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Starship Technical Manual - A Note on Control Systems

Its time to talk turkey and remove the mask, as it were. I think it is important that I do so for a number of reasons. Many people have a preconception of what they expect to see in the way of control system interfaces in their Traveller games. The "feel" of the game environment is more important to them than the real practicality of the control system paradigm. This is the "fly by the seat of your pants" view. Spacecraft controls systems consists of joysticks and analog-like controls. I use the term analog like because even modern aircraft controls, at least in high performance aircraft, are  overwhelmingly "fly by wire" setups where analog input is converted to digital input to a flight computer. The premise hinges on two contentions which I consider to be false. The first being that human reflexes, flexibility, and cognitive intuition are superior to computer control, which will never replace them. The second is that its move fun for a PC to imagine whipping a spacecraft around by thinking he's pulling back on a joystick, pushing forward a throttle, and banking using foot pedals than pushing buttons.

First my credentials to even make a statement on the nature of control systems. In my real life I design and operated control systems for large scale physics research devices, like particle accelerators. I have experience in nuclear, steam and gas turbine ship power plants and in commercial power production. For the past eight years I have worked on a DOE electron accelerator, which has an entirely digital control system. So in many ways I have real life experience in comparing digital and analog control systems.

Let me say from the outset that operation of such machines would not be possible without computer control. No human could control devices fast enough or with fine enough granularity to enable such machines to operate. I see space craft as much the same. Few humans would be capable of performing the required functions fast enough and accurately enough to pilot a Traveller spacecraft or operate Traveller style weapons. Aiming a laser at 30,000 km range is not going to be done with a set of cross hairs and a couple of levers.

I've been involved in hundreds of accident investigations. Accidents seldom have a single cause. Most often the cause can be attributed to either human error or equipment malfunction that can also be attributed to human error (broken equipment not repaired, broken processes that negate installed equipment safety functions, etc.) In only a very small case can genuine equipment design faults be considered the primary cause of an accident.

The bottom line. Humans in the system are the problem. They get tired, they get bored, they respond to pressure which push them to make decisions which in the light of day are obviously flawed.

Well designed equipment, operating within its designed parameters will always out perform a human.

Lets deal with the first statement. By the time of the Third Imperium the Vilani have had spaceflight for almost 10,000 years. One could reasonably say they know how to build spacecraft and their control systems. The Imperium is also very conservative. Technology does not change rapidly. It appears from canon that very little technological progress has been made in centuries, at least not radical technological progress. That means, to me at least, that grandpa's flight computer was probably the same model our intrepid PCs are using. You are not likely to find much difference in devices from one century to the next. By now the equipment is well designed. (Some of the canon Traveller ships don't seem to bare this out too well, but I mostly put that down to people designing ships who have very little real world experience with military or commercial vessels, and the kinds of requirements typically enforced on their designers. Sometimes they also allow setting up a good game ploy to over ride plausibility. This is not necessarily a fatal flaw in a game, which above all should be fun and interesting.)

 The second part of the statement is typically countered by saying something like, "What about the unexpected? Humans handle the unexpected better." This defense is primarily based on the contention that human guesses are better than machine guesses. This has primarily been true because we do not really understand how a human arrives at a guess. Fundamentally we suppose that  knowledge possessed by the human unconsciously affects the decision in such a way that the odds of making the right decision is improved over the purely logical machine method. Barring the invocation of some kind of psi effect which is unavailable to machines this is surely bunk. A computer with powerful enough processors, sufficient memory and sensors could reproduce this effect, with the proper programming. Since they are likely to be able to receive much more information and process it faster in any iterative problem they are likely to both guess better and arrive at an answer faster, all with out any real sentience.

Where does this leave our intrepid PCs. If computers can always do the job better what use for them? Science fiction literature has had heroes whose ships are more like elevators than aircraft. "Taken me to Metabillious 3, and wake me when we get there."  This has not generally been considered Traveller, though there is nothing to prevent such a ship in the game. The metagaming issues are this: The players generally pay (at least in a GURPS game) for specific traits that translate into advantages usually actualized as bonus on die rolls. For a pilot character this is generally conceived as physical traits such as quick reflexes, to yank that joystick around. For a gunner as traits that allow accurate aiming and firing of ships weapons. These skills could just as easily be rapid information processing and keypunch skills to interface with the flight computer or tactical experience to select the right targets out of a maelstrom of sensor information so that the  tactical computer takes out the right targets to win the battle.  From a metagame perspective the  specific  traits are neutral.

From a story perspective a lot depends on what the PCs expect. Some players I know prefer the retro fifties starship controls, with yoke and HUD view out the canopy window. Most prefer the configurable computer controls with the display screen as the more technologically plausible construct. A very few even prefer the Minority Report/Earth Final Conflict holographic controls, which is a little too advanced in feeling for even my taste.

I've chosen to make the touch screen with limited holographic display the standard at (G)TL10/12*. Analog, fly by wire, controls are strictly old school, appearing on (G)TL9. Static analog controls are relegated to (G)TL8.

*GURPS 3rd Ed Tech Levels are used throughout. At this time (JULY 2005) GURPS 4th Ed tech levels have not yet been established for GT. Hopefully Interstellar Wars will take care of that detail. Until that book, as well as the 4th Ed technology books Ultratech and Vehicles are out I will continue to use GURPS 3rd Ed.