Friday, February 17, 2017

Being Stretched Thin

I've been posting, writing nano and short fiction and doing renders for my next offering on RPGNow (and hoping to actually reach double digit sales). I'm feeling a little burnt out to be honest and my regular offerings (SF, free traders, pirates, free traders, humor, free traders etc.) aren't interesting me at present and the wife and I are going away for a few days so see ya later with more madness.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Servicing the Passengers

Captain was not a morning person and it was always morning on some planet out there. He stumbled into the galley and grabbed a preloaded a cup of steaming coffee, black as hell, sweet aslove and strong as death.

Their last passage had been an uneventful passenger run to Inerze. There were quite a few high passengers and they kept all the crew hopping. everyone was sleeping in today in a lazy far orbit. Ah well ... he should get this part over with. Captain pulled a large and thick envelope out of the pocket of his robe.

Was it the rustling of the paper, some sixth spacer's sense, teleportation? His crew magically appeared.

Only jump drives and tips allowed faster than light travel.


In most classic SF games tickets on a starship are fixed prices. You get middle passage for 8,000 credits. You get high passage for 2,000 more credits. Middle passage means you may have to share a stateroom or even get bumped off your flight if someone shells out for a high passage ticket. More to the point, a high passenger can displace two middle passengers on a full ship. This forces the captain to rent space for 10,000 credits once instead of 8,000 credits twice and they really don't like that.

But let us say that tickets are indeed fixed in price. This could be a measure to keep small freighters in business and thus paying their mortgages. Not all ships however are equal. A trip on a crowded tramp freighter is a far cry from a dedicated mega liner. A mega liner also needs more money to stay in business.

More to the point, a ship's ticket price (and freight rates) should be based on the ship's monthly costs. However, this would soon doom the little guy. Little guys have mortgages and low volume of traffic. So tickets and freight rates are fixed.

That levels the jump field against the big guys who are left with political influence, first choice of crew, money to buy out their competitors and strangleholds on shipping contracts.

So the mega liners can offer more for the same price. There can be stores onboard, casinos, spas. You could imagine what those cost but they aren't included in the price of passage.

Below the mega liners we have the dedicated people movers. Not as posh perhaps, but clean and comfortable

At the bottom of the food chain we have the ships likely to be owned and run by player characters (bitch all you want, you know I'm right). Most of these ships have any passengers wanting to step outside for a breath of fresh air ... knowing that it's vacuum outside ... without a space suit.

At worst they are cramped with no amenities and a single part time steward ("I ain't making you a cup of tea, I gotta man this turret!").

When your passengers are the crew they are going to be scurrying about trying to get those passengers. If you're using Cepheus Engine each stateroom costs 500,000 cr. plus 400,000 cr. for the hull enclosing it. That's 3750 cr. worth of the ship's mortgage every month. PLUS 1000 cr. for life support costs.

Retail practices suggest that trying to cut prices is a losing game. It might not even be possible if ticket prices were fixed by law for whatever reason. When small retailers are faced with larger and more efficient corporate rivals the big guys can go much lower making profit by volume or just eating a loss long enough to drive the little guys out of business. In the case of fixed prices they could offer better food and accommodations with extra fees of course.

What the smaller operations can do is cater to their clients individually. This can be meals (they laughed when I took/rolled up Steward three times!), workouts (are any crew members skilled in unarmed combat captain?), or running errands (you want to borrow my gig to take what where for who?)

Small operations will go where the big boys will not. Perhaps there's not enough traffic to justify a regular passenger line to a planet off the beaten path. Perhaps it's too dangerous, being rife with pirates, or a region causing misjumps.

Big shipping lines are also leery of dropping off passengers or cargo in warzones. They also frequently ask troubling questions, troubling if you're a fleeing felon or small time smuggler. If you're a big time crook or government  or military they look the other way.

Finally a small freighter is just the thing if you're traveling incognito or shipping a cargo on the down low. For that matter some cargos are very off putting if you're a wealthy shipping line, like venomous beasts or radioactive material or explosives (c'mon what could go wrong?) In fairness such hazardous or live cargos (sometimes that's both) will command higher shipping prices (5,000 to 10,000 credits per ton if you can prove your referee is reading my blog).

Then there's tips. A few hundred to a few thousand credits per crew if we're talking high passengers (Rick Stump noted in his blog that high falutin' living cost a mere 10,800 cr. annually, people traveling the 'lanes have some serious cash or are desperate and will pay you to keep your big mouth shut.) Imagine, money for roleplaying! That usually involves people shooting at you, outstanding warrants, and possible iron bars on the exits.

For a crew starting out, that can't be choosy, the adventures write themselves.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Trader Carbines

Free Traders have a difficult time of it. Between difficult locals, pirates, crazed passengers, and hijackers they need weapons to be as easy on their ships as possible.

This is compounded by passengers. Sometimes an emotional disturbed passenger (or even crew) will pose a danger to the ship or themselves. Stunners are usually cutting edge technology well above what most merchants encounter let alone support.

Enter the trader carbine.

Trader carbines are unspectacular weapons at first glance. They are almost never equipped with slings but almost universally have folding stocks. Their beauty lies in their ammunition. Rounds and clips are color coded, green, red and black.

Green clips hold tranquilizer rounds similar to those fired by snub pistol though not low recoil ammunition. These rounds are used to take down an emotionally disturbed or incoherent passenger or crew.

Red clips hold squash heads. These fire special rounds that are conical when fired but assume a spherical shape after hitting an armored body or wall. The spherical shape sheds velocity fast so they are less likely to penetrate a partition or control panel after striking a target. This round is used to repel boarders on your own ship, when you'd like things to remain functional afterwards.

Black clips hold armor piercing rounds. Penetration is essential when fighting opponents in spacesuits. The rounds remain effective against unarmored targets. They're used outside the ship or on another person's ship. Sometimes a boarding action goes awry and traders will turn the tables on pirates. In many cases they try to inflict as much damage as possible to let them make a quick getaway.

As a final safety measure many carbines are equipped with a recognition system to read the user's thumbprint and not allow an unauthorized user to fire it. Cheaper alternatives are a kill switch triggered from the bridge and a hidden safety, a small innocuous protrusion that can keep a stolen carbine from firing.

Many merchants carry supplies and fabricators capable of turning out ammunition for their carbines. In fact the trader carbine (in a modified form) is a prime item for trade. The modified carbines will only fire green or red rounds.

CT Stats
Trade carbines use the range modifiers for the carbine. Green rounds use the rules and armor modifiers for snub pistol tranq, black rounds use the armor modifiers for snub pistol HEAP. Red rounds initially function as normal carbine rounds but have much less penetrating power after hitting a target (if you're checking for bullets passing through a body or ricocheting the red rounds have a 4 in 6 chance of petering out or being stopped dead.) Ammo cost for tranq or HEAP rounds are doubled.

Cepheus Engine
Carbines still hit as a shotgun. Tranq rounds do 3d to endurance only and damage does not affect other characteristics. Red rounds do 2d damage(or 1d for ricochets). Black rounds do the normal 3d damage.

Trader carbine ammunition is not usable in other weapons (even normal carbines).

Finding a kill switch on a trade carbine is a Difficult Task in CE (10+ in CT) modified by INT and Mech skill. Kill switches cost 100 cr. and must be installed at time of purchase.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Cadmus Troops

(This Character was based on the story Cadmus Seed (Alarming Tales #1 September 1957 by Jack Kirby; available at Comic Book Plus here). I made a few changes since a few infantry divisions of these guys is a real game changer.)

They used a rare seed found in the Congo. It was nurtured with cuttings from the U.K.s Green Man and mysterious serums from the West Foundation and other more troubling materials. In the end they had a mobile plant that resembled humans and had limited intelligence. The project was more ambitious when it started. The Allies wanted divisions of the creatures. But they had few successes and the West Foundation was eventually deemed too risky to use further. In the end they had a single success and another half dozen near misses that they might train up. Ironically they called their best subject Cadmus.

The Cadmus Men

Cadmus and his brothers barely notice bullets (have you ever tried to shoot a tree?) A bullet one point of damage to them. therefore being caught in suppressive fire would do 0-3 points. Cadmus is -/+ AC due to his thick bark-like skin..

Melee Attacks
Cadmus' hands are the density of oak wood letting him do 1d6 damage in hand to hand combat.

In daylight Cadmus heals 1d6 damage per day and does not need to remain at rest. Cadmus requires half as much food as a normal human. These benefits vanish if Cadmus must spend his time indoors, underground or out of direct sunlight.

Defoliants and Fire
Weed killer and similar chemicals do 1 or 2d6 to Cadmus. Fire does normal damage and Cadmus must make an ST to fave a flamethrower or similar weapon.

Cadmus and his brothers are not verbal or deep thinkers. To make more than a monosyllabic reply requires an ST. Using a complex weapon or device (like a machine gun) in combat may require a saving throw (though rifles and pistols are fine until they need a reload.

Cadmus and his brothers use the XP, hit dice, BHB and ST of Grunts.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Treachery on the Bounty

What happens after your characters (whatever your SF system of choice) break the law? The usual answer is 'we lift ship asap!'

That's a very good strategy but again let's see what happens.

Let's say you break the law and buy a ticket to a planet one parsec away, one not regularly visited by the planet you just cuckolded. That means it will cost that planet's government at least three tickets to bring you back for trial (sheriff ships out to get you, sheriff ships you and himself back to original planet for trial). In Cepheus Engine this means 26,000 credits. Why yes you are paying for high passage. No one is going to want to share a cabin with a captured fugitive, though the sheriff can fly middle passage.

Low passage is a distinct possibility (for the prisoner at least). But losing a prisoner to sleeping sickness and then finding out he was innocent (or presumed innocent from the start as some cultures believe) might be regarded as a violation of rights. So you'd probably have to go with high passage for the person of interest.

That 26,000 cr. means some crimes are plain going to be forgotten. Assault, breaking and entering, theft etc. The exact details will vary by world. Capital crimes would probably have a higher reasonable cost associated with them.

I am purposely leaving piracy out of this post. Piracy falls under the Navy's aegis. They have plenty of bucks, have to spend their budget and are happy to chase you to the Galactic Rim and points beyond.

Even if it is a matter of murder say, how far will a planet pursue a fleeing suspect? Was the victim anyone important? Are there extradition treaties with his probable destination. Are there other suspects and how likely is this person to be convicted if he is brought back? You can't put a price tag on justice but that's what people do.

If you have communication limited to actual travel it gets even harder. In Cepheus Engine terms you would need at least a Jump 3 ship to outpace the faster civilian ships which means a bottom tier warship in most settings is zipping around dropping off wanted posters. Make that several ships, just to circulate wanted posters. But what then? Are the police of other planets or starport security going to concern themselves with your case? Probably not unless there is also a (fat) reward included. And transportation guaranteed.

Enter the bounty hunter.

Bounty hunters hang around starports and wait for those wanted posters to come in. They read them with great interest. A starport has no laws against packing heavy  firepower, and they usually do so. They snoop around and buy a lot of drinks and if they play their cards right, they catch a fugitive. What then?

Some planets have extradition procedures with their neighbors. If the crime doesn't warrant the cost of a passage back, then Planet A could try the fugitive under the laws of Planet B and impose punishment under that planet's penal code. In exchange the Planet B will treat felons from Planet A it captures similarly.

Sometimes a felon will jump bail or be found guilty and still escape imprisonment. In this case Planet A would imprison the fugitive to serve time there.

There are some people, however, that Planet A would want no part of no matter how buddy buddy they are with Planet B. There are some people Planet B wants back. In that case a subsidized merchant comes in handy. Subsidized merchants get funding from the government to provide necessary commerce to worlds. While sending a warship to transport a prisoner is pretty expensive a subsidized merchant could be pressed into service. The Navy pays part of the ticket(s) to transport, Planet B pays the rest. Everyone is happy (except the crews that have a dangerous criminal onboard.

Detached service couriers are great for this. They can be called back to service for almost any reason and a prisoner run is one of those. They usually fit the cargo hold out for the prisoner (meaning a mat and several buckets) and lock the door. With no mortgage and fuel provided by servce bases or skimmed for free they can easily cut costs on transportation. Besides those guys seem to enjoy that sort of thing.

Some couriers even adopted a business model, transferring crooks between the planets of a cluster. From there it's a small step to turning bounty hunter and bringing the bad guys in themselves. A reward is a reward after all.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Tunnel Vision

Captain was a good 150 kilos and had won many a barside or berthing bay brawl. Luchador … was a damned luchador. Maybe not a licensed one but he had the mask and walked the walk and had beaten down many people far larger than himself.

They didn’t give up. They took down a fair number of Patuni who suddenly mobbed them.

It was a little surreal. One moment the Poyap of Patutu was escorting the two traders from their gig after a successful landing with only one or two white knuckle moments, their small but vital cargo of fungi spores, fungiculture supplements and new e-books and magazines, intact.

Patutu was a large planet, with a buck and a quarter of gravity. That was pushing it for the Profit Rockit, a venerable old free trader. The gig could be redlined allowing a controlled landing and a difficult but doable take off. Captain decided he was the only one qualified to take his beloved (and expensive) gig to the surface. Luch would go along to provide an extra pair of eyes and hands and to help unload the cargo.

Actually it was the subsurface. The Patuni had long ago shunned the brutal radiation of the surface, moved into caverns and began raising gourmet truffles that they exported throughout the cluster. Mostly the truffles left in the holds of subsidized merchants who had long standing contracts. Captain thought this might be an opportunity to liberate a little of those exports from the cold corporate grasp.

But then everyone grabbed him and Luch.

Second Tier Navigator Sandoval heard the rhubarb on the ship’s speakers in orbit. At the time she was laying across the biggest softest bed in the poshest stateroom on the Profit Rockit surrounded by all the pillows she could find, binge watching Ghouls of the Underworld, a flat screen serial from Zaonia. She was wearing the softest robe she could find in the ship’s stores and overall having a fine day with a possible sundae looming large in her immediate future. As the Captain put it he would never want her piloting his ship barring a runaway black hole bearing down on them and his hands, feet, and tongue amputated. The black hole he referred to would also have to be galactic center sized, But she could figure out matching orbits for him just fine.

When the rhubarb started Sandoval flew from her leisure nest and ran for the bridge. Or she tried. The robe got caught on the bedpost. That cost her a few seconds, a very nice robe, and a bruised coccyx.

Starports, even the backwater Patuni port had security cameras inside and outside. By ancient convention they were open to monitoring by merchant ships to ascertain the political climate before and after landing. More significantly Luch, had a welcome bout of paranoia and managed to activate his phone warning her of the attack as it went down. Sandoval punched up a camera feed, ran it back and saw her shipmates go down.
Free trader crews produced some of the toughest, meanest, self-reliant women in history. Sandoval bitterly bewailed not hiring one of those bitches two ports of call previously. She was just too scary.

A comm screen beeped for her attention and she activated it, watched the text scroll:

<< Attention Profit Rockit
We have taken your captain, steward, and gig. You will land at the same coordinates your gig touched down. You have one hour.>>

Sandoval had never received a ransom note before and was in a bit of a dilemma. She knew in similar situations that it was best to stall until a plan presented itself. A plan in a matching orbit over Patutu was unlikely but not impossible. She began to type. Then she switched between several fonts.

//Dear sir and or madam
Please clarify. If I land at the same coordinates as the gig I am likely to destroy it and disable the ship. Is this part of your plan?

Cordially Yours,
Second tier Navigator Sandoval//

<<Land your ship 100 meters north of gig coordinates.>>

//Dear sir and or madam
Please clarify. Magnetic North or Geographic North? Your world has both.

Cordially Yours,
Second Tier Navigator Sandoval//

<<Goegraphic North>>

//Dear Sir or madam,
Please clarify. ‘Goegraphic’?

2nd TN Sandoval//

<<Geographic North. You have one hour!>>

//Dear Sir or madam,
Please clarify. One hour from time of latest message or the first message?

2nd TN S :D//


//Dear Sir or madam,
There’s no need to cuss a/o yell. It’s not very professional.

2nd TN Sandoval//

<<Sorry. It’s my first ransom situation>>

//Dear Sir or madam,
Mine too. ;)

2nd TN Sandoval//

The Profit Rockit did have weapons. The theory being that a weapon was much like an umbrella, if you had them you wouldn’t need them. There was a locker full of slug throwers, laser pistols, gas grenades, and pointy sticks. There was also a very functional turret with twin pulse lasers capable of punching a hole in a hostile craft at a good ways away. Hopefully that wouldn’t make them too mad.

A laser capable of damaging a space craft was not that fearsome a weapon. Especially not from the wrong side of an atmosphere. Blowing a hole in a couple of Whipple shields was a bit easier than taking out a ground installation or underground installations which were the norm on Patutu. Most ships could not truck a significant amount of a planet around with them for armor as they were kind of expected to move to earn a living. Against that you needed missiles with met-H warheads or worse. Or a really good run at the desired point of impact after which dropping a few hundred kilos of metal at a few kilometers a second would do the trick.

She didn’t have time to pull away from the planet and make a run at it to weaponize a spare hull plate. More to the point the Patuni would notice such an act and raise hell with her friends.

//Dear sir or madam
What do you want with my ship? I bet it’s the fusion reactor …

She did too. These backwater mud ball colonies were always short of power. She deleted the message without sending. It was almost confrontational and she was infuriating the ransomers pretty well being cute. At about that point she scratched her hip and realized she had lost her robe after it got snagged on the bedpost and was sitting in a cold bridge wearing very little. She got up from the seat with a soft ripping sound she found unsettling, grabbed a thermal blanket from the damage control locker, wrapped herself in it and sat back down. Then she ran a scan looking for targets of opportunity for her limited weaponry.

The Profit Rockit’s scanners were basic civilian gear. That is they were several orders of sophistication beyond the equipment the Patuni had. A small number of domes were really all that marked the dusty planet as exploited by man. Radio chatter linked the domes and their substantial underground towns. She listened to a sample of the chatters, programs and once or twice an archaic fax signal that jarred her teeth loose.

She stood up suddenly and snapped open a switch cover. Then she threw the toggle that warmed up the laser.

//Dear Sir or madam,
Please clarify.Time check? Did we synchronize our chronometers? :S

2nd TN Sandoval//

<<You have thirty-seven (37) minutes.>>

//What was going to happen should I remain unresponsive to your demands?//

<<Hang on I’ll check. :D>>

//Thank you. :D//

<<They will be executed :S.>>

//What are the charges? :0//

<<I’m afraid that is confidential.>>

//Sounds serious. LOL. May I speak to the big one to say good-bye? :(//

<<You have 34 minutes.>>

Sandoval looked over the highlights on the map she’d generated, licked her lips, then stifled a sneeze. The blanket had slipped. Then she hit a few keys and began tapping the targets she’d chosen based on her scans. A couple of decks below, the turret machinery grumbled and moved the turret slowly and precisely. The bridge lights dimmed once, twice, three times. She looked over her results and yipeed silently forgetting the blanket and the fact 10% of her was goosebumps by weight now.

She was moonwalking backwards when the comm screen flashed an urgent red.

<<What RU doing! Cease imediately or your captain and steward will be executed!>>

//Dear Sir or madam,
Please clarify. Time check? I have twenty eight minutes left :S

2nd TN Sandoval//


// No

.You have five minutes to release my crew. Let any harm come to my Captain or my Luch and you will get more of this. Much much moar//

<<Hang on. Checking :(>>

<<We’ll comply>>

//You have four minutes. :)//

The gig was airborne in the required time. It managed to dock with the Profit Rockit in record time. Luch and Captain were greeted by a second tier navigator in a thermal blanket sarong when they made it to the bridge. They broke orbit amid hugs, kisses and a bear hug that nearly broke Sandoval. When they had put some lovely vacuum between the ship and Patutu explanations were expected.

Sandoval got another robe, her fuzzy slippers, and a cup of coffee before she held court. Holding off any longer would lead to violence. She quickly went through all the correspondence and the laser prepping.

“What the hell did you find to blow up? It drove them wild. We heard there were people rioting in the corridors.We heard the screaming. Did you blast the oxygen intakes?”

“No sir, there were hundreds of them. It’d take me hours and it would hurt a lot of innocent people.”

“Heating systems?”

“No sir. Furnaces were underground and heat radiators were too big.”

“Spill! Or your fuzzy slippers will get it!” Luch finally screamed. Captain nodded sagely.

“I had to do something atrocious.”

“You’re not too big to put over my knee Second Tier Navigator. Spill,” Captain growled.

“Aye sir. I needed the least redundant yet vital system …”

“Now you’re just showing off,” Luch grumped.

“ … I wrecked their cablevision. No media company in history ever made their system redundant. Too much money. Cheaper to fx it when things go wrong. They had these cute little receiver towers on their main domes.I think I might have hit a few phone relays too. ”

Luch let out a low whistle. Finally Captain said somberly, “You my dear, have a future with this organization.”


I was introduced to science fiction via Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein. I've gotten to read and like many different forms of SF but the solve a problem subgenre always has a place in my heart.

Having said that though the heroes in those stories were always way too calm, thoughtful and serious for my taste. In a crisis people panic or at least stress. They make dumb cracks to destress, They often screw up in ways that are comical (after the fact, never during). For every MacGyver there's a thousand poor schmoes trying to just stay alive.

Sandoval and the guys use their brains they just aren't slick about it.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

I Put a Hex on Your Ship

In the ancient lore of SF RPGs it was decreed that thy ships shall be mapped using squares of 1.5 meters, that these squares encompass a height of 3 meters and that verily 2 such squares of deckplans equals 13.5 cubic meters (the same volume of liquid hydrogen that masses one ton) and are equal unto one displacement ton.

Enough old timey talk. Displacement tons were introduced originally to create a method of mapping deckplans. This led to many many ships with rectilinear corridors, rooms and darned near everything else. It works. It's simple and as always I'm not leaving it alone.

So here we have the classic 1.5 meter squares representing staterooms and corridors. I made a few adjustments in keeping with common deck planning conventions. Each grid represents one stateroom or enough area for two people to live in without killing each other (barely). Now many people designate 3 dTons for each stateroom and contribute the other dTon to communal facilities, whatever your culture/species needs: mess, meditation area, showers or flat rocks and sunlamps.

I represented this fraction with the neon blue. So in other words the white area will hold 10 people not 8 but remember that some are sleeping and some are in the communal area.

The pink is an extra 20% of area that is supposed to go for corridors (pink in the example). You can see that's not a lot to connect five compartments with flair for decorating.

On the right I have, the hexagon. It's pedigree in RPGs is nearly as old as that of the square. Back in the day Avalon Hill had a trailer truck delivering pallets full of hexagons to crank out wargames. Sadly the hexagon never found its way into interior mapping (unless you're playing GURPS).

The pie slices of the hexagon are 3.73 meters in length by 4.84 meters maxand take up 13.55 square meters. A 1.5 meter square is 2.55 square meters. The pie slice takes up 6.02 squares or 3 dTons. The corridors are 1 meter (okay I cheated) by 4.8 meters or very nearly 3 1.5 meter squares if you must grid things. yes the area of the little joint sections was figured in. Use SketchUp or Wings and check on me if you doubt. I halved the amount of corridor area for figuring dTons because you're sharing it between hexagons or the outer hull's armor, insulation and greebles (greebles take up no tonnage. It's a fact.)

Moreover the twenty percent for corridors is already laid out. You can get to any compartment in this hexagon and your area for corridors is prefigured. The center hex can be a fresher or DC cabinet etc. You could make each hexagon contained with very cramped facilities for showering, cooking, laundering and sunning yourself on a rock (one at a time please. Or you could specialize the hexagons, one had a mess and galley, another showers, another a utility room.

Each hexagon I laid out comes to 20 dTons, giving you an easy way to lay out a ship of 100, 200, 300 etc tons.

Hexagons are very sound structural element to build your ship around.

The corridors do a lot of bending when you have more than a couple but this has benefits. Neither bullets nor radiation can turn corners. This is handy in a resisting a boarding action or when there's a radiation leak. 

I'm still fiddling with the hexagons. Obviously you can also split a hexagon in half or thirds easily enough to make odd shapes ot give yourself a straight length of corridor where you want it without straying too far from the sacrosanct 20% corridor bonus.

The benefits of using the hexagons for a tail lander should be obvious: the dang things stack like poker chips. They can also be used to lay out the ubiquitous domed colony. A center hex and six surrounding hexes makes a rough circle.

As a final note, if your characters are used to a square grid sic some aliens based on bees after them and use hexagons (or triangles or even gasp! circles!) for their construction. that will remind your characters every moment they are in a structure not built by man.