Monday, March 28, 2016

Psi Wars: Spaceships -- Rewriting Spaceship Combat

"I thought you wanted to do as little work as possible
and just borrow the rest from the books?
So much for using the rules as written."

So, fair enough, Ulzgoroth is correct: Spaceships, as written, is focused on realistic space combat.  We don't want realistic space combat, we want authentic and cinematic space combat, something familiar to a modern viewer's eyes, rather than something that would actually happen if space combat vessels engaged one another.  I want starfighters that whoosh and explode, and I want the game's focus on individual starfighter pilots, rather than zoomed out to the battle as a whole.  And I want more than just Star Wars, though.  I want Wing Commander and Strike Suit Zero too.

The problems standing in the way of this are:
  • Missiles are too dangerous
  • Fighters (without missiles) aren't dangerous enough
  • Turret-fire is too accurate against fighters (fighters are too vulnerable)
  • Capital ships are just too fast.
  • Dogfights aren't cool enough.

Missiles are too dangerous

The high damage of missiles might be realistic, but it's not authentic. People expect a missile to be slightly more dangerous than a gun, not an epic force of destruction that obliterates everything in its path. Think Wing Commander missiles rather than the debris from Gravity.

So, the first step is obvious: All missiles move at 1 mile per second. In addition to removing extra damage, this removes one element out of calculation: We don't have to work out how fast a missile is going to figure out how hard it is to hit with it, or how hard it is to shoot down. But this still means that a starhawks blaster does 4d(5), or an average of 14 damage (70 total penetration) while a missile deals 6dx5(2), or 100 damage (200 total penetration). A 100-kt missile deals 8dx1000, or 28,000 damage.

David Pulver has an excellent article titled “Appendix Z: Survivable Guns” in Pyramid #3-44. The cusp of it is this: The damage of a gun has been based on how much armor it can penetrate. If this makes it too lethal, reduce the damage and increase the armor penetration. Thus, a gun that deals 20 damage can be changed to a gun that deals 10(2) damage. It penetrates as much armor, but won't kill you as dead. We can do the same to missiles: A conventional warhead deals 6d(10).

Now, in a sense, I don't mind missiles being quite dangerous: Wing Commander and Strike Suit Zero both have "torpedos," large slow missile that can take down capital ships, but need to be escorted and guided to their end-point, rather than fired and forgotten like normal missiles.  So perhaps even nuclear missiles have a place, but instead of dealing 28,000 damage, on average, we apply the same principle above, and they now deal 280(100).  It's still a ridiculously effective weapon, but at least it won't instantly evaporate a dreadnought.

If either is used for a proximity detonation, it loses all armor penetration.  This exactly matches what happens with a nuclear missile anyway, but it's a little hard on the conventional warhead.  I don't mind, though, as conventional missiles need to track better with blasters.

Fighters Aren't Dangerous Enough

...and turret fire is too effective.  A dreadnought is better off shooting a fighter down with its own considerable firepower than in sending its own fighters out to chase them, and this ruins the dogfights that I want.

Spaceships 4 helps us out. On page 35, we have Relative Target Size. A larger ship is at a penalty to hit a smaller ship. So, our Empire-Class Dreadnought (SM +14) is at -9 to hit a Starhawk (SM +5) with its secondary or tertiary cannons, and -18 (!) to hit it with its spinal cannon. But this also means that the Starhawk is at -2 to hit the Typhoon class fighter. If we don't like that, we we can simplify the sizes: You have Fighters (SM +4 to +6), Corvettes (SM +7 to +9), Capital Ships (SM +10 to SM +12) and Dreadnoughts are SM +12 or larger. Each category down is +/- 3. So in this case, the Dreadnought is -9 to hit the Starhawk (-18 with its spinal cannon), while the Starhawk is +9 to hit the Dreadnought. This also means we don't have to dig out a book and look up an exact SM of a ship.  We just remember what category it fell in, and I expect this is obvious.  I can tell you without looking that a Darkhorse Freighter is a corvette, and a Y-wing fighter is a fighter, and so on.

We do run into the situation where an SM +4 fighter isn't as useful as an SM+6 fighter, but this was largely already true (they're all in the same handling bracket), as a -1 to hit isn't worth that much. If it really bothers you, the low end is a “light” version of the craft (“Light fighters” or “Light corvettes”) and get a +1 to handling. The high end is a “heavy,” so a “heavy fighter” or a “heavy battleship) and get -1 to handling. This does mean that a light dreadnought is more maneuverable than a heavy battleship, but it's also much easier to hit.

Next, we can use the Hugging rule on page 30 of the SS4. This lets our ships “hug close” to a ship of one category larger (that is, fighters can hug corvettes and corvettes can hug capital ships, and capital ships can hug dreadnoughts). This is literally accurate, but I don't like it. I think it should be two categories larger: A fighter can hug a capital ship, and a corvette can hug a dreadnought, and a capital ship can't hug anything. Tie-fighters can't hug the Millenium Falcon, but the Millenium Falcon can hug a Star Destroyer. I find that acceptable.

So, now if Tobin can get in close, the Resilient wouldn't just have a -9 to hit him with its cannons, it would have an additional -2 to hit him with anything but its tertiary cannons. Nice.

Alright, so turret fire is dealt with. What about the other side of the coin?  How can a fighter be a threat to a capital ship without carrying nuclear missiles?

A starhawk now deals either 4d(5) damage with its lasers and 6d(10) with its missiles. An Empire-Class Dreadnought has DR 1400 shields and 600/300 DR. Even a Tiger-Class Frigate has DR 200 from shields and DR 60/30 on its hull. Nothing a Starhawk has will get past those shields. Even a straight missile hit with fail to penetrate the shields and only knock two points temporarily off. Disaster. So what's the point of a fighter?

Well, the first thing we can do is ignore the DR of the force screens screens for a ship that “hugs” the target: It has literally slipped through the force screens and flies beneath them. Thus, a starhawk can ignore a dreadnought's shields, provided it gets close enough, but not a corvette's. This means that a fighter is better against a capital ship than it is against a frigate which is, actually, rather appropriate (it gives us a torpedo ship vs destroyer vs capital ship dynamic). But a Starhawk still can't damage an Empire-Class dreadnought without a nuclear torpedo. A missile shot at the weakest point in the armor is only a 20(10) damage vs 150 hardened DR, or 20 damage vs an effective DR of 50. Hopeless. We could remove hardened, but then blasters still don't do enough damage, in addition to changing existing designs. Hmmm.

In a sense, this is realistic. You don't actually expect a swarm of fighters to simply devour a dreadnought and then move on. A starhawk is sure to hit an Empire-Class Dreanought with all 4 shots, each shot deals ~14 damage, and a Dreadnought has 700 HP, which means 50 shots will kill it. It would take a squadron of 7 Starhawks ($63 million) two turns to destroy an unarmored Empire ($270,000 million). So while the Starhawks should pose some risk, they shouldn't be able to casually destroy an Empire. But typically, in games like Strike Suit Zero or Wing Commander, you really need (slow) bombers to take a capital ship out, which use torpedos. If we count nuclear weapons as “torpedos,” then they make sense: a few solid torpedo hits beneath the shields would destroy a dreadnought, but if the bomber is slow, then it's vulnerable to turret fire, and needs agile fighters to help it out!

But how can the fighter help? Well, traditionally, the fighters took out turrets, sensors and engines, the exposed stuff outside of the armor. Of course, in Spaceships, these all count as armored, and well they should because otherwise other capital ships would destroy them. But these are more exposed systems than life support or the bridge or the reactor, as those things can be completely under the armor shell, while antennae and turrets and engines must necessarily have something “sticking out” of the shell. So we'll call these “partially exposed systems.” A partially exposed system, instead of an armor weakpoint (1/2 DR), has an armor gap (No DR). Thus for -10 to a specific system, you can ignore DR completely. This rule only applies to specific systems (like turrets and sensors), and  you must deliberate target those systems, and deliberately targeting a system is an additional -5, for a total of -15. This seems impossible, and it largely is, but a skilled pilot (skill 14) of a fighter has a +6 to hit a capital ship with its (+2) fixed lasers while hugging (-0) and firing 4 shots (+1) will hit that spot on a 9 or less.

So it'll take a squadron of elite Starhawks five turns to destroy an Empire. Well, okay. We'll add one more rule, because the real point of this is removing the turrets or the engines to make the ship more vulnerable to other attackers.  Disabling a system on a dreadnought requires a minimum of 70 damage, and a Starhawk averages 14.  Let's cut the required damage to disable or destroy a partially exposed system by attacking through the gaps by half, but any damage through the gap in excess of that which is necessary to destroy a system is lost. The point of the gaps is that a small weapon is enough to damage delicate and exposed electronics, but after they have been destroyed, you need sheer, brute force to continue to damage the mass of the ship. So, you need 35 damage in one turn to disable a turret (or 125 to destroy it in one turn), and if you do the same again next turn, it's out of action and you can't easily damage it anymore.

Now a squadron of elite Starhawks an strip a dreadnought of its guns, engines and sensors, leaving it adrift but alive.  That seems to track more closely with how these sorts of scenarios actually play out.

Capital Ships are too fast

This one turned out not to bother me as much as I thought it would.  In tactical combat, they move like tubs and in standard combat, they are demonstrably slower than fighters... that said, they're mostly slower by GM fiat than actual physics: a fighter has 4 engines for +200G (+4 to your roll) while a Empire-Class dreadnought has 2 for +100 (+2 to your roll). The fighter has handling +2 (for a max of +6) while the dreadnought typically has -1 (for a max of +1), giving the fighters a somewhat minor +5 advantage. But nothing stops you from putting six engines on a dreadnought for a +300 (+6) for a total of +5 vs the fighter's +6, meaning that a dreadnought can suddenly nearly out maneuver a fighter and close in.

The first trick is to just, you know, not do that. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should.  We could simply never allow a player to build a ship, and always build our ships around certain guidelines to maintain the space opera illusion.  But some people might find that unsatisfactory: If fighters are so effective, why not build dreadnoughts that can just dodge fighters and continue to lay down some serious firepower on the enemy? What reason prevents this? This sort of logical player will accept nearly any reasonable answer, provided we at least attempt to explain it, so let's do our best to find him one.

The real reason, in the real world, that fighters and ships work like this is that they operate in different mediums. A fighter is in the air, while a ship is on the sea. You can move really fast in the air (a WW2 fighter has move ~200), but you need to spend a lot of energy to do it (maximum range is around 500 miles). Traveling over water isn't nearly as quick (a carrier has a move of about ~20), but it costs almost nothing to just sit on the water (maximum range ~10,000 miles). But in space, everything exists in the same medium: Space. It costs nothing to just be there, and you can move through it very quickly. The only thing stopping everything from being ship-fighters is that you have huge ranges you need to cover.

But, actually, we do have two mediums: Hyperspace, and Space. Hyperspace lets you travel enormous distances, but at the cost of having a stardrive. What if it slowed you down in normal space too? So a ship that can jump to another system is necessarily slower in combat? That would mimic the ship/fighter divide. The capital ships also typically have reactionless drives while the Starhawk and the Typhoon have reaction drives. This seems a little weird. Why not just give the fighters reactionless drives? Well, Pulver might have done it to give them this sense of lack of endurance. A fighter can go fast but not far.

The Super Reactionless drives go at 50gs, but there's no reason to say that this must always be true. We could make them any value (they're super-science), and the Hot Reactionless (the next level down) are 1-2 G. We can afford to make Super Reactionless a lot slower while still keeping them faster than Hot Reactionless (and pretty much anything else), though at less than 20 it becomes tempting to use the Super Fusion Pulse drive.

Let's create three rules:
  • Reactionless Drives require the presence of a Hyperdrive to work. They push the ship in real space by accelarting with the hyperspace medium.
  • Reactionless Drives are half as fast as noted (thus, 25g)
  • The presence of a hyperdrive weighs a ship down (It “casts a hyperspace shadow” or something). If a ship it capital size or higher, halve the efficiency of all of its drives. If the ship is a frigate, halve the speed of its non-reactionless drives, and if it's a fighter-sized, it has no impact but it moves through hyperspace at 1/10th the speed (to prevent fighters with stardrives from taking over warfare).  We can explain that by saying the small fighter's weak drive casts hardly any shadow at all, but it cannot "get a grip on the hyperspace medium" and so moves more slowly.
This gives us the following maneuver values:
  • 200gs for a fighter (+4) with a handling of +2 for a total of +6.
  • 50gs for a corvette (+1) with a handling of +1 for a total of +2
  • 25gs for a capital or better (+0) with handling of -1 for a total of -1.

Furthermore, for convenience, we could reduce the required Gs for +1 acceleration from 50gs to 25 gs, giving fighters +8, corvette's+3, and capital ships +0.  Either way, we get exceptionally fast fighters in comparison to our terribly slow capital ships.

Boost Drive?

At this point, I feel compelled to point you to an optional rule in Spaceships 7 on page 23 and 27 called the boost drive.  The boost drive applies psudo-velocity to the ship.  You either move forward (when you power your engines) or you stop (when you power down your engines).  This exactly matches how games like Wing Commander and Strike Suit Zero (and EVE and X and so on) work. We would say that every 5gs of acceleration instead provide 1 mps of movement.  A Dreadnought typically moves at 5 mps (one 100-mile hex in tactical combat), a corvette at 10 mps (two 100-mile hexes in tactical combat), and fighters typically move 40 mps (8 100-mile hexes in tactical combat).

I'm not going to use this, however, not because I don't like it, but because I find it hard to explain to my players why a Starhawk's boost drive consumes fuels while a dark horse's doesn't, and I want to use steal from the Spaceship books as much as possible.  Plus I'm not entirely convinced Star Wars uses boost drives.  Sometimes if you kill a ship's engines, it seems to slow down pretty quickly.  Other times, it doesn't.

For simplicity, I'll stick with Gs, but I leave this note for those of you who'd rather go in a different direction.  If I were to design my ships from scratch, I would go this route too.

Dogfights aren't exciting enough.

We're missing several things:
  • The ability to easily get close in and stay in (Engagement is too hard)
  • Fancy maneuvers (You're either close enough or not. There's no risk or clever tricks)
  • Crazy missile chases (missiles hit or they don't)
In fact, spaceships would struggle to remain engaged with one another. As you saw in tactical combat, engagement requires very deftly working your vector to nearly match your target's.  Throwing someone off is just a matter of a sudden, unpredictable twist and engagement is off. If a ship really wants to lose you, it will. Being a sniper in space makes more sense than being a knife-fighter.

But it's not authentic. People expect to have an enemy fighter “on their tail” and they “just can't shake them.” This makes no sense in space. For one thing, you can just turn around and shoot them while flying backwards. There's something cool about that (Wing Commander 3 let you do that), but it doesn't suit our genre. So, our first rule is the Airplane-Style Dogfighting rule found on page 33 of SS4: You can't just turn around and shoot someone. But we still need to let people stay close.

Here's the simplest take I can think of: You have three ranges worth worrying about: Standard (“Short” for -8), Close (“Close” for -4) or Hugging (“Point-blank” for -0). You start at Short, you can move to “Close” with someone, and you stay there until someone leaves. Hugging, of course, is only possible with ships 2 “sizes” larger than you (with smaller ships, you just ram).

A single closing maneuver will automatically move you in one range band with your target if you win, but otherwise works the same. Evasive Maneuvers lets you double your acceleration bonus for resisting a closing maneuver, and also gives you a free attempt to increase range by one band (but no further than Short. For that, see Escape) and increases your dodge.

If you are already close and you make a closing maneuver, success at the contest lets you either come closer (to ram or to hug), or lets you become Advantaged. Advantaged either works like normal or gives you a stacking +1 to hit, to a maximum of +4.

This neatly simulates how space combat already works: Really good rolls give you up to +8 to hit your opponent, and so does our system, but it lets you maintain that bonus from turn to turn while preventing your enemy from having the same on you (you can “be on their tail”).


But what about cool stunts? Action has an interesting rule: you can make a stunt by making a piloting roll (or something else clever) at a -2 to -10 penalty (Your choice). Failure makes you “wipeout” but success gives you a bonus equal to +1 for every -2 to you took to your chase roll. We can do the same, except replace “chase” with “closing,” and “Wipe out” becomes “uncontrolled drift” if you fail by less than your stability modifier and “Crash into something if its possible or at least disable your engine” if it's worse. We can do the same for “stunt escapes”: If your opponent cannot stunt for at least the same amount of penalty, you automatically “escape” to one range band further out.

Cool Missiles

And what about missiles? Well, we have them covered well enough... but I want those scenes where, when someone fires a missile, you can hit the burners and go haring off while the missile struggles to keep up, and you can actually out-pilot it, or take extra time for your buddy to shoot it down or, if you're unlucky, to have the missile come back again and again, almost hitting you each time. Again, the core system technically allows all of this... but I want a little more detail.

In Tactical Combat, missiles are independently tracked. Let's do the same: Your “attack” with a missile is an attempt to get a lock on. If you have a lock, you can fire and it'll home in on that target from then on. It'll do so with its own skill: 15. It simply makes constant, dedicated Closing maneuvers (that is, with skill 18). Once it closes past close, it “rams” like normal and delivers its damage unless it is dodged, which sends it back out to the standard, neutral range of “short.” Missiles have their own acceleration and endurance. They get a flat bonus to their closing rolls, and after so many turns, they'll just stop flying if they haven't hit their target.

What about torpedos? A torpedo typically either exists as a threat "Quick, ace pilot, you need to take out those torpedos before they hit our carrier!" or to require you to bring your bomber in real close for a "torpedo run."

We need torpedoes to move slowly.  We can make something up: Perhaps Fusion Torpedos cast a hyperspace shadow, or they're simply heavier than missiles and more of their mass is taken up by warhead, so they necessarily have less propellant.  Whatever. This is ridiculous, of course, nothing stops you from using antimatter charges in your agile sidewinder missiles to obliterate everything you touch, but Star Wars is inspired by pre-nuclear aerial warfare, so we'll follow suit: High impact weapons are slow and vulnerable.

As for size modifier... it's not important!  Relative size only applies to targets capable of dodging, and ships never dodge.  If it matters, treat them as one size category smaller than fighters, but it should never matter.

We'll also simplify missiles into three sizes: Fighter missiles (~20 cm), Frigate missiles (~40 cm) and Capital missiles (~80 cm). That's not to say that a capital ship can't fire fighter-sized missiles (“Fire the ventral cannon!”) but this just simplifies sizes and the rules.
Missile Type Cost Mass Handling Acceleration Damage
Light (20 cm) $125k 1/8 +1 300 (+12) 6d(10)
Medium (40 cm) $2M 2 +0 150 (+6) 6dx2(10)
Heavy (80 cm) $30M 15 -1 75 (+3) 6dx4(10)

So far so good. But how do these stack up in combat?
  • A major battery for an SM +5 ship can fire a 20cm missile (6d(10), or 200 penetration), while its laser would deal 4d(5) or 70 penetration. The missile is superior.
  • A major battery for an SM +9 ship can fire a 40cm missle (6dx2(10), or 400 penetration), while its laser would deal 4dx5(5) or 350 penetration. The missile is a little better.
  • A major battery for an SM +13 ship can fire an 80 cm missile (6dx4(10) or 800 penetration), while its laser would deal 2dx50 (5) or 1750 penetration. The laser is far better than the missile
This is just a fundamental truth of how Spaceships was designed: Missiles are totally overpowered at small sizes, while weak at large sizes. We can compensate for this by adding nuclear warheads.

Torpedo Type Cost Mass Handling Acc Damage
Light (20 cm) $200k 1/4 +1 150 (+6) 4dx10(100)
Medium (40 cm) $3M 4 +0 75 (+3) 8dx10(100)
Heavy (80 cm) $40M 30 -1 25 (+1) 8dx50(100)
  • A major battery for an SM +5 ship can fire a 20cm torpedo (140 damage), while its laser would deal 4d(5) or 14 damage. The torpedo is superior.
  • A major battery for an SM +9 ship can fire a 40cm torpedo (280 damage), while its laser would deal 4dx5(5) or 70 damage. The torpedo is better.
  • A major battery for an SM +13 ship can fire an 80 cm torpedo (1400 damage), while its laser would deal 2dx50 (5) or 350 damage. Torpedo is ridiculous
The 40cm torpedo is either underpowered or the 80 cm torpedo is overpowered. The guns follow the higher damage more closely: The difference between the smallest gun and the largest is about 20 times, while the smallest torpedo and the largest torpedo is “only” 10 times. Thus, the halfway point should be 5x, or 700 damage. On the other hand, we could argue that we should just double the damage each time: So the 80c torpedo would do 560 damage. However, I like the idea of torpedos being “super packets” equal to about 10x the damage of a laser. So let's go with the more powerful option. This also means that larger ships are more likely to carry these “fusion bombs” than they are to bother with dippy little missiles.

As for the handling and acceleration, I chose to make them slightly better than someone in the same category with skill 18 (for missiles) and slighly better than someone of the next larger category with skill 18. We'll see how it works.

A missile (and a torpedo) can accelerate for 5 turns before it runs out of juice. It never dodges, it never changes opponent. It can stunt, but only to keep up with a stunt evasion. Failure means it wipes out. “Wiping out” destroys a missile, but there's a chance that it'll hit someone that was Close to you. Treat it as a wild attack (9 or less).

I also notice that the action dogfight rules have ECM affecting missiles but NOT cannons. I'd like the same here.

Use mass to determine how many shots of missile you can carry. In practice, treat a torpedo as two missiles.

So, the final results are:
Missile Type Cost Mass Closing Rolls Attack Rolls Damage
Light Missile (20 cm) $125k
Light Torpedo (20 cm) $200k
Medium Missile (40 cm) $2M
Medium Torpedo(40 cm) $3M
Heavy Missile (80 cm) $30M
Heavy Torpedo (80 cm) $40M

In practice, heavier ships will want to carry torpedoes, though light missiles would do for defeating fighters or ships.


These rules apply some minor adjustments to how Formation should be treated. As before, you make the same maneuvers as your “squadron leader” and his roll counts. We'll apply the Accidental Collision rule on SS4 32, and we note that wiping out (close call) is an uncontrolled drift and pulls you out of formation, but a wipe out (crash) when you're in formation or hugging a ship immediately results in an accidental collision. All pilots in a maneuver must make the same stunt roll to remain in formation. Note that a Typhoon typically deals 90 damage on a collision, a Starhawk deals 120 damage, and an Empire-Class Dreadnought deals 4200.
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