Interstellar Pirates Part 2: The Pirate Captain and Crew!

intergalactic-snood-bongingThe adventurers stole a ship!  The adventurers mutinied, snuck on board and hacked it out from under watchful AIs, or swindled a ship in a card game.  They got their hands on a ship  and got away with it.  Congratulations!  Sure, space faring merchant companies, interstellar authorities, and other swindlers are after them.  But, now, floating around in the inky blackness of space, they’re free.

And it feels great.  Freedom!

Yet, if the adventurers are to survive, they’re going to need money, places to dock, and a plug-in to the black market.  Provisioning ships is expensive.  While starship holds are massive, ships require power to survive over the days and years.  The crew of the ship must feed the ship’s hungry maw for power and supplies.

Out there, somewhere, in space, are ships carrying huge, juicy loads of rich “stuff.”  And someone where, unsavory folks on the hard edges of space faring society are willing to buy booty from claims from pirate ships.  And those big, fat, heavily loaded Merchant Ships also carry cash.

The Prizes

Pirate ships that only capture small prizes aren’t economically efficient.  The effort in stealing a ship, crewing it, maintaining it, and alluding the law costs more than a small ship.  Considering the overhead of offloading prizes on a black market, a diet in small ships cannot feed the open hungry maw of running a ship.  Pirates who only take out the small guys aren’t going to last long.

A higher appetite for risk – and large prizes – makes pirates economically viable.   Pirates search out Merchant ships hauling unique substances, valuable AI, and research that goes for a mint on a black market.  There’s always a buyer somewhere off in the shadows.

A successful pirate ship preys on the biggest and fattest Merchant Men in space.  Yet, the bread and butter of successful pirates are the medium-sized ships.  Those medium-sized ships haul enough to make piracy worthwhile. They keep the pirate ship viable through selling illegally gained cargos on the black markets. They pay enough to fuel the ship and pay the crew.

Successful pirates with big appetites for risk dream the dream.  The big score.  That one huge hit.  The big hustle.  The win.  That giant payout which ensures they can retire to some opulent outward colony. They won’t have to keep a rickety stolen ship afloat while angry corporations pursue them across time and space.  They’ll be space kings.

Yes, those big scores are exceedingly rare.  And, they’re well defended by heavily armed space marines.  And the pirates might all die trying to take it.  But what if they take big one?

What if?

While dreaming of the big prize, pirates stick with their ship.  They make more money in piracy than in merchant shipping.  The payouts are better.  They’re living a more expensive lifestyle.  And if they happen to hit that one big score… right around the corner… the next ship is the one

The Captain and the Quartermaster

Piracy is all about capturing those prizes.

Pirate ships are free of the principal-agent problem.  Pirates stole their ship!  The captain is not beholden to some distant corporation or entity.  The economic incentives of the crew align with the health and well-being of themselves.  They have no distant owners who watch their every move.

But anarchy does not serve pirate ships well.  An anarchic pirate ship is a dead pirate ship.  Someone must run the show.  Someone has to decide:

  • Where to go;
  • Which ships to engage;
  • How to engage the ships;
  • How to elude authorities;
  • How to react to being attacked;
  • And how to offload the booty once taken.

That someone is the autocratic captain. He or she makes snap decisions in the heat of battle.  Conflicting voices while authorities are opening fire or boarding make it impossible to fight back.

That someone maintains ship discipline, decides how the crew gets paid, and throws unruly crewmembers out the airlock.  Just like a Merchant ship, an unruly crewmember who won’t complete their assignments imposes risk on the mission, the crew, and the entire ship.  Pirates don’t bow to any kind of interstellar law when dealing with discipline issues.  They’re likely to simply kill the offender. And pirates are replaceable. Since pirates pay better than merchant expeditions, someone in dock is always willing to join up for the next pirating flight.

The need for a captain poses a dilemma for pirates (and adventurers).  On one hand, pirates have a clear need for a strong authority figure to maintain control when the guns fire and the space marines burn holes in the ship’s hull with lasers.  On the other hand, the point of pirating is freedom is escape from the heavy-handed autocratic dystopian universe of the corporate-owned Merchant ship.

A solution presents itself.  Instead of suffering under an imposed captain, pirates democratically elect one from their ranks.  As pirates are both the principals and the agents – they work for themselves and their own profits — a democratically elected captain ensures the pirates get exactly the captain they desire.  Should the captain go berserk and murder the crew, the crew can space the captain and elect a new one from their ranks.

The crew decides how much power a captain has.   And, they can take it away.

But, there’s another problem. If a captain has autocratic power, even elected autocratic power, they can wield autocratic power in peacetime. Autocratic power in the heat of battle helps pirate success. But, once the battle ends, the pirates face a giant pile of booty and boredom.  Who decides how to split the take?  Who decides how to allocate provisions?  The captain?  Won’t he or she take it all for themselves?

Pirates impose another check on the captain: the quartermaster.

The pirates elect the quartermaster from their ranks.  Imbuing the quartermaster with equal power as the captain, pirates split power on two axis:

  • The captain has autocratic power over combat and crew discipline;
  • The quartermaster has autocratic power over apportioning onboard goods, balances the books, and adjudicates conflicts between the crew and the captain.

Pirates elect the nastiest, skeeziest, evilest son of a bitch in space as their pirate captain. But, the pirates also elect the most level-headed and educated for their quartermaster.  The system of checks and balances ensures the pirate ship runs smoothly both in battle and during the long, boring stretches in space.

In peace time, the quartermaster checks the pirate captain’s rampant larceny.  Yes, the quartermaster agrees, the captain should shove this crewmember out the airlock.  The quartermaster also acts as a judiciary.  And, the quartermaster ensures equal apportionment of the prize among the crew.

In times of battle, the captain has all the power.

The crews prize blood lust in captains and sanity in quartermasters. The crew can depose and maroon a pirate captain for a lack of sufficient battle-induced insanity.  After all, the crew signed on with the ship hoping for a big score.  If the captain cannot provide even the medium scores that keep the ship running, the crew will replace him with someone who will get the job done.  But, if the captain oversteps his or her authority, or is too insane, the crew will shove the captain out the airlock and elect a new one.

Checks and balances.

And sometimes, the crew promotes their quartermaster to captain should the quartermaster show sanity and insanity in equal portions.  Then they elect a new quartermaster.

Pirate Constitutions

While the quartermaster keeps the captain in check and vice versa, what keeps the quartermaster and captain from colluding and preying on the crew together?  Where does one job end and the other begin?  What jobs are crew-only and officer-only?  What are the various crimes and punishments?  Isn’t this a democratically-controlled ship?

Technically, pirate ships are outside of all law.  They’re outside of any interstellar law, or colonial law, or homeworld law.  Pirates stole their ship.  They’re now nationless – and lawless.  Nothing from home applies.  If a captain and quartermaster collude, the crew loses.

The crew has an easy fix.  They make some new laws.

Ships forge their own constitutions.  When one has no nation, one makes their ship their nation.  And a nation needs laws.  Laws find their foundations in their founding constitutional documents.

Each pirate ship has a constitution with a different set of laws.  Generally, a pirate ship constitution covers:

  • What the captain can and cannot do on the vessel;
  • Apportioning profits from taking a prize;
  • The payment for injuries sustained in battle (if survived);
  • The laws for crime, discipline and punishment;
  • The strict roles and responsibilities for the quartermaster;
  • The strict roles and responsibilities for the captain.

These constitutions require unanimous agreement before adoption.  Even a single voice forces the crew to rewrite the document and try again.

The constitutions often have clauses dealing with indivisible booty with no clear buyer.  In these cases – often the ships taken as prize themselves, but also rogue research, cutting edge AIs, single-use bioweapons, kidnap victims from ships, and other high price single items – the constitutions state the large prizes must go to auction at a black market dock.  The quartermaster divides the sale price of the ship at auction among the crew and dictated in the ship’s constitution.  What happens to these items once they find their way into the black market is not their business.

This ensures the crew doesn’t fight over payment.  Of course, equal apportionment encourages crew free riding.  Crew members can perform minimal work but get maximal payout as guaranteed in the ship’s constitution.  To mitigate, the constitutions often add in systems for bonuses.  While a free riding crew member will get paid from a prize, a crew member who performed valiantly in battle or in another service receives a bonus.

When multiple ships join together in a pirate flotilla, the captains and quartermasters agree on articles of confederation among the ship crews. They’ll forge a larger document.  They will balance the needs between ship captains, ships, and prizes gained across the fleet.   If enough ships join under a flotilla flag, they’ll write an overarching document covering all their ships.

They will form a pirate nation. A democratic Pirate Nation with an Elected King. As single ships, they are prey for corporations and interstellar authorities.  As a group, they’re unstoppable.

Laws have their way…

Space Pirates in a Game

Pirates are blood thirsty murderers who murder innocent crews and destroy property.  Pirates are space highway bandits.  They’re also adventurers. Adventures who get into all kinds of trouble, get into exciting fights with authorities, and make vast sums of cash on one interesting take.

Pirates are also gameable.  A few variations on the straight up pirate theme, interstellar or not:

  • PCs are pirates.  They have a ship.  They stole it in their backstory somehow.  Perhaps they deposed the previous pirate captain.  Either way, one is now captain.  The others are officers with one as a quartermaster.  A bunch of red shirt mooks work as the crew.  PCs attack merchant shipping for the money and the XP.  And maybe they’ll kidnap a mysterious corporate figure or find a bizarre alien map and head off toward the big score…
  • PCs are privateers.  They work like pirates, except in the name of their nation or their corporation. They’re quasi-legal. They need to balance out the needs of absentee owners with a crew of bloodthirsty pirates.  But they also attack ships flying different flags.  And they capture a ship and learn about a rival corporation’s ugly plans which involves aliens, war, and death across the quadrant…
  • PCs are smugglers at a black market space port, which they use as their home base.  They’re not pirates and their not corporate or interstellar cops.  But they trade in the underbelly of goods and services both need.  They go on dangerous missions to get what people want, and they’re the buyers at pirate auctions laying their hands on rare and interesting plans…
  • PCs are the law.  Pirates are nasty and brutish thugs.  They prey on innocent shipping and attack colonies.  Stopped and destroy them!
  • PCs are pure adventurers.  They join one crew, go on an adventure, get off at a space port, and then join another crew and go on another adventure. They hop from one port to another in search of riches, adventure, and aliens.

Interstellar space with, presumably, some kind of Star Wars or Star Trek like warp to allow space pirates to zoom around and attack shipping, adds a few extra spins on the idea:

  • Space is full of derelict space stations and pirate off-world colonies for pirates to hide and set up shop.  These are weird corner places full of scum and villainy;
  • With all the money taken from big prizes, pirates off-world colonies are surprisingly opulent;
  • With enough ships in a flotilla in space, pirates set up their own space nations with their own constitutions and laws.  These laws extend to pirate space stations, pirate colonies, and pirate black markets.  These might even morph into real nations in space with their space hubs at their center.
  • PCs forge their own constitutions for their own extra-legal ships.  And they compete with other NPC pirates for crew and supplies.  Maybe those NPC pirates want to join their flag, and adopt their constitutions…

That said, adventurers who go the PC or smuggler routes must learn about where the pirate derelict space stations lie.  No one is advertising these publicly.  They have to get to port.  They have to milk contacts.  They have to refuel.  They have to think scrappy.

Once adventurers work out their home port and their provisions, they have to figure out the right routes with the right prey. They need contacts to sell their ill-gotten goods. Then, once they get bigger, they must get accepted into pirate nations.  Otherwise those aggressive rival pirate captains will squish them flat.  And maybe, they have to take over the pirate nations and become pirate kings.

And space is big.  Really big.

The first adventure, once the PCs have a ship, is:

Now what?

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. Of course, we all know that There Is No Stealth In Space. Or should I say, no “Effective” stealth in space. So pirate ships are seen coming and going. But if you have FTL, then you can run away to any world in range and no one will know which way you went.

    Of course the most stealthy ship is the one that looks like any other merchantman plying the spacelanes…

  2. So it occurs to me that this setting would need to take place in a sort of sweet spot where, technologically, we have discovered FTL travel but not discovered matter fabricators. Or perhaps fabricators are still prohibitively expensive, or better still, very illegal.

    See, if you can fabricate goods from raw mass (by any of the proposed means, the conceptual science of which is left as an exercise for the student), you have solved economics. There are no more scarcity / utility models if scarcity itself is scarce. Your biggest problem becomes one of energy, but if you have the juice needed to overcome the strong and weak forces delicately, delberately, and on demand, you are already winning the joules race against nature.

    So that brings us to a few issues…

    1) Does matter fabrication exist, and if so, why can’t players ever be permitted to get their grubby paws on it? Is it too energy-expensive? Would we consume whole solar systems attempting to fabricate a waffle iron? Have governments or corporations already tried it, and torn an entire arm of the galaxay asunder in their race to fabricate more and bigger weapons from star stuff in some aborted war? Or does it have some terrible side effect or waste product, like only generating antimatter, or worse, something almost–but not quite–entirely unlike tea? Or better yet, some terrible self-replicating anti-radical supermassive particle that rolls free hydrogen into more of itself, like an atomic-scale gray goo?
    Of course, whatever the reason, when the players inevitably find themselves in possession of either the fabricator or the plans, just how much trouble are they in? Who is likely to shoot at them first? And seriously, were the guys they stole it from actually *relieved* to see pirates?

    2) If matter fabrication doesn’t exist, then a) who is researching it, and b) who is trying to sabotage them? If we have the tech to travel FTL, we have the tech to fabricate matter from energy (mostly it is just two applcations of the same principles, conversion of mass to energy and back again). Someone is smart enough to see the possibility; someone else is smart enough to know that even a single functional matter fabricator could completely eliminate all production-side economics, full stop.
    Businesses, unions, politicians, militaries, rogue states, shady operatives, and cackling madmen would all be desperate to move against whoever had it, and the friction between these rival factions becomes the only space the players have left to slip through. Suddenly your pirates are caught up in a techy spy thriller when they roll a distressed research station, expecting to ransom off some eggheads and their beakers!

    3) Finally, an alien species who does have matter fabricators, what would they be like? They never have to produce anything. They slurp up raw materials from whatever collapsed stellar fossil is handy, and give a voice command: finished goods appear, ready for consumption. Their greatest artists are fab-designers, who can upload instructions for the perfect wines, the finest gourmet cuisine, the most luxurious and comfortable apparel, and they would trade untold wealth for new ideas, new designs and research and aesthetics.
    But then, what does collective effort mean if no one has to struggle? Have they abandoned communities, and now live like hedonistic nomads, princes without nations? Do they band together out of instinct and loneliness, an almost perfect communism? Or have they decided to achieve some goal requiring militant collectivism, such as the hostile takeover of whatever galaxy they come across? A species that needs no farmers or nurturers can be a terrifying warrior cult, or they could be chessmaster generals who fabricate armies of AI drones and wage war to relieve boredom, stopping only to bicker amongst themselves over technicalities.
    They may not make for good playable races, but they would make for amazing enemies… or, if our intrepid heroes are clever enough, some seriously lucrative takes. No pirate worth her salt would pass up the chance to get her very own fabricator-equipped warship!

    Bah, tl;dr – there be dragons over that there technical horizon, matey.

  3. Sean Meaney says:

    They all want to be that guy who raids the imperial transport and makes off with the cargo. No one ever wants to be the guy who has to explain to the imperial space administration that rebel/pirate scum boarded the freighter and ejected the crew in the very crowded escape pod before making off with the ship and top secret cargo.

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