Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Designing Spacecraft for RPGs: Why the Missile Craft?

          This is a question I've been asked before.  It makes sense; after all, unless one is planning to run a military campaign, what do you need a huge, Interplanetary Missile Craft for, anyway?  The answer to that has to do with the compromises necessary in a Hard SF setting, and the ways to make those compromises fun in a role-playing game.

          First off, there is one rule to Hard SF that has caused more heartache and headaches to the authors of such fiction than any other.  Nevertheless, this rule is set in the stone of physics and therefore must be followed.  We'll add it to the list:

           11. "There is simply no stealth in space.  Period."

         I'm terribly sorry, but it's true.  This point has been argued ad nauseum an many different forums and venues to no avail.  If you think you've found a work around, please check it here before you mention it.  Please.

           Notice, however, that this only refers to pure detection; basically, you will been seen coming.  You're heat signature and acceleration will probably also give away your rocket's type, size and other information.  There is nothing one can do about this.  In Hard SF, as I've mentioned before, the solution to problems like these is not to ignore them, but to work with them and around them.  That's what future military planners will have to do, right?

           The only plausible work-around I've found in my research is in one of Rick Robinson's post on Rocketpunk Manifesto, which basically states that while "everyone can see everything" in space, you may not understand what you are seeing.  This point was used to good effect in the design of our Heinlein rocket.  The Union of the Americas (otherwise known as "Brazil and everyone else"), solved the stealth in space issues by making their civilian and military craft as close to identical as possible.  That way, you may see a bunch of ships, but you don't know whether those unknown rockets are a convoy hauling food and medical supplies, or an attack wing hauling missiles and laser drones until it's too late to maneuver.  This puts IFF tech into the fore, but that's for another post.

            The another thing we must take into account when designing any craft in a Hard SF setting is travel time.  To add yet another rule to our list:

            12. "All spacecraft travel at the speed of plot."

            In most mainstream sci-fi, this means that Hyper-Jumping-Warp-Drives or some other species of magical FTL will move the ship and it's characters in the time the space of a scene change or, at most, in between episodes so they can rendezvous with the planet of the week.  In Hard SF, it means that the plot takes into account travel times measuring weeks and months.  This is why most Hard SF novels deal a lot with the interpersonal relationships of the crews of such craft.  Some of these are great, some are a turn-off for me, but all take into account the large fraction of "down-time" between planets.
            In SF games, this is often either ignored, glossed over, or fixed with magical FTL.  Traditionally, ships in most RPG settings are seen as mere transportation, and are not an adventure location per se. In a Hard SF game, we need to change that.  So in The Black Desert, I'm trying to make Interplanetary craft larger, more cosmopolitan, and above all, more interesting.  They are not just ways to get to the adventure, but an adventure location in their own right.

            So, back to the original question, why Missile Craft?  Because in The Black Desert, civilian craft are identical to military craft, and because of the long travel times, they must be large enough and exciting enough to function as adventure locations.  By designing the Missile Craft, I am also designing locations for PCs to have adventures.

             The rest of our articles on the Missile Craft will be handled either this series, the Space Combat in The Black Desert series or our series on Economics, as all of these factors are interrelated.  In order to make it easier to follow the thread, I'll tag each post, so that one link will bring them all up.

            Tomorrow, I'll be making some announcements about upcoming projects, and then we'll get back to this topic Thursday, hopefully.  See you tomorrow, RocketFans!


  1. About stealth in space, on rpg.net last October, someone with the handle of Codex Imaginatus had the 'hot' idea that by using cold gas thrusters you could hide in space. Best laugh I'd had in while - damn near killed me because I'm still recovering from whooping cough. Anyway here's the thread.

    And I wish I'd had the link to Atomic Rockets then.

  2. I don't understand. You wish to make Missile craft more interesting...from the inside, or as vehicules? Giving them bigger hab sections would turn internal volume into a PC playground. More interesting vehicules is all to do with the specifications of missile craft design ect.

    "This is why most Hard SF novels deal a lot with the interpersonal relationships of the crews of such craft."
    I skipped the hard characterization part by allowing even military crews to have access to VR playgrounds :)

    "In SF games, this is often either ignored, glossed over, or fixed with magical FTL."

    Oh, that is true. It is also very possible to have lots of (in something like an RTS, RPG, actually, anything which needs maps on radically different landscapes and settings) maps, on different planets if needed, without magical FTL. Just don't stick with teh same crew, in other words, allow the game to switch viewpoints between teams that arrive just in time for action, which the player can get involved in.
    The biggest difficulty is of course asking the authors to leave out characters that do much in making the difference between a good game and an unattractive game,; that doesn't 'hook' the player int through the characters.

  3. @ Strannik:
    Dammit, now I have the whooping cough from laughing so hard!

    I definitely meant from the inside. I'm pretty sure this will mean not only exciting deckplans (with different gravities, greenhouse areas, shops/taverns etc.) but also a lot of interesting NPCs. I'm not sure if I've the NuRom (New Romani) on the Blog before, but there are veterans of the Great War that essentially stay in space and live on IPVs and in colonies like a (badly romanticized) camp of Gypsies. These NuRom ships will offer transport with no questions asked - which allows for the largest, most diverse, and most dangerous mix of NPCs to be aboard at any given time.

  4. Ray, nope you haven't mentioned the NuRom before. They sound interesting.

  5. "The only plausible work-around I've found in my research"
    Another thing worth noting: One thing is detecting you, another thing is damaging you.
    Chaff, flares, and other (reasonable) gimmicks that confuse missile targeting systems work just fine.

    And due to how most missiles in space work (they have a very high speed but not a load of delta-v, usually limited to thrusters for course-correction), confusing the missile even for a few seconds may be enough for it to miss by km. And once it has missed it doesn't have enough delta-v to do another pass.

  6. That hits the problem of switching from the large, cruise-ship style interior space of the IPV's with character level interaction with the world...and the bare, minimum volume and utilitarian interior of a military craft, where the only fun aspect of the ship is at the vehicule level.
    Except if the players are supposed to only 'pilot' the missile craft instead of play around inside them.

  7. @ Albert:
    I agree about the use of razzle-dazzle; but I consider that more of an electronic warfare consideration than a detection one. That may be splitting hairs, but one has to do with avoiding getting hit, and the other avoiding being seen at all.

    As for the missiles themselves, Being one way and of smaller mass would allow, if staged, the missiles to have higher delta-v. In our setting, the main Kinetic Kill missiles aren't after a direct hit; the explode into clouds of debris that fill an enemy's vector with a Kilometers-wide cloud of shrapnel. The enemy's own speed, combined with the debris, is what kills them. The post, "Space Combat in The Black Desert V" has more details.

    One of the nice things about Hard SF is that while travel times dictate a ship interior big enough to jazz around with, the physics of space travel also dictates that rockets be big enough to play inside. So it kinda works out. For RPG purposes, it definitely beats onecrew fighters...


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