Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Space Combat in The Black Desert

     The Valkyrie has been selling like hotcakes, and it pleases me to no end.  Thanks for all the support, RocketFans!   I have a special surprise for those who get the entire inventory that everyone has to wait till December to see...

     So, about two weeks ago, now, I said I would begin articles about space combat in The Black Desert.  Then some things happened.  So, now that all the craziness is over, I can finally begin discussing my ideas for Space Combat.

     The D6 system is fine for space/vehicle combat in Space Opera, Pulp Space, and other settings where the Rule of Cool is more important than the Laws of Physics. For Hard SF...honestly, I'm not sure I can manage it. Not without roughly doubling the length of the rulebook.
     Another reason I am not thrilled with the idea of making hard sf space combat rules can be summed up in two words: Ken Burnside. Ad Astra Games' Attack Vector: Tactical is the definitive 3D space combat game and has become the gold standard by which all others are measured. Not only am I unsure that I could make something half as good, I don't really want to try. In my SW games back in the day, Space combat was always glossed over or ignored completely. In fact, the reason my wife (one of the best DMs I've ever seen) is loath to play sf games is that space combat does not interest her and most of the characters she wants to play have little to do when the blaster bolts fly in the Black.
      This got me thinking...even though I design spacecraft and they are an integral part of my Black Desert setting, do I need to make rules for space combat, with all the hex maps and other nonsense? I started to wonder if I could, maybe, have space combats fought in the Character Scale.
      Bear with me. I will explain.
      First of all, many GMs ignore and/or gloss over space combat if it doesn't move the game forward, so its not like I'm introducing something radically new here.  Most of the time, you can just pull a " takes twelve hours to reach the Alderaan system."  and be done with it.  Of course, part of designing a plausible spacecraft is to keep in mind its functions in the game.  Transportation is one function, but it's kind of lame to just do that and nothing else in a space game.
      Especially if you sell spaceships.
      Second, I have no problem with big space combats; I just never thought they worked well in a character-based RPG. They make for great board games, but in the context of an RPG I feel that they interrupt game flow and take away from the main focus - the Players. It's understandable why space combat included; after all games like Star Wars wouldn't be complete if you couldn't take an X-Wing into a dogfight with a couple of TIEs. But in a Hard SF game, combat in space is really short and it's dangerous as hell.  It's hard to maneuver, hard to stop, and you only have a few minute's worth of fuel. If you run out of fuel, you still keep on flying...right out of the Solar System. If you get hit, you're probably done for.
      Now, If I wanted to, I could do this in The Black Desert, because it is not a visualized setting. There are no movies or television series that I have to pay service to. I can describe space combat as it would truly be; too fast to react to and too deadly to ignore. But let's think about that for a minute.  The part of a realistic space combat where the opposing rockets are in visual range of one another is less than one average gaming round. In an eye blink, its all over. Even Hard SF games usually fudge a little here, as narrating an epic battle like this:

     “...the two opposing wings meet and pass each other in less than a second, there was a flash of light, and (roll, roll) you're dead. Good game, everybody!”

      This is absolutely no fun for all of the Players whose dead characters didn't get to roll.
      In its proper place (like in AT:V), the milder version of Newtonian space combat is really fun. But one of the most frustrating experiences for a Player in an SF RPG campaign that I have observed is, like I said, to have their bad ass character that has almost no skill in pilot or repair, look on helplessly as the ship is blown out from under them and they cannot fight back.  Now, in all fairness, most games include suggestions for things that non-spacey-ly characters in space combat can do.  That being said, you cannot force a Player to do things they think are a) boring, b) out of character, or c) not likely to lead to loot/XP.  Back in the day, we could tell such surly player to lump it.  Nowdays, we Pen and Paper Gamers can't afford to be so picky.
       With all of this in mind I thought it would be interesting to make a set of space combat rules that kept the focus of the action inside the spacecraft, where the characters are, and give them things to do that have an important impact on their survival, are exciting, and grant XP.
       Now, the quoted example above is lame, this is granted. However, if the focus is on the characters, then preceding that snippet are several dramatic scenes where characters can earn their XP by getting their spacecraft braced for battle. They will be struggling to get everything on their ship ready, optimizing the engines and lasers, hoping that if the ship is hit their station is not in the section that decompresses and that kind of stuff.
      How is this different from other helpless situations? For one thing, everyone that performs successful actions increase the chances that the ship will survive. For another, since maneuverability is not a tactical consideration at these speeds and with these weapons, everyone is helpless.
      And out hypothetical Player who thinks That stuff is lame?  They're in the airlock, suited up, ready to jump into vacuum the second the rockets pass one another.   That's cool, right?
      Anyway, after the “flash of light” part, the fun really begins. All of the characters will have to struggle in a deadly melee combat with the hazards of space itself. The Pilot will have to try to change vector and find a course that lets them land the rocket before the fuel is used up, The Engineer will have to get the engines back on line, or shut down to prevent a meltdown, and everyone else will be performing Damage Control. You will have disabled systems, decompressed compartments, possible radiation zones, flooding, fires and any other dangerous (and high XP) condition a GM can imagine. Even better, all the desperate running from one disaster to another will be in zero gravity.
      Sure, it's not a chasing a squadron of Vulture Droids in and out of Star Destroyer formations, but it will be exciting. And a Player need never depend solely on the skill of the Pilot or the stats of their ship to survive.
      This may not sound very different from what other games suggest; I've admitted as such.  The difference is, by using physically realistic combat scenarios, all this suggested stuff isn't so much optional as it is pretty much all you can do.  I'll explain that part in a later article; for now, I'll just try to get by with this:  The part of plausible space combat where ships actually start taking damage is less than one combat round.  Before that, you have all the time in the world to attack.  After that, you have all the time in the world to clean up and try to come about before your fuel runs dry.  You probably won't get a second round of space combat.
      Granted, I'm using really broad strokes right now.  If I haven't painted a sharp enough picture for you, don't worry. As the idea continues to evolve, I'll add details, mechanics, and scenarios from GM and Player perspectives.
     I've opened this up to discussion on the D6 Online OGL website; you can follow along and post comments there.  If you aren't a member, it's free to register.  You should totally join up; it's the only place I know of where award-winning professional game designers, hardcore veterans of 1e D&D, and total noobs get to hang out together.  You could even see the beginning of the next big thing in gaming in those forums...


  1. 1) You're not going to get the submarine tactical feel in space.

    1.1) If you're close enough to direct control the projectiles realtime, you're close enough that it will all be visualizable and visualized on tac displays.

    1.2) Taint much effective stealth in space, and 90% of that only works when there is terrain to work it against.

    1.3) with no stealth save terrain-using, it boils down, literally, to gunnery. can you shoot the incomings at such a point thatthey fail to intercept.

    2) as you note in Space Combat V, everything is in motion; unlike there, when you intercept a projectile, it's no longer accelerating, and in a situation such as described, shooting down near midway is a near-guaranteed miss.

    2.1) shooting down at midway calls for missile vs missile

    2.2) In a missile vs missile engagement, he with the most missiles almost always wins.

    2.3) this means that the tactical imperative is supply side: you've already won or lost when you launched missiles... by having enough launched to survive the meeting.

  2. Ah, another who has read the Atomic Rockets website! Welcome!

    To respond:

    1) Totally. Trying to make space combat seem like submarine warfare is about as bad as trying to make submarines into spacecraft. Different environment = Different experience.

    1.1) Yup. Everybody sees everything. Can you imagine the stress? It's like watching a train hit your car and not being able to do anything about it. By visual range, I mean, "Bare eyes in daylight" The opening of the first episode of the anime "Planetes" has a perfect example of this.

    1.2) Nope. None at all; in fact the best one can usually do is use merchant rockets in the military and carefully make sure that the mass, engine output, and performance of the civilian and military models is identical. That way, they may see you, but can't be sure of your intent. Hopefully.

    1.3) I dunno. Maneuverability is useless at these speeds, so even if you do shoot a missile, its fragments and associated will still intercept you at pretty much the same speed. Unless you manage to mission-kill a missile during its acceleration phase; then it would miss you. Pretty narrow window though, Annie Oakley...

    2)...which situation is that? I'm afraid you've lost me at this point...

    2.1) ...if you wanna kill the missile's velocity, absolutely.

    2.2) Get there first with more has always been a military axiom.

    This is fun!

  3. 2.2 Per Schlock Mercenary, the guy who brings back up to the party wins. Yeah, you might gank an escort but when the 'merchant convoy' launches on you, you're day just went straight to hell.

  4. This is great stuff; and some excellent points on where the roll-playing is. I generally read naval warfare for SF grounding (while spacecraft don't sink, ships sink a lot slower than planes crash); I recently read "The Fighting at Jutland" which is a large series of short articles mostly by junior RN officers. There is very little drama in the fight -- they are following orders, their subordinates are following orders, lots of tension but no control. But as soon as the ship is hit, it is the junior officers who are responding to the desperate uncertainty, inspiring the crew, rescuing men trapped in the flooding compartment -- or leading an escape themselves. I think you have hit the key point for real roll play. Everything else is aye-aye all the way up to the admiral.


Questions, comments, criticisms? All non-Trolls welcome!