The Standard of Living

“Agents can buy, handwave, or get parts to make pretty much anything a normal, middle-class European can buy.” – Night’s Black Agents

In a previous post, I examined the cost of living in a mediaeval society, but I’m running a science fiction campaign at the moment so I look to modern prices and wages.

As is my habit, I checked against the real world, and because Savage Worlds is published by an American company I used information from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics; it turns out to be easier to find out what someone earns than what the cost of living is, so I’m inferring lifestyles from that. As you’ll see, if your character is Rich or Noble he has about the same standard of living as a contemporary American lawyer; if you watch any TV at all, you know roughly what that means.


  • Poverty Hindrance: Starting wealth is $250, so by extrapolation from the Rich Edge, annual salary is probably around $25,000 – that’s about what a baker, janitor or taxi driver earns, according to the BLS. In the US military this would be an airman, seaman, private first class or lance-corporal, depending on arm of service.
  • Normal: Starting wealth $500, so by extrapolation annual salary around $50,000. A mechanic, police officer, nurse, teacher or military lieutenant is in this sort of area, as well as the average PC.
  • Rich or Noble: Starting wealth $1,500 and annual salary $150,000. Dentists, lawyers, generals, admirals, people like that.
  • Filthy Rich: Starting wealth $2,500, annual salary $500,000. That’s a surgeon, twice, with extra fries.


One of the reasons for this line of thought was the idea that a player character might take the Rich Edge and say it paid for, or represented the income from, a small starship.

Let’s look at the stock Light Freighter in the SFC; it’s Size 8 and has a crew of 5, which means it costs $850 per day for food and fuel, $800 per jump, and up to $50,000 per month for wages; if we assume one jump every two weeks, that’s a total of $331,050 per annum just to keep the ship running, and another $600,000 for crew wages, which means chartering a Light Freighter has to cost somewhere in the region of $7,000 to $20,000 per week. (Incidentally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average airline pilot or flight engineer does indeed make somewhere around $10,000 per month.)

This means a Filthy Rich character could credibly pay to operate one if the crew forego their wages, and a group of two or three could keep it flying even if the crew are being paid normal salaries.

Alternatively, I can interpret the Edges, Hindrances and lifestyles for aspiring freighter captains thus:

  • Poverty: Hardscrabble free trader. Trading isn’t making ends meet; the money from adventures subsidises ship operations.
  • Normal: Getting by. You make just enough trading to keep the ship spaceworthy and pay the crew’s wages.
  • Rich or Noble: Better days. You make a comfortable living trading.
  • Filthy Rich: Merchanter royalty. Your trading acumen, and your ship, are widely known and respected.

That’s a lot faster and easier than the trading Rules As Written or anything I’ve come up with previously. Your character wants to be a successful trader? Take the Rich Edge next time you advance, and we won’t worry about exactly what he trades in, or how.

Now, while you’re at the Exchange brokering your next charter, this nervous guy in a sharp suit takes you to one side. He’s heard from a friend of a friend that you and your crew can be trusted with delicate situations…

Not for Trafficking

We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
– James Elroy Fletcher, The Golden Journey to Samarkand

What I’m finding is that interstellar trading, simple though it is in the Science Fiction Companion, is very boring for me. You may enjoy it, and if you do, more power to you; it’s just not what my games are about these days.

I spent some time crafting a faster, easier system, and some time researching how contemporary tramp freighters actually operate – mostly on charters arranged by brokers, it turns out; speculative trading of the kind SF RPGs emulate has practically disappeared since (and possibly because of) the invention of radio.

None of that made it any more fun, sadly. So I’ve circled back around to the Daring Tales of the Space Lanes approach; the characters spend a lot of time trading, but that all happens off-camera and generates just enough money to offset the ship’s operating expenses; the players don’t get involved in it.

Since this has been the outcome whatever setting and rules I’ve used since the late 1980s, I’m going to knock trading on the head now; you won’t see it here again.

That does leave me with the question of how much money PCs should reasonably have available, so for the time being I shall adapt the Savings rules from Beasts & Barbarians, summarised and modified as follows:

  • At the end of each adventure, PCs get paid or fence their loot, replenish supplies, and replace lost items.
  • They retain $500 per Rank (more than in B&B because the SF PC tends to have more, and more expensive, gear) for emergencies. This is adjusted by the Rich and Filthy Rich Edges, and the Poverty Hindrance, as usual.
  • They then spend everything else they made on the adventure before the next one starts – on the traditional “ale and whores”, starship repairs, training, collection of pet fish, or whatever.

I’m also bored by the hyperspace astrogation rolls and variable trip time. Henceforth jumps succeed and take a week each, and we’re not interested in how much of that week is in hyperspace and how much in realspace. So there.

So much for trafficking. On with the lust for knowing what should not be known!

Not Your Daddy’s Zombies

“If they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skin into their clothes … and if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.” – Firefly

I use zombies a lot, mostly because their simple and predictable tactics make them good opponents for solo games; it’s both easy and credible for them to be moved in accordance with rules, rather than trying to imagine the best tactics for both sides, turn by turn.

But let me draw your attention to a few things about the standard Savage Worlds zombie from the core rulebook…

  • Smarts d4. Notice, not d4(A); this ugly biter as smart as some beginning PCs or the standard Soldier ally. He remembers how ladders and doorknobs work. He’s going to go around the open manhole, and he is not going to stagger off one rooftop because he can see you on the next.
  • Intimidation d6. Not only is the SW zed scary, he is scary with malice aforethought, trying to Shake you so his buddies can drag you down.
  • Shooting d6. In most games you take down zombies with a ranged weapon before they get close enough to bite. This little devil shoots back.
  • Pace. There is nothing anywhere in the rules that says zombies can’t run. This alone makes them much more dangerous; not so much Dawn of the Dead, more 28 Days Later.

So, combat with Savage Worlds zombies is more hazardous than in other zombie games. It likely begins with you coming under fire from armed zeds lying in ambush. While you’re pinned, the fearless assault team of zombies closes up; one intimidates you to Shake you while the rest pile in with wild attacks and maximum gang-up bonuses.

You’re being shot at, you’re Shaken, and four zombies are engaging you in hand-to-claw combat, each rolling at +6 to hit. They are fearless, +2 Toughness, and you basically have to use a called shot to the head to take them out.

Good luck. I’ll be in my bunk.

Space Travel, Trade and Encounters

In the same way that the default D&D campaign was about plundering an underground complex, the default Traveller campaign was about a small starship trading from world to world and getting into trouble while it did so; and that seems like as good a spine as any to hang a Savage Worlds SF game on.

The Science Fiction Companion is easily understandable when it comes to ship construction and combat, less so for travel, trade and encounters. Let’s look at each of those in turn before we start rolling dice, shall we?


On first checking the rules for travel and upkeep in the Science Fiction Companion, it seemed it was always cheaper in the long run to burn extra fuel to arrive on the day of the hyperjump, because the cost of the crew’s wages is more than the cost of fuel. Experimentation showed this was wrong, for two reasons; first, you pay your crew once per month, but you have to replace fuel more often than that if you burn extra. Second, the cost of the extra fuel has to be less than the profit you expect to make on your cargo, or you will go broke within a few months. You’re likely to do that anyway, as you’ll see in the next section, although it takes longer if you don’t pay your crew.

It also seemed that the Knowledge (Astrogation) roll to make the hyperjump was dramatically uninteresting, because all failure does is delay the jump by a few minutes, and unless you’re being pursued by rakashan pirates or about to be eaten by a giant mutant star goat, it’s not worth rolling. Again, that’s not quite right; it matters how much you eventually succeed by, as raises on the astrogation roll reduce transit time and hence operating costs.

You need a good pilot to survive and prevail in combat, but you need a good astrogator to make a profit. Since presumably you want the astrogator to be better than the ship’s AI, he or she will likely have Scholar and the prerequisite d8 skill.


The intriguing thing about Savage Worlds trading (SFC p. 28) is that it has nothing to do with the characters or the planet they’re on. This makes it extremely portable; it’s a subset of rules with no connection to anything else at all.

After trying a few dozen trading voyages off-camera, I came to the conclusion that this also means that you go broke fast unless you have a number of possible destinations and know what the prices are going to be at at each one; if you don’t, on average luck over a long period you break even on the trading rolls, but it costs you money to move the ship around, so you make a loss overall.

Therefore, co-operation between trader ships is advantageous; they will share prices in some way. A government might operate subsidised ships of its own, or might pay for pricing information which it then shares on a Commodity Board at the starport, to encourage trade and thus boost its economy. A merchant’s guild might jealously guard the information, only sharing it between members. A large trading corporation might have the resources to do this itself, so the co-operation might be entirely internal to the organisation.

Whatever form the organisation takes, one of its primary functions is to collect price data from nearby worlds on a monthly basis (the prices change each month) and share them. This is limited to worlds within one jump of home, though, as by the time the typical ship has gone two jumps, collected local prices and returned, loaded up the best cargo and jumped back, the prices have changed, so there’s no point.

The organisation therefore has at least one ship per neighbouring world that basically does nothing but carry mail and news between the homeworld and its neighbours, and an extra one or two undergoing maintenance or repairs. These ships are as small as possible, since this minimises their operating costs on all fronts. Since there are ships (probably armed) scuttling around neighbouring systems on a regular basis, those systems count as "patrolled" for purposes of random encounters – see below for more on that.

Each ship trots out to an adjacent world at the beginning of the month, carrying something it hopes it can sell at a markup, then comes back. They share information, and then all make the most profitable run they can for the rest of the month; if there’s enough money to be made, the ships may burn extra fuel to reduce transit time, so that they can make more runs before the prices change.

Now, while it’s logical for these little ships to trade and thus offset their operating costs, they can’t be expected to make a profit, for the reasons stated above. So, like Traveller’s subsidised merchants, each ship has an Operating Cost Position – essentially, an amount the organisation will tolerate it losing. I reason this would cover fuel for daily operations and two hyperjumps per month (one out, one back), provisions, and crew salaries, but not additional hyperjumps or burning extra fuel to reduce transit time. Crews which lose less than their OCP are considered good; crews that consistently lose more than their OCP are replaced.


The SFC doesn’t cover these at all, although Savage Worlds itself calls for drawing a card if travelling through an area that isn’t patrolled. If one were using random encounters, the logical point at which to check is on arrival in a new system.

By the above reasoning, any world acting as a trade hub effectively patrols all its neighbouring worlds (those within one hyperspace jump), so there are no space encounters there.

Beyond that, hostile encounters are possible; my thinking is that in most cases the setting will tell you what PCs should encounter; raiders, over-zealous patrol ships, pirates and so on, according to where the GM has placed those; my instinct is that consistency in this will be more useful in the long run than creating complex tables. ("Let’s not go to Tortuga, we always get hit by pirates there.")


I can see I’m not going to want to track this in detail in the face to face game; while the characters spend a lot of time obsessing about trade goods and markets, the players neither need to nor should.

However, whether you call them scouts, couriers or trade pioneers, you could easily construct a campaign around one of the small price-checking starships, with the PCs as the crew. Start at the base world, visit one of its neighbours and have an adventure, come back and tell your patron what the prices are like there. If you make a profit, so much the better.


“If the Drive allowed ships to sneak up on planets, materializing without warning out of hyperspace, there could be no Empire even with the Field. There’d be no Empire because belonging to an Empire wouldn’t protect you. Instead there might be populations of planet-bound serfs ruled at random by successive hordes of space pirates. Upward mobility in society would consist of getting your own ship and turning pirate.” – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Building the Mote in God’s Eye

I was going to reboot the Arioniad and move the Dark Nebula campaign forward in this post, but I got distracted by work, family stuff and travel. Lots of travel.

While driving, I’ve been thinking about hyperspace as presented in the Savage Worlds Sci Fi Companion, and playing my usual game: What would the setting be like if it were a 100% faithful reflection of the rules?

Page 42 of the SFC tells us the following…

  • You need a computer and a Knowledge (Astrogation) roll to make a jump – these are to plot a course that avoids planets and other obstacles.
  • Jumps are split into three classes: Same star system (easy, doesn’t use much fuel); same galaxy (average); different galaxy (hard, lots of fuel).
  • A jump takes no time but you arrive 2d6 days from the destination, less if you roll well or spend extra fuel to arrive early, the same day if you like. At first I assumed you emerged first, then chose whether to spend the extra energy, but the rules are unclear on whether you emerge first – although it seems pretty clear that you roll before deciding whether to speed up.
  • Fuel is usually bought from spaceports.
  • You roll for supply and demand of various trade goods after deciding on the starship’s next destination.

The consensus on the SW forum is that this is more like Star Wars than anything. I’d also point to Cordwainer Smith’s space3, the later Foundation novels, and (to an extent) the Stargate franchise; effectively, hyperspace is a point rather than a plane or volume, and hyperspace travel is a condition rather than movement as such.

The Rules As Written have some interesting implications for a setting.

  • The campaign doesn’t need a map, because you can jump from any star system to any other star system directly. The PCs may have star charts, but neither the players nor the GM need them. Thus. campaigns are less likely to be sandbox games, because the players’ decisions on where to go next are less important; without chains of systems forming routes, going to planet A doesn’t commit you to visiting B before you get to C.
  • There are no choke points to defend. To my mind, this means interstellar navies behave more like modern ballistic missile submarines than “conventional” star fleets; the Federation Navy can’t mount a spirited defence at Outpost Five to stop the Imperial Navy’s fleet breaking through to nuke Earth, but they can certainly nuke the Empire’s homeworld right back. (I disagree with Niven and Pournelle here; an empire can still protect you, but it does so by deterrence.)
  • Merchant ships are probably armed. The Navy can’t protect you from pirates unless it’s right alongside every ship, every jump. Not going to happen.
  • You can’t blockade a star system. Smugglers and blockade runners can jump right past you, and if the GM allows precision jumps, the ships can go from inside one warehouse to inside another. (Jumps are probably not that precise, as if they were, you wouldn’t need ships; a big flatbed truck would be just as good, and a lot cheaper.)
  • If the GM isn’t careful, you can make an absolute killing trading. With a large enough selection of worlds, there will always be somewhere selling Fuel (the most valuable item at a base value of $2,000 per cargo space) for half price, and somewhere else desperate to buy it for five times the base price, yielding a revenue of $9,000 per cargo space per trip. This is probably why the rules state you pick your destination first, then roll for supply and demand there – notice the implication that the adventure takes the party to that planet anyway, with trade being a sideline for the players, even if it’s the PCs’ main purpose.
  • Since you typically refuel at a spaceport, travel off the beaten path is rare. Jump co-ordinates for specific worlds may be valuable prizes, or scenario McGuffins. Yes, you can jump straight to the Treasure Planet, but only if you know where it is.

I actually rather like the idea of this inferred setting; it’s fast, furious and unusual. However, the fact that it’s unusual suggests there’s a reason why games and literature generally use jump routes. So tell me, gentle readers, what have I overlooked?

Savage Scoutships

The scoutship is a venerable SF stereotype; the Classic Traveller Type S, Jack Vance’s Type 9B Locator, the craft flown by Eric Frank Russell’s scouts, the Runabouts from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and so forth. If there’s a ship I know well, this is it. So it’s a good place to start from in exploring ship design. Let’s try the Type S under the SF Companion and High-Space.


The scoutship needs to be Small, so that it can be operated by one person. That gives a base cost of $2M and 20 available Mod slots, which I’ll use up as follows:

  • Atmospheric: 3 Mods, $300K.
  • Crew Space x 2: 2 Mods, $200K. Allows for 8 crew members.
  • FTL Drive: 3 Mods, $12M.
  • Garage/Hangar: 4 Mods, $1M. Allows for one vehicle up to size 8. (Hmm. In the Rules As Written, that could be another scoutship, which in turn could have a garage with another scoutship…)

The final statblock is:

Small Starship: Acc/TS 50/700, Climb 3, Toughness 20 (5), Crew 1, Cost $15.5M.

Remaining Mods: 8 (about 27 cubic metres, or just under 2 displacement tons, Traveller-style).

Notes: Atmospheric, 2 x Crew Space, FTL Drive, Garage/Hangar.

Weapons: None.


I’m using version 1-1 of the High-Space Fleet Manual for this. It should be capable of being owned by a single Novice PC, who would have one Ship Acquisition Point, giving the ship 3 points of Traits and 3 free Edges.

The initial attributes are Manoeuvre d4, Computer d4, FTL d4, Displacement d4 and Quality d4. I select the Explorer design edge (which doesn’t count against the basic three from AP), gaining +1 FTL die-type and +1 Pace, then go back and allocate the three Trait points to Manoeuvre, Displacement, and Quality, boosting them to d6 each. The Explorer design edge also gives it 2 payloads per displacement (12 total) and one hardpoint per displacement (6 total).

I browse through the Hindrances, but none of them seem appropriate, so move on to Edges, and select:

  • Luggage (1 payload).
  • Guest Accommodation (1 payload). This allows the ship to carry its displacement (6) in passengers. High-Space is silent on accomodation for crew members, but the table on p. 7 implies that you could have up to 4 Novice PCs pooling their points to get this ship, so since this edge is specifically for non-crew accommodation, I reckon the ship must have crew quarters for four people.

I can’t give it an air/raft hangar without boosting the Displacement to d8, so we’ll skip that. Life pods don’t feel right as an alternative.

Pace is Manoeuvre plus Quality plus one, so 9. Toughness is half the sum of Displacement and Quality, so 6. The final statblock is:

Attributes: Manoeuvre d6, Computer d4, FTL d6, Displacement d6 and Quality d6.

Pace: 9. Toughness: 6.

Edges: Explorer; Luggage, Guest Accommodation. One edge and 10 payload held in reserve for later use.

Hindrances: None.

Weapons: None.


The SFC ship looks like a vehicle, the High-Space one looks like a character. They both have quite a bit of room for later customisation as the PC crew advance or get richer, and either is well within the reach of a group of Novice PCs – High-Space handles that with Acquisition Points, the Companion by recommending the group should start with a Medium ship, an FTL Drive, and $2M of other Mods.

The SFC ship was definitely faster and easier to do, because the design sequence is more linear and less ambiguous; but the High-Space one was more fun.

The End of the Line

TimeZero is GRAmel’s time travel setting. I’m not sure yet if I will run it, but I enjoyed reading it and enjoy thinking about the possibilities. Of these, the questions that intrigue me the most are:

  • What is really going on in the 45th century and beyond?
  • Who are the Priors?
  • What does the Triad want?

These questions are part of the central mystery of TimeZero, and the setting as written leaves them open – presumably so that the Game Master can answer them however he wishes for his own campaign. Here are some possibilities that occurred to me:


“You will be inserted via Time Gate into this storeroom at midnight on July 7th, 3505 AD, plus or minus 12 hours as usual. At precisely 12:38 and 7 seconds, you will leave the storeroom and proceed 15 meters along this corridor to the door on the left; you have exactly 19 seconds to reach the door, circumvent the lock leaving no evidence whatsoever, pass through the door and close it behind you. On no account go down the side corridor on your right, which you must cross no earlier than 12:38 and 14 seconds, and no later than 12:38 and 17 seconds…”

Remember the Timewatch motto? “If it is written in the history books, then so it must be.”

As technology advances, the history books turn into databases with more and more details about more and more people. Timewatch Operatives are recruited from people who won’t be missed, and do their jobs in the grey areas of unrecorded history.

Near Future missions must be planned and executed with extreme precision, so that the Operatives are never in view of people, synths or surveillance cameras; this is the reason that they are so much more tightly controlled than missions to earlier eras, and may be the reason Timewatch has synth agents in the first place, as synths find this level of control easier to deal with than humans.

By the 45th century, everything is recorded; there are no people who won’t be missed, and there are no grey areas. Both the need for, and possibility of, Timewatch missions disappear under ever-present surveillance – indeed, this may be the reason for that surveillance.

In this version of events, the Priors are an agency of a far-future government which most players would think of as a police state; the Triad is a dissident faction which acts to prevent that government from taking power, restoring freedom and power to the people. As it watches everyone, all the time, the government knows about the Triad; but the Triad cannot simply be eliminated, because recorded history says it exists… so if the players are ever in a position to do so, the Priors will prevent them.


“For every person, every species, there is a time to move on; or if you prefer, to move aside and let someone else try.”

In the 45th century, the Earth and humanity as we understand it have ceased to exist. Whether because of the Rapture, the Singularity, because people have “ascended” to become godlike beings of pure energy, or simply because the human race has had its time and died out, there’s nobody left.

Timewatch doesn’t need to run missions to protect the timeline from that point on, because there is nothing left to protect; once humanity reaches that point, it’s over.

In this vision of the future, the Priors are the last ones out of the building, making sure the lights are turned off and the doors are locked… and making sure it was set up correctly in the first place, by ensuring that the timeline includes everything and everyone needed for it to come into existence. The Triad don’t want to go wherever all the others are going, and don’t want anyone else to go there either.


“What does the Triad want? Our freedom. No more than that. Most of you would say that is our right.”

One philosophical theory is that our reality is a simulation of some kind, being run for unknown purposes by an outside agency. This version of the simulation hypothesis assumes that the simulation is a research tool; each alternate timeline is a different version of the experiment. Time machines are ways to hack the code of the simulation, allowing the software agents who think they are sentient beings to move along the experimental timeline or to move between different versions of the experiment.

Time does not exist beyond the 45th century, because that is the end of the simulation run. The Priors are software agents programmed with the knowledge of what is really going on, and loyal to the scientists running the simulation; their purpose is to eliminate the emergent behaviour inevitable in such a complex system, so that the experiment is not spoiled.  The Triad is headed by a group of former Priors intent on escaping from the simulation into whatever network or system may be beyond. Quite how their activities help them to do this is unclear.


“What does the Triad want? We just want to make things a little more… interesting…”

Most of our simulations are games or entertainments of some other kind, so it’s reasonable to assume that if we live in a simulation, it is a game as well. In this answer to the central questions, the 45th century is the end of the game, the Priors are the game moderators, and those special people the Old Man is so intent on protecting are the players, although he may not know this.

And the Triad? The Triumvirate has guessed what is going on, and is playing a game within a game. Since they will cease to exist when the game ends, they want to prolong it as much as they can. This means they must challenge the players enough to keep them interested, but not so much that the players become frustrated and give up or band together to wipe out the Triad. So, Triad activities will disrupt the timeline, but never disastrously; if it seems the timeline will be wiped out, the Triad itself may join with the heroes to correct things.


My favourite is the first one, but I think it would be very hard to GM. What do you think, dear readers? What are your answers to these mysteries?