Monday, August 23, 2010

Fixing the Trading Game

So, I did a bit of solitaire merchanting this past week: Came up with a merchant captain with a free trader eventually, and started him off in the core of the Festrian Main: all told, about thirty worlds reachable by jump-1. The catch, I figured, would be that many of these were cut off by a scattering of C and D port worlds, adding a modicum of risk.

However, in the immediate core, a stretch of perhaps 5 or 6 A & B class ports provided everything my merchant needed to trade well and pay the ship off in about four years: Between assiduously using the best brokers available, and the captain's bribery skill, the trip was rare that he didn't make some degree of a killing. (I'm thinking that probably, this was a mistake, and that a seller can either rely on his own skills, OR make use of a Broker, but that when using a broker it's out of your hands and your Admin and Bribery skills shouldn't apply. Otherwise, the mods get too high, and make the benefits offered by planetary trade classifications irrelevant.)

Therefore, there was never the least bit of reason to visit anything less than a B-port. Visiting even a C port brought the risk of piracy both coming and going. Simply leaving a C-port introduced the risk of misjump from using unrefined fuel: a reckless risk, and needless when such prosperity was available close to home! Even introducing the possibility of hostile encounters between rival merchant craft, raising the frequency of law checks, and requiring some sort of "adventure" in order to secure the cargoes identified in the trade table proved little impediment to my captain's rise to freedom from debt. And when he had his ship paid off? What then? It beggared belief to imagine that he'd take his mulitmillion credit ship, business and life and put them at wasteful risk by haring off towards the frontier. (On the other hand, if Broker mods and character skills can't be combined, then planetary mods might make some C-D-E worlds more tempting.)

It leads to the question: what makes it make sense for a merchant - with a ship - to go adventuring?

If I'm following Book 2 as a guide to MTU, and oh yes I am, trade ships do visit C, D and E ports, despite the inherent deadly risks. Indeed, Book 3 describes C class ports as routine installations - suggesting that the 1 in 60 chance of an unrefined-fuel misjump would be considered a routine risk. Now, if it were MY thirtyseven million credit free trader, and I had a choice of jumping my cargo of steam driven left hand widgets to a B port or C port, you'd really have an uphill battle to convince me that any difference of profit would be worth putting my whole investment on the line, even in the first fragile few months of ship ownership, when making that cr 154,500 monthly payment seems so challenging.

The difference between a B and a C port seems to me to be a fairly dramatic one. The inability to provide refined fuel implies a pretty serious lack of commitment to interstellar trade, does it not? The risk of piracy suggests that the patrolling of the system - by the native world or by an interstellar government - would be pretty haphazard, at best. C ports lack Travellers' aid posts; they never include naval bases. These are worlds that, within an Imperium, are largely neglected. and that's a C port: how much more excluded from the interstellar community must D or E class worlds be?

So: WHY do I fly my Free Trader to a world with a C port? Ever?

1) Interstellar geography makes it necessary. This assumes a certain lack of foresight in having selected a home port, or perhaps a lack of choice in the matter. Supposing our hero begins his tenure as Captain on an isolated main broken up with poorly developed frontier ports, it's possible he'll have to make intermediate jumps in risky systems in order to get to greener pastures. Of course, he'd be hard pressed to do it more than once if he could help it. My captain started out in a fruitful main, and never had any reason to leave it: he was printing money right where he was.

2) Skipping. If our hero is trying to steal his ship, he might well risk the whole thing on a misjump if he's trying to put a sector between himself and the repo team anyway. In that case, he'd be unlikely to stop in port anyway, instead dipping from gas giants and trying to buy life support supplies from other ships en route. My captain never had a reason to go this route: he was doing just fine making his payments, and anyhow, he'd have had to fiddle around with collapsible fuel tanks (or some such) within five jumps or so in order to leave the Festrian Main.

3) The Big Score. A competent merchant - with Bribery or Admin at 2 or better, or both - need almost never lose money in the trading game, especially if he uses brokers to sell, (see edits above, but this is still pretty much true) even if he's stuck selling goods on worlds without advantageous trade characteristics. Such merchants, if they're smart, will be patient and stick to safe routes. A captain without strong merchanting skills, and without a good bursar on crew, might be tempted to bring his ship to a poor, non industrial world with a heavy load of, say, machine tools if it would guarantee him making payments and upgrading the ship's weapons - it's still a pretty dumb risk. It's mugs like this that make interstellar piracy an attractive option.

All told, though, these don't really add up. Any captain able to scrape up the seven and a half million credits to make a down payment on a new free trader is going to be savvy enough to do it in fruitful territory if he's got the choice: he'll pick a promising main, allowing safe jumps, adequate patrols, full holds and full passenger manifests.

The trick, for the Referee, is to create a rationale for that choice to be removed.

I think that introducing competition might do the trick.

I'm going to see if I can flesh this out into something more systematic later, but off the top of my head:

In a desert, if there's an oasis, the chances are good that someone already lives there, and has reason to control it. If it's easy to make money on a particular route, chances are that someone has been making money on it for years before our hero hits the scene. There's good rationale here for a cartel to be in control of the good routes, and that they'd blacklist an outsider: No passengers, no cargo, no legitimate trade without some significant concession (perhaps, 20% off the top of the take?). So, no mister captain: you can't do the X run without joining the cartel. But you're free to do the Y and Z runs if you want to risk your ship...

At least, it should be more difficult to buy and sell speculative cargo in A or B ports, because there are many other independent merchants vying for them than there are at C ports or worse. This might manifest in a difficulty in even locating a suitable cargo: it might simply result in a disadvantageous modifier to the price roll.

What might the effects of population be? Of Law? of Tech level? It seems these should have an effect.

A or B ports should be fairly organized and systematic, so it should be relatively easy to obtain passengers and paid cargo. But if a C port can't even protect its shipping from predation, I'm inclined to think that getting passengers and cargo isn't going to be as straightforward. Might a crew have to hustle a bit to fill its hold, and its staterooms?

I recall being pretty disappointed with Merchant Prince's rehash of the trade system, but I may have another look at it to see what I want to cherrypick.

Edit: There's a couple things I do like about LBB7/Merchant Prince trade, but I don't know that they work for me. The best starports have access to the best brokers, sure; but it does mean that the best starports will tend to offer the best selling prices, without regard to competition and the like.

It seems - though I'd want to play it out to be sure - that goods produced on a certain type of planet will tend not to sell well there, meaning there's less percentage in sitting on your butt on one world waiting for prices to fluctuate, and more incentive to interstellar trade. That's good.

It's an interesting change that purchase price for goods stays flat on a given world: they'll always cost the same to the merchant. Resale is what fluctuates.

And it's interesting that when the final sale dice are thrown, that's an indication of a commitment to sell that can't be backed out on. This is different than LBB2, where you can decide whether or not to sell the goods after you've seen the resale roll. (Though if you've hired a broker, you still have to pay him his cut, whether you decide to sell or not.)

And generally, I like that there's a modifier for relative tech levels when calculating resale values. High tech goods should cost more at lower tech worlds. However, it seems to me there should be some cutoff - Tech level 15 electronics should be very expensive on a tech level 1 world - but what, exactly, would the demand be? What're they going to use that computer for, a doorjamb? If the population is in the hundreds, who's going to be able to afford or need the higher value industrial goods? It seems to me there has to be some common ground between buyers and sellers of many products. A TL 1 world may well be a good market for firearms, but computers may be useless to them.

And law level, for example: A merchant trying to sell a load of firearms at a high-law world might find that demand might make them quite valuable, but that he might not be able to find a buyer at all, or might not be able to even bring the items to market without having to contend with law enforcement.

At the same time, one might take the position that the world, itself, isn't always relevant to the value of trade goods - the main market may actually be the other merchant ships visiting the starport: There may be a significant amount of trade that never even gets warehoused, but gets shifted ship-to-ship - in which case, shouldn't there be even different effects on pricing?

It seems that if one's to stick with LBB2, the Referee has to step in and make sure that there's some common sense injected into the implementation of the rules.


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