Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Space Smuggling Made Easy

Well smuggling is easy in space travel.

It's about time something was easy. thermodynamics dealt the deathblow to my beloved space pirates. If you're going to have a role playing game in a relatively hard SF setting you need some form of criminal endeavors to generate stories unless you're going to go all evolved humans don't do criminal shit  on me.

Space craft by their very design invite smuggling. Not people (usually) but any sort of remotely realistic space vehicle will have lots of hidey holes for contraband. Just look at the ISS.

Show that picture to  a bunch of players and if they can't find a few dozen spots for a stash get new players. On an unrelated note 'puka' is submarine slang for such little hidey holes. Try taking your drug sniffing dog into a zero gee trans hab for a real laugh. More high tech ships are less cluttered of course as they put those wires, conduits and pukas behind panels which enterprising people can remove.

Of course the dedicated men of the Space Patrol will have many and numerous detectors for contraband materials. Some things just aren't easy to detect, stolen plans on a storage device for example. They look the same as a bunch of porn files. Sealing other materials or using stealth materials is also possible. Hey, crime is not easy. It takes as good a brain to make a million illegally as it does to make a million legally.

Hiding smuggled goods on your hull in magnetized or otherwise attached modules is an old dodge. A customs ship docking with you is probably going to give you a once over with a laser edge finder. Make the goods look like a sensor housing or some other bit of hull candy. Of course a patrol ship will likely notice if you have another redundant sensor. The logical solution is to replace the actual device with a stash housing. It's logical unless you NEED that sensor or device.

If business school is suddenly looking good to your player characters you're running the game right in my book.

But the really insidious part of smuggling is you don't need a ship per se. Look at the International Space Station. It regularly spews forth hordes of little bitty cube sats weighing about a kilogram. It must be pretty easy to stealth coat one of those puppies. Now picture a bunch of the little cubes being dumped and picked up by a ship that already went through customs and heading off int the Black. The ship takes its little cubes to its destination and releases them along its course at just the right time for another ship or station to intercept it.

It sounds reasonable to me. A ship is a big heat radiator full of things like engines and people and habitats. Not so a little cube of dope or whatever. You can probably radar proof it's already small cross section and make it even harder to detect.

You want to get the intercept velocities right. A kilogram of cocaine can kill you, especially if it hits you at 7 kilometers per second. This is what navigators refer to as monetizing their knowledge of orbital mechanics.

For a real customs nightmare throw in humans with cybernetics. Does your legal authority allow you to disassemble this person to check for contraband? It gets really exciting doing cavity searches when the person might have additional cavities installed and/or a chaingun.

Smuggling becomes harder and easier in a post scarcity economy. Three dimensional printing can make anything you have a plan for. But governments and corporations might restrict the designs available to the public or charge a stiff fee for using them. Carrying designs on a storage device hidden in a puka becomes very lucrative.

I'm sure I've missed some angles and may need correction on others. But the picture that emerges of crime on the final frontier is one of a lot of sneaking, fooling inspectors and finding a safe haven for your illegal operations. Space is hard, even on criminals.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Spacewalk Empire

The sad hard facts are rockets and related technologies are likely to be with us a long time. Antigravity and reactionless drives will likely remain science fantasy. Notice I do not insist they are impossible. Sir Arthur C. Clarke taught me not to say that. Rockets are a right pain in the butt for getting into orbit. Most of your vessel will be propellant.

Some really brilliant folks got the idea of firing a laser into various materials (ablative solids, hydrogen, water, common air) to get it really hot and create a rocket. The lasers, focusing mirrors and generators are far too big to carry into orbit if you're carrying anything else but if you're smart you leave them on the ground and fire them into the launch craft's reaction chamber. Essentially you leave your engine behind! (For more on this see here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laser_propulsion#Ablative_laser_propulsion

Obviously this sort of arrangement is very appealing to settlers, merchants and explorers. Less so to space pirate or worse, player characters who are fond of quick launches and getaways. Kind of hard to book when the cops can shut down your launch systems with a phone call. Take heart, there's no way you can get away with space piracy anyway according to a great many bloggers and game designers more knowledgeable than me (though there are still plenty of opportunities to make money illegally in space and I'm working on new ones everyday!)

So you have a laser launch system. Maybe it's not the only way to launch. Big companies and the military have their Orion boom-boom launchers or Gahdawful big chemical rocket thrusters but they have way more money than your poor settlers and hard working merchants. Heck maybe your universe even has reactionless drives. It's just that not everyone can afford them or have the technology necessary for them. Anyway what does this mean? You have launch system barons equivalent to the railroad barons of the 19th century. Very rich people who want to be richer still or possibly make everyone else's money meaningless.

It means the company with the launching laser system is going to get a lock on building and renting the launch craft. That gives them a monopoly on taking people to orbit. Never mind legality, they will try to do it if they've got an ounce of gumption. Selling people the Universe will make you a load of money. If more than one company is selling launch services well ... accidents happen. Anyone can tell you, Space is hard. Maybe they'll get their monopoly the legal way by buying the government's cooperation. Maybe they'll use a maze of corporations. Maybe they'll be chartered as the sole company for the job after the other launch operations had all those horrible accidents.

Of course there's room for other kinds of operations like magnetic mass drivers or orbital towers or are there? One company may try to get them all using spies, troubleshooter and assassins (player characters!) The government may be trying to prevent the infighting from wrecking launches and costing billions to the companies funding elections using police, detectives, their own spies, and mercenaries (the other player characters!)

This set up really kicks into high frontier gear when the Fly By Light Launch Corporation plants a computer virus  on the Orbital Tower of Babbage to disrupt a competing launch operation and runs into the Life Support Guild (remember them?) If you have cultures with antigravity technology these launch kings will likely welcome a ship from one with the enthusiasm you reserve for a rat at a gala banquet before calling for the exterminators (okay not sure if the player characters will be the people with the antigravity drive or the exterminators here.)

Remember I said I was working on new ways to commit crimes in space? Space piracy is just thinking too small.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Ghost Fighters

Any culture using Non-Biological Entities in my Ghost Drive setting will have fighters. Rule of cool aside an NBE drive doesn't suffer from the drawbacks of rockets: size, propellant and heat build up. Their acceleration is limited by the physical nature of the pilot of course. Fighters seldom are allowed, or need, to land on planets unlike shuttles that rely on rocket thrusters. A fighter is a missile bus. It uses its reactionless drive to get close enough to ships to fire missiles powered by rockets. Get close enough and delta vee doesn't matter as much as thrust.

Psionic pilots are used. A fighter has a small confinement unit. In order to maintain several hours of intense acceleration and cloak heat and em emissions to provide some stealth and survivability the NBEs are charged up rapidly. A typical fighter will have six or more NBEs in a bare bones confinement unit. You need a psionic pilot to shore up the defenses of the confinement system and cajole the NBEs to play nice with each other. Charging up one spirit at a time and using them in rotation with a cool down period is a nice idea that flies out the window in combat. Charging one up can also lead to infighting as the NBEs denied snacks fall on their more fortunate fellow or the supercharged favored one falls on its nearly dormant colleagues.

Fighter pilots are on intimate terms with their NBEs (as intimate as you can be with a totally alien life form composed of exotic matter.) They know just how far they can push each and regularly bet their lives on that knowledge. In the Empire they are psionics of proven or coerced obedience. Self destruct charges do wonders to insure compliance. The Ghoul Cults sometimes use fighters without human pilots, placing one strong NBE in charge. These fighters amount to berserkers. They have no limits on their acceleration, mass less without a life support system and frequently turn to attack their launch ships after an enemy is defeated.

Unlike the image conveyed by thriller holos most space fighters are basically spherical for the greatest volume to surface area. Minimal thrusters for docking or emergency ditching are fitted to the rear. There are no windows or canopies for a view to weaken the already thin hull. The cockpit is not a cramped seat but a tank of oxygenated liquid flouro-carbon the pilot floats in to resist the brutal acceleration. Control is by neuro-interface or ocular control displays. Some psionics use mechanical switches they can flip telekinetically.

In a radical departure from ship design fighters carry their NBEs in canisters stored on the fighter's hull. this is less safe than an internal vault. But most damage to a fighter that knocks it out pretty much is an assured kill. In protracted battles fighters may be able to swap out their over clocked ghosts for fresh ones on resupply ships or stations. exterior canisters make this easier. In a pinch a psionic can also jettison an unruly spirit.

Of course a few seconds after working out this system someone realized putting a rocket and a guidance system on a canister makes a missile with a very nasty payload. The kissile doesn't even have to be that accurate. Anywhere within a few hundred kilometers of a ship and your opponent will suddenly have to deal with a hyperactive NBE that most likely resents its hard misuse and is not concerned about on whom it wreaks vengeance.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Being on Life Support

The following is an excerpt from The ABCs of Space Opera Volume 2. A lot of the entries in the ABCs of Space Opera, Vol. 1: A to L (available through Blue Max Studios on RPGNow http://www.rpgnow.com/product/155755/The-ABCs-of-Space-Opera-Volume-1-AL) are rules agnostic and can be used by anyone as I hope this illustrates. I present The Life Support Guild.

Organized Crime
by Captain GCS Tesla


I don’t know why they want me to cover crime and the underworld. You’d think making a few deals with some soldiers of fortune makes you disreputable. Here goes.


The criminal cartel most Confederation citizens know about and may have dealings with is the so called Life Support Guild. The Guild sprang out of good intentions to fill a necessary function. As we moved out into space many logistical and strategic hubs were on space stations. These stations often developed into colonies in their own right.


The problem is most people basically are paid enough to keep them from quitting and work just hard enough to keep from being fired, even life support techs. Over a few generations people let their habitats turn to crap. Hell we did it to Earth. There will be work slow downs, people not wanting to work overtime for necessary functions. They expect someone else will get it. After all most of them lived on that station their whole lives and it’s still here.


On the Tesla I simply ask the Chief to take you down to the hangar and explain why I am disappointed with your performance. Turns out civilians have rights but the basic approach still works.


Some colonies turn all their necessary life support maintenance over to AI. That works till hackers get wind of it. That’s usually about a week before they call me in for evac and you all stop laughing at those fat shuttles of mine that hold three times my ship’s crew.


Some colonies found another way to keep technicians working hard. The Life Support Guild grew out of an affiliation of ‘serenity coordinators’, thugs, enforcers and goons who made sure the habitat got maintained. Don’t want to put some overtime in? You might get a busted nose the first time, or tossed out an airlock if the goon had a fight with the spouse. Want to make a complaint? That’s hard from ICU … or a slab.


It works. I’ll give it that. For the most part the techs were well paid and well treated. After the first guys wound up hurting the rest put their nose to the grindstone. It was less painful it turns out.


Like any successful enterprise it expanded to other habitats having trouble. It was a great way to cut out red tape. Soon  everyone was on Life Support. Then they began expanding laterally: fencing, loansharking, illegal gambling and the sex trade. Now that’s the Guild we know and love.

The worst part of it is that it is entrenched in many habitats’ governments. Everyone is involved to some degree and everyone keeps their mouths shut. It’s very hard to insure a witness’ safety when the local authorities are also working with the Guild. Being on Life Support they call it.


The Life Support Guild (or simply Support) can be introduced anywhere. They might be the power behind an orbital installation's civilian government or intruders trying to muscle into a space colony and take it over behind the scenes. In a pinch they might even be the good guys. If local events (rebellion, strikes, meteor showers) affects labor and vital technicians won't man their posts Support will make sure they return to work and services continue. Or a colony that let things sour between them and the Guild may find that technicians refuse to work for them and their life support problems are growing steadily worse. The Guild will sabotage systems until the colony fails and can be bought up cheaply.

Of course there's stil the drugs, vice, extortion and corruption that the Guild dabbles in. Perhaps they sought Support in a time of crisis and now don't want to deal with the after effects. In any of these cases adventurers could be brought in as muscle on any side or perhaps to transport a vital witness for a case against the Guild and unwitting targets for their pirate friends.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Old Reliable

The Marines swear by them. Nobles pack them for status. Revolvers have made their way into the far future of Traveller. Revolvers trade the higher magazine capacity of the automatic pistol for reliability. In a far future setting that can be very reliable indeed, capable of being used in a variety of environments and easily cleaned and maintained.

A revolver is a natural choice for a ceremonial weapon. While it can still be used to defend against an assassin it is quite difficult to silence unlike an auto pistol. Thus it is the weapon of a defender, not an assassin. In some cases a planet will not have sufficient technology to produce automatic pistols and revolvers may be the only multishot weapons available.

In an earlier post (wow September of last year?) I added a few weapons I thought were missing from Traveller, chiefly automatic pistols of different calibers. Now here are some revolver variants.

Light Revolver ( 700 grams loaded; Cr120; TL 4): An older variety of handgun, the revolver fires 5 gram bullets with characteristics similar to those fired by the body pistol, but not interchangeable with them. No magazine is used: six cartridges are inserted into the revolver individually. Reloading takes two combat rounds, or one combat round if the individual foregoes the benefit of evasion. This is a concealable revolver that is only effective at short range. It's a reliable hold out weapon for emergencies but not something to use if you have a choice.

Light Revolver 2D
Characteristics - Length: 180 mm. Weight: 700 grams. Base Price: Cr 120.
Req. Dex 8 RDM -3 Adv. Dex 11 ADM +1
Nothing Jack Mesh Cloth Reflec Ablat. Battle
0            0      -2      -4       -4         -2        -7
Close     Short    Medium   Long Very Long 

+2         +1         -6            no       no

Medium Revolver ( 800 grams loaded; Cr120; TL 4): An older variety of handgun, the revolver fires 5 gram bullets with characteristics similar to those fired by the heavy body pistol, but not interchangeable with them. No magazine is used: six cartridges are inserted into the revolver individually. Reloading takes two combat rounds, or one combat round if the individual foregoes the benefit of evasion. This model revolver is popular with nobles who have little concern for their safety but must carry a weapon by custom. It is lighter than the standard revolver and easily hidden under robes.

Length: 180mm (some versions may be shorter or longer). Weight, unloaded:
700 grams (weight of six cartridges: 100 grams). Base price: Cr130 (six cartridges

cost Cr5).

Medium Revolver 3D
Characteristics - Length: 180 mm. Weight: 800 grams. Base Price: Cr 130.
Req. Dex 7 RDM -2 Adv. Dex 9 ADM +1
Nothing Jack Mesh Cloth Reflec Ablat. Battle
+1            +1      -2      -3      +1         -1        -6
Close     Short    Medium   Long Very Long 

+1         +2         -3             -5       no

Super Heavy Revolver (1 600 grams loaded; Cr500; TL 6): An older variety of handgun, the revolver fires  12.5 mm bullets with characteristics similar to those fired by hunting rifles, but not interchangeable with them. No magazine is used: five cartridges are inserted into the revolver individually. Reloading takes two combat rounds, or one combat round if the individual foregoes the benefit of evasion. This revolver is often used by hunters for a hold out weapon in case their main weapon misfires. It has excellent stopping power. Some police favor the weapon for shooting locks off a door (always difficult with a pistol). Very few are made into ceremonial weapons due to their bulk. 

Length: 225mm (some versions may be shorter or longer). Weight, unloaded:
1500 grams (weight of five cartridges: 100 grams). Base price: Cr500 (six cartridges cost Cr15).

Super Heavy Revolver 4D
Characteristics - Length: 225 mm. Weight: 1600 grams. Base Price: Cr 500.
Req. Dex 8 RDM -3 Adv. Dex 11 ADM +1
Nothing Jack Mesh Cloth Reflec Ablat. Battle
+2           +2    -1      -3       -2       0         -5
Close     Short    Medium   Long Very Long 

+2         +1         -3             -5       no

Laser Revolver (1000 grams loaded; Cr 2000; TL 9): A variant high energy sidearm, firing high energy bolts in the same manner as the laser carbine. Lighter than the laser carbine, the laser pistol is capable of sustained action. The revolver foregoes the standard power pack for six chemical cartridges each powering a single shot. It is favored by nobles who are only allowed a 'revolver' by custom who wish to have more firepower. In practice it is not practical as most nobles wear reflec armor under their robes. A few find use among various overseers of low technology planets to awe the yokels (at least till they run out of energy cartridges.)

Length: 350mm. Weight unloaded: 1000 grams. (weight of six cartridges: 100 grams). Base price: Cr2000 (six cartridges cost Cr 200).  

Laser Revolver 4D
Characteristics - Length: 350 mm. Weight: 1000 grams. Base Price: Cr 2000.
Req. Dex 7 RDM -3 Adv. Dex 10 ADM +1
Nothing Jack Mesh Cloth Reflec Ablat. Battle
+2           +2    +1     +1     -8        -7         -6
Close     Short    Medium   Long Very Long 

+1         +2         -3             -5       no

Monday, September 14, 2015

Campaign Mash Up

So you have a ship and a crew, some chemistry equipment and a doctor type. It turns out that a local government suppresses the psionics in their population. One way they control them is to naturally ban drugs that boost psionic powers. You can synthesize those pharmaceuticals on your ship. Your ship that has a hefty mortgage. Your that brought in a load of electronics that you planned on trading but that were just recalled or made obsolete by recent advances.

Breaking Bad meets Firefly.

There are a bunch of ways this can spin out of control in a Traveller meets Fiasco sort of way.

The plan to cook boost could be hatched by one or more crew members without the captain's/owners's direct knowledge. They just cook the books as well to make it look like there's a profit.

The production doesn't have to be onboard the ship. Simply 'deliver' a crate of lab equipment to a location you rent, do the production while you're on leave, sell it and bring a crate of lab equipment to the starport for delivery.

You're going to need a delivery network of some kind. A week is not a lot of time to produce the pharmaceuticals and sell them. If your ship works a regular route it gets a little easier. You can build a network of contacts to accept delivery of your product and bring it to the customers.

But that is where it gets complicated. How well do you know these contacts? How well do you know the psionics involved? Your contact could decide that the pharms have really lucrative recreational uses. That can lead to him pedaling them on the side. That may mean he orders more than he needs. Not a problem. Or he could start diluting the drugs to have more to sell. Cutting drugs with other substances can have all kinds of side effects. You don't want to talk about side effects when you're dealing with psionic people. An overdose that ends up in the hospital or the morgue leads most police to ask questions. That can lead to them finding the psi institute or your contact who might start talking to lessen his sentence or torture period.

Naturally a new drug appearing on the street will make unsavory types who view those streets as their property very curious about who is doing it and how much of a cut they aren't paying. At that point the police may not look so bad. Or we can invert that trope. The crew finds another crew trying to push into their market doing all kinds of fun things like beating their buyers up, ratting to the police and selling tainted pharms under the crew's label.

For the win, give the crew the chance for a big sale, one that taxes all their resources and finances to put together, then legalize the stuff. Their mortgage is still do on the ship but surely they've been saving their ill gotten gains?

In my Ghost Drive setting the Empire and the Ghoul Cultists are both likely targets for the scheme. In fact given the way they oppress their psionic populations it could be seen as aiding a resistance against oppressive governments. That might justify the sale of the stuff for more recreational purposes. Your players' morals may vary. It should be noted that resisting an oppressive regime is seldom black and white. People on both sides will over react and innocents will suffer. Yes even evil regimes have innocents in them (see Randall's rant in Clerks about the contractors aboard the second Deathstar for a good example.)

Suddenly simply making ship payments is not so simple. What the hell. The crew can always just hang around a bar and look for a patron.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Psionics Live

The recognition of Non-Biological Entities and their unique abilities gave humanity the galaxy. Wrangling entities known as ghosts or spirits has its problems. There are those who view it as slavery or worse, slavery of deceased humanity. Spending your after life trapped in a jump drive doesn't sound so great. The possibility of a mass NBE uprising is often brought up. In fact such uprisings have happened on a local level many times.

Eventually someone realized, if NBEs could move a ship in or out of our universe using human technology to augment their power, similar technology could be used with human psionics.

Some cultures prefer enslaving the living to mucking about with specters.

The upside is that humans can be controlled and intimidated far easier than NBEs as visible, tangible, living beings.

The downside is that as living beings the technology is uncomfortable as hell at the best of times. It is painful and can cause psi burn out without proper precautions and it creates a market for slave rings. It also can create a psionic upper class controlling local space travel among other things and lead to oppression of non-psionics.

The Ghoul cults make extensive use of enslaved or brainwashed psionics to maintain their space fleets. The Empire uses the psionic tech when it's necessary. Some missions and cargos are too vital to allow around ghosts. These missions use psionics brought up within the Empire, living lives of privilege to buy their loyalty.Privilege usually means the safeguards are better hidden. The major's uniform the psionic wears so proudly may be programmed to strangle them on a certain signal. Their seven course meals may contain the antidote to a poison regularly injected into their bodies by an implant.

Despite these precautions, the so called Ordained Psionics are loathed by virtually all other psionics and liable to be attacked physically or mentally.

NBEs may freeze your blood or wreck your ship. They may have you jumping at shadows or have your shadow jump you. But given the treatment they receive from the living it's often what you'd expect. As much as we fear them and sometimes loath them one thing is certain, they do not enslave each other. That horror is entirely mankind's.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Your Attention Please.

Ahem.

http://www.rpgnow.com/product/155755/The-ABCs-of-Space-Opera-Volume-1-AL


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

No Ghosts Here

My first published game material in mumblety mumblety years. If you enjoyed my space opera posts and approach to chewy science please check it out. Raymond McVay and Blue Max Studios did a great job on editing and presentation. I hope you like it.

http://www.rpgnow.com/product/155755/The-ABCs-of-Space-Opera-Volume-1-AL?src=newest_since