Thursday, February 11, 2010

Traveller and Computers

Grognardia has an interesting post about Traveller and Computers here.

Around the mid 80s it began to drive many Traveller fans crazy that it's computers were so limited compared to what was coming out. Most just accepted it as part of the premise but a significant minority developed all kinds of handwave to explain why the Model I/bis was the size it was.

I was part of the just accept it crowd. At that time my vision of an advanced computer was that you ask it question in natural language, and the computer gave you answers. I even did a computer voice that worked nicely.

MP3 of a morning greeting

Something of general use to SciFi RPGs is that computers today come in a large variety of configurations, sizes, and and purposes. While the mainframes of yore are far fewer in number there still exist large sever farms that would not look out place in the imaginations of SF roleplayers in the 80s.

My day job involves programming software to run the metal forming, and metal cutting machines my company manufactures. Computer that are used for control and process applications, like those needed for starships, are often quite specialized. The reason for this is primarily I/O, the computer needs to access a variety of wires each with different electrical characteristics to control different operations. These are not indefinitely flexible. Since much of the limitation of Traveller's computers involves swapping programs that do process and control the size and limitations seem reasonable although on the large size.

In a machine I work on that takes sheets off of a coil of metal and forms them into rectangular tube the computer is a Dell you can buy on-line. But the cabinet it is part of is a 2 1/2 foot cube. The rest of the space in occupied by the wiring needed to connect the computer to the different station along the production line.

Future Tech may shrink this a little, wireless certainly may be able to eliminate some wires. But physics limit how far you can shrink or get rid of some of this stuff safely.

One pieces of technology has eased the wiring situation greatly. That is the PLC or Programmable Logic Controller. Basically it is a box with inputs on one side and outputs on the other. The magic is that you connect the inputs and outputs however you like by downloading a program. Thanks to the ever shrinking CPUs today's PLC programs have all the features of a programming language used for general purpose computers.

A Traveller Starship probably has a crapload of PLCs that offer normal and redundant paths for sensors and controls. Part of the dealing damage to your starship probably involves going into your network of PLCs and downloading programs to reroute functions around the damaged sections of the ship.

My point in relaying this isn't to tell you how to play your sci-fi. But rather in hopes that some ideas will come out of it for your campaigns.


Jimmy Simpson said...

I always thought of the "computer" in Traveller as a highly distributed, multiply redundant computer network throughout the ship.

You would have computers and their backups in engineering, multiple computers (navigation, helm, fire control) and their backups on the bridge. There would be other computers controlling climate & gravity and providing entertainment for the passengers and crew.

So your "single computer" you purchase for your ship, would not be in the Computer room behind the bridge, but actually spread throughout the ship.

rogercarbol said...

Why are Traveller computers so sucky?

Virus, that's why.

1d30 said...

Perhaps not that they all have a computer virus (although maybe the Science Officer could just stop downloading pr0n, but oh well), but maybe they're constructed that way for durability and because the weapons used against the ship would knock out microchip - based systems.

Also, don't they say "bytes" and "kilobyes" and such? Well a byte is just an arbitrarily assigned number for a group of bits. They could have defined a byte as 12 bits, but they chose 8 because that would allow them to express the full desired character set without waste.

So maybe in the Traveller setting the computer systems are based on a 600-bit byte?

I'm sure someone who knows more about base level computer stuff will be able to shoot me down here :P

Frank said...

I think there are a few important points.

First, make sure your assumptions are clear. If you are basing your technology on some fiction, make that clear.

Second, be as non-specific with technology as you can. You need weights/volumes if your system makes tracking that important, but you can be vague as to capabilities. Don't specify numbers of bytes. It may be ok to state that a camera can take 100 pictures, or that a recorder can record 10 hours of video (because the future recorder might be higher resolution), but if it doesn't really matter, don't specify it.

Third, realize some of your technology will be eclipsed (possibly even by current technology without your realizing it). If you've made your assumptions clear, and you've only specified hard numbers where it's critical to your game system, future players can more easily make new assumptions about the equipment.

One thing that can work in your favor is to assume that some future problems are unknowably complex. Who knows what computations and energy use are required for FTL travel? Even in system maneuvering and fire control may be more complex than we realize. For example, how many moving bodies does the fire control have to predict? The movement of that marble sized chunk of debris might be important.

These days I'm also less inclined to assume computer miniaturization, speed, and memory consumption will lead to micro-miniature computers in the future. Hard drives haven't really shrunk in physical size almost 30 years (except lap tops got smaller drives, but once the 2.5" drive came into play, that's been pretty standard for years). My newest computer still takes just as long to boot up as my IBM PC did (actually the IBM PC may have booted up faster). Big computer installations still fill large rooms. I can envision a future where HUD glasses and/or other human interface technology allow portable computers to finally drop below the size of a typical laptop. But I bet graphic designers and engineers will still work at a desk sized workstation.

Back to those Traveller computers, I haven't looked at how important the program switching in and out is to making the starship combat game fun, but assuming that's the case, the computers need to be big and expensive otherwise everyone has the best computer. Paul Gazis made some assumptions for his starship combat system because you could make it pretty unfun or trivial by assuming the computers could do too much. He did also point out that despite the advances of computer control through the 70s and 80s, fighter aircraft are still piloted by a real person and they aren't there just to make decisions about if a target should be fired on or not. Sure, these days, we have drones, but their use is limited, and they make lots of mistakes. Of course so do human pilots.

Unless you assume computer intelligence reaches a point where humans are redundant, there will still need to be humans, especially at the frontier (even if remotely, many of our space probes have been kept alive longer than expected, or kept alive after a serious malfunction because they were set up to allow human intervention, especially to allow re-programming). Unless you assume FTL radio, we're going to need to put humans on those FTL ships...

And that means some things have to be big to accommodate human dimensions.

Back to hard numbers, the one reason you might want to give some hard numbers is as absolute minimums, just in case your game reaches a non-technical audience. But maybe they don't even matter there.