Distant Ports Call:
The word "adventure" comes to us from maritime tradition. Long before it meant a kind of story, adventure meant "speculative" trading, where a ship’s master would buy cargo on sight in one port, hoping to find a buyer in another. It was an act of faith, a risk that could spell poverty as easily as it could produce riches.
Free from the burden of pre-arranged transaction, a cargo ship specializing in "adventure cargo" was a ship that went where her captain pleased, profiting or failing on the wits and savvy of her crew. Many such vessels routinely sailed waters that no "civilized" ship ever saw. The crews of these vessels walked on shores that men back home had scarcely heard of. Then, as now, adventure meant going where no one had gone before.
This chapter is about the romance, danger and excitement found in the original kind of adventure (and related mercantile stories, from colonial supply-runs to the lives of Romulan arms dealers). In the tradelanes and in the backwaters, a small crew and a sturdy vessel can stride between the lines that bind the rest of the galaxy. Merchants have freedom, and with that, there comes a unique set of dangers, and sometimes a high cost that has nothing to do with the purity of the latinum in the hold.
So far, this book has examined cargoes, ships, deals, and merchant life from the practical side of things - the nuts-and-bolts concerns that form the foundation of a good merchant series. Here, we’ll examine those things again from the dramatic perspective, examining the conflicts, choices, adventures and misadventures that merchants in the Star Trek universe can experience.
Bed and Bulkhead: The Ship
A "merchant" ship is any ship that carries cargo for delivery or sale. Politics, wars, and borders being what they are, this means that a lot of ships serving under merchants now have quite a lot of "then" under the hull.
Beyond the warm confines of the major interstellar governments lie the thousands of independent star-systems, growing and fighting, largely unconcerned with the greater galaxy around them. Once they make the jump to FTL-capability, they build ships meant to explore, ships meant to carry colonists, ships meant to blast the living daylights out of the creepy-looking neighbors they’ve just met. But times quickly change, and starships aren’t cheap, and maybe half of the merchant vessels out there are those ships, re-purposed for trade.
Merchant ships, by genre tradition as much as "realistic" tradition, are ships with character, with a life of their own, with quirks, with surprises inside. As the Narrator of a mercantile campaign, you should regard your Crew’s vessel as the most important member of the Supporting Cast, and as with any major character, it deserves a history.
Of course, even a top-of-the-line cargo vessel, fresh from the shipyards and filled with that new-ship smell, can have a "history" and secrets; they just tend toward a different character. Any undiscovered technology or hidden goods are certainly deliberately hidden, perhaps for the purposes of espionage. Most interstellar governments aren’t above using a civilian vessel as a pawn in the spy game, after all.
In "civilized" space, most trade moves along established routes via bulk freighters, tankers and container-ships docking at starports and moving hundreds or thousands of tons of cargo through any given port in a day. Such massive vessels - the backbone of any established interstellar community, are bound to space: For practical design reasons, they cannot enter an atmosphere or land on a planet’s surface, nor do they need to. "Civilized worlds," pretty much by definition, have orbital facilities where large ships can dock, with cargo moved by shuttle, beanstalk, or other contrivance to the surface below.
The decision to give the Crew’s vessel landing gear can be one of the most important ones made before a series begins, in both practical and dramatic terms. Landing gear can provide a smaller, independent ship with an edge: It can go to new colony worlds where orbital facilities aren’t yet practical, to primitive (perhaps even forbidden) worlds with no space-travel at all, to parts of civilized worlds where the "legitimate" cargo shuttles won’t carry the goods. Landing gear both expands the possibilities of the series and puts an extra dose of power in the hands of the Crew, since they can take their ship with them almost anywhere. The Narrator should carefully consider the implications in light of the stories he has in mind.
Crew, Scope and Scale
Beyond the issues of lineage is one of scale. On the largest of the commercial bulk freighters, the crews can number in the hundreds, ranging from freight-handlers to cultural specialists, engineers to economists, bonded security troops to the medical staff. While any cargo ship typically requires fewer hands on board than similarly sized ships used for other functions, the necessary "support crew" on a large vessel can still be dizzying. Such ships are full-bore spaceborne communities, where nobody (except perhaps the Captain) is expected to know everybody by name.
At the opposite end of the scale, a tiny "tramp freighter" can sport a crew so small that every soul aboard is a Player Character. Starports throughout the galaxy see traffic from thousands of "cargo vessels" that are little more than deep-space runabouts, sometimes even owned and operated by a single (often eccentric) merchant. These lone-wolf traders tend to specialize in cargoes small enough and rare enough (or illegal enough) that they can earn a living selling items that fit in a compartment only a couple of meters on a side.
Should the Crew’s vessel be large or small? Here, the relationship is an inverse one between civilized sterility and "seat of the pants" desperation, but it presents anything but a clear-cut decision for the Narrator. On a tiny ship, the Crew have more absolute control over their vessel and their destiny (which players often love), and much less in the way of technological resources and technobabble "outs" to fall back on (which Narrators can definitely appreciate). It simply feels more adventurous. However, the advantages of a large NPC crew are many! By having a "built in" Supporting Cast, the Narrator gains a rich stock of potential romantic subplots, treacherous conspirators, ship-based storylines, and (never to be overlooked) nameless "extras" who can fall screaming to the deck to demonstrate the power of the alien energy weapon.
Finally, in this case, function follows form. Civilized vessels tend to fly in civilized space; smaller, older, and more "personal" ships carry cargo to worlds beyond the hubbub of settled systems, to independent alien worlds, to distant colonies. To determine the age and size of the Crew’s vessel is to decide the space it will likely travel in.
No path is the "right" one except to carefully consider the kinds of stories you want to do, and the tastes of your players. When in doubt, ask them!
Armed & Dangerous
Another decision with dramatic impact on the nature of a merchant series is: Is the Crew’s vessel armed?
The reason for arming a trader is obvious: Space is dangerous, full of things that become less of a danger when shot. The reasons for not arming a trader, though, while not always as obvious, are just as compelling to some:
Weapons Invite Trouble: Most merchant vessels are "civilian" ships. If they have guns at all, they are likely to be weak when compared to the state-of-the-art hardware sported by any military vessels the ship might encounter. This means that any ship-to-ship conflict is likely to be a "bringing a knife to a gunfight" situation for the Crew, and it’s very often safer to be unarmed, instead. Even the bloodthirstiest of space-pirates seldom fire on an unarmed trader; they just take what they want and leave, instead.
When designing the vessel your Crew will be using, keep in mind the personalities of your players along with the factors listed here. Some simply feel naked without at least "a fighting chance" against an armed opponent in space; others prefer to defend themselves with diplomacy, or at least creative use of available resources, and reap the tangible benefits of flying without weapons aboard.
Conflicts and Themes
While nearly any kind of story can be told in the "space merchant" subgenre, some are especially suited to it. Here we’ll detail a big handful of stories and story-building elements. The harried Narrator will find that thumbing through what follows can provide a spark of inspiration when the fires of the campaign need a good stoking.
The Art of the Deal
On Dorlax V, the money is printed on small circles of dried animal skins. On Dorlax IV, the only currency recognized is the Druvarican Reto, a tiny sphere of irradiated platinum. Just three sectors away is the Federation border, so most people recognize the Federation credit . . . if the spender is a Starfleet officer on shore leave. The merchant isn’t.
Where the currencies of the Federation, the Klingons, the Romulans and other interstellar governments begin to lose meaning, stories begin. Players love to haggle, to feel the triumph of creating an "everybody profits" situation out of chaos. Failing that, they’re usually satisfied with a "Crew profits" situation . . .
The Druvaricans have a taste for the rich confections made by the natives of Dorlax V, who in turn need Druvarican tools. But since there isn’t enough trade volume in either to justify a regular trade route, it’s an excellent opportunity for the independent trader. But what if the Druvaricans are superstitious about outsiders? What if the delicate candies are so corrosive they burn through to the cargo deck? And no matter how you slice it, the Crew ends up with a profit measured in tools or candies. How can they turn that into much-needed fuel and repairs? Maybe the answer is bringing yet more worlds into the web of trade, until a reasonable route can be hammered out that makes everybody happy and the Crew solvent!
Alien societies have alien barriers to trade, and it’s fun to shove your Crew right into the middle of it. Things like this can be amusing enough to build entire episodes on, though they usually work better as an episode’s "B story" subplot.
Stuck in the Middle
Sometimes, an innocent civilian vessel is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. If the Crew are forced to defend themselves or their cargo, they could be marked as a military target, with no-one on either side of the conflict to claim them, and both sides eager to see them out of the way. Or perhaps they’re too close to a world under attack, and receive a distress signal - do they respond? Go for help? Try to mount a rescue on their own? Avoiding taking sides is essential to survival, but sometimes it can’t be helped without compromising things more vital than the safety of the ship.
"Stuck in the Middle" stories are those that explore the kinds of responsibilities and temptations that come from having an independent starship. Most people in the Galaxy don’t, after all, and on many worlds distant from the major trade arteries, the sight of a spacegoing vessel is a real occasion. When that occasion coincides with trouble, the Crew can find themselves blamed, hated, or looked upon as the only hope for salvation.
Trouble in the Hold
A merchant is no better than his goods, so the dramas of the tradelanes are very often tales spun from the stuff of trade itself - the stuff packing the crates and weighing down pallets in the hold.
Some cargoes are obviously hazardous or difficult to deal with. Livestock (or animals destined for a new interstellar zoological exhibit!) can be unruly, destructive and messy. Compounds used for energy-production or industrial purposes can be volatile or radioactive, and so on. Stories about the danger and temptation of dangerous cargo are staples of the genre, and can practically tell themselves, making them ideal for "pick-up" games or sessions where the Narrator has minimal preparation time.
Of course, perhaps even better are cargoes that aren’t obviously hazardous, a distressingly realistic possibility when dealing with the very alien. The Crew has heard through the trader’s grapevine that the settlers on Mirinarr will give just about anything for Vota crystals, essential to their religion - but the Mirinarri failed to mention that the Vota crystals, while they look like harmless chunks of blue quartz, have properties that stimulate psionic potential in many humanoids. What happens when the Crew is carrying fourteen metric tons of them?
A related story-type is the troublesome passenger story (see sidebar).
Most cargo vessels have a spare stateroom or two. Often, they’re cramped and Spartan, but they are a good source of additional revenue. While in port, travelers frequently book passage in them, seeking transport to the next world on the trader’s itinerary. Sometimes such passengers pay in money or goods; sometimes they negotiate to work for passage, becoming temporary employees of the ship.
Cargo-vessel passengers almost always have a story to tell. Most would rather be on a passenger liner, with a nice bunk and entertainment facilities and eager stewards to wait on them. "Tramp" traveling is cheaper, though, and sometimes the only thing available for months in the remote galactic backwaters. Such characters can provide a regular cast of "Guest Star" NPCs, giving the Crew somebody new to talk to every week, even if their vessel is a tiny one.
Passengers can springboard subplots, or entire episodes. Some people travel this way because they’re trying to keep a low profile, staying just ahead of the law, or a criminal syndicate, or other pursuer. Some have desperate tasks to complete, personal quests that might inspire the Crew to help them out, or join them. Others are dangerously unstable or outright evil, determined to accomplish a goal that the Crew will have every reason to fight against.
And of course, they’re all strangers, at first. The Narrator should never let the Crew be too sure about any passenger; it can be fun to keep them guessing. Strange alien customs and living habits can breed suspicion even in a well-meaning Crew, and the most devious of criminals may seem likeable, helpful and harmless.
Breaking the Law
Most merchants, when asked to smuggle something into a politically "hot" area of space, or to spy, flatly refuse. To accept is to abuse the privilege of being a trader, and when it all hits the fan, nobody is going to stick up for the life of a merchant (even a well-meaning and patriotic one) except the merchant. But what happens when the smuggling will save thousands of lives? Or when the spying could preserve worlds that the merchant is fond of trading on? Most merchants care about more than just business, and when that line is crossed, it can make for an exciting adventure!
It’s a matter of personal taste how "rogueish" the Series will feel. Some players will be eager to pursue a life of profit-at-all-costs; others will prefer more heroic stories. Episodes in which the laws and traditions that govern the tradelanes become a potential hurdle can challenge the players in fascinating ways, and can split the Crew down the middle along ethical lines.
Provided your players are mature enough to handle the challenges, this can be a great way to spend an evening playing Star Trek, and might even send the Series in entirely new directions. Sometimes, after a series of more "episodic" adventures dealing with the trials and adventures of legitimate trade, a "second season" with a more seat-of-the-pants feel to it can be an interesting change. Illegal activity, from heroic support of an embargoed world to the chance and danger of high-stakes smuggling, can provide an excellent core for a long-term story arc.
The Merchant as Explorer
Profits within established markets - even the "established" tradelanes that run beyond the rim of settled interstellar governments - are limited. The limits can be stretched and creatively minimized, of course, and most merchants do just fine by working existing ports. Some brave traders, though, take on the greater risk of forging entirely new trade alliances, of exploring the depths of space for new worlds to trade with, new ports where the likes of the trader has yet to be seen.
If independent merchants tend to walk outside the bounds of civilization, merchant-traders tend to walk outside the bounds even of merchant society. They are a special breed. Some are, through ignorance, inaction or greed, responsible for wars, for the corruption of young cultures, or for the destruction of millions. Unprepared for the complex series of life-or-death decisions that can arise when meeting an entirely new alien species, those not fit to walk this particular path often meet messy ends, and take many with them. The exceptions, though, those innovative, savvy explorers with the will, wit and caution to make it work, become legends. Many have laid the groundwork that others build on to make new nations and alliances. They make things better for everybody - and often get stinking rich in the process.
Other People’s Battles
The traditional star trader is apolitical. He doesn’t care if the Klingons and the Cardassians are trading fire this year, so long as the Cardassian blockade doesn’t prevent him from reaching port, or roving Klingons don’t vent steam by reducing his ship to its component molecules. War can be profitable, as can slavery, medical emergencies, disasters, and any number of other unpleasant realities of the galaxy. And since embattled societies need food, weapons, medicine and other goods even more desperately than peaceful ones, merchants are often given special latitude. Traders can cross borders that Klingon or Starfleet vessels can only hover watchfully near; they can visit worlds where no others are welcome.
Some merchants are greedy opportunists, milking misery for all it’s worth, demanding unfair prices for common goods because they know their customers have little choice. Others are truly heroic, taking less than a fair fee - or none at all - in exchange for the satisfaction of bringing relief to a suffering people. Most just carry the cargo and quote their price, unmoved by anything but the bottom line.
This facet of the merchant life is a potential feast of meaty conflict and tension; the latitude granted to merchants is a double-edged sword, and carries with it an undercurrent of grudging tolerance colored by mistrust. Stories exploring the merchant’s role between the lines of others’ conflicts are typically moral adventures, where a trader’s own sense of security is pitted against his sense of justice, his love for his homeworld, or his desire to be something greater than he is.
Merchant vessels can sometimes be tricked into being smugglers, spies, blockade-runners and more, by those commissioning the ship’s services for apparently innocent cargo runs. By the time the Crew discovers what’s really in the hold (or what’s really going on at their destination, etc), it’s too late, and they have to go with the flow, come out on top, and (most likely) head back to the guy who hired them to teach him a lesson. This can be fun, but tread carefully with it; use it too often and your players will resent it. Use it just right and it gives the Crew a great opportunity to show their stuff. It works best when the Crew gain control of the story fairly early on, and can turn the situation in several directions from there. If they can fix it so they can complete their commissioned haul in such a way that sticks it to the party that tried to deceive them, so much the better.
Foils and Competitors
Every Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series needs a supporting cast; recurring characters make the setting come alive, provide handy mouthpieces for the Narrator in times of need, and can, over time, grow to be as interesting as the Crew themselves. When the player characters spend their lives traveling from port to port in search of an honest credit, though, the supporting cast is likely to be dominated by other characters whose lives are just as unsettled . . . And as long as we’re resigned to that anyway, we might as well use it as an excuse to make the lives of the Crew more difficult!
Competition is the force that drives excellence in any venture - every trader knows it. So, the foils and "villains" of a merchant series should be more than just obstacles. They should be worthy sparring partners, the kinds of characters that can relate to the Crew with mutual respect while daggers are sharpened and phony smiles are affected! Out on the fringes, where the merchants live, not everybody gets along, and few would have it any other way . . .
While it’s true that merchants are a society (even a kind of brotherhood, depending who you ask), most of them spend a good deal of time trying to outdo one another. For some, it’s a friendly game of counting coup that helps a trader keep his edge. For others, it’s not friendly at all.
Foils of this kind are typically other crews and captains, working to exploit the trails already blazed by the Crew. Friendly competition from such sources includes bidding wars with ware-sellers in port, racing to meet a demand ahead of the Crew’s own efforts, and trying to woo away regular clients (if the Crew are the kind of traders who hire their services). Unfriendly competition can range from sneaky campaigns to smear the Crew’s reputation to outright theft or espionage!
If you decide to give the Crew this kind of "personal" competition, spend some time creating an interesting set of motives for the NPCs. It’s the easy way out to assume that profit alone could inspire such cut-and-thrust between two trading vessels. It’s a big galaxy, and greed will be a common enough campaign theme, anyway. Maybe the competitors have larger goals - the manipulation of markets for political ends, for example. Or maybe the captains of the two vessels once fought for the affections of the same lover, or developed a rivalry when they served aboard the same ship (or maybe they’re family! Brothers can take their rivalries to their graves).
A less personal, but no less common form of rivalry stems from the long-standing competition between the large interstellar trading guilds. Any of the tactics mentioned above - and many more - can be employed on a scale that can shake the foundations of the worlds unfortunate enough to unwittingly donate their starports as a playing field. The games the guilds play are large and devious, and while everybody works hard to make sure trade itself isn’t harmed, cool heads don’t always prevail, and sometimes a sort of "If I can’t have it, nobody can" attitude rules the day, leaving the tradelanes in shambles and trading vessels without cargo!
From tin-plated inspectors haunting every seedy starport to massive patrol ships bristling with armament and eager to make use of it, traders must deal regularly with the authorities, even if their operations are entirely ethical. Part of the reason is that, ethical or not, just about everything is illegal somewhere, a depressing fact of interstellar trade that merchants learn early on. While the best adventure-trade is to be found in the less organized galactic backwaters, a few months of petty dictators declaring cargoes as voluntary donations to their military causes, border patrol ships mugging for bribes, and deep-space rangers preaching about the danger of contaminating young cultures, some merchants are eager to ditch their ship and take a job as a steward on a Federation freight liner.
Unlike competing traders, who the Narrator should try to play as foils worthy of respect, authority figures are fair game for being utter jerks who do little but stand in the way. At least, that’s traditionally their role in space merchant stories, Star Trek and otherwise. This has a lot to do with the central theme of the trader subgenre! Being a space merchant is all about flying to whatever star beckons, living as you please, making your own fortune, and pulling yourself up out of trouble by your bootstraps. Being pulled over for doing 66 in a 60, metaphorically or otherwise, simply isn’t part of the appeal, so the cops get short shrift.
Of course, traditions are made to be retooled at the Narrator’s whim. Authority figures are inconvenient to the freewheeling lifestyle of the tradelanes, but they’re also a fact of life, and many of them really do mean well. After a patrol-ship saves the Crew’s bacon from some pirates, they might find that they agree, and be willing to do a good turn for the patrolmen in the future. On the other hand, if the Crew’s preferred mode of business is the illegal, the authorities are likely to be a kind of "stock antagonist" in the series, with plenty of reason.
The good thing about having an authority-figure be a friend to the Crew is that he still gets to be a foil. Borrow a page from the book of any good private-detective story to see what I mean. A good P.I. finds his cop friends to be very valuable contacts, sources of fact and rumor, and maybe even a good ally in the field, from time to time. But the relationship is double-edged, with the cop sometimes forced to take action against the hero when their motivations cross too sharply, when right and wrong and legal and illegal become unrelated, as they often do when things get complicated and lives are at stake. The potential for dramatic parallels in a merchant story are many.
Pirates & Privateers
No matter how irksome the authorities might seem, no matter how frustrating the efforts of the competitors, nobody feels anything but dread at the sight of a pirate vessel. This is true even if the Crew are themselves pirates. Pirates typically have plenty of military hardware, some of it even very modern, acquired from the black market and jury-rigged in a deadly assembly where all nations, at least symbolically via their guns, coexist in harmony! It isn’t unusual to find a ship loaded with Federation photon torpedoes, Klingon disruptors, Romulan plasma devices and more, capable of unleashing hellfire in a chorus of the best of what the militaries of the galaxy have to offer - or at least their choicest leftovers. And while few pirate vessels stand a chance against a modern warship (or even a cruiser), they can typically reduce a civilian vessel to ribbons of molten plastic and a cloud of plasma with no trouble. Of course, they prefer to steal any valuables first, which is often the only window of opportunity for a ship to defend itself, or summon help.
Pirates & Privateers can share many things in common, and some use the terms interchangeably, but there are a vital differences. Pirates, strictly speaking, are simply a band of thieves with a ship. Pirates prey on weak targets in out-of-the-way locations. They're particularly a hazard whenever new trading opportunities show themselves in a recently-discovered system. Such a setup often insures a stream of merchant traffic without (just yet) the accompanying stream of organized law enforcement or military vessels. Pirates also lurk in emptier parts of space that merchants use as "shortcuts" between established tradelanes, for similar reasons. Pirates are seldom a threat in "civilized" space.
Privateers, on the other hand, are a special breed of opportunist. In the bygone days of sailing ships, privateering was "piracy with permission" - ships could be issued letters of marque by Nation A giving them permission to plunder the shipping of Nation B without being charged as criminals. So, a pirate ship could make an "honest" living, plundering for months and then returning to a safe civilian port to sell their goods, instead of being forced to trade on remote islands and live as hunted men. Clever privateers had letters of marque from just about everybody, so they could, if they were sufficiently devious, sail nearly anywhere and be welcomed! In contemporary merchant jargon, a "privateer" is any ship who profits from tension or war between two interstellar governments by means less than savory. They’re the galactic equivalent of looters, profiting from misery and anger and very often (just like the old Earth privateers) getting away scot-free because one side or another likes seeing their enemies battered, even if it’s by a third party. Privateers make excellent villains, capable of causing trouble for honest merchants by association alone.