Clippings: Interstellar Trade

Interplanetary commerce is an old standby for sci-fi adventures, and many GMs are going to run into a situation where the PCs want to make a buck moving cargo from world to world. Eventually, I plan to put out a sourcebook for trade campaigns in the same vein as Skyward Steel does naval themes, but some GMs need useful information right now, and the GM’s guide trade section in the core rulebook isn’t enough. Here are a few guidelines that can help.

First, nothing is ever easy in interstellar trade. You’ve got to find commodities that are worth the trip, get them to a different planet, and then convince the locals to give you other worthwhile commodities or local currency rather than simply killing you and taking your stuff. If your target market is a reasonably civilized world with mature markets, there’s relatively little danger. Which is why everyone else in the sector is already there, trading ahead of you and driving down profits.

Even assuming you can get the stuff there and get it sold, you have to take your pay in local credits or commodities. In a default game of Stars Without Number, currency differences are glossed over because they’re not terribly important. If PCs intend to make trading a serious part of their game, however, it becomes much, much more important. Credits from Gateway are almost worthless on Polychrome, because the locals of Polychrome have no way to translate Gateway money into usable goods or services. Instead, a Gateway trader brings in a load of spike drive components and trades them out for Polychrome cyberware, which he brings back to Gateway and converts into a new load of drive components and a local profit which he plows back into goods and services on Gateway.

Money in a trade campaign is specific to each world. You can usually convert small amounts of credit to and from other currencies on worlds with active interstellar trade, as collateralized claims exist to support modest amounts of exchange, but you’re not going to be able to haul a million credits of Polychrome currency over to Gateway and buy yourself a new merchant frigate.

But let’s assume the players want to go through this after all, and are willing to put up with the difficulties of the enterprise. You want to give them something more elaborate than the simple profit roll given in the GM’s Guide section of the core rulebook. What do you do?

1 ton of safe, low-margin but easily salable goods costs 1,000 credits. These are electronics, rare industrial chemicals, plastics, seeds, medical supplies, et cetera. Most planets already have their own supplies of these goods, but by carefully choosing variants that they don’t possess or are short on, the captain of a trade ship can expect to be able to sell these on most planets.

1 ton of risky goods costs 5,000 credits. These are unique planetary specialties, exotic rare earths, cyberware, local art, or other niche goods that may or may not have a market on any other world. Getting these sold requires either excellent market scouting or a great deal of wheeling and dealing on the ground in order to find the right buyers.

1 ton of treasure can’t be purchased reasonably, but is worth 10,000 credits. Treasure is fabulously valuable stuff that can find a buyer anywhere- usually pretech gear and components, construction nanites, pretech medical supplies, or anything else that has almost universal applicability and desirability. If the PCs want treasure, they’ve got to go find treasure, and that means adventuring to get their hands on the stuff.

Once the PCs have spent their local credits, they can haul the cargo to whatever planet they think will make a good market for it. Once it comes time to sell, let them roll their Business skill, modified by Int or Charisma. Apply the following modifiers to their roll.

-2 for selling risky goods. -4 for selling on an anarchic hellhole with no real law. -2 for selling on a world without a secure rule of law. -1 for selling on a world where they’ve angered some important local.

+2 for selling safe goods. +1 for selling on a world where they’ve made a powerful local friend. +2 f or selling on a law-abiding and civilized world.

On a roll of 2 or less, they’ve managed to get the locals bent on stealing the cargo and their ship, either through brute force or through legal shenanigans. Pick a local grandee or government official; that NPC is going to do everything in his or her power to seize the cargo and the PCs’ ship, though a particularly large favor performed might get the ship released.

On a roll of 3-6, they can only sell the goods for half their purchase price, unless they perform some favor for a local buyer. Maybe he needs help before he can afford to pay decent prices, or maybe he only needs the goods if a certain difficulty is solved for him. If the PCs work something out, they make 1d4+2 * 10% profit on the sale.

On a roll of 7-9, they manage to move the goods with minimum fuss, and make 1d4+2 * 10% profit on the deal.

On a roll of 10-12, they can sell the goods for 1d4+2 * 10% profit, but there’s a special buyer who’s willing to give them twice that percentage if they can do them a little favor.

On a roll of 13+, they find a desperately enthusiastic buyer, and can sell the goods at 100% profit.

Markets are subject to flooding. There are only so many tons of anything that a world needs to buy in a given timeframe. You should feel free to cap the maximum number of tons of goods that PCs can sell on any given world in a month. A full merchant frigate’s cargo hold is usually a good limit; the massive cargo freighters that still exist only make economic sense on limited high-volume runs between major powers.

The above little system isn’t enough to hang an entire trade campaign on it, but it should be enough to suffice for those PCs who want to make occasional trade runs. Letting the PCs earn large amounts of credits isn’t really a balance problem in SWN, because there’s not anything unbalancing they can actually buy with their money, unless the GM intentionally allows them to invest in pretech artifacts or major warships. Cash most often serves as simply a tool for accomplishing the goals that the PCs have set themselves, and a GM should feel free to just sit back and let them use their wealth accordingly- taking into account, of course, the myriad troubles that tend to accumulate around those who are both wealthy and subject to squeezing by other powers.