Sunday, February 11, 2018

Scarcity, Traveller, and Starcraft

Several things happened recently which reminded me of Traveller.

My father flies cargo around the Pacific, and it came up in conversation with him that much of what he carries is hazardous or generally "does not play well with other cargoes".  Oxidizers, corrosives, fertilizer, livestock...  and when you put these on a big container ship, there are more things for them to interact violently with if something goes wrong.  So instead they travel alone in a cargo plane.  Seems to me that this provides a potential out for one of the core problems of Traveller economics - why is anyone hiring this tramp freighter to move their goods when there are enormous shipping lines who have economies of scale?  Because there are some things that are more hassle than they're worth to the big players.  This is already supported, technically, but it's a shift from "hazardous cargoes exist" to "hazardous cargoes are the default."  This also adds an extra layer of potential excitement to cargo operations, especially since cargo is on the table of "things that can be hit in space combat."

I also tested for a ham radio license, and all the finicky details of talking to satellites got me thinking about how we abstracted away communications (between, say, ship and ground) completely.  Even outside of dealing with doppler shift and the ship only being in line of sight a fraction of the time, ground-to-ground communication might be complicated by alien atmospheres (in this case, it looks like Mars' ionosphere is sufficiently lower and thinner than Earth's that practical range for single-bounce ground-to-ground RF comms is about 600 miles instead of 2500+ miles you can get on Earth).  This seems like the sort of thing the old Traveller nerds, with their planet-to-planet time tables based off of acceleration, would've enjoyed thinking about.

Finally, I read this post of Charles Stross'.  His bit about economics got me thinking about post-scarcity, and I came to the conclusion that I'm extremely critical of the notion.  Hanson articulates a reasonable critique here.  So I was reminded of Niven and Traveller's belters (grungy, working-class subsistence futures) and also generally that populations expand to fill their carrying capacities - biological replicators.

Between radios, future-scarcity, jobs, and replicators, I got to thinking about Starcraft, in its grungy, space-Australia-western-full-of-ugly-assholes-but-oh-god-what-are-these-bugs-aiiieeee flavor that I enjoyed at the beginning of the first campaign (it is, of course, hardly great science fiction, but so be it).  I realized that I had never actually caught up on the plot of Starcraft II, so I set about fixing that.  In so doing, I found this little gem (just the next ~30s after the linked time).  A hell of a Traveller campaign that would make: a posse of destitute space hicks - miners, drone operators, mechanics, welders, hydroponic farmers, meth cooks...  probably two or three terms, one or two military or criminal and one civilian - living dirtside and working day jobs to afford ammunition, stimulants, and explosives to go zerg hunting in the desert on the weekends, and selling the body parts for mad science...  or barbeque ("Infestation?  Naw son, you just gotta cook it real good.").  It's just another bug hunt until you wake up something you shouldn't've...  and then the fun really starts ("Worlds will burn.").

This also starts to get into some more typical OSR territory; it could turn into a rather dungeon-crawly (tunnels), resource-managementy (cash and consumables), and probably high-body-count way to play (might want to find a way to accelerate character generation...).  Taken from that perspective, starship deckplans start to look rather dungeonesque too, after you have some transport, vacc suits, and a reputation as crazy bastards who will go into infested holes for fun and money (enjoy your zero-G melee...).  Maybe Stars Without Number would do it better, since it supports mechanical advancement and building capital ships as a PC activity.

NPC palette:

  • Patrons:
    • Scientist wants samples (or to radio-tag some live specimens, or to test some attractant / repellent, or...)
    • Tourist on zerg-hunting safari seeks guides
    • Company-town mine foreman needs a mine cleared of bugs, willing to look the other way if you use weapons normally forbidden by town charter as long as you don't do too much collateral damage
    • Crashlanded bush pilot or starship crew in infested zone needs rescued (practically traditional at this point)
    • Crime boss needs something retrieved from infested zone or something transported through it, can hook you up with good (illegal) gear
    • Prospectors / colonists seek protection and guides while looking for site to mine or settle
    • Separatists looking for a few good men to help liberate the armory of the local military base
  • Rivals:
    • Other posses of zerg-hunting rurals
    • Confederate marshal concerned about heavily-armed civilians
    • Confederate troops using hunting area as a training ground
  • Enemies:
    • The bugs
    • Old buddy that you left behind back in your criminal days


  1. Thanks for the shout-out to your old man. Just to clarify, however, we don't often (ever, I'd say) carry fertilizer. It takes up way too much volume and weight for what it costs. Likely that would go by sea. The economy of air freight is based on value for weight. I've hauled loads of diamonds from South Africa to Amsterdam, but never a load of coal. iPhones and Formula One race cars go by air in one day; Legos and Crocs leave China in a ship for the 30 day transit. Not sure how that would translate to an interstellar economy. Maybe the distinction would be more along the lines of Express / Courier (as in direct routing / dedicated carrier) versus an amalgamated carrier making multiple stops with extended unload/offload/refuel times at each stop.

    To go by air, hazmat still has to be valuable enough to justify the expense. As an example, when OEF kicked off, the AF hauled loads of bombs in C-5 transport jets from the US to Diego Garcia for the bombers to drop on Afghanistan. Meanwhile an ammo transport ship left California for the month+ journey. Once it reached Diego with more bombs that a fleet of aircraft could ever hope to haul, the planes started carrying more prosaic cargo and the frequency dropped off significantly. The value of those initial bombs was only relative to their immediate need, not any intrinsic value like the aforementioned diamonds.

    There are 9 major hazardous material classifications, and some of those have subgroups. They range from Explosives like ammunition, blasting caps, bombs, etc. to radioactive material, corrosives, flammable gasses, flammable solids (those damn lithium ion batteries!) and even airbag and life raft inflators and beyond. Magnetic material must be labeled as such so it can be placed on the plane in a location that won't interfere with aircraft systems even though it's not inherently hazardous. As you mentioned, there are specific segregation, separation, and location criteria of the different types so that a problem doesn't cascade into a greater crisis. An example of how this can go very wrong occurred on a military transport in 1984. The US Navy had mislabeled some cargo, so it was placed in a position it should not have been on a U.S. Air Force transport. Here's the story from Wikipedia:

    (As an explanatory note, the C-141 is a high wing transport, so the fuselage sits below the wing and thus between the engines, unlike commercial low-wing aircraft.)

    On 12 July 1984, C-141B 64-0624, experienced an uncontained failure of its number 3 engine immediately after takeoff from NAS Sigonella, on the Italian island of Sicily. Ejected debris caused number 4 engine to also fail. Debris also entered the cargo compartment and started a fire in a pallet containing paint. The cargo fire produced thick poisonous smoke which made visual control of aircraft extremely difficult. The aircraft entered a steep bank and crashed just over three minutes after takeoff. All 8 crew men and a passenger on board were killed. Post crash toxicology indicated the crew had received potentially fatal levels of cyanide poisoning from the smoke, prior to impact. Subsequent to this accident, smoke goggles were added to crew oxygen masks. (

  2. Hm, interesting - when you said oxidizers, I assumed fertilizer because that's a pretty common civilian oxidizer. The timing thing with the C-5 bomb transport is also maybe Traveller-relevant.