Pirates…In Space!

Who doesn’t love a good brigand? Whether they are a robinhoodesque crusader or someone who is only looking out for number one, we seem to love pirates. So what about pirates in space? A lot of science fiction seems to treat space like an ocean. There are plenty of reasons to love these tropes, but they do present a challenge for worldbuilding. There is no reason why your science fiction can’t have hordes of swashbuckling brigands, but you should still attempt design your world in such a way that allows their escapades to make sense.

Treasure Planet had a wonderful age of sail aesthetic. Unfortunately, it does require a lot of worldbuilding to make believable. Source

For piracy to exist there needs to be something that is worth moving before star systems. Travel between planets, or even star systems, would be horrendously expensive, dangerous, and may take years depending on what kind of FTL your universe has. With so many risks inherent in moving goods from one place to another there has to be some reward.

In order for piracy to work there need to be reasons for a ship to stop. False distress calls are one way to do this, but might quickly reach its limit. The other way is to create a universe where FLT is accessible but still has logical choke points. There are a few ways to make this work. Portals are the easiest.

Portals provide natural choke point. Areas where ships have to pass through in order to get from on planet to then other. In the case of The Protectorate or Star Gate this is somewhat artificial. But in a setting like the one we see in The Interdependency naturally occurring portals can be found. Here Scalzi presents a universe where ships are able to travel between stars thanks to what amounts to a series of interstellar tunnels that still require large chunks of travel time between portal and planet. While traveling between portal and planet, a ship may fall victim to pirates or to mutiny, but one would hope that designated exit points would allow the navy to keep a close eye on affairs.

Another option for navigation to be difficult enough that everyone uses the same well mapped trade routes. Star Wars works this way. In Star Wars, or at least in Legends, trade is focused on a series of major hyperspace lanes. This means that finding new hyperspace lanes or knowing of secret ones has incredible value, and that a blockade of a given lane or the ability to intercept ships in transit can wreak havoc with the local or even galactic economy. While pirates are not likely to have the ability to stop ships in transit, common and well traveled routes makes travel predictable and gives pirates the opportunity to intercept ships as they drop out of FTL.

Star Wars features well mapped trade routes and interdictor ships capable of pulling vessels out of hyperspace. It makes finding new or secret routes an important plot point, even if travel times seem a little too brief. Source

Now that we’ve covered how goods might be moved between planets, let’s talk about the why. What could be worth flying between stars?

Information can be transmitted between stars, and even if data needs to be moved on some physical media there is not really a reason to send a person instead of a drone. A story about software pirates would be hard to pull off, so we need a universe where moving physical goods between stars is worth the immense costs and risks that come with it.

Ideally, every new colony will be founded with the goal of one day being self-sufficient. Over time the settle core of systems should become major producers of food, finished goods, and raw materials, and this settled core should then be connected to the newer colonies by a network of trade routes designed to prop these new colonies up until they can support themselves. This begs the question of why the core planets care about founding and propping up these new colonies. For this reason I think for most pirate settings it helps to assume that trade occurs between a mix of developed worlds and struggling colonies, that colonies are set up with the goal of producing a specific resource, and that monopolies prevent many colonies from becoming fully self-sufficient.

Now let’s go through some good space piracy tactics. Assuming that colonies are dependent on their home worlds for support.

  • Distress Calls – space is huge, and dangerous. If a ship malfunctions in transit there might be little chance of rescue or of witnesses. A distress cal would not be out of place, and might even be seen by less than scrupulous captains as an opportunity for some illicit sabotage. All our pirates need for the ruse to be convincing is a an appropriately derelict ship. Once within range the pirates will be free to disable the approaching ship, or wait until a salvage team boards and can be taken hostage.
  • Sabotage – the easiest and safest way for pirates to operate would be to have contacts back on the home world. A few port workers on the payroll could ensure that incoming freighters come loaded with all manner of malfunction. Then when a freighter’s engines fail and its left drifting in space our favorites brigands will approach ready to “help.”
  • Mutiny – a mutiny could happen for a variety of reasons. The crew could be under paid and overworked, or could have cut a deal to steal their ship’s munitions cargo and sell them to local rebels, or might be trying to steal the ship’s load of vital pharmaceuticals to help their families instead of the local oligarchs. Mixing motives here offers opportunities to put a mix of corrupt and sympathetic characters in the ranks of the mutineers and play their conflicting personalties against each other.
  • Ambush – many flavors of FTL result in natural choke points. This is especially true if portals are involved. Incoming ships would have little idea of what is actually waiting for them just beyond the portal’s exit, and would have to trust in local security. In developed systems the jumping off point will likely be well policed, but worlds that exist on the periphery are much more likely to experience gaps in protection. FTL systems that require cool down times will result in similar, but likely more dispersed choke points. This gives pirates an opportunity to ply their craft with less threat of detection. Although locating targets would be more difficult in this situation.
  • Privateers – people love to make money and governments love to save costs if they can. Disrupting an enemy’s supply lines can be hugely advantageous, but in the vast expanse of space no force will be able to be everywhere at once. Privateers offer a low cost option to hinder the enemy’s activities without putting a faction’s own ships at risk. There are other advantages as well. In a setting where spaces are vast and travel times long, armed conflicts could go on for decades. Employing privateers allows governments to put distance between themselves and the actions they take against rival factions.

There are almost certainly other strategies for our space pirates that I have over looked. Technological advancements would surely create new opportunities for our brigands. If you have any ideas for how pirates could work in the far future I would love to hear about them on twitter @expyblog.

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Subreddits For Creatives

Reddit is one of the biggest sites online these days with so many subreddits available that you are almost guaranteed to one tailored to your interests. Think of any hobby or weirdly specific meme format and there is probably a subreddit for it. So what if you’re a writer or worldbuilder, what are the best subreddits for you?

Worldbuilding

It should really be no surprise that r/worldbuilding ranks among my favorites. The subreddit has grown significantly in the past few years and welcomes worldbuilders of all levels of talent. New artwork, discussion posts, and resources are posted daily. If you stay on long enough you’ll begin to see who the regular posters are and get to watch their work grow and develop over time. My preferred way of browsing this subreddit is to sort by new and look for discussion posts. Participating in brain-storming sessions or answering questions about your own world is a great practice and a good way to finally flesh out parts of your setting you may have overlooked and been putting off for later.

Imaginary Network Expanded

The Imaginary Network is a cluster of related subreddits dedicated to posting all sorts of art with credit to original artists. I like to browse through it when I’m facing off with writers block. My personal favorites are r/ImaginaryBeasts for making up new flora and fauna, r/ImaginaryBattlefields for thinking up climatic showdowns, and r/ImaginaryStaships for when I need my daily dose of SciFi.

Writing Prompts

When you feel like writing but don’t know what or you’re just looking for a challenge, r/WritingPrompts is sure to help with its long list of user-submitted starting points that range from established fandom to completely originial premises. The subreddit also hosts contests from time to time and has been the route through which many users have gotten their writing noticed. Writing a response to a popular post it can be a good way to get your writing more exposure online. Several frequent posters maintain personal subreddits to showcase their writing. Unfortunately, popular promts are often highly specific or tied to a certain fandom. If this is a deal breaker to you prefer something with a little more freedom then try the less popular r/SimplePrompts.

Map Making

If you’ve made a battle map for your D&D campaign, a fantasy island, a political map of your alternate history scenario, or you just like making maps then r/mapmaking might be the place for you. Like r/Worldbuilding it’s welcoming of all skill levels and is a great place to post if you’re in need of advice or feedback. Just make sure you have all your rivers drawn right before you post.

So You Want to Invade a Planet

Look up at the stars. Somewhere out there someone is doing something that makes you don’t like and you want them to know just how angry it makes you. How will you do it?

In this scenario I have assumed that FTL is somewhat slow but still possible and that the end target is a developed Earth-like world.

1. Assemble your fleet.

Decide what your goals are, is this meant to be a raid against the planet or do you plan to occupy territory? Make sure you don’t leave your own world undefended when you assemble this fleet and make sure the fleet is equipped to deal with unforeseen circumstances. The ships may be gone for several years and once they leave resupply will be difficult. At least some of your ships should be equipped to harvest local resources and grow food or manufacture munitions.

2. Get Underway

Timing is important. The planet you’re going to might be years away. The main fleet should leave together so that you don’t scatter your forces too much, but it may be a good idea to send a few smaller forces ahead to scout your target. A lot can change while in transit the early you find that our the easier it will be to change course and make new plans.

You may also consider sending smaller detachments after the main force. These could be mostly resupply missions, spaced out so that the fleet can depend on resupply at scheduled points during the campaign.

Remember that depending on the technology available to you there may be a substantial period of deceleration as your approach the target system. This means your engines will be pointed towards your destination and sending out a lot of easily detectable heat and light. If this is a system that gets a lot of interstellar traffic it might be possible for all of this to be lost in noise, though at this point it would be better to assume that you have been seen and that there will be ships waiting for you when you arrive.

3. Fight Your Way Through the Solar System

Space is big, dark, and cold. Any ship is going to give off a huge amount of heat as it moved through space, especially when it starts to starts to decelerate as it approached its destination. A single ship might be overlooked, but a large fleet will be hard to miss, so don’t worry too much about the element of surprise. You can’t really hide your fleet anyway.

What you can do is make the enemy unsure of your intentions. Split your fleet into several battle groups and send them on different trajectories through the target system. This robs your enemy of a single large target and the potential for a decisive battle and allows your fleet to hit multiple targets roughly simultaneously. An advanced world probably has several populations centers through a single star system and you won’t want give your enemies a chance to attack you from behind while you’re busy landing troops on the planet.

When you do enter the system you should consider employing long range missiles. Unmanned missiles are smaller and can move much faster than manned vessels, giving them a better chance of making it through your target’s defenses. The missiles can be used to strike at targets well in advance of your fleet’s arrival to minimize the risk to your own ships.

4. Establish Orbital Superiority

By the time your ships reach the target planet their defenses will have hopefully been greatly weakened by missile strikes and their fleet will have been dispersed to deal with the multiple battle groups you’ve sent through the system. If the planet has any space elevators or sky hooks now would be the time to seize them. Ships should be positioned so that the entire planet can be observed.

5. Find Your Targets on the Ground

You probably lack the troop numbers and the will to fight for every inch on the planet’s surface. Before landing begins, select targets on the ground that might pose a threat but are also not ones you care about owning yourself. These targets should all be destroyed from orbit before any landing operations begin. Munitions used here need not be nuclear, a few metal rods dropped from orbit should be more than enough.

If multiple continents on the planet’s surface have been settled it may be worth targeting any infrastructure that might connect them in order to hinder the enemy’s ability to move their troops around. Of course this assumes that you do not want that infrastructure for yourself.

6. Deploy Ground Troops

Ground troops should only be deployed to secure targets that you have decided are vital to the success of your campaign; planets are just too big to consider anything else. Power plants, space ports, terraforming stations, and government buildings are all worthy targets as just owning them will give you control of other areas and may yield valuable intel.

The scale of the landing really depends on what your goals are. If you want to disable a few critical systems while securing intel and prisoners then you may not need to deploy more than a few thousand troops. If you plan on holding territory for any length of time then tens or even hundreds of thousands may be needed.

7. Pack Up and Leave

Annexing an entire world requires a massive commitment of resources and millions of soldiers over many years may be required to completely secure a world. If regular bombardments do not phase you then this could conceivably be accomplished with a much smaller force at the risk of rendering large segments of the surface uninhabitable.

If your goal was just to knock the system out of action to prevent them from supporting your enemy’s war effort then your options are much simpler. Once your troops have secured whatever intel or prisoners you wanted on the surface you can extract them, blowing up space ports and even power plants as you leave. Space elevators and skyhooks can be demolished by the fleet once troops have been fully evacuated.

All those space ports and elevators will likely take many years to fully replace, but to hinder outside relief then nothing quite beats a selection of orbital denial weapons (You can keep your fleet in orbit of course, but if this is part of a larger conflict then the ships are probably needed elsewhere).

A minefield in space is not going to look anything like what we see on Earth, and mines as they have been depicted in Star Trek several times would be hard to make work. Space is big and mines are tiny, you want your minefield to depend on more than just chance collisions. Here I think a swarm of small, automated satellites would come in handy.

Satellites could be deployed in order and throughout the system and outfitted with various armaments including missile launchers, rail guns, and gamma ray emitters, and if you’re more a fan of the classics then explosive satellites could be designed that would then release shrapnel to clear their orbits of enemy ships.

Worldbuilding: Getting Started

Spend some time of r/worldbuiling and you will see that many posts are from new users asking how to start worldbuilding. The short answer to this is simple-however you want! But since it seems to be such a common question I decided that I would outline my worldbuilding process here for anyone who wants to start but isn’t sure how.

1. Pick a Medium

There are a lot of ways to organize your worldbuilding. For most of my projects I like to start with a nice notebook. This comes with a few limitations, it can be hard to keep topics organized and it can be hard to go back and change major details and keep everything looking neat, but if you are as fanatical about writing implements as I am then it’s a fun way to worldbuild and use your favorite pens at the same time.

Other people use OneNote, word documents, personal wikis, or services like WorldAnvil. In the end it doesn’t matter what medium you use as long as it suits your needs or preferences.

2. Have an Idea

A lot of career advice talks about having an “elevator pitch” ready and you should have the same for your setting. If you’re making a world to run a table top campaign then this pitch might come from your players. Maybe your players want to run a wizard mafia, or find an abandoned city in the far north surrounded by frozen tundra. If you’re worldbuilding for fun or for a story you plan to write you might ask yourself what would happen in a world where the industrial revolution happened a few centuries early or Rome never fell. Once you have a theme to explore or a specific scene in mind you’ll find it much easier to make a setting where those themes or scenes are possible.

3. Pick an Era

Deciding on the level of technology found in your setting is important. It establishes the tools available to your characters, the capabilities of governments, and the resources that countries are willing to go to war over. In a world where everything runs on steam coal will be a much more valuable resource than oil, but if you’re writing diesel-punk this dynamic will be reversed.

When I pick a technology level for a setting I tend to think in terms of centuries. This is just to help visualize the kind of technology and tools available in your setting and should not feel like a limitation. In the end this is your world, if you want to introduce a new technology or put a new spin on historical inventions then do it!

4. Magic

Easily accessible magic will drastically change the dynamics of your world, so deciding if magic is common, or if it exists at all, should happen early on. You should also consider outlining the limits of your world’s magic and whether it can be classified as “hard” or “soft” magic.

If you are considering a world in which divine intervention is a regular occurrence, this would be the time to do it.

5. Make a Map

Our culture is shaped by our environment and who we come in contact with, our economies are shaped by the resources available to us, and these along with other considerations shape the conflicts we engage in. Since you are probably not going to start from the creation of your world and move forward, you’re going to need to picture the “current” state of your world and work backwards to decide what geographic features might have contributed to its current predicament. Mountains, rivers, and oceans can form natural barriers and help explain why a certain culture has stayed relatively isolated, the positions of trade routes, harbors, and rivers will decide where your major cities go.

Scale is important to think about here. You might be tempted to create an entire world map on your first go, but you should consider how much of the world you need to show for your story. Mapping an entire world is fun, but you might find yourself biting off more than you can chew. To combat this I now only map out the region that I plan to focus on and wait to flesh out others areas until I need them.

6. Fill in the Rest

This is the part where you let your imagination run wild. Outline character bios, write the histories of obscure locations or the stories of empires. There’s not really any wrong way to do this. It’s your setting, do what you want with it.