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The Fleet Ship designs, strategies, and tactics.

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  #1  
Old March 25th, 2006, 12:26 PM
Black Globe Generator
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I'm a big fan of Adventure 4. A merchant exploration mission searching for new markets in a poorly known subsector - this is cool! Sure, the fact that there are "unknown" worlds just a stone's throw from the Imperial border didn't make much sense - and then there are those goofy jump torpedoes - but the idea of contacting forgotten worlds in the shadows beyond the edge of Imperial illumination was pretty exciting stuff.

And then there's Leviathan herself. Re-reading the adventure yesterday (thanks, Titan Games!), I luxuriated in the precise details of the ship - this hatch opens this way, here's the small galley that serves the bridge crew, in this compartment are the environmental controls for the cargo bay...brilliant, just brilliant. No other deckplan gave me that same feeling of, "Wow, this is what a big ship would really be like!"

Except for the cargo hold.

Seventy tons. For an 1800-dton merchant ship.

My character was fortunate enough, way back in the day, to captain the mighty Leviathan on its journey across the Outrim Void, and I remember being frustrated by the tiny hold - I was pretty good at turning a profit, you see (to the point where we almost never encountered the Droyne in Twilight's Peak since we were making so many credits trading along the Main), and that darn seventy tons just didn't cut it for a truly mercantile adventurer. I filled the various ship's boats with trade goods on the way out and again on the return voyage, and even then our profits were modest (at least by my standards - once you've made that first 100 MCr, anything less feels like pocket change!).

I see this same thing in many ship designs, like the Lorimar or various and sundry "fast traders" (the progeny of naval architects suffering from "Millenium Falcon syndrome") that pop up from time to time. These designs give my suspension of disbelief a swift kick in the slats. I have a hard enough time figuring out how any sane financial institution would finance a far trader, let alone any of these monstrosities - in fact, IMTU a character must have a successful trading history, decent starting capital, and a business plan that's a bit more detailed than "look for odd jobs" in order to finance a type A2.

T20 gives me a little bit of relief with priority cargos for fast traders - at least that slim cargo tonnage can be stretched a bit, but the event horizon of the debt gravity well looms large should the ship leave a populous route. And merchant cruisers are partially subsidized by their parent companies in anticipation of future profits - spending money to make money, as it were - but this is cold-comfort to a crew that is expecting a percentage of the profits on a type MC trading expedition.

Still, the idea that anyone is interested in designing and building merchant ships that have little or no chance of breaking even, let alone turning a profit strains my credulity more than a ten-ton computer ever will. Merchants exist to make money, and IMHO their ships should reflect this.

Why build a Leviathan when you can build a 3000-ton Tukera Lines-style freighter and a 400-ton patrol cruiser to escort it for about the same investment? Twelve-hundred tons of trade goods compared to seventy seems like a heck of a good incentive, and if operating beyond the border is the justification, the ten turrets on the freighter along with the four turrets of the speedy type T kick the snot out of either a Leviathan or a Lorimar.

The reason that these ships get built is a metagame one, of course - it's because they make fun platforms for players and their characters. I find no fault in this logic - it's a game, it should be exciting, and the Leviathan is an exciting ship, especially when your referee springs both a Chamax Horde-like alien infestation and a mutiny on you! (Our referee homebrewed all the planets in the Void and the associated rumors, since two or three of us already owned and read the adventure before we played.)

Nonetheless, it's my one sticking point in the TU - strangely enough, I can accept many of the oddities that hang up other Traveller gamers, but merchant ships that are unlikely to turn a profit set my eyes to rolling faster than you can say, "feudal technocracy." [img]smile.gif[/img]
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  #2  
Old March 25th, 2006, 12:37 PM
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One way to solve the "Far Trader" issue is to charge per parsec of transport rather than per jump (I even consider giving 3-parsecs-per-week travels a 10% surcharge). Also, some planets will be problematic to get to (i.e. require drop-tanks at best and take two weeks) without Jump-2+.

IMTU the star density is a bit closer to the realistic one rather than to the OTU one, so there are less "mains" and more Jump-2-only worlds; most starships are Jump-2, with Jump-1 used only in certain localities (i.e. in the small "mains"). Before Jump-2 was invented, most Jump-1 ships had enough internal fuel tankage for 2-Jump-1. Jump-3 is rarely needed IMTU to get to one place without interstellar "calibration" (Jump-2 is usually enough), but it could make detours to cut travel time. Nescery for the military and the corps, far less for trade goods.

Turrets-wise, most small starships (that is, 1,000 dtons or less) IMTU are usually produced with the maximum amount of hardpoints, but (in the case of purely civilian designs) no turrets or weapons intsalled. Hardpoints are cheap (in starship-price terms, that is), small (1 dton per hardpoint) and customizability brings customers. Above 1,000 dtons the practice is typically to assign half the maximum amount of hardpoints (for ship intended for frontier use) or one third (for ships intended to be used in the safe core-worlds).
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Old March 25th, 2006, 12:52 PM
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Quote:
Originally posted by Employee 2-4601:
One way to solve the "Far Trader" issue is to charge per parsec of transport rather than per jump.
Fie on per-parsec cargo costs! Fie, I say!



This is one of the things I like with respect to T20 priority cargos - it works alongside the inviolable concept of charging per jump rather than per parsec for standard cargos that is acid-etched in canon.
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Originally posted by Employee 2-4601:
Also, some planets will be problematic to get to (i.e. require drop-tanks at best and take two weeks) without Jump-2+.
And this is why type A2s get built at all, IMHO - a master interested in such a vessel better have a good record in business ventures before she can hope to get a loan and insurance for such a ship.
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Old March 25th, 2006, 02:11 PM
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Go and read this thread over at Steve Jackson Games' forums.

You'll find some interesting stuff in there about the role of a Merchant Cruiser.
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Old March 25th, 2006, 06:47 PM
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BGG,

The thread Sigg has linked is a good one. To paraphrase the conversation there; Leviathan is a merchant explaratory cruiser and not just a merchant ship. Daryen put it very well in the thread; Leviathan carries beads out to the natives.

The vessel doesn't carry a cargo of freight or specualtive trade goods. Instead, she carries samples and know how.

A firm is interested in trading opportunities along a certain or within a certain region. They take a ship, load it with samples of likely trade goods, and staff it with contact specialists, master traders, money jugglers, and player characters, then dispatch it on its mission.

When a vessel arrives at world, it doesn't stay for the usual "One week, find passengers, scramble for cargo" period. Instead, the ship and her crew explore the world from an economic viewpoint. Likely goods are identified, suppliers approached, and business relationships begun. At the same time, the various samples the ship carries are presented to likely purchasers and consumers.

The idea is to create a basis for future trade, trade that other vessels will undertake becuase those vessels have the carrying capacity to do so.

You can also see that this 'economic exploring' is made to order for role-playing. QLI has a wonderful pdf on this very subject; Merchant Cruiser.


Have fun,
Bill
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Old March 25th, 2006, 07:01 PM
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Quote:
Originally posted by Sigg Oddra:
Go and read this thread over at Steve Jackson Games' forums.

You'll find some interesting stuff in there about the role of a Merchant Cruiser.
I did, thank you.

I'm going to borrow a quote from the SJG forum, courtesy of Bill Cameron:
Quote:
Originally posted by Bill Cameron:
Instead of being a merchantman or merchant cruiser, I've always viewed Leviathan as a merchant exploratory cruiser. She goes where no trader has gone before, hence all the back-up systems and the relatively large crews. She doesn't plod along the spacelanes carrying 542 dTons of Stroudenese imitation neck sleeves to Lunion every two weeks. She carries samples of various goods to flog to new markets while sampling any new or unusual goods those markets may have. Leviathan simply 'discovered' that Perrior/Pax Rulin mineral water that is all the rage among the upper crust of Glisten, other merchant ships now carry it back in the quantities required.
I understand this is the intent of the merchant cruisers - why pokes my suspension of disbelief is the idea that this is something that a corporation would find profitable enough to underwrite. This goes beyond speculative trading and into the realm of playing three-card monte in a back-alley with the company trust.

When I think of merchants exploring new markets, I think of Robert Gray and the Columbia - the backers of the expedition expected Gray and Kendrick not only to explore the PNW coast but to make a profit on the voyage as well, and they were supplied accordingly from the outset. This is much more of what I envision from the kinds of frontier missions undertaken by corporations IMTU, not exploration for exploration's sake.

Merchant cruisers are incredibly expensive to produce for a wholly uncertain return. That they exist seems to me to be solely for metagame reasons.
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Old March 25th, 2006, 07:36 PM
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Looks like you posted while I was composing! [img]smile.gif[/img]
Quote:
Originally posted by Bill Cameron:
Daryen put it very well in the thread; Leviathan carries beads out to the natives.
And that's exactly what Kendrick and Gray carried in the Columbia and the Lady Washington - the difference was that the cargo wasn't merely symbolic, but rather an attempt to turn a profit from the trip.
Quote:
Originally posted by Bill Cameron:
The vessel doesn't carry a cargo of freight or specualtive trade goods. Instead, she carries samples and know how.].
This is an insanely expensive way for a corporation to explore new markets, IMHO, and it also belies one of the explicitly stated reward systems in the adventures: profit.

In Adventure 4, the crew all expect to earn a percentage of the resale of trade goods obtained on the voyage - the captain gets 4%, for example, which was my incentive to pack the every bit of empty with goods on both the voyages out and back from Egryn.

Unless you trade exclusively in low-bulk, high-value goods, you cannot expect a generous return on seventy tons of cargo space, and to assume that lanthanum or zuchai crystals or radioactives in readily-transportable amounts is like putting your whole stake on double-zero the minute you step up to the roulette table. This is what sucks some of the air out of the adventure for me: what board of directors would ever greenlight this?

Quote:
Originally posted by Bill Cameron:
A firm is interested in trading opportunities along a certain or within a certain region. They take a ship, load it with samples of likely trade goods, and staff it with contact specialists, master traders, money jugglers, and player characters, then dispatch it on its mission.

When a vessel arrives at world, it doesn't stay for the usual "One week, find passengers, scramble for cargo" period. Instead, the ship and her crew explore the world from an economic viewpoint. Likely goods are identified, suppliers approached, and business relationships begun. At the same time, the various samples the ship carries are presented to likely purchasers and consumers.

The idea is to create a basis for future trade, trade that other vessels will undertake becuase those vessels have the carrying capacity to do so.
Arguably all of this is more properly the realm of the IISS, not a private corporation which must answer to its investors, but for the sake of argument, let's assume for the moment that this is an accepted business practice in the Third Imperium - after all, Adventure 4 is canon!

This then raises another question: Is a ship like Leviathan or Lorimar really suited to this task? Why not purchase (or build new) a much less expensive Donosev-class vessel and outfit it instead? Are the redundant systems and large crews of both Leviathan and Lorimar really necessary to perform a task that the Scouts do with far fewer people?

It screams inefficiency to me, and that's just a bad business practice.

The fact remains that Leviathan is not merely expected to "return samples" but rather to turn a profit as an incentive to the crew, something that is woefully inequipped to do.
Quote:
Originally posted by Bill Cameron:
You can also see that this 'economic exploring' is made to order for role-playing. QLI has a wonderful pdf on this very subject; Merchant Cruiser.
(I have Merchant Cruiser, and though I haven't played it, it looks like a hoot.

And ultimately this is, to me, the only reason that merchant cruisers and "trade exploration" exists in the game. Not that it's a bad reason - as both a ref and a player, it's one of the most enjoyable ways to adventure to be sure! - but IMTU, the ships and the trade goods are intended to be profitable as well as entertaining. [img]smile.gif[/img]
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Old March 25th, 2006, 07:55 PM
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Quote:
Originally posted by Black Globe Generator: When I think of merchants exploring new markets, I think of Robert Gray and the Columbia - the backers of the expedition expected Gray and Kendrick not only to explore the PNW coast but to make a profit on the voyage as well, and they were supplied accordingly from the outset.
BGG,

Apples and oranges.

Gray wasn't 'exploring' anything other than previously known trading opportunities. The coastline was already known well enough for him to sail along it, the presence of the natives was already known, the trade goods the natives had to offer was already known, and the trade goods the natives wanted was already known.

All Gray 'expored' was whether a larger volume of regular trade involving known goods conducted by white men could be set up by sea instead of across the continent.

In contrast, Leviathan and her ilk are exploring 'new' worlds. Not totally unknown worlds as A:4 suggests (one of its weakest aspects, IMHO) but economically unknown worlds. What goods are available? What goods are in demand? What trading potentials may have been overlooked by both the locals and visitors in the past? What has changed since the last time we visited?

In the Real World, corporations, states, and nations routinely send trade missions abroad at some cost to 'economical explore' very well known markets. Sometimes they earn back their cost, but the real payoff comes from the trade that follows.

Columbus personally didn't earn the Spanish Crown a dime, yet they underwrote three voyages that were very costly for the period. Later, Spain did earn back - and much, much more - the 'start-up' costs Columbus' voyages represented.

Nearly all exploration followed a similar pattern. The Portugeuse effort to round Africa didn't pay off until De Gama reached India decades after the project began. The yearly exploratory voyages before that never paid for themselves despite the slaves, gold, and ivory they broght back.

The purely trading fleets following in the exploratory fleet's wake did make money, but they weren't pushing south towards the Cape and beyond. They exploited the trading relationships the exploratory fleet had already discovered.

That's what merchant explorers like Leviathan are; they're R&D efforts. The payoff is in the future they discover.


Have fun,
Bill
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Old March 25th, 2006, 07:58 PM
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I have wondered about that very thing, too. But there´s more... I´ve played around with ship design quite a bit, too, and hardly any of the traders, freighters and whatever that I constructed were able to break even by carrying a full hold of cargo and and filling their staterooms with double occupancy High Passengers.
In particular, things like installing and arming turrets (and carrying gunners, even if some regular crew doubles as some of the gunners), carrying more than one very small Small Craft, or installing something bigger than Jump-2 (plus fuel) drove the "Credits needed per jump per d-ton of freight" number through the roof.

That is, these ships needed to engage in speculative trade - and be *good* at it - in order to be able to make ends meet. IIRC the Free Trader and Far Trader can just barely avoid red numbers, but that´s it. IF they can fill up to capacity.

This seems illogical to me. Sure, there´s a good *game* reason for that - it forces the PCs to take a risk to earn money - but in reality, things wouldn´t work that way. Prices would rise, in other words.

I admit I haven´t tried to construct really big ships (10,000+ d-tons), so there might be some designs in that range that can make money just hauling freight and passengers. But then, these ships are only going to be economical when they can consistently load up to full capacity, which is probably only possible on the main trade routes, if at all.

Which, in the end, leads me to the - provisional - conclusion that transportation fees are not the same all over space. Particularly, you´ll see lower prices where the little Free Traders have to compete with the 100,000 d-ton megacorporation freighter, and higher prices where they don´t. *Much* higher prices, in out-of-the-way places.
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Old March 25th, 2006, 08:28 PM
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Quote:
Originally posted by Bill Cameron:
Apples and oranges.
I'm sorry, but I respectfully disagree. Neither the coast nor its markets were that well-known, even to the British and Spanish who'd exploited them for decades by the time the Americans arrived on the scene - heck, Vancouver missed the bloody great Columbia River, and even questioned Gray's report after it was charted!

A general understanding that there were people somewhere in the PNW who would trade pelts and fish for manufactured goods, yes - beyond that, not much.

Now contrast that with the information contained in the rumors pages of Adventure 4 - there is a considerable amount of information available to intrepid adventurers before Leviathan leaves port.

And to continue the contrast, there is next-to-nothing unknown to the crew of the Lorimar about the Gateway.
Quote:
Originally posted by Bill Cameron:
In the Real World, corporations, states, and nations routinely send trade missions abroad at some cost to 'economical explore' very well known markets....
Virtually every one of these early explorers did so under government subsidy - that's not the case with Leviathan (unless I missed something about BT working under contract to the IISS or the Ministry of Commerce...?). Private companies didn't appear on the scene, usually with royal charter in hand, until after the initial government-funded exploration was complete.
Quote:
Originally posted by Bill Cameron:
That's what merchant explorers like Leviathan are; they're R&D efforts. The payoff is in the future they discover.
I would buy this argument if the adventure stipulated that the crew received a percentage of the market, rather than the pittance they are likely to earn from the cargo.

My point here is not the relationship between exploration and trade - it's the specific tools suggested in the game as the means by which this comes about (merchant cruisers with execrable cargo capacity) and who pays the bills (private companies answerable to their shareholders).

[Edited to fix a formatting goof.]
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