The entire genre of Scoundrels with a Fast Ship revolves quite heavily around smuggling. Traveller, Star Wars, Stars Without Number, Coriolis, and Scum and Villany are all based on the idea of a party of PCs who have shared controll of a small spaceship meant for cargo transport but with fast engines and a lot of additional firepower. And the party concept of Free Traders carries various degrees of being a euphemism for smugglers. It’s a great concept for a campaign that feeds the players regular new adventures, lets them their own masters who don’t have to follow anyone’s orders and piss off and give a slip to the authorities, without having them be violent criminals who cause excessive damage and harm to bystanders. What more could players want in a campaign about swashbuckling adventures in space? It’s probably the second most common archetype for PC parties in RPGs, and for good reasons.
Iridium Moons is conceptualized as a setting in which unimaginably rich industrial barons can do as they please in regions ofnspace where no covernment has any authority to hold them back. As free a market as it can possibly get. But then, how can you have the PCs as smugglers when there are no regulations and taxes?
One thing I’ve always been enjoying a lot about creating this setting in a space I’ve never really seen explored before is how starting with a number of arbitrary premises and then trying to find an explanation how they can all be true at the same time keeps leading to interesting new concepts that I would never have thought of, but which seem really cool to explore once they are on the table. Silving the problem of how you can still have smugglers in a completely free market turned out to produce really interesting new elements for how the industialists and their power work in the setting.
The Interstellar Free Market
There are ten homeworlds of species capable of traveling through space in the known region of the galaxy, which each consist of dozens or even hundreds of countries that are organized into various federations, confederations, unions, and alliances. There are also some 20 colonies that have grown to populations in the tens of millions and become fully sovereign states in their own right. In addition to these, there are dozens of smaller colonies that function as remote autonomous regions of various nations. But the majority of small settlements, mining colonies, and fuel stations are found in systems that are not part of any states. Instead, they are the property of private companies located in neutral space where they are free to do whatever they want.
Most states have laws that put sanctions of companies that engage in practices that violate what are widely considered universal personal rights. Nearly any state has embargos on metals mined and refined with slave labor and makes it illegal for their citizens to do business with companies that fund piracy or use military force to cripple their competitors’ opperation and murder their workers. Since the home systems are the customers for the vast majority of all resources and products sold by the interstellar companies, none of them can afford to be banned from these markets, which forces them to keep at least the outward appearance of honest and legitimate busineses. Which doesn’t mean all those things don’t happen, but the companies have to keep it low-key and quiet. It’s not even really a secret, but most states rely heavily on interstellar imports and are willing to not look too closely if the incidents keep remaining in the background.
While forming cartels to fix prices at high levels and gain monopoly control over certain markets tends to be illegal in most states, these laws exist primarily to maintain the health of the domestic economy and for the good of their own citizens. It’s not a crime against universal personal rights that would make countries break up business dealings with interstellar companies, and so there is nothing to stop them from forming cartels and controling monopolies in neutral systems. States in the home systems can get their resource imports from anywhere in the known regions of the galaxy, and as long as there are multiple cartels competing with each others over who gets to sell to these main customers, the governments can still negotiate for the best prices.
Out in the neutral systems, the cartels typically claim their own territories in which they have an often complete monopoly on all trade. All the potential buyers of metals from small independent mines are dealing at the same fixrd low prices, and there is typically only a single manufacturer for various types of mining equipment operating in the entire region. New companies trying to do business in a region that has been claimed as the turf of a cartel are immediately driven out of the market, frequently by sabotage and bombing of factories and warehouses or regular pirate attacks by hired thugs. Typically such attempts are put to an end long before they reach a scale where the governments in the home systems take notice, and the turf claims of the cartels are such an open secret that few people take the risk to work in the factory of an intruding company or to take any cargo from them on their ships.
While the interstellar companies maintain the public facades that they are merely private businesses operating in the free market of neutral space, the territories claimed by the cartels funtion very similar to states in many ways. There are no regulations, taxes, or tarifs for doing business in cartel territory, but they have found their own ways to use their monopoly control over key industries to keep a strong hold over their systems.
Smuggling in Cartel Space
In theory, anyone can trade for anything in neutral space and for any price. Everyone can make whatever deals they want, with no governments getting in the way or taking a cut of the profits. But in practice, the cartels have tight control over anyone who is doing business in their territory and have their ways to keep out people trying to undermine their monopolies before they will have to resolve to open violence.
The most critical component in the cartels’ control is their ownership of all the spaceports in their territory. If you want to unload or pick up a cargo in proper facilities to land your ship, you will have to do business with the cartel’s port authorities and on their terms. When landing a ship in a port, any cargo that is being unloaded has to be checked by security and needs to be certified for health and safety standards according to the terms and services of the port. Getting the security checks and safety certifications comes with steep fees and it often can take many days waiting for a slot in the inspectors’ schedule. During which the ship still has to pay docking fees. The process is much faster and comes with much lower fees if the cargo is a delivery from a “trusted partner” who has is certified to do all the required checks and inspections before the cargo is loaded on a ship for transport. And of course, any such trusted partners are exclusively members of the same cartel as the port operator. Goods from companies of the cartell go through security with no delay and minimal fees, while any other cargo is effectively under outragously high tarifs in cartel space that completely eat up any possible profits from the delivery. Which is where smuggling become a highly lucrative business.
The simplest form of smuggling is to put contraband goods into cargo containers holding legitimate deliveres. “Pre-inspected” containers are sealed before loading, but there are various ways by which professional smugglers can reapply the seal after making the switch. But since containers are regularly scanned at ports, this usually allows only storing small amounts of contraband among other shipments. A more efficient way is to correctly label a container with the actual content it contains, but forging its origin as being from a cartel company’s warehouse.
Obviously, the cartels don’t take lightly to being cheated like that. Sneaking cargo through security without inspection is a breach of the terms and services of the port operator, and the breach of contract fees typically exceed the value of both the cargo and the ship. The ship is then impounded until the fee is being paid, which usually isn’t worth it even if the owner has the money. If an impounded ship is taken from the dock or the smuggling is discovered only after the ship already left, the cartel will put out an open debt collection contract that awards half of the debt money to whoever delivers it to the cartel. Or alternatively the value of the ship and it’s cargo. This is effectively a license for privateers to capture the ship and not be considered pirates interfering with business in the cartel’s territory. Typically, cartels don’t even care if the ship gets destroyed or simply disappears without ever being delivered to them. The 50% of the debt payment to the debt collector is simply to give it the appearance of not being a dead or alive bounty contract. (Which democratic governments might frown upon.)
A third common approach to smuggling is to avoid using spaceports entirely and simply unloading a cargo in an open field. Since this option is only viable for small transport ships that can carry only limited amounts of cargo, the cartels usually don’t bother going after the captains the first or second time. Sending some people to send a mesaage is likely not worth the amount in missed profits. But if it becomes a regular thing, they will try to put a stop to it. And with ships that small, it’s unlikely that anyone will take notice if it has a fatal accident or simply appears without a trace.