Economics and Cargo in Traveller
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue.
The need to turn a profit has always been a driving force for Traveller. In Mongoose’s beta revision, it states that cargo and trade should be handled by the players, freeing the GM to concentrate on the game. Further it states that Game Master and players could agree that there will always be enough cargo to enable the ship to make all its standard costs and payments. If the players are subsisting with cargo, why would there be a need to seek further employment and risk life and limb? Lack of cargo/profit is often the initial adventure hook. To this end, the GM should be aware of some basic economics for Traveller and some possible rule modifications to keep the players on the lookout for ‘opportunities.’
In the Traveller universe an important consideration in determining cargo is technology and population. Any planet above tech level seven with a population in the (millions) is going to be largely self-sufficient with regards to needed goods (food, shelter, clothing, etc.). A world is not going to be settled if the basic raw materials necessary for society are not available. In the case of planetary exploration that includes a biosphere capable of supporting life. The exception would be a world rich in some needed mineral or possible pharmaceutical product to justify establishing a domed colony/mining type of world. Thus, if players roll for a consumable cargo on an asteroid world, the GM should be involved to say that is not readily available at this location.
Marketing for major companies looking to ship outside the planet is going to look for higher tech levels making something cheaper than the target destination, or something better than the target destination can achieve. As an example think lighter, better, faster. Compare the original cell phones of the 1980’s or even the 1990’s with the current cell phones of today. The flip side of this equation is that the older the world, and probably then the higher the tech level, the more likely that staple minerals would be running low. The lower tech world may be selling off its mineral wealth to achieve greater technology. However, technology levels are an average and there may be some product on that a ‘lower’ tech level planet that some company has mastered and is now exporting.
Luxury goods are a type of product which will ignore technology levels. Luxury goods are goods that are not essential to living buy have become highly desired and associated with wealthy or affluent persons. Some examples would include works or art, specially made brandy, cigars, or perhaps bio-florescent gems. More examples of luxury goods could include a specialty food source only grown/cultivated on that planet. Likewise certain brands can be perceived as ‘luxury’ through quality manufacturing or from what the product is made. Examples of this would be Gucci clothing, or a mink coat. Perfumes are often luxury goods and could be another reason for a colony/collecting facility on an inhospitable planet. As an example who would have thought that whale poop would be so valuable to the perfume industry.
Staple goods are good that are bought often with little differential in price. Examples could include paper, milk, sugar, etc. However, even staple goods can have a ‘Semi-luxury’ status. This would encompass ‘hobby’ activities of the local inhabitants; hand tooled leather belts and boots, hand woven rugs or tapestries, or hand crafted furniture or statues. There would not be a large volume of such goods but they could be converted into cargo that could be sold for ‘walking around’ money, given as gifts, or traded to ‘aborigine’ groups.
Agricultural goods are basic foodstuff (crops, cattle, etc.) Contingencies that cannot be covered when considering the use of food-stuff as cargo are occasionally bumper crops and blighted crops. In a bumper year planetary merchants may be trying to sell the stuff off cheap. (how far a haul is it to the nearest domed outpost?) Likewise, if there has been a blight there may be famine, and foodstuff may be selling at a premium. Widespread drought would not only affect crop production but could cause a falloff in meat products as ranchers sell off portions of their herds, which could be a boon for an enterprising ship merchant intent on travelling to a colony world or dome world. Another aspect to consider is that cows raised on one planet may not taste the same as cows raised on a different planet. This can be attributed largely to diet as hybrid grasses and grains will produce different results in the taste of meat. Seafood would be plentiful and common on water worlds but may become luxury commodities on asteroid worlds, or desert worlds. In addition, just transporting water and salt would be advantageous if the players are headed to a desert world or asteroid/dome colony.
Large corporations run on time tables and ‘just in time’ inventory systems. They cannot afford to warehouse large amounts of inventory as this is not cost effective. Therefore ‘most’ available cargos in Traveller are designated to the safe and sure freight or merchant liner that has a defined and reliable route. This reduces the typical adventuring crew or world jumping Travellers to that of the tramp steamers of the mid 19th and 20th centuries. Nevertheless, there are opportunities; if not with large/megacorporations then at least with small or mid-sized companies. These are competitors which may be willing to take a risk to gain a profit. If the larger corporations are tying up the ‘established’ ships with regulated cargo, the smaller companies would have to take what shipping is available if they have a market off planet. There are also cargoes that are sitting on the docks because of a missed production deadline or cargo at auction because a company has gone out of business.
When it comes to cargo, an important consideration is how it is being paid for. Most companies will only pay on delivery. In the Traveller universe commissions would be a risky venture to place on non-established traders, especially with no form of FTL communication. Cargos would be well secured in storage cases with all manner of locks and bills of lading. In addition, if it is valuable enough it may require a passenger to accompany the cargo to ensure its safe arrival. Which would also make customs a more important aspect to role play as well. Players that are not a ‘regular’ in the system would be subject to a more thorough customs inspection. That is not to say that such cargos are not available. It means the players may have to work to find a contact to obtain the cargo.
With no set schedule and fixed ports of call, most cargo adventurers will have access to will be whatever is available. Which means that someone with the Broker skill will have to try and find variable cargo. Said cargo will rarely be available on consignment but will have to be purchased up front. The adventurers are in fact speculators on what they think will sell at the next port of call. To this end, players must use their various skills to determine which table to roll on for cargo. Each player with a designated skill can attempt a separate chance at securing cargo. Degrees of success will determine how many times to roll on the cargo table. A general rule would be for every full day of looking for cargo: Marginal Success garners 2 rolls on the table, Average Success allows 4 rolls on the table, and Exceptional Success grants 6 rolls on the cargo table. Depending on the size of your ship it could takes days to fill the hold, and docking fees will accumulate each day you sit in port. That’s if you have the cash to speculate on that much cargo.
Contraband cargo can cover a wide array of goods based on different planetary law levels. While such cargo can be quite profitable it also carries an amount of risk. However, to aid the GM in not having to compile a list of illicit cargos by planet, there are several cargos which can be assumed to be illegal under “Imperial” law. The broad category would include: weaponry, hallucinogenic drugs, barbiturate drugs, psionic enhancing drugs, “alien technology”, sacred/religious artifacts, etc.
Finding passengers becomes the purview of the person with the steward skill. Likewise, someone with steward can better assess certain cargoes to improve purchase or resell price, such as: consumables, spices, textiles, and the like. Someone with streetwise can also try to secure passengers, though they may not be as trustworthy. Game Masters will have to keep this in mind and not just roll randomly on the table to determine the passenger.
The GM should not abdicate responsibility in this but oversee the rolls to make sure cargoes are appropriate for the planet on which the players are located. Also the Game Master may wish to have a pre-rolled available cargoes to add flavor text. It would also enable the GM to slip in a seemingly innocuous cargo that could be used for an adventure.
To help add flavor text to the cargo the following charts can be used. Game Masters would utilize the tonnage and costs/profits in the version of Traveller used in the campaign. For textiles insert a made up brand name or planetary name to help distinguish the cargo. As an example you could have supply of Gramian Angora Tapestries to purchase.
|Textile Product Table|
For consumables the GM rolls on the material column and then the cut column. Be sure to include the planet or origin in the product name. Optionally the Game Master may choose to make the cargoes whole pieces (suitably flash frozen and shipped in refrigerated units. As a further option the GM may roll from the product column for uses from the animal hides. For example you could wind up with a load of Tuna Filets, or Shark skin boots.
|Consumable Goods Product Table|
There are a wide variety of materials to choose from in composing these charts and the GM should feel free to add or subtract from the mix.
Some prospective reading on space merchants:
Poul Anderson: The Van Rijn Method,
C.J. Cherryh: Rim Runners, Merchant’s Luck
Elizabeth A. Lynn: The Sardonyx Net
Nathan Lowell: Quarter Share, Half Share, et alia, in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series.
Andre Norton: Solar Queen
H. Beam Piper: The Cosmic Computer, Space Viking, Little Fuzzy.
Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth: The Space Merchants, Merchant’s War.