Ugh. I am having a heck of a time writing starship rules for my space opera game and part of it comes down to simple (if figurative) schizophrenia…there are two or three different tacts to take when doing starship combat and I am having a darn tough time figuring out which I want.
Maybe I should let you folks decide for me.
Or maybe I should just “write it out.” Here’s how it breaks down (as far as I can categorize it):
#1 Old School Pirate: this is the “Age of Sail” transported into space. Warships try to maneuver close to each other to unleash “broadsides” (blasting the hell out of each other at close range due to heavy armor/force screens). Bringing one’s ship alongside another is preferred, as it allows more of the warships weapons to target more of the opponent’s hull. Boarding actions with tractor beams and assault vessels mimic the swashbuckling pirate movies of old.
In real world history, this type of action was rendered obsolete by advancement in better guns (longer range)…and certainly a sci-fi game with spewing lasers and plasma cannons might do the same. Still, we’re talking fictional super-science…who’s to say those cannons don’t need to get close enough to penetrate deflector shields or super-heavy durallium armor?
#2 World War II Dreadnoughts: Warships are more like Space Battleship Yamato, i.e. huge, armored, mobile gun platforms. In the early part of the 20th century, the main arms race was to build the biggest, bestest battleship. Heavily armored and bristling with big guns, these behemoths used radar and smaller observational ships to fire over the horizon line, devastating surface vessels. No broadside necessary, and no boarding action appropriate.
In real world history, battleships became obsolete due to ascendance (literally) of air superiority. Small fighter squadrons with bombs and torpedoes could sink even the largest battleships for a fraction of the cost, and aircraft carriers became the preeminent capital ships of today. In classic space opera stories Battlestar Galactica and Space Battleship Yamato (aka “Star Blazers”), we see this treatment with combo battleship/fighter-carriers.
#3 21st Century Futurist: let’s face facts: I’m really not up on current military technology or where it’s progressing. People actually working for Boeing or who are in the more technical combat ops areas of the U.S. military (or who read well-researched science fiction published for today’s sophisticated connoisseur) probably have a better idea of the “shape of space opera to come.”
But that’s not me…I was just trying to make a game I could use for Star Wars that wouldn’t suck.
[EDIT: actually, now that I think of it, a “21st century take” on ship battles would probably be similar to films like Avatar, Aliens, and Starship Troopers, a la “marines in space” where it’s all about the deployment of the infantry-style fighting force supported by gunship fire. However, I don’t consider these films to be very “space opera” in scope or depth]
And speaking of Star Wars…Lucas’s approach to starship combat is a hodge-podge of everything. Episode IV showcases the classic pirate boarding action and WWII dog-fights; episode VI shows Battle of Midway type action (battleships AND fighter squadrons), and Episode III shows pirate broadside action between the huge-ass capital ships. Not to mention it throws in Lensmen-style screens and lasers (excuse me “shields” not screens), not to mention tramp steamer exploration/adventure (echoed later in Weedon’s Firefly).
What a mess. I mean, it makes glorious cinema (as in “fun, visual spectacle”)…but role-playing isn’t cinema, and the object isn’t to make a nice movie but rather, have fun playing characters in a virtual, imaginary environment.
Which leads me more towards option #1, even though it makes the least amount of sense (if space opera can be assumed to make any sense at all). Even though I would like to model Star Blazers (who wouldn’t?) or the Lensmen’s galactic planet-launchers, a role-playing game…at least THIS role-playing game…eventually boils down to individual characters and the actions of those individual characters. And if those characters can’t get close enough to get in on the action…if they’re relegated to shooting cannon-fire against foes on opposite ends of the solar system…then the game is moving from one of heroic individuals to one of tactical ship maneuvers.
And there are already games that do that.
However, here’s the problem with going the “pirate” route: the role of star fighters, specifically, and individual heroes who specialize in the “ace pilot” skill category.
If capital ships are so heavily armored that they need to get up “close and personal” to be effective against each other, then what’s the point of having fighter craft at all? In WWII (against those battleships that were shooting at each other from miles and miles of distance), fighters were a speedy option of taking the fight (in the form of a battleship-sinking torpedo) to the enemy. Dog fights were fought because defending fighters would be used to repel these dive-bombers and ship-sinkers.
But if ships are so heavily armored/shielded that it takes a broadside from another warship to make a dent, then what effect will little fighters have? And if those little fighters are ineffective, then what’s the need of repelling fighters? And if you don’t have multiple sides of fighters, then where’s the dog-fighting?
Reviewing Lucas’s films for how he reconciled this mish-mash doesn’t help too much…except for the opening battle with the Tantive IV, all of the original trilogy seems to be in the WWII style and the ship battle of the prequel trilogy are all in the pirate style.
That is to say: in the prequel trilogy, the emphasis is getting the characters on-board the ships (boarding actions, close quarters work, NOT dog-fighting). Even the “space battle” at the end of the Phantom Menace is barely battle at all…instead, it A) attempts to parallel Anakin’s actions (blowing up a space base) with that of his son (Luke blowing up the Death Star), and B) does this by getting Anakin’s ship ON-BOARD the space station. In this regard the final “battle” is more like a space “obstacle course.”
The space battle over Coruscant in Revenge of the Sith is a large scale pirate battle with broadsides and boarding actions designed to get the heroes on-board the enemy pirate ship, so they can have a few Erol Flynn style sword fights.
Whereas the battle over Endor in Return of the Jedi is like watching the space version of Pearl Harbor or something. No one’s trying to get “on-board” anything, and fighters are dog-fighting and dive-bombing while long range laser blasts are blowing ships to Kingdom Come.
[by the way, I don’t consider the asteroid “battles” in Episodes II and V to be battles at all, but rather chase sequences, a la James Bond or any modern action movie chase sequence. “Chasing” in an RPG is simple enough to do, though as it generally comes down to dice-rolling, it’s important to have a good risk-reward system in order to provide the proper in-game tension]
Ugh! Lucas! But of course, it’s no use yelling at HIM…his creation is aimed at creating good cinema and spectacle, not in making sense. It’s ME that’s trying to come up with a particular consistent RPG universe.
Hmm…maybe I DO need to ignore the damn prequel trilogy…
[and just by the way…I’ve had the damn Star Blazers theme song stuck in my head for the last two days. How annoying is that?!]
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