Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Battleships and Broadsides

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?!]


  1. Thanks. Now the song is stuck in my head.

  2. may I suggest this website. It's a bit old but it helped me a lot with a game I roughed out.


    My $.02 says you should make the battle run like a bidding war. The more guns/ships a party brings to battle the more likely they are to win. Face it, PCs probably aren't going to be Fleet Admirals or playing "the other Emperor" so they won't have massive fleets to command. But they might have a ragtag assembly of space cowboys and heroes to throw at the Empire. Or Pirates. Whatever. Just assign point values to various ships, ranking them according to total power. A lowly TIE fighter may be worth 4, an X-Wing 6, the Millennium Falcon could be worth 20 and a star destroyer should be 100 or more. The Death Star? At least 100,000, except for that exhaust port...

    When one side's total outweighs the other, they win. Roll for losses based on how much the winner outnumbers the loser. The defeated side take casualties. Say 15% dead and destroyed, 20% damaged and the rest flee to fight another day. The winner should take fewer losses. 5% dead, 10% damaged and the rest remain.

    Hope that helps.

  3. Star Wars always felt very WWII-ish to me. Also, each PC piloting his/her own fighter totally protagonizes the players. (Mechanically, my favorite starship rules were in HardNova II; the ship stats basically served as bonuses or penalties to the PC's combat skills).

    How about this... space battles used to be fought by the bulk cruisers, but it was discovered that a handful of small fighters, too small and maneuverable to be targeted by the main guns that can hurt another cruiser from a good distance, could slip right in and cripple the enemy battleships. Their own command carriers could then safely move in to finish them off with concentrated fire (or send a boarding party, or whatever). Heck, sometimes the fighters would get lucky and fatally damage some key system themselves.

    Therefore, modern space battles are decided by the quality of the fighters and their pilots. The more systems (and mass) added to a fighter, the clumsier it gets (and thus more vulnerable), so most fighters have very limited fuel, life-support, weapon power, and FTL. They may be able to jump to a nearby system for quick strikes or whatever, but typically they are brought by a carrier.

    Now, that carrier houses reserve wings of fighters, planetary invasion gear (walkers and marines and such), command staff, the main sensor equipment, all the strategic stuff you'd want to target. The fighters depend on the cruisers and the cruisers are the main objective. They have big guns to take shots at each other, but most of their resources (space, mass, energy, manpower, whatever) are focused on supporting and repelling fighters. The ships bristle with smaller guns that trade power for speed (rapid fire can make up for inaccuracy, says the theory). These guns are all but useless against another cruiser - unless the you maneuver close enough to concentrate fire - a whole bank of light cannons focused on a relatively small section of hull can burn right through (the new broadsides!).That's usually reserved for the coup de grace when the fighters have crippled the enemy.

    They still have a few main guns to keep each other at bay, of course. Their defensive screens provide some protection, but the fighters can move inside that screen's minimum range, circumventing it; their armored hulls may keep fighter weaponry from ripping them apart, but a good pilot can target exposed sensor arrays, the weapons themselves, and other weak points, and the feedback of destroying such features can potentially wreak havoc throughout the ship.

    So basically, i envision each space-battle as a mini death-star run. The PCs will dogfight with other fighters and attempt to get close enough to the enemy cruiser that they can start picking targets, all the while evading those fighters and dueling head to head with the cruiser's gunners.

    Come to think of it, if you're using a B/X style level system, maybe Basic-level pilots are expected to fight defensively, intercepting enemy fighters, dogfighting, and hunting down anybody who breaks through and starts a run against the PC's mothership. (This also gives them better chance of ejecting and getting rescued if shot down.) Expert-level pilots will do the opposite, trying to break through the enemy lines and get up close to the cruiser, attempting to cripple it. After a few levels, the PCs will be capable of crippling multiple cruisers in a single battle. Name-level pilots are the Red Barons and Luke Skywalkers - they can find the thermal exhaust port of a new battlecruiser without stealing any plans, thank you very much, and any pilot between them and their target is a speed bump. Name-level pilots command whole squadrons - or whole fleets, if that's how you want to do it.

  4. I think you've got close to your answer already, or at least close to something that's close to your answer, when you talk about what the starship battles in the films were intended to do.

    Perhaps that should be your approach. Instead of trying to model a physical situation, decide on what you want space battles to achieve in your games, and then build the system from that perspective. In other words, lean towards storygaming rather than simulation.

    Does that seem obvious? I don't want to be patronising.

  5. Have you looked at Star Frontiers's Knight Hawks? I'm not super-familiar with the SF rules but I've heard good things about that supplement.

  6. @ Zanaz: Sorry. ; )

    @ Pavo: Thanks for sharing the link...I spent quite a bit of time reading the guy's essays last night (not bad). He and I seem to be on the same page regarding Imperial tactics = WWII action. Again, though, he fails to address the point of fighters AT ALL, in the face of the shields and firepower possessed by capital ships (why develop an "x-wing?" Certainly, they weren't created specifically for Death Star missions!).

    And who says PCs can't be fleet admirals...that's already in my rules!
    : )

    @ Odrook: Except for your last two paragraphs (I don't want space battles to be mini-Death Star-runs), I'm starting to think a bit like this, albeit in REVERSE order.

    RE B/X: There is a certain matter of scale to be considered. I do NOT want PCs to be able to "level up" to the point at which they can single-handedly take out star destroyers in snub fighters. Such never happened in the films and it doesn't make sense for what I want to model (I'm trying to think of a film that does this...The Last Starfighter, maybe?). The Death Star is more an "objective" / obstacle course than an opponent/target.

    @ Kelvin: No you're absolutely right (and no, you don't sound patronizing)...just writing it down helped me sort my thoughts; I just wanted feedback from my readers!
    ; )

  7. @ bighara: Sorry, cross-post.

    Yes, I have and it is, unfortunately or not, more "crunchy" than I prefer. Space battles are but one facet of the game; KH makes them the whole game itself!

  8. I like Odrook's idea, where fighters can damage a capital ship by slipping in past it's guns & shields. It allows players to take a variety of rolls. As starfighters they can do dogfights, or runs on capital ships, or bombing runs. Or they can command capital ships with squads of fighters when they get up around name level.

  9. Having played Knight Hawks and Star Warriors (the official WEG space combat system), I found that both of them were (as JB says) too "crunchy". They were wargames, where each fighter's move was planned out in rather exhaustive detail (exhaustING if you have more than a handful of ships to keep track of on each side). Star Wars is totally NOT all about the details. Its about fast-paced and exciting action. That's why I think that if any system OTHER than D6 can do it justice, it's B/X- because B/X always seemed to move faster. I haven't given the matter of conversion much thought, however- but what I could see in fleet battle at least is perhaps some kind of 'war machine' option to handle the 'overall' battle, while you give the player characters a specific objective that they have to handle that could have an effect on that outcome. So maybe you have the battle raging 'in the background' (described by the GM), then have the players do their thing, THEN make the 'big roll' afterwards to see if their efforts actually were enough to turn the tide. Just a thought, anyway.

  10. Can't resist a pointless argument here... ;D

    I'm not necessarily expecting "single-handed" destruction of destroyers here - I'm assuming that retainers or other NPCs will be interfering with other pilots, and that very high-level pilots would be the ones most able to shake off or wipe out any pursuit in order to get at their objectives efficiently. Even if we don't count Luke destroying the Death Star as an example of this (as I think you've said before, any hope of a class/level system goes out the window when you consider Luke et al), RotJ did have a pair of fighters destroy the shield generators (the big water-tower looking things) on the Executor, and then an A-Wing crashed into the bridge, taking the flagship out.

    Clearly not the preferred tactic in the end there, but a small party of pilots did manage to destroy the thing with virtually no aid from a larger cruiser. I'm just saying that if they'd been higher-level, they could do that sort of thing on purpose rather than through freakish luck.

    Obviously, if you don't like the idea of that becoming a regular thing at high levels, don't write it that way. But, y'know, I can't resist a good pointless argument.

  11. I think if you look at Episode IV, the plan to attack the Death Star was supposed to be surprising, and the only reason it was expected to work was because generally, small fighters were not used to fight capital ships. They specifically mention them being able to dodge the turbolasers, etc. My take on this is that prior to the end of Episode IV, capital ships fight each other, like the dreadnoughts and successors from maybe 1900-1940. Capital ships are made to attack and defend against each other. Fighters are kept around, but used for scouting, harrassing small targets, etc. Indeed, at the beginning of Episode IV, the way the star destroyer is attacking the rebel ship implies that travelling without fighter escort is common, and that large-ship actions, followed by boarding, are common.

    During the battle at the death star, the change it tactics prompts a heavier emphasis on the fighters, leading to a greater variety of fighter designs by the battle of Endor and a more combined approach to large scale battles, but the clear vulnerability of them to the fighters, despite each sides' fighters screens, suggests to me that post Episode VI, space battles will consist more and more of carrier ships with large complements of fighters that maintain a great distance from each other and launch squadrons to attack enemy carriers. If you wish to extrapolate from real-world history, there may eventually be a de-emphasis on dogfighting and more on the use of intelligent weapons, like missles.

    As for translating this into game terms, it may be best to describe ship combat in terms of eras. The capital vessel/boarding era prior to the end of Ep. IV, the mixed fleet era of the original trilogy, and a later carrier based era. If you have a long running campaign, this may also help players who wish to be fighter pilots by beginning with small scale battles for them and progressing to more independent action on their part as time passes.

  12. For what it's worth, I've always pictured space combat (as I grown older) as more like mmodern submarine warfare, ala "Red October." Submarines are, in many ways, similar to spaceships: hostile environments outside, viewscreens, telemetry, etc.

  13. I think most starship rules fall apart on not being clear on what the players are doing that's fun. Trying to model a bridge command crew ends up with one or two players calling all the shots, and the rest making supporting rolls.

    Putting everyone in their own ship (or two or three players in larger, Millenium Falcon style ships) might be the way to go. Everyone's got their own ship to play with, and they can mutually support each other with their skills just like they do in a terrestrial fight. But if you go that way, you need to make it fairly easy to become a pilot.

    Otherwise, yeah, follow the example of the Romans in the Punic Wars, and get those boarding actions happening as quickly as possible, reducing it to the previously solved problem of person-to-person combat.

    Very curious to see how you finally crack this nut. :)

  14. Damn, it is so easy to get caught up in debating SW. Sorry : I can't resist.

    I follow Skydyr here. Of course, I pretty much regard only the movie Star Wars as canon, so take that into consideration. Anyway, I got the sense that the Empire expected space-war to be fought with capital ships and star-fighters, which is why they have both capital ships and star-fighters; dreadnought-style.

    The whole hot-shot fighter-jock thing was an innovation of the Rebellion based, perhaps, in their inability to field capital ships. Make do with what you got. Of course, thematically, it's also about the heroic individual triumphing over the fascist collective of the State.

    I guess the real question though (all that fan-wankery aside) is whether or not you envision the characters each piloting a fighter or being part of a crew on one ship? Or whether or not boarding parties is part of feel? For the record, I don't think it has as much to do with SW as the Lensmen.

    Finally, I know I can't be the first person to mention this, but have you looked at Stars Without Number? If nothing else, it gives a good example of using pseudo-science to explain why things go back to broadsides and boarding parties.

  15. Important: I want to be able to play out the "escaping the Death Star TIE fighters" scene in ANH. Ideally, I also want to be able to play out the Battle of Yavin, on the assumption that each PC is a separate fighter pilot. Big-ship battles are desirable, but the above are all but essential.

  16. Whatever you decide, it was a very good analysis, with one eye always on the essential point that internal consistency is more important that potential accuracy, and that fun underlies it all.