Integrating Space Stations Into Your Game
A station needs to serve a purpose—or not, if the gaming session just needs a location as part of play—and part of that purpose is where it fits into the economic web of a system. A station in the middle of nowhere might exist if it were a transfer point to other in-system destinations; it could be a corporate-owned research facility desiring no nosy neighbors; or perhaps it is inhabited by a group that also wishes to remain away from others. Those types of stations are usually going to be outside the norm, so let’s look at what an “average” station might be like.
Military stations, of course, have their own reason for existence. Players will generally steer clear of military stations unless they have a death wish. The firepower available is more than enough to swat the average players starship from the heavens.
Most stations are going to be in orbit around something. That something might be a moon, a gas giant, an inhabited planet, an asteroid belt, or even the star itself, perhaps way out in the Oort cloud. Being in orbit also means that there’s something that may be of use (minerals, hydrogen, etc.), and it also may mean that the station orbits in a jump shadow, making it harder for visitors to arrive unannounced from jump space.
Now that the location has been established, the next thing is to determine the reason for its existence. Many stations exist to service other industries, supporting the workers who need a place to hang their vacc suits. And any group of workers is going to need someone supporting them who take care of the more mundane tasks such as cooking, equipment servicing and repair, and so on. Both of those groups are going to have money to spend (and a desire to spend it somewhere), so there will be merchants who will, in some cases gleefully, assist in transferring those credits from poor spacer to their own pocket. So if the workers are working, and the merchants are working, then who takes care of the station itself? The station support staff, that’s who! Now we can, potentially, add in even more groups of people if the station has additional industries such as manufacturing or ship construction, among others. And each time we add in or increase the size of a base group other groups (such as the merchants or station personnel) will also grow in size. Now we have reasons for itinerant traders, wanderers and player-characters to show up at the station. At some point we should also consider adding in dependents and families and their support structures (e.g., teachers, the local taxman and even the equivalent of the local sheriff). Just like reality, stations can generate all kinds of supporting entities. Your imagination is really the only limit.
Shuttles, cargo ships and liners are the blood that flows through the veins of a system, moving people and goods from world to world, station to station, and all points in between. Players can opt to be part of that system, or perhaps they may want to profit from pricking the commercial veins (or stopping those who might choose to do so). For referees it means you can easily provide many sessions worth of opportunities for your players while staying in the same system.
It’s not really necessary to generate economic tables to track or model intra-system trading because it’s really outside of Traveller. Granted, the larger the system UPP, the greater the chances for traffic between worlds. However, in most systems the most populated planet is also going to be location for the primary starport, and thus serves as the primary economic engine of a system. Outlying planets and stations will contribute economically, but for the most part none will be major competitors on their own. However, I’m sure some completists like myself would like to see something along these lines. Keep an eye out in the near future for this!
So how should one model how often ships will be traversing the interstellar highways? That’s really up to the referee to decide during a playing session. Keep in mind that space is big. Shipping routes, i.e., where in the system the traffic is originating from, and where it is going, are going to be based upon orbital mechanics (orbital radii, orbital velocities, the ever-changing distance between origin and destination, and so on). Interstellar liners and traders typically only interface with a system’s major population and commerce center(s). Smaller ships are the workhorses of most intrasystem trade, stolidly plodding along delivering passengers and goods. Most liners try to make each trip segment in a reasonable time, since their cargo gets irritated more easily than say a load of ore. Some traffic will be point-to-point, while others will take a more roundabout route, making multiple stops along the way before returning to the original port-of-call.
Example: The local liner Star Horse has a regular route, departing the system highport, travelling to Sagan Astronomical Lab Station, Prometheus Station, the inner planet Mixcoatl, and then back to the highport. The transit time between each point is, on average, 3 days, with 24 hours layover at each station. That means she won’t be back at her home port for 15 days (4 + 4 + 4 + 3 = 15 days) from the time she departs. Due to the previously-mentioned orbital mechanics, the trip could conceivably be shorter or longer depending on planetary alignment.
Ships “in the dark” are going to be easier prey for pirates since regular traffic will file flight plans (and in most instances their routes are easily predictable). Stations will have regularly scheduled shuttles (for flight times of 1 day or less) or liners that one can purchase at ticket for. Most liners will handle both passenger and mail traffic. Smaller freighters will take care of delivering supplies and merchandise, while bulk freighters haul raw materials and related cargoes. Flight times can vary over time, as planetary mechanics will extend or minimize the distance between destinations. Referees should feel free to add/remove time to the average flight time to fit gaming needs.
Example: Station Kharkiv is 6 days flight time (flight time is calculated at 1G for discussion purposes) from the system’s primary starport. Kharkiv is a mining support station orbiting the moon of a gas giant. It’s relatively small (population of 2,500), but it also serves as the primary transit point for at least a dozen other stations in its general vicinity. An in-system liner, Percheron, delivers passengers, mail and light cargo about every fifteen days (assumes 24hr layover at both the origin and destination). Station supplies are delivered about every 30 days and manufactured goods picked up. Bulk cargo haulers arrive every 20 days to pick up ore.
Another idea to keep in mind is that most intrasystem traffic is going to be performed by non-jump capable ships. A jump-capable ship generally only needs to concern itself with travelling to/from the 100D limit to deliver its cargoes, thus it doesn’t necessarily require a speedier maneuver drive. Intrasystem ships, however, can greatly benefit from faster maneuver drives. And freed of the need and expense associated with carrying a jump drive and jump fuel, intrasystem ships can easily afford to upgrade their drives and power plants.
Using the Star Horse as an example, it would take a jump-capable ship over 4 weeks to make the journey travelling through jump space to and from each destination. In contrast the Star Horse could make the same circuit twice. Let’s also look at the difference in upgrade maneuver drives can make. For the sake of this discussion we’ll assume each leg of the trip is about equal to the average distance from Earth to Mars. It takes 91 hours (nearly 4 days) at 1G to make the trip (one-way). If you double the speed to 2G the trip takes 66 hours, and at 3G it is only 54 hours (a little over two days). At a full 6G the trip would only take 38 hours.
The size of the shuttles, liners and cargo vessels should vary based upon distance and size of the market. In the example above, Kharkiv station serves as the primary location where other stations and ships travel to in order to pick up supplies and drop off cargo. Kharkiv also serves as the primary hub for passenger transportation for the area as well. With the distance (about 3 days travel one way for an average 3G insystem liner) any transport will need to offer staterooms, dining and entertainment to the passengers. Couple this with a need to transport mail and other important cargo, the insystem liner will easily mass in the 1200-1500 ton range. This assumes that the liner is capable of transporting approximately 200 people in a single trip.
Station Kharkiv is one of the endpoints for the Percheron as it makes twice-a-month journey. The final destination of the players is a settlement that is only one days travel from Kharkiv, but the local shuttle only makes the trip once a week. So the players may be able to get to their final destination in as little as nine or ten days, using the normal travel method, but if the scheduling is off or there are unexpected delays, it could take as long as 21 days! Clearly it makes much more sense to travel directly from the system highport to their final destination, but that’s not always an option (or even part of a mission). The amount of traffic from the highport to Station Kharkiv is simply not enough to justify more frequent service. And there certainly isn’t enough traffic to travel directly to their final destination if there is only a weekly shuttle.
Extraction-type industries often generate increased levels of passenger traffic as most miners will serve tours of duty and then rotate out (such as off-shore oil drilling or soldiers deployed in combat zones). In the short-term personnel will rotate back to a closer facility, such as Station Kharkiv to rest and relax, and then return to work. But eventually these crews will want to get back to “civilization”, at least for some period of time. The station population of 2,500 may only be 1/10th of the total population served locally, but there is a constant stream of people coming and going, thus there is a regular ongoing need for passenger service. Larger stations may have daily ship arrivals, while smaller stations or those further out may only see the local liner once a month. The bottom line is that a guestimate works as well as any economic model for a gaming session. So feel free to create a schedule that you feel best suits the needs of your players.
Earlier we discussed how the size of a station could grow as you built the layers of users and the population. Determining the size of a station is going to be linked to the purpose of it. Let’s take a moment to talk about the scale. The largest construct is a Dyson sphere, which encompasses a star out to about 1 AU. It’s, well, it’s so big it defies words. Moving down on the scale is a ringworld, made famous in Larry Niven’s Ringworld novels. But this, too, is far and away so massive that it defies descriptions. If you recall the movie Starship Troopers, you’d have noticed that the moon was encircled by a space station where fleet vessels docked. That is probably going to be on the high-end for any Traveller-constructed space station. More than likely you’ll be using stations of a more “reasonable” size, some that are multi-million tonners with populations in the millions, while others could be as tiny as Skylab, with a population of three.
In the game Halo, the player character crashes onto the eponymous orbital ring. In this case the ring is “only” 8,000 km in diameter (it’s also referred to as a Bishop’s ring, first proposed by Forrest Bishop). The ring maintains its atmosphere by a combination of size and centrifugal force, which also happens to provide it gravity. It makes it far more planet-like than a smaller station that needs to be enclosed. The television series Babylon 5 is another example of an enclosed space station, a 2,500,000 tons O’Neill cylinder using centrifugal force to generate gravity with an open air center. The station from 2001: A Space Odyssey was a toroid-style station (called a double-hull in the Space Stations supplement). And let’s not forget building your space station on, or even in, an asteroid. Science fiction novels and games are great places to get ideas for your asteroid station. I’m sure many a pirate base has been constructed inside a cavern or tunnel to keep it hidden from the prying eyes of law enforcement.
In the Traveller universe your space station can also double as a starport, and in some cases it could be the starport for the system. In theory there is no real difference between a highport starport and a space station, but for the sake of discussion we’ll assume that a space station’s primary function is not being a starport. Being a starport doesn’t necessarily add size to your station, but assuming you have large amounts of traffic originating from outside of the system, your station should include additional features and functions specific to servicing and supporting trade. Every station is going to have docks, storage and places for crews to stay and spend credits (these also double in use for those who live on the station). But traders have additional needs, and thus you’ll need answer those needs by adding more—more holds, more berths and for sure, more bars!
Finally, there’s one more topic to cover. Why should your gaming group run their adventure in or based upon a station? The easy answer is you shouldn’t. There isn’t one true way to run a Traveller adventure. But sometimes it’s best not to annoy your referee who spent many painstaking hours building up the station environment, creating deckplans and a backstory. That’s been known to be pretty hazardous to a characters health, or at a minimum their stash of hard-earned credits. A space station can offer you many interesting places for a gaming session. There’s not much adventure onboard your ship, and not every problem can be solved by “suitable application of high explosive”—though many a player has debated that particular point. Stations offer you pretty much all the same opportunities as do planetary adventures. The one real difference is that you are usually constrained to use lifts and stairs to move about, your weapons are probably going to be limited to sidearms, and it will take quick thinking to make your escape if you find yourself separated from your starship. Space stations offer a rich source and locale for any adventure.