The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

In a Nutshell: 97-page PDF from Mongoose, the third of the expansions for Deepnight Revelation. Price not known as this is a reward from a kickstarter last year.

Previously, on Halfway Station…

Reviews of Deepnight Revelation, The Riftsedge Transit, The Near Side of Yonder.

If you’re playing the whole campaign at one session every other week, by the start of this book you’re 30 sessions into the campaign; the players are in their second year real time, and their characters are in at least year four. The Crossing is the midway point of the story arc, and adds another ten adventures, but I can’t see any of them lasting more than a session, so by the end of this book the players will be at roughly episode 40 and halfway through the second year of real time, while the characters have racked up at least another game year, and possibly more.

The Crossing

The PCs have now reached the coreward edge of the Great Rift and must make their way across some 60 parsecs of mostly empty space to the far shore. Any oddities and factions that have developed among the crew are thrown into sharp relief by the lack of an external antagonist and the tension of being alone, far from home, and under repeated stress.

The ten adventures in this book are spread along a linear route of 27 stops – and I really like the way this is represented as a ‘map’ in the book, where the route is collapsed into a switchback like the queues at airports these days, with each stopping point given a short paragraph of highlights and the adventures marked in the relevant systems. As the run is linear, the players don’t really need a map.

Seven NPCs are presented with detailed personalities to interact with during the crossing, but their statblocks are left blank so the GM can move them around in the crew.

There are a number of repeat events, for example refuelling from comets. As previously in the campaign, the GM and players are encouraged to play through the first instance of each recurring event, so that the GM can use the players’ approach as a template for later ones.

The set-piece adventures include hazardous environmental situations to overcome, opportunities to conduct research (and encounter problems while doing so), mutinies of sorts, first contact scenarios, truly weird animal encounters and an ancient monument that will require great ingenuity to reach and may result in a Total Party Kill. There is also the chance to recruit a new crewmember who may offer valuable insights in the final encounter of the campaign, and at various times the NPC crew creates its own rituals and games which the players can leverage to persuade them to to do things, or be hopelessly baffled by.

Several of the adventures are quite sombre in tone, involving the graves or survivors of dead expeditions or cultures; and a couple are teasers for items in the next book, The Far Side of Nowhere.

Conclusions

This is the most episodic of the books so far, and is full of self-contained incidents the Travellers may encounter as they cross the Great Rift; most of these could be lifted and placed anywhere in unexplored space.

It’s also the most linear, in that by the nature of the Great Rift, there is usually only one potential next stop – unless the GM adds a side branch to the route. Finally, it is to my mind the most removed from Traveller as I know it; there’s no antagonist, just the wonders of the unknown and the internal tensions among the crew.

Dispassionately assessing my own capabilities and the desires of my usual groups, I reluctantly conclude that I will probably never run the Deepnight Revelation campaign, and if I did, I would likely not do it justice.

The party fits collapsible fuel tanks into both the Ching Shih and the Lady Mary (so they can reach Theev without using the pirates’ secret fuel dump) and they set course for Marduk by way of Torpol.

It seems rude not to drop in on Provost Haddo Falx while they’re on Torpol, so they do. Falx’s star is rising, not least due to their anti-piracy work in the first few episodes, and he invites them to a party aboard his new yacht in the tropics. A fine time is had by all, and the heroes now know Falx’s friends and peers, which may come in handy later on.

Then, on to Marduk, where they replenish stores and fuel before heading into the system’s Kuiper Belt to find the lost megafreighter, Yarrow. They succeed in doing this, and move to rendezvous. As they do so, a number of smaller ships scatter and jump out, though probe drones launched from the Ching Shih indicate that there’s another one hiding in one of the Yarrow‘s cavernous cargo bays. They decide not to blow a hole through the doors and volley fire missiles into the parasitic starship until it dies, some because they fear the raiders may be using forced labour, and some because they fear blowing holes in the freighter will reduce its resale value.

Parking the Ching Shih in front of that bay’s doors to blast the raiders if they emerge, the usual suspects head aft in the Lady Mary and spacewalk across, gaining entrance to the engineering spaces by the maintenance elevator on the bottom deck. Khugi’s animatronic robot parrot is left as Cap’n Jade’s temporary astrogator, and perhaps mercifully, Felix’s disembodied robot peg leg has yet to be unpacked. (This is what happens when you let them loose in Tech-World’s gadget malls.) Macavity the robot ship’s cat is sent ahead as a scout, and discovers a squad of Oghman raiders cannibalising the drives for parts.

After a brief but vicious firefight, the party gains control of the lowest engineering deck, and pauses to compose themselves before heading up to the engineering control room, where they intend to make life difficult for the pirates.

GM Notes

This scenario expands on one of the rumours in Pirates of Drinax, which says the Yarrow is lost somewhere in the Marduk system and leaves it at that. One of the players has been pining for a fight for some time, and has been remarkably patient with the politicking, so I decided his turn for the limelight had come.

Jade’s player always leaves her on the ship, for reasons that are unclear to me, but is happy to run Macavity instead, which lets me draw her into the action a little more; that and some shiphandling rolls kept her busy, so the session’s primary goal of giving those two some time to shine was achieved.

I am definitely rusty with the high-tech side of the combat rules, and it was helpful to have another player looking up the detail – things like the Hot Potato rule for disposing of grenades the opposition have chucked at you; I’d also forgotten how much the game slows down in combat, especially when you stop to look up rules. More practice needed there, I feel.

Having completed The Demon’s Eye adventure from Pirates of Drinax, the PCs headed home, and on the way they learned of the Yarrow, an Imperial megafreighter which misjumped into the Marduk system, and became really enthusiastic about owning a 50,000 ton flagship for their burgeoning pirate fleet. I’m obviously not going on holiday this year because of COVID-19, which leaves me with more disposable income than usual, so I decided to get a few adventures set on and near Marduk – running two campaigns in parallel and working full-time means I’m chewing through plotlines faster than I can write them.

Marooned on Marduk

This one was okay. It’s a campaign-starting adventure, in which the Travellers get caught up in a pirate raid, crash-land in the wilderness, and have to survive raiders, hostile natives, and even more hostile wildlife. They just have to hold out long enough to be rescued. For a group of four or so beginning PCs it would work well enough, but it wouldn’t tempt my players; so the most useful element for me is the more detailed background on Marduk.

Gods of Marduk

This one is another go at fleshing out one of the adventure seeds in Pirates of Drinax into a full adventure. It has a promising start – the PCs are hired to crew a submarine looking for the mythical ‘gods of Marduk’, giant tentacled underwater beasties; there are storms, ruined temples, hostile natives with spears, and lots of tentacles. However, right at the point where the story starts to get interesting, the adventure stops. I was intrigued enough by what was there to want more, which is a good sign; but I felt I had only seen the first act of a play, with the story unresolved. I was, in short, disappointed.

Makergod

This one is the best of the bunch, and with a little work could be turned into a short mini-campaign. Players bump up against the Oghman raiders, who are basically feuding viking clans in spaceships. There are several entry points for the campaign, ranging from being captured as slaves to being hired to spy on the raiders, but all of them take the Travellers to Oghma, where they become embroiled in local politics and learn the mystery at the heart of Oghman culture. I can see this one appealing to my players, who are currently in control of several ships but lack to crews to man them. It’s not an official Mongoose product, but as I say, it’s the best of this particular bunch.

Spoiler warning! The current series of posts is exposing some of the key secrets of the Pirates of Drinax campaign. If you don’t want to know those, drive on.

The party travelled to Vorito, hoping to offer an alliance with GeDeCo before the nanite sneakernet tells them what they’re up to. They met Rachando’s handler, who introduced them to the hologram of Professor Jaskarl. The hologram explained that the Professor’s psychohistorical calculations show that to hold back the encroaching aslan, a local state must create a nascent empire in the Reach, but then be destroyed, which will inspire others to resist. GeDeCo will help them build up Drinax, but in the end it must fall, so that its destruction inspires others. If they refuse, the aslan will attack Drinax anyway within five years, and history will unfold according to his calculations. They agree to take this news back to Drinax and make the offer to Princess Rao. The handler invites them back to Vorito for the grand opening of their new orbital port, to provide a suitable cover for a further visit to negotiate the details.

While they were away, Krrsh has been moping about their treatment of him, which he considers a betrayal, but he hasn’t actually run off with a ship yet, largely because the PCs are having him watched – once he realises that, his state of mind will deteriorate further. Prince Harrick visited Clarke to see what being High Psychopomp would entail, and is not enthused by it, leading to a blazing row between him and Princess Rao.

GM Notes

This session was taken up with figuring out how to get into Vorito Highport, how to meet Rachando’s handler, and a big chunk of exposition from Professor Jaskarl’s hologram. Through a stroke of luck a session or two back, some lucky dice rolls, and a solid plan, the party managed to bypass three-quarters of The Vorito Gambit and go straight to the denouement. That happens sometimes, and fortunately the campaign is robust enough to roll with it. They didn’t notice that the handler seems completely unaware of the nanite sneakernet, which once they realise it will give them more food for thought.

As I didn’t know whether they were heading for Marduk or Vorito, I had to prepare two scenarios, which is more work than I want to be doing this side of retirement; so we took a few minutes at the end of the session to discuss their plans. They intend their route to be Drinax, Marduk, Noricum and finally Theev; they will investigate the wreck of the Yarrow at Marduk, possibly divert to Oghma to negotiate with the Oghman Clans, look for the heir to the Sindalian Empire on Noricum, and get Lady Mary ’s power plant fixed on Theev. That will take 3-4 sessions, after which we will switch to a secondary party for a while.

We agreed that a secondary party would be useful for three reasons: first, to give us an opportunity to play adventures that wouldn’t be attractive to the main party; second, to provide a change of pace from diplomacy and trade; and third, to give other players a turn in the limelight – Jade and Stoner are important to the politics, but so far have had supporting roles rather than star billing. Also, the party’s extensive jaunts to distant worlds for months at a time give the politics at court time to develop, and the players have realised they can’t afford to leave the NPCs alone for that long, as they get ideas and start to carry them out. This will mean that they won’t bite when I dangle the adventure which involves travelling deep into the Hierate in front of them, so that will be a mission for the secondary party. (I must suggest they have an aslan PC for that party.)

The secondary party’s adventures would still be linked to furthering Princess Rao’s overall plan, and as you will see later, the Princess is not one for putting all her eggs in one basket; she definitely has other teams working on the plan and is happy for this group to focus on diplomacy and trade, it is after all what they’re good at. (They admitted that they are not much interested in the actual piracy, and to be brutally honest neither am I; it’s essentially a series of random encounters, and as we get older it’s increasingly difficult to think of those as a good use of limited playing time.)

As was recently demonstrated in another campaign, the Powers in Savage Worlds are overpowered compared to other ways in which you can advance a character. This is especially true of the mind-control powers, particularly beast friend and puppet, but things like shapeshifting and burrow can also unbalance the game. Xaronne’s choice of powers would be unbalancing in some games, but in this one they give me a useful way to move the plot forward in the limited time we have, and they are balanced by the fact that if Stoner or Khugi ever find out Xaronne is psionic, they will kill her, as will the public at large. So I’m not going to mess with those; in any event, what Xaronne has done with them could also be done with a high enough Notice skill and generous use of Bennies.

What I will do is limit the list of available powers, aligning them with the powers available in Traveller (because this is really a Traveller campaign that just happens to be run under Savage Worlds); more on that when I’ve had time to think it through. (Earlier editions of Savage Worlds coped with this by not having any mind-reading powers, and most official settings tailor the power list to fit the genre.)

It’s also worth noting that I consider surface thoughts to be a silent, internal monologue in the character’s native tongue (or whatever language they are thinking in at the moment); therefore, you can only read someone’s thoughts if you know the language they are thinking in (although you don’t need to know their language to read basic emotional state). For most humans the native language is a dialect of Anglic, but for vargr you’d need to know Gvegh and for aslan you’d need Trokh. The Floriani also have their own language, if they get that far spinward. (I’m not going to bother with dialects, first because that would soak up too many skill points and second because I’m aware that my interest in linguistics is not widely shared.)

Finally, it’s clear that the next campaign with this group – if there is one – will need a lot of preparation, so I floated the idea of doing The Dracula Dossier next. That seemed to go down well, so in a few months’ time I’ll start work on that; I think this game will last 30-50 sessions, so we’ll finish it sometime in the next 5-10 months, and be ready for some superspy on vampire action.

There’s no alignment in Savage Worlds, just the consequences of your actions.

We left our heroes in the Sewers under Jalizar, exploring an ancient, ruined shrine to some demonic entity. When the cameras start rolling again, the party continues to explore and finds the demon responsible for all the murders trapped in a statue in the inner sanctum. While Sami the thief loots the place, Lord Salkar negotiates with the demon: He wants his enemy (Major Hindrance) killed in a specific nasty way, while the demon wants enough sacrifices to give it the power to break free of the statue. This bargain is struck, with the proviso that once free, the demon will not injure any member of the party, nor will it return to Jalizar.

Over the next week, the party buys up 50 of the most troublesome, useless, ex-criminal slaves it can find, and takes them in batches of five into the shrine, where they are killed. Lord Salkar then summons rat swarms to dispose of as much of the evidence as possible. The demon is duly freed, and vanishes in a cloud of smoke and brimstone to carry out its command. (Like I say, this party is the darkest I’ve ever run.)

Their next mission is to go into Greytowers and bring back some silk and venom from the giant spiders which allegedly haunt it. Naturally, they decide to hire a carpenter, fix up one of the ruined buildings, and use beast friend to walk the spiders into cages to set up a battery spider farm. They discover an underground shrine to a forgotten god beneath the ruins, where lurks a lonely intelligent giant spider, which just wants to make friends; they blast it to pieces with arrows and acid bolts.

GM Notes

This campaign isn’t working for me, for various reasons, some of which we can fix and some of which we can’t; so I’m calling the game. This is probably the right decision, as half the players replied saying they would have dropped out otherwise. The reasons?

First, foremost, and not fixable: My workload has ramped up dramatically this month, and I expect it will remain at a high level until the end of the year. I won’t have the time or the energy left over to run a game on a school night, especially not in parallel with the Saturday night Pirates of Drinax game.

Second, also not fixable: I’m burned out on Beasts & Barbarians; I need to run something else for a while. If I’d realised that earlier, I wouldn’t have put it on the list of choices this time around.

Third, potentially fixable: The story arc I’d planned for Jalizar isn’t going to work with this party, and at the moment I can’t picture one that would. While the characters are individually each very interesting, they haven’t really gelled as a party, and their goals not just diverse but mutually exclusive.

Feedback from the players as a group is that magic in Savage Worlds is overpowered, and certainly the adventures so far have basically followed the pattern that the party explore until they meet a monster, then either Lord Salkar neutralises it with a single spell or they run away.

Conversation with the other GM reveals that proportionately we’re both putting in roughly three hours of prep and writeup for each hour of play; his sessions are six hours long and take him 18 hours to prep, while mine are about two hours and take six to prep. However, he is already retired.

Abstract Piracy

The next thing I’ll need for Pirates of Drinax is some way of speeding up the actual piracy, which I think will get old quite quickly. Reading through the rules in the campaign books, I made the following assumptions and simplifications…

Assumptions

Pirate ships loiter somewhere near the 100 diameter jump limit (to stay far away from local defences). This also means that the prey is low on fuel when intercepted, so the ship itself is hard to steal.

Once they attack (i.e. when we shift to the Savage Worlds Chase rules to resolve the ship combat), the local authorities respond by sending something with 6G acceleration to intercept – light fighters, system defence boats, missiles, whatever – something nasty enough to chase pirates away.

Simplifications

Chases use 6 minute turns and 100″ range increments. Once you begin the chase, the clock starts ticking.

The local forces arrive after 3 turns times the mainworld size (e.g. after 15 turns for a size 5 world). You should aim to be jumping away at or before that point unless you’re confident you can win the battle.

In a 6 minute turn, a single pirate can loot one ton of cargo, or rob or kidnap a single passenger.

In six turns, a single pirate can steal a ship’s boat or vehicle, or loot the ship of spare parts and supplies.

GM Notes

This was easier to abstract for my game than trade, because Savage Worlds does have rules for space dogfights under Chases.

This turns piracy into a space combat followed by a worker placement mini-game; once you’ve crippled your prey or forced them to surrender, how do you allocate your pirates to get the most loot before you have to bug out? I haven’t tried it in anger yet so it may need tweaking later.

Again, anyone who wants more detail gets handed the rules and told “congratulations, you’re the pirate captain, you work it out”.

Yarr! Here there be spoilers, me hearties…

The team has been away from Drinax for most of the last two game years, and were keen to get home, relax for a while, and update their plans and orders.

On the way back, Felix took Xaronne into his confidence: He is convinced that Prince Harrick was assassinated and replaced by a clone, and is planning a surprise for the welcome-home party that will shake up the dinner guests. He knows that Xaronne is very, very good at reading people, and wants her to help him identify who has the guilty consciences. Xaronne agrees. (Actually, she is a telepath, but Felix doesn’t know that.)

They have bought the friendship of Exe, have offers from Clarke and Tech-World which will bring those worlds into Drinax’s orbit, and have befriended Torpol. Meanwhile Princess Rao has struck a deal with Paal – effectively diverting large sums of money from the pirates’ war chest into buying Paal’s friendship; they accepted that without complaint, and Rao is pleased with their progress. Their trading has also gone well, and King Oleb is pleased with the million and a half he has made personally. As Khugi said, the way things are going, they may be able to achieve the objective of restoring the Kingdom of Drinax without putting on a pirate hat at all.

They asked Rao what she wants to do about the Yarrow, a megafreighter they have heard misjumped into the Marduk system. The party were very excited about this, and wanted to use it as a carrier for their pirate fleet; but Rao echoes the more sombre heads among them – it’s far too big for their needs, and what they’ve made in the last two years would pay its operating costs for about two months. She reminds them about the Oghman raiders and suggests that if the Oghmans are going to be friends, they can have it – they will no doubt cannibalise it for parts and slaves – but if the Oghmans are not going to be on Rao’s side, the Yarrow should be denied to them by any means necessary.

A complex game of Find the Lady with ships ensues, as they sort out their fleet and NPC dispositions to keep all the promises they’ve made while letting them take the ship they want to take to Marduk, namely the Ching Shih. There’s no way to make this omelette without breaking at least one egg, and the outcome is that Tech-World may be unhappy (they’ll know in about two months when the news comes back) and Krrsh the vargr pirate is definitely very unhappy – he has been demoted to command a smaller ship, and however they dress that up with presents and fake promotions, he feels betrayed. That decision may come back to haunt them later.

Felix surprises the dinner guests with a re-enactment of Prince Harrick’s near-fatal crash on Asim, and makes an impassioned speech calling for justice. (It really was a good speech.) Xaronne, scanning the crowd for emotional spikes, lights on Trader Rachando, who makes his excuses and leaves – it does him no good, as the party catch up with him. Under interrogation, Rachando reveals he is a spy for GeDeCo, but his orders were to watch and report, not assassinate.

As the party knows they are under constant surveillance by GeDeCo nanites, Princess Rao locks down the starport – if no ships leave, no nanites leave either. This buys them a few days to figure out what to do next; they can’t stop GeDeCo finding out what they’re up to, but they have a window of a few weeks between things happening and the news reaching GeDeCo sector HQ on Vorito. They are now realising the scale of GeDeCo’s interference in sector politics, and it seems to align with their own goals for the moment, so they expect they can make a deal at some point.

They’re puzzled by why GeDeCo needs a human agent on Drinax given all the nanites floating about; and the more paranoid ones are wondering if this is the only agent they have present. Meanwhile, the Flame Knights from the Shield Church of Neumann are setting up a branch among the Vespexers, leading to party concerns about revolution among the masses, and Prince Harrick has been offered the role of High Psychopomp of Clarke…

GM Notes

This session was heavy on politics and roleplaying, with very few dice rolls made and two of the five players absent. I loved the way that the consequences of their earlier actions came back to haunt them in terms of political factions that have to be kept on-side, financial promises that have to be kept, and NPCs whose egos have to be stroked. The players are deeply invested in that stuff, although they don’t seem very interested in actually being pirates. This needs to be watched, as the two absent players have been quiet of late; I’m pondering how to draw Jade’s player into things more, while Stoner’s player just wants something to shoot at, and once they meet the Oghman raiders I should be able to fix that for him.

(The raiders, incidentally, are being introduced to offer the players a moral conundrum; they can have someone do their pirating for them, but do they really want to work with a bunch of rapacious slavers? If they’re willing to make that tradeoff, how do they close Pandora’s box again later when the time comes to go legit?)

I’m very happy with the way the campaign politics is shaping up; we can all see that their choices are having a real impact on the balance of power in the Trojan Reach, and they are starting to have to make some hard decisions about where to focus their time to keep all the plates spinning. If I run this campaign again, I will put more effort into the courtly intrigue on Drinax, as I think that effort would be well repaid; it seems to be working well enough so far, but I think the setup would benefit from more minor nobility and bit part characters for the group to bounce off – that’s a lesson I could apply to any future game.

Felix’s player took the Delusion Hindrance, and has spent most of the last few sessions creating a rock-solid conspiracy theory to support his character’s view that Harrick was murdered twenty years ago and replaced by a clone. It’s so convincing that he has persuaded the rest of the party now, and it would be a pity to let that plotline go unused. However, his actions in roleplaying this Hindrance have triggered an early introduction to an adventure much later in the story arc, The Vorito Gambit; I’m not quite ready to follow that one up yet, but it will now seem like a natural outcome of the party’s actions.

As usual with Savage Worlds, we’re burning through plot like there’s no tomorrow, and the side quests aren’t very appealing to the players compared to the big set pieces. They bypassed everything I had set up for the trip back, but I should be able to get another session or two out of the Yarrow, which could spin off into the Makergod adventure if they follow up the Oghman raider angle; however the power behind the throne in that scenario is a trope used several times elsewhere in the Reach, so I need to be careful not to overdo it.

We’re playing the game in Roll20, and I’ve found it helpful to take a map of their area of operations (everywhere within 6 parsecs of Blue) and mark it up with the current status of various worlds they have visited in assorted colours; we use that as a landing page, and as befits the strategic nature of the heroes’ involvement, we spend more time poring over that than any of the battlemats.

We have discussed setting up a secondary party, as one of the interesting facets of the Traveller setting is the travel time. They’ve realised that while the party can only be in one place at a time, moving their plans forward needs multiple simultaneous interventions in widely-separated star systems, which they will have to delegate; much of the work will have to be done on their behalf by NPCs, which emphasises the need to pick good subordinates and keep them happy; but another party would allow us to explore adventures and aspects of the setting that the principal heroes are too focused on the main story arc to follow up.

“One could sum up a typical dungeon adventure in this way: Exploration ⇒ small fight ⇒ exploration ⇒ small fight ⇒ exploration ⇒ big fight.
One could break down an urban adventure like this: Interaction/investigation ⇒ interaction/investigation ⇒ interaction/investigation ⇒ big fight.”
– Monte Cook, Ptolus

This session was mostly investigation. The party split up to look for clues, and interviewed witnesses to the previous murders. What they learned confirmed their suspicions that some sort of demonic influence was feeding on antagonism, and pushing angry people over the edge into murderous violence. A specific tavern seemed to be the epicentre of events, and as the players have been in Jalizar before they decided the malevolent entity must be in the sewers.

So they hired a member of the sewer cleaners’ guild to lead them through the sewers, where they discovered a temple to a demon dedicated to punishing sinners in the most imaginative ways it can come up with. There were several fights with undead, which they won, and they are now composing themselves in one of the outer chambers before pressing on into the heart of darkness.

The Tricarnian sorcerer wants to make a deal with it; he is Vengeful and has an Enemy, so that was obvious. The Monk of the Black Light will probably go along with him. In the last campaign, the party came very close to working for the serpent men in southern Kyros, and I can see their current incarnations switching allegiance from House Tankara to this demon.

The next session ought to be interesting.

GM Notes

There was some very nice roleplaying in the session, the players have got the idea that it’s OK to embellish the storyline. Unfortunately this was marred late in the session by a squabble over turn order – a downside of not using initiative. In this particular case the argument started when one PC leapt into a room while I was still laying it out, and took back his move when he saw where things were. In future, I will use the fog of war and GM layer features in Roll20 to ensure that the rooms are fully laid out before anyone enters. That should fix it.

Quote of the session:

“We seem to bribe our way into the city watch’s dungeons a lot. I wonder what it would cost to get a season ticket?”

“One murder. Then you can stay as long as you want.”

Abstract Trade

The thing about the ongoing Pirates of Drinax game is that it revolves around trade and piracy, so I feel I ought to make cargo matter in some way. It’s either that or encourage them to build up a fleet of NPC traders and pirates who do all that stuff off camera and leave the PCs as the elite troubleshooters and political agents. (We could very well end up there, I think, and so long as everyone is having fun, what does it matter?)

The Problem

The issue is that while the group loves the idea of being pirates, the idea of tracking the costs and prices of the cargo they are shipping (or stealing) leaves all of us cold, me included. But, how can stealing cargo matter if we’re not tracking the value?

So I decided to figure out some low-effort way of tracking value. How much money does a given ship cost to operate, or make when it’s trading? What’s in the hold when you crack it open?

The (Current) Solution

There were a number of false starts, but if you’re interested at all, I suspect you’ll be interested in how I would have gone straight to the final solution, so if I’d got it right first time this is how I would have done it…

1. Start by deciding which version of Traveller you’re using, because trading varies quite a bit between them. Pirates of Drinax is intended for use with Mongoose Traveller second edition, so that’s where I started from.

2. Eliminate as much variation as possible. You need this step next because it affects the cost of fuel and berthing charges for the following step. For statistical purposes, I assume that the ships are flying between a pair of adjacent worlds with the world profile of C555555-9, which is statistically the most likely profile in MongTrav; that makes the world Agricultural and Non-Industrial, which affects purchase and sale modifiers. Eliminate the effect of PC or NPC skills by assuming that they always use a local broker. Eliminate the variation from dice rolls by taking the average outcome – 3.5 per die – and using that to assess what cargo, freight and passengers are available.

3. Calculate the cost per jump of operating each ship. For this I assumed that all crew positions are filled, and paid wages; the best fuel available at the port (unrefined for a class C) is purchased, no skimming; and all ships except those gifted to the party or stolen by them are mortgaged – the mortgage is the thing that makes the most difference to the ship’s operating profit. Multiply this by 26 to get the operating cost per annum.

4. Calculate the revenue per jump. For this I used average dice rolls and values throughout, and limited speculative cargo to the items that are available on every world (entries 11-16) – on average, this means a ship moving between two Ag Ni worlds is carrying 52.5 tons of speculative cargo which it paid Cr 7,867 to buy and will sell for Cr 10,508 (margin of 2,642). The rest of the hold is full of freight, because on average there is almost 750 tons of freight available. The passenger staterooms are full, up to seven have high passengers and up to 10.5 have middle passengers; and there are 10.5 low passengers in the berths. I assume that laboratory, military and scout ships carry no passengers, and that crew on civilian vessels each have their own stateroom. Note that ships can’t carry more passengers or freight than they have room for, though.

5. Total up the revenue and multiply by 25 to get the annual income (not 26, because the bank and the crew still need to be paid during the two week overhaul period). Anyone who works out that I’m overcharging them for fuel and undercharging for berthing fees gets handed the trade chapter from the rulebook with the statement “Congratulations, you’re the ship’s purser now.”

6. Now calculate the margin of profit for the ship based on the costs and revenues. This tells you how much profit (or loss) they make.

7. Specific to the campaign… at this point I worked out how much money Princess Rao was siphoning out of their account to pay for bribes and sweetheart trade deals, this is very fast as each world in Pirates of Drinax has something you need to do to improve their attitude, and quite a few of them are effectively up for sale. Now I know how much money the group actually makes in a year; I figure some years they’ll do better, some years they’ll do worse, but it should even out.

But what are those numbers, you ask? Here they are; they very a lot depending on what assumptions you make about mortgages and fuel costs, so YMMV.

Lessons Learned

There is usually more freight available than you can carry, and there are enough lots to give you a good spread of consignment sizes, so it’s safe to assume that any cargo space not used for speculative cargo is full of freight.

The details of starship operation and trade are quite different from edition to edition (I tried three or four while working this through); but the principles and outcomes remain more or less the same. In particular, the sweet spot for merchantmen is about 200-400 tons; smaller than that and they can’t carry what’s available, so they leave money on the table, but as ships grow beyond that point their average cost quickly outstrips their average revenue. The game effect of this is a small ship universe – the rules encourage a focus on ships that can be fully crewed by an average party of 4-5.

In both Classic and Mongoose, there are only a few ships that turn a profit; the far trader, the free trader, and the subsidised merchant, and potentially the subsidised merchant is the most profitable. The break-even periods for those are roughly 43, 20, and 17 years, so the mortgage on a free trader is about right. The ship that loses the least money is the scout/courier.

A five-person crew who went for profit sharing instead of salaries, didn’t touch the mortgage, and relied on wilderness refuelling could each draw about Cr 1,500 per month in a scout/courier, Cr 5,000 pcm in a free trader, and Cr 6,000 pcm in a far trader. So the scoutship crew are living an average lifestyle (Social Standing 7 according to Mongoose), and the trader crews are potentially living the high life (Social Standing 12); it’s perfectly OK in most campaigns to ignore costs for personal upkeep and gear, and – as Night’s Black Agents does – say that a PC can have anything an average middle-class person could have.

Meanwhile, back at my campaign… If they were just trading, the current fleet would generate a profit of roughly MCr 1.6 pa after Rao has hoovered up what she needs; so my decision not to worry about personal wealth is justifiable, they’re making about Cr 20,000 per month each. The fleet’s weak spot is the Vulture class salvage hauler, because it subsidises the scoutship and the Harrier, both of which operate at a loss. The far traders just about scrape into the black.

Spoiler warning! Several key spoilers this time. Read on at your own risk…

Mirage, 1106 Week 1

Arriving on Mirage, the party tries (and fails) to get a sample of Archon grade nanotech from Archon Dreek; Lemuel theorises that he has turned it off because it is illegal in the Imperium as a whole. However they do run into Keeper Malos from Clarke, who tells them that Prince Harrick is the living embodiment of their faith, and if this is made the state religion of the Kingdom of Drinax, he could become the new High Psychopomp, bringing Clarke into the Kingdom without further ado. They promise to make him the offer and arrange a low-key state visit on their return.

They decide to press on to Neumann, where Archons with active nanotech abound, and progress Dr Astor’s plan there. We fast-forward through the journey there – imagine one of those lines crawling across the map in the Indiana Jones movies.

Neumann, 1106 Week 9

Leaving Dr Astor parked in the Oort Cloud to avoid unpleasantness (she is wanted for treason there), our heroes land, trade, and arrange to meet Archon Stern. To keep him talking while Macavity collects a nanotech sample, the two Drinaxi nobles ask him for help with the ecological disaster on Drinax, which has some similarities to the situation on Neumann. Felix is far more persuasive than intended, and the Archon and his Flame Knights insist on returning to Drinax with him to provide plasma rifles and tactical advice on their use against infection. Fortunately the heroes are able to persuade them to travel Low.

After discussing and discarding numerous plans while Dr Astor brews up her new nanotech, they decide to fly Lord Gerald’s Fancy in under their new false identities, dispersing the swarm behind them like a crop sprayer. At this point Lemuel makes his move, drawing a gun on Dr Astor; before he can deliver his villainous exposition, Felix plugs him with a snub pistol. This incapacitates him, and he reveals the true history of the Shield Church before convincing Dr Astor that her proposed solution is potentially flawed and she should go back to Tech-World and try again.

The PCs unload what’s left of Lemuel in a crate and leave, en route to Tech-World. Dr Astor asks to travel Low to preserve her lifespan, despite Stoner’s attempt to persuade her to relax with him on the way back; who knows how long cracking this problem will take.

GM Notes

At every turn of this adventure the party came up with a viable approach that completely bypassed how the scenario is intended to work, but it was flexible enough to cope. First they caught the fleeing Dr Astor very early and offered her a deal, then they went with her to Mirage, and when that plan failed they went straight to Neumann. This is why you need a GM, and flexibility in the face of such out of the box thinking remains the thing that videogames can’t quite match yet.

The party were at pains to mention that they just wanted a sample of the Archon’s nanotech, they weren’t expecting him to respond to their fake request for help, and they didn’t care what he thought of them. So naturally Felix aced the Persuasion roll multiple times and the Archon became fanatically dedicated to helping them fix a problem they had made up just to get into his office. Shortly, there will be a branch of the Neumann Shield Church on Drinax, and since the players have convinced themselves that the Vespexers of Drinax are in fact Dune’s fremen, they are now worried that they have brought the Voice from the Outer World to lead a revolutionary uprising; but they don’t want to upset the Immortal Protector of Neumann by spacing his representatives. Whacky open-ended die rolls like this are one of the main reasons I love Savage Worlds.

It was also amusing to see the party talk themselves out of landing with Dr Astor, only to realise one by one that their Hindrances combined to force them all to go. The Heroic one went to save her, the one with Quirk (lecherous) went to impress her, and the Loyal ones followed because their buddies were going, which left Khugi along on the Vagabond Soul wondering how he would get home if they all died.

We’re now putting the group back on fast forward to head back into their area of operations, and I will have to riffle through my adventure collection to see what might tempt them on the way back. Zipping through the boring bits as a montage is working well, as it usually does with Savage Worlds.

Quote of the session: “Stop shooting him! I want to hear the villainous exposition!”

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