The rich background that has built up for Warhammer 40k answers an awful lot of questions and provokes many more. Some of it is contradictory, and in this it can become quite compelling: just like real life history. However it seems to me that there is a gap in the published material concerning deep space ships, or voidships. Perhaps it is just me, but I cannot find what they use for fuel, for example. My suspicion is that WH40k is predominantly a wargame and not a roleplaying game and consequently the answers most pressing are those that concern military matters. Where the roleplaying games pick up they provide masses of useful material. Rogue Trader tells me many important things, but does not, for example, provide any kind of deck plan. The official answer is that ships are too big for such a plan to be practical. But that is just intellectual cowardice, surely. These ships are the size and population of a small to medium city, and we have street plans for those, don’t we?
These investigations leave it open for me to envisage a ship any way I like, ultimately, without fear that someone will tell me I’m wrong. The coming articles describe my gradual exploration of a trading ship in preparation for a role playing campaign that may never be played. This is how I imagine a voidship to work. Despite the futility of such work, now that I have started to visualise I cannot stop until the challenge has been exhausted.
Voidships are structures on a mega scale. Each are handmade, there are no templates and mass production factories. Each is the masterwork of a naval architect on a par with the great city designers of the Medieval or Renaissance days. And the comparison with these architects is more than coincidental. Along with the enormous size, starting at a mere 1700 metres long and ranging to more than 20 kilometres, the permanent crew and passengers number into the tens of thousands. For these people the ship is not merely a means of conveyance but their permanent home. In all practical purposes the residents of a voidship are inhabitants of a city in which they live and work, probably never leaving it, exactly as if they were living in any ordinary earthbound city. Most have practical jobs tending some part of the complex machine. Many are family members of these crew. Others are not employed in running the ship, as such, but they are none the less part of the whole fabric in supporting trades such as clothes makers, barbers, restaurateurs, and so on.
Organisationally a voidship can have as variable command or ownership as any medieval city. There can be a single aristocratic owner, a council of merchants, or a diocese of the church. The residents of the ship pay rent to the owner or owners in exactly the same way as they might planetside. The powers of the ruler(s) of the voidship beyond this point are again endlessly variable. However, using the Typhoon Maiden as an example we can make the following general observations.
A single hereditary owner owns the Typhoon Maiden in totality. Appointment of command staff, the Voidboss (Captain), Voidmaster (Chief Engineer) and Navigator is typically within his power and these positions are applied for in the same way that senior roles in a medieval lord’s domain might be.
The command staff generally approves crew to positions, but the reality is that most residents have lived on the ship their whole lives and appointment is usually by succession. The 18,000 permanent residents of the Typhoon Maiden have their own apartments that they rent from the owner at fixed rates. Shops and other supporting businesses are established and run at personal risk, again owing the ship owner rent and a portion of their income (tax).
The Typhoon Maiden is a trading ship, but on a very different scale to similarly titled ships of previous millennia. The owner and/or command staff seldom choose the cargo that is being hauled. Given the cavernous cargo spaces available the quantity and range of goods that can be transported is enormous. Rationalise it this way: the mayor of a town does not and cannot declare every item that is traded nor what resides in every warehouse. Private business handles all that. At best, he can identify what the ‘primary industry’ of the town is, and make policies that support or hinder it in order to favour others.
Instead, residents may rent sections of the cargo spaces and contract to buy and sell into these spaces as the ship makes its journeys to the various planets on its route. Instead of choosing a cargo and travelling to a planet, therefore, the ship has a variable cargo, privately owned, that is put at risk or profit as the ship makes (often) a circuit of worlds.A useful metaphor is to consider the voidship a medieval city, one where most residents choose to never leave. At regular intervals, or seasons, trading delegations visit to buy and sell their produce. Individual traders speculate and take profits or losses depending on their skill and luck, and the rulers of the city take their cut. However, where foreign traders came to the city in medieval times, instead it is the ship that moves into orbit over the foreign lands.
So who steers the ship? The Voidboss, just like a Mayor. And like a Mayor who wants to see his city prosper, he pays attention to what the merchants want. On the Typhoon Maiden a council of major merchants regularly meet to discuss the potential routes of the ship and the opportunities that can be exploited in the process. The Voidboss acts on these recommendations using these and other cues, such as religious imperatives and occasionally the directives of the owner.