The role of PC Heroes in Star Wars

While I am working on my Hyperspace Opera setting, I am frequently getting out various Star Wars RPG books to look for ideas. And unsurprisingly, it’s always just a matter of time until I start to think “Man, I should run a d6 Star Wars campaign in the meantime.” It’s Star Wars! It’s amazing!

But then I grab something to take some notes and start looking for ideas what the campaign could be about, and where and when it would be set, and the whole thing begins to lose traction really rapidly. The main reference for what Star Wars is and what makes Star Wars cool are the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando. They quickly turn out to be major movers and shakers, destroying the two Death Stars, having several encounters with Darth Vader, and being directly responsible for facilitating the death of the Emperor. Their interactions with the setting and the major power players within it, and their perspective on the world as a whole are very different from what a group of freshly made PCs could ever experience.

But why does that have to be?

It is convention in RPGs that a party of new PCs consists of people with no significant accomplishments who are each just one out of a thousand or even a million of similar people with similar aspirations. They are bit players and peons, who through their deeds can slowly grow in strength and make connections to possibly one day become important actors in the fate of their worlds. And this works great for a great range of games, settings, and campaigns. But for a Star Wars game, this just doesn’t hook me. Playing rebel grunts ambushing imperial patrols to steal a crate of blasters, or irrelevant cargo pilots who have a rival crew trying to steal their cargo doesn’t really capture any of the things that make Star Wars amazing.

So instead of having a party of fresh new characters who first arrive on the scene at the start of the campaign and then look on the big picture from far below, why not have the players play PCs who are capital H Heroes? We have established that the Emperor and Vader killed all the Jedi except for two, but in that big galaxy, there could very well be a third who is also out fighting the Empire on his own in a complete different region. When we meet Han and Lando for the first time, they are not ordinary scoundrels. They both have reputation and influence that indicates they are pretty big shots in the circles they associate with. And Leia is an imperial senator and appears to be at least in the second tier of the leadership of the whole Rebel Alliance. Luke really is the very notable exception here, and that’s because he’s the main point of view character for the first movie. By the second movie, his role has already changed completely.

This idea is certainly not new, but it has never occured to me. PCs in a Star Wars campaign don’t have to be extras in the story of the Rebellion against the Empire. They absolutely can be protagonists in a story just as big as the one of Luke and Vader.

Esekar Sector

The Esekar Sector is a small region on the remote edges of Known Space, named after the brightest star within its boundaries. It is located near the frontier regions of Enkai, Netik, and Damalin dominated space. The first mining colonies in the sector were established around 200 years ago, mostly by various Netik and Enkai mining clans. At the height of the mining operations, the total population of the sector reached up to 20 million people, but since most of the easily accessible deposits of palladium and irridium have been depleted and most of the mining fleets moved on to other sectors, that number has fallen to less than half of that. Today only a single mining clan is still operating on Dresat, but there are dozens of smaller independent mines struggling to stay in operation by scraping away at deposits considered nonprofitable by the major interstellar mining companies.

Ordos

(population: 4 million Damalin and others)

The planet Ordos is the primary commercial center of the Esekar Sector and home to nearly half of its population. Unlike most of the other planets in the sector, the original colony on Ordos was not established as a mining operation but as a parmanent trade port and location for food production, banks, and high-tech manufacturing. The entire colony with its multiple settlements is a consortium of several Damalin companies from the neighboring Teoher Sector. While small private businesses exist on Ordos, all the infrastructure is run and owned by the consortium, which is also the sole landlord for all properties on the planet. Ordos was specifically chosen for its mild climate and dense vegetation, which puts it into stark contrast with the mostly barren desert planets selected by the mining clans for their rich mineral resources. The planet is the closest thing anywhere in the Esekar sector to the urban worlds of the home systems, though that illusion quickly disappears as one gets close to the outer edges of the main cities, where the the buildings first give way to massive crops fields and then to seemingly endless forests that cover nearly all of the planet.

Lupai

(population: 1.5 million Enkai)

Though the planey Lupai is home to a wide range of plants and animals, it has relatively little surface water and atmospheric water vapor, which combined with a mostly mildly warm climate makes it a near paradise for Enkai. It is home to more than half of the Enkai population in the entire Esekar Sector. In many ways Lupai is quite similar to Ordos, being a major trade hub for the sector and effectively ruled by companies. However, there is no central government on Lupai and the nine major cities are each owned by diferent Enkai companies. Despite their competition, the merchant houses are unified to some degree by their rivalry with Ordos. The significantly greater size of the Damalin cartel could easily drive any single one of the Enkai companies out of business, but by making agreements to not underprice each other for certain goods on certain planets, they have so far managed to survive, even with the disappearance of most mining clans from the sector.

Dresat

(population: 2.5 million Netik, Enkai, Tubaki, and Chosa)

Even though Ordos and Lupai are the main economic centers of the Esekar Sector, Dresat is the sole reason they are having any business at all. Dresat is a rocky and barren planet that is nearly constantly shrouded in a sickly yellow haze that can cast the surface into twilight even in the middle of the day, and would never have attracted any colonists if not for its rich deposits of palladium and iridium. The entire planet has been claimed as the property of a Netik mining clan that has been opperating massive strip mines in several different sites on the surface for well over a century. While the mining operations have been scaled down over time, there are still well over a million miners employed by the mining clan and all the remaining economy of the planet exist solely to support the mine. When the mining clan will move out of the sector, many people expect Dresat to become nearly uninhabited within a decade. But the immenent closure of the mine has been predicted for over 50 years and it somehow still generates enough profits to justify its continued exiatence instead of relocating the entire operation to a new planet in a different sector, like all the other mining clans have done years ago.

Kulpin

(population: 600,000 Enkai)

Kulpin is another major Enkai colony in the sector. The jungles here are extremely dense and dominated by gargantuan trees, which cast most of the planet’s surface into permanent shadows. Most settlements are build on tall rocky hills and cliffs that rise above the surrounding forest, where the humidity is much lower than on the forest floor and more bearable for the Enkai residents.

Ataris

(population: 400,000 Mahir)

This planet is almost entirely covered in jagged mountains, glaciers, and frozen seas, orbiting a single faint red dwarf star. Though considered inhospitable by most species, it is actually home to a sizable Mahir population. In the face of nearly constant freezing winds, all settlements are build inside vast caverns inside the mountain peaks. There is some mining going on, but many of the old abandoned mines have been turned into research and testing facilities of various Mahir companies. The outside environment and underground nature of settlements makes it practically impossible to get in and out undetected and the massive stone walls prevent any attempts of raiding them by force, which can be an important advantage over space stations when working in a violently competitive industry.

Kamara

(population: 400,000 Enkai, Netik, and Tubaki)

Kamara used to be one of the main mining worlds in the sector that has been stripped mined by an Enkai mining clan for over a century before it was abandoned. Unlike Dresat, Kamara has relatively clear air with great open blue skies, and a mild climate that allows most species to be outside all day without any protective equipment. It also does not require any seals on habitats to keep out dangerous gases or particles in the air. Though being quite dry and dominated mostly by barren deserts, Kamara actually has some native plant life, but it is completely inedible to most species and both Netik and Jurikk agree that those plants they can digest are rather unappealing. The ability to grow foreign plants out in the open with the help of industrial fertilizers has allowed Kamara to become home to the largest number of independent miners in the whole sector, most of which are the descendants of former workers of the old strip mines.

Palan

(population: 200,000 Amai)

Palan is a planet almost entirely covered by water with only a few volcanic islands scattered across the ocean’s surface. Because of this it has been of little interest to either miners or settlers in the past, but has been chosen as the site of one of the first Amai colonies outside their home system. The colony on Palan has been established only 30 years ago, but small expansions keep being added to it to this day. It is almost entirely subsidized by the homeworld and what little industry exists on Palan is mostly a proof of concept for factories on new worlds and doesn’t make any profits. The only meaningful export of Palan is a kind of wine that sells for a good price on the homeworld, but really mostly for the novelty rather than the taste. The Amai mostly keep to themselves and have little contact with the other planets of the Esekar Sector.

Tornesh

(population: 300,000 Netik, Chosa, Tubaki)

Like Kamara, Tornesh is a mining planet that has been abandoned by the mining clans ages ago. However, its environment is far less hospitable, being much hotter and barren of any native life, and big sandstorms being quite common. Netik and Chosa are the only people who aren’t overly bothered by these conditions, but for some reason several thousand Tubaki still continue to endure the harsh environment and having no ambition to head for somewhere less hostile. While the miners on Kamara have established something of a civil society with public infrastructure and a sense of order, Tornesh is pure chaos and anarchy. There is no real authority on the planet, only various gangs defending their own claims over the increasingly crumbling old settlements. It’s an open secret throughout the sector that a good portion of minerals being shipped from Tornesh are being mined by slaves.

The Believability of remote Colony Worlds

As someone who knows a bit about the demographic shift and how population sizes change both during and after industrialization, the idea of galactic empires with hundreds of billions or even trillions of humans never made any sense to me. I guess overpopulation was a serious public concern in the 1960s, but statisticans had already figuted out that the massive global population boom of the 20th century would not continue indefinitely into infinity decades earlier. Industrializing societies grow rapidly. Industrialized ones don’t. From all the data we have, if they don’t get large scale immigration, they actually begin to shrink, and quite dramatically. Eatimates are that the human population of Earth will peak at 11 billion at some point in the mid 21st century and then most likely tank dramatically over the next 100 years unless extensive government programs are set up to encourage people to have at least 2 children on average. There just isn’t going to be any people to settle hundreds or even thousands of planets without radical breeding programs. Programs that would cost a lot of money without providing any benefits, unless humanity were in some kind of cosmic war of attrition. I guess it would work for Warhammer 40k.

A very simple solution to having a species colonize numerous planets while being demographically plausible is to simply have colonies with smaller population sizes. We have started using the word billion so commonly in our modern language that it can be easy to forget that a billion is a thousand million. Even if just a single percent of a species of 10 billion individuals lives on other planets than the homeworld, that’s still 100 million people. That’s a scale like having 10 countries like Austria or the Netherlands. You could even have 20 New Zealands or 65 Hawaiis. Have a whole colony exist as a single primary settlement and you can have a city of a million people. That’s not as big as New York, Chicago, or Tokyo, but it is a seriously big city that could even have a few modest skyscrapers if it wants to feel a bit fancy.

If you have some 10 alien species with around 10 billion people each, even when 99% of them live on the 10 homeworlds, you can still have several hundred colonies with poplations in the millions. And many many more with populations in the hundreds or tens of thousands. A billion colonists can populate thousands of colony worlds if you spread them out a little.

Now a new question I’ve been pondering this week is how long the travel times between inhabited worlds could be without regular contact between them appearing implausible. I quite like the idea of moving them really quite far apart so that in situations where the players find themselves tied up in some local crisis, it can take weeks before outside forces can arrive to interfere. I think that makes local politics much more meaningful and gives the players much more time to solve dangerous situations themselves before the cavalry arrives.

The idea of transplanting small populations to really far away places and letting them fend for themselves, and people actually signing up for it because it sounds like a good life is not a new one. It actually happened several times in our fairly recent history. The main examples that always come to my mind are Honolulu in Hawaii, Perth in Western Australia, and New Zealand. A hundred years ago, the Hawaiian islands had a population of 250,000 people, 84% of which had been recent imigrants, mostly from Japan and the US mainland. At that time, Perth had a similar population, and New Zealand a population of just over 1 million. Since then, Hawaii has grown to 1.5 million, Perth to 2 million, and New Zealand to 5 million. If you look at a globe with Hawaii in the center, it almost  looks like it’s the only significant piece of dry land on the whole planet. From Perth, it’s thousands of kilometers of open ocean to the West and South, and thousands of empty desert to the North and East. It is easy to imagine them sitting on a different planet entirely.

Today, getting to these places is really quite easy. 4 hours on a plane to reach major global population centers really is nothing. But it is not that long ago that people accepted a very different reality as simply being part of life. A convoy shipping soldiers from Austrlia to Egypt in 1914 took seven weeks to cross the Indian Ocean. Reinforcements for Pearl Harbor in 1944 took 12 days to travel from Los Angeles to Hawaii. Hawaii in the 1940s was not some primitive agrarian society that was agriculturally self-sufficient to see to all its simple needs. It was a fairly modern world with refridgerators, gas stations and radio music, really not that different from ours. If they could live in modern comfort this far removed from any other civilization, then so could space colonists with all kinds of fancy fabrication technologies.

When considering travel times between planets, 10 days in hyperspace to reach the next nearby colony or 50 days to travel to the homeworld are absolutely justifiable. Of course they would be remote, but that wouldn’t make them cut off from the culture and economy of galactic society. A small colony of a few hundred thousand people a month of travel removed from their homeworld can still have all the comforts of civilization, with access to advanced medicines for even uncommon ailments, and getting imports of music, movies, and games from all across the galaxy.

10 days of hyperspace travel between systems on average feels like a good guideline for my own setting. It would be plausible for the kind of societies I am imagining. Also, building on my earlier calculations for the economy of interstellar shipping fees, having something shipped to the next planet would cost about 10€ per kg, assuming a small space freighter can be bought for 5 million € and you can take 5% profit after operating costs. You wouldn’t want to pay that much for shipping for grain or concrete, but for importing electronics or medicine that a small colony can’t produce locally, that’s actually pretty cheap.

Nothing of this is in any way a solid model (because the capabilities of space ships are completely made up), but you can poke a setting like this quite a lot before it starts showing serious holes.

Some thoughts on the economy of space cargo transportation

On today’s episode of really unneccessary iceberg worldbuilding: “What are the shipping fees in space?”

I’ve been thinking recently about how fast I want space travel between star systems to be in my space setting, and that had me pondering the costs for transporting cargo and the prices for buying and operating a space ship. I think I want to go with a setting in which travel between systems takes relatively long. More like taking a steam ship from Europe to Australia than taking a plane. But longer travel times mean greater shipping costs, and to be economical, cargo ships would need greater capacity, or alternatively very high value cargo. At some point, the travel times are either too long or the shpping costs way too high to make any sense.

In the Space Scoundrel genre, one requirement is that an experienced pilot can have the ability to raise the money for a small cargo ship, and generate enough income with cargo delivery jobs to cover both fuel and maintenance costs and pay off the debts. Many Space Scoundrels are in rather different situations that often involve various amounts of violence and crime, but to get away with that, it has to be possible to do with completely legitimate and legal means. There need to be honest bush pilots for the scoundrels to hide among them.

I think to be worth the financial risk, it should be possible to make enough income with a small cargo ship to pay off the loans or investors that made purchasing the ship possible within 10 years. If it would take much longer than that even when having decent business coming your way, I don’t think it would be worth the trouble. To make the calculation easier, let’s say 11 years, which is very close to 4,000 days. You’ll always have some days that you spend waiting for new customers, having repairs done, being stuck in customs, or just taking a break, so I think it’s really more like 3,000 work days doing actual business.

I’ve been looking up prices for old cargo planes and also found the purchase price and daily operating cost for a C-130 military medium cargo plane. Taking those things into account, I came up with the following approximations.

If you buy a cargo ship for 3,000,000c, and want to have it payed off in 3,000 days, you have to make a profit of 1,000c every day. If your ship has a cargo capacity of 2o tons (like a C-130) and you want to take a 5% profit margin, you have to demand a fee of 20,000c per day for your whole cargo hold. That makes 1,000c per ton of cargo, or 1c per kg.

Assuming that 1c is about $1 (and you can get an old plane of decent size for under $3,00,000), paying $10 per kg for a 10 day delivery doesn’t seem that prohibitive. You wouldn’t pay these fees on delivering grain, cement, or paper, but for electronics or medicine $10 in shipping fees could actually be quite cheap. Raising the cost to 20c or 30c for double or tripple the distance could still be acceptable to customers who just can’t get the goods from any more nearby source.

An average of 10 days of travel between inhabited planets would mean at least 20 days to send a message and get a reply just from the nearest neighboring system. If you have to call in help from two or three systems away, it could well take months before it arrives. As space settings go, this would make individual systems quite isolated. But it still would allow a group of PCs to visit different planets quite easily throughout a campaign. And running an independent light freighter cargo business would still look economically plausible as well.

Does any of this matter? No, of course it doesn’t really. But if I now start telling players that a pilot can buy an old ship with room for four people, and make a decent income carrying two shipping containers through space for weeks at a time, I’ll be feeling a lot more comfortable about players asking questions how such a thing might be possible.

More Species of Known Space

Tubaki

The Tubaki are one of several species whose presence in space is greatly dependent on technologies and inrastructures of other powers. There is only a small number of Tubaki shipyards and most of them are primarily specialized on converting old purchased ships from other manufacturers to provide greater comfort to Tubaki crews. Those shipyards that do build their own ships still rely on imported hyperspace drives and gravity generators from other more established companies. Despite Tubaki worlds being generally seen as more low tech planets, Tubaki have been travelling through space for centuries and founded several dozen of colonies in other sectors. Even though most of them are of no interest or relevance for major interstellar companies.

Tubaki are humanoids quite similar in size and proportions to Enkai and Mahir, which is generally attributed to the very similar gravity and climatic conditions on the Tubaki and Enkai homeworlds producing a similar optimal body shape for upright walking humanoids. On average, Tubaki tend to be slightly taller and more muscular, but mostly stand apart due to their sand to brown colored fur and thick manes. Tubaki found outside their own system are usually employed as manual labor, primarily in mining and agriculture and also various low-level mechanic jobs. Tubaki colonies are usually too small to have advanced engineering and science schools and those individuals with advanced degrees typically find their calling in contributing to the development of their planets rather than seeking their luck among the stars.

Chosa

Chosa are tall humanoids with tough green-gray hides and sharp teeth that give them a reptilian appearance. They are among the physically strongest of the species travelling space and fight fiercely and with little hesitation. Prejudices are widely spread among the other species of Chosa being violent brutes, but their homeworld actually ranks among the most technologically advanced planets in Known Space. Their ships tends towards blocky and practical designs typically ragarded as looking blunt with little thought for decorations, but compare in their capabilities to all but the most sophisticated Damalin and Netik ships.

Chosa encountered in space are often mercenaries, an occupation that their physical toughness and familiarity with advanced space technologies makes them well suited for. Chosa culture as a whole is not overly militaristic though, and their prominent presence in the mercenary business comes more from the high demand for Chosa in that line of work. There are typically not a lot of opportunities for Chosa engineers or pilots outside of Chosa systems.

Amai

The Amai are one of the newest species that have gained the ability to travel between the stars. Even just 200 years ago, the Amai had no contact of any kind with any other species and only performed a few crewed exploration missions within their home system. Being native to a mostly aquatic world with relatively few islands above the surface, Amai civilization has always been greatly limited by the available amount of land for agriculture, and even after becoming industrialized the total population has only barely surpassed one billion, which is much smaller than for any other species in Known Space. Given their relatively small number and only recent arrival among the stars, Amai are only rarely encountered by any other species and usually releatively close to their home system. Being only in contact with small frontier colonies and minor outposts and knowing about the home systems of other species only through tales, Amai tend to be quite cautious when encountering aliens or visiting unknown planets in a region of space that appear rather lawless and chaotic.

Major Species of Known Space

Known Space is home to several intelligent species that possess the capabilities for interstellar flight and have colonized worlds outside their home systems. With the vast distances of interstellar space, and communication between systems being limited to the speed with which messages can be carried by ships, there are few true interstellar governments and colony worlds are usually highly autonomous or fully independent. Though compared to the homeworlds, even the largest colony worlds have populations in the size of small countries, and most are little more than a single major city. The Esekar Sector is far away from any homeworlds or major colonies, but has become home to numerous settlements and outposts of various species from all over Known Space.

Enkai

The Enkai home system is one of the great powers of Known Space, even though it is more a confederation of several nations on the homeworld and various other planets throughout the system than a truly unified state. The Enkai homeworld is one of the most technologically advanced in Known Space, which has enabled its people to establish hundreds of colonies of various sizes over the course of many centuries. Today, the Enkai are one of the three most dominant species in the Esekar Sector.

Enkai are a primate species with skin in various shades of dull red and with black hair. Among the planets on which intelligent life has evolved, their homeworld is comperatively warm and dry, though dominated more by steppes and savann than actual deserts. This makes Enkai quite well adapted to deal with high air temperatures but they generally cope poorly with high humidity. With the exception of small outposts that have economically collapsed and never managed to recover, Enkai  worlds have generally quite advanced technological equipment.

Among other species, Enkai are known to be both ambitious and exiteable, often to the point of being reckless. Both the Damalin and Netik consider this unbecomming of such a highly technologically advanced civilization, but their ability to seize on opportunities quickly without relying on the hierarchies of established institutions has served their species well in their journey to the stars.

Damalin

The Damalin are one of the oldest species travelling and coloizing space that is still in existence. They gained access to hyperspace drive technology from the presumably extinct Udur over 4,000 years ago and since then have colonized dozens of systems in the space surrounding their home system, many of which have constantly been inhabited for thousands of years by now. Damalin sates are usually in control of or at least laying claim to entire star systems.

Damalin are a amphibian species with pale blue-white skin, large dark eyes, and thin mouths. While they can survive underwater indefinitely, the practical necessities of industrial production and food preservation have forced their civilization to become almost completely land based. But still most Damalin settlements of any significant size include many large underwater “parks” in rivers and lakes, and the houses any moderately well off individuals include a pool instead of a veranda, large enough for entire families.

Damalin have a reputation among other races for chosing their words carefully and being very deliberate in their actions, which sometimes comes off as indecisive, but they often have a much greater awareness of what’s going on around them and being prepared for most eventualities than they are letting on. While their thin bodies don’t provide them with much strength, they are known to shot well and quick and rarely allow themselves to be surprised unprepared.

Netik

Long before the Damalin first left their homeworld to travel to the stars, the Netik had already settled dozens of planets throughout all the space then known to them. Like the Damalin, they did not develop hyperspace drive technology themselves but had gained it from Udur explorers and traders arriving on their homeworld almost 6,000 years ago. During the first centuries of their expansion into interstellar space, Netik colonies were established as vassal states to the Udur, making use of their existing transportation infrastucture. Correspondingly, the decline and eventual collapse of the Udur civilization had incredible impacts on the widely dispersed Netik colonies, many of which lost all contact with each other as they did not have the industrial capacity to maintain regular transportation of messages across the great distances. At the lowest point, the largest remaning cluster of Netik worlds consisted of only three major colonies and a few outposts, with a combined population of only a few hundred million. Eventually the three colonies developed industrially to a point where they could reestablish contact with a number of other colonies, though many of them had completely collapsed in the centuries of complete isolation. Most strikingly, the Netik have never been able to determine the location of their homeworld and to this day it is unknown if any kind of Netik civilization still survives on that planet. Though they are lacking a homeworld, many Netik colony worlds have exceptionally large populations in the high millions, and they numerous smaller outposts everywhere throughout Known Space.

The Netik are an insectoid race and one of the most alien in appearance to most other species. But many people who encounter them in person for the first time are quite surprised at how effortlessly they interact with members of other species. While their body language is close to impossible to read for other species, Netik are usually very skilled at picking up on social clues and picking their words well to create a common sense of understanding with other people. Among space travellers, Netik have a reputation to be generally welcoming and quite fun to be around, which often is quite mystifying to people who have never encountered them themselves.

Mahir

Among all the species travelling throughout Known Space, the Mahir stand out uniquely for not actually being native to what is considered their homeworld. Genetically, the Mahir are nearly identical to the Enkai, having split off from their original species only some 20,000 years ago. For reasons that will likely remain unknown forever, an alien species visited the Enkai homeworld during the stone age and collected an estimated 80 to 100,000 people which they settled on a planet several hundreds of lightyears away. Archeological discoveries and genetic studies by Mahir scientists had determined long ago that they are evolutionarily unrelated to any other life on their home world and had left no evidence of their existance on prior to the established date anywhere on the planet. It was only when the Mahir gained access to hyperspace drives and encountered the Enkai 400 years ago that the true origin of their species was revealed.

Mahir are physically nearly identical to Enkai, with the most evident difference being in their coloration. Unlike the Enkai, the skin and hair of Mahir is nearly white. There are however various minor adaptations to the much colder environment on their new home planet, primarily in regards to temperature tollerance. These differences appear to be the result of genetic changes introduced by the aliens that originally settled the Mahir on their new planet, but the purpose of that projects remains a complete mystery.

Even though the Mahir gained access to hyperspace travel only fairly recently, their homeworld is otherwise technologically very advanced and they have become a considerable economic and industrial power in known space since they gained access to cheap raw material from other systems.