Friday, November 9, 2012

Blowing Up Space Ships

Damn, poutine. Just…damn. I LOVE you poutine, my friend.

Gary’s was closed for the evening, so we were back at Ye Old Baranof…they of the stiff drinks and the free seafood stew. However, after a (fairly successful!) play-test session we were off to our new debrief location, The Angry Beaver, for some of their fantastic poutine.

“The Beave” (as I’m going to refer to it for the foreseeable future) is also a Greenwood establishment, having moved into the old Pig & Whistle location. A “traditional Canadian bar” (I assume that means they’ll be broadcasting the NHL all season) their food is a damn sight better than the old P&W (from whom my wife received mild bouts of food poisoning on multiple occasions). And they’re poutine has got to be the tastiest I’ve ever sampled.

I’ve been to the Beave three times since it opened. The poutine has been on my plate every time.

Why am I talking about poutine? Well, probably because I’m hungry this morning. But also because the flavor memory (only a few hours ago) is still in my mind…DAMN that was a good plate! With Beecher’s flagship cheese curds? Come on!

But maybe my experience was colored by the game session (and/or the whiskey sours)…I was extremely pleased with how the game session, picking up a lot of valuable feedback (my own notes and those of the players) on one of the trickiest mothers of the space opera RPG genre:

Starship combat.

Ship-to-ship space combat is a hoary staple of the space opera genre (duh) and it poses multiple design challenges to the dude writing a starfaring RPG. These challenges include:

-          Modeling the genre (like Star Trek and Star Wars) in a genre where the definition of space combat can vary across series…and even across episodes within a series. If you want to model “realism” (accounting for “real world” physics, etc…see the BSG re-boot) that poses additional modeling (and research) challenges.
-          Balancing the “realism” or modeling against ease and facility of game play; the more “crunchy” you add to your rule system, the slower and clunkier and uglier it tends to become.
-          Adapting the abilities of a player character(s) to a system that involves driving a big of metal through space (and I don’t ONLY mean “ability scores,” but whatever passes for mechanical effectiveness in your RPG: abilities, skills, class, level, whatever).
-          Accounting (at least somewhat) for player skill or choice. What I mean is: it’s not just enough to say “roll 2D6 and add your ‘spaceship’ adjustment;” for a role-playing game there has to be some operative, non-mechanical room for player error and/or success. This can be the player’s choice of ship type or armament (how do you configure for success?), or how the party wants to assign gunners or engine room mechanics, or actual choices of maneuver and tactic when engaged in a spaceship battle.
-          Finally, the designer has the challenge of accounting for the general RPG premise of a group or “party” of characters and giving them all “something to do” (or not). How do you involve ALL the PCs…and, in addition, how do your rules adapt to LARGE groups of players versus SMALL (1 or 2) groups of players.

These are all the issues a designer will generally be grappling with…or at least considering…when writing a space opera RPG.

I mean in general…the designers can always just punt as did the Star Frontiers writers (sorry, but making me buy the Knight Hawks “expansion” in order to have rules for starship combat is deferring an essential part of the genre…either out of laziness or a blatant grab at more cash, IMO). But this, I hope you agree, is less than desirable. Tempting, given the enormity of the challenge, but less than desirable.

At least, I think it’s a pretty rough haul, tackled in various ways by various games/designers. I’ll give you a couple examples:

X-Plorers divides space combat into several phases (in addition to “roll for initiative”): Navigation, Engineering, Piloting, and Gunnery. Each phase requires a player to occupy the named role (involving players), requires a skill roll depending on action (related to character’s class and level), and offers several CHOICE of action (accounting for player skill)…for example, the pilot can choose to escape, evade, or move to attack position. All that is a nice, tidy way of involving both the players and their characters; though if there aren’t enough PCs to fill the required roles…or too many PCs for the ship’s crew/gunners… the system is less than optimal.

On the other hand, combat is reduced to “deplete hull points and inflict critical damage” which, like D&D combat itself, is fairly simplistic (and, I should note, is similar to my own “first pass” at a B/X space opera game based on the Expert set naval combat rules). “Simplistic” isn’t a bad thing, but when combat is mainly about attrition with each ship having scores of HPs and only using D6s for damage (and with the normal chances of hitting/missing) there’s the potential for the engagement to be long, drawn out, and boring…especially when you have few tactical options.

[the gripe here is two-fold: 1) you don’t want to spend extended amounts of time on a single system that is not the main portion of the role-playing game, 2) you don’t want a (traditionally exciting) part of a fast-paced space opera game to resemble the word “boring” in the slightest]

Ashen Stars (a game whose review I’m still putting together….sorry, I’m easily distracted!) is quite different in the way it incorporates similar elements. First, each player takes on a different ship-board role from the following choices: pilot, gunner, communications, “stratco” (think Captain Kirk’s job), medic, or “wrench” (engineer). At the outset of an engagement, each ship decides what they want as the goal or outcome of the engagement, things like escape, or scan, or disable and board, or utterly destroy. The goal that is chosen sets the number of successes that must be accumulated over a series of rounds (like your traditional RPG “extended skill test”) in order to accomplish the objective; for example, escape requires six successes while disable & board requires 18 and total destruction requires 21 or thereabouts.

Throughout an engagement the ship is presumed to be doing all sorts of things all the time: maneuvering, shooting, jamming transmissions, etc. However, each round the crew chooses one of four tactics to focus: shooting, maneuvering, comm, or “trickbag.” The choice of tactic determines which player gets to roll to accumulate successes towards the crew’s objective/goal. Since skills in the GUMSHOE system are a degrading resource (and since ship’s take a penalty from simply performing the same tactic over-and-over) the system ensures that the action will pass around the table, giving each PC their “spotlight time.” Meanwhile, the medic runs around patching up the injured while the wrench patches up combat damage that might occur (every time one side gets 3+ successes in a round from a single tactic, the defending ship is “rocked,” degrading the ship’s stat line and having a chance of injuring crew members).

Ashen Stars takes a different approach to meeting the challenge and isn’t especially complex in execution…except that it IS skill based, and so opponent PCs have their own degrading skill pools that need to be tracked and yadda-yadda-yadda. Not to mention, PCs need to nurse their degrading skill resources somewhat for later (unless this is the last big battle of the game session), while the NPCs can simply “go for broke.” I mean, while the PCs are generally more competent than the opposition, it still requires at least some careful handling by the GM not to accidentally over-whelm the players…but maybe that’s just my “gamist” bias.

Oh, yeah…and from reading the example ship combat (in the appendix) it sure seems like even a simple small combat is fairly looooong (13 pages?) to resolve. Like the number of successes to achieve objectives might be set a little too high…although this seems to be the trade-off to balance “everyone gets a chance in the spotlight.”

So anyway…designing starship combat is tricky (and that’s even without worrying about different classes of ship and armament and whatnot). For me, it’s probably the second biggest hurdle in designing a space opera game (the biggest hurdle, of course, is creating an advancement system that does not revolve around counting stormtrooper helmets or spiraling “skill use” or participation ribbons). Add to this challenge the fact that I’ve recently (well, in the last year) changed over my “BX-based” system to the DMI system and I found myself wondering how the hell can I do this without being completely disconnected from the card counting part of the game?

And after wracking my brain a bit, I found some ideas to test and they worked well!

Last night’s session revolved around Will (“space prince”) and Josh (“wealthy space Sinbad”) wanted fugitives of the Imperial Family of the Golden Empire (said Empire being founded centuries ago when the Chinese achieved space travel and left the nuked Earth behind, establishing a new Galactic Dynasty in the stars). Their small craft picked up a distress signal from a damaged and drifting colony ship and executed a boarding action to pick up survivors. Turned out they’d been ravaged by Lathiter, lizardman-like humanoids with multi-faceted eyes and a penchant for slavery for fun and profit (they’re also meat-eaters but I decided not to include cannibalism in the space opera game at this time).

The PCs had already decided to track the pirates to see if they could rescue the colonists when the Lathiters showed up themselves, trying to cripple the heroes’ craft. Fortunately, some deft maneuvering and active card play allowed the PCs to come out on top in a most satisfying fashion (the lizards surrendered and were disarmed, the colonists were all rescued and towed back to civilization in their damaged ship, and the PCs didn’t take any critical damage to their own vessel). They also were awarded with 5 “victory bennies” (I have yet to rename or reinterpret the reward mechanic for the game…all I know is that this was a pretty good success!).

[remember me saying how reward mechanics were tough for a space opera game? Duh]

So a good evening of play, with lots of good stuff to work on and tighten down (screw-wise). I really did have a good time, especially with my own card playing part of the DMI equation. The combat felt a bit more fast and furious (and I suspect it will become moreso as I tweek it) and the expenditure of cards tied well both to the in-game action and the feeling of being diminished through effort (both visually and tactilely more me...than keeping track of diminished hull points or "degraded stat lines").
Anyhoo, looking forward to next week's session, when I hope to do some more dog-fighting type stuff. And poutine...gotta' get my fix of that particular num-num.
; )


  1. Come to Calgary. I will show you good poutine.

  2. I feel like this is a dumb question, but what is sounds it a game system?

  3. @ Alexis: the next time I'm in Calgary, I'd love to take you up on the offer; unfortunately, I rarely make it out of B.C.

    @ Stone: DMI is my pet-system that I've been developing for a variety of different game ideas, including a post-apoc type setting, a supers game, and a time-travel/dinosaur&guns-type mess. You can see the basics in my (free) micro-game Out of Time, but it's been vamped and re-vamped considerably since then.

    The mechanic uses a card dealing system, in addition to dice, which is why I call it the Deal Me In (DMI) system. If I'm cryptic about it, it's just that I'm paranoid someone will steal my ideas (and my thunder).
    ; )

    I'll get a new version up and posted to the blog here sometime, really is a neat little mechanic.