Friday, September 28, 2018

Sandoval's Folly

<<This is Transgressor. Cut your drives and prepare to be boarded.>>

//This is the Profit Rockit. Sorry we can't do that. There is a Patrol ship inbound. If you check the registry the captain is one of the good ones. You have 2 hours-point twenty tops. You could never board us, strip our cargo, top off your tanks and get away.

Second Tier Navigator Sandoval//

<<Sandy? Listen gorgeous, convince that shambling plumber you call a Captain we mean business. You already need a radio telescope to see the far end of this ship's wrap sheet.>>

//Why is that Bart? Sorry, no can do. But sweetie, why bother? We aren't worth a missile. We have a hold full of synthetic fuels and you don't want to move that stuff in the time you have left before oh you know ... POW!

2nd Tier Navigator Sandoval//

<< ... we won't be close enough to use our laser, but we can and will fire a missile up your tail. That'd slow you down real good. Plenty of time to come aboard then and strip your ship. Besides how do we know you got hard to move cargo?//

//Apologies if this isn't Bart. Anyway, like I said why bother? We have a hold full of synthetic fuels. We also have insurance. We will gladly vent it. Then you wasted a precious missile for nothing. In fact set up a video channel I will gladly go down to the hold and show you what we have and poke into any odd corners that interest you."

2nd T. Nav. Sandoval//

<<Your concern for my economic plight is touching. But we will fire missiles. What the Hell?>>

//That's my new missile evasion algorithm at work. ;)


<<You can't dodge missiles forever. Good as you think you are.>>

//You meant, "You can't dodge missiles forever, good as you think you are." We don't have to. We just have to convince you that you will waste more missiles on synth fuel  than it is worth, sweetie. Do the math, inbound patrol cruiser, marginal cargo. Missile defenses.

<3Sandy/ ^.o//

<<Okay Sandy. I'll tell you what -- transmit that new algorithm and we'll leave you alone. That IS worth something. Maybe a lot under present circumstances. Otherwise we'll see just how good it is..>>

//:'-( //

"Wow," Captain said from his station. "Look at that pirate twitch! Think they'll get away from the Patrol, Sandy?" Sandoval pondered whether Bart would get any missiles off  at them, then reasoned he'd probably save them for the patrol ship.

"Not a chance. Those bugs we slipped in the program are bad stuff. Remember all the debugging and software upgrades we needed? Never throw anything away, I says," Sandoval spoke with authority. "Serves them right for accepting a download from us."

"Caveat emptor. Takes on a whole new meaning with you."

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Economy of Tyranny Part 2

It's a fact that you go to war with the space fleet you have. As I said in the previous post building big ships is uneconomical. Smaller ships can cover more bases and provide more surface area for mounting weapon systems.

The Republic of Alpha and their neighbors, the Evil Empire of Beta are beginning hostilities. More than likely the first blow in any war will be crucial. Going off unprepared will be worse than doing nothing at all as it will waste ships and leave one open to attack.

The Empire started out as a trade-friendly province in the mod rim. They were a local cluster capital and they produced mid-range (200 meter) ships for the Old Empire Navy. Since the Old Empire fell and a plethora of new empires (note the capitalization conventions) Beta decided to follow suit. After all, the new golden age has to start somewhere.

They could build the biggest ships, but most of their worlds are agrarian with bucolic and stupid locals who do not build let alone comprehend the problems of building and crewing starships. Pilots, engineers and trained crew are crucial. The shipyards were optimized for such ships. It was their role in the galactic economy (RIP) and were less than efficient at building smaller ships. Furthermore, the firms producing larger ship systems were all tight with the Evil Parliament and you didn't want to mess with them.

The Alpha Polity was a frontier province. It had shipyard facilities to service the smaller navy vessels and with some corner cutting can now produce smaller (100 meter) ships. Being spread out with defense and research outposts they have a larger pool of crew than the Betans but can't produce such big beautiful ships. The square cube law says the Betans are doomed. What can reverse this? Evil empires are a necessary component of the dramatic tension constant! Without the DTC the universe just ... winds ... down ... Everyone stays home and shops for shoes or hats.

First, realize that people in power want to remain in power. Good guys and bad guys have that in common. Betans have a number of strategies to boost their firepower:

1) Alliance with a power that will enhance their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. In this case someone with smaller vessels. this might be hard due to the 'Evil' in their title but it's too late to change the letterheads!

2) A comprehensive education program for the bucolic population. That will take years and who wants to SF RPGs about comprehensive education reform? Monte Cook couldn't sell that idea.

3) Go with the ship numbers and crew numbers they have. Once the Alpha Polity is conquered we will use their shipyards and non-bucolic population to increase our forces!!!

Going with the plans for a brief successful campaign against the Alphans means maximizing the effectiveness of the Betan warships.

The first design proposal was to simply stack eight 100 meter hulls lengthwise. This would have very nearly the surface area to equal eight Alphan ships in surface area. that was shot down (pun intended) quickly. A ship that long and skinny would have insufficient area to mount enough thrusters aft. The length made maneuvering harder and the shape was comparatively fragile.

The next design proposal was to make most of the weapon systems internal. There were several ways to do this. The first was the spinal mount, building the ship around a horrifically huge weapon. This worked quite well if your target wasn't moving. Otherwise you had to steer the whole bloody ship.

Then next three proposals were simple: missiles, missiles, MISSILES!

While missile launchers took up space on a hull, they required ammunition which required volume. This was the main reason energy weapons were often favored over missiles. You could fire those till your power plant gave out. Larger ships could carry more missiles and afford to fire more missiles at longer ranges. More missiles co uld overwhelm defenses. Thus if you were lucky you could cripple or destroy several smaller ships.

This had application for commerce raiding. Instead of say, five  defending gunboats of 100 meters to tackle a raider, you'd need six or seven since several would be disabled by long range fire before coming to grips. These extra ships added up fast when you were dispatching several task forces to find such a raider.

As the Alphans soon learned such larger ships could also lay eight times more mines, creating a hazard for civilian shipping that required military ships to clear.

The Evil Empire of Beta was also open to commerce raiding of course. However, the Alphan ships also had less fuel and supplies and thus a shorter range. The Evil Overlords gladly allowed several worlds of their frontier to be cut off. Remember the part about the high technology assets being concentrated on their capital?

In any case when the raiding and feinting was over a task force of 20 Alphan ships faced an incursion of four Betan cruisers. Only the invaders were content to lob a whole bunch of missiles at long range, watch a few score telling blows and leave. They would repeat the process in a war of attrition. Appear, fire off long ranged missiles and leave.

While this went on the Betans and Alphans were desperately trying to build more ships to tip the balance of power. Ironically the fleet with the larger ships continued hit and run and raiding tactics. The fleet of smaller gunboats would try to maneuver their enemy into a telling battle because losing even one such cruiser would be a huge loss.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Economy of Tyranny

Galactic empires in media have undergone a steady progress of increasing the size of their starships. It's almost as if, in addition to the technological problems or space space travel, the ships have to look good on film as well. Regardless of this, huge government ships are here to stay. But, there are a few problems for would be dictators who want to build mobile moons.

Take the polities of Alpha and Beta, unoriginal but advanced worlds of equal engineering skill and resources. They both eye each other warily and then begin building ships for their defense a/o offense. Assume a flat cost per ton for military ships. Alpha decides on building a fleet of fast attack ships 100 meters long. Beta wants good photo ops for their glorious navy and builds their attack craft 200 meters long.

That's where the cube law steps in and starts to ruin things. A ship with double the dimensions of yours will be eight times the mass and eight times the cost. For the moment the Betans go with the larger ships.

Out of their available resources the Alphans build a navy of  72 ships. The Betans construct nine. Now a Beta cruiser is more than a match for an Alpha gunboat, correct? It depends. In terms of surface area the Betan ship has four times that of an Alphan ship and can mount four times the weapons.

Or can it? The Beta ship needs larger engines, it's pushing eight times the mass and those glowing panels movie ships use to move take up surface area too. On a Beta ship they will have to be eight times the surface area of an Alpha style engine. That means they are 2.8 times the length and width of the engine panels/thrusters/whatever of the Alpha ships.

So instead of four times the area, say a Betan ship has three times the area to mount weapons. That means for every eight weapons the Alpha fleet brings to the party, the Betans will bring three. Assuming there's an equal amount of tonnage.

What about flexibility? Say both empires have 18 worlds to protect a/o invade. The Betans will have to shuffle their nine ships around to prevent rebellion, deal with pirates, and show the flag to keep the Alphans honest. The Alphans could keep four ships at each of their worlds, maybe get away with two ships and have a mobile reserve or attack force to keep those ships from Beta honest,

In contrast, in the event of hostilities the Alphans could match the Betans in weapons using 24 ships of their fleet, and use the other 48 to attack and out gun the big ships. Moreover those 12 of the Betans worlds without protection are going to get awfully angry and might rebel or secede.

So it looks like the guys with the bigger ships are going to lose. What are some reasons for building those lovely, gargantuan ships we all love?

First of all, resources, technology, and missions might not be equal. The first example that springs to mind is the Trillion Credit Squadron  GDW loved to organize. Your humble author had the distinction of playing in the first tournament GDW held at GenCon. Never mind how long I lasted! In TCS you had a fixed number of pilots which put a cap on the number and size of ships you could build. personnel are a very valuable resource, you can't train them overnight, and they might have other plans (like joining the Resistance!) Don't forget some of those pilots or whoever are needed to provide civilian shipping.

Star Trek:TOS had dilithium crystals. they always seemed to be in short supply. Even t he Enterprise never had any spares on board! This being the case yes, you bet you'd build big ships and get the most of a scarce resource.

If your empire uses star gates of some sort then the 'resource' is how much mass a gate can move. Again you might want to consider that a limit on ship size.

A navy designed to protect against pirates and other naughty types might run towards small ships, even smaller than the average pirate in order to be more places and swarm. the odd corsair they find. A culture with little or no piracy might run towards large ships to do tasks the smaller locally built vessels couldn't. When war threatens you go ahead with the forces you have.

Say the Betan Republic was a stable, secure and friendly power for years. With little or no piracy, their 200 meter ships were more a deterrent than anything else (but very good at that). The Betans have a revolution and become the Evil Empire of Beta. The overlords begin a crash ship building program (no pun intended) but for now their evil schemes are limited by their monstrously huge ships. The Alphans seeing the handwriting on the hulls decide to declare war.

Scale efficiencies are another, important factor. In my simple and naive example, we were talking a fixed cost per unit of ship. What if say, larger engines were more efficient, cheaper per ton or more powerful? It might be cheaper to build bigger engines for bigger ships, it might be impossible to build them small. In Traveller you have the minimum size of 100 tons for an ftl capable ship. It could be a lot more than that in some settings.

What about endurance? People do not often consider the cargo capacity or a warship. A ship's cargo hold contains the things it needs t complete a mission, whether that is hauling freight to remaining on station for weeks and months. If the Alphans have eight times the number of Betan ships but they have only half the supplies, then you'd have less of your fleet on station while the rest is heading back to starport, getting resupplied or heading back to station. Or we have to pay extra for supply ships that can be attacked and will require defense ships.

For our example, I've kept weapons simple and ignored defense. In reality a bigger ship will probably want to mount a few bigger guns that smaller ships couldn't spare the space for. To continue our example, the Betan ships would have armor twice as thick as the Alphans. A Betan ship could defeat several enemy ships at once meaning attack forces would need to be built around several Alphan ships and cutting down on the flexibility of the Alpha fleet. A single Betan commerce raider that got past the defenses would raise a huge ruckus and draw many ships from their missions to track down and eliminate it. Moreover some weapons might be more dependent on volume than the size of their launcher. A really big laser could be mounted in the hull with a mirror in a comparatively small turret to direct it. Missile launchers need cargo for their ammunition and of course the spinal weapons beloved of Classic Traveller and anime take up a huge amount of internal space.

As a final note: larger ships have more room for force multipliers. Classic Traveller excelled at this with the concept of battle riders. Basically ships carry smaller ships, fighters, missile buses and whatever to increase their firepower. If instead of building eight 200 meter cruisers the Betan build four and each of them carry four 100 meter ships well hey! -You have the same surface area as the Alpha fleet for mounting weapons and you have several ships with larger weapons and thicker armor to base your task forces around.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Come for the Sargasso, Stay for the Ghosts

There are many reasons for ghost ships. In a big Galaxy you will have unexplainable and unsettling coincidences just by law of averages. Add to this the fact that most merchant crews are the minimum number that can safely or legally operate a ship to save on salaries and life support, the vagaries of FTL and gravity technology on some people and voila you have ghosts or at least the paranormal.

Beyond this, the Universe is really big and under no obligation to preserve our sanity. Ask an FTL navigator if you wish. In the Sandoval stories non-biological entities are an established fact. They are composed of exotic matter, drain heat or electrical energy for food and can get a decent idea of what scares you and use it to drive you away. Doubtless as we move further into the Dark we will encounter things that make NBEs seem like 'Hello Kitty'.

Then you have some folks who just like a good ghost story and will maintain it no matter how much evidence there is t the contrary or at least lack of proof. They will truthfully declare that people have reported such things for millennia. In fact, odds are the Cro-magnon sat in front of scary paintings on dark nights and thrilled to them.

Not to mention some people out and out lie for various reasons.

Ships cost tens of millions of dollars and are a steady source of income. A bank watches credit signs and won't pay attention to weird reports. At worst they'll slap a new coat of paint on a haunted hulk and put it back on the market. Similarly, there are many good reasons for a crew not to abandon ship ("I don't care if the bulkheads are bleeding and bugs are crawling out of the USB ports! Any rescue is weeks away!") Bugs crawling out the USB port is a hardware problem should you seek tech support.

Nevertheless some crew abandon ship (law of averages again) or are killed outright. Again a ship is worth tens of millions of credits. So the natural impulse to use a 'cursed' ship for target practice is often ignored. Even if no crew wants to set foot on its deck a ship has value, it's a ta write off for one thing. It is a source of salvage for another. Salvage crews are often mobile and will have no idea of a ship's bad rep.

Ghost ships are kept handy but not too handy. They get relegated to -you guessed it- a Sargasso. Where you have a Sargasso, you will have ghost ships. That's been the pattern through out settled space and into the fringes.

Some enterprising Sargasso dwellers even run tours of infamous ships to ground pounders on a space holiday. The way money disappears from your pockets on these tours could be considered supernatural by some.

Ghost ships in the wild are another case entirely. Ships that move around but do not answer hails, are way colder than they should be, or have other anomalous readings do happen. Contrary to popular movies free traders do not usually board such ships in search of adventure -or- loot. It may be a pirate trick. It may be a ship with dangerous or even deadly conditions onboard. It might be a fricking haunted ship!

A remastered ghost ship for your SF game: the Icon Messier*

The Icon Messier was a naval auxiliary ship based in a well settled system. Substantial assets on various moons and planets needed defending and the system navy had a number of remote bases and defense systems the Messier was assigned to resupply. On her maiden voyage the Messier had to resupply a base in the outer system and faced a cruise of a few weeks. The first day out some crew had an uneasy feeling. Around third watch this foreboding turned to anxiety in some. By midnight a riot broke out with crew assaulting each other. The ship's officers attempted to restore order with gas and tranq rounds until a crewman fell through a hatch and broke his neck. The madness stopped then.

The Messier crew was calm for the next few days until a deckhand reported seeing a faintly glowing humanoid figure in the main hold. The figure walked behind a large crate and vanished. The antihijack program recorded a glowing orb that might be a video malfunction or dust mote. That night the madness repeated. The crew again rioted. This lasted until another crewman was killed by the mob. The captain ordered both bodies ejected into space, fearing the madness was caused by a pathogen. Oddly crew thought they saw the bodies following several times and the captain ordered the portholes sealed.

There was one more eruption of madness despite the crew being confined to quarters off duty. It started with the steward killing himself in the galley. By the time the ship reached its destination the entire crew except for the bosun debarked and refused to return despite threats of jail and violence. The base commander made the bosun acting captain and found some drifters and day workers to crew the Icon Messier (with fat bonuses). The ship headed out again for another remote base.

The new skipper committed suicide the second day out. The pattern of madness repeated itself three times on the voyage and the crew abandoned ship as soon as they could trust the SAR from the base to pick them up in their spacesuits. The Icon Messier was towed into orbit. At this point no crew would look at the ship, so it remained in orbit. A few weeks later sensors recorded a burst of thermal activity onboard indicating a fire. An SAR ship was dispatched to control the fire. As a precaution the search and rescue performed a hail to make sure the ship was indeed abandoned. The ship's radio transmitted a horrific scream that might be a malfunctioning auto distress call. The SAR ship was closing when several explosions occurred on the ship.

The SAR captain aborted the mission. The Icon Messier's burnt hulk was used for target practice on the next training mission. Stories persist that several cargo containers were thrown free of the explosion somehow and ended up drifting in space and that several parts or items were salvaged from the ship. Vessels that used or merely transported them had 'interesting' stories to tell. The hard science explanation for the madness was hysteria compounded by subsonic vibrations or electrical fields caused by malfunctioning machinery.

But where's the fun in that?

*Okay Icon Messier is stolen based on the story of the Ivan Vassili. The 'true' story is unfortunately not supported by any independent news sources or records of the time. Still a good story and more believable than Flat Earth theories.