Monday, December 26, 2016

Psi-Wars Economics: Trade, Exotic Resources and Money

First Ship of the Year by Dress-7
We've already touched on Psi-Wars economics when we looked at Psi-Wars infrastructure.  This time, I'm going to get into a little more specifics, but not too much, for two reasons.  First of all, nobody cares.  That is, Psi-Wars is not a game about counting coins and worrying about trade runs (though you're free to hack such a game out of the Psi-Wars framework).  Rather, we need to know the economics of Psi-Wars so we know what to say we're smuggling, or so we can give bits of flavor and color.  What do we call hyperdrive fuel?  Why would pirates hit that shipment and not some other one?  What do we call money?  And what's for dinner?

The Economic Resources of Psi-Wars

While I've tried to keep Iteration 5 relatively generic, a few fundamentals have popped out from previous iterations.  First, the economy of Psi-Wars isn't really TL 11 so much as TL 6+5.  It works like you'd expect early 20th century industrialized economies to work, only ramped up to an interstellar scale.  Given that hyperspace travel is sufficiently quick that we can readily bypass any less-than-ideal worlds for something more lucrative or hospitable.  Of course, the natural flow of hyperspace might drive them towards something less than ideal, but given that most Star Wars worlds seem to readily survivable without survival suits or breathing equipment, this seems a fair assessment.

Given the speed of space travel, we can also support serious specialization. One world can optimize itself for food production, another for industrial production and yet another on raw resource extraction, whether minerals or energy.  Even industrial worlds will tend to specialize, because a specialized factory is more efficient than a generalized factory.  Then, the worlds simply swap back and forth for their needed resources or manufactured goods.

Most such resources would be generic.  Iron is useful in any industrial society and is plentiful on asteroids or volcanic planets.  Food is food and can be found on any goldilocks terrestrial world.  Energy is most often going to come in the form of hydrogen fuel, extracted from gas giants.  The result is that most traders haul around the sort of stuff you find in GURPS Spaceships 2: Traders, Liners and Transports on page 37.  Since we don't actually care about the specific economics of the setting, we'll leave the prices and rules the same too.  Why not?  If you want to know what someone is hauling, if that really matters, just roll on the chart and ignore 31 (Special Minerals or Crystals), 55 (Biotech) and 66 (Nanotech).  Treat these, instead, as exotics.

Exotic Resources

One trap to avoid, of course, is the invention of a mysterious resource that was completely unknown to prespaceflight society, but which has somehow become critical to civilization. Many science-fiction stories have postulated such resources, and it’s not unreasonable to have one in a space setting, but they shouldn’t be multiplied beyond reason.  --GURPS Space, page 180

I'm going to ignore the above advice for the same reason I throw much of GURPS Space out the window while writing Psi-Wars, mainly that Space is aimed at people who want remotely realistic science fiction, while Star Wars is concerned with the Rule of Cool above all.

That said, we probably don't want to go overboard.  Mostly, what we want are a few resources that we can talk around, the Big Deals that people can mention by name to make the setting seem weird and alien, in short, our distancing mechanisms. A freighter hauling iron is boring.  A freighter hauling Ketrazine is more interesting!

GURPS Space has an interesting sidebar on page 181 called "Unobtanium."  If we want rare, strange and special resources that aren't instantly made cheap by the galactic abundance of them, we need some reason they're rare.  The spice of Dune is a good example: It can only come from Dune because only Dune can support the sandworms, and only sandworms can create Spice.  You can't simply pick sandworms up and move them to other worlds (or rather, you can, but you need to essentially desiccate your planet before the sandworm can survive there long enough to produce spice, which means all worlds with sandworms must be like Dune).  Let's look at a few.


We might have advanced, precursor technology, but Psi-Wars caps out at TL 11^.  It's unlikely we'll find rare TL 12^ tech in some alien ruins on some world, and given the age of the Psi-Wars setting, if they could, they would have by now.  However, relics would be very tempting.  Since Communion has more time to work its magic on ancient items than on recent ones, archaeology is a brisk trade.  The right antiquities are exceedingly powerful in the right hands. I've already defined a few, and I leave it to you to define more.  

If you need further advice, I suggest this: A civilization and its history forged artifacts.  You don't just find some ancient force sword with power, but an ancient force sword with a legend and attached to great events and great people.  To whom did the force sword belong?  How was it lost?  In what battles did it participate?  Who was its greatest foe?  In writing the legend of a relic, you'll necessarily write the history of bygone civilizations and create associated panoplies of relics.

Exotic Biologicals

The problem with an exotic biological is "Why can't I just pick it up and grow it elsewhere?"  The chemical found in cocaine is pretty unique across the biological world, but nothing stops cocaine farmers from mass producing the stuff, or moving it to new locations.  Even were that the case, often, the necessary component can be synthesized.  At that point, you have a complex manufactured element, and we already have plenty of those: ultra-tech medicine, for example.

So how do we justify a biological being rare?  First, like in Dune, the compounds associated with it should be too complex or too energy-intensive to economically synthesize, and there should be some kind of drawback associated with its creation, something that makes its presence rare.  It might be that it cannot be easily found, or that we could mass produce it, but it would come at a cost.  We might make it hard to find by putting it in someplace unusual, like High Sanctity areas, or on planets orbiting pulsars, or only found under really odd circumstances (like on terrestrial worlds that orbit gas-giants found around blue stars). Dangerous biologicals might taint the environment they grow in, or might only be found in the flesh of a particularly dangerous monster which needs to live in a highly specific ecosystem to survive and produce said chemical.  Naturally, these exotic biologicals need to be very useful to justify their expense.

Two examples:

Star Lotus, Void Thistle, Ghost Fungus: These plants only grow in locations saturated with certain Communal energies.  Star Lotus grows in the serenity of places with high Communion sanctity, while Void Thistle grows in places with high Dark Communion sanctity, and Ghost Fungus grows in places with twisted psionic energy fields.  They need other things to grow too: Ghost Fungus tends to grow in dark places underground, or in abandoned ships, the Star Lotus where plenty of fresh water and sunlight both flow, and the Void Thistle in heavily forested regions.  They contain chemicals that assist in the creation of certain psi-drugs. The Star Lotus can be synthesized into Mind Hype, the Void Thistle into Blue Fire and Brainstorm and Ghost Fungus into Catalyst and Window (all from Psi-Tech 34-35).

Ketrazine: Ketrazine is a fundamental component into a variety of addictive combat-booster drugs and other performance enhancers.  Its production requires the extensive distillation of a plant called the stranglevine: an acre of the material will yield up only a few milligrams,but the chemical sufficiently complex that it's not particularly economical to attempt to synthesize it.  Fortunately, stranglevine grows as a phenomemonal rate, putting even kudzu to shame.  It'll rapidly devour a planet in the space of a generation, and as it does so, its toxic pollen will fill the skies, turning them into a shade of green, ruining the local ecosystem, making agriculture impossible and forcing all inhabitants to carefully filter their air.  Because of the sorts of drugs produced by ketrazine and the ecological cost of its production, most reasonable civilizations outlaw it.  In practice, there's usually some backwater planet somewhere hosting the stuff, farmed by a slave-population desperate for a rescuer.

Exotic Matter

Given a sufficiently advanced society, most resources become relatively abundant.  Even gold begins to become common enough that you could plate a planet in it.  Exotic matter should represent something not easily manufactured, but still highly valuable.  The rules for exotic biologicals apply here too, only to geological or astrophysical processes.

Some Examples:

Hyperium: We need to name the fuel for hyperdrive, and hyperium is as good a name as any. It might be found in the cores of certain terrestrial planets (thus necessitating deep core mining) or the clouds of certain venusian planets (thus requiring cloud refining).  If costs matter, treat it as $10,000 per ton; It glows green and is toxic and corrosive, thus requiring Hazardous Material (Chemical) to handle properly.  Treat exposure as an HT-4 or 1d damage.

Eloi Fragments: If a location is sufficiently suffused with the energy of communion, it might start to crystalize into a psionically-powerful gemstone called an Eloi.  Elois can be broken up (fragmented), but they tend to retain some of the character of the original region that infused them.  Eloi fragments were traditionally used to create Symbiotic Crystals (Psi-Tech 15), or Force Blades, which often gain some sort of psi-blade-like quality to them.  Technology built with Eloi fragments prove to be magnets for communion energy and become unusually powerful relics (that is, they acquire character points more rapidly than mundane relics, say 5x faster). Artificial Elois, called psuedo-fragments, can be manufactured, but the science of this is largely lost.  Psuedo-fragments lack the power or Eloi fragments, but can power generic force swords, psychotronic batteries and psi-amplifiers.

Niltanium: Sometimes called void glass, this naturally forms from asteroids that have had a close encounter with the extreme gravitic pull of a black hole.  During a close pass, their structure will be gravitationally collapsed into a hyperdense material and either devoured by the black hole or (more usefully!) ejected out into space.  Mining nultanium is exceptionally difficult, but it can provide the raw materials for very advanced armor or weapons that can be made to be beam resistant, granting triple DR vs a certain form of attack, or for hyperdense blades.


GURPS Space offers an interesting discussion on money on page 182, and if we need more ideas for money, here's a link to Atomic Rockets discussing various money forms used in sci-fi.

Most money is backed by something.  Sometimes that "something" is nothing but the reputation of a government and an economic system.  The US economy is relatively stable, so doesn't suffer from runaway inflation, as opposed to the Zimbabwean economy (as of this writing).  Such a fiat system might serve a highly centralized power, like the Empire, but you can trade on the reputation of other organizations.  European banking got its start from (among other things) the pilgrim trade, where pilgrims would turn in money to someone who was located in both their original country and in the holy land, and be given a scrip in return that could be exchanged for money at the other end.  Some people began to trade the scrip directly.  We could imagine some sort of interstellar "Guild" that issues its own currency that's used by numerous civilizations.  Or, perhaps some noble houses have a "favor" system that has been so thoroughly formalized and ritualized that it amounts to a digital currency that floats between them.  Only the aristocracy can use it because of the ostensible "favors among gentlemen" premise, but those favors are never called upon.

If money is backed by something real, it might be precious metals (like gold, platinum or iridium).  While these resources will be more common in a galactic civilization, your monetary needs will also be similarly increased.  We could also back it in some form of energy, or in access to industrial output.  We might imagine a vast factory-cathedral capable of producing anything, and its owner handing out a certain, limited portion of that factory's output as currency.

It's also worth asking if the money is physical or abstract.  If your currency exchanges are entirely digital, you need an account, you need access to the planetary network, and you need an identity.  This is ill-suited to secret exchanges, as it will almost certainly log your history.  Can you save "throw-away" account information on a "cred-stick"  that you upload for a one-time exchange (the sci-fi equivalent of carrying around a suitcase full of cash), or must criminals resort to some kind of crude physical currency?

This also raises the question of Forgery.  Physical currencies can be manufactured, unless they're made of and backed by physical metals (and even then, the physical metal can be faced, such as a gold-plated lead slug).  Digital currencies can be given false histories and identities, their cryptograghic sequences mined or cleverly faked.  And what if some currencies are easier to fake than others?  GURPS Action 2 covers this Falsifying Records.  The idea here is that you, as GM, shouldn't allow players to regularly counterfeit money, though it surely happens, but rather it's a tactic that players can use for a quick, temporary measure.  The assumption here is that nothing the players can make will stand up to serious scrutiny, but if they need to fake a suitcase full of cash or its equivalent for a simple exchange, that should be doable (applying the normal BAD modifiers).

Why does all of this matter? Mostly, we just need a name (and "credit" is, of course, good enough!), but alternate currencies can carry their own cultural weight.  In the prequels, Qui-Gon Jinn ran afoul of exchange rates when he tried to buy a part with Republic Credits, which were "No good" on Tattooine (which is in Hutt Space, thus ruled by the Hutt Cartels), and in Action films, kruggerands represented the de facto black-market currency for years.  If we want to isolate particular regions, we can use alternate currencies and exchange rates as well as alternate languages.  Perhaps Imperial Regals are worthless out in the rim, but Intercorp credits are good virtually anywhere.  It's not a detail I would put too much energy or thought into, as economics isn't that important, but if players want to know how their money works, what they carry on their person, then it's worth spending a little time here.

Character Considerations

Forgery and Counterfeiting for the temporary creation of fake currencies, Accounting for tracking them.

Oh, and before I forget: Calendars

So how does your sci-fi setting measure time?  This literally doesn't come up in Star Wars, at least in the films, so fans have had to cobble something together to discuss historical matters in the extended universe.  Notice that with the exceptions of a few minor elements, everything works as it would for an Earth-based setting.  I highly recommend this, because navigating weird calendar statements is like navigating weird currencies: it creates a distance that isn't intuitive for your players. This is fine for alien cultures, but not for your baseline.  I recommend leaving a year as a year, a month as a month, and so on.  If we need justification, claim that it's the calendar of the capital planet, which is as good a calendar as any.

Alien worlds and cultures could definitely have their own calendar, based on their own worlds and their own scheduling needs (for example, if a certain harvest is very important to a culture, the timing of that harvest will form the basis of their calendar).  You can do nearly anything, so long as you are consistent, but if you need some ideas, see Atomic Rockets.
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