Rat is a term used to differ between a player pirate and a Non Player Character pirate. Both can appear without warning and attack you at any time, even in the most secure of Empire space, but rats are much more common, much less threatening, and you are paid a DED bounty for each one you destroy on top of any commodities you may extract from their wrecks, making them excellent targets for hunting, or "ratting."
Most players use the term "rat" to describe any NPC ship that is hostile to all players when initially spawned (anything that uses any version of the red crosshairs overview icon). However, there are substantial differences between "rats" spawned as part of a mission, and "rats" that are randomly encountered in asteroid belts and stargates throughout the Eve universe.
Random Rat Spawns
Randomly encountered rats are members of one of six NPC factions, all of which are considered "illegal organizations" for the purposes of altering standings through training of the "Criminal Connections" social skill. The names of rat ships always include a keyword to indicate the faction to which it belongs:
Rogue Drones also have an additional latin keyword, Apis, for ships even smaller than frigates (scout drone hulls).
Each faction also has a set of names for the hulls of each ship they field, indicating their status and capabilities. Many of these names are shared between factions, though they may designate different ship types. For example, a Domination Ambusher is an Angel Cartel Commander frigate, while a Domination Drone is a standard Rogue Drone battleship.
Each group of randomly spawned rats has a chance to be one of several rarer spawn types, with potentially greater rewards and sometimes posing greater risks.
Hauler spawns include industrial class ships loaded with large quantities of a random mineral type. These ships are never equipped with weapons, and will escape at the first opportunity (typically within 30 seconds if not attacked). They always spawn escorted by other rats of the same faction.
Elite rats (often incorrectly referred to as "Tech 2," a misnomer due to the fact that their wreckage only yields tech 1 salvage and never includes tech 2 modules) are more advanced versions of regular rats, often with attributes similar to or even exceeding those of Tech 2 ships. Electronic warfare, particularly warp jamming and stasis webbing, are very common capabilities in Elite rats. They also have a greater chance to drop named modules, or modules/alloys normally found in a higher ship class. Elite NPC's may also drop Dog Tags pertaining to their specific Pirate Faction, such as Angel, Sansha, Guristas, etc.
Commander rats (often incorrectly referred to as faction rats) are actual Tech 2 ships that have an excellent chance of dropping faction modules when destroyed. Their wrecks can only be salvaged by players with Salvaging skill level 3 or above, and usually yield Tech 2 salvage used to build Tech 2 rigs. Commander NPC's usually drop faction munitions as well as Tags pertaining to their designation such as Domination, True Sansha, Dread Guristas, etc. Although they are much tougher and do more damage than normal rats, they seldom have the electronic warfare capabilities of Elite rats, and so are usually not difficult to flee from if the battle goes poorly.
Officer are rare spawns that fly Tech 2 ships and with specific names such as "Ahremen Arkah". They have a chance to drop an officer named item after the ship (and, presumably, the officer piloting it) is destroyed.
Officer modules are among the most rare and sought after ship modules in Eve, typically with stats not even Tech 2 or faction modules can match, and lower fitting and skill requirements as well. They are easy to identify based on their name, which is created base on the formula "[first name]'s Modified [item type]". For example, Ahremen Arkah's Adaptive Nano Plating drop is called Ahremen's Modified Adaptive Nano Plating. Officer NPC's may also drop their named dog tags.
Each Pirate organization uses the following ranking system, with the lowest ranking pirates flying the weakest ships and the higher ranking pirates flying the most powerful ones. Elite, Commander and Officer pirate NPC's will usually drop dog tags, however, pirate dog tags are still considered a somewhat rare drop.
For further description how rats on belts work, see Belt rat spawns.
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