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General Small Ship Pirates

Yes, but if they are planning to salvage and/or sell the prize-ship, they will be limited by the Jump-number of the prize (they have to get it to the safe-port), which for a merchant is usually low-jump.

Oh yes indeed. The more I think about it, the riskier trying to capture ships looks (not to mention that'd require a larger group as one would need a competent prize crew on top of the one aboard the pirate's ship).
I'd love to see a party arrange a three-or-more-way swap of cargo container data, double blind shipments, with the mis-labled and mis-directed freight getting sold off cheap as 'lost or unclaimed' in an orbital marshalling yard of a spaceport far distant from the point of origin to a throwaway shell company created by the PCs, so they have a legitimate claim to the freight. Goodness, the hacks, forgeries, bribes and favors they'd have to put together...

Definitely a full gaming night - if not a full campaign.
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You have all made very good points.
But I think there is one assumption several of you are making, perhaps without realizing it. The assumption seems to be that we are talking about piracy inside the Third Imperium.
I think we can all agree that piracy inside the Third Imperium, or at least most of it, would be much too risky to be worth while.
However I suspect there would still be an opening for unconventional business practices (piracy) in the fringes of, or outside, a well developed interstellar polity. I think this because, due to the Traveller standard world generation system, there will still be many starports (usually small and poor, but still starports) in the uncontrolled systems outside an interstellar polity. These starports will often be existing on a bare minimum of trade, and might well welcome the traffic of pirates, perhaps even providing some passive support to such brigands. In such areas safe havens might abound. Some Imperials might claim that most of the Vargr Extents is a pirate safe haven.
So, the outlook for piracy as a career might not be so bleak as some of these posts seem to suggest, if you choose the right area to operate in. There would have to be enough merchant traffic to give a reasonable chance of catching some prey, but also not so much traffic that interstellar governments will be compelled to provide significant protection.
Indeed, much of the Vargr Extents fits this description IMO.
The region between the Third Imperium and the Zhodani Consulate might be even better, though for a slightly different reason, IMO. I would suspect that the amount of trade traffic passing through the region around Arden/Villis would be more than large enough to normally prompt both the Third Imperium and the Zhodani Consulate to provide military protection for commerce. However, since the area is a demilitarized zone (1105, before the Federation of Arden), pirates could have plenty of game to hunt at relatively low risk.
I would think that even pirates with a small merchant ship would have at least some chance, which is why I asked my original question about how they would actually carry out piracy.
You have all made very good points.
But I think there is one assumption several of you are making, perhaps without realizing it. The assumption seems to be that we are talking about piracy inside the Third Imperium.

That's right, I definitely was thinking intra-Imperium piracy there. I'd still think violent, space-based piracy is a rather untenable option if attempted within the Consulate and the Solomani Rim as well. For smaller human polities, sure the opportunity to get away with piracy would be greater, but the core problems are still there: you have to get your hands on a multi-million credit ship, recruit a highly skilled crew, and risk losing them both investments or run a deficit every time the targeted trader shoots a laser at you.

With alien polities, you're right, the options look much better. A lot would depend on cultural factors I guess. What humans would consider piracy and their nations a serious threat to their monopoly on organized violence, maybe aliens (and you make a great case with the Vargr here) would see as fair game, or an entirely private matter (although of course that would probably hurt their commerce and make diplomatic relations suffer, just as it would today if, say, Spain announced it authorizes attacks on any ship going through its national waters and will gladly grant access stolen goods to its ports and markets).

But Vargr and Vargr space, yeah... I see your point.
Some thoughts.....

If you want perhaps a fun pirate campaign rather then gritty business or shooting, try casting the players as 'Robin Hood pirates', pulling off robberies of the Nottingham Megacorps and their pillaging of the poor TL6 colonists at the behest of Count John while Good Duke Richard is away.

Or to a lesser extent, evening the trade playing field with such a planet needing cheaper fenced goods then the going rate, just the thing for pirate basing.

Other main thought, most pirates would/should use small craft, preferably of the 4-G+ variety. Get in, match course, get the goods maybe even without boarding, or board and jump, get out fast. Cheap entree that doesn't involve a whole ship, if they do score a merchant ship it would be used as an operations base out of sight of the patrols or victims, they just see the small craft. Then the mother ship jumps and makes the sales to whatever fence they have lined up.

I'd suggest using any Broker or equivalent rules in your version for the sales of goods, only double their fee due to risk and a negative 3 or so DM for the undocumented cutrate prices the pirate has to sell for.

Oh, don't forget, those pirated ships aren't going to be able to pull into the starport for maintenance and repair. The pirated ships are going to fall apart, start misjumping, etc. So the pirate org is going to have to find a bribable/friendly port, or have a business plan that involves stealing at least one ship a year to 'switch to fresh horses'.

Intercept them just after take off.
The assumption seems to be that we are talking about piracy inside the Third Imperium.

That's fair, as far as my comments. One or more other commenters pointed out that very often the risk is far far greater than the reward. Starships are tens, if not hundreds of MegaCredits. Most cargoes aren't. Ship to ship piracy risks trained crews and expensive ships. To bet on those "pot odds", there would have to be some kind of extenuating circumstances.

1) Low barrier to entry: pirates operate in-system in cheap boats, minimizing risk to main ship. Hijackers aren't really pirates, but they fall into this bucket somewhat.

2) A level of desperation that justifies the risk of extensive resources: robbing a colony ship of medical and agricultural supplies for a failing and ignored colony nearby? What'd you do to save your family/tribe/clan/corporation?

3) Availability of repairs/replacements that make the resources committed to the piracy attempts. That sounds like a rogue government or privateers.

4) Perspective: the pirates and the "prey" have vastly different valuations of the resources at stake. That lasts until the prey wises up and guns up enough to make the racket unprofitable.
When I talk piracy, I talk "deep space/high seas" piracy.

The issues are not tied solely to the Imperium.

First, the window for piracy is the jump window. Those arriving at 100D and traveling inward, and those traveling outward.

This is a very small window, all things considered. A matter of hours. Obviously there are exceptions based on jump shadows and such, but much of the travel is within the 100D limit, which is not very big.

Space combat is very expensive. Space ship parts are not cheap, and expensive to repair and replace. This works against pirates. As they say "The authorities can miss over and over, the pirate can only miss once."

If piracy is at all a reasonable risk, then the polities involved are either obligated to patrol the 100D space are, or the merchants end up arming themselves. They arm themselves not so as they can "take on" pirate ships, but only to reinforce that if the pirate wants the prize, it's going to be very expensive.

Piracy affects trade, systems like trade. Patrols can be expensive, but likely less expensive than losing trade. If trade is expensive, if merchants have to price in the risk of piracy, then prices go up to the point of even having trading stop.

Patrols do not have to patrol the vastness of space, only the 100D jump lane. If merchants want safe passage, they'll travel where the patrols tell them to travel. Effectively convoying from orbit to the 100D mark.

Obviously, a coordinated pirate attack can overwhelm local patrols, but that doesn't mean they can instantly make some system a safe haven for piracy. Word will get out, ships will stop coming. It's simply not worth it. The pirates may well be able to take over a system as a refuge to where the local systems can not rally enough forces to root them out, but that system would just go under embargo and merchants would stop coming.

If pirates decide to start making coordinated attacks on systems, looking for low hanging fruit, once they've dealt with the local patrol, of course, then the game changes and the other systems will have to rally and organize to thwart them.

That could be an interesting experience, but whether the pirates can hold on in the end, I dunno. They may make an interesting footnote in history, but I think long term the governments will be able to reduce them effectively.

It would be a very interesting small ship campaign of pirates vs organized, armed merchants/privateers.

In the end, as much as the merchants want to trade, it's not worth getting killed over.
The worst trading conditions were in Medieval and Ancient history when the small states were effectively permanently at war and trade/piracy were 50/50 options

Oddly, trade still occurred. While trade may not be worth dying for there was little to dissuade the owners from having someone else die for it.

And the "Not worth Dying for" definition is also a debatable statement. When your alternative is slow/fast starvation the possibility of riches encourages adventure.

If your income is expected to be £1 per year, a 1:10 chance of £100 from a trading trip looks really hopeful. Admittedly most only make £1 or less, but everyone knows of someone who made that £100 when they arrived with the grain shipment during a local famine or the first wine shipment for a year just in time for the duke's wedding - or a shipment of pepper.

Also, when trade starts to dry up, pirates starve. And then they errr trade to make money. Or move to buccaneering/raiding instead.

Trading has never, in human history, ceased. (well except for Traveller history that is - but that can be discounted). The Silk Road didn't shut down because it became bandit ridden. It just dwindled to smaller volumes. Instead of one person making a big profit which locals tried to gouge by charging for services at each stop, many people made tiny ones along the whole route as each group traded with the nearby guys that they trusted.

England and Scotland fought for 200ish years so that (near the border) you lived in a castle or didn't live at all. Trade between the two states kept going.
As I understood the East Africa situation, there are brokers behind the pirate bands, that could provide the arms and equipment, and handle negotiations.
Trading has never, in human history, ceased.

Trade has, especially in the times you're talking about, been cheap to do.

Small band of merry men, some draft animals, and the goods.

In fact, the goods typically are worth far more than the mechanism used to perform the trade.

In Traveller, it's the reverse. The ships, especially at the low level, tend to far outvalue the cargos they're carrying.

If a trading party is raided, they lose their stock, and, perhaps, their animals, but may well be able to walk back and survive.

When you jump in and lose a 40MCr starship, the risk/reward ratio changes dramatically. Crews are cheap, ships are not.

Trade continued even in dangerous areas because it was very profitable. Traveller trade is not spectacularly profitable. Prices would have to surge to the point where the destination simply may not be able to afford it.

This, of course, behooves the governments to keep the trade lanes open so that marginal players are willing to participate.
Trade continued even in dangerous areas because it was very profitable. Traveller trade is not spectacularly profitable. Prices would have to surge to the point where the destination simply may not be able to afford it.
The spectacularly profitable trades are luxuries not staples. And there is always someone with enough money for a luxury!

The assumption is that the drop in volume doesn't cause the freight rates to jump. Covid/Brexit has seen freight rates jump by a factor of 10. (From $1400 to $14000 per container) How many starships don't make a profit at Cr10,000 per ton per jump? And if you need the goods because they aren't locally produced, you are going to pay that. Admittedly it may make local production viable but that takes time to organize.
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There is one other thing to bear in mind...Pirates need to trade too. If you have just lifted 60,000 tons of iron ore, it is valueless if you can't pass it to someone with a smelter - unless you translate it to value by threatening just dropping it on the smelter (from orbit) if they don't pay.
There is one other thing to bear in mind...Pirates need to trade too. If you have just lifted 60,000 tons of iron ore, it is valueless if you can't pass it to someone with a smelter - unless you translate it to value by threatening just dropping it on the smelter (from orbit) if they don't pay.

Why do pirates even bother with the cargo? Just steal the starship, pirates can steal a starship and then do legitimate business with it, since the starship is stolen, they don't have to pay down its cost, they can under bid their competitor and make an enormous profit just hauling goods and passengers here and there. If you want a good deal on a starship, but one from a space pirate, sometimes they want fast cash and will low ball the price to get rid of a hot starship and walk away with money in the bank.
Because, to borrow from the rules for skipping:
Throw 12+ to determine that a commercial ship is of this type, ie stolen by pirates or hijackers. Ships which have been stolen by pirates or hijackers are subject to repossession attempts if detected by the authorities. Such attempts may range from the formal service of papers through legal injunctions to armed boarding parties. On each world landing, throw 12+ to avoid a repossession attempt; apply a DM of +I per 5 parsecs distance from the ship's home planet, to a maximum of +9. If the ship has called on the same world twice within the last two months, apply a DM of -2. If a scout base or naval base is present in the system apply a further DM of -2 per base type.

Tracking down skipped, hijacked or pirated ships makes for a pretty interesting campaign for a group of PCs.
A true small ship pirate operation would be one like I've previously proposed that the Ral Ranta use. In MTU, the Ral Ranta are a combination of the Mafia, Vikings, and the Klingons who operate openly as pirates, particularly against non-aligned systems.

They operate in small fleets of small ships. Some of these ships are corsair types built specifically for piracy, others are captured merchants or small warships. The fleet is usually 4 to 8 ships and at least one or two merchant types are present.
They not only are heavily armed for space combat, but they carry a maximum number of small non-starships--usually armed--to increase their combat capacity against other starships. Their tactics are ones of numbers and firepower. Where they can't overwhelm an opponent, they can simply jump system or go defensive using their numbers to dissuade an opponent from attacking.

They also carry a large number of troops along with some grav vehicles for raiding planets and looting them. Many low pop moderate tech worlds that are independent of larger polities would be their target. These don't have the cash, population, or technology to install good planetary defenses. So, the Ral Ranta show up, land outside what defenses exist then use some ships from orbit to overwhelm them, or use ground forces to do the same. They loot and leave much like Vikings on a pillaging raid would do.

The Ral Ranta would also make deals with such worlds for protection money, extracting heavy payments to leave them alone.


They stay in business and independent because no major polity is willing to spend the time and money to try and subdue their "Empire" when they know it could take decades, possibly centuries, to eradicate resistance and terrorism that would result. Instead, these same polities willingly hire the Ral Ranta for their dirty work knowing they're reliable and immoral. It also keeps the Ral Ranta from stirring up trouble within their borders as they are paying customers.