Using GURPS Ultra-Tech 4e in Transhuman Space

Phil Masters
24 August 2010


Table of Contents


1. Chapter One

As I previously did with the new edition of Bio-Tech, I'm going over the latest version of GURPS Ultra-Tech, making my own (unofficial) notes on using the stuff from this (very nice) newer book in the canonical Transhuman Space setting. Fortuitously, Chapter 1 is an overview of the relevant concepts, so I can effectively start with an overview of my own subject.

1.1. Ages of Technology

Transhuman Space is, to a significant extent, the setting which defined the ideas about future technology which are used in GURPS 4e, so for practical purposes, we can say that it is, very simply, a TL10 setting.

People in 2100 are looking forward to TL11, of course, and as my previous notes described, the world seems to have advanced to TL11 in some areas of biotechnology. However, that's still bleeding-edge stuff, and real TL11 skills are pretty much confined to the laboratory. Characters other than biotech researchers can be built solidly at TL10, and that's the TL to go on your campaign definitions.

There are also one or two non-biotech items appearing in TS equipment lists which are now defined to be TL11, but they're infrequent and specific enough that, rather than claiming that the setting has advanced a TL in those areas, it's much easier to redefine them as high TL10 and be done with it. In particular, diamondoid material is sometimes used, mostly in spacecraft hulls so far as I can see - though it's bloody expensive - and a few spacecraft have functioning antimatter drives. But that just means there are some big tough warships around. The other thing that crosses my mind right now is surveillance dust, but that's a standalone item.

On the other hand, the TS setting appears to be retarded in personal weapons technology; basically, it's still using slug-throwers rather than lasers. David Pulver has given a setting-specific explanation for this, which I'll come back to in a later post; it's largely socio-economic, but note for now that it also suggests that small fast-release energy cells aren't as widely available in TS as Ultra-Tech may assume (which cripples personal lasers a bit).

1.2. Tech Level

By the above logic, with TL11 stuff developing by 2100, Transhuman Space is an Accelerated Progression setting. However, I'm not sure that it hit TL9 by 2020 or TL10 by 2050; for most purposes, it's merely Fast Progression, advanced in (parts of) biotechnology.

(There's a long-standing argument that TS assumes that one or two other things go a little faster than is physically plausible for a hard SF setting, whatever the nominal tech level; the colonisation of the outer system and the rate of terraforming of Mars are problematic for some people. But re-setting it to, say, 2150, and declaring it merely Fast Progression lurching towards Accelerated, is left as an exercise.)

1.3. Technology Paths

To repeat - TS is essentially a mainstream "hard" TL10 setting from the GURPS viewpoint. However, simply because it does use pretty well all the non-superscience TL10 stuff, it's slipping into Radical Hard SF - which should be the theme of many "Fifth Wave" and "Deep Beyond" games. Simply by the nature of things, it can have a Cyberpunk feel in places without much distortion; on the other hand, the design decision that "dry" nanotech isn't really available (yet) stops it being a Nanotech Revolution world. The advanced biotechnology makes it a High Biotech setting of sorts, but the rate of advance isn't different enough to make this flavour especially strong - there are still many, many things which are done better by metal than by flesh.

1.4. Gadget Control

This is a subject that will doubtless pop up in various places throughout these notes. The obvious area of social control in TS concerns infomorphs.

1.5. Buying Equipment

Infomorphs are also an area where buying stuff for cash can get very complicated in TS...

I'd also note that, because weapons tech is somewhat retarded in TS, TL8 weapons aren't likely to be any more legal, even though they're two TLs behind the environment. When an assault pod is a standard military sidearm, an old assault rifle still looks like a serious weapon, even if it's a bit dated.

1.6. Integrating and Modifying Equipment

"Plug-in Gadgets" really should be part of the fun of a TS game, I find. Assume lots of interface compatibility!


2. Chapter Two

(Just to make it clear and remind people, by the way - TS is a hard SF setting, which means I'm taking it as read that we just skip anything marked as superscience.)

2.1. Power

TS doubtless uses flexible power cells for at least some minor purposes - it's very much part of the style. Non-rechargeable cells are canonical.

Also, TS doesn't have F cells listed. I think that function is probably largely taken by big fuel cells and high-tech engines of various sorts, but if anyone wants to introduce them, they might cost, say, $2,000 if using the old pricing structure, and store 200 kWh. (Making them equal to ten E cells bolted together, with a discount for the bulk purchase.)

Incidentally, it's been said, following my first post, that TS power cell energy densities are merely highly optimistic, whereas most game treatments of the subject are quite wildly so. I'll leave this debate to people who know more about the engineering and science than me, though.

2.2. Computers: Hardware

Very roughly, if you double the weights of the Ultra-Tech computers and multiply their prices by anything from 8 to 2.5, and remember that they're TL10 models, you get some kind of correspondence - but I think it's probably easier just to stick with the TS computer models table for practical purposes. Otherwise, you have to fiddle with the notes on every cybershell template and... Well, it's just too much like work, really. (You'd also have to tweak the Legaility Classes, following the guidelines on p.60 of Changing Times.) The Ultra-Tech list does raise the possibility of adding to two new categories to the TS list:

Super-Macroframe: Weight 10,000, Cost $1,500,000, Complexity 10, Storage 10,000,000, LC 4 old, 3 new.

Megacomputer: Weight 100,000, Cost $10,000,000, Complexity 11, Storage 100,000,000, LC 4 old, 3 new.

On the other hand, TS is surely more about distributed processing than building-sized megabrains.

One could assume that all TS computers are "Hardened"; that helps bring the prices a bit more into line, and raises the possibility of allowing TS computers a "non-hardened" option (halve cost and weight, -3 to HT rolls to resist magnetic pulses, microwaves, etc.), but then GMs would have to penalise budget-conscious munchkins something rotten - I'd skip it as a minor can of worms. And if you like the new, Ultra-Tech "Genius" option, try adding this to the TS options:

Super-Genius: Weight x1, Cost x500, Complexity +2, Storage x10, LC (old or new) -1. Can't be combined with Cheap or Genius.

And suddenly, the Men in Black from the Government have fully sapient sunglasses. $200,000 sunglasses, mind you.

2.3. Computers: Software

Anyway, Ultra-Tech changes the categorisation (broadly, I'd say that NAI becomes "Dedicated" or low-end "Non-Volitional", LAI becomes high-end "Non-Volitional", and SAI become "Volitional"), and the IQ/Complexity relationship is different to that of the TS template baselines... Best to stick with the TS rules for TS games, I strongly suggest.

2.4. Robots and Total Cyborgs

2.5. Machines as Characters

  1. 20%, but it mightn't hurt to allow or require characters to take it as an option if they think they can have fun with fine control of their surface appearances.

There are a few things to note, though:

  1. The "Dust" chassis type has been assigned to TL11, because it's restricted to nanobots. It's easy enough to switch it back to TL10, though; just assume that this one type of nanodevice can be created at TL10.
  2. Beamed power is new here. It's probably perfectly plausible for TS games, although its usefulness may be limited.
  3. Cannibal swarms have been reassigned to TL12. Somebody presumably decided that there were credibility issues. GMs can decide for themselves whether to keep them, agree that they're beyond TS technology, or maybe make them slower to work and limited to very simple devices. Arguably, if they're available, some version of the (nominally TL11) Disassembler type should be too.
  4. Illumination has been renamed Firefly.
  5. The Massage type is new but mostly harmless; I'd vote to include it in TS.
  6. The Security type is new and quite handy, but seems appropriate for TS. I'd guess that searches using this would require a warrant or just cause in most jurisdictions. (I'd hope so!)
  7. The Sensor Array type seems to have disappeared. There may be problems with the concept, but I wouldn't see a lot wrong with bringing it back.
  8. Swarmwear is no longer a standard type, but is a generic potential function of the Aerostat type.
  9. Multi-Function swarms are restricted to TL11+. There are hints of multi-function swarms in TS, but as I can't find out offhand what's supposed to be possible in this line, there may not be a huge problem here.

3. Chapter Three

"Communications, Sensors, and Media" - a theme of interest in many TS games, I think, and this chapter expands the options and rules usefully. Where the two sources differ, I think that GMs can generally just take their pick as to which they prefer.

3.1. Communicators

Ultra-Tech gives markedly better ranges for some of these, weight for weight, especially at TL10. Converting isn't likely to be a game-breaker, though.

Laser Communicators: Laser-Retinal Imaging probably counts as a flashy spy-show trick in the TS setting. Personally, I'm not sure what I'd think about the idea of somebody lasering messages direct into my eyeball.

Radio Communicators: Note that the TS-style Implant Radio is covered later in the book (p.211). Some others provide an exception to the rule about Ultra-Tech giving better ranges. Broadly, the Ultra-Tech Tiny model equates to the TS short-range communicator, but is lighter and has much less range; the Small model is analogous to the TS medium-range unit, but costs twice as much for slightly less range; the Medium model weighs as much as the TS long-range communicator, costs a lot more, and gives much better range; and the Large and Very Large types hav no counterparts listed. Pick which list you prefer, or even mix and match...

Sonar Communicators: Handy for those Under Pressure games... Actually, Under Pressure has two analogues. The personal Sonarcoder (p.120) isn't generally as good but which does allow broadcast transmission - one might add that as an option to these (with, say, 1/10 beamed range). Vehicle sonarcomms (p.143) are slightly inferior to the Ultra-Tech versions. I might use the latter, but exclude the Tiny and Micro versions - generating a beamed sonar signal is surely going to require a certain amount of bulk.

Sonic Communicator: Not canonical for TS, and I'm not sure how far I buy the concept as hard SF.

3.2. Encryption

TS assumes stronger encryption as standard than Ultra-Tech. I suspect that this is actually entirely plausible.

Quantum Encryption: Ultra-Tech has a different pricing structure for this - a multiplier rather than flat addition. Does one believe in a quantum encryption system on a laser communicator for as little as $180? Up to you, but I might stick with the flat rate.

3.3. Translators

Translator programs are of course defined slightly differently to TS language skill sets, but the complexity levels come out quite similar. I'd probably stick to the skill set model for consistency, but that's a matter of taste. Note that a standalone translator program won't require a Modular Abilities slot.

3.4. Neural Interfaces

The Neural Input Receiver might well be possible in TS, but might not prove to be terribly precise or reliable. Most tasks that could use it would be at least as well handled by either an AI or a human with an implant interface. The thing might show up occasionally, though, as a curiosity.

The Neural Interface Implant is really covered by the Virtual Interface Implant - it could be considered as one specific reason to have a cheap VII. The Neural Interface Helmet might be possible, but is weird and disturbing enough that it might not be popular - if someone is willing to have, effectively, surgery on their head for such a purpose, they might prefer to have it done just the once, under controlled conditions, and make it permanent.

"Brainlocks" or similar protections also sound possible, and might form part of standard TS-era computer interface security. Though I do wonder how reliably unique and repeatably identifiable a human's brain waves actually are.

3.5. Networks

3.6. Media and Education

Probably a good general guide to the sort of data-recording and experiencing gear that might be around in 2100...

3.7. Sensors and Scientific Equipment

Lots of handy toys here. Prices may vary from TS equivalents (where they exist), of course, but the problem doesn't seem to be too bad. In this case, TS often seems to set prices lower, though it doesn't, say, automatically include magnification capability in its high-tech optics. Ultra-Tech may allow better personal radar gear, though.


4. Chapter Four

More Songs About Buildings and Food; more stuff that's good for establishing the look of the scenery for TS games, and more basic gear for many adventures...

4.1. Housing and Food

In addition, by the way, the TL9 version ought to have Extra "Legs" - actually extra wheels, probably three or four wheels for +5 points (I've had a ruling from Kromm that number of wheels works like number of legs, and I doubt that this thing runs around on two wheels), and I'd delete the Secure enhancement from its radio (that's been treated as a military sort of feature in TS) and add a cable jack with Video - you need a quick I/O port for software updates, and the ability to transfer pictures of, say, possible burglars. But no doubt there's a lot of variety in cybershell features.

4.2. Expedition Gear

4.3. Tools and Construction Materials

A nice collection of stuff for the "working stiffs in a weird world" games to which TS lends itself so pleasingly...


5. Chapter Five

Players will doubtless be terribly interested in "Covert Ops and Security" - for exactly which reason, of course, GMs should think a little before allowing any given new toy into a campaign, in case it unbalances things. On the other hand, in a hard SF setting, if something is intrinsically logical, it really has to be permitted. Which said, it may be legally controlled, very hard to find, or plain expensive - and often all three.

I'm sure that a lot of the items in this chapter will turn out to be similar-but-not-identical to things in various TS books, at varying prices. As ever, it's up to GMs which to use; I suspect that the new book will generally be better thought through, but of course consistency is often desirable in itself.

5.1. Deception and Intrusion

I'd tend to assume that security systems in the TS world are pretty good against direct frontal assaults - it's a setting in which encryption is ahead of the crackers. In other words, all these tools which give +3 are giving +3 to "Not a Chance" a lot of the time. Or they may be treated as the minimum necessary equipment for some skill attempts.

5.2. Security and Surveillance

I'll be commenting on plausible weapons technology in TS when I get onto chapter six, and some of those remarks will likely also be applicable here, in the general sense that if a weapons technology isn't available, it can't be used as part of a security system.

5.3. Enforcement and Coercion


6. Chapter Six

Ah, the meat of the book ... well, for some gamers. Also the place where changed technological assumptions between Transhuman Space and the new version of Ultra-Tech become most visible, if only because we get all those detailed weapons tables to compare.

In fact, the thing that jumps out here is that the nominally TL10 Transhuman Space setting is, by Ultra-Tech standards, rather retarded in weaponry, being seemingly TL9 in most parts. However, a lot of this is down to the general inferiority of lasers and high-density power storage in the TS world, so one can link this "inferiority" to one or two not-unreasonable assumptions about the future technology. On the aesthetic side, the fact is that widespread use of lasers and other beam weapons can't help but give a game more of a space opera feel, whereas TS projectile sidearms, with their sophisticated warheads and intelligent accessories, perhaps have just the right balance of gloss and grit for the setting.

I should also note here that the weapons tables in Changing Times were based on a combination of early versions of the Ultra-Tech material and rule-of-thumb conversions of old TS material with some intent to preserve backwards compatibility. Hence, the two books may display slight inconsistencies even in places where they might be expected to align. However, the differences shouldn't generally be too severe; GMs can choose which to follow as they think best, or just kludge up a compromise.

David Pulver has commented on this whole weapons question in previous discussions, and with his permission, I'll quote what he has to say; it may give GMs of Transhuman Space games some useful ideas:

As Phil says, the weaponry in THS is somewhat conservative. The idea was that military forces are really conservative about their basic guns, but tend to upgrade the ammo. So around about 2040 or so, China or India or the EU or the US finally wore out all the old weapons (mostly based on 1930s-1950s calibers) and switched to a new range of standard caseless or cased telescoped ammo. And then made the usual billion or so rounds and so everyone's been stuck with it ever since, with too big a market to change...

This does not mean they can't make all the cool new stuff. But the things in UT like gauss weapons and lasers are sort of in the same state as the G-11 caseless assault rifle and the Metalstorm pistols and other innovations are today. People have built prototypes, but no one has really adopted on a big scale because the switch is just too much of a pain. Instead, they just keep making better ammo!

Actually, the other thing is that the "real" military action involves cybershells, swarms, cybertanks, etc. ... but most Fifth Wave nations aren't building cool guns for humans because combat isn't usually a gunfight, while if it does come down to a gunfight, the other guy likely either brought a DR 60+ cybershell or a swarm, and in neither case is a laser pistol that much use.

I do think that one place you can probably get cool guns is probably the Duncanite asteroid areas. Trojan Mafia probably have minifac plans for all kinds of stuff and libertarian sec companies and individuals both have a decent personal market that would pay premium rates for small production runs of quality guns (and have a reason for low-recoil gauss guns and lasers).

Another assumption which you can ignore or not as you please: while THS battery tech is equivalent to Ultra-Tech at TL10, its pulsed power technology (capacitors in the weapons, etc.) was set at about the TL9 technologies for UT. As such, you might want to limit those beam or gun weapons that use power cells to TL9, with TL10 beam or gun weapons either unavailable or limited to elite military units and special agents. Note that this only applies to power-cell using TL10 weapons themselves - all other gear such as warheads, accessories, etc. should probably be available at TL10.

Note that I'm not disagreeing with David about his own setting if I comment that a lot of stuff in TS often seems to make sense if one assumes that all power cells (but perhaps especially "pulsed" stuff) are relatively restrained compared to the Ultra-Tech assumptions. But Ultra-Tech mostly (wisely) avoids giving hard numbers for things like power storage, so this is largely a matter of feel rather than anything else.

I'd also note that PCs are often much given to loading themselves down with the sort of stuff that "elite military units and special agents" carry, and one can only assume so much about price problems and legal constraints. So if you let all the TL10 stuff from this chapter into your TS game, be prepared for hand weapon damage creep.

Oh, and this chapter has lots of illustrations, which many gamers will doubtless appreciate.

6.1. Beam Weapons

In particular, spacer-adventurers will love lasers. (Low recoil, no ammunition issues.) The things that Changing Times derived from Deep Beyond are quite wilfully wimpish, though not quite useless; the TL10 gear in Ultra-Tech is seriously formidable by comparison, and I'd expect at least some "line" military units to be packing it if it was available. Though treating all the Changing Times gear as ultraviolet lasers might bring the damage levels more into line, albeit with improved ranges.

(It's also possible that the Changing Times lasers are rather crappy experimental designs put together from misappropriated blueprints by Duncanite mechanics who aren't half as clever as they think they are, and that the much more competent laboratories of proper governments or major corporations laugh at the sight of them, having long since progressed to much better designs, but not bothered marketing them because the only people who'd use them are Duncanite rip-off merchants and pirates.)

6.2. Fluid Projectors

Obviously, ordinary sprays are perfectly feasible - as in, really just extant TL6 technology. What they spray is doubtless what's interesting. Vortex ring projectors aren't canon for TS, but they're limited enough in application that one can slot them in without too many credibility issues, and in my opinion, far too much fun to ignore. Finding a specific use for them is an exercise for GMs and PCs, but the ability to fire pulses of emetic gas could be handy.

6.3. Guns and Launchers

The 100% canon cannons... The general weapons technology that TS treats as standard. Of course, as I said, details differ, and TS incorporates stuff like gun-pods and armguns which Ultra-Tech evidently doesn't buy, but one can probably explain a lot in terms of different development paths, tactical doctrines, and local preferences, and merge the two equipment lists with just a little work. I get the impression that Ultra-Tech doesn't believe in 4mm rounds, which are quite common in TS; keep them or not as you choose.

6.4. Firearm Accessories

Generally useful, of course, but then, a lot of this stuff is already in TS, more or less... Actually, Ultra-Tech updates and expands on some items in small but useful ways, so I'd tend to favour the versions in the new book. Things like the targeting scopes make plausible additions.

6.5. Warheads and Ammunition

This section adds somewhat to the options which might be available in TS games, and changes some things a bit. In some cases, GMs are going to have to decide whether to use TS or Ultra-Tech damage ratings and prices, and possibly then interpolate for different calibers of weapons. If using the latter, it's probably easiest and reasonable to treat 30mm TS rounds as using the numbers for 25mm rounds in Ultra-Tech, and 60mm as 64mm - though more detail-obsessed GMs can interpolate to get slightly different numbers if they wish.

6.6. Biochemical and Nanotech Weapons

A handy general treatment of the subject; TS games could use a lot of this stuff. Of course, some of these things correspond to chemicals that are available at TL8 - but one can assume that the TL9+ versions are faster acting and less likely to induce dangerous unexpected side-effects. GMs who want gritty realism and scary moments can bring such problems right back in.

6.7. Melee and Thrown Weapons

Ultra-tech melee weapons are generally more about style than hard SF plausibility, of course, but there are one or two things in here that might fit into TS games.

6.8. Combat Robots

A concept that's pretty central to the TS milieu - though there may be divergences in technological assumptions, of course.


7. Chapter Seven

Another important chapter - perhaps even more important than the one before, given that even the most pacifistic PCs may want protection, against less pacifistic NPCs or hostile environments (or non-pacifistic PCs, for that matter).

In general, I think that the broad assumptions about these technologies are quite compatible between TS and this book; however, detail assumptions about cost and weight per point of DR, various other factors, and exactly what's incorporated into various suits and such as standard, and what represents an optional extra, likely generate a lot of detail clashes and potential for confusion. One could use this stuff in place of the gear in the TS main book without breaking the setting at all, but I'd strongly recommend using either TS-books armour or UT armour, not trying to mix and match. (You'll need to convert Legality Class ratings to the 4e standard, of course.)

Overall, I think that Ultra-Tech usually makes a given amount of DR of any given type somewhat heavier and more expensive. But there are certainly exceptions to that, and there may be subtleties and complexities involved.

7.1. Body Armor and Protective Gear

7.2. Powered Suits

Here, the assumptions implicit in the original TS material do diverge significantly from those of Ultra-Tech. I'd suggest following the former, to preserve the feel of the setting, but GMs are of course welcome to do otherwise.

Basically, although TS has powered battlesuits, they really aren't as good as the TL10 models in this chapter. (See also Changing Times for 4e versions of the old book's designs.) This can be explained in terms of the previously-discussed conservative treatment of battery technology, combined with less interest from the arms manufacturers; frontline combat in TS is often handled by cybershells, not goons in suits - the suits are mostly for occasional specialists (including various kinds of special forces) and nervous officers.

7.3. Defense Systems

Some of these options which aren't already covered by the TS material might be borrowed, even by GMs who favour the old books over this one, though obviously some of these things are more appropriate than others. For example, the "Armor Without Faceplates" rule does make for stylishly slightly crazy faceless goons, while the Electromagnetic Armor option might be fitted to some heavier battlesuits in TS, if the GM wishes.


8. Chapter Eight

And now we move onto "patching the PCs up after they've been playing with all the other toys". Given that the TS setting is wandering into TL11 in some areas of biotech (see the previous discussion of GURPS Bio-Tech), some of the more advanced stuff here may be appropriate - though as ever, I'd advise caution with that idea.

8.1. Biomedical Equipment

The basic stuff here - bandage sprays, disposable hypos, and so on - should be trivially compatible with TS, even if details and prices sometimes vary slightly. Bigger gear may require a little more checking. However, a lot of it may even have come direct from the TS core book, here being brought fully into line with 4e rules treatments; GMs can usefully cross-reference between the two books for some purposes.

8.2. Cybernetics and Uploading

A good set of generalised rules for various things that exist in the TS world, although some of them have been superseded by less obtrusive and inconvenient "pure" biotech in most places. Visible cybernetics might constitute an Unnatural Feature in TS games. How much is practically available to PCs who want to get a bit cyberpunk is up to the GM.


9. Chapter Nine

A last useful chapter - simply having handy basic stats for a range of vehicles is always good for a GM. The numbers here don't align perfectly with those in Changing Times and the 3e TS books - GMs might have to choose one or the other if their players are too picky - but are mostly close enough that there's no obvious clash of assumptions.

9.1. Personal Vehicles

9.2. Tilt-Rotor Transport

Okay, so the Osprey project just has to wait for TL9 to start being useful. These things aren't a common sight in the TS world that I recall, but I guess they could appear - at least as old tech.

9.3. Utility Vertol

Why do I keep thinking that a cargo helicopter would be better? Oh well - if TS can include the aircar, it can include this as the truck-equivalent.

9.4. Microplanes

(These and other things below appear to be categorised under "Grav Bikes and Platforms", but I think that's just a layout error.) The two dragonflies could feature in TS games, and would doubtless appeal to PCs.

9.5. Flight Packs

The helipack might also be feasible in TS, though I imagine it'd be legally controlled and looked a bit askance at by many people. Better to send a buzzbot on these sorts of missions, mostly.

9.6. Drop Capsules

Feasible technology for the TS setting, but maybe unlikely to be common. Earth and Mars orbit are busy enough that anyone evacuating a station or ship can probably look for rescue without having to hit the atmosphere in a lifepod, while military applications are limited by the lack of real stealth options.