Tuesday, September 3, 2013
The Setting, Loot, and Trade
The above is the starmap of The State, the federation of star systems which forms the backdrop for the campaign. I don't yet know how much time the PCs will spend inside the bounds of the State, rather than scrabbling around out past the rim, but both of those are options!
I've rendered this hexmap using the free version of Hexographer. I recommend that software highly, and use it for all of my campaigns that will include hex crawling. The results it produces aren't necessarily beautiful, but it's quick and intuitive to use, and it produces a usable hexmap suitable for gaming. I care about that much more than I care about fractally generated fjords.
The background setting of my campaign is a hegemonic federation of star systems known as The State. The central administration of the federation is the Nyx Cluster, the system represented by the white sun symbol in the center. Its critics accuse it of usurping the sovereignty of previously self-governed systems, and they are not entirely wrong.
But we're zooming in too close. For those of you who are familiar with Stars Without Number, I am running an even more low-rent version of the default setting. For those of you who are not, the following is an overview: Once upon a time, over a thousand years ago, the Terran Mandate ruled uncountable thousands of star systems. They started out using only Spike Drives, a dangerous and somewhat unreliable way of traveling faster than light by shortcutting through metadimensional space. A trip between systems might take a week, but the drives weren't prohibitively expensive.
They had technology beyond dreaming, and kept the outer colonies under their thumb by refusing to allow them tech that could be maintained without the support of the core worlds. Eventually, they evolved from the dangerous but independent Spike Drives to using Jump Gates. Jump Gates required teams of psychics to operate, but could hurl a ship of enormous size across scores of light years in an instant. Centuries passed.
Then the Scream happened. No one knows the nature of the disaster, but almost every psychic in the Mandate either died instantly or (much less likely) went irrevocably insane. This destroyed the Mandate almost overnight, as the network of Jumpgates were inoperable. New psychics were born, but without trained mentor psychics to teach them, they could not control their powers. The Silence reigned for a thousand years, and the majority of human settlements died out or descended into savagery and chaos. Whole planets starved to death, unable to even send word to their neighbors.
Time passed, and eventually some worlds rebuilt enough of their technological base and capacity for theoretical sciences to rebuild the ancient, disused Spike Drives. They are nowhere near being able to recreate Mandate-era technology, but it's enough to explore their neighbors and recontact any survivors.
In my campaign, the Nyx Cluster was by far the first system in its neighborhood to rediscover and deploy the Spike Drive. They used their advantages to gain undue influence over their neighbors, and created the hegemonic State. The technological specialty of Nyx is medical science and biotechnology, and they have made extensive use of anti-aging drugs and rejuvenation treatments in bribing and attempting to gain control of the leadership of less advanced planets.
I like the idea of being able to place non-specific rewards in the weird space dungeons my PCs are exploring. Not everything they find should be expensive gear or ancient and impossibly advanced technological wonders. So, I've instituted the idea of "salvage."
Salvage is random space junk that is more valuable than scrap and can be sold for a defined rate at any Tech Level 3 or 4 marketplace. It's a game mechanical construct purely of my own invention, and doesn't hook into Stars Without Number's other trade subsystems.
Salvage is simple: A given lot of salvage weighs so many tons. When you return from space to sell it, you can get 1d4x100 credits per ton of salvage. If there are different "lots," like ten tons of spare starship parts and twenty tons of recovered alien industrial machinery, I'll roll separately for each lot. This is a bit of a callback to recovering silver and gold pieces in D&D. It was heavy enough that it wasn't worth moving if you had better options, but it would keep you going until you got lucky and rolled a few pieces of jewelry.
It also gives a direct incentive not to completely trick out your ship. When one buys a ship hull, it is bare bones: Speed, armor, crew quarters, hull points, and a certain amount of Mass and Power. Adding in subsystems, which you need to do anything interesting, takes up free Mass and Power. All unused Mass is turned into cargo space.
If you fill up your whole ship with subsystems, you can't make money because you can't haul back the loot. The PCs' current vessel has 100 tons of free cargo space, which is enough for a pretty good haul, but not even close to infinite.
If the PCs just have a bunch of Salvage, I don't want to waste time RPing it out. Everything in a PBP game eats time, and so I'd rather skip ahead to more interesting activities than haggling with the local dirtsider junk merchant. Other recovered loot seems to require an individual, roleplayed-out process of sale. If the PCs recovered some items of functioning Terran Mandate-era technology (like a black hole gun or a box of AI Matrix Cores) or with a similar combination of value, rarity, dangerousness, and potential illegality, they would need to be pretty specific about how they wanted to go about selling it, and we would quite likely need to RP out negotiations.
In between that, though, is Trade.
Trade uses the subsystem in the Suns of Gold book for Stars Without Number. I approve of this tome on the basis that it includes more gadgetry and a lot of other useful materials, including the subsystem I'm talking about here.
When the PCs go to a planet to sell something, they make a 3d6 roll modified by their own business competence, and the inherent supply and demand factors of that world. A primitive world trying to tool up will place a high value on tools useful for manufacturing. A wealthy, decadent world might pay high prices for exotic drugs and luxurious textiles. So, you should pick a world that will pay a good price for your cargo! This roll is looked up on a table, which gives a modifier to the base price. It's pretty simple, and sufficient to both throw some curveballs at the PCs and to reward characters showing some basic forethought about where they want to sell twenty tons of space tuna or a shipping container full of AK-47s. I love the fact that the author has absolutely put some thought into the fact that space traders encountering a primitive world will have a use for bags of synthetic jewels, cheap rifles, and nuclear weapons. Those are all things whose entries specify their usefulness in opening up new markets. "Find a world technologically equivalent to 18th-century France, nuke Versailles, and declare yourself God-King" is a supported play style. The only thing I regret about this is that I'm running it rather than playing it.
Possibly the most important part of these rules, though, is the Trouble Tables. The rules assume that PCs are going off into largely uncharted territory and interacting with the very cutting edge of trade routes. There is always a chance (up to a 40% chance!) that the deal goes bad, for either impersonal reasons or the malice of the locals.
The way this will work in my campaign is very slightly different. Within the bounds of the State (see that map above? You should have known we were going to talk about that again) chances for Trouble are minimized, but all value adjustments for trade goods are pushed toward 0%. This means it's much harder to find a really low purchase price or a really high selling price, and things are generally more stable. I assume that there is more or less normal trade going on in almost all the worlds absorbed into the State.
However, you will notice that the hexes outside the State are empty. There are systems there! They have just not yet been absorbed. They may be known to some, but the navigational information to get there safely isn't widely disseminated, and there likely isn't official diplomatic contact. If you want to go there, you can get the full-blown supply and demand modifiers, and also full-blown trouble. And also, if you find someplace completely uncontacted, without Spike Drives of their own, first crack at really exploiting the hell out of them.
Current Campaign Events
The characters have finally found their first item of really valuable loot. In addition to some decent salvage, they've found an old fusion core in an abandoned alien asteroid base. It's equivalent to the Black Box fusion core in the Suns of Gold book, and if they spend a week or two refurbishing it it will be worth a base price of 50,000 credits. We'll modify that with the business stuff in the trade subsystems, and the PCs will get their first big chunk of disposable money and XP gains.
I am really excited to see what they do once they have a couple hundred thousand credits to throw around.