Game Structure for Smuggling in Traveller : The Basics


At the Alexandrian, in a series of articles on game structures Justin Alexander gives a sample scenario structure for hijacking star ships. At the end of the article he says

Here are some other potential scenario structures for a “Between the Stars” campaign.

Bomb Onboard: Touchstones might include stuff like Die Hard With a Vengeance and Law Abiding Citizen. The actual mystery of identifying the bomber can probably use a standard mystery scenario structure, but what about the process of finding (and possibly defusing) bombs before they explode? What effect do bombs have on ship systems?

Plague: The Babylon 5 episode “Confessions and Lamentations” is a particularly poignant look at disease scenarios on spacecraft. “Genesis” from Star Trek: The Next Generation was a particularly stupid one. (On the other hand, TNG’s “Identity Crisis” shows the breadth of potential within the general idea.)

Lost in Space: Touchstones would include… well… Lost in Space. (Also, Poul Anderon’s Tau Zero.)

Collision in Space: Here you could probably lift some of the same structures for systems damage from the “Bomb Onboard” scenario structure to model collision damage.

Mutiny: We could probably lift large chunks from our “Hijacking” scenario structure

Smuggling: Both with the PCs engaging in smuggling and with NPC smugglers trying to use their ships to achieve their own aims.

If you’re feeling up for it, grab one of these and give it the same treatment we gave hijackings: Post it here in the comments or toss a link down there to wherever you do post it.

I was interested in the smuggling structure, since I have need of it in my Traveller Campaign. So I began designing one. It turns out smuggling can include lots of sub structures. Even if I took a narrow definition of “smuggling” its big. As it is my definition of smuggling is “to take a shipment from one place to another secretly”. So in this article I will lay out a very high level structure and break it down into components at a fairly broad level.

Before diving into the structure lets quickly look at what may be smuggled and why, and some useful terminology.

What Might Get Smuggled

Here are the different base types of thing to get smuggled and a non-exhaustive list of examples for each.

Goods such as guns, drugs, stolen property, luxury items, art works, food, stealth equipment.

Life-forms such as rare or endangered species, pests, quarantine-able species and dangerous ones desired as pets, collectors items, food, creatures of mystical importance, genetically modified seeds or the source of medical materials.

People (sentient beings) such as slaves, criminals, rebels, spies, incognito celebrities, secret negotiators.

Information such as the plans for the Death Star, stolen technology patents, layout of the government secret security complex, the list of names of enemy agents, the location of Egnormon’s Tomb.

Why it Might be Smuggled

  • It is illegal to import or export the shipment. For example a rare species on a planet that is desired as a pet on other planets, and the planetary authorities have banned the life form being poached and removed from the planet.
  • There are high import or export costs in the way of taxes and duties, expensive compliance and safety procedures, and the smuggler is aiming to avoid those costs.
  • Its not illegal to import or export the shipment but there are other reasons for secrecy such as avoiding the press, or keeping a commercial strategy secret from competitors.

Who is Who, What is What

I need some simple terminology to be used for the rest of this structure description.

The Shipment is whatever is being smuggled, be it goods, life forms, people or information.

The Smuggler is the person or persons getting the shipment moved from one place to another.

The Chaser is the person or persons attempting to find and expose the shipment. A given shipment may have multiple distinct chasers. Chasers may be government agencies, news reporters, competitors, pirates and so on.

The Proxy is a person or persons, vehicle or container that carries the shipment on behalf of the smuggler, possibly unknowingly, without the smuggler being present.

Players can potentially be any of these roles, the shipment, the smuggler, the chaser or a proxy.

The Basic Smuggling Structure

A Smuggling Operation is where a shipment is moved covertly from a source to a destination via one or more smuggling steps. Those steps may follow in a linear plan, using regular smuggling pipelines, or there may be many choices as to which step to take next. The shipment may be planned for a particular destination or it may be acquired speculatively and a destination found.

A Smuggling Step is a discrete scenario node where a single method of transit is being used for a leg of a journey that has consistent context for detection and its outcomes. Such steps include moving the shipment:

  • from one place to another on a planet surface
  • from the surface to orbit
  • from orbit to the surface
  • from orbit to system space
  • from system space to orbit
  • from system space to docking with a space facility
  • from a space facility dock to system space
  • from place to place in a space facility
  • from system space to jump point and launching a jump
  • from jump arrival to system space

There are also two steps that do not involve moving the shipment. They are arranging to acquire the shipment and receiving the pay off after delivery.

Each of these steps will have its own flavour of the basic step structure.

The Basic Smuggling Step Structure

Each step will start with either acquiring the shipment, continuing on from a previous step or the smuggler starting to arrange acquiring the shipment.

During the step there will be test points where detection, inspection, tagging and exposure may occur and there are structures for the consequences. Chasers may create or enhance test points.

The end of a step, that has not resulted in mission failure, is to move on to the next step, deliver the shipment, or receive the pay off and conclude the operation. Moving onto the next step may mean transferring the shipment between transport mechanisms.

The start and end of a step are also likely to be test points.

The reasons for keeping the shipment a secret may not pertain to every step. For example a drug that is illegal at its destination may not be so at its source. However chasers may still be looking for such shipments leaving known sources so there can be a reason for secrecy at the source.

For a smuggler without a shipment

The default goal is to proceed to seek out a new shipment.

The default action involves building knowledge of supply and demand, seeking out existing operations to join, or acquiring speculative shipments. Each of those will have specific steps and default actions to take.

For a smuggler with a shipment

Step Default Goal is to pass the test points and get closer to delivery of the shipment.

Step Default Action is either deliver the shipment or choose the next step and proceed to it.

For Chasers

Chasers will

  • monitor source shipment locations to identify new operations starting.
  • Attempt to detect the passage of a shipment via test points
  • Expose known shipments and bring consequences of exposure to bear, or tag and track a known shipment to determine the operation’s wider scope.

Test Points

Test points are nodes in the execution of a step where the smuggling operation may potentially be exposed. Customs at a starport is a standard test point. Surprise ship inspections in system space are a less common test point.

The start and end of a step should be considered test points. For example acquiring a shipment that is illegal on the source planet may draw the attention of the authorities (chasers interested in blocking the operation on behalf of the government). They may have noticed a suspicious financial transaction, or they may have tagged the supplier for surveillance and have a high chance of noting the acquisition.

Test points may also include likely occurrences for a double cross by others involved in the smuggling operations, who can be considered covert, inside chasers.

They may also include complicating events such as an encounter with pirates, a chance meeting with someone who increases the chance of exposure, a mishap where the shipment is threatened or exposure may occur while being assisted.

Smuggler Default Goal pass through the test point without exposure or tagging or bypass it.

The default actions will be varied depending on the nature of the test point.

Bypassing and Detection

Some test points can be anticipated and the smuggler may have a way to bypass them. For example moving the shipment from orbit to planet surface involves passing through the inspection procedures at the star port. A smuggler can bypass that by landing in wilderness instead.

When a smuggler tries to bypass a test point there is a possibility they are detected. So landing in the wilderness on a planet may be detected by observers and sensors. The smuggler can alter the chances of detection by choosing between fast but risky methods of bypassing verses slow but safer methods, for example landing deep in the wilderness verses on the fringe. They may also attempt to thwart the detection process by stealth and concealment, bribes, intimidation or sabotage.

If detected the responders may not react, may be chasers who tag the smuggler for tracking, may report the incident only in some log, or may be chasers who actively intercept. If being intercepted the smuggler may attempt to evade, in which case the situation moves into a chase structure, otherwise we move into inspection and suspicion. A chase can end in escaping and therefore successfully bypassing the test point, or in apprehension which brings us back to inspection and suspicion. The chasers may also drop a chase having tagged the shipment or smuggler for tracking.

Note that if the shipment or smuggler is being tracked then the chance of a bypass being detected by those tracking it is increased.

A proxy will not attempt a bypass of a test point.

Inspection and Suspicion

This is where those that have an interest in exposing the smuggled shipment are actively checking the smuggler or proxy, their vehicle and its contents. This can be a baggage check, a passport match against watch lists, cargo inspection with chemical and energy sensors, face recognition checks at a hotel check in and so on. It is also possible for “accidental” inspection, where a bystander stumbles on the shipment.

The level of investigation will depend on if the search is just a routine one, the level of alertness the inspectors are working under and if the shipment is specifically being looked for by the inspectors.

The inspectors are going to be pitting their detection ability against the smuggler’s opposing concealment ability. There is also scope for the smuggler to employ sabotage, blackmail, intimidation, bribery, misdirection, violence and Jedi mind tricks to avoid successful inspections. A proxy will not actively thwart the inspectors and the smuggler’s concealment ability is less when working via a proxy.

The outcome can be either passing through the test point, the inspectors becoming suspicious, and then either doing a more thorough inspection or tagging the smuggler for tracking, or the outcome moves us on to exposure and consequences.

Exposure and Consequences

So a chaser has now exposed the shipment. What happens next?

If the smuggler is aware they have been exposed, or suspects it, then the smuggler may chose to flee so we have a transition to a chase structure. This may rescue the operation unless the mere exposure of the shipment causes it to fail, such as with someone travelling in secret. Once the knowledge of their presence is “out there” the operation is blown.

The smuggler may again try to avoid the consequences by the use of fast talk, bribery, intimidation, blackmail or possibly combat. A proxy that is a person wont do any of these things and will just cop the consequences.

If the exposure results in the smuggler being caught or the operation failing then there are one or more consequences depending on the nature of the shipment, and the authority and agenda of the chasers.

Some possible consequences include:

  • Loss of privacy
  • Loss of reputation
  • Tip off opponents
  • Confiscation
  • Fines
  • Being blackmailed or gaining an unwanted partner
  • Gaining a debt or obligation
  • Restrictions on travel, attending locations or meeting certain factions
  • High surveillance
  • Mind control or physical limitation
  • Imprisonment
  • Tracking implants
  • Mutilation
  • Execution

The chasers may also conceal the exposure and tag the shipment and/or the smuggler for tracking.

Being Tagged / Tracked

Chasers may tag smugglers, proxies and shipments as “of interest” heightening future inspection levels. They may also tag them as “to be followed/intercepted”.

Within a star system such tagging can be passed on at the speed of light. Between systems it needs to be carried in a ship to alert chasers at the other system.

Tracking devices may also be connected to a smuggler, proxy or shipment. The smugglers may have procedures to check for tracking devices, although proxies will not.

The Traveller RPG could use a mechanism for observing a ship making a jump and trying to calculate its destination. I would use something like an engineering check. Pilots can try and conceal their jump information by doing engineering checks at various levels of difficulty. If they succeed there would be a dm against the tracking check, if they fail there may be a heightened miss-jump chance.

Finally smugglers may arrange smuggling steps to follow convoluted paths, and to link steps together with covert hand-offs and decoys, in order to shake off surveillance.

Smuggling Pipelines

Smuggling organisations will have collections of smuggling steps already set up in their favour and will reuse them. For example for moving from orbit to the surface they may have a number of corrupted officials who always let their shipments pass through.

Chasers may be trying to detect such pipelines and break them or infiltrate them. Chasers that are competitors may be trying to take them over.

Prepping for Smuggling

A smuggling scenario needs, at the least, shipment sources and destinations and a value for delivery. The steps between source and destination(s) can be populated with special test points and default test points from a template.

The scope and nature of possible chasers needs to be noted, and how they relate to known test points. The consequences of being exposed by particular chasers should be noted, depending on if they are law enforcement, news reporters, pirates, other smugglers and so on.

The scope and nature of existing smuggling operations and organisations needs to be noted and how they relate to existing smuggling pipelines.

These generate context for NPCs, ships, and facilities some of which may be sketched or fleshed out in advance.

Create rumours and clues for as many elements as will be useful. Where can I find a shipment? What are the risks and rewards? Where is the best point to detect a smuggler for tracking?

Add a table or two of random encounters and events that can provide unexpected test points.

Intersection with the Mystery Structure

From the chaser’s perspective smuggling scenarios are mysteries. In order to expose a smuggler or a smuggling organisation you have to find and follow clues. You may back track a delivery that was made but detected later, to try and find its source and a pipeline. You may look for indirect clues such as money trails to lead you to long term smugglers and organisations.

Relationship to Espionage Structures

Smuggling is used by espionage operations to move agents about and to conceal shipment movements from agents (who would be chasers). The law enforcement chasers dealing with regular smuggling, and the pirates and competitors that prey on smuggling operations, would become complications for espionage related operations.

In Conclusion

Smuggling revolves around operations, smugglers and chasers. There are discrete smuggling steps. The structure is somewhat incomplete in that it really could do with a structure for establishing an operation and one for running a chaser, but this could become a very long article, so I reserve those for later.

Also the various steps indicated could be fleshed out to demonstrate their default internal structure, perhaps with example mechanics to support them, including the many ways in which a shipment may be concealed and test points handled. That is also likely to be a lengthy treatment so, again, perhaps later.

For now this structure should be enough to stimulate a few smuggling scenarios or even campaigns.

At RPG Geek you will find descriptions of Classic Traveller and Mongoose Traveller. My two favourite versions of this game.


4 thoughts on “Game Structure for Smuggling in Traveller : The Basics

    1. dandare2050

      Glad to be of service. Does that mean we get to smuggle some cool stuff? Who will we be smuggling past? The reading public wants to know!
      I could totally go smuggling into Spica Syndicate star systems to subvert their agents and sabotage their equipment.


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