Keeping the Adventure in Merchant Campaigns
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Freelance Traveller’s May 2011 issue.
In every edition of Traveller, the trading rules have been slightly different, as have the definitions of Trader and Broker skills. In all editions, though, player-characters with high skill levels in Broker and/or Trader make “safe” trading activity attractive in comparison with the adventuring that Traveller focusses on. That’s fine if you want to play that sort of “Accurate Adventure in Accounting”, but that’s really outside the norm, and outside the expectations of the game.
One proposed solution to this problem is to simply limit Broker and Trader skills to NPCs. Unless they are also restricted to non-party NPCs—that is, the party can’t carry a SuperBroker from world to world with them—this doesn’t really alleviate the problem. Further restricting the skills to on-world NPCs only does, but it has an adverse effect on player choice during character generation (what’s the point of a merchant career?).
A better response might be to weaken the skills, so that they’re not as prone to making safe trading more attractive than adventuring, and otherwise let PCs have them. This article proposes just that.
Some versions of Traveller do not distinguish between the Broker and the Trader, and use Trade as a separate skill referring to the ability to produce salable goods. If you are playing under such a rule set, use a different name for what is referred to in this article as “Trader” skill; perhaps “Bargaining” would be a good choice. If the player has Broker skill under such a rule set, at the player’s option and with the referee’s concurrence, the Broker skill levels should be divided between Broker and Trader/Bargaining skills as the player and referee see fit.
A strong separation between the function of the Broker and the function of the Trader should be established; both skills should be needed to get the best advantage in mercantile activity. Redefine the roles:
Broker: the Broker is a market analyst. He will know, or be able to easily learn, what lots of freight or cargo are waiting to be shipped, and, to a lesser extent, what sorts of goods are desired, both on the current world and on nearby worlds. His skill is matching lots to available hold space. The broker may also be able to match passengers to available staterooms.
Trader: the Trader is a salesman. His job is to get the best price he can for hold space on a ship (lowest price for buying cargo), or for selling cargo coming out of the hold (highest price for selling). Where passenger tickets are a ‘free market’ (usually a house rule), it is the Trader who can get the best price for providing the least service, within the passenger’s expectations for the type of passage.
Where a Trader/Bargainer is not available, the Broker can still function, but the prices established for purchase or sale of goods, and the prices of passages, will be the standard prices from the rulebook. If you are incorporating the rules from this article into your campaign, do not use Broker skill as a modifier for prices; use Trader skill instead.
Both roles (Trader and Broker) assume local knowledge—of culture, and of markets. As such, neither will necessarily know as much about worlds beyond that on which they learned their trade as they do about that world. The rules governing the use of those skills should reflect this.
Basic Skill Level: This is the level of Broker or Trader skill that the character has realized from character generation, before applying these rules. It represents a maximum skill level that can ever be used on a Base World.
Base World: The world on which the character’s Broker and/or Trader skill can be used to full effect—essentially, the world that establishes the ‘normal expectations’ for the character’s use of those skills.
Local Worlds: Those worlds that are within the same number of parsecs of the Base World as the character’s Broker or Trader Basic Skill Level. For example, if a character has Broker-2, the Local Worlds are Jump-1 or Jump-2 from the Base World. A character that has both Broker and Trader skills may have different Local Worlds for each (if they’re at different levels), but the Base World for the character is the same for both skills.
Rules and Explanations
Designating the Base World
Designate a Base World for the character. The character’s Broker and/or Trader skill can be used to maximum benefit on this world. It can be used at one level lower on any Local World, and at an additional -1 for each parsec beyond that limit, allowing using it without unskilled penalty once it drops to skill-0. Example: Eneri, based on Vland, has Broker-2. He can use it as Broker-2 on Vland, as Broker-1 on any world that is Jump-1 or Jump-2 from Vland (the Local Worlds for Eneri’s broker skill), and without unskilled penalties on a world that is Jump-3 or farther from Vland.
Traveller merchant careers assume that a major portion of one’s merchant career will be spent aboard ship. This means that there’s not necessarily going to be an ‘obvious’ choice of world for the character’s Base World. The ultimate decision on how to designate a character’s Base World for Broker and Trader skill lies with the campaign referee, but here are some suggestions:
1. Use the character’s homeworld. With the possible exception of Free Traders, most merchant ships will ply a stable route or area, and will most likely hire from the worlds that they visit.
2. Use the Mustering-Out world. Realistically, a trading company or the Armed Forces of an interstellar polity will not retire a character on a random world within its operational territory. They’ll do it where they have appropriate outprocessing facilities – a regional HR office for a mercantile company, or a theater logistical center/shipyard/replacement depot for the military. Such a world will be fairly significant, and likely a regional trade center, thus a good place to find brokers or traders.
3. Use a world that is a likely trade center. The characteristics of such a world are likely to include a good starport – most likely class A or B, but class C is possible – a reasonably high population (to support a separate mercantile sector), probably in the millions or higher, but hundreds of thousands isn’t out of the question, and a tech level capable of supporting a service sector (Industrial or better).
In any case, the world chosen should be one for which the current world – wherever it is that the player-character is joining the campaign – is the Base World or a Local World.
However you decide to designate the Base World, make a note of it, and put the character’s Broker and Trader levels in parentheses next to it: Base World: Regina (Broker-3, Trader-1).
Changing the Base World
Over time in a campaign, the character may end up spending more time on worlds where his skill is of reduced or non-existent utility than he does on his base world or a Local World. If the character has been making regular visits to a world, he may learn the markets and styles of that world, and thus become more effective. Simulate this thus:
If a character has used his Broker or Trader skill, even at level-0, for at least four weeks within the past year on a particular world, he gains one-half of a level in the skill for that world as a Base World. He may gain an additional half of a level for each additional eight weeks in the same year of use of the skill. Use of Broker and Trader skill by a single character requires separate usage and counts of weeks; the same week cannot be applied to both Broker and Trader skills. In any case, he cannot raise his skill level for a Base World beyond his Basic Skill Level.
If the character has not used his skill on a world for at least two weeks within the past year, he loses one-half of a skill level in the skill for that world as a base world, if he has non-zero levels of the skill for that world as a Base World.
If a character is spending a lot of time being a Broker or Trader on a small number of worlds, it is possible for more than one of those worlds to be developed as a Base World, and for the sum of the skills on all of his Base Worlds to be greater than the Basic Skill Level recorded on the character sheet. However, the character cannot raise his broker skill for any one Base World above the Basic Skill Level, other than by rules outside the scope of this article that may exist for the campaign. If the campaign allows for skill improvement beyond what’s outlined here, and a character improves his Basic Skill Level for Broker or Trader skill under those rules, he must still follow these rules separately to apply the increase to his Base Worlds.
Half of a skill level?
A player who has half-levels in a skill rounds up for determining what level he can use the skill at on the Base Worlds where he has those half-levels, but rounds down for determining what the Local Worlds are for those Base Worlds. For example:
Eneri is the ship’s broker for the Hole In Me Pocket, which has been spending a lot of time trading on Regina, and he has thus worked his way up to Broker-1.5 for Regina as a Base World. He can use his Broker skill as Broker-2 (rounding his skill of 1.5 up) on Regina, but his Local Worlds for Regina are only those within Jump 1 (rounding it down). So, he can use his skill as Broker-2 on Regina, as Broker-1 on worlds Jump 1 from Regina, and without unskilled penalty on worlds Jump 2 or farther from Regina. Since he hasn’t been to Vland (where he started with Broker-2) at all in the past three years, he’s lost three half-levels of Broker Skill for Vland, and his Base Worlds on his character sheet will read Base World: Vland (Broker-0.5), Regina (Broker-1.5). His character sheet will still show a Basic Skill Level of Broker-2, which represents the maximum level that he can have for any Base World. If the Hole In Me Pocket gives Eneri the opportunity to use his Broker skill on Regina for four weeks in the coming year, he will be able to claim Regina as a Base World at Broker-2, but he cannot raise his skill on any Base World beyond that level.
(Why round up for the Base World and down for the Local Worlds? Knowledge of a Base World comes sooner and sticks longer than knowledge of the local worlds, which the character may never have actually visited, but only heard about second-hand.)
So I can’t really ever use my full skill?
That’s largely the intent of these rules – if you can easily use the full skill level, under all circumstances, it tends to make those questionable ventures less attractive – why go for that risky Cr100,000 when your safe boring trading will net you a cool Cr70,000 in the same timeframe anyway? When you can’t use your Broker or Trader skill to full advantage, that Cr70,000 may suddenly be only Cr50,000 or less, and that risky mission for Cr100,000 suddenly looks like the difference between making the ship’s payment and missing it.
However, you did put in the time in character generation to get that high level of skill, and gave up the opportunity to get other skills that might also have been useful. You should have something to show for that effort. That’s why you get to use your Broker or Trader skill without a penalty for being without the skill no matter where you use it. But maybe you deserve more… so:
Normally, the Traveller rules give you one roll (each) to determine available freight, cargo, or passengers. If, after working through those rolls, you still have empty staterooms or hold space, you may make an additional roll to try to fill the remaining staterooms, and an additional roll to try to fill remaining hold space. If using a rule set that has variable difficulty levels for tasks, roll this as a FORMIDABLE task, with the Basic Skill Level in Broker as a favorable DM. If using a rule set that doesn’t use variable difficulty levels for task, roll 11+ on 2D6, DM +Basic Skill Level in Broker. If, and only if, that roll would have succeeded without the Broker skill DM, an attempt at improving the price of the deal may be made, using the Trader skill at full level.
The purely mercantile skills of Broker and Trader should never be totally useless in a campaign if the characters have access to a trade-suitable ship. At the same time, you don’t want to make it too easy for the players to accumulate enough money to make adventuring unattractive. In the absence of a major overhaul of the basic economic rules in most editions of Traveller, the best alternative would seem to be to weaken, but not totally destroy, the utility of the Broker and Trader skills. These rules are an attempt at that, and the author hopes a worthy one.