Part 1: What is Illegal?
The first question is how to determine what goods – if any – are illegal in any given sector. Ignoring goods that are illegal in the same civilization that produces them, I think this broadly breaks down into three approaches (yes I know there are four points)
- All Hail the RNG!
Basically left entirely to random we say any good might be considered illegal somewhere, which in an infinite universe this actually means every good is illegal somewhere - and yet the chances of you actually finding that place is virtually nil. This is the most simplistic answer, and one I strongly believe is flawed in every possible way, not least because as an honest, law abiding space-citizen you might suddenly be branded a smuggler because these seeming innocuous space-potatoes are, for no clear reason, reviled by the otherwise benevolent society you are currently passing through.
- “Warning: Space-Potatoes might be habit-forming”
The second option would be to have a property that marks some goods as “potentially illegal”. The PG description text could then include various reasons as to why these goods might be illegal somewhere, giving the player a clue that this item might not be good to just carry around long term, or, alternatively, that these Space-Potatoes might be considered a rare (and illegal) delicacy / stimulant somewhere and their location might be worth remembering.
- A Localized Problem
My favourite approach would be to say that although any good might be illegal, it will only ever be illegal in a “nearby” system/civilization (although nearby might require a definition). This makes sense as goods that originate on the other side of the galaxy are unlikely to have ever been seen before let alone be enough of a problem to have been banned. It also prevents the obvious problem of most goods being illegal somewhere, but never anywhere nearby (i.e. making them almost irrelevant). One major advantage of this is that since this effectively means there are only a finite number of places where a good might be illegal it should be possible to include that in the item’s description, e.g.:Space-Potatoes are a popular staple enjoyed by billions of Earthicans on a daily basis. However, the nearby Centarii have banned them due to their shape offending their god Ungu, Lord of Purple, despite their being considered one of the most delicious foods ever discovered.
In addition to one of the above approaches I think there’s also scope for a civilization to ban an entire category of items (although naturally this should be quite unusual). Consider this example:
Category-based bans make sense even if the game would normally only ban locally invented "problem" goods, as long as the PG system is able to provide some reason for it. Although it might be a little annoying it does add colour; exactly how annoying though depends on what being illegal actually means…400 years ago the Centarii developed their first beam weapons. These new guns, nicknamed “Redbeams”, were not only incredibly precise over a very long ranged, but were several orders of magnitude more powerful than the existing, ammunition based projectile weapons widely available at the time. The resulting arms race led to a planet spanning war that almost wiped the people out. Only when the Arch-Priest of Ungu declared that redbeams offended the purple god so greatly that it represented the highest form of heresy did the war cease. Beam weapons have been banned ever since, despite their pulse weapons now making the redbeams of old look like water pistols.
After we’ve established what goods are illegal we have to decide how that affects gameplay, the most important part of which is how the authorities should respond to someone carrying them. Again I’ve outline below a number of options:
- “It’s a brain-melting death-fungus whose only purpose is to kill our race.”
Sometimes it might make sense that someone is going to attack a trade ship carrying something they consider illegal even if it’s not in their territory. Perhaps it’s a brain-melting death-fungus, or perhaps the tasty crunchy snack the universe is going crazy over turns out to be the larval form of another sentient species, either way someone is going to be really, really offended that you’re selling it even if you’re not in their space.
- “The War on Space-Potatoes”
In the real world people don’t usually care about the truck carrying poppies from the farm to people who refine it if they’re doing it on the other side of the world, but it has been known to attack the farm and/or refinery itself despite it not being on home soil. In the same way a race might not actually attack traders carrying an illegal good outside their territory, but if you set up a factory in neighbouring space the authorities might cross the border to pay you a visit.
- “This is the space police. Drop your illegal cargo or prepare to be shot down”
The X series employs a simple model whereby civilizations police their own space. Enter it with illegal goods and if the police work out what’s in your hold they’ll (warn you then) attack.
- “Space-Potatoes are unwelcome here. Move along.”
Ibuprofen is, as I recall hearing, illegal in Dubai. Carrying it on a plane that passes through their airspace isn’t a problem, but if you land with some, well, let’s just say that that’s not good. This might translate to a civilization allowing goods to pass through space as long as you don’t actually dock with a station or land on a planet.
- “My ship is sovereign property of the nation of Earthica, and my Space-Potatoes are mine.”
When a ship docks in a port, duty is only due on any items that are taken onto the shore. Other goods are instead sealed in a locker by customs. Some civilizations in LT might be so lenient with the way they respond to illegal goods that they don’t care if you have them as long as you don’t try to buy or sell them in their stations or on their planets.
- “What happens space-side, stays space side”
The most lenient of civilizations might not even care about trade in some goods as long as said goods don’t end up planet-side. For example, it turns out since that Ungu the space-potato-hating Centarii god of purple is deeply afraid of space, space-potatoes are only really banned on the planet itself as he’ll never know about what goes on in orbit.
- Addendum: “Do you have a Space-Potato Licence?”
Something occurred to me when I caught up on the whole scanners debate. Some items might be illegal (using one of the above methods) unless the pilot possesses the correct licence. Such a licence might be tough to acquire, requiring excellent standing. It might even be possible to get a forged licence somewhere which may or may not fool the local authorities. In an ideal world a legal transaction of illegal goods would require both parties to have a licence, allowing a pilot to abuse his licence by shipping goods somewhere they're not meant to go, but that might be overly complex.
Apologies for the long read, and thanks if anyone read it all the way to the end!