If your ship has room and you’re going the right way, you can take on passengers are spaceports or space stations. This is often done by ship captains who don’t want the hassle of trading, but need some income to keep their ship running. Starship captains rarely charter their ships out to people, and will usually just take on passengers that are going in the same general direction as them.
For this kind of local travel, you can expect to pay $100 per day. If you want a ship to go out of their way, or you want passage aboard an interstellar ship, expect to pay 10 times as much.
Finding a local deal generally takes about a week. First, roll randomly to determine the base value of an appropriate trade good; this is the average value of that commodity in the system. A player can figure out the base value of a commodity with a Common Knowledge or Research roll. They can also make a Research roll to figure out where they should go to sell their goods.
2d6 x $10 per ton
2d6 x $100 per ton
High tech goods:
2d6 x $1000 per ton
Next you need to set the demand. As a general rule, demand is -30% to -10% when buying goods, and +20% to +80% when selling them. With a successful Networking roll, you can improve demand by 5%, or 10% on a raise. It can’t be reduced below -30% or increased above +80%, though.
Demand represents the value of their goods on the local market. If the party isn’t happy with the price and isn’t willing to go elsewhere, they can try to drive demand up or down with their actions and adventures in-game. They may seek out a buyer in a dangerous region who is willing to pay a premium, or force other sellers out. This is basically an excuse to do some adventuring in the service of their profit margins.
Generally, interstellar trading of bulk goods isn’t profitable, and most star systems are self-sufficient. You’ll never find a system which is reliant on interstellar trade for all of its food or medicine unless it’s a very young colony. It’s just not feasible to support a colony with spike drives.
If you just carry the kind of common goods you’d sell on an intra-system run, you’ll get the same kind of margins - which generally means you’ll make a loss. It’s worth carrying some trade goods if you’re travelling to another system anyway, but it won’t make any trader rich.
Interstellar trade tends to be in highly specific goods: experts, medical compounds, culture, data, exclusive tech, spike drive materials. Basically, things which can’t be made locally by a system, or which are so rare in the Firmament that they’re worth the expense of transporting them.
Obviously, low tech worlds have incredibly high demand for things which are trivial on a high tech world - Eschaton would kill for terraforming equipment. But can they afford the expense of a 20-parsec journey to pay for them? Unlikely. Depending on how many parsecs lie between you and the destination, margins in the hundreds of thousands per ton are required to make these journeys attractive.
Don’t bother trying to come up with one-size-fits-all rules for this kind of trade. You should treat it on a case-by-case basis, as a quest. However, you can use the following guidelines to work out the margins involved:
- Figure out how long the journey is, and how long it will take the players. For example, a journey of 20 parsecs will take a corvette with a type-VI drive 120 days.
- Figure out how much it will cost. 20 parsecs of spike drive travel for a corvette uses up 200 units of energy, which costs $200,000 each way. If they need to make a return journey it will cost twice as much.
- Figure out the margins required to break even. A corvette holds 8 tons; if their profit is less than $25,000/ton, they will lose money. If they need to come back afterwards and don’t have a similar trade deal lined up, they’ll need $50,000/ton just to break even.
When you get to large expanses - like the 20 parsecs to Eschaton - the margins required become so high that almost nothing is worth trading unless you have some fabulously wealthy, eccentric buyer who is willing to dump hundreds of thousands into cargo.
Technically, all a free trader cares about is the weight-to-value ratio of their cargo. It doesn’t actually matter what they’re selling, just how much profit they can extract. However, it can be useful to know the answers to these questions, for worldbuilding and immersion reasons but also practical ones. If a teammate gets injured, whether you’re carrying medicine or datapads suddenly becomes very important.
Trade goods can be divided into three categories:
Bulk goods are generally raw materials, and have a low weight-to-value ratio. They’re things like food, raw minerals and common gases, and fuel for fusion reactors.
Manufactured goods are processed and useful items. Most consumer-grade electronics fall into this category. This category also includes medicine (and drugs), complex alloys, and machinery or weapons.
Luxury goods are expensive and hard to get. Advanced electronics fall into this category, as do rare medicines, drugs and chemicals. This also includes advanced tech, like lasers or smart weapons - things that are hard to get outside of the Firmament.
Everything described above is generally only traded at a star system level. They might be valuable, but even the most expensive luxury goods are rarely worth transporting at an interstellar scale unless an importer is paying extra for them.
Planets and stations may trade with each other, but the star system as a whole generally needs to be self-sufficient if it’s going to survive. Large freighters loaded with food, medicine or weapons are generally only a hallmark of very young colonies that can’t support themselves yet.
However, there are some goods that are an exception - they have such a high weight-to-value ratio that they’re actually worth hauling to another star system. These are often things that are rare enough in the Firmament that a given star system won’t necessarily have them.
So what is valuable enough to haul across metaspace?
- Rare crystals are often required for the most advanced electronics and optics, and for very powerful lasers. Because they’re rare, they also have decorative value.
- Rare microorganisms, plants or organic compounds found on certain worlds are often very difficult to cultivate elsewhere, while they are abundant on their homeworlds. The microbes required for modern longevity treatments fall into this category.
- Rare gases of various types are a critical component for hypersleep (“suspension gas”), energy-based weapons, and the burgeoning field of force field technology. And also certain medicines.
- Exotic particles such as contained antimatter are an essential component of the spike drive and stealth system. They are also needed for cutting-edge research into metadimensional space, as well as research into black holes and wormholes.
- Dark matter can only be harvested from black holes, with great difficulty and specialised equipment. No one knows what it does, but it’s incredibly rare and valuable for research into the nature of the universe.
- Advanced products. These aren’t just lasers or terraforming engines, but pieces of technology so complex and difficult to make that they must be imported from systems that have the infrastructure and expertise to produce them. Examples include Type-I spike drives, terraforming engines and longevity treatments.
- Data, research and information. Experiments based on local conditions or alien life are valuable on the interstellar stage, and can be stored in a hyper-compact format. This category includes navkeys to star systems outside the Firmament and blueprints or other forms of instruction and education.
- Skills. Trading in blueprints is one thing, but they are often useless without specialists who are capable of understanding and implementing them. Scientists, engineers and other experts in their field are in vital demand throughout the Firmament.
- Commodities are things that are valuable purely because they are rare. Things like gold and diamond don’t really fit into this category any more. Art pieces, relics from Old Earth, and souvenirs from exploratory missions beyond the Firmament definitely do, though.