Review: Suns of Gold

Posted: 10 July 2013 in Reviews

In a Nutshell: Interstellar trading expansion for Stars Without Number. 85 page PDF. Unusual in its support for the end game, when the PCs have risen to be merchant princes – movers and shakers in the sector as a whole.

CONTENTS

The Jewels of Foreign Suns (4 pages): This gives the history of independent trade, from Earth’s initial colonies through the Terran Mandate, the Silence after the Mandate collapsed, and into the present day. The tone this sets is one of every man’s hand being against the free trader – or far trader, as they are called in SWN, leading them to develop the kind of ruthless cunning one typically observes in PCs. I particularly liked the backstory of the Exchange Consulate, presented here for the first time I recall, and within that, the hints of their militant arm, the context assassins, who essentially trick targets into getting themselves executed. That’s very stylish.

Slaves to the Credit (8 pages): So much for history, now we’re into current affairs. This outlines how one becomes a far trader, the kind of person who does it, and his three main sources of opposition: Restless natives who feel threatened by the trader’s wares, planetary governments tempted to nationalise his ship and cargo, and other traders. Apart from the rare worlds with Trade Hub tags, pretty much every planet you land on will try to steal your profits, your goods, and your ship in one way or another. The chapter also outlines a typical trade run, stressing the caution and defensive measures taken by merchant captains, and the importance of a friendly factor on a regular destination world – someone knowledgeable in local customs, trustworthy (usually because the trader has some kind of hold over him). There’s a discussion of local currency and what backs it, and a page of GM’s tips on how to set up and run a merchant campaign. The book returns to that last point in more detail later.

An Honest Day’s Trade (18 pages): Here are the mechanics for trade in the SWN universe. Every world has a trade table (a list of ten cargo types worth the trader’s while), a trouble table (things that might go wrong), and a Friction rating (how hard they are to do business with; this covers port fees, union troubles, grasping petty officials and so forth). Each trading crew has an expertise rating, based on skills and Intelligence or Charisma – several PCs can work together to create this rating, or it can all come from one person.

The trader begins by rolling twice on the trade table to see what’s available to buy. He can reroll if he doesn’t like what he sees, but each time he does so, the Friction rating goes up. To find the purchase price, you roll 3d6 on a sales chart to get a price modifier, then multiply that by the base price of the cargo. You do the same to sell it at the destination, which depending on the world type may have modifiers to the dice roll. The trader’s expertise always modifies the dice roll in his favour, and the local Friction always modifies it to his disadvantage. A sidebar shows the rules in action, the better to explain them. Underlying the rules is an assumption that the odds are stacked against the PCs, and they will need to undertake adventures to smooth their path to wealth – in essence, the trading rules provide a setting and a motivation for the scenario in your next session.

This is the basic system, intended for the typical far trader crew of a handful of PCs. It is supported by tables of common goods and rules for creating new cargo types, explanations of the tags associated with cargo types, guidelines on creating trade and trouble tables, and eight basic world types with trade modifiers and tables already worked out to get you started.

After that, the chapter moves on to the corporate headquarters, factors and holdings the serious trader will want to establish at his regular ports of call. I think of these as an expansion of the faction rules in SWN, focussed more on the commercial aspects of the game than the military and political focus in the core rules. The main advantage of these from a trader’s perspective is that they reduce the world’s Friction and thus make it easier to turn a profit.

The section closes with a one-page summary of key rules. This is a welcome recent addition to Sine Nomine products.

Treasures in the Sky (14 pages): This chapter extends the world creation process in the SWN core rules by adding a number of new world tags to tailor your sector for trade runs. In addition to the trade and trouble tables already mentioned, and the friends, enemies, places and things your planet already has from core rules generation, you now add an Authority (an NPC representing the local power structure), an Antagonist (someone the PCs have to deal with before he derails their trading), and a Regulation (a commercial law that will cause problems for the PCs). Things, Places and Complications are also in play; you can recycle those from the core rules or use the ones from the new tags. All the new tags are explained in the same level of detail as those in vanilla SWN, and there are a dozen example worlds.

An Offer You Can’t Refuse (14 pages): This chapter explains how to create trading adventures. Remember SWN is a sandbox game, and far traders are likely to have wealth and power beyond the typical PC party; the intention here is that whatever the PCs throw at the GM, he can have an adventure ready to run with 5-10 minutes preparation. This is accomplished by the use of Adventure Templates, which are more detailed versions of the adventure seeds found in the core rulebook. Where the seeds in the core rules would say something like "An Enemy seeks to rob a Friend of some precious Thing that he has desired for some time", an adventure template looks more like this:

"The Authority has an Actor who is their spouse, child, lover, debtor, or other person of importance to them. This Actor has been kidnapped by local criminals, taken by an Antagonist, seized by the secret police, taken hostage by rebels, lost in the wilderness, or otherwise taken from them. The local authorities have either failed to retrieve them, cannot be trusted with the work, or are actually responsible for the kidnapping. The Authority wants the Actor back. The captors may not realize the Actor’s importance, may have the Actor slated for execution soon, may be transporting the Actor somewhere and are vulnerable during transit, or may be temporarily occupied by dealing with a local Complication. Hostiles are likely guarding the Actor, or may be present in the wilderness, or may actually be employed by the Actor in their attempt to fake their kidnapping and escape the Authority."

There are something like 30 such templates, backed up by random tables for creating further detail (like who the Actor is).

Next are the GM’s guidelines for running a trade campaign, in two basic modes: Space truckers or merchant princes.

Space truckers are the classic trope of a handful of PCs in a tramp freighter. For this, you need to flesh out a basic SWN sector in a little more detail, paying special attention to the PCs’ initial trade route. The PCs are generated, given a ship, and off they go. At the lower levels of PC power, the advice is like that given in Polychrome; don’t expect them to know everything, and always leave them a way to progress, usually an NPC who will help in exchange for something they have, or know how to get.

The merchant princes campaign focuses on what Classic Traveller called "daring schemes for the acquisition of wealth and power". Here, the adventures revolve around interstellar trade empires and the sector’s factions. While it’s possible to start at this level, it could also be a natural evolution of the space truckers game. From the perspective of the typical CT adventuring group, these higher-level far traders are Patrons; from a basic SWN viewpoint, they are a PC Faction. These guys have the need to topple local planetary governments, and the money to hire bands of adventurers to do it, although more likely they will themselves resolve one sub-goal per session of play until they have completed all the steps the GM thinks they need to take before their ultimate prize is within their grasp.

Lords of the New Suns (8 pages): One particular grand ambition for a merchant prince is to found his own colony on a distant world, becoming absolute monarch of his own captive market. The GM creates several worlds suitable for colonisation, then seeds the campaign with rumours and other information about them; eventually the would-be colonisers pick one, and only then is it fleshed out in detail. Tables are provided for generating failed colonies – places someone else tried to colonise before, and why that failed – can the PCs do better? The colony is assigned Population, Supplies, Morale and Tech Level depending on what the PCs use to set it up. Once in existence, the PCs can trade with its captive market, deal with occasional colony troubles, collect taxes and so on. I struggled to get my head around these rules initially, but there is a solid example and a one-page rules summary that made things clear for me. If you think your campaign might wind up going this way, it will pay dividends to think about the colony worlds from the beginning.

Tools of the Traders (6 pages): Here’s a range of personal and starship equipment of particular interest to the trader, ranging from drugs to bend NPCs to your will to complete prefab colonies. Of particular interest as a McGuffin is the route oracle, a dangerous tool which a psychic can use to find a lost world. Naturally, they are usually found in heavily-guarded and long-abandoned Mandate facilities.

GM Resources (8 pages): I look forward to this section in every Sine Nomine product; here are random tables for planetary crises, NPCs, business contacts and rival businesses; stock NPC opponents and alien beasts on a quick-reference sheet (nice); stock building plans for factories, walled estates, offices and shantytowns; and a "character sheet" for a world showing its trade profile and related data.

FORMAT

Two-column black text on white, very printer-friendly, with greyscale illustrations every few pages. Colour cover. Simple, effective, gets the job done.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I got nothin’. Moving on…

REFLECTIONS AND CONCLUSIONS

The Intrepid Merchant has been a staple of adventure stories for centuries, and of SF gaming since its beginnings. Consequently, many SF RPGs have rules for running the odd cargo from world to world as a free trader.

Suns of Gold is different in two key areas; first, when you’re a merchant in Stars Without Number, you’re not paranoid – everybody really is out to get you. Second, this supplement takes you through the free trader phase into being a merchant prince, and maybe beyond that, to being the ruler of entire planets. The sky’s the limit, to coin a phrase.

As ever, I’m impressed with just how much meat Kevin Crawford can pack into a few short pages.

In the late 1970s, my Classic Traveller group became fabulously wealthy after about three real-time years of play, and wanted to found their own colony world far from the "interference" of the Terran Empire, where they could set up a profitable mercenary company. I didn’t have much of a clue how to handle that, and that phase of the game did not go well; I wish I’d had this book then.

However, I don’t think it will work for my current group as a campaign, so I see this one being mined for ideas rather than being used as intended. It would work well as background for the Free Traders campaign, but I think I’d need to handle the actual trading offstage via NPCs, and just have the PCs have the adventures. Maybe I should take a leaf out of Bulldogs‘ book and have the PCs be the crew of a trading vessel, with an NPC captain choosing destinations and setting them tasks. Yes, I think that might work very well. I might even merge it with a solo campaign, having the “NPC captain” as my character, who acts in the gaps between sessions…

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

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