Tech Levels Revisited

Tech Level – assigning a numeric value to a civilization’s technological development – is a powerful idea and having worlds with varying tech levels – often in stark contrast to each other despite physical proximity – is one of the central aspects of the “look and feel” of Traveller. The idea, of course, was a staple of the science fiction genre at the time. Dumarest comes to mind, and Space Viking – but also Foundation.

Other games have used the same concept. GURPS and TORG are two examples I am familiar with, but pretty much every science fiction game has done something similar. None of them are compatible beyond the fact that they use Earth’s development as a model up until the present.

I decided early on – actually before the setting I am working on saw the light of day – that I wanted to use a Tech Level system, and I also decided that I should stay as compatible to Traveller as possible.

A word of warning: This is a long post…

Three Kinds of Problems

There are some kinks in the standard Tech Level chart. The one most significantly affecting me is that the TL chart was written to describe a setting that was designed nearly forty years ago. The second one is that the Tech Level chart in the SRD is, how shall we say, rather superficial.

As for the third issue, I’ll refer you to the chart. It says, for tech levels 2-4:

TL 2: (Primitive) Renaissance technology.

TL 3: (Primitive) The advances of TL 2 are now applied, bringing the germ of industrial revolution and steam power.

TL 4: (Industrial) The transition to industrial revolution is complete, bringing plastics, radio and other such inventions.

This is a bit of a violation of the concept behind the TL system. Each tech level should depict a “stage”. In this sample, 2 is basically just early 3 and 4 is a mature 3. At the same time, they lump fairly distinct stages together:

TL 0: (Primitive) No technology.

TL 1: (Primitive) Roughly on a par with Bronze or Iron age technology.

It seems we have some room to toy with, so I’ve done some research on how best to split up tech levels. I think that the progression should go like this:

0: No technology to early stone age

1: late stone age

2: bronze age

3: iron age

4: medieval

5: Renaissance

6: industrial revolution

7: WW1 era

8: WW2 era to roughly 1960s

9: information age circa 1960-2000

The problem with this, of course, is that it invalidates much of the Traveller material. Not a huge problem, but I’d like to stay semi-compatible – and I’d have to fix the world-generation process as well. So what can I do about this?

It seems that the “anchor point” I need to maintain is the TL6-8 range. At lower TLs, the Traveller chart is just not well worked out; at higher TLs it’s all speculative anyway. As long as I keep to the spirit of the chart, it should be possible to place equipment correctly – at least roughly.

Primitive Technology (TL 0-3)

TL0: No Technology.

Is there really such a thing? I believe there isn’t. There are actually animals that use tools and we do not recognize them as sophonts. So we’ll use TL0 as “no technology to stone age”, where “no technology” really means “no sentient species” or something so early in its development it has not progressed above the “tool using animals” level.

The early stone age was still truly primitive:

Cudgel, club, handaxe, spear, harpoon
Hunting and gathering
Huts, caves – mobile lifestyle
Clothing made from furs and leathers

Late Stone Age brought many improvements:

Bow and arrows, baskets, boats, plough, yoke, chisel, hoe, loom, earthware
Domestication of plants and animals – agriculture
Organized warfare, permanent settlements

Something like “domestication of plants and animals” and “permanent settlements” is huge. This is basically where our civilization began, and that’s why I would like to bump it to TL1. But since we have no space on our scale, it’ll have to serve as the “mature” tech level 0.

TL 1: Bronze or Iron age

Bronze age brings metalworking, city-states and empires. Quite a jump. Iron age adds roads, paper, bridges, lighthouses, catapults. It seems like this should not be lumped together.

Let’s define TL1 as “Bronze Age”.

Potter’s wheel, metal working: copper and bronze tools and weapons
Craft, trade,
City-state and empire
Fortifications, carts, chariots

This means we can’t use TL2 for the Renaissance.

TL2: Renaissance

Tech level 2 almost automatically becomes the Iron Age:

Iron tools and weapons, national economy
countries and empires, roads connecting major cities, hill forts
matches, paper, bridges and suspension bridge
water mill, gear, screw
Lighthouse, catapult, concrete, aqueduct, irrigation, drainage

We’re still not at Renaissance level, but we’re running out of numbers. In between we have Medieval technology. We often think of the middle ages as the “dark age”, and it surely was, compared to the “glory of Rome”, but many advances were made during that time:

Mechanical clock, spectacles, windmill
Horseshoe, trebuchet, modern sailing ship, plate armor
crossbow, pointed arch, gunpowder and cannons
castles, sawmills, crop rotation, paper, printing press

Let’s merge these two, with “Medieval” being the “mature” or “late” iron age in our chart. It’ll do.

TL3: Applied TL2, bringing the germ of the Industrial Revolution

Yeah. So TL3 will be our Renaissance. Historically, this means:

Blast furnace, arequebus, musket
parachute, astrolabe, drydock and floating dock
newspaper, paddle-wheel boat, hot air balloon

It seems to me that the Renaissance was more important in that it brought about a new way of thinking; a scientific approach and a lot of basic research, and not really any spectacular technical innovations. It was the age of Columbus, da Vinci, Gallileo, Copernicus, and Francis Bacon. As a step in a society’s development it may be significant, but I did toy with eliminating it from the TL chart entirely, or merging it as the “mature” step with the Middle Ages.

Industrial (TL4-6)

TL4: Industrial Revolution

This one is fairly straight-forward. We all learn about this in school at great length. The scientific advances of the Renaissance led to our transition into an industrial civilization. The steam engine, trains, steel ships, and so on.

Cotton spinning, steam power, railroads, steam ship
machine tools, gas lighting, sheet glass, canals, factories
electricity, light bulb, photography

TL5: WW1

The beginning of the twentieth century saw quick advances in technology, spurred on further by the first World War.

Petroleum refining, hydroelectric power, automobile
Electrification, telegraph, telephone, tabulating machine
Germ theory, tanks, airplane, dirigible, radio
Sound recording, chemical weapon, motion picture

TL6: WW2

Again, not much needs to be said about 1930-1950s technology – the second World War led to another sprint in technological advancement.

Radar, jet engine, rocket, aircraft carrier
Nuclear power, nuclear weapons, primitive satellite
Analog computers. Television.

Pre-Interstellar (TL7-9)

TL7: Information age

The time during which Traveller was written: The 1950s-2000-ish.

Digital computer, large passenger jets, mass tourism. Hypersonic aircraft, stealth jets. Satellites. Space stations. Reliable weather forecast. Sat Nav. Mobile phones. The Internet. Simple ASAT weapons.
Spaceships capable of moon landing, industrial robots, nuclear-powered ships and submarines, interplanetary robotic probes.

TL8: Interplanetary Age

This is the era we now live in.

Manned spaceships capable of landing on other planets
Primitive terraforming/geo-engineering, household robots, primitive humanoid robots, UAVs. Computers and hand-held devices merge. Long-term weather and climate forecasts.
Fusion power. Beam weapons appear on the battlefield.

Traveller posits the development of grav technology at TL9. A very fundamental breakthrough in physics is needed for this, so the jump from TL8 to 9 will be stark.

Let us assume that it is usually at TL8 that planetary resources dwindle and civilizations are forced to look at their solar system to provide the means for survival. This is not unreasonable, and fits well with the only such civilization we can observe. I am not talking about mineral oil here, though that is one part. 2006 estimates of copper reserves give us 25-60 years, for example.

Therefore, mature TL8 sees interplanetary missions and asteroid mining. Some worlds may build space elevators.

It is the heavy investment in this resources crisis that pushes tech onward to TL9.

Such an assumption also fits nicely with the fact that our world generation system seems to favor low-tech worlds: Many cultures that reach the “TL8” crisis never make it past it; they get stuck or slip back as the crisis takes its toll.

TL9: Gravitronics

The breakthroughs necessary to develop gravity technology come natural to a civilization that develops a mature space industry. Needless to say, this brings interplanetary travel from “routine” to “man in the streets” levels. Launch capacity becomes so cheap that a week-end trip to Luna becomes feasible.

Aircars. Contragrav replaces pretty much all forms of transportation. Reactionless drives allow for interplanetary voyages under constant acceleration – but they also bring about a new type of non-nuclear strategic weapons. Advances in terraforming and geo-engineering. Large-scale space habitats.

Early Interstellar (TL10-11)

I haven’t worried too much about higher tech levels, since the setting isn’t that far yet. The Traveller SRD is light on details so for now let us just keep them more or less as-is. I expect these levels to become more refined as I begin to design equipment.


Tech Level 10 is where FTL gets invented. I’d argue it’s an out-growth of gravity technology, but that is a generic case and does not apply to the setting I am working on – still, even there, FTL technology is in some ways related to gravity.


True AI finally comes about.

Average Interstellar (TL12-14)


Weather control. Advanced terraforming and geo-engineering.


Powered armor.

Beyond Our Scope (14+).

I picked TL13 as my top Tech Level because I want powered armor. This means that I don’t have to bother with worlds above TL13. There will be some worlds beyond Tech Level 13 generated by my scripts, but these super-high tech worlds can be kept mysterious and wondrous.

The Final Tech Level Chart




No technology/Stone age


Bronze Age


Iron Age/Medieval




Industrial Revolution


World War I (~1900-1930)


World War II (~1930-1950)


Information Age (1950-2000)


Interplanetary Age (2000-2050?)


Gravitronic Age






Advanced terraforming


Powered armor

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