By S. John Ross, Copyright ©1998.
A little over a year ago, I was working on my GURPS Space campaign setting, and came across a few fundamental questions: How does a little tramp freighter compete in a big galaxy? How busy should a starport be? In a war between Confederation A and Empire B, just how many warships will be out there among the stars?
Things like that.
So, off to the library I went, to find myself some basic numbers. As most of you probably know, my outlook on this kind of thing combines a serious love of research with a serious disdain for taking anything too seriously. I wanted ballpark figures that would get me moving in the right direction, and I would take it from there.
The reading was fascinating, and resulted in the beginnings of two articles: one on interstellar trade and how the "tramp freighter" or "free trader" concept can be made to work, and the other on the scale of space-militaries (and related details). The details I found were more than I needed, but I managed to boil all of what I found down to some simple numbers and useful abstractions. In fact, what I found was so handy to me that it occurred to me that these articles might be salable, so I wrote up rough drafts based on the work I'd done and wrote to Pyramid editor Scott Haring to see if there was any interest. Being a busy guy, he never wrote back. [editorial insert, a couple of years later: Scott's a player in my GURPS fantasy campaign these days, so everything works out fine in the end if you wait long enough.]
Being a busy guy myself, I let the articles slide for a while. I had, after all, found everything that I needed for my own use, and the rest could wait until I proposed the pieces to another gaming magazine, perhaps.
Time passed. I forgot the whole thing.
More time passed. I remembered it.
The upshot is: I'm even busier, now. But the information contained in those unfinished article drafts is still darned handy. Too much so to just let them sit on my old floppy disks waiting for the eventual decay of the media. I'd much rather share them with you - so now I am. Enjoy.
Literary (and RPG) treatments of the tradelanes of the galaxy draw most heavily on nautical trade of the 14th-17th century Earth; starships are the equivalents of private cargo-speculators or East Indiamen, and the docking platforms are crowded with a noisy rabble of would-be sellers hawking their wares to choosy star-captains. Unlike the large-scale commercial shipping of today, most cargoes in such a universe are loaded aboard a freighter with no destination contracted. Instead, the freighter buys the cargo, then moves on to another port to try to sell it. The right to this sort of commerce has been recognized for centuries by Terran maritime law, which has a very appropriate term for it: Adventure.
The right to take Adventure Cargo, while still officially recognized today, is obsolete except in remote corners of the world. One reason is communications technology. With the advent of undersea cables and (later) radio, buyers and sellers could close deals on separate continents, and the risk of "adventure" became unnecessary. Freighters became transportation-agents to contract, rather than freewheeling merchants.
The second reason for the fall of Adventure commerce is the volume of trade required by industrial nations. A few tramp-freighters, or a few thousand of them, couldn't serve the trade-needs of good old Terra once industry and radio got together to dance. Those few vessels that tried to carry on the old tradition were simply trodden underfoot by the advent of Bulk Carriers and Supertankers. By the end of the 20th century, the number of independently-owned freighters had started to dwindle as multinational corporations began buying their own fleets, and cargo vessels built specifically to carry a single cargo started to become the norm, and the right to sell cargo at dockside became almost impossible to acquire in any civilized port.
A reversal of these trends is a staple of far-future adventure fiction, but only a partial reversal is possible. In order that the spacelanes can hold opportunities for the adventurous tramp-captain, and still support large high-tech societies, interstellar shipping must blend elements of both extremes.
The Competition: Megacorps and Trade Guilds
For consistency's sake, a few fundamental assumptions are necessary to make the information in this article useful to the GM:
Before the microcosm of adventure-freight can be examined, the larger picture should be outlined. There are four basic varieties of "mainstream" merchant starship:
Tankers are ships with "cargo holds" specifically designed to load, carry, and dispense bulk liquid cargo, such as fuels and industrial chemicals. In some settings, young colonies in need of water might also see tanker-trade, and in others, tankers devoted to gaseous cargo might be common. About 4% of modern commercial shipping traffic is tankers (less in the campaign if the GM determines that there aren't a lot of important liquid cargoes; this depends on technology). An average tanker can carry 300,000 tons of cargo (deadweight).
Bulk Carriers are dry-cargo ships designed to move huge amounts of cargo between settled worlds; these aren't seen anywhere except on the major trade-arteries of the galaxy. An average bulk carrier can haul 50,000 tons of cargo. The largest can carry more than four times as much.
Freighters make up the bulk of the mercantile fleets (70% of all vessels). While much smaller than their gigantic cousins, they're responsible for the safe transport of more than a third of all dry cargo (much more on the fringes of civilized space). Typical freighter capacity is 10,000 tons.
Container Ships aren't really a class of vessel; they're a method of hauling cargo built in to ship design. For ease of loading, cargo is hauled in containment units of uniform size and shape (an oblong 2,000 cf box). Container ships are built, not with large open cargo-holds, but with braces designed to hold these standardized containers. This approach is more likely on bulk carriers than freighters, but can be applied at any scale. Some large or strangely-shaped cargoes (aircraft, for instance, or construction machinery) can't be efficiently carried on container ships.
Capacity is expressed in the standard GURPS ton (2,000 lbs), what the shipping industry calls a short ton. A long ton is 2,240 lbs; a metric ton is (approximately) 2,205 lbs.
Merchant Fleets: On average, there will be five merchant ships (mixed classes and sizes) for every million citizens in the galaxy, with capacities as described above.
The most important variable is travel time. If a typical voyage between ports is 8-12 days, use the numbers above. However, if it takes cargo twice as long to move between ports, twice as much shipping will be needed to keep up with the demand. Divide the typical time between Class IV or greater starports by 10 days. Apply the result as a multiple to either the number of ships, or their average cargo capacity.
GMs should note that ship capacity is much more likely to increase than number; this is a constant that has kept with us since the Bronze Age, and will likely carry over to space travel. The modern supertanker is a good example of both exception and rule: When shipping still made considerable use of the Suez Canal, tankers were artificially limited to about 30,000 tons because of the canal's width. As demand increased, the number of ships increased, contrary to mercantile history. When the Suez was no longer available for use, however, the old order returned. Much longer courses had to be charted, circling entire continents, and the shipping industry responded, not with more ships, but with gigantic ships. And the supertanker is getting bigger every year (we may see the million-ton tanker soon). If you prefer a setting with lots of ships of moderate size, some arbitrary limitation might be imposed by the nature of the FTL drives - hyperspace (or the engines necessary to get us there) might be the equivalent of the Suez Canal . . .
Starport Business: A settled world with a healthy economy will import one (short) ton of cargo per person per Terran year, and export the same amount. This means that a long-established world of 5.84 billion sentients (PR 9) would have an annual shipping traffic of 11.68 billion tons of cargo. If the average mercantile vessel hauls around 32,000 tons (as described above), this would indicate a (minimum) planet-wide traffic of five hundred ships of varying sizes and types docking and departing every 24 standard hours, divided among the world's available starports. If the same planet is a common "stopping point" along major trade routes between other worlds, traffic will be even more brisk. By contrast, Saphronia (p.116 of GURPS Space) probably sees one ship every 7-8 local days, at best. If FTL radio is nonexistent, this is also the rate at which the planet receives offworld news!
Optional Detail: In campaigns with a heavy economic component, the relative wealth of planets can be important. This should be reflected by a "Production Score" as described on p.124 of Space. A world with the default Space economy is quite wealthy, with a PS of 10 (the economic equivalent of the 1990s United States or Japan). Weaker (but still modern) worlds could have scores as low as 5. A Tech Level 1-3 planet of subsistence farmers would have a value of less than 1! Several figures (and die-rolls) can be derived from this number, but the most important here is the volume of trade. If the PS score is 10, then use the standard "One ton per capita per standard year" formula as given above. If the PS score is something other than 10, then divide the PS by 10 and get the square root. Apply this as a multiple to trade volume. Multiply the PS by 2,000 to determine the per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the planet; this number can be used to determine many others (see the next article).
A Galaxy of Opportunity
So, a group of six well-meaning Space Capitalists with a 900-ton tramp aren't going to revolutionize trade. How are they even going to make a living? With a small ship, operating costs alone will drive the per-ton shipping price past the market standard; making ends meet with a tramp-freighter can be like competing with the Postal Service armed with nothing more than a motor-scooter and a sack.
Before we examine the concept of cargo "adventure," there are several alternate ways for a small ship to turn a profit in a big-ship galaxy:
Illegal Cargo: The postal service doesn't allow you to mail drugs, escaped prisoners, endangered animals, stolen documents, or weaponry (to name a few). If you can pack your sack with PLASTEX-B, then your motor-scooter is in business. This is the stuff of tense, dangerous adventure, and the crew needn't be motivated by greed. Running weapons to an planet embroiled in war can have real personal meaning for the PCs, especially if it's their homeworld, and running dangerous drugs to the Capitol Planet of an evil empire might be a matter of revenge.
Illegal Routes: Running blockades and defying trade embargoes is another exciting way to make a small ship pay off. Pay will have to be high, though - if the Patrol or the Navy is "protecting" the port in question from free trade, either a technological edge or some fancy stealth technology will probably be essential. Another option is well-placed bribes, which will be just as expensive, and probably require a whole adventure just to arrange! Clearly, the economic distress of the PCs is entirely to the benefit of the fiendish GM . . .
Danger! Cargo and trade-routes needn't be illegal if either (or both) are hazardous. The most obvious and cliched danger in high space (and still one of the most fun) is piracy. Running a cargo of cheap foodstuffs could help pay off an entire starship if it involves moving it to hungry colonists in pirate-infested space. But the ship had best include some weapons. Other dangers vary with the setting; very "Space Opera" worlds might include vacuum-monsters, while less rubbery settings might find a group of research scientists needing cargo in a system with dangerous emissions coming from the star. Cargo within the hold itself can range from volatile chemicals to dangerous beasts. Wily traders should be wary of offers that seem too good to be true . . . if that load of "harmless crystals" are really experimental psi-boosting compounds, they might start affecting the minds of the crew mid-voyage!
Landing Gear: One of the simplest advantages that some small ships will have over commercial merchant ships is the ability to enter an atmosphere and land. Even if it's technologically feasible for a bulk carrier to brute-force its way through an atmosphere and touch down gently on a convenient ocean, it will always be cheaper for such behemoths to stick to orbital waystations, where its goods can be shuttled or dropped to the surface. Unfortunately, this leaves colony worlds and low-tech planets out of luck. Enter the PCs, landing gear and all, to save the day.
Distant Suns: Some worlds are just too remote to be profitable for large ships, which are economically geared to long-settled and populous planets. If the galaxy is big and messy enough, the Postal Service might contract small ships to run parcels to and from remote worlds (especially near gift-exchanging holidays). If the galaxy is well-populated but poorly explored, the dashing Trader-Explorer becomes a character possibility, with intrepid merchant-scouts armed with multicorders and crates of nylons trailblazing entire new markets and starting the occasional interspecies war.
Speed: If FTL travel speed is not fixed, then smaller ships might be faster ships. Ordinary civilian mercantile interests tend to be low-priority when it comes to fast ships. It's usually more reasonable just to build big, sluggish ships (and lots of them) and set up regular traffic, rather than try to turn an elephant into a cheetah. If the differences are dramatic enough, this opens up a strong, regular market for small, fast ships that can deliver luxury goods to those who want them now, or get medical supplies to a disaster zone in a hurry.
The Law: If the Interstellar State has developed a complex and top-heavy economy, small traders might exist by dint of Imperial Edict. In the same way that some governments try to nurture the corner-drugstore over the national chain, gargantuan shipping companies might face crushing taxation, unacceptably high insurance rates, or antitrust laws. This opens up the entire legitimate market to the tramp-ship. This is plausible enough, but lacks the pizzazz of dodging pirates for a living.
Any of the above may be combined, of course. Our Heroes and their tiny, fast ship (government-funded to encourage small business) can run a load of illegal, explosive drugs past the Patrol blockade and into pirate-infested space toward a distant, primitive world, where they'll land . . .
A Change of Subject: WAR! (What is it GOOD for?)
That was as far as I got on the commerce piece. At the same time, though, I was writing that military piece, to determine just how big the Space Navy would be. Along the way (as usual) my research took me to some interesting places, and I found that my fiddling with "Production Scores" and related numbers shed light on the other piece, as well. Here's what I got done on that:
When necessary, this article assumes that the standard national "unit" is a single planet or star-system, but the recipes given can be halved or doubled at will, and work at any scale from an interstellar federation to a tiny continent on a single planet.
The size and effectiveness of a world's military depends on (a) the planet's wealth, (b) the planet's role in international affairs, and (c) how "warlike" the culture is. For reasons ranging from finance to religion and even (in the case of the Kronin and others) species, some nations simply spend a lot of time going to war.
To determine how big the piggy-bank is, assign a per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to any nation (see above for the relationship between this number and the Production Score). This can range anywhere from $90 (a nation with a medieval standard of living, consisting almost entirely of subsistence farmers) to the $15-$20,000 range (the modern United States, Japan, Austria, and United Kingdom).
In general, a 2 or 3-digit GDP is a "poor" nation, the economic equivalents of Cambodia, China, India, and Viet Nam. Middle-range countries have 4-digit GDP; these are nations equivalent to most of South America, Greece, Portugal, and the old USSR. "Wealthy" nations have a 5-digit GDP, perhaps as high as $30,000 for worlds rich in resources and expertly governed. Theoretically, a world with a monopoly on an essential resource (some mineral essential to FTL travel, for example) might be even wealthier.
Starting Wealth and Cost of Living
As long as we're dealing with national wealth, a brief sidetrek into standard of living. Multiply the per capita GDP by 12.5 and get the square root. Round to the nearest convenient amount in $Credits. This is the monthly cost of living for a Status 0 character (compare to the table on p.S37). "Average" Starting Wealth is 30 times this figure; character salaries, and Cost of Living for other Status levels, are altered proportionately.
EXAMPLE: Throughout this article, we'll look at Saphronia (p.116 of GURPS Space), a small colonial world that we'll assign an economy comparable to the lower-end European nations (per capita GDP $12,000). This seems appropriate, considering the size of the world and lack of heavy industry (compensated for by a wealth of organic exports).
The calculated value of Cost of Living is $387.3, but we'll round that to $400. Since this is 80% of the $500 standard, starting wealth will be $12,000, and jobs (including military pay, below) will pay 80% of the "Galactic Standard" represented in the books.
An upside for interstellar travelers is that (outside of the starport) many services are cheaper on Saphronia. Goods, generally, will not be, especially offworld goods! Labor, and fresh food will cost less, but not tools, weapons, or armor.
Warlike Nations, Superpowers and More
The GM should assign the nation a Military Factor (MF), a figure that is used to determine both military spending and the number of active-duty personnel. MF can range from 0 (a Utopian nation of peaceful bliss with no hostile neighbors) to more than 30 (1990s Iraq). On modern Earth, the United States scores a 6, Canada a 2, England a 4, and modern Japan a 1 (rounded values).
Values above 40 or 50 are difficult to justify economically except in the very short-term (Iraq has gone this high, but never for more than a few years running). A typical system-wide or planetary government just trying to look out for its own interests and get by without getting stomped will have values of 2-4 typically, especially if it can depend on powerful allies for defense. Any nation that is at the hub of international activity, either for social or economic reasons (or poor luck of placement on the stellar map) will have as much as double the MF that it's culture would suggest.
How Many Soldiers?
Divide the total population of the world by 740. Multiply the result by (MF). This is the number of active-duty personnel serving the state. This reproduces real-world results with about 95% accuracy for modern nations with robust economies, on all continents, but feel free to vary it as you like for unusual factors. Particularly poor and heavily populated worlds (comparable to modern China) will have up to 50% fewer troops. Especially violent ones may have up to 25% more.
This figure includes regular infantrymen, marines, suit-troopers, fighter pilots, ship crew, mecha jocks, tank crew, nurses, drivers, and so on. It does not include civilian employees, such as contract surgeons, the bulk of the force's technicians, and so on.
About 40% of any force will be devoted to combat on feet, legs, and wheels - infantry, cavalry, and mecha (if applicable). The remaining 60% will be split between starship crew (for the big battleships and orbital defense cruisers), and pilots (for the fighters carried by mother-ship carriers, and for planetside Air Cavalry). These figures assume forces analogous to the modern military (which most literary Space Navies are), but, again, they're more Rules of Thumb than unchangeable axioms.
How Much Money?
The training and equipment the soldiers receive is proportionate to both the MF and the population, with the GDP factored in. Multiply by the per capita GDP by the population to get a national GDP (an approximation, but close enough). A percentage of this figure equal to the Military Factor is the Defense Budget. If you have a $10 Billion national GDP and an MF of 25, then $2.5 Billion will be spent annually on the military (in Earth-Standard years).
By dividing the total military budget by the number of soldiers, you get a rough picture of how "cutting edge" the military's equipment and training are. At $35,000 per soldier per year, a credible (if lean) modern ground-force can be maintained, but not a presence in space, or even a good air force. Better join an Alliance or Confederation of worlds! Less than that, and you're armed with the relics of previous Tech Levels.
At the other end of the scale, $140,000+ per soldier per year will maintain
a state-of-the-art force ready to fight in any medium, with breathing room
left over for waste and mothballed vehicles.
In modern armed forces, salary is determined by rank and years of service. The following ballpark figures may be used for monthly salary for any military personnel:
These figures include typical adjustments for years served; they do not include subsistence and quarters allowances. To reflect these accurately, reduce the cost of living for soldiers by 35%
EXAMPLE: Saphronia is small and not too important, economically, and we'll assume her political importance is just as minor (she has only a Class III starport and no military bases, after all). And with all that room to stretch out in, her 1.296 million inhabitants can afford to be mellow. We'll assign a MF of 2, the equivalent of modern Canada.
Saphronia has a very small defense force (a little over 3,500 active-duty). Her national GDP is $15.6 Billion Credits resulting in a military budget of just over $311 Million. Because the world isn't factionalized, spending probably focuses on space defense, with armored troopers serving as both marines and dirtside heavy infantry. Saphronia's military is modern with most of the conveniences (provided defense spending is carefully monitored for waste); she spends about $89,000 per soldier per year.
In some societies, the police and the military are the same thing. In a galaxy-wide empire with no factionalized in-fighting, there isn't a military at all (with no neighbors to fight, there's no point), but there will be a huge police force.
As technology increases, the size of a police-force decreases. This is because the need for police depends less on weapons technology than on transportation, communications, and population density. Densely populated cities (smaller patrol area per capita), along with ground vehicles, helicopters/contragrav equivalents, patrol boats and radios, mean fewer cops are needed per person.
There is one cop for every X citizens, where X = ([Tech Level minus Law Enforcement Control Rating] x 150). X has a minimum value of 150.
The Law Enforcement Control Rating (an arbitrary value useful only for this formula) is equal to the society's ordinary Control Rating, unless it has a "split-value" for weapons. For split-value CRs, multiply the standard CR by 5 and add the weapons CR. Divide the total by six to determine the Law Enforcement CR. The United States, for instance, has a Control Rating of 4 but a weapons Control Rating of 3, for a net value of 3.833 for law enforcement.
EXAMPLE: Since Saphronia's TL is 10 and her effective Control Rating is 3.16 (3 general and 4 for weapons - averaged as described above), Saphronia has Law Enforcement Personnel to the tune of one per 1,026 citizens, or about 1,300 Law Officers.
For randomly-determined populations, Tech Levels, and Control Ratings, see GURPS Space. A random Military Factor can be obtained by rolling 2d-1 and halving the result. If the nation is a hub of interstellar activity or any kind of economic superpower, double it.
For further increases in MF, either consider cultural, religious, and racial tendencies, or roll one die. On a six, redouble the figure and roll again. Continue until you don't roll a six, or until you hit a number that strikes you as unreasonable.
Per Capita GDP: Roll 3d and modify; consult the table below. There is a penalty of -2 per TL below 7, -1 per two TLs below the campaign average, and -1 for every full 10 MF. Nations with a TL in advance of the campaign average receive +5 per extra TL. Notably good or poor resources, or good or poor trade-relations with neighboring systems, can (each) modify the roll by up to +3/-3.
That's as much as I got done on each article. The adventure-cargo piece was going to include stats for typical cargoes, rules for rolling against the Production Score (modified) to find cargo and buyers, a discussion of tariffs and duties and whatnot, and an expansion of the GURPS Space rules for docking fees. The military article was going to explore a little more in the area of vehicle maintenance (and the monetary value of the fleet), variables in how personnel would be assigned, and other tidbits.
One useful number left over from the mess: Modern cargo ships have a total hull volume averaging 60 cubic feet per short ton of deadweight capacity. Tweak this at need to fit the rules you use for building starships, but it's at least a Rule of Thumb to start you off.
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|Update! Some Correspondence
. . .
This has been another one of those articles that generates a lot of nice email (and to answer the most common question - nope, when I was Pyramid editor, I didn't retroactively "accept" my own submission!) D. Joseph Jones wrote me a letter with some ideas for adding a bit more detail and realism to my abstractions:
Update! Some MORE Correspondence . . .
More kind words for the Unfinished Articles . . . I've been informed by the writers of the upcoming GURPS Traveller supplement about merchants that this article was an important influence on the book (particular as regards trade-volume), which is very flattering! Also, I got this letter from Andrew Batishko:
And here's the spreadsheet that he mentioned (it's a little ZIP file, less than 5k). It works great!
And no, I'm no longer working at Pyramid, but Scott Haring (who's also no longer working at Pyramid) is a regular player in my GURPS campaign, now, so, in the end, cosmic balance is achieved!