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How is piracy conducted in the Third Imperium? Does it all take place within 100D of a space port, as ships travel to or from their jump location? Or is there a way to waylay victims during a jump?

The goal for me is to find viable ways of doing piracy in space using traveller rules and Third Imperium setting. So far the only one I really see is doing it in vicinity of a hub.

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6 Answers 6

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In Mongoose traveller (v1) there is a small paragraph detailing how piracy works in that version.

  1. Ambushing ships travelling in normal space between moons and colonies.
  2. Lurking around the 100D limit hitting ships as they prepare to jump.
  3. Pirates who have spies and agents in a space port who identify ships that are suitable to attack (high value cargo or lower defence ratings). This may allow the pirates to sabotage the ship to cause a misjump that drops the victims at specific point where the pirates are waiting.

You can also have them lurking around gas giants to hit freighters scooping up unrefined fuel to save money.

Another option is a planet or set of planets with very low law levels where there is no protection from authorities. But then you as referee would have to come up with a good enough reason why anyone would come to such a dangerous area.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer. Option 2 got me thinking about what would be a good placement for a pirate ship. I figure a pirate should be placed somewhere between the starport and the 100D. This gives the pirate a greater chance of catching a incoming ship. If the pirate stay at 100D they either need a faster ship or they will only be able to catch incoming ships that pop out in range of their weapons. \$\endgroup\$
    – Marius
    Feb 28, 2016 at 22:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Marius Option 3 is the most reliable and safest method. You don't need to know where a ship is going so much as you need to know when it's going to leave, and you can find that out by buying an off-duty crew member a few drinks, or by having a friend in the world's COAAC, assuming it has one. Plus, it means you can guarantee your ship is fully fueled and ready to jump away immediately after you finish transferring the stolen cargo to your own hold, instead of having to hang around in orbit hoping a ship comes from the right direction while you still have enough fuel on hand. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Feb 28, 2016 at 23:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh! I should mention that "causing a misjump" is actually pretty rare, and prone to go wrong in a variety of ways. Most pirates, once they know the ship's destination, will simply act to intercept it a short distance from where it was going to jump. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Aug 17, 2021 at 21:48
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From my rules reading (mainly from the original GDW Traveller), there is no way to either track or intercept a ship during jump. Though I don't recall any canon explanation of this, I always envisioned it as the ship being enclosed in a self-contained "bubble" of space-time created by the jump drive -- which would preclude any other ship in jump space (even if jumping simultaneously from the same starting point to the same destination) from detecting the jumping ship.

The actual practice of piracy depends on two things: the ability to intercept the ship, which in turn depends primarily on having superior acceleration and adequate delta-V (if you're using a system that tracks the latter; original Traveller didn't), and the ability to force docking, which generally would require disabling all maneuver systems (even if you can match velocity perfectly, you'd need extremely superior maneuvering to dock with a ship being intentionally tumbled, for instance). Note that destroying a ship in flight is much easier than boarding, because of the ease of preventing docking even with only attitude control; the whole point of piracy is to take value from the victim (whether in the form of salable goods and provisions such as life support consumables and fuel/reaction mass, or valuable information/personnel, or the ship itself, all of which would be lost by simple destruction of the ship).

Just as Blackbeard boarded and risked crew on ships he could have easily sunk from a standoff position, a space pirate must either board or force a landing/docking somewhere to loot the victim -- and the virtual end of large-scale piracy came when steam power required the pirates to steal compatible fuel, not just cargo (it's returned with the very high compatibility of modern fuel and very large cargo/ship values coupled with small crews and little on board protection).

The likely "best practice" for a pirate is to maintain a stationary orbit above a surface space port (or offset in the common direction of launch, if planetary rotation assist is used, as it ought to be). This will be well inside the 100D jump limit for any terrestrial planet, and gives a strong "high ground" advantage for maneuver, as when delta-V is tracked, there are a limited and predictable sheaf of economical launch trajectories even to the generic "jump distance". Second best is to be actually in port, with traffic control bribed to slot the pirates in behind a ship they choose to target, and have a ship with enhanced drives (higher acceleration) and delta-V capability. Wait for the target to launch, and then give chase from the ground up. This is more costly operation, however, and makes piracy less profitable and riskier.

Both of these methods target only outgoing ships, but that's as it should be: you won't get word of an incoming ship ahead of the ship, unless something about a ship with a low jump number and long journey is important enough to have word about it forwarded by faster ships or X-boat.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This confirms my suspicion, but does not answer the "main" question of how to do pirating. I might have formulated my question poorly, will try to improve it \$\endgroup\$
    – Marius
    Feb 28, 2016 at 12:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ The explanation you've come up with actually is the cannon explanation: The pocket universe a ship inhabits while in jump only interacts with the regular universe gravitationally, and the Third Imperium's gravitational sensors only work at extremely short ranges (I think only a few hundred metres for shipboard sensors?), making detecting or tracking a ship in jump impossible without careful cooperation and coordination between the tracker and the ship to be tracked. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Feb 28, 2016 at 23:39
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Pauls answer got me thinking about the optimal placement for a pirate to catch ships jumping into a system. I assume that incoming ships will arrive at a random location 100D from their destination.

If they pirate waits at 100D where their targets are likely to come out of jump, then they can only catch targets that happen to arrive within their weapons range, assuming both pirate and target has equal in-system drives. Assuming Earth this gives the pirate 1/160 chance of catching any given ship that arrives in the system.

If the pirate waits closer to the starport then the pirate can use the time the targets spend moving towards the starport to move into a intercept position. Effectively giving them a much much much larger coverage area. I haven't figured out the optimal placement, but from my calculation using earth I believe they should have more than 1/10 chance of catching a incoming ship with equal drive as them selves.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that waiting in space consumes time, and therefore money; If you don't know when the next ship with a valuable cargo and sufficiently poor defences will arrive, the wages, maintenance and fuel costs for your own ship might end up eating up all the potential profit. Also, you need enough fuel on hand to jump away after committing piracy, since the world probably won't welcome you after seeing you steal cargo from a ship that sent out a distress call - in fact, the world'll probably launch its system defence boats at you, assuming it has any. Still a good plan in the right circumstances. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Feb 28, 2016 at 23:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe the waiting in space is a problem, but a solvable one: only wait for expensive booty. Walt Smith realized this awhile back by noticing that smallcraft are quite valuable, even at a tenth of their resale value. Thus you need to grab one of them every so often, and you're good. (How Often is an exercise left for the reader) \$\endgroup\$
    – rje
    Mar 19, 2019 at 14:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ By the way, Wait For Expensive Booty is also an excellent plot hook for an innovative referee. \$\endgroup\$
    – rje
    Mar 19, 2019 at 14:06
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From my memory of original GDW Traveller and various scenarios and tournaments Jump Space is "safe" unless the GM invents a technology to suit the game.

Piracy as I encountered it tactically was conducted by mainly non-jump capable ships. For a given mass, adding jump capability disadvantaged maneuverability and weapons payload.

So high space piracy involved fighters, gunboats and hijacked System Defence Boats. Exactly how Somali pirates operate.

While looking up some stats I came across this http://wiki.travellerrpg.com/System_Defense_Boat#History_.26_Background_.28Dossier.29

SDB's were developed on the principle that a non-starship, because of the additional armament made possible by its lack of jump drives, can ordinarily defeat a jump-capable starship of equal tonnage.

This means that piracy could work on either inbound or outbound journeys. Because why would the imperium have SDB's if they didn't work?

The second way piracy can work is the inside job where passengers and/or crew sabotage the target.

A third path is mutiny by a crew and then a pirate's life for me.

As for tactical combat & boarding there is an element science fantasy about it. We must assume that firing an energy weapon, missile or projectile weapon is not totally destructive to the target.

Once you allow for that you've got the ship-to-ship model instead of an aircraft-to-aircraft model (where a single hit destroys the target).

Now you can get fancy.

  • River Song escapes the Byzantium
  • Black Hawk Down Bullet through the engine block.
  • Star Trek "Target their weapons/shields/life support/engines"
  • Fighters on your 6 "You are surrounded, surrender or die"
  • Combat Armor or Battle Dress boarders with grappling hooks.
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There's another option I was thinking of. A pirate can stand off from a primitive (Class D or E, or a small Class C) starport, wait for someone to land, and then do their pirating.

In a related note, one fellow came up with what sounds like a reasonable way to actually do the pirating: threaten the ship in exchange for their small craft. Then run away, fence the craft for perhaps 10% of its value, and live well for a year or two.

But in the end, piracy is exactly what it feels like: a cool plot hook for science fantasy games, for swashbuckling in a Space Age of Sail. It can be a lot of fun. And the referee can bring it to life.

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Pirating operations.

There's a million ways to pirate. We'll start with the basics The inside job. This can be anything from becoming passengers and taking the ship over while in jumpspace, to getting jobs aboard the ship. Being an out of work engineer or pilot who happens to have astrogation skills, might get you a call from a free trader who's astrogator recently went missing or had a fatal accident. You may want to ship cargo and have that cargo contain a bomb droid that goes to a critical area, sensitive area. Remember if you've floor plans to the ship you're putting cargo on, it's easier for the bomb droid.

The "Inspector" There's a lot of ways to do this. In space port, showing up at their door with ID/data pad and warrant to search the ship for someone who just murdered station personnel or an inspection for customs or random safety inspection or had a call about a domestic dispute or even asking for help "Hi I'm inspector Johnathen, I need to get word out to authorities, please I'll be murdered if you don't take this datapad" The point is you get on the ship and take it over while it's docked. You could also be a spacer looking for an engineer to fix his docked ship or a common but critical part or some such other reason. I think of spacers more like the rv community then the truckers. You're all parked at a "campground" for days. You get along with other spacers most of the time. If you're 24/7 on alert in port, you'll get a reputation as an ass and when you need a favor.. a good gm will see that you do.. you'll find few to help, so be social.

There is always the disabled ship that sends out a distress call. When a ship comes to help, boards you to help, you counter board and take them over. However to add some realism if you've two ships or a friend with a ship, you can make it appear as if you got jumped, got disabled, dumped your cargo.. Now you need help. Be smart, your transponder is located deep in the bowls and crawl spaces of your ship, learn to install a power cut off.. a power cut off that is then has piping welded over so no one in a deep deep inspection would see. Now some GM's like to say your engines give off a unique signal, odd how that same signal is never taken from pirates and spammed out at all space ports but I digress. Anyways running your engines at a less then optimum ability and installing some wave disrupters/transmitters back near them should insure your engines don't give off the clean signal you run with when transponder is running.

The D100 is a damn sphere it's nearly useless. If you must actively fight someone, I suggest investing in a few advance probe drones and set them up in various places around a gas giant that you know sees some traffic but not too much. like a ship every 3-5 days on average. You keep your ship in the gas giant's cloud, you can scoop up fuel as you need to, keep the tanks 1-3 tons from max. You let the ship come to the gas giant, an hour after it arrives you swoop up from behind and below and begin firing. An hour there and it'd not have gotten much fuel so it might not have enough to jump away. You make sure to use your coms at close range, no sense in letting various stations know what you do. Anyways you capture the ship or destroy it.

Prisoners, what to do with them? Well congrats you pirated a ship and now have the crew and maybe passengers too. What do you do with them? Space them? let them leave in life pods, sell them into slavery? No, low birth them. Then go to a high populated world. You'll need to set up how to get them past security before bringing them here. In cryo or take them in an air-raft as you're coming down or whatever. You keep them drugged out of it. At various hotels and motels around the world you drop them off. make sure there was a nice party in the room the night before. They wake up, maybe 200-500 credits on them. Or if you want to be nice, you drop them off on some nice garden world with 500k credits each. They retire from space and you sell off their ship.

Now how much does a hot ship go for? 25% of it's value, the high guard has values of various ships ages/conditions. The fencer would then part it out or redo transponder and sell it clean or in another empire that doesn't honor the original empire it was licensed in. Even if the players set up their own chop shop, let them become rich. I don't see the mentality of GM's being scared of players becoming rich. Hell rich players want to have an estate or more. Guess what your estate or world can't pop out of your pocket and win a battle. Players fancy ships and gear will become a beacon to them. Lots of problems come with money, accountants who want to steal it and run away, law that wants to check into how you got rich, pirates who want what you got, corporate execs that want to pay you back for setting their careers back and a ton more npc's Players can have friends ransomed back to them, have friends turn on them and more. Let your players become rich and enjoy all the fun it gives everyone. Think for a moment "Hi I'm a good guy/bad guy player and I risk my life all the time and no matter how great an op I pull off I'm always poor and scraping by" wtf? You're worried rich players retired, my char would retired if he felt fated to poverty no matter what he does. Let your players get rich and enjoy all the doors that opens for the game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer! Oh, but I should mention that canonically most pirates Third Imperium setting only steal cargo, and leave ships be. This is partly because ships and crew are harder to carry away from the scene of the crime (especially if the ships don't have enough fuel for an immediate jump or were damaged in the process of being captured), and partly because a crew is more likely to violently resist if they think you're going to steal their livelihood, but mostly because stealing ships disrupts commerce more than stealing cargo, and thus is more likely to attract Imperial Navy retaliation. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Aug 17, 2021 at 22:06

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