Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Project NEPTUNE Part II: Crew as Damage Control

Made with Daz 3d, Bryce and GIMP
As we said last week, space combat in RPGs is generally a pain.
This is one of the reasons I started designing my own SF RPG as soon as I discovered my favorite rules system was now OGL.

     Part of that effort, the Black Desert Project, led to my series of blog posts about Crew as Mission Control. The premise being that given the way computers have advanced, the crew of a realistic spacecraft will not be occupied by actually flying or fighting the ship - they will be there to monitor, manage, and direct the various Computer networks. It became the most popular series of posts in this blog's history and has stood as my humble contribution to Hard Science FictionTM.

    I stand by that series. I am convinced that it's the best way to include people on spacecraft in Hard Science Fiction. I would love to see the Mission Control model used in novels, television and movies.

     I'm equally convinced that as far as Role-Playing Games are concerned, the Mission Control Model does not work.

    As much as I like the idea of Crew as Mission Control, it still does not address the necessity of a Tactical Mini-game to resolve space travel and combat at the table.  The players are still locked into using a different set of rules and different skills and are still robbed of agency by putting them all in a tin can with few chances to make meaningful decisions.    

    What I’ve come to desire is a space travel and combat system that keeps the focus 100% on the Player Character scale. PCs - their goals, skills and opportunities, and most importantly agency - should always be the focus of a role-playing game. This is what inspired my take on the idea of “Starship as Dungeon”.

    Starship as Dungeon”, however, runs into problems with the types of scenarios it can support. The classic “Bug Hunt” trope exemplified in the movie Aliens is perfect for Starship as Dungeon, but what about other tropes? How can Starship as Dungeon be used in a free-trader campaign? Or what if you want to actually have space combat between Fleets- how do you keep the rules for that type of scenario from taking the focus away from the Player Characters?

    Like the title says, Crew as Damage Control.

  This is far from a new idea, as we see examples dating back at least to the 70s in stories such as Northshield’s Triumvirate. In this concept, the computers on a spacecraft do all the actual flying and fighting, since they can do so faster and more accurately that people can. Organic crews exist to maintain and repair the various systems of a spacecraft. We also see it used the classic The Mote in God's Eye.


This wasn't a game.
 In studying first-person accounts of naval battles, particularly memoirs from the Pacific theater of WWII, we see some great examples of the "player focused" perspective. The sailors, soldiers and marines who recall those iconic battles do not do so the way we're shown in films or other fiction - which is the point of view most licensed RPGs try to capture. As much as I like to watch SF media, the cinematic spectacle is not best seen from the table top.

    The people who actually fought and survived major naval actions in the bowels of their ships recall their own personal viewpoints which are focused on their immediate situation. Often, this can be just trying to keep their ship afloat. They usually didn’t know what is going on with the battle, whether they are winning or losing, or how much damage the ship had sustained. 

    In other words, the ships these people are on became a hostile environment of rupturing steam pipes, flooding compartments, shrapnel, and darkness. A Dungeon.

    This point of view, the completely personal perspective, is one that can be used in a Player Character-focused RPG.

    At first blush, this may sound like a railroad waiting to happen. Without command level decisions to make, can the Players truly be masters of their own destiny? To this as ask a question in return: Can players whose characters are optimized for non-space travel skills be said to have any more control over the ship that they are on? 

    This is a big complaint about space travel and combat systems I have heard at my tables; that there’s nothing for most characters to do. In the Crew as Damage Control concept, everyone has something to do, even if Character’s actions revolve around survival while the ship they’re on falls apart around them. Survival in a hostile environment may be stressful, but it's still PC-focused, which is the goal.

       With Crew as Damage Control, the aftermath of a space battle is where Characters really get to shine. Their ship is now a dungeon in fact, full of hazards like decompression, ruptured tanks, radiation leaks, boarding hostiles, and more. Navigating this kind of environment is challenging enough; repairing the damage is even more so. One thing I’d love to see is a party of PCs scavenging the wrecks of other spacecraft or nearby asteroids for supplies to repair their ship. 

    That's Character focused play.

    Admittedly, this perspective is still focused on combat, which is only one small facet of space travel. Other character-focused scenarios are possible. Space is full of hazards that must be overcome, from debris strikes to solar flares to mechanical failures. There can also be passengers, mysteries, and more in a space-faring location. As long as the action is focused on the Players and their Characters, the focus is where it should be.

    More to come on this topic.

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