Concerning Free Traders

Posted: 23 September 2015 in Settings
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Almost all space opera RPGs have free traders, tramp freighters, trampers, call them what you will. They are a perfect excuse for PCs to roam the galaxy getting into trouble. What basis do they and their unusual names have in reality?


Commercial shipping is divided into liners (either passenger or freight), which have fixed schedules and published ports of call, and trampers, which don’t. Liners trade in futures, promising to deliver a cargo at a specific time for a price agreed in advance. Trampers work the spot market; they’ll take anything, anywhere, any time – but they charge a premium for that flexibility.

Some shipping lines have trampers in their fleet; these allow them to service a contract at a moment’s notice, and even in a down market, something is always needed urgently somewhere. The alternatives are to ignore those opportunities, or buy out existing contracts and reroute a liner.

Rather than work out the details of commodity trading in the Dark Nebula, I’ve ruled that liners ply the shortest routes between primary systems, but will not traverse a tertiary system. That means the main trade routes are the Triskelion Route, connecting Maadin, Mizah, Gazzain and Bulan, and the U-Route, connecting Vaxt, Kuzu, Valka and Godoro.

The Great Archive’s surveyors, arguably also liners of a sort, ply the Triangular Route (Mizah – Simba – Omaro) and the Hasara Chain (Mizah – Kov – Salia – Tangga – Hasara).

Notice that less than half of the sector’s planets are on regular trade routes, which emphasises the into-the-unknown freebooting style of trading that sits well with many players.


There are three roles to consider; the shipowner, the charterer, and the broker. The first owns the ship, the second charters it for a voyage, and the third provides cargoes for the other two; they meet physically or virtually in an exchange, where they have easy access to information on markets and ship availability. The broker then matches a cargo to available ships if he is working for a charterer, or a ship to available cargoes if he is working for a shipowner. Easily the biggest such facility in the Dark Nebula sector is the Erdemir Exchange on Mizah, though any world on the Triskelion Route or U-Route has some such facility.

Normally, a tramper is hired on a voyage contract, in which the shipowner provides a ship and crew, and the charterer(s) provide the cargo and the destinations; this is perfect for my PCs as they don’t need to worry about the actual trading, the broker does that for them – they just need to get to a specific port as soon as possible. There are also time charters, in which the charterer rents the ship, and it does what he says so long as he keeps paying the bills; and bareboat or demise charters, in which the shipowner provides an empty ship and the charterer does everything else – ownership may transfer to the charterer after some years, in which case it’s effectively a hire-purchase agreement. Arguably, the Type A Free Traders that Merchants can gain as a mustering-out benefit in Classic Traveller are demise charters.

Not strictly charters, but there are some people who take holidays on tramp freighters; people who like travelling on ships, but don’t mind where they’re going. They have their own cabins, eat with the crew and so on – Shepherd Book in Firefly is a good example of this kind of passenger.

Finally, the crew can indulge in speculative trade, which is what SF RPGs tend to focus on; in this case the crew act as their own brokers and effectively charter their own ship as well.


In the typical space opera setting, communication is limited to the speed of a ship, and access to information from another world is expensive and time-consuming, so ship names need to stand out – brokers and charterers who remember your ship’s name are more likely to contact you with more business. This was important historically, and even in the 21st century you can still find ships called things like Never on Sunday for the same reason.

Ship names may not, however, contain (or sound like) distress calls, racial or ethnic insults, obscenities or profanities. They must be no more than 33 characters long in the Latin alphabet, though they may include Roman or Arabic numerals. The name must be clearly printed on both sides of the bow, on the superstructure if any, and on the stern (where the home port must also be shown).

Military vessels tend to be named for martial virtues, places or famous people; sometimes there is a pattern to this, and sometimes not. Commercial ships are often given female names, possibly those of the shipowner’s wife, daughter, mistress or sovereign; trampers have been known to be named after "working girls" in their ports of call. Taking a leaf out of Iain M Banks’ books, in my campaign Mandate vessels have names chosen by their AIs, ranging from the humourous to the downright disturbing.

Ships may be renamed when sold, in which case their papers record them as (for example) "MT Mediterranean, ex-Exxon Valdez". Ship names are italicised in print.

A ship may have two names, one printed on the hull and another in the charter documentation, to meet particular legal or financial needs – this can happen if the ship has a "flag of convenience" or is owned by a shell corporation. Having two names is an indicator that the ship’s owner, or charterer, is trying to conceal their ownership or avoid troublesome regulations; some owners go so far as to have "bearer shares", which like bearer bonds, convey ownership on whoever physically has the document.

Imagine the fun you could have with that!

  1. dougdsims says:

    Nice write up. I’m planning a Firefly-inspired game using SW, and since the player who normally loves brokering deals is thinking of playing a Shepherd this time around, I need to give the crew some different options for acquiring cargos. This gives me some concise examples. Was there a particular source you referenced?

  2. andyslack says:

    Glad you liked it!

    The single most useful source was Wikipedia; if you search that for “tramp trade”, “shipbroking”, “types of charter-party” and other terms that crop up on those pages, you’ll get most of what I found. The key lesson for me was that it’s rare for a captain to act as his own broker; it needs contacts and up-to-date specialist information he doesn’t have, because most of the time he is running the ship, far from port. So it’s perfectly valid to say “The broker calls you up; he’s got a cargo for you to take to Whitefalls,” and bypass all that finding the cargo and contract negotiation stuff – that’s how I’m doing it, anyway.

    Google “cargo ship voyages” to find out more about being a passenger on a tramper.

    Ship names information is largely from, look for that and “how to name a ship”.

    I also recommend the book Outlaws Inc. by Matt Potter, which documents the Firefly-like adventures of ex-Soviet flyers in the world’s trouble spots, and how exactly it’s convenient for a lot of authorities to turn a blind eye to them. I think a pretty good RPG campaign could be made of it.

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