Adventure in the Spinward Marches
Considered by some to be a subset of Travellers, Free Traders are something similar but slightly different. The term is applied in different contexts to a class of starship and to the personnel that crew them. It is also loosely applied to anyone or any ship engaging in a general type of activity.
Thus ‘Free Trader’ can define a specific type of starship, a small merchant craft suitable for free–trading operations, or it could refer to any ship or crew engaging in opportunistic independent tramp trading without a set route.
Most of the goods and passengers that are moved around the various systems travel aboard large freighters, freightliners or dedicated passenger ships. These are generally tied to a set route and call regularly at their stopovers. Smaller ships ply the same routes and less profitable ones, picking up the slack in the system. Many minor trade routes are not profitable at standard freighting rates, but it is considered desirable to have vessels on the route. The result is the subsidized merchant.
The ‘subbie’ is both a specific class of ship and a general activity. Subsidised routes are partially paid for by commercial activity and partly by government money from local worlds or trade alliances that feel the need for a regular service. Note that while ships of the class termed Subsidized Merchants are well suited to such activity, they can do other things such as free trading, and a subsidized route can be plied by craft of other types.
Although the big shipping lines and the subsidized routes move most of the cargo and passengers, there is some slack in the system; enough that a small merchant ship can make an honest living, just about. These Free Traders wander on and off the main shipping lanes engaging in whatever commercial activity seems to offer the best prospects. This could be a charter to deliver something or carry out a mission, standard–rate freighting, a mail contract, a short–term naval auxiliary commission or speculative trade whereby the crew buy a cargo and try to sell it at a profit, rather than shipping other people’s goods for a fee.
Most of the time a Free Trader can get by, with lean patches and the occasional bonanza caused by a good speculative investment or a lucrative urgent job. However, it does not take much to drive a Free Trader into the red. A crew that are in need of funds may be inclined to take risks or break the law. They might go down the route of risky high–stakes speculative trade in restricted items or take a job they know is going to be trouble.
Some crews may cross the line into illegal activity ranging from the relatively minor such as smuggling (the ‘small package trade’) or trafficking in illegal but not very harmful items all the way through to outright piracy. The majority of pirates are not career buccaneers but are ‘ethically challenged merchants’ who cross the line between legitimate commerce and piracy when it suits them.
Free Traders tend to frequent backwater ports where the markets are not sewn up by the big shipping lines. These can be dangerous places so crews are usually made up of clued–up and ‘handy’ individuals. Armament (personal and ship–mounted) is common, as is a willingness to use it at need.
This does not mean that all Free Trader crews are down–at–heel desperadoes one step removed from pirates; most are professional spacers who sometimes frequent dubious places and take appropriate precautions. However, it can be hard to tell streetwise good guys from the bad apples.