Classic Traveller: Freetrader Economics

Thursday , 15, June 2017 31 Comments

In two posts I’ve outlined my Classic Traveller setting: first by rolling up an entirely random subsector and secondly by musing on the nature of one of the polities with a focus on its capital and its location within the polity it leads. The capital of the Empire of Reason is the Ladfaus system which is paradoxically separated from the rest of the empire by two parsecs instead of the more usual one. In fact Ladfaus is not only isolated from its own civilization but, it is also the most isolated system in the subsector. No other system in the subsector has no neighbor within a parsec. Yet, through the miracle of random chance it is connected by a Space Lane to the rest of the Empire. And, in reading Traveller Book 1 from 1977 a Space Lane is a mapped path. Book 2 says that the Generate Program can by used to create a flight plan between systems but, if a Generate Program is unavailable that flight plans can be purchased (in single use self-erasing cassettes) from starports. And, since a generate program costs 800,000 credits and prepurchased cassettes cost 10,000 per jump number, well, it may be awhile before generating your own flight plans looks cost effective. It also means starting players, even if they have a ship are likely confined to the Space Lanes — at least starting out.

One of my players, playing a merchant, did roll a ship! The Chen’s Chance, a freetrader with the home port of Ladfaus: 82 tons cargo; 6 available staterooms and 20 low berths. The player rolled the freetrader twice on the mustering out tables so the ship starts with only a twenty year mortgage rather than a thirty year mortgage. And Captain Chen has gone in partners with another NPC merchant who rolled a ship, Poul der Löwe, which makes it a ten year mortgage. Only 120 payments go. But, what payments they are: 154,500 credits per month required rain or shine, solar flare or meteor shower. How will he pull that off? Let’s take look at the economics of a freetrader.

The basic costs of running a freetrader include: fuel, if refined 15,000 per jump; crew salaries, assuming all positions paid, 15,000 per month; life support for staterooms of 20,000 per jump; and life support for low passage of 100 per passenger; plus those jump cassettes of 10,000 per. Possible revenues are: 10,000 per high passage; 8,000 per middle passage; and 1,000 per low passage; and 1,000 per ton cargo haul. There is also the possibility of speculative trading that may more may not earn revenue. The lucrative mail contracts are not generally available to freetraders. Jumps take one week to complete so assuming hauls a load per week and full passengers (two high passengers per stateroom and all low berths full) and full cargo it looks like a freetrader can pull in a profit of 530,500 credits per month. Not bad. Those merchants are sitting pretty. Or are they?

Lasfaus is is a two jumps from everywhere so can a freetrader even trade out of Ladfaus? I ruled they could assuming they carry an extra 30 tons of fuel in collapsible tanks (1 ton) in the hold. The first jump is into deep space, then transfer fuel and jump again. It’s two weeks of jump time into Mazar.  But, still, the planets available from Mazar are 1 jump away so Finn’s Chance can get two more jumps in before a payment is due. Even with reduced cargo (52 tons available space) on the first jump that clears 324,500 a month, right?

Well, no, that’s not right. Those assume no time to deliver, find and load cargo. A more realistic assumption is a week to arrive in system find and load cargo and then a week of jump time which results in at most two deliveries a month. If a freetrader can do two full loads of cargo and passengers per month, they can clear 180,500. Still, more than a payments-worth of profit. Not bad. But, out of Ladfaus how does this work? One week to deliver, find and load cargo, two weeks jump time, then another week to find and load cargo. Finn’s Chance will only get one delivery the first month. Not good. It puts the ship 72,500 in the red after the first month’s operation. Delivering goods back to Ladfaus is a money losing proposition for a freetrader. Looks like it’s best to focus on the rest of the Empire who are 1 jump systems.

The above calculations assume optimal cargo as well. What did Finn’s Chance achieve for its first cargo? Rolling randomly for cargos there was a 50 ton cargo bound for Mazar available, 2 high, 5 middle, and 17 low passengers. Plus, there were polymers available for speculation are a price of 3,500 per ton. Our Captain, Finn Chen, elected not to speculate and went with the 50 ton cargo, and all the passengers. The previous assumption of full cargo and doubled up high passengers did not play out. Where does that put him? Chen is piloting himself, and the steward is an NPC merchant, Poul der Löwe, quarter owner who doesn’t get paid so that saves a bit on crew costs.

Week 1 From Ladfaus:
Cargo (tons): 50 Costs:
Passenger: Fuel: 30,000
High: 2 Life Support: 43,400
Middle: 5 Jump Cassette: 20,000
Low: 17 Salaries: 6,000
Week 2 In Jump Bank Payment: 154,500
Week 3 In Jump
Week 4 Delivery Revenues:
Passengers: 77,000
      Cargo: 50,000
Total: -126,900

Holy Moley! Captain Finn Chen’s career is starting out massively in the red. That’s an inauspicious start. Captain Chen is in something of a pickle. Assuming the crew can wait for pay, there is nonetheless a lot of incentive to start cutting corners and taking risks. And, taking risks is what RPGs should all be about.

  • Terry Sanders says:

    You have just summed up why I almost never played TRAVELLER in my youth. If I wanted a desperate, starving, hand-to-mouth existence with creditors hounding me from world to world, all I had to do was switch to a liberal arts degree. 🙂 Why would I fantasize about it?

    D&D was about the combat equivalent of crazed prospectors looking for gold in the desert. TRAVELLER was the equivalent of bankruptcy proceedings with guns.

    Every campaign I even vaguely enjoyed started with characters who’d rolled well enough to at least be breaking even. There’s a big difference between adventuring because you could be doing better, and adventuring because it was that or LOSE EVERYTHING. And I never got any kick out of the former, whatsoever.

    This is, of course, a YMMV thing. It sounds like it suits your bunch to a tee. Just thought I’d*mention thisn for the next “Why wasn’t TRAVELLER more popular?” Thread.

  • Terry Sanders says:

    Oops. I meant “the latter,” of course.

    • Gaiseric says:

      I’ve always tended to agree; the primary premise of Traveller is less intriguing than much of the rest of the game. There tends to be a patina of interstellar law and order too; although it SAYS it’s about frontier regions, it rarely ever FEELS like it. If it was, who are these creditors chasing the ship’s captain out in the middle of nowhere?

      I think this could be easily salvageable for the more adventurous tastes like yours. I’d shake it up just a bit; make New Assam an angry colony of refugees who fled Calapia following the “finlandization” by the Empire of Reason rather than simply a colony of political neutrals. The PCs could travel with a letter of marque issued by Assamite authorities to prey on Reasonite ships.

      You can still have that same vibe of living hand to mouth, one-step ahead of scuzzy creditors, but rather than taking on cargo and passengers for peanuts, engage in outright piracy and chasing after wild rumors of exotic treasures across the subsector.

      Traveller as written somehow managed to take a setting of what should be exotic space-faring adventure, and turn it into space-faring bean counters all too often. But the adventure is still right there. All that it really takes is making it a cold war between rival powers, or a true frontier region; get rid of some of the settled feeling of powerful space empires which tend to suppress most of the possibilities for adventure.

      • Brian Renninger says:

        Excellent ideas. And, going rogue is definitely hinted at in the rules. I think a lot of the economics is to pressure players into desperate decisions which then lead to adventures. With the definition of adventure as “The bad things that happen to other people, far away.” They really need to look for opportunities ti strike paydirt to escape the grind.

      • Terry Sanders says:

        Yeah. TRAVELLER always felt to me like ENTERPRISE:

        “Well, here we are–another place where no man has gone before. Check the Vulcan database for atmosphere, gravity, and four-star restaurants…”

  • Brian Renninger says:

    I guess a difference between D&D and Traveller is that D&D has a built in mechanism to make players take risks as money grubbing psychos. Traveller, which generally has little character advancement doesn’t have this mechansim. But, the costs of doing business can create a similar effect. Plus, SF had a general trope of the money issues of tramp freighters (e.g. Han Solo and Jabba) but, also really the trope of poor travellers is straight from the novels of E.C. Tubb. So, different genre expectations. But, I’d agree it does feel different grubbing money to get ahead versus grubbing money to not fall behind.

    • Terry Sanders says:

      Problem is, they didn’t get Tubb right, either.

      For example, Low Passage was star travel for the desperate, yes. But it wasn’t an *automatic* dice roll. There were things *you* could do to help your odds, and Dumarest routinely did them. Things like never taking a passage before recovering from the last one. Paying close attention to diet, etc. And so on. It changed the flavor noticeably.

      And even then, the series had a strong streak of hopelessness to it that only the main character’s sheer grit made tolerable. Role-play it? Not me.

      And a merchant with an inadequate ship and a forty-year mortgage was little better. Why the living H*** would a fifty-year-old man live one step ahead of Guido, barely making payments on a ship whose mortgage will outlive him–and probably the ship?

      Again, your mileage may vary–and obviously does. But the missing element in vanilla TRAVELLER that made it usually unplayable fo me was not momey-grubbing psychosis. It was hope.

      • Terry Sanders says:

        And then they came up with the Imperium. And things got worse.

      • Brian Renninger says:

        Well, I wouldn’t say it’s hopeless. One payday loan and a few good trades and they should be caught up. And, this turns out to be a particularly unfortunate setup in that the first jump is a two parsec jump. The hope in Traveller was to one-day acquire that plasma rifle.

        Though, it does seem like a successful newly “retired” merchant could just sell his newly rolled Freetrader and retire in luxury. Jon Mollison’s Sudden Rescue addresses this with the protagonist’s desire to retire always being interrupted by wanderlust.

        • Terry Sanders says:

          And, I suspect, an economy that allows for viable business modelsm 🙂

        • Terry Sanders says:

          Your case is a *bit* extreme (though I gather Earth is at least as bad), but it’s actually fairly typical of-the game as a whole, as I recall. A ship that can barely get from port to port, with steadily deteriorating safety margins (your estimate didn’t include saving up for the next overhaul, and I saw how much refined fuel there was on that map), the above mentioned mortgage that will outlive both you and the ship–the whole TRAVELLER setting was gray goo.

          Again, don’t get me wrong–it sounds like you guys are up for it. I’m just covering my own problems. As often as not, when someone started a TRAVELLER campaign, I’d roll up a character, look at the prospects after everyone else had done the same, and say “I think I’m gonna put my mustering- out into a nice comfortable retirement.”

          After all, I’d already done one of the most fun parts of the game–rolling up the character. That’s a campaign all by itself. Only thing that would beat it was if somebody wanted to design a starship. And who could afford that? 🙂

          • Brian Renninger says:

            Well, there is a lot of expectation for the Referee to come up with profitable opportunities. The classic JTAS scenario Annic Nova drops an alien ship worth millions into the players laps.

          • Terry Sanders says:

            Yep. Always wanted to play that one.

            As I said, my problem was with the milieu, not what *could* be done. There’s just a different *feel* to a game where you’re adventuring out of hope for something better, rather than out of crawling fear of homeless poverty.

            The pioneers who “went west, young man” were, by and large, looking for opportunity, not fleeing doom. And most of the space opera I read had the same air. TRAVELLER deliberately eschews that. You’re not the crew of the *Solar Queen,* much less the *Muddlin’ Through.* At best, you’re Northwest Smith. At worst you’re Earl Dumarest of Terra, and you’ll have to be as good as Kimball Kinnison just to live another day.

            I will confess. Most of the games I saw or played in, they skipped the merchant thing and came up with an excuse for the players to go looking for trouble. Mercenaries. Scouts. Or just somebody with an ungodly Admin score so they could consistently make good money. Once they were more or less on their feet, they would look around and say “Anything interesting? That’s what we came out here for…”

  • Brian Renninger says:

    Whups, to be clear the D&D mechanism is gold for XP.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Actually, I thought that

    “mechanism to make players take risks as money grubbing psychos.”

    was quite clear. And accurate.

    Interesting analysis of the prospects for a Free Trader. It has been a long time, and I can’t remember if this played a part in our campaign’s “Guns for Hire” theme, or whether it was just luck of the roll during character generation.

    Thanks for posting!

  • Taarkoth says:

    Staterooms :cost 20,000 to run, can accomodate 2 passengers, each passenger pays 10,000.

    So a full stateroom provides exactly 0 credits of profit.

    Did you mess up the numbers in your post?

    • Brian Renninger says:

      That’s 20,000 total for all 10 staterooms. It’s 2,000 per room for life support. So, a full ship with four crew and 12 high passengers pays 20,000 for life support but, earns 120,000 from the high passengers. So, 100,000 profit. But, it’s unlikely to get 12 high passengers. Even a population A world will have a maximum of 18 people looking for high passage. And, most worlds will provide significantly less. But, it is clear that high passages are the gravy that can make or break a ship.

    • John E. Boyle says:

      I believe that means that ALL of the staterooms on the ship cost a combined 20,000 per run, so two high-end passengers = breakeven, more brings in revenue.

  • Bigby's Typing Hands says:

    If one tires of economics there’s always the flip side of the classic game: Playing the scuzzy creditors trying to repo a starship. Typically you work for a bank or corporation and roll up a group of veterans with sweet gear. A scout class ship can be the chase vessel in a pinch.

    • Brian Renninger says:

      Yep. There are lots of options. I think that was often the sticking point in Traveller. What to do? D&D Dungeon Crawls are pretty straight forward and well defined. Same with Call of Cthulhu’s investigate the weird event of the week. Or, Shadowrun’s, well, Shadowruns.

      Traveller was a sandbox with no easily defined goals.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    The downside of staterooms is that you pay the life support whether or not you find passengers to fill them. I can see players modding their ship to just keep empty staterooms in vacuum and unheated to try to save money. Could be handy if you get an unruly passenger too. “Steward please dump stateroom 6 to vacuum, it appears we’ve acquired another chestburster. What a nuisance.”

  • Salamandyr says:

    There are few ways to believably modify that so it’s not quite so dire. I think a Free Trader is equipped with fuel scoops, which allow them to refuel off any convenient gas giant…if it doesn’t have fuel scoops, then there’s your first upgrade.

    Second, it doesn’t seem reasonable that unused staterooms must be kept open regardless of occupancy. Our modern vessels are compartmentalized, why wouldn’t this be standard on any starship?

    Likewise, it seems like the game assumes you buy everything new each time you go to port, which forgets the advantages of having your own mobile fusion reactor. Air recycling, atmosphere compression in port, water, all of those ought to be almost incidental cost, leaving food and other potables as the primary expense.

    • Terry Sanders says:

      The ships are equipped with scoops, yes. But most character groups start (if they have a ship) with a Free Trader. The equivalent of a tramp coasting steamer from the 1930’s.

      Which means civilian engines. Which deteriorate rapidly when you don’t feed them *refined* fuel. The cost for which our host notes above.

      Not only does your reactor have problems wit it. So does your jump drive. Every time you jump on the cheap stuff, your chances of disappearing forever goes up.

      Basically, you’re trying to run a trucking company in the desert–with a used truck made to be driven inside Las Vegas city limits. A high compression motor with no fuel filters–which you’re feeding alcohol or cheap kerosene, with sand in the bottom of the tank.

      A truck made for rough country? Sorry. Those are military-grade–and they cost the earth.

      The rest of your suggestions have similar answers. As our host has suggested, TRAVELLER’s economic system seems designed to make players poor and desperate, so they can be more easily railroaded into the GM’s adventure for this session. It’s an aspect of the game I’ve hated since the beginning–as discussed above.

      Which is annoying, because I’ve always had a liking for it otherwise.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    This is an example of the modern equivalent of a Freetrader.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    One thing I didn’t mention in the article is the scenario of a freetrader getting its two jumps per month. Assuming a full hold and full load of high passengers a ship can earn profit of 180,500/month. So, that’s not a horrible scenario. Now, most of the profit comes from high passengers. You need at least 6 high passengers per month to break even. Plus, add in speculative cargo shrewdly bought and sold a ship can be nicely profitable without cutting corners. But, that jump 2 from Ladfaus is quite a hit.

    • Terry Sanders says:

      Your Captain Chin managed on the passengers this time (2*high + 5*mid = 6*high). Congratulations. Now how often is he likely to repeat that? (I’m really curious–it’s been thirty years since I’ve seen a rulebook.) Especially away from Class A ports?

      • Brian Renninger says:

        It’s true the odds of finding lots of high passengers lowers quite a bit at the smaller population planets. The average population planet in the Empire is 4 (in the tens of thousands) so, these places are small. A population 4 world will have 3D-3D high passengers, 3D-3D middle passengers, and 4D-1D low passengers (this is the 1977 table, the later tables are a bit different). So average is something like zero high and middle passengers and eleven low. Something like that. But, the swings could be huge 0-15 high, 0-15 middle and 0 to 23 low. Though high and middle will tend toward zero as negative rolls become zeros. Though your point is well taken that there is no guarantee of high paying passengers. And, the above assumes travelling to a similar planet. Traveling to a low population world will be additional minuses to the roll.

        • Terry Sanders says:

          Thought it would be like that. Captain Chen or his steward better have a good Admin rating. Speculation is pretty much their only hope, sounds like.

          Or traps with exceeding expensive bait, laid out by an evil GM… 🙂

  • Frank Filz says:

    Welcome to the Proto Traveller movement (as it should be rather than another definition of Proto Traveller which includes Supplement 3, The Spinward Marches).

    One little nit, the Free Trader mustering out benefit gives a brand new ship with a 40 year mortgage, so your PC with 2 rolls should still have a 30 year mortgage, with the NPC’s roll, that’s still a 20 year mortgage.

    As to the hardscrabble nature of running a Free Trader, I think it’s great to push the characters into seeking fortune in other ways. I see that as a feature rather than a bug. If the economic system gave an easy profit we might as well be playing Papers and Paychecks…

  • Brian Renninger says:

    Nice article touching on a fine point of fuel costs versus skimming fuel.

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