Interstellar Pirates Part 1: The Merchant Ships


Interstellar travel isn’t completely analogous to 16th century sea travel.  For one, delicious air bathed ships even during the most dangerous voyages.  The crew wasn’t at risk for explosive decompression from a bad bit of engineering or a poorly soldiered joint.  But in many ways, one informs the other.  Voyages faced imperious captains, perilous voyages, uncaring financial backers, and death if anything happened.  The endless sea is a desert, as is the vacuum of space.  No one survives a trip outside the small life-giving ship into the endless nothing.

Following 16th century age of sail, the first ships after the initial intrepid explorers into the great darkness are merchant ships – the miners, colonizers, point to point trade between the outworld colonies and the home base.  Trade is the engine of exploration.  It is the creator of fortunes.  It is the economic pump that generates capital to build more merchant ships. There are things out there that are worth more back here. Humans do anything to get those goods between two points even if it means flinging humans in a metal tube into the darkness of space.  Especially if it’s dangerous and somewhat lunatic.

If one group of humans drag precious cargo from point A to point B, another group will want it. They want to steal it, to sell it, keep it, to roll around in it while yelling obscenities.  And another group of humans will protect it with guns and swords.

Disclaimer: Relativity is a thing that exists.  There’s a fascinating economic problem about relativity, space travel, and crew member payment.  How does one pay the crew on a regular schedule when the relativistic local time for the ship does not match the relativistic local time for the bank back home?  Does one calculate maximum possible crew pay over the ship and load the ship’s local bank with cash?  How does one transmit cash at relativistic speeds?  What happens if the communication is lossy?  Or the bank goes out of business?  Or the corporation goes out of business? For simplicity, much like the 16th century, the corporation pays merchant sailors before the voyage and on return home. The rest of it is details.

The TB Corporation

Neither the sailors, nor the captain, nor his officers own the ship.  TB Corporation owns the ship and everything on it.

Standard employees from the TB Corporation don’t venture into space.  They stay at home. They dwell in their enormous glass-paned high rise calculating shipping routes, mining trips, and round trips for the highest possible profit margin.  They’re a publicly traded company.  Their first obligation is to the shareholders.  Not to the officers and crew of the many ships they fling out into space.

The corporation supplies the capital for building the ship, providing upgrades, continuing maintenance, provisions, advances on crew pay, negotiations for terms of delivery and freight, and, importantly, finding customers on both ends of the voyage.  They deal with advertising, goods delivery, and fulfillment.

The voyages return with ores, minerals, and rare alien artifacts. Those have Earth-based buyers. The corporation sells the goods at sufficient profit to cover the cost of voyages – plus some.

TB Corp officers have no desire to ever board one of their merchant ships.  They know the rate of success versus the rate of death.  They stay on Earth where it’s warm and comfortable, and where they have large plush carpeted offices in that glass-paned high rise.  They outsource all the risk to their captains.  Why die for profits when someone else is willing to do so in their employ?

When the ships, officers and crews are in dock – on Earth, at a colony, or a refueling station between – the TB Corp sees, evaluates, and judges crewmembers on performance.  But when the ship is in flight, the TB Corp loses all control.  Yes, the captain radios back (at the oh so slow speed of light) various cheerful status updates. The ship itself chirps automated updates back home, too.  But, the captain and his or her crew are alone in the darkness of space. And savvy Captains can hack computer systems.

The Captain can radio back anything he or she wants.  Meanwhile, has she eaten the crew as a delicacy?  Sure.  Fed the crew to aliens?  Why not.  Turned to piracy?  Maybe.  Who knows? All TB Corp knows is everything is well.

Status is the Captain’s and crew’s hands.

This is the principal-agent problem. A self-interested agent works on behalf of a principal, and the agent has more information than the principal does. The agent has the leverage. The principal has to decide to take the risk on the agent to see the job through despite the lack of information.

Once the ship leaves dock, TB Corp is in the dark.  The voyage is in the hands of the Captain and her crew.

Imperious Captains and Efficient Autocracy

Starships maintain a strict hierarchy of leadership from the crew to the officers to the Captain.  Captain and officers are employees.  Crewmembers are not.

Most crewmembers are contractors.  They join on one end of the voyage, traverse a leg, and hope to find work on the other side, either at one of the many spacedocks or at a growing space colony.  They roll off in dock.  They’re paid 1/3rd of their wages on joining and the 2/3rds on delivery.  They sign a contract, undergo whatever horrors TC Corporation contractually demands, board, and leave.  They’re the kind who look for a few months or years of hardship for a better life in an off-world colony than what they found on Earth. And, the contractual pay is decent.

Meanwhile, in flight, the principal-agent problem invites all kinds of crewmember opportunism.  During the voyage, the absolute masters of the ship are far away, out of sight, and depending on technological solutions to mitigate the risk (on-board cameras, radio’d updates, tracking systems) our of mind. Crewmembers can take advantage of the situation. To extort more money or power, they can stop maintaining the ship.  They can damage cargo to impact voyage profitability by jettisoning it out the airlock.  They can rig the computer systems to vend endless ice cream, depleting fixed ship supplies of dairy and sugar.  They can steal the ship and keep the cargo profits for themselves.

To prevent this, the TB Corp centralizes all on-board power in the Captain’s hands.  The Captain directs crewmember tasks, distributes on-board supplies, and controls discipline and punishment.  If the ship is highly automated, the crew is quite small. The Captain monitors the crew through cameras and electronics implanted in crewmember’s brain.  If the ship is older, larger, or requires constant maintenance, the crew expands. The Captain must delegate to trusted officers control over discipline, work rotation, and punishment.

And punishment in space is not nothing.  It runs the gamut from a reduction in allowable rations on board for a fixed duration all the way to throwing a crewmember out an airlock.  Outside Earth’s atmosphere, in the darkness of space, international law cannot dictate how a Captain treats crewmembers.  An imperious Captain may resort to corporal and psychological punishments to keep the crew in line on a long voyage between Earth and a colony.  The TB Corporation cares about delivery.  It replaces crewmembers on either side of the voyage.

That said, if the Captain injures or murders all his or her crewmembers on a voyage, no one will survive to complete it.  The Captain must ensure he or she has a healthy enough crew to make it to one docking station to another while maintaining strict discipline.

TB Corporation must also worry about aligning Captain-Corporation interests.  What goes for the crew also goes for her Captain.  The Captain is also subject to the principal-agent problem.

The TB Corporation has a few levers to pull to maintain control over her ship’s Captains:

  • TB Corp offers profit sharing and incentives on successful deliveries.  A successful voyage pays out in a sizable bonus for her Captain and smaller bonuses for the officers;
  • TB Corp also pays the Captain and the officers salary on top of the shares;
  • With some older ships, TB Corp offers successful Captains partial ownership of the ship. The Captain is not only an employee but an owner on the voyage;
  • TB Corp offers the Captain’s family special incentive back home. The Captain feels indebted to the Corporation and it’s magnificence.
Too Much Autocracy

The TB Corporation infuses the Captain with absolute autocratic control over the ship’s crew to prevent the principal-agent problem.  Unlimited power in a vacuum can turn into unlimited evil.  Captains are economically incentivized to ensure that the voyage completes, crew alive or dead.  As rational economic actors, they may prey on their own crew to get what they want to ensure success.

And Captain predation takes several forms:

  • The Captain cuts down on crewmember rations to goose the profitability of the trip;
  • The Captain cuts down on crewmember rations so the Captain and her Officers have more to eat at the tail end of the voyage while crewmembers starve;
  • The Captain takes on unauthorized contraband at a refilling dock and beats any crewmembers who try to report it to TB Corp;
  • The Captain uses his or her absolute control over crewmember discipline and punishment to “settle scores” with crewmembers.

TB Corporation laces the ship with automated systems to report the status on fuel, rations, and pay during the voyage .  Automated regulation systems help cut down Captain predation.  But the Captain has the override codes.  He or she can press crewmembers to hack the system and change the logs.  Sneaky hackers can fool well-understood electronic systems.  And some actions happen in flight the TB Corp cannot see.  In space, no one can hear a crewmember scream.

And who can tell what happened in the flight?  Unless a system recorded an interaction, it’s a game of he-said, she-said.  And the Captain, a paid TB Corp Employee, always wins.


If the relationship between Captain and crew deteriorates, the crew will try mutiny.

Mutiny is a tricky thing.  The crew is on a ship full of monitoring electronics. TB Corp wired crewmember brains into the ship’s monitoring and regulations systems.  The Captain has a million screens and readouts.

It is possible. Only a small number of ships ever experience a successful mutiny.  If even one crewmember wavers on committing mutiny, the mutiny fails.  It’s everyone together or it’s a failed coup.

Mutiny faces a standard collective action problem.  If everyone agrees they must remove the Captain for the good of the ship, mutiny often succeeds.  The plan is complex, but the plan works. One Captain against an entire ship of angry crewmembers cannot stand.  But it means getting everyone on board with violent action, including the ship’s Officers.  If the Officers waver, the mutiny fails.  If one Officer knows the plan and decides against mutiny at the last moment, he or she will inform the Captain. The Captain, in his or her autocratic right, uses the ship against the mutineers, and later spaces the mutiny’s leaders.

If the mutineers are successful, and they override TB Corp’s control systems before it decides to abort the voyage and drain all the air from the life support systems, the mutineers will find themselves the proud owners of a space ship. Where they go from there is up to them.

They can….

  • … finish the voyage and try to get full profits from TB Corp who will likely have them killed;
  • … turn and go to some other space colony and sell their cargo underground;
  • … join a space colony and abandon the ship;
  • … or attempt to join the growing community of space pirates who prey along the known Earth to colony routes.

If the mutiny works, Space Adventurers have a ship.  And now, with all this background, the game play begins.

On Interstellar Merchant Shipping, PCs and Game World Design

Why don’t PCs pool their resources together, buy a ship, and start flying from the outset?  Why must TB Corporation (or a myriad of other corporations) own the star ships and play gate keeper?

Merchant shipping is not as simple as moving goods from point A to point B.

  • First, point B must exist, and point B is expensive to establish.  If TB Corporation pays billions to build an off-world colony, they’re not going to let anyone show up and transact at their port.  That’s TB Corp registered ships only.
  • And, the TB Corporation establishes relationships with merchants on both sides of point A and point B.  These, too, are expensive, requires a reputation to get the best deals, and must contend with TB Corp’s monopoly and local laws.
  • As voyages are expensive and risky, the TB Corporation floats the costs of the star voyages on enormous lines of credit. This is out of reach for regular PCs except for those who are “Lords of Capitalism”.
  • Building and buying a ship is, itself, a pretty expensive proposition.  Doable but…
  • Getting the personal reputation to sell goods at a profit is pretty expensive, too.

In a world with economically reinforcing game design, it’s difficult for the PCs to simply “own a ship” without their own cash, reputation, or their own corporation.

But all is not lost.  PCs can pool resources to buy a small ship and sell goods at shadow economy docks where people will buy anything for anyone.  They’ll need to somehow come by the coordinates and contacts in the underground community.  And, they’ll need to compete with the big boys who will do everything they can to squeeze the little guys out of the system.  It’s a difficult road to walk.

This sets up tension and conflict, and conflict is interesting.

PCs can get into the game in these ways:

  1. PCs as Captain and Officers in the employ of the Corporation.  Easiest way to start with a ship is to start with a ship.  The crewmembers are mere red shirts.  The PCs initally run their ship for their corporation.  Perhaps later, not so much.  The corporation sends the PCs to interesting destinations.  Gets them into fights with pirates.  Gets them in contact with the shadow economy.  Deals with morally dubious corporations, their sensing electronics, their laws, and their policies.
  2. PCs as crewmembers in the employ of the Corporation.  The Captain and Officers are amoral agents of a faceless corporation.  The PCs move from voyage to voyage as Adventurer Contractors. They go to interesting space ports or fly to interesting colonies.  Maybe the PCs go to colony to colony to explore/adventure and then hitch a ride on the next corporate ship to the next destination.
  3. PCs as Space Marines in the employ of the Corporation.  The Captain and Officers are still amoral agents of a faceless corporations.  The corporation takes the PCs from colony to colony and parachutes them into trouble spots to kill aliens while the ship completes its merchant mission.  They’re more than crewmembers and less than officers – they’re the military contingent glued to a civilian merchant mission. And, the PCs kill every hostile alien in the merchant’s way.
  4. PCs have a ship from a successful mutiny. The PCs have a ship.  They’ve dismantled all the corporation’s monitoring protocols.  They’re in the darkness of space.  They have dwindling supplies.  Now they’re Captain, Officers and crew of their own vessel.  How do they join the pirate economy?  Is there one?  How do they get there?  What next?

Also, the world design requires a few working corporations!  Here, the TB Corporation is:

  • Wealthy enough to build ships and establish off-world colonies;
  • Also wealthy enough to maintain those ships and hire crews to run them;
  • And wealthy enough to dictate trade laws on both the home world and the colony;
  • Monopolistic in bent;
  • Technologically advanced to casually implant tracking devices in contractor brains;
  • Amoral and access to unlimited banking;
  • Home-world bound as its headquarters.

Nothing was said about what the miners mine in the off-world colonies or what TB Corporation ships between colonies and the home world.  Tweak that knob; they might ship interstellar cheese or they might ship interstellar narcotics.  They might ship narcotics inside the cheese.  Maybe it ships human replicants for offworld colonies addicted to offworld interstellar cheese which acts as a replicant narcotic.

Setting the knob is important. It dictates the amorality of the corporation itself. The corp is already amoral and profit seeking. But, the corporation is willing to look the other way at Captain predation on the crew if the cargo is truly morally reprehensible.

Also, recommended systems are Apocalypse World and FATE.  Just saying.

Next Time…

Now that we have:

  • Corporations;
  • Colonies;
  • Stuff worth stealing;
  • Evil Captains….

As promised, we’ll talk at length about the economic and social structures of space pirates.

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. Seems like much of the crew opportunism comes in the form of things that risk their own lives, which would preclude most of it.

    Far more sensible crew opportunity would be to examine the cargo and phone ahead, buying futures options. If the market expects a big delivery of unobtanium, short it and then whoops, a mishap happens and the cargo was jettisoned! If market doesn’t know the riches you are bringing, then buy accordingly.

    This doesn’t work presently due to the way the information spreads, or in the past with there not being radio, but in this scenario where the ship is essentially under wraps due to the lag in information about what it is bringing but the ability for the ship to release that information ahead of time increasing as it gets closer; well it presents some options

    And in theory very clever pirates would know this as well, and could use this as their payoff scheme. No need to blow up or steal the ship and its cargo; just board, audit, call ahead and then ensure safe delivery

  2. Another option for getting a ship of their own would be to get a first-level ship — something that either shuttles cargo up/down a gravity well or an in-system ship (or a combo of both). It can’t do interstellar trips but there’s a lot of in-system work and the ships are much cheaper (relatively). If the crew does well, maybe they buy up into a bigger ship.

    The real problem with any hard-SF setting is that you have to ask yourself “what’s out there that’s so fabulously valuable that it’s worth the astronomical expense of shipping it back here?”. It can’t be a manufactured product — you just radio the plans back home — it has to be some sort of fantastic raw material that isn’t available in your home system. Whatever you can do with that raw material would have to be utterly revolutionary — on the order of making someone immortal. If you can’t cover your shipping costs, there’s no reason to go get it.

    • The guys over at the Atomic Rockets website call this, MacGuffinite. You have to think hard to come up with something (like the oceans of petroleum on Titan) that justify sending a lot of people and money to the far ends of the solar system.

      They have a few ideas, but you have to suspend your disbelief a little to get to them.

      • Sean Meaney says:

        Act of Economic Warfare: Send a car to Titan. Constantly reduces the amount of petroleum available and increases the price by burning the petroleum.

    • The cargo is people!

      Seriously, the only cargo I can imagine worth shipping around is skilled labor. Even unskilled labor can be built, as the old joke goes, through unskilled labor. And even that resource has only limited utility. Once an off-world colony has enough local expertise and a work force with significant leisure time (i.e. not struggling on an airless rock), it can build its own universities and churn out its own experts.

      Also, there’s always Bank’s “Culture”, which is so advanced and fabulously wealthy in energy and skills that AIs handle the hard stuff and the people just wander around as tourists … or occasionally agents of the non-government, when they can’t find a native to do their dirty work.

      Or else it’s aliens. Yep. Aliens. Like “magic”, “aliens” can excuse anything.

    • @Tom

      Depending on your desired sci-fi crunchiness, there are a number of good answers.

      Least crunchy: As Frank said, magic aliens. If you can enslave, bribe, employ, or otherwise control a labor force with unique force-multiplying capabilities, such as superpowers not cheaply duplicated, or cost-reducing abilities, such as a living supercomputers able to interface naturally with a ship or other complex system.

      Moderately crunchier: Unobtainium, also referred to as MacGuffinite, as robbbbbb mentioned. Assuming we can’t synthesize it here on Earth, it’s feasible that we might mine naturally-occuring ultra-rare materials from exotic sources. Irl, platinum is one such material proposed as a goal for asteroid mining, due to its utility vs scarcity here. Of course, in the distant, table-toppable future we might be gravity-mining neutronium directly from neutron stars as a raw material to feed the hungry fabricators of the trillions of colonies scattered across the galaxy.

      Very crunchy: Most likely though, its a question of scale and shipping. Far, far cheaper to vacuum up debris, cook the ice out, and load valuable raw materials in a mining cargo ship which will dock with a budding colony station and never, never bother with the expensive gravity wells of planets. Even just scraping asteroids up from our own asteroid belt is projected to net more rare metals than have ever been mined in the history of our planet. This is also a concern for large-scale colonisation throughout history–local materials and shipping. Once this is established, however, a lot of trade will be either exotic goods or material imbalances between regions (I might have an over-abundance of iridium, and a shortage of carbon; your CO2 excess is looking valuable there, earthling!).

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