Now, it's worth noting that I'm probably not the best person to write this guide. Stunt Flores, for instance, is phenomenal at this kind of activity. Following his recent un-ban, he celebrated by killing over fifty pilots in a period of about two days. That's tremendous. But, I haven't seen him put one up; if he makes comments to this one, I'd be happy to append the post with his tips.
This post is going to focus on null-sec ratting, and it's going to start with the assumption that you're doing it solo; I'll get into some small-gang advice later on. I'm not going to talk about black-ops dropping, though, since that's really just an easier form of solo hunting.
So, let's start with a little psychology, move to the vital facts, and end with some tips.
Why do pilots rat in null-sec?
The Mentality of a RatterIt's worth mentioning up front that every Eve player is different. No two have exactly the same desires. Fortunately, you're not dealing with individual motivations when you go whaling; you're dealing with aggregate trends and generalities.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, the goal of a ratter is to earn isk. Remember that, because it's important, even though it sounds so simple. PvE content has no bearing to PvP; pilots don't do it to gain experience in battle. It isn't engaging enough for people to do it as a loss leader. At the end of the day, they want to make money.
That results in two opposing tendencies you need to be aware of. The first is "maximize" tendency; ratters want to get the most value out of their time by gaining the best "mil per tick" they can. This maximize tendency means they'll adjust their fitting - either all at once by taking someone else's fit or over time as they tweak their own fit - to do more damage to the rats they're shooting, tank more NPC damage, and reduce the amount of time they spend traveling. They want to get in and shoot rats as efficiently as possible, for as long as possible.
What does that mean for a whaler? It means they'll likely have faction damage mods fitted, and likely be using as many of them as possible (so they can kill each rat as quickly as possible, thus increasing their tick). They'll probably have a focused tank tuned to the damage the rats in the local area do, and use enough faction and deadspace mods to maximize their engagement profile (so they can handle more kinds of sites). They'll strive for cap stability (so they can rat endlessly without having the downtime needed to recover capacitor). Their cargoholds are likely to minimize - or even eliminate - any ammo that doesn't do the best damage for their rats of choice (not as assured; some pilots keep a little off-type ammo in case they're dropped). The ideal state of a ratting ship that closely adheres to the "maximize" tendency is a cap-stable, deadspace-fit, focused tank with one ammo type and maxed damage mods, which allows them to take absolute punishment from one damage type while quickly dealing with the waves of rats.
But, the "maximize" tendency also leads to some nasty side-effects. Cap-stability, in particular, can lead to complacency. Ratting endlessly with an optimized fit - the ideal state for isk-generation - can be very boring, with little of note happening for hours on end. In the worst cases, pilots decide to afk-rat, alt-tabbed to another game, watching a movie, or putting a child back to bed. Maybe you don't watch dscan as much as you should, or maybe you rely too much on a ship-based overview preset and forget to watch for probes. Constant repetition of a task makes people sloppy, and that can cause you to miss important changes in circumstance.
Of course, some pilots stay just as alert as ever. They're consumed by the other tendency, the "preserve" tendency, which compels us towards safety. A ratter under the sway of "preserve" tries to maximize ticks, but only in optimal circumstances. These ratters want to avoid the hassle and time sink of importing another copy of their ratting fit in case their current one is destroyed. Perhaps resupplying is difficult or expensive, or they just don't want to be out of the game for the time it'd take. Maybe their ratting fit is incredibly expensive, and the cost to replace it is measured in weeks, not hours.
The "preserve" tendency causes us to watch dscan religiously and warp to a safe any time a neutral enters local. They stay aligned at all times, and immediately clear the tackle for any wave that spawns. They'd never dream of afking, and are very careful and staying as safe as possible. To them, continually positive isk flow is more important than the exact amount of that flow.
But, as with the "maximize" tendency, "preserve" leads to some risky behavior. These pilots can't bring themselves to abandon their faction drones at a site, and are likely to return to recover them. These are the pilots who can't abide the loss of their mobile tractor unit and make the mistake of coming back to recover it. They act predictably in their risk-aversion, and can be trapped by it, for instance by setting bubbles in line with their safe warp-out.
Most of us fall somewhere in between the tug-of-war between "maximize" and "preserve", with our own combination of pitfalls. Some combinations result in pilots who are almost impossible to catch. These pilots have an overview tab solely for ships and combat probes, stay aligned, and warp out only when they see a target on short dscan. These pilots may run only cosmic signatures for the added safety of acceleration gate protection, and fly with nullified and cloaky T3 subsystems. You just won't get them unless they disconnect or have a RL emergency that calls them away.
Fortunately, despite the efforts of bloggers and corpmates everywhere, the vast majority of players fall into the hordes of pilots dying to Stunt Flores, myself, and people like us. The best of them recognize they'll get caught from time to time and build it into their income sheet projections. The worst provide the opportunity for repeat farming, and make it worth your time to hunt.
The Value in Disruption
So, you've got a bunch of pilots out there who need to make isk. If I'd written this a month or two ago, I'd talk about how the big one out there - the Imperium - subsidized all PvP ship losses for all of its members, resulting in thousands of pilots who honestly could live with the occasional PvE ship loss. PvP losses, in some situations, actually earned Imperium pilots isk when all was said and done... it was that lucrative. Their ratting income was a means of boosting their overall wealth, not funding their alliance contributions.
But now, it's a whole new world. The north is now owned by pilots who typically don't have comprehensive SRP, just like the rest of New Eden. The coffers aren't as full as they used to be, or at least payouts aren't happening as often anymore. More than ever, losing a ratting ship may very well represent one more ship an enemy is unable to field in a future engagement. Ratting isn't just a way to kill time and boost individual coffers anymore. The enemies you'll face on the field are, to a greater degree than in the past, funding their battles with you out of their own wallets.
So, effectively hitting ratters can actively reduce the enemy's numbers for fleet fights now. And, by disrupting their ability to rat, you're also reducing their Activity Defense Modifiers (ADMs), which makes it easier to flip their systems. So, in a sense, you can genuinely contribute to the war effort, will looting your own way to wealth.
Before You Sally Forth...
So, you've decided to go whaling. Before you buy a ship and charge out behind enemy lines, take a little time to think about exactly who you're shooting and how you want to go about doing it.
First, do your research. You presumably have a target area you want to farm. Understand the kinds of rats that populate that region, and the damage profiles both that those rats deal and which you should deal to destroy them. For the north, for instance, it's the Guristas, whose frigate, destroyer, BC, and battleship rats do kinetic damage and the elite cruiser rats do thermal damage. Against them, you want to do kinetic damage.
Second, hit up Dotlan to understand more about the activity there. Check 24h ratting stats for the systems in your region to see which systems the residents deem to be the safest ones. Does their time zone focus match yours? How big are those alliances?
Hit up zkill for those alliances, and for the region itself. What ratting ships are lost in that area most of the time (ships with focused tanks or cap stability mods and no points/webs lost by resident alliances of that region)? How much damage do those lost ships tank? Do you recognize any trends in fittings? How much do they focus-tank their ships vs. being prepared to be dropped on by omni-tanking? How many non-ratting ships do you see? Checking related kills on those should tell you whether your targets-of-choice are hotdroppers and use bait ratters, or if they leave their ratters to fend for themselves.
As you research the area, you want to understand how these pilots fly and how they're likely to be fit. Alliances tend to share fitting knowledge, either at the alliance-level or at the corp-level for larger alliances. Keep notes. You want to focus on alliances that tend to focus-tank a single damage type; you can pop them easily by shooting an off-focus type of damage. Alliances that don't use standing fleets (ie. don't kill a lot of whalers in their systems) reduce your chances of being counter-dropped. And equally importantly, you don't want to jump into a situation where an alliance has already been hardened by the tough experience of having been farmed for months on end already.
A word about the last bit... when I began whaling in CFC space, it was well before TISHU and IWantIsk started their reign of terror. Ratters were fat and lazy, used to spending hours without seeing another pilot in local. This worked to my advantage and let me rack up a good number of kills. Backup only arrived in four situations: a ratting Ishtar ineffectively attempted to help his friend once, twice fleets arrived too late to help, and the third time I engaged and killed a bait Tengu in my Stratios before his fleet arrived to finish me off - a good trade any day! Don't tag along on someone else's kill streak; the difficulty of killing ratting ship #51 is much higher than killing ratting ship #1.
Building Your Fit
Once you know who you're going to be shooting, choose the right ship for the job and begin constructing your fit. The name of the game when whaling is to kill your target quickly and get out before a response can form to contest you. You want to favor "gank" (the ability to project damage quickly) over "tank" (the ability to take damage). Just like with most PvP, increasing your applicable dps helps you kill targets quickly, but increasing your tank allows you to die more slowly. Keep in mind that as an engagement stretches on, it becomes less favorable to you. A longer engagement increases the chances of reinforcements, and those reinforcements aren't going to be yours.
Based on the way the ratting AI works, as soon as you begin to apply ewar to your target - neuts, warp scramblers, webs - you'll become the #1 NPC target on the field, and dps will switch to your ship. Effectively, you aren't just shooting your target, but the roomful of rats, too. You have to account for this as you construct your resist profile. If you're fighting Guristas, heavily tank for kinetic damage. A 95% kinetic resist profile reduces 2,000 kinetic dps to 100 shield lost per second. That kind of resist profile can reduce rat damage to an inconsequential addition that can effectively eliminate NPC damage as a factor. Not so if your resists are all 50%.
Moreover, in an interesting design decision, CCP coded NPC damage in such a way that - in most cases - the kind of damage they deal is the same kind of damage they're weak against. So, chances are your target will have that kind of dps pre-loaded. In our Guristas example, he may have Wasps or Vespas in space or Scourge missiles loaded. Swapping those out will require time - if he even has alternatives at-hand! - during which you can continue to apply neuts or pump off-tank damage into your target.
Don't waste your time with combat probes; the fitting requirements are too extreme for most ships, and those that can fit them require huge sacrifices (ie. Tengu Emergent Locus Analyzer subsystem). But absolutely fit a core probe launcher... doing so requires little in the way of fitting, yet can open up cosmic signature ratters to you.
Cap stability is irrelevant for you as a whaler; what happens in the third or fourth minute of the fight is immaterial; you need to kill your target before that.
As you build your fit, consider mobility, as well. As you make your way to your target systems, you may be reported on regional or alliance intel channels. Your targets may be aware of your ship type, or at the very least your presence in the area. And when you enter local, you're announcing yourself as well. Time is not on your side during a whaling trip. You have to assess fast, act fast, and warp fast if you want to catch your targets.
Sure, some of your targets aren't watching intel or local, and you'll catch them regardless. Some will be quick on the button and be gone before you even enter warp from the gate. But that middle group - the ones who do things right but aren't skittish - those are the targets whose fate you can control, to some extent. Consider spending a slot or two on a hyperspatial rig to boost your warp speed. Sometimes, getting there a second earlier can mean the difference between a kill and a frustrated warp to the next system.
The specific ship you use should be based on what you intend on fighting, but I strongly recommend fitting a cloak, for a couple reasons. As you choose your ship, I'd start with cloak-capable ships. Realistically, that means a Stratios, strategic cruiser, or force recon ship. The ability to sneak up on your target is a powerful one, and can't be over-stated. Generally speaking, you're going to be packing enough of a punch to be able to take down ratting targets quickly; dps isn't as critical as quickly targeting and pointing your prey, since your targets will tend to be shooting into your focused tank. I strongly recommend looking to see if any of the above ships can do the job for you before you look elsewhere for solo work.
There's one exception... the combat recon ships. While these recons aren't cloaky, they're invisible to dscan, which means your targets won't know you're coming until you hit grid. that has a benefit I'll talk about later, in addition to being particularly useful against cosmic signature runners, who are more likely to warp out only when they see someone on a short dscan. For these ships, I'd consider fitting an Improved or faction cloak anyways, which you can use with an mwd to escape non-interdicted gatecamps.
There's one further consideration you should keep in mind when choosing a ship and building your fit. Given that you'll be operating behind enemy lines in the very heart of their territory, spare a thought for sustainability. The fit you choose will directly affect how long you can stay in the field. A passive-tanked drone or laser platform can stay out indefinitely (or at least until its cargohold is filled with loot) whereas a missile, hybrid, or projectile ship will eventually run out of ammo. Fits that require cap charges should be avoided at all costs for two reasons: typically it's difficult to carry more than one fight's worth of charges, and should you not require the charges for a fight, you have no room for loot.
Plus, don't neglect the value in being able to safe-log in enemy space. Intel channels are most valuable in being able to alert ratters to a threat when it's still several jumps away. By being able to log in and already be in your target system, you can sometimes catch targets unprepared, particularly now that watch lists no longer provide "online" status unless both parties are watching each other.
That's the real value of a whaling boat... the freedom from being tethered to a friendly station. Realistically, if you limit your loot to faction and deadspace loot and fly intelligently, you can stay out in enemy space for weeks on end. Back in January, I went three weeks without docking up once. I could log off and in at will, flying around and killing targets of opportunity as I found them. It was wonderful.
Of course, I also planned for that kind of deployment, and loaded my cargo bay accordingly. If you intend on remaining in enemy space for a time, don't forget to bring a mobile depot, an armor repairer, a hull repairer, and plenty of nanite paste. You'll appreciate being able to overheat and repair yourself after particularly close fights. get safe, find a quiet system, and repair your damage at your leisure. You won't have repair facilities to work with.
Shoving off: The Hunter's Mentality
So, you have your fit, you're ready for a long deployment, and eager to get some blingy ratting boat kills. You've done your homework and know where you're headed, know who drops, and know who has standing fleets. Congrats. Now take a moment to relax and calm that desire to kill all the things.
For some of you, fighting outnumbered in enemy space is routine, but I suspect many of you get a little nervous at the prospect. How can you take on an alliance of 200, 2,000, or 20,000 yourself? At the same time, you're eager to get some kills, and you're going to be looking for a chance to get into a fight.
You want to fight that urge.
You have no backup. You have no way to get home safe quickly, so chances are that losing your ship means you'll be podded as well. And a ship loss will generally mean both your loss and all the loot you collected will show up on your killmail. Ugh, that can get expensive. Nor, though, does it profit you anything if you don't make it back in one piece.
Everyone is going to be trying to kill you. They'll bait you. They'll camp you. They'll blob you. Accept this. It's part of the job. You're hitting pilots in their pocketbooks, and they don't take kindly to that. You need to be calm to survive what you're attempting to do. Getting excited at the first ship you find isn't going to benefit you, and will likely get you killed. So, take a moment to prepare yourself. You're going to find ratters and miners. You're going to want to kill them. But don't lose your sense in the process.
On the other hand, don't worry too much about how many pilots are in local. Ultimately, you have the advantage; you know what you're trying to do, but they don't. You chose targets that tended to focus-tank and not have a standing fleet, right? Then, don't worry. By the time your targets can gather backup even from the same system, you can take down your prey and be off. They don't know what you have planned, and before they can move to counter it, most pilots will want some basic intel: where are you? Are you in fleet? What's the neut flying? What kinds of damage are you taking? Does he have backup? All of that takes time to collect, and all the while you're pumping dps into your target.
Ultimately, even if many pilots are in local or you saw an active defense fleet a couple systems away, don't be discouraged. What matters isn't how many ships are flying about, but how many ships can come to your grid. There's an old saying, "Better to be on-hand with 10 men than a day's march with 10,000." In the end, if you can find a target off by itself and kill it before backup arrives, there might as well be no one else in system than you and that pilot.
Comfort yourself by routine. Let's say you've reached your first target system, and are settling into hunting mode. Before your gate cloak wears off, check off the basics. How many people are in local? Do a quick dscan. Check the locations of celestials. Does the system have any anoms, signatures, or stations?
If you see a ship on dscan in a system with many anoms, halve the range until you pinpoint it exactly, and check it against the distance to each anom. As you align, adjust your camera, find the sig, and click on it so your camera snaps to it, then do a quick 5° dscan to make sure you're headed to the right place. A wasted warp to an empty anom will give your target time to notice your presence and escape.
Typically, there are certain anomalies no one ever bothers with. I tend to ignore all forms of rally points, ports, and standard and hidden hubs when hunting. I even ignore sanctums; the ships I tend to fly can't kill the ships that run those sites fast enough. Instead, I focus on havens, forsaken hubs, and forlorn hubs. They're the sweet spot for whaling, as they're lucrative and tend to be run by ships with a focused tank, which crumple easily against a whaling boat. If only CCP would allow you to filter out specific anoms from the probe scanner window...
Don't decloak while in warp. It's very possible your target didn't notice you, and you may land quite a distance away. If not, charge "approach" and decloak. As you do, hit your MWD to try to bump him out of alignment as your decloak targeting delay wears off. But if you're out of point or scram range, check nearby celestials for a more favorable bounce. Quickly warp away and back if your target doesn't seem to be moving to escape. Your goal should be to land as close to your target as you can, then decloak and bump him out of alignment (if he's aligned) while you spam "lock". Go ahead and pre-launch any drones so they're ready once you can get that target lock.
Once you lock your target, quickly point/scram it and activate all your neuts and ewar (if you have it) all at once for the first cycle. Activate your drones on your target. After your bump, settle into your preferred orbit. But, continue watching dscan and observing your pilot. Don't simply commit yourself to life of death because you chose to engage; you need to keep your brain going as you apply damage.
Most often, your ratting target will start shooting you with whatever weapon system was out. He won't abandon his faction kinetic drones, for instance, and drop Acolytes to do damage to you instead. He won't take the 10-second delay to reload his missile launchers to do EM or thermal damage. Most of the time, your target won't even have that ammo to shoot.
On occasion, you may come across a pilot who either uses PvP ships for PvE or is ready to be dropped upon, though this is surprisingly rare. If you're pointed or webbed in return, consider that a giant warning sign, and work to escape. Align out and stagger your neuts to try to break point. Recall your drones and launch jamming drones if you have them. But, if your target's melting, sometimes it's easier just to continue pumping out the damage. A dead ship can't point you any longer, and most "bait" overestimates the length of time it can run its tank. More than once, a ship meant to hold me down simply melted, and I was off safely.
In the end, your target will melt. Do a quick dscan and confirm no reinforcements are inbound, then open up the kill report, and see whether anything valuable dropped before you spend the time to burn to the wreck. And keep in mind that the NPCs will continue shooting at you all the while; be ready to warp out if you continue to take damage.
Build Your Instincts
That's how you want it to go, but things don't always progress as you expect, especially now that there are no null entities so comfortable in their space that they've developed lazy habits. That tendency died with the Imperium's sovereignty. Pilots are going to be more aware, and will be more likely to set up traps for you.
Any time it seems your opponent is doing something that makes no sense or runs contrary to either the "maximize" or "protect" tendencies, assume you're facing a person who wants to trap you. Don't bite quickly. After all, it's better to pass up on a kill than lose your ship and your loot 30 jumps from a friendly system.
If you aren't sure, ask yourself whether you'd take the action you're observing. If you were a Procurer and saw an enemy ship jump through your next gate, would you follow? Two minutes after a pilot in your alliance lost a ratting ship, would you warp to that same anomaly and start ratting?
Use the space around you to gather some insight into how your opponents are fit and what their intentions are. Warp to the anomaly and watch your target for a while. Does he continue to create new wrecks at an appropriate interval, or is he just sitting there, doing nothing for five, ten minutes? Watch his ship for effects and use your knowledge of how much of a punch the rats he's facing are likely to be doing. Wait a while and see if he has to warp off because he isn't focus-tanked as much as a ratter should.
Or, even better, look for ways to turn your enemy's trap against them. If you have anchorable bubbles, deploy one on the likely in-gate for reinforcements, warp back to your target, and decloak early and at range. Check whether you're quickly aggressed and warp off if you are. If not, go for the kill with the extra time it takes reinforcements to burn through the bubble.
And, if worse comes to worst, simply wait them out. You can cloak up and go do something else. It's very difficult to keep a defense fleet motivated to hunt a single whaler who seems to have gone afk. While your time is tied up, so is the time of every pilot in that response fleet, and you're pulling them away from an activity they'd prefer to be doing also. But make a note of the pilots' names who are hunting you, and don't fall victim to a bad memory by engaging a bait Vexor of a pilot who was hunting you a moment ago.
The name of the game when whaling is to take advantage of surprise and the enemy's uncertainly about your destination, target, and objectives to isolate and kill individual targets of opportunity. Let them hunt you; if you're making good decisions, their efforts will come to nothing.
Remember: they want to use their space to boost ADMs and earn isk. The compulsion to act is theirs, not yours. Your only goal is to disrupt their usage of their space, so bide your time. You'll have another opportunity shortly.
Modifying for Small Gang or Hotdropping
Solo roaming has a much smaller margin of error than small gang or large fleet PvP. No matter which ship you choose, your engagement profile is going to be a lot smaller than that of a small gang. But beyond that, you need to be all the roles at once - tackle, dps, FC, and scout - so your fitting has to be much more general than a small gang fit.
That said, all of the above tips are useful in a small gang, although their application is much easier in almost all cases. When finding and warping to a target, for instance, you do the same things, only faster. When coping with defense fleets in a small gang, you don't really have to worry until you start to see a dozen or so pilots congregating. In most cases, being able to specialize to one task allows you to boost your tank without trading off on the dps needed to kill your target, which allows all your ships to survive a little longer.
In one aspect, though, it's actually harder to cyno-drop or small-gang on ratters: surprise. It's much harder to convince ratters to continue with business as usual when there are a half-dozen pilots in local than it is with a lone neutral. "I'm just looking for data and relic sigs; got any in here?" doesn't work when there are six or twelve of you. Even reaching your destination is harder, as a gang of six is more likely to be reported in intel channels than a single traveler is.
In that respect, small gang roams looking for ratter kills is different in a key aspect. Above, I mentioned that you don't need to worry about defense fleets until their numbers really start to mount. You'll actually find that as your time in one area of space lengthens, the probability of such a fleet forming to counter you will approach certainty. So, your ships can't afford to focus-tank. Eventually during the course of the night, you're going to come across a larger gang, a bait ship trying to lure you out, or a capital drop to kill you (if, for instance, you and your fleet are flying black ops battleships).
And that's a whole other kettle of fish.
Good luck out there!