warship, which drags towards space opera.


It doesn’t have to be a nightmare to get there - I think there probably should be some planets which it is horrible/impossible to get to, but it isn’t strictly needed. Just making the place a bit difficult/expensive/slow ought to weed out most of the tourists and trade. Of course the PCs need a reason they are visiting the Flat Black equivalent of the Central African Republic/Siberia/Robinson Crusoe Island/Amundsen-Scott/Deep Australian Outback/Heart of Darkness. But being government agents is hardly the only one.


Well, colonies with Type N spaceports probably have only a few services per year. That makes access pretty awkward.


The Earthly analogy that comes to mind is coastal vs. landlocked. Right now the drive postulates make all FB colonies coastal. Something as simple as “Dark-matter nebulas interfere with the drive in this volume - reduce FTL speed by 90%” allow for isolated but not cut off colonies.

However, you spoke of unwanted side effects, so perhaps I am missing something important.


Perhaps you will think it is unimportant, but I consider

  1. Exposition is costly. Flat Black is already a lot of reading, and complex enough to be a significant burden to the comprehension. I don’t want to add unnecessary exceptions to its framework.
  2. I have players — @davidbofinger is one of them — who know more physics than I do and who take me to task over nonsensoleum and even handwavium. Ditto with astronomy. Linguistics. Demography. Radiocommunication technology. Cryptography…. The result is that I am strongly inclined to avoid technobabble.

I guess I could do something or other with the density of the interstellar medium. I’d have to find a better (3D) map of the Local Bubble and work out where travel is actually likely to be slow. And then complicate the astrography and history to take the effects into account. That would make the player’s guide longer and the setting more complicated. Which would make Flat Black even less accessible to new players.

So, would it be worth it? David offers that if I did it I would get planets that were highly developed but even more exotic. Is it a problem with Flat Black that the highly-developed worlds are not exotic enough? Simanta, where the “people” are a couple of dozen clones of parahumans, androids made in a factory with no family life? Todos Santos, where people get their minds and personalities professionally altered and certified so as to be appealing to prospective employers and romantic interests? New Fujian, where people go through a series of medically-induced metamorphoses to adopt successive social roles, and where the conventional marriage is an age-graded bisexual ménage á trois? Sure, Tau Ceti isn’t very exotic, but it is the exception. It is there to be the place a PC can come from and the player not care about it. I’m not seeing the beige. I don’t taste the baked custard. Seems like trifle to me.

Is my calibration that far off?


Presumably the reason you don’t get cultural hegemony from rich worlds to poor worlds (here are Mickey Ferret cartoons and Dopa Cola, our ways are best) is that the Empire stops them from doing it?


To some extent, yes. Cultural evangelism was one of the pirate activities that caused a lot of tragedies in the Age of Piracy, and the Empire does not forget it. Another is that it’s just much harder to do and less rewarding when contact is so thin*. And another is that you have to compete with genuine Mickey® and Moxie® from Old Earth.

* It is sometimes said that before the telegraph and the railways the [continent-spanning] USA was impossible; after them it was inevitable". I add that the cultural impact of the railways was as forceful as the administrative one. Before the Civil War the several regional cultures in the USA were diverging. Railways and movies started the convergence; it wasn’t until interstates and network TV that they began decisively to converge.


With regards to the above, the FTL drive is required technobabble, but I do applaud your effort to keep it away from the spotlight. Nonetheless “FTL speed is foo” is only a little less than “FTL is between foo and bar, depending on local conditions.” If someone asks about what determines local conditions the can be directed to the Imperial Survey corps who spends a lot of time faffing about in FTL mapping them out.

In practice the “map” in Flat Black is one of those charts displaying the drive time between different cities in an area, and making drive times less correlated with real space differences won’t change that. It might change the implied spherical geometry of the Empire. Not sure how attached you are to that.

I’ll respond to the second half of your comment in a different post, since it’s a different thought chunk.


I actually don’t have a problem with you saying, “For some reason some places are easier to get to than others.” If you have a complicated physics argument for why something is true, and I think it’s in error, then I’ll say so. If there’s a physics argument to be made that some kind of drive must be using anti-matter rather than fusion then I’ll say, “I think you should say this is anti-matter.” If there’s a physics argument it’s impossible then I’ll say, “I think you have to kill this or say it is new physics.” Realistically there probably should be some new physics.

I think 99% of your players won’t care what local bubble density is. 90% won’t care what the name of the planet’s star is in C20/C21 catalogues which anyway probably became historical curiosities long before the game is set. 90% won’t care where the world is in terms of galactic centre or the direction to some other world. The game is about what happens on planets, and not about astrography. I think worrying about the astrography to this extent is effort misdirected unless you find it fun. You shouldn’t feel it’s obligatory.


The “map” in Flat Black is a lookup table. But I have to generate the table.

And you can bet your arse that if I ever have another ongoing campaign some diligent player is going to download the transit-time table and check that it obeys the Triangle Inequality.

Now the question: What is my pay-off for this suggested effort? Are the DL8 worlds in Flat Black too bland and sameish?


I don’t think the issue was exoticism to us, it’s exoticism in game. The Suite is highly integrated in addition to being highly diverse. From a game design perspective, I’m not sure if adding "this is weird to your PC AND High DL adds a lot to the experience, since few players will ever get blase about the weird that their PCs find normal.

At an abstract level I like it because it is texture, but too much texture is grit. It’s your call where the line is.


I’m way out of date on FB and never knew it that well. I’m sure you have plenty of variation between worlds. Still, there are probably stories that benefit from having worlds that are more or less accessible to interstellar travel, without there needing to be a political reason for it. It might not be necessary but it feels to me worthwhile. If there’s a well-connected backbone of worlds (“The Concourse”, perhaps? :-)) that might be an interesting feature in itself. Worlds that are hard to get to become Imperial nightmares: if one gets out of control what will the empire do? Worlds that are well-connected become an entirely different kind of problem, because there’s so much traffic and it’s in a hurry.