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Old March 3rd, 2019, 09:32 PM
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Lightbulb Energy Availability Effect on RPGs (also H. Beam Piper)

[Ahem. Had a hard time figuring out where to post this. If it reads a little weird in parts, that's because it started out as an email letter to my friend timerover51 and morphed in the course of writing into a forum post in which I'm seeking the ideas of CotI at large.]

Glancing back at what I wrote about what [he] wrote about what Piper wrote , I was thinking again about Piper's early-Federation nuclear-electric power units and later-TFH direct conversion of matter to energy. We both had problems thinking how to use those in an RPG such as Traveller.

Now, I think our problem wasn't so much figuring out the mundane effects, as not =wanting= some of those effects and their natural consequences.

Nuclear-electric power units = easily portable energy

Matter to Energy conversion = effectively unlimited energy (e=mc^2)

Quote:
For those not so familiar with Piper's work:

Nuclear-electric power units, described in early-Federation books like Uller Uprising and Four-Day Planet as varying in size from something like a pistol cartridge for essentially endless powering of flashlights and other small electrical devices, to something like a 20-liter keg coated in collapsium to power contragravity gunboats and large spacecraft. Each contains some quantity of radioactive material, tech to convert that radiation to electricity, and appropriate shielding to protect users.

Mass-energy converters are used in books set later in the TFH (TerroHuman Future History) timeline, such as Cosmic Computer and Space Viking. Those things work on good old e=mc^2, and no matter how inefficient you make it, that is one heck of a lot of energy!!
These would both have serious effects on the game setting. Obvious and immediate effects would be on starship fuelling and available energy for Jump, Maneuver, weapons, etc. No need to fool around with collecting and processing (or buying) fuel when you can stash a few (or a lot!) extra NPUs in cargo, or at higher TLs just toss any old junk into the matter converter! This breaks many many of our foundational assumptions about travel, commerce, and warfare conducted by starships. That's not even getting into the changes for what that portable (or unlimited!) energy means for the individual soldier or traveller.

Deeper problems show up if we try to follow societal changes that would result from such easily portable or unlimited energy. That's getting into economics, sociology, LOGISTICS, and even philosophy beyond the casual RPG experience for most of us. Is it fun trying to roleplay in a post-scarcity setting, where every person could potentially have everything they want/need? Maybe fun to dream about, or read about, but can we really imagine the thoughts and motivations of someone who is native to that kind of world sufficiently to roleplay them?

H. Beam Piper wrote some very entertaining SF adventure stories, but the technology was mostly a prop. His people would have been at home on Earth of the 1950s-60s; they just had a broader range of travel with interstellar hyperdrive ships and grav vehicles. Just as Traveller has been sometimes derided as "Shotguns in Spaaace!", Piper's settings could be oversimplified as "Machineguns in Space" (although much more often on planetary surfaces; Space Viking is the only novel with significant time spent on shipboard). But Piper's stories aren't really about the setting, they're about the people, and as long as we can understand the people we can enjoy the stories.

I love Piper's stories. I have ever since I discovered Four-Day Planet at the library when I was 10 years old (1972-73). Maybe that is because I can understand the people. Maybe for someone born in the 21st Century, they don't translate so well. I dunno. (Wait, we live in the 21st now? But that's the FUTURE! )
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Old March 3rd, 2019, 11:30 PM
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The power units did eventually run down, but you're right, Piper's stories weren't about the technology, it was about the people. Refueling the Nemesis never became a plot point, it was about the hunt for Dunnan.

Given that context, if you decide to implement the nuclear-electric conversion units, aside from frontier refueling and a few similar points dropping out of play, I don't think much would change.
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Old March 4th, 2019, 09:57 AM
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Re: "But Piper's stories aren't really about the setting, they're about the people, and as long as we can understand the people we can enjoy the stories."

That to me is the crux of Traveller (and pretty much all other RPGs). Playing people we can understand that have different abilities or access to amazing technology. RPGs are an exploration as to what another version of ourselves might do in extraordinary circumstances.

That's why the old web comic of having a bunch of fantasy adventurers playing an accounting RPG is both funny and poignant: we want to see how life can be doing something different than our real life.
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Old March 4th, 2019, 12:05 PM
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The Nuclear-Electric power units are not that cheap, as they do require Plutonium as part of the operating fission material, and that needs to be produced in a breeder reactor or a power reactor with fuel reprocessing. That means that the fission source is not cheap. Then you do have to include the equipment to convert the current produced by the power unit into something that you can use with whatever you are powering. My units are a bit larger than Piper's, more like the size of a 55 gallon drum and up. I am afraid that for my purposes, I do not have them as small as flashlight batteries.

I was thinking of them as quite useful for powering mainly vehicles of various sorts and small outposts.

While the matter convertors do not help with the Liquid Hydrogen needs for the Jump Bubble, they will do all sorts of things for non-Jump ships in terms of minimizing fuel needs, along with powering a LOT of weaponry. Think of a BIG system defense boat needing only a couple of dTons of lead for fuel, with everything else going into armor and weaponry.

What does make the Piper stories is the people, not the technology, although he does have contra-gravity vehicles quite early in his writings. I started reading his stories beginning with the "Down Styphon" series in Analog, along with Cosmic Computer, Space Viking, and Little Fuzzy when they came out in the early 1960s. He idea of future military actions, as detailed in Cosmic Computer with the use of robot drones for reconnaissance and demolitions, is quite good. For an intriguing government type, look to Lone Star Planet. aka A Planet for Texans, where you also have an intelligent canine species as the primary villain. I keep wondering if the "z'Srauff" were the inspiration for the Vargr. It is a good read on Project Gutenberg, by the way.

Then there are the "Fuzzies".
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Old March 4th, 2019, 03:13 PM
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Honestly, for practical purposes, Traveller does have "unlimited" energy.

As was said, even done inefficiently, it's still a lot of power.

And Fusion in Traveller is portrayed as cheap, reliable, safe, and common. Combined with some better battery technology, and cheap Traveller Fusion power would solve many of at least our current planets ills (and, arguably bring on other problems with waste heat, etc., such as trying to air condition the entirety of the Indian sub-continent has ramifications outside of cheap, available energy to empower it).

In Traveller, "Mr. Fusion" is more a reality than not. "Honey, the house Fusion generator is running low." "Ok, I'll add a quart of distilled water this weekend, that'll give us another 6 months of a few 10's of thousands of KW."

As for Traveller the game, Power is important in ship design, but it doesn't really affect Jump per se. Jump is FUEL dependent, not power dependent. And, especially on larger ships, Power is not the primary constraint on bringing weapons to bear. They simply run out of surface area (i.e. hard points, bay allocations, etc.).

Smaller ships, sure, but even then not enough to really make a smaller ship much of a game changer.
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Old March 6th, 2019, 04:56 PM
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Power sources of this type are long lasting but weak. Per unit mass the power output is very much lower than active systems. Thermoelectrics can only handle a certain rate of flux, and the maximum heat is also fairly low.


Low Energy Nuclear Reaction is a viable way to go for higher power levels. Totally clean except for a small amount of beta radiation that only persists while running and then drops off over a few hours after shutdown.
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Old March 6th, 2019, 07:12 PM
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Although, the main plot was hunting Dunnan, old Federation reactors were specifically sought after, and raided for, to establish *spoiler territory....*

Aquiring the reactors, sometimes from primitive planets (fallen backwards techwise), added excitement, urgency, and showed that the tech wasn't easily built/obtained. The tech was often bartered for, also. A captain was bummed when the distant glow on the far off horizon proved the destruction of a reactor that was to be a prize.

Piper's stuff is great. I'm lukewarm on the Fuzzy stuff (but the sentience vs corporation question is thought provoking).

Anyway, searching for and obtaining hydrogen can add excitement and urgency in Traveller.
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Old March 6th, 2019, 08:37 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Straybow View Post
Power sources of this type are long lasting but weak. Per unit mass the power output is very much lower than active systems. Thermoelectrics can only handle a certain rate of flux, and the maximum heat is also fairly low.


Low Energy Nuclear Reaction is a viable way to go for higher power levels. Totally clean except for a small amount of beta radiation that only persists while running and then drops off over a few hours after shutdown.
Piper was not thinking of radioisotope thermal generators, but small nuclear reactors capable of powering a wide range of vehicles.

Quote:
They were only as big as a one-liter jar, rounded at one end and flat at the other where the power cable was connected, but they weighed close to two hundred pounds apiece. Most of the weight was on the outside; a dazzlingly bright plating of collapsium—collapsed matter, the electron shell collapsed onto the nucleus and the atoms in actual physical contact—and absolutely nothing but nothing could get through it. Inside was about a kilogram of strontium-90; it would keep on emitting electrons for twenty-five years, normally, but there was a miniature plutonium reactor, itself shielded with collapsium, which, among other things, speeded that process up considerably. A cartridge was good for about five years; two of them kept the engines in operation.

The engines themselves converted the electric current from the power cartridges into magnetic current, and lifted the ship and propelled it.
From Four Day Planet. The ship being propelled was a submarine that doubled as an airboat.
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Old March 9th, 2019, 05:09 AM
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Hmmm. 90Sr does emit ß- in decay, but that could not produce enough electrons to generate an electrical current. And a "miniature plutonium reactor" is as much handwavium as the "collapsium" shielding. How does it "speed up" the process of producing electrons through nuclear decay? If it is "speeding up" electrical power production directly, we're again talking about thermionics. Or is there a teeny-tiny steam expansion turbine with a teeny-tiny generator in it?
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Old March 9th, 2019, 04:47 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Straybow View Post
Hmmm. 90Sr does emit ß- in decay, but that could not produce enough electrons to generate an electrical current. And a "miniature plutonium reactor" is as much handwavium as the "collapsium" shielding. How does it "speed up" the process of producing electrons through nuclear decay? If it is "speeding up" electrical power production directly, we're again talking about thermionics. Or is there a teeny-tiny steam expansion turbine with a teeny-tiny generator in it?
I am not sure how much Piper really understood about nuclear reactors, as in one of his other short stories, he has nuclear reactors using plutonium as the base fuel, bypassing both low-enrichment uranium used by civilian reactors and the high-enrichment uranium used by the nuclear submarines.

My plutonium power units use a plutonium-uranium mix that I cooked up from some of my data that function as a small nuclear reactor. The direct conversion is fission nuclear energy is no more "handwavium" than the essentially direct conversion of fusion energy to electricity that is already standard in Traveller.

As for "collapsium", I figure that is on par with "superdense" and "bonded superdense".

If you are straining at the gnat of how my power sources work, why are you swallowing the camel of the Jump Drive? Basically, both are standard science fiction "handwavium".
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