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Pirates of the Spinward Main

This was the featured article in the March/April 2021 issue.

Your PCs have somehow acquired a suitable ship and decide to do some piracy. If they have a good title to it (perhaps having repaired an abandoned vessel), the obvious thing to do is sell it. A Type P Corsair retails for MCr138, an A2 Far Trader retails for MCr66 (although the low performance is hardly ideal for piracy). Bigger ships are more valuable. If it runs, but you can’t get it certified for passengers or freight, (perhaps it is a foreign design, such as a Zhodani ship that no one will insure) it is probably better to sell it for parts. If you got 10% of the new value, that is a huge amount, even when divided between an adventuring party. However, millionaires don’t risk their lives that way, so we’ll go along with “let’s try piracy”.

The first issue is to find a suitable system. Most A and B Class starports will likely have some sort of military presence, perhaps a Destroyer or a fleet of SDBs. That makes it too risky. However, some B ports outside the Imperium may be worth trying.

A C or D port suggests regular traffic arriving in system. You need a planet that has a high enough population to make it worth bringing goods to the place. Adjacent worlds should also be similar. If the next world has only 5000 population, they will not be exporting much.

If you need a J3-capable trader to bring stuff in, what does it export? It may be a place that takes in raw materials and exports finished goods. The ships you attack may be carrying rolls of steel on the way in and refrigerators on the way out.

The world should have a high enough tech level, too. The horse clans of the Blue Steppes might be willing to trade with the people from the stars, but is there sufficient profit in their handicrafts and raw materials? Will you even cover your costs?

What kinds of things are likely to be imports and exports? Look at the UWP and decide.

Quare (Spinward Marches 0915 Vilis subsector, between the Imperium and The Zhodani Consulate) might have some traffic between Frenzie and Querion. It has a B starport, although the population is really low. It has 120 passengers a month (on average, source: the Traveller Wiki) but has a lot of port employees. It’s a vacuum world, TL 9, with a population the size of Iceland or a large UK town such as Northampton. Someone is importing and exporting something that makes it worth while employing all those people. I’d suggest it imports food, high tech ship components for use in the B class shipyard and manufactured goods for local consumption. It exports precious metals. The reason there is anyone living there is that Quare is a good place for automated mining and refining. Most of the population supports the workers for Shaktafabrika Company.

A B class starport has refined fuel. There is no free water on Quare, so you’ve probably got a couple of fuel skimmers (TL 9, 50 dton Cutters with fuel modules) working between the Gas Giant and the starport. There might be one equipped as an armed customs or rescue boat.

Attacking Arriving Ships

A victim emerges from Jump at 100 diameters from the planet. Assume our planet is roughly Earth sized, 12,500 Km diameter (Earth is 12,742 km). 100 diameters is 1,250,000 kilometres. If the victim can do 1G, it will take about 6 hours to arrive at the destination. It will be doing 1G for 3 hours, then turning 180 degrees and decelerating at 1G for another 3 hours (ignoring any differences in orbital velocity you might have to gain or lose between your origin and your destination worlds).

The victim’s journey will look like this:

Our pirate ship can do 3G. It’s better to spend money on performance rather than extra weapons. Higher performance gives you more time to act and if the victim fights back, you want to be able to run.

Once a likely victim is identified entering the system, the pirate ship (in green, diagram next page) has to plot a fairly complicated intercept. Although intercepting the victim further out gives more time, the victim will be going fastest around the mid-point of their journey. It makes most sense to try and catch them in the last third, when the victim is going slower. That’s because the pirate has to get out there quickly, turn around (which means stopping) and then accelerate enough to catch the victim and then slow down so they don’t go shooting past them. That’s why you need performance.

If you simplify it as the last third of the victim’s journey, you have 2 hours to match speeds and force your victim to surrender.

Traveller’s space combat turns are 1000 seconds long, (about 16 minutes 40 seconds). 2 hours is 7,200 seconds, so the pirate gets 7 turns.

The pilot should roll 2D6 for 10+ to intercept; apply positive DMs for pilot skill, computer model, and/or availability of suitable programs.

If the pirate makes the skill roll, they have a third of the victim’s travel time to act in, in this case, 2 hours. For each point above the required score, add an extra combat turn, as the pilot has done a better job (for example, a modified roll of 12 allows an extra two combat turns, for a total of 9). If the pirate fails the skill roll, interception is still possible, but reduce the number of turns they have to act by the amount they failed by, as they didn’t get their calculations right (for example, if the modified roll is 7, the pirate has only 4 turns).

What is the victim going to do? The bridge crew are going to realise that the ship approaching them on an intercept course means no good. I’m assuming that once the ship enters an atmosphere or dock to an orbital port, they are safe.

They can evade. Roll 1D6; on 6, the victim has Pilot-2, otherwise Pilot-1. Now Roll 2D6 for 8+. Apply DM+1 if the victim has Pilot-2, and apply DM-1 for each level of Pilot skill that the pirate has. If the victim has greater acceleration than the pirate, apply the difference as a positive DM.

If the victim succeeds at this roll, reduce the number of combat rounds by the margin of success (for example, if the modified roll is 10, reduce the number of combat rounds by 2).

The victim will send out a distress call. The pirate will try to jam their call, but that will alert the authorities to send help.

Combat starts at Very Long range, between 25,000 and 50,000 kilometres. Your PCs will know when a ship has arrived in-system and will have some idea of its size and heading. They don’t get enough information from their sensors until they have already committed to intercepting it. They will be close enough to shoot before their ship sensors give them anything more than a basic idea of size.

At this point you need to decide what type of ship the victim is.

Although the game includes charts for random encounters, these are more suitable for explorers. If your PCs are going to attempt pirating, you need a custom chart.

Using the example of Quare, above, what kind of ships are likely to be in system?

Most traffic comes from Frenzie (J2 away) but occasionally Zhodani (Querion is J3) may turn up.

The referee should roll 2D6 on Table 1 for the type of ship encountered. Apply DM +1 if there has been any recent (within the past month) pirate activity in the subsector. If the modified roll is 12+ (military or Q-ship), roll 1D and see Table 2.

TABLE 2: Military/Q-Ship Encounters
1D Description
1 Distress call: a 300 dton trader has a power plant failure and needs help. It’s a pirate waiting to ambush a trader. Use the 300 dton Corsair statistics. It looks and behaves like a trader until fired at (or until you get to Close Range).
2 Gazelle Close Escort: 400 dtons. J4, 4G, four triple laser turrets, armoured hull factor 8. It remains in system for D6 days before leaving.
3 3 Gazelle Close Escorts on patrol: They will intercept any ships in system for customs, papers and cargo check. They stay for D6 days.
4 400 dton Imperial Missile corvette. Four turrets of 3 missile launchers, J4, 6G, armoured hull factor 11. It stays in system for 2D6 days
5 Zhodani 150 dton scout, Chatl class: J5, 3G, one triple missile turret, armoured hull factor 7. Will attempt to avoid combat if possible. Possible reward for capture or destruction, on spying or reconnaissance.
6 Q-Ship: The transponder ID says it’s an 800 dton trader. It looks and behaves like a trader until fired at (or until you get to close range). Use the Mercenary Cruiser, J3, 3G, 8 triple laser turrets. It remains in system for D6 days.
TABLE 1: Ship Encounters for Piracy
2D Ship Type* Cargo Morale Armed
2 Scout-courier Trade goods table 9 6+
3 Lab/prospector/yacht Trade goods table 3 11+
4 Small trader Trade goods table 6 9+
5 Large freighter Steel & aluminum sheets 3 12+
6 Small trader Trade goods table 6 9+
7 Large trader/Small Freighter Trade goods table 7 8+
8 Small trader Trade goods table 6 9+
9 Large trader/Small Freighter Trade goods table 7 8+
10 Fuel shuttle 28.5 tonnes refined fuel 3 No
11 Large freighter Trade goods table 7 10+
12 Military ship/Q ship None. 12 Yes

* Small Traders are up to 400 dtons; Large Traders and Small Freighters are 400-600 dtons, and Large Freighters are 600 dtons and up. See the note at the end of the artcle.

Armed Ships

Roll 2D6 on the first combat turn, and compare to the victim’s “Armed” entry in Table 1. If the roll is higher than the number listed, the ship has a turret in each possible position. Half the turrets are Beam Lasers, the other half are Sandcasters.

The ship has a gunner skill level of D6/2 (so all gunners are skill level 1 or 2).


When your pirate ship intercepts the victim, they might surrender after the first shots are fired.

Armed ships roll morale after the end of each combat round once they have been damaged. (An unarmed ship always surrenders when damaged.) Roll 2D6 and compare to the victim’s “Morale” entry in Table 1. If the roll is under the number listed, the ship continues to fight. The victim does not roll at the end of the final combat round; if it’s still working, it has arrived at the starport or started landing procedures and is safe. If departing, it enters Jump.


If the crew fails the morale roll on any combat round, they surrender. The victim no longer evades and will obey the instructions given to them by the PCs (if possible). If at Short Range (or closer) it takes one combat turn to match speeds and dock if required. It takes one combat turn to evaluate cargo.

Transfer will depend on the situation. See below for an example.


If the victim’s cargo listed in Table 1 is “Trade goods table”, roll on the Trade Goods table for as many lots as needed to fill the victim’s hold. Stop on rolling a lot that won’t fit in the remaining space.

My victim is a Type A Free Trader. It has 88 dtons of cargo space.

I rolled (D6):

4+6 Radioactives 2 dtons
2+3 Food service equipment 8 dtons
3+1 grocery products 15 dtons
2+4 Furniture 11 dtons
1+6 Computers and computer parts 3 dtons
5+4 Textiles 20 dtons

My last roll was 5+4 again, but this was a 90 dton textile load. I had 59 dtons already; it would not fit in the 29 dtons of space available.

It takes one combat turn to go through the hold and decide what is worth having. If you have limited time to transfer the cargo, the radioactives and computer parts are likely to be a good bet.

Help arriving

If the victim sent a distress call, or the pirate jams them, it’s possible help may arrive.

Each combat round, roll 2D6. If the roll is 10+, help (in the form of an SDB) arrives in 2D6 turns.

Attacking Ships Leaving the System

If the pirate waits in orbit for a suitable victim, the referee can roll what the ship is straight away and they can decide whether to attack it or not.

Roll 1D6 to determine the encounter range; on a roll of 1, the encounter is at SHORT range, otherwise MEDIUM range.

To keep things simple, use the same interplanetary travel times figures as for an arriving ship, but the skill roll for the pirate ship is much easier.

The pilot should roll 2D6 for 6+ to intercept. Apply positive DMs for pilot skill, computer model, and/or availability of suitable programs.

If the victim has greater acceleration, the pirate only gets one combat turn to act in. After that the victim has gone (unless it was a military ship; they will stand and fight). Otherwise, if the pirate makes the skill roll, they have all of the victim’s travel time to act in, in this case, 6 hours (21 turns). If the skill roll is failed, reduce the number of turns they have to act by the amount they failed by, as they didn’t get their calculations right (e.g., if the pirate’s modified roll is 4, they only have 19 turns). As with arriving ships, the victim may try to evade and send a distress call: Roll 1D6; on 6, the victim has Pilot-2, otherwise Pilot-1. Now Roll 2D6 for 8+, DM+1 if the victim has Pilot-2, and DM-1 for each level of Pilot skill that the pirate has. If the victim succeeds at this roll, reduce the number of combat rounds by the margin of success (e.g., if the modified roll is 10, reduce the number of combat rounds by 2).

The victim will send out a distress call. The pirate will try to jam their call, but that will alert the authorities to send help.

If the ship is still able to jump when they reach 100 planetary diameters, they have escaped.

Note that the pirate may have someone on the spaceport or planet tell them what type of ship is coming. They can decide to attack (or not) before closing with the victim.

Help arriving

The same as for incoming ships.

Each combat round, roll 2D6. If the roll is 10+, help (in the form of an SDB) arrives in 2D6 turns.

Assume our pirate ship is at Quare. The world size is 2, so the jump point is 320,000 kilometres. Travel time is just over 3 hours at 1G, so a maximum of 10 combat rounds for a departing ship and only 3 turns if arriving. It’s clearly more efficient to wait in orbit until a loaded ship is departing.

Gas Giant Ambush

Waiting in orbit around a world is going to attract attention. Customs and military ships are going to come and offer assistance or ask awkward questions. Staying there means that everyone knows who you are.

On worlds without available free water, a small ship like a Scout Courier (fuel load 28 dtons) will have to spend Cr2,800 on unrefined fuel. Gas Giants are a way to collect unrefined fuel for free. Incoming ships might want to refuel before going to their destination planet. Liners might want to drop off passengers at the main world, then refuel on the way out. It can mean the difference between paying your crew and having no one available in engineering for the next trip.

Gas Giant ambush is not going to work well if the main world starport is on a moon of the gas giant. Otherwise small moons are useful cover. Some have frozen water ice on the surface. If a ship lands to collect ice or snow, it’s an easy target.

A typical Gas Giant has an upper atmosphere of 70% hydrogen, the rest is mainly helium and some methane. It also has storms with high (2000 kph) winds, lightning and lots of strong radio emissions. It take 1D6 hours to collect 40 dtons. The reason is that in some places the storms are too bad and you have to leave the upper atmosphere and try again, in other places there’s too much methane present.

I assume that a pirate can stay silent and wait for a victim to start skimming. Once the victim is in the upper atmosphere, the pirate approaches.

Roll 2D6 on Table 1 to determine what type of ship the victim is.

The pirate will take 2D6 turns to get to Medium range, DM -Pilot skill. (1 combat turn = 1000 sec.).

The victim will spend D6 hours skimming hydrogen for every 200 dtons of hull (400 dton trader takes 2D6 hours, a 600 dton ship takes 3D6 hours).

Each combat turn roll D6 on Table 3 for each ship, DM +1 if previous roll was Storm. DM -1 if Pilot makes a Difficult (-2) skill roll.

The victim can choose to dive deeper into the Gas Giant by adding +1 to the dice roll before rolling. It can choose to leave the Gas Giant atmosphere for a turn (on the turn after the pirate shoots at it) and make a distress call. Ships can not make a distress call from inside the atmosphere due to the electronic noise from nearby storms.

TABLE 3: Gas Giant Conditions/Combat
1D Conditions Combat
1 Clear view of target Normal combat
2 Clear view of target Normal combat
3 Clear view of target Normal combat
4 High winds All combat ranges treated as one greater for “to hit” rolls (e.g., short→medium, medium→long)
5 Storm All combat ranges treated as two greater for “to hit” rolls (e.g., short→long)
6 Bad Storm No combat or skimming possible.
7 Intense storm No combat or skimming possible. Target lost. Ship damaged by one external hit on Space Combat Hit Location table.

Help arriving

If the victim makes a distress call:

Each combat round, roll 2D6. If the roll is 10+, help (in the form of an SDB) arrives in 2D6 turns.

Military ships will not make a distress call.

How Often Do Ships Arrive In-System?

Roll 2D6 at the start of each day. If you get less than the world population digit (from the UWP), a ship arrives after D6 hours.

If a ship arrives, roll again after D6 hours, if you get under the population digit again, another arrives. Repeat through the day.

Example: The population digit at Quare is 5. We roll 2D6 and gets 1 and 3 =4. A ship is present.

Ship Running Costs

Assume our pirates have somehow acquired a 400 dton Corsair. It’s a classic Traveller design, J2 and 3Gs of thrust and room for 160 dtons of cargo. It costs MCr142.8 new

If they have to pay the bank 1/240th of the cost each month, that’s an extra Cr594,975 cr.

It has 10 staterooms so that’s Cr20,000/month or Cr5,000/week

Weekly maintenance costs are Cr35,700

Crew are pilot, navigator, 2 engineers, a medic and 5 other crew (who act as gunners and cargo hands). That’s Cr26,000/month, or Cr6,500/week.

It costs Cr47,000 before we put fuel in.

Assume we can refuel at a nearby small Gas Giant in system. Our navigator brings us out of Jump as close as possible, so it takes about 7 hours to get there. It needs 104 dtons of fuel, so at D6 hours to scoop 40 dtons, we can fill the tanks in 7 hours.

They decide to travel to Quare. At 3G a near Gas Giant takes 3 days and 7 hours. They arrive in Quare orbit 3 days and 21 hours after entering the system.

They can make a roll for a ship that day. There just under a 28% chance, so it might average only one ship every 3 or 4 days. It took me three rolls to get under 5. Our pirate spots a ship departing Quare on day 6 after arriving.

It’s a 200 dton unarmed trader. Our pirate chases it, fires his lasers and gets a hit. The trader surrenders and the pirate manoeuvers and docks to it on combat turn 2. Unfortunately the Trader’s distress call has been picked up by a SDB; the pirate picks up a ship on an intercept course but it won’t arrive for 11 turns (it arrives in 2D6 turns, I rolled 6+5).

On turn 3 they evaluate the cargo.

I rolled twice on the table and found it was carrying

Industrial polymers 60 dtons (worth KCr420)
Textiles 30 dtons (worth KCr108)

I decide that these are in 10 dton loads. They need to be taken out the front doors of the trader and in through the rear doors of the Corsair. The ships are 30 metres apart. The captain wants to be under way 2 turns (33 minutes or half an hour) before that SDB arrives. They have 6 combat turns (about 96 minutes) to transfer the cargo. That’s about 10 minutes for each container. I decide that’s a reasonably easy task. I have the main cargo handler on the corsair make a roll of 8+ on 2D6 to do it in time, with DMs for his skill and for the other helpers. They finish in an hour and easily evade the SDB by jumping out.

Converting Your Prize Into Cash

Your victim surrenders. You may have:

  1. A cargo that can be taken away and sold.
  2. Passengers with valuables
  3. Passengers that can be ransomed
  4. Items such as vehicles, ship weapons and shuttles that can be taken
  5. A Damaged ship that can be moved
  6. A damaged ship that can not be operated.

1. Stealing the Cargo

Treat stolen cargo as if it were regular trade goods, except the pirate needs to make a Streetwise roll. Failure means they can only sell at that location if they reduce the price by 20%. Salability of a stolen cargo may be affected by things like identifiability (e.g., are there traceable serial numbers?), distance and/or time from “acquisition”, and law level of the world you’re trying to sell on. These can be represented by DMs on the Streetwise roll.

2. Confiscating Passenger Valuables

Each High Passenger has 1D6×Cr50,000 in the safe. This will be a mixture of cash, negotiable documents (e.g., bearer bonds), and valuables (such as jewelry). Other passengers do not have valuables worth taking. Cash is easily dealt with, the negotiable documents or other valuables may be identifiable. Make a Streetwise roll; if it’s failed, note the difference, multiply by 5%, and then subtract that amount plus an additional 10% from the sale value.

3. Taking Hostages For Ransom

Each High Passenger with social standing of 10+ is potentially worth 1D6×MCr1 ransom. Finding someone to arrange payment of the ransom and not being chased for the rest of your life might suggest that taking hostages is not a good idea.

4. Stripping the Ship

If air rafts, ATVs and smaller ship’s boats will fit in your cargo hold or vehicle hangar, you can take them. Weapons will need an engineer and 1D6 turns to demount them.

5, 6. Taking the Ship As a Prize

You can divide your crew up and operate both ships with minimum crews. You’ll need fuel and supplies if not already loaded and a place to sell it or repair it for your own use. Having additional crew above the minimum is a good idea in case of combat losses, but it increases your running costs. Skilled engineers are a good investment.

What can you do with a slightly damaged trader? Once repaired, (and the paperwork issue sorted out so it is legal), it can be very useful. Transfer your stolen cargoes to the trader to take them for sale. Return with necessary supplies. It can act as a mobile base. You can trade your stolen goods with other criminals on a distant moon somewhere.

Pirate bases are pretty rare. They might exist on rolling 2D6 and getting 12+ on any world that does not have a Class A starport. 12+ on 2D6 is is 2.8%. As some of these worlds will have A Class ports, it’s probably around a 1% chance. You might have to cross a sector to find one. This is not cost-effective. A better alternative is to make one yourself.

If the ship isn’t operable, you can leave it hidden somewhere and come back in a month or two to repair it. If the Jump Drive is not repairable, it becomes a hidden pirate base in that system.

Our pirate leaves Quare. There’s only one place in range, Frenzie. They decide to call in there and attempt to sell the cargo. Frenzie has low population so selling it at Garda-Vilis might be a better option, but going there involves more costs. It might be better to sell the cargo at Frenzie for what they can get and move on. Quare is going to be on alert for that ship for a month or two, so our captain looks for another place to raid. It’s not easy being a pirate.

Some artwork in this article is modified from screenshots from Astrosynthesis by NBOS Software and from https://travellermap.com.

Editor’s Note on starships: The Traveller Wiki (https://wiki.travellerrpg.com) has a large searchable database of starship designs. A list of all jump-capable ships with adequate information to use with these rules was generated from this database; this list can be found via https://bit.ly/3qUDRUJ.