Monday, March 21, 2016

Psi Wars: Spaceships!

Seldon Crisis: Battle by AdamBurn
You seem to want a system for whooshing space opera battles between fighters and capital ships.  GURPS Spaceships is not that system.

I've held off on dealing with Spaceships for as long as I could, not because I dislike the book, but because I knew how much work it would be, and boy was I right. This was a doozy.  Ulzgoroth, above, is not wrong. GURPS tends to trend towards the realistic and Star Wars is, to put it lightly, not realistic.  That said, GURPS Spaceships actually does address whooshy spaceships at great length, especially in  Spaceships 4: Fighers, Carriers and Mecha, but we're going to have to parse all of that, understand all of it, and then pull out all the pieces and put them back together to get the game we want.  Unsurprisingly, I can't find much material on this sort of thing.  Most people I find who actually use GURPS Spaceships use the tactical system out of Spaceships 3, because it works pretty well out of the box.  We'll take a look at that too, but by the time we're done, we'll have a combat system that's as unique to Psi-Wars as the Chase System is to Action.

I'll be posting Spaceships stuff all week. And all of next week too.  Like I said, a doozy.  Today, I'll take a look at what's wrong with the actual Star Wars paradigm and why it's so hard to model in Spaceships, and we'll take a glance at alternate GURPS models that might work better.

The Problem with Star Wars

The problem with Star Wars is that it isn't actually set in space.  Like many space operas, it's actually set on an ocean that happens to look a lot like space, but isn't, because space isn't an ocean.  Atomic Rockets, there, covers a lot of the misconceptions that Star Wars subscribes to but let me see if I can break it down for you here.

The typical Star Wars combat scenario looks something like this:
Star Destroyer and Tie-Fighters
You have a large, slow-moving capital ship that can launch squadrons of swift, agile and light fighters to defend it and to bring the fight to the enemy.  The two work in tandem to defeat the enemy, and the enemy needs to bring both elements with him to defeat his enemy.  This combination of tactics and weaponry, pulling an enemy in two directions (he must be fast to deal with fighters, but heavy to deal with the capital ship) is called combined arms.

The combined arms model Star Wars uses is that of carrier and airplane, especially from World War 2.  That looks something like this:

Carrier Landing
Again, large, slow, heavy capital ships (often flanked by destroyers and cruisers) launch squadrons of swift, light fighters to take the fight to the enemy, and to protect the capital ships.  The two support one another and, again, we get combined arms.  We can have the cool, whooshing dog-fights of the air and the stately elegance and astonishing power of naval combat.

But I want you to notice something that is true of the second picture and that is not true of the first picture.  In the second picture, the ship is in the water and the jet is in the air.  Air and water have two different sets of rules.  Air is light and easy to move through quickly, but requires a great deal of energy to remain in.  Thus, a World War 2 propeller fighter (as found in GURPS High-Tech) has a move of 200, while it has a range of about 500 miles (give or take 300).  Water, on the other hand, is harder to move through than air, but is far easier to rest on. Doing that costs you almost nothing.  As a result, a typical WW2 carrier has a move of only about 20 (literally a tenth of the speed of a fighter) while it has a maximum range around 10,000 miles, 50 times that of the fighter.

A lot more firepower
Furthermore, the airplane and the jet have different attack vectors.  Fighters come at you from above.  It turns out that a deck is terribly difficult to armor, meaning a relatively small fighter can carry more than enough fire power to sink your ship. To defeat them, you need missiles and anti-aircraft fire.  Ships, on the other hand, are better at attacking you on a horizontal plane.  They'll fire shots at you that'll hit you about around your middle.  That's much easier to defend against, but since ships are heavier, they also carry a lot more firepower than a fighter does.  You create combined arms because each is exploiting its own unique medium to maximum benefit, and you need a way to fight in two different arenas equally well.

Space doesn't work like that.  Space isn't "two mediums" it's just one, one that's very easy to remain in (you can just drift, like a ship) and one that's very easy to move through (you can zoom through it much faster than a fighter). There is literally no reason why a star destroyer couldn't be as fast as a tie-fighter.  You put enough engines on the back of that thing, and it will literally move faster than a bullet.  In fact, just to be in orbit around a planet, it already must be faster than a bullet.  There's also no wind resistance, nothing stopping it from spinning pirouettes and turning on a dime, except its own considerable inertia.  Imagine watching a star destroyer literally keep up with a tie-fighter and then wonder why the star destroyer even has tie-fighters.  In the Empire Strikes Back, a star destroyer keeps pace with the Millenium Falcon, "the fastest ship in the galaxy," which previously had no trouble racing around with tie-fighters... so how fast is a star destroyer anyway? If star destroyers are so fast and agile and pack so much firepower, why would you bother with a starfighter like the tie-fighter?

Ultra-Tech civilizations toss around some serious firepower too.  In A New Hope, Luke Skywalker fires "proton torpedoes" at the Death Star and blows up something the size of a small moon.  The destructive power that tore apart the Death Star presumably came from a "chain reaction" within the Death Star itself, but how much firepower was in that proton torpedo?  Couldn't  you put some anti-matter in there, or something of equivalent power?  It turns out that you can put some serious hurt on someone with just a small amount of anti-matter: A starhawk (the "not a X-wing" of GURPS Spaceships 4) carries 20cm missiles which can carry 100-kt warheads.  That's nearly five times the destructive power as what we dropped on Japan in WW2, and it's as powerful as actual ICBM nuclear missiles.  If a starhawk fires one of those at something the size of a battleship, the battleship would be gone.  So, if fighters like starhawks have stardrives and enough firepower to take out entire dreadnoughts, why would you bother with a capital ship like the star destroyer?

You might shake your head at me and say "You're overthinking it.  Just enjoy the movies!"  and I do enjoy the movies, but we're not in a movie now.  We're in a role-playing game.  If a starhawk can take out an Empire-class dreadnought with ease, all the players will leave their dreadnoughts at home and just bring their fighters.  The setting and its rules need to be consistent and sensible enough that the players can work with it.

GURPS Spaceships operates with realistic space assumptions, which tears apart the thin tissue of lies that makes up our desired starfighter scenario.  However, it also gives us the tools to put it back together... but before we do that, perhaps we should actually look at a real dogfight model.

Dogfighting Action!

David Pulver (writer of GURPS Spaceships, BTW), wrote an article titled "Dogfight Action!" in Pyramid #3-53.  In it, he takes the Action 2: Exploits Chase rules and turns them into aerial dogfight rules, which sounds perfect for Psi-Wars! This uses modern fighters, which are too advanced for our purposes, but let's take a look at those rules briefly.

In Exploits, the pursuer and the pursued both make rolls (in our case, Pilot rolls) to see who is "winning."  There are a number of bands between the two.  If the pursuer wins, he closes on the pursued, while the pursued opens up ground between himself and his opponent.  This roll is based on your piloting skill, your handling and the speed of your craft.

In Dogfight Action!, this roll instead determines whether you have someone "in your sights."  If I win, then I can either choose to approach and have you in my sights and fire, or I can choose to move farther away, in which case neither of us can fire at the other.

In Exploits, you can fire as a Move-and-Attack action to fire at your opponent, either by leaning out of the car window and shooting your pistol, or by firing the weapons on your vehicle.  The same applies in Dogfighting Action!, though no penalty applies for movement (fighter craft are built for this, apparently). It also has some interesting rules regarding missiles: Every fighter jet has an ECM rating, depending on how advanced it is.  This penalizes attempts to detect you early, and attempts to hit you with a missile.  I like this. It reminds me of chaff or emp pulses from games like Strike Suit Zero.

Both Exploits and Dogfighting Action! have cool tricks you can do.  Exploits discusses Stunts explicitly, which are cool tricks you can do that will get you killed if you screw up, but will also help you win the chase if you pull it off.  Dogfighting Action doesn't explicitly refer to these, but definitely allows them.  It also discusses how to make the "Reverse" work, which in Exploits turns the pursuer into the pursued, or brings the pursuer very close to the pursued.  Dogfighting Action uses this to bring fighters much closer to each other.

I tried to put together a playtest to show you, but it rapidly fell apart because I, foolishly, tried to have two jets fighting one, a scenario that comes up all the time in space combat.  Action designed its rules to handle two-party chases, something explicitly referred to in a sidebar.  Dogfight Action tries to turn this into a combat system and it just doesn't work as well as I think Pulver would like it to.  It also has some other strange flaws like, once again, missiles are all powerful and essentially guaranteed to hit (thanks to having an RoF of 1x194 for an RoF bonus of +7, on top of ignoring range and halving speed penalties and its considerable accuracy...), and all of the fighters were exactly the same, except for minor, niggling differences (one has an assault cannon, the other a gatling), which may well be true and also interesting (if we accept that, can we accept a sci-fi universe with only a handful of unique models of starfighter?)

I found some ideas in here interesting, but I couldn't make it work as an actual dogfight system.  Ah well, stripmine it for ideas of value, and then we're go back to the Spaceships system.

Seems like we'll have to try to wrench it into something that'll actually allow wooshing spaceship combat.

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