Roleplayer #17, November 1989

Gadgets, Lots of Gadgets!

Ultra-Tech Designer's Notes

by David Pulver

Ultra-Tech is largely a gadget book – a list of what gadgets (or more to the point, technologies) would appear at what tech levels, and rules for using them. It uses the same format as High-Tech. There are introductory chapters on general technology used at every tech level (like power cells) followed by individual chapters covering each TL (with two TLs to a chapter after TL10).

The hardest part of writing Ultra-Tech was coming up with new gadgets, since Space already had one of the best equipment sections of any SF game currently in print. In analyzing the 30 pages of equipment in Space I found an awful lot of TL8 devices, a fair number of TL9 items (especially beam weapons). There were almost no TL10, 11 or 12 devices, and nothing of any higher TL. But the GURPS TL system went up to TL16! On the other hand, almost all the classic SF gadgets seemed to be there, and I would have at least 80 pages to fill . . . My initial proposal had a large number of sample gadgets, and a full outline of technology from TL8 to TL16.

Then it came. A massive thing arrived in the mail, bulging and leaking pages out of a plastic bag. Wondering if this was the mythical playtest copy of GURPS Supers, I opened it. It turned out to be gadgets. Lots of gadgets. And letters, some typed, some handwritten, all to Steve Jackson Games. As I searched through the two-inch-thick pile for a reason why Roleplayer's address had suddenly become my kitchen, I found the answer.

Steve Jackson had liked my proposal, and wanted me to write Ultra-Tech. These were the gadget submissions that had been received by Roleplayer during the summer and fall, photocopies of relevant playtest comments on Space, interesting science-fact articles from magazines, etc. I was to use whatever seemed good, keeping careful track so that all submissions would be credited.

A few phone calls and a signed contract later, I got to work. The basic format had been approved. There were to be no vehicles except personal ones like man-portable ultralights, and no weapons heavier than a person could carry.


The submissions SJ Games had received held a lot of really good ideas (there are some very fertile imaginations out there!) But their were also many duplications, of each other or of devices included in my original draft. Of course, some versions were better than mine, in which case I used or combined them, but gave the original designer full credit. But even after including all the relevant equipment in Space and all the useful submissions, I still had about 70 pages to fill. Now began the real work. . .

I added a few new rules sections, like rules for hacking into futuristic computers ("data penetration") and for guided missiles. But most of the book was to be gadgets and weapons. Some technologies, like the "prismatic" force screens, were already in use in my own long-running SF campaign. Others were standard SF props, like stasis webs and psionic amplifiers, or original inventions. But what I enjoyed most was extrapolation.

I would take a technology already described in GURPS Space, and see where it led at higher TLs. For example, by combining bioscanners and contragrav technology, introduced at TL9 and TL12 and assuming it would get smaller at higher tech levels, I came up with grav-propelled bullets that could be programmed to home in on individual genetic patterns, seeking out one person in a crowd. And of course, that technology implied that a TL earlier, they would be on missiles.

Too often, I felt, SF books and games fail to give a broader picture of technology. Blasters, space Suits and multiscanners are useful for soldiers and explorers, but not all gadgets were invented for adventurers! I decided to devote a few sidebars in every chapter to describe new developments that might alter the character of daily life. Ultra-Tech is by no means a future history, but I think it is easier to roleplay a character or to set a scene as a GM if some props are already there. Describing a functioning far-future city is always difficult: that's why so many SF books and movies these days depict a burned-out dystopia. Knowing that people work and shop by computer and the roads have been replaced by slidewalks at TL8, or that the average TL12 apartment could be a living organism floating above the clouds, can give roleplayers a better sense that their characters really are living in the future, not just in the 20th century with 30th-century guns.

As I worked on the gadgets, comments began to appear on the SJG-BBS, some of the changes were incorporated into the manuscript. One of the BBS playtesters was Scott Maykrantz (who had also sent in some of the better gadgets to Roleplayer). He provided many useful suggestions (and some really strange devices). John Nowak, who is working on GURPS Mecha, sent me several nifty gadgets he had cut from his own manuscript for reasons of space, and together we developed the rules for clever and brilliant missiles and gyrocs.

Hacking and Troubleshooting

After two months of work, the first draft was finished. My brother Tim was invaluable for helping me proofread (the main mistakes in the first draft were where I had read the chapter rather than him) and getting everything on disk. Steve was understanding when I mistakenly sent him the first part of the manuscript in Word Perfect. . . which the SJ Games computer couldn't read. The ASCII version followed the next day, so things turned out all right.

By then I had an editor, Loyd Blankenship, and the manuscript went out to playtesters. A month later, I heard back from Loyd. He liked the manuscript, but had several suggested major changes and a host of minor ones. He also forwarded the first of what was to be about 200 pages of playtester comments!

All the requested changes made sense, and I began work on the final draft and incorporating the playtest comments (more of which seemed to arrive in the mail every day). One thing that playtesters often commented on was weapon damage; some thought it was too much, others thought it was too little. Many of the weapons in this book may seem to do a great deal of damage, compared to those in Space while the armor may appear to be excessively tough. The major reason for these changes was the increased power of modern firearms in the GURPS Basic Set, Third Edition and High-Tech. A modern-day M16A2 assault rifle does 6d of damage and fires 10 rounds per second, while today's Hardcorps Kevlar vest has a torso DR of 35. Playtesting showed that unless TL8+ weapons and armor were correspondingly more effective, no one would use them; a soldier with a TL7 FN rifle should not be more effective than one armed with a TL9 particle-beam weapon. Man has always been good at creating better ways to kill . . .

But the majority of the work on the final draft was clarification and reorganization. The center charts and tables were added, typos, grammar and rules ambiguities were cleared up, while some rules were altered to bring them into line with Supers enabling Ultra-Tech to be used as a sourcebook for super gadgets. Also, the first draft was too long, and even at 128 pages, some things had to be cut. Redundant material was removed and numerous minor gadgets were deleted. The biggest cut was the rules for genetically engineering improved animals. They were very interesting, but took up a lot of space, and needed much more playtesting; hopefully they will show up in a Roleplayer article at some point.

Ultra-Tech is what I hoped it would be – the definitive book of science fiction equipment. I hope everyone gets as much enjoyment out of using it as I did writing it.

Using Ultra-Tech With Supers

Most of the weapons and gadgets work very well in a Supers setting, even in Wild Cards (they can be used as Takisian or Network technology). Don't worry about introducing very high-tech gadgets, but concentrate on interesting effects rather than lethality: the more exotic, the better. Tachyon shotguns and paralysis rifles are excellent weapons for super agents, while personality implants make classic mind-control devices. The larger TL13 to TL16 devices (chrysalis machines, teleportation portals and so on) are all suitable furnishings for the lairs of master meta-villains. But, except in a 750-point or higher campaign, I don't recommend letting players or NPCs start with any of the Legality Class 0 military weapons or armor. Even at TL8 or TL9 they are far more than most 500-point supers can deal with.

New Weapons

Stasis Webs

Stasis is an induced state in which almost no time passes (a second every hundred million years, perhaps). Several types of stasis-web generators are available, but their operation is similar. The duration of the web can be set for any length of time between five minutes (the minimum) and a billion years; an atomic clock registers how much (relative) time has passed within the web, and deactivates the field when the time is up. Something protected by a stasis web is effectively outside the normal space-time continuum, and cannot be affected by anything within it. It could fall through the heart of a star or survive for a billion years. Since only (relative) micro- or nanoseconds will pass for the occupants of a stasis web, they cannot take any action while within the web.

Note that the stasis generator is always within the web itself – there is no way to turn an activated stasis web off from outside it. Viewed from the outside, an object encased in a stasis web is a perfectly reflecting mirror, and no sensors of any type can penetrate into it. The only way to deactivate a stasis web from outside it is to use a reality stabilizer, which will instantly cause the web to collapse.

Stasis Cube: A stasis cube is a box which generates a stasis web around itself. It takes two seconds to set the duration, and one more to activate the cube, which is then surrounded by the stasis web. It holds about as much as a backpack (.2 cy, about 40 pounds of equipment); it uses a C cell, costs $20,000 and weighs ten pounds.

Stasis Chamber: This is a stasis cube the size of a large coffin, used as a suspended-animation chamber, a vault or a prison. It is essential to make sure it has the right time setting. Once activated, there is no way (short of a reality stabilizer) to turn it off until the duration expires. It can hold one person in a space suit with equipment (or two with no equipment), or .5 cy of cargo. The generator is designed to be activated from outside the chamber, but a timer is included so that the user can set the web duration, then climb into it. It runs off a pair of D cells. Cost is $50,000, volume is .5 cy and weight is 200 pounds.

Stasis Grid: A stasis grid is a stasis-web generator built into a building, space ship or vehicle. The stasis web is usually designed to be activated from within the vehicle or building as a last-ditch defensive measure (e.g. as the missile strike is about to hit, go into stasis for five minutes). In space combat, an activated stasis grid provides total protection against any attack (except tachyonic disruptors) but the protected ship cannot attack or maneuver! At the beginning of any space combat turn, the captain should decide whether the grid will be activated or not. Note that a ship's velocity is retained while in stasis, but since it cannot maneuver, its course is easily predictable. A stasis grid costs $100,000, takes up .5 cy, masses 1/2 ton and requires one MW of power, plus $1,000, .05 cy, .05 ton and 0.1 MW per cubic yard to be protected. For example, a stasis grid covering a 200 cy shuttle would cost $300,000, take up 10.5 cy, and require a 21 MW power supply.

Tachyon Shotgun

Also known as a displacer, a tachyon shotgun rips opens a warp in space and sends its targets elsewhere. It is fired like a grenade launcher, and is aimed at a hex rather than an individual. If the roll misses, take the number the roll was missed by and add 1d – this is the number of hexes the gunner missed by. As for direction, roll another die, designating "1" as north and counting clockwise around the faces of the target hex. On a critical miss, the effect occurs in the gunner's hex.

A whirling vortex takes form in the affected hex, threatening to swallow anyone within it. The attacked gets a Dodge roll (PD doesn't help) to dive into an adjacent hex and escape before the rift opens fully. Anyone and anything that fails to escape the hex is sucked into the hole; objects too large to fit through the warp (one yard in diameter) will be unaffected. A tachyon shotgun will affect a small stasis field (sucking it through the hole).

Where a particular rift leads is up to the GM – interstellar space, an adjacent parallel dimension, the heart of a sun, the past, or solid ground just a few miles (or lightyears) away are possibilities. However, it's usually more fun to send heroes (or major villains) into interesting places they can adventure in and later return from, than to scatter their component atoms across the universe. If more than one person is affected at once, the rift sends everyone to the same (or nearly the same) point in space or time.

Reality Stabilizer

A reality stabilizer negates the effects of displacer and tachyon beams, teleportation, stasis, time travel, FTL communicators, force fields and all gravity-manipulation (contragravity, tractor/pressor beams, etc.) devices within its area of effect by strengthening local space-time. Any such device automatically stops working while within the this area of effect, nor can it affect anything in the area.

Stasis Key: This short-ranged reality stabilizer creates a brief pulse which will cause any active stasis web to collapse. The stasis web generator is unharmed. Its range is a one-yard radius (its hex and all adjacent hexes). It uses a C cell for ten "shots." A Stasis Key costs $4,000 and weighs three pounds.

Portable Reality Stabilizer: Also known as a space/time anomaly neutralizer, or SATAN-field projector, this is a backpack version which affects up to a five-mile radius around itself. It can be tuned to cover a smaller area (down to a five-yard radius) if desired. It uses an E cell, which powers it for four hours. Cost is $60,000 and weight is 50 pounds.

Heavy Stabilizer: This generates a field that covers a 100-mile radius within atmosphere, and up to ten times that in vacuum. This version requires five MW of power and can prevent a ship from engaging its FTL drive within its area of influence. It needs five cy of space and weighs four tons. It costs $1,000,000.

(Back to Roleplayer #17 Table of Contents)

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