Sunday, January 12, 2020

Star Wars Economics - energy, shipping and labor.

Someone asked in the OSR discord group about sci fi economics, and so I have a few comments.

First we have to narrow our scope - I'm going to stick to Star Wars economics, as expressed in the Star Wars Saga system.  The prices in the system seem vaguely calibrated to 1 credit = 2 dollars.  I suspect the original intent was that 1 credit = 1 dollar, but with inflation that sum shrunk (interesting mental exercise:  if 10 000 credit (Han Solo's fee for transport) was in 1977 dollars, that's about 41 000 dollars today... I wonder if Disney will make those adjustments).

1:  Energy
So anyway, we need our "economic yardstick".  What is the "most true" price that we can use?  I suggest energy, more precisely "starship fuel" (I forget the term) It's worth 50 credits per kg, and 1 kg can power a modest start starship for 1 day.  Other "high energy" operations (taking off a planet, jumping into hyperdrive, fighting) also take 1 kg of fuel.  If a light freighter can carry 100 tons, fuel, even if 90% of it is "packaging"  (containment fields etc, I imagine this is very "volatile" stuff, perhaps an exotic form of matter), i.e. 100 kg of fuel per 1 ton of carrying capacity, that's still a whooping 5000 credit per ton, or half a million credit for a full load.  That's a large sum to be carrying around.

So energy is super valuable right?  Well... no.  The amount of energy to have a spaceship reach orbit is *staggering*.  Modern rockets are what, 90% fuel by weight?  We know that this fact is also reflected in game.  The GNK power droid (the "Gonk droid") carried about 1 kg of fuel and could power a startship for a day... or power a house for an indeterminate period of time - it would eventually run out after a number of years, but it's essentially "day to day" power for a fraction of a credit per day.  So your monthly power bill, for the average citizen living in an ordinary dwelling, would be trivial - a few credits at most, possibly far less.  This means that energy is *very plentiful*.  Only high energy users (spaceship, heavy industry, planetary defences) need worry about its cost.  A light freighter bringing a load of starship fuel to a distant outpost is going to be disappointed, they will probably only need a few tons *at most* for the year.  The main demand is probably the starport, who would resell it to other spaceships.

The fact that a GNK can transform startship fuel into usable energy (electricity I'm assuming), means that the process of using this starship fuel isn't *that* complicated.  You can't burn it in a boiler, but if a semi-smart walking generator only costs a few thousand credits at most, clearly these generators are pretty plentiful too.  This means that energy is "fungible", probably easily converted from one form to another.  You can import all your energy need in starship fuel as a planet, why bother with bulky and dirty things like crude oil?  Let them burn it on their planet and pollute it, you aren't dirtying your own!

If energy is fungible and very plentiful, it probably means that there may not be be that much money selling it; because the margins are probably pretty thin.  So as a light weight freighter captain, unless you are selling to a place with a very high demand (isolated, disaster/war area) or finding a very cheap source of energy (a planet close to a star that specialize in making fuel and sells it for less than 50 credit/kg; or perhaps battlefield loot), it's not that exciting.

2:  Shipping cost
This leads us to a next consideration:  are you, as a freight captain, buying and selling, or are you carrying other people's stuff for a fee?  How big should this fee be?  In other words, what are the shipping costs?

So I'm going to be considering 2 ships - firs the YT-1300, in part because it's famous (Millennium Falcon) but also because it's a good example of a generic light freighter (we'll be using the generic stats, not the souped up millennium falcon).  The second will be a large volume cargo ship, but not something amazing - so the GR-75 medium transport (ie the "rebel transport") will do.

The YT-1300 can carry 100 tons, has 2 crews and a hyperspace speed of 2
The GR-75 can carry a whooping 19 000 tons, has a crew of 5 and a hyperspace speed of 4 (bigger is worse in this system).

Let's first look at trip lenght and fuel cost.  Let's assume that the trip is form the surface of a planet to the surface of another planet in another s

Fuel wise, a YT needs one unit of fuel (1 kg) to take off the planet.  Then it will take a day (another unit) to reach the outside of the system.  Jumping to hyperspace requires one unit of fuel.

The lenght of a trip in hyperspace is (to use the simple Saga rules) 1d6 x hyperspeed rating (we're going to assume 3.5 average, and ignore complications or hyperspace lanes etc).  So 2x3.5 = 7 days in space, or 7 units of fuel.  Then 1 more day to reach the planet, and 1 unit to land.

This means that the YT 1300 will need 12 units of fuel (600 credits) and 9 days to do a delivery.

The GR-75 has a similar calculation, except that its hyperspeed rating is 4, so it's trip in hyperspace will take twice as long - the trip will be 16 days, and require 19 units of fuel.

We'll take a pause here and talk about fuel consumption.  In SAGA, a starship uses 1 kg of fuel as a "unit", but a capital ship (frigate-class) uses 100 kg.  But what about ship that are bigger than a light freighter, but not quite a capital ship (like the GR-75).  It doesn't say.  I changed this in my game - corvette sized capital ships used 50 kg, and I would eyeball (sorry) the GR-75 to use about 30 kg per unit.  This results in 19 X 30 = 570 kg of fuel, or a whooping 28 500 credits worth of fuel!  

But what about other costs?  Consumables (oxygen, water etc) is 10 per person per day, so this means 180 credits for the YT, and 960 for the GR-75.   Docking fees are about 20 for a small freighter and... 200 for a bigger one?

General maintenance is 4 days worth of fuel in cost per 20 trips.  This can be spread over each trip for accounting purpose so 10 credits for the YT, and 300 for the GR-75

3: Labor
Last is the crew cost.  This is... harder to estimate, but we can give it a go.  There is an "upkeep" cost (ie cost of living) given of 1000/month credits for average, and 500 for struggling.  How much is the average spacer paid?  I'm going to say 500, because they also receive benefits - they have a place to live inside the ship and they get "space food".  That leaves 500 credits to buy clothes, drinks at the port etc etc.  Seems reasonable.

So crew salary is 9/30 X 2 X 500 or 300 for the YT, and 1600 for the GR-75.

Back to Shipping cost
Total cost for the trip in a light freighter is 600 (fuel) + 20 (docking) + 10 (maintenance) + 180 (consumable) + 300 (salary) = 1 110 credits, or about 11 credits per ton of cargo.  If you want to run a profit, you probably want to charge at least 20 credits per ton of cargo (or 2000 for a load), much more if there are any risks involved.

The GR-75's total cost is 28 500 (fuel) +200 (docking) + 300 (maintenance) + 960 (consumable) + 1600 (salary) = 31 560 credits, which is enormous.  *However* your cost per ton of cargo is *much much* lower, 1.66 credit per ton.  You could ship at 5 credits per tons of cargo and make way much more money than a light freighter.

This means that as a light freight captain, if you are buying and selling (and not merely transporting for someone else), you need higher margins to operate than a large cargo ship. If you buy 100 tons of Trandoshan beans at 120 credits a tons, you better hope that you can sell them for 140 credits a ton!  Meanwhile, the GR-75 captain would only need to sell them at 125 to be profitable (but needs to find someone willing to buy 19 000 tons of it).

So why are light freighters used at all?  Well, not all shipments are 19 000 tons.  The light freighters tend to be faster and can make more runs per months than a large cargo ship.  They are better at avoiding detection and trouble.  They are more flexible, and can respond to opportunities and emergencies better (oh planet such and such has a famine?  Let's bring them beans, we'll make a fortune!)  They are useful to smuggle illicit goods, or pick up passengers.   The last 2 are probably particularly important.   In fact, I suspect that for many light freighter crews, the "normal" cargo was just a way to cover some costs and, more importantly, provide them with a cover of legitimacy.  "Why are we here?  Why we are delivering Trandoshan beans, that is all sir!  Everything is in order!"


1:  I am satisfied with using the kg of fuel as an economic yardstick.  Always think of energy when designing planets.   I imagine some rickety outposts have power generating stations consisting of little more than a few dozen Gonk droids standing in a room, wired to the ceiling and gonking away.  Even though it is plentiful, energy still remains fundamentally important.  Wars will be fought over it, just like today.  Shipping is the lifeblood of the economy, and to do that, you need starship fuel.

2:  Time is money.   The easiest way to cut costs for a starship is to get a better hyperdrive.  If the GR-75 had a hyperdrive rating of 2, its cost would almost drop by half.

3:  There is a need for light freighters, especially on the fringe - and for GMs, that's good because that is where the interesting stuff happens!

4:  Labor costs explain droids, economically speaking.  Another way for a ship to cut costs it to replace a few crew members (who costs 6000 per year) with droids.  Droids costs a few thousand credits each, but would pay themselves off in less than a year  (there must be a "job stealing droid" sentiment...).  I'll also note that "adventuring ships" (ie light freighters with the party on board) will cost more than the standard light freighter because of all those extra people, not to mention all the extra guns and shields the adventurers probably want to have on board...

5:  When Han Solo asked for 10 000 credits to give Luke and Obi-wan a lift, considering the circumstances, wasn't completely outrageous

6:  In the Mandalorian, when Mando says "5000, that barely cover fuel costs these days" … either his ship is *very* fuel inefficient, fuel costs have gone up drastically, or bounty hunting involves several jumps.

7:  Piracy is interesting because of logistics.  If a band of pirates convert three YT-1300 into gunboats and capture a GR-75, there is no way that they can steal its entire cargo, they don't have the hold!  So either they collect valuables and steal fuel *or* they steal the entire ship, but now selling the cargo is difficult...

8:  There is more to say about this - economies are complex, even more so galactic one.  But a full simulation is impossible AND not necessary.  How to use this in a game will have to be another blog post...


  1. I would have needed that post back in 1999, when i was running Star Wars on a regular basis and eyeing with an "interstellar cargoes"-Campaign...
    Nice post !

    1. Just build a time machine :P

      Glad you like the post :)