Amber Zone - Privateers and Letters of Marque

Last Updated 1 February 2004.

By: Mike Lee
From: [Digest 1119]
Dated: Tue, 01 Apr 1997

Subject: Away Boarders! (LONG, I'm afraid)
[Mike's comments, 1119]

Hey -

Someone on the list asked about ship boarding scenarios (forgive me, but I forgot your name, and the digest got deleted), and I wanted to share some observations from my CT campaign, which included privateers and boarding actions.

In my Spinward Marches campaign, it was Imperial Naval Policy to allow Regional Commanders (i.e. Grand Admiral Santanocheev, and later Norris during the 5FW) the option of issuing Letters of Marque and Reprisal to civilian ships during the course of open hostilities.

These letters had to indicate specifically which types of shipping were valid targets (i.e. Zhodani commercial transports, Zhodani troop transports, Sword World merchant ships, etc.), and the Office of the Admiralty had to indemnify themselves in the event that the privateers caused damage to Imperial property. The letters also specified a set duration, usually stating "until the end of the present emergency, that is the State of War existing between the Zhodani Consulate and the Third Imperium". The intention of all this was to keep the Letters of Marque from becoming a license to kill for anybody with an armed starship.

During the Fifth Frontier War, Norris actually persuaded Santanocheev to issue Letters of Marque during the early stages of the war, largely by assuming the necessary indemnification himself, and quite a number of ex-Navy men became enthusiastic privateers. Their efforts disrupted enemy supply lines and tied down valuable Zhodani front line squadrons, and their largely unsung efforts were lauded by Norris in a number of speeches at the conclusion of hostilities. Once peace was restored, the letters became invalid, and the surviving privateers (some quite rich) went back to their civilian lives.

The use of privateers was by no means limited to the Imperium during the war. The Sword Worlds have a long tradition of privateering during war (and peacetime as well), and nobles are allowed to purchase Letters of Marque from their governments at any time. This arrangement stipulates that all prize vessels must be sold directly to the government at a cut rate, and the privateers are forbidden to hunt within the jurisdiction of the current government and its allies. During the war, enterprising young nobles from Gram, Sacnoth, and Flamberge organized themselves into "joint ventures" and gave birth to the infamous Privateer Squadrons of the period, some of whom were still operating as of 1121.

Privateer strategies were simple - attack soft targets, force their surrender, board them and escape. The bravest of the Imperial privateers were fond of penetrating deep behind Zhodani lines and lurking around a busy system's gas giant. When a valid target arrived (like a lumbering Zho merchantman), they would fire a number of warning shots and force the ship to surrender. This tactic worked best after the target had made orbital insertion, which greatly limited its options as to maneuvering. A prize crew would board the ship, offload the crew (leaving them in disabled ship's boats, pressurized cargo containers, or sometimes floating in vac suits), complete refueling, and leave. In the event that the target put up a fight, the privateer was forced to exchange shots until the enemy lost the will to fight, or was disabled. Since the target was usually a merchant or supply ship, this usually didn't take long.

Successful privateers were the ones who knew how to pick their targets - large ships with minimal combat potential were ideal. Extended combat was to be avoided at all costs because a.) you were shooting holes in your prize money, b.) they were shooting holes in you, and you were a long way from a friendly port, and c.) it was hard to form a prize crew if half your men were dead. The rule of thumb was that the privateer had to have at least twice the firepower of his target, or else he was taking a huge risk. The target either had to be immediately convinced that battle was a foregone conclusion, or else the attacker had to be able to do significant damage to the target ship immediately. Attacking enemy warships was foolhardy in the extreme, unless a privateer was lucky enough to stumble across one already damaged in battle.

Military boarding actions were common during the war, but rarely intentional- that is to say, enemy ships who were unable to escape the combat area due to damage found themselves boarded and captured, as opposed to planned capture attempts. Imperial Navy boarding drill worked in the following manner:

  1. Order the ship to surrender, hold their current course, and shut down their power plant. (The "hands up" call. Imperial Captains are instructed to attempt this first, as it removes the enemy ship's ability to fight and maneuver. It almost never happens, unless the enemy knows it hasn't a chance of getting away.)
  2. If the ship will not heave to, it must be disabled. This means eliminating weapons systems and maneuver potential. As long as an enemy ship can fire its weapons and make even small maneuvers, a boarding craft cannot approach it and grapple effectively. Boarding is handled by ship's boats because no Captain in his right mind would run the risk of bringing his ship into point-blank range of an enemy who could be playing possum. Of course, when firing on the enemy ship, there is always the very real possibility of blowing it up- which, in my campaign, happened about a third of the time.
  3. Away boarders - Marine boarding teams are formed and led by a Naval lieutenant (tradition), who use ship's boats to match velocity and attitude, and grapple with the target. This is an extremely difficult maneuver, and all but impossible if the enemy ship is capable of maneuvering (see above). Even a small miscalculation can result in a collision, with catastrophic results. Now comes the hard part.
  4. Take the ship. Boarders have only four options of getting inside the ship: the airlocks, supplementary accessways (e.g. cargo hatches, hangar bays), holes made by battle damage, or breaching charges. Airlocks are the obvious entryways, and provide a choke point where the defenders can tie down boarding parties at will, so they are generally avoided. Supplementary accessways are a better bet, as the defenders have to guess where the attack will come from, and must disperse their forces to deal with every possibility. Holes already made by combat can be greatly advantageous depending on their location, but if the adjoining sections of the ship are pressurized, getting into the rest of the ship is problematic. Breaching charges are a last resort, because while it would allow you to enter the ship at any location you desire, the act of blowing yet another hole in the hull can cause damage to vital ship systems (all those power conduits, data feeds, and life support lines have to run somehwere, after all). This, by the way, is one reason why a Naval officer leads the boarders- if they have to make a breach, he presumably will know the best place to put the charge to cause minimal damage.

Once inside, Marine teams immediately drive for main engineering, also establishing blocking positions to keep enemy crew in the forward sections from sending reinforcements. Once engineering is secure, the bridge becomes the next objective. From there the remaining spaces are systematically cleared out, provided the defenders haven't already surrendered.

Shipboard combat in my game centered on melee combat. The rationale (as has already been discussed in depth in earlier posts) is that a ship has a lot of vital components that don't take too well to gunfire - control consoles, screens, conduits, oxygen feed lines, etc. As a result, most shipboard fighting is done with blades or firearms using low-velocity "safety slugs" (e.g. G-laser rounds).

The typical composition for a Marine boarding squad of twelve men would be four soldiers armed with six-foot glaives (basically a long-bladed knife on the end of a wooden shaft), four men with sabres (a combat duty sabre weighs 2.5 pounds, is 2.5 inches wide at the hilt, and tapers to a sharp thrusting point), three sharpshooters with semiautomatic carbines, and a sergeant armed with a sabre and a pistol. Boarding armor is cerametal plate with a kevlar inner lining, covering the torso, shoulders, upper arms and thighs, and is worn over a lightweight vac suit.

These squads work as coordinated teams, and used properly are very formidable opponents. The glaives are employed to clear out passageways, while the sabre men do the close-quarters work in rooms. The boarding armor will stop nearly all low-velocity small arms fire, and in the event that the defenders bring anything heavier to bear, the sharpshooters are called on to take care of it. In some cases the sergeant is entrusted with a number of grenades for use in dire emergencies.

In conclusion, boarding actions are often grim, bloody affairs, and casualties on both sides are often high if the defender is determined to make a fight of it. One of my player groups decided to become privateers during a 5FW campaign that I ran, and made a considerable fortune capturing enemy merchant shipping. They picked large, weak targets and generally captured them without much struggle- the challenging part was getting the prize back to an Imperial port! Only once did they attempt to board a heavily damaged Zhodani cruiser, which they caught trying to make repairs in an isolated system. It took three gaming sessions to resolve the boarding action, and it was one hell of a fight. When all was said and done, the Zhodani crew fought to the last man, and the players had barely enough manpower left to crew their own ship, much less claim their prize! By the time the war was over, they had developed boarding tactics to an art form.

Sorry to take up so much bandwidth. I hope this provides some grist for the mill.

Mike Lee

"Unidentified vessel, unidentified vessel, this is the Imperial Cruiser Arbellatra. Come to course 290 and secure your maneuver drives. Place your power plant on standby and prepare to be boarded..."

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