Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Putting the War back into Psi-Wars: Saying Yes to Mass Combat

So last time I argued that Mass Combat was a terrible idea for Psi-Wars.  I haven't changed my mind and I still think it's a terrible idea.  Ergo, it's a waste of time to even look at Mass Combat, right?  I would argue that it isn't.  We need to challenge our assumptions, push our boundaries, and look more deeply at things. While I know many people are "loathe to do work they do not need to do," the difference between quality work and shoddy work is a willingness, first, to go the extra mile and, second, to make good use of "wasted" work.

Hemingway called this his Iceberg theory, that the surface of a story, what you read, is only part of it.  The rest of the story should be buried beneath.  By removing things the author understands well, he can make his story stronger.  A role-playing setting can work the same way: very rarely have I seen economics discussions erupt in earnest among my players, such as wondering what happens to the loot they sell to the local merchant, but if you understand the economics of your world and your setting is carefully built around it, or at least inspired by it, it can hang together in a pleasing way, and when players ask "Hey, why is X?" then you have a ready answer.

This, by the way, is how you solve the Willow/Brent dichotomy when building  your setting.  Brent doesn't care about anything that's not directly pertinent to him, but Willow wants to know more and more and more and to see that it all works.  If a setting element isn't directly pertinent, then it should be optional, buried beneath layers of gameplay as a foundation element, but if Willow wants to know about it, she should have the opportunity to dive deeper, to get more out of your material when she wants to.

How does this apply to Mass Combat?  Even if we don't want to use Mass Combat in Psi-Wars, understanding what it looks like could tell us a great deal about Psi-Wars as a setting.  Mass Combat discusses not just strategy, but logistics, administration and supply lines.  Understanding how and why factions in a setting goes to war tells you a lot about the underpinnings of the setting.  Furthermore, Psi-Wars is derived from the Action genre, and in Action, even if Mass Combat doesn't directly show up, the state of militaries in the world and global conflict definitely provides context to the action that takes place.  Finally, just because I think Mass Combat is a terrible idea doesn't mean you, dear reader, agree.  Perhaps you have a crazy good idea.  If I explore Mass Combat, even for one post, I can serve all of these needs.

Mass Combat in Psi-Wars

Mass Combat has its own, pre-existing units, it's own pre-existing tags and its own pre-existing quality levels.  I should be able to simply plug and play with relative ease.

Troop Quality has a one-to-one mapping with the mook quality I defined back in Iteration 4. Poor Quality troops are BAD 0, or Skill 9-10.  Basic Quality troops are BAD 2, or Skill 12.  Most Imperial troops are Basic Quality. Good Quality troops are BAD 5, or skill 15.  Kill Squad Elites are Good Quality, and Fanatic to boot.  Finally, Elite Quality troops are BAD 8, or skill 18.

Equipment Quality is harder to pin down.  Obviously, the sort of gear you see Alien Warriors, basic Security Agents, Partisans and Criminals running around with is probably Poor Gear. The next obvious step up from that, Basic Gear, would be the reliable and common sort of gear of paramilitary security agents and most Alliance soldiers.  The advanced-but-troubled gear of the empire is probably Good. The extra-expensive, bells-and-whistles gear of the Kill Squad Elite or other Heavies might be Fine, and the "no expense spared" of someone with an advanced plasma battle rifle, a force glaive and a top-notch heavy combat hardsuit is probably Extra Fine. Perhaps we could see the Elite Ceremonial Guard as Elite Quality with Elite Gear.  No wonder their so terrifying!

Carbine Troopers are obviously just Riflemen with Good Gear and Basic Quality (and Night and Sealed).  Kill Squad Elite are simply better equipped and trained Riflemen, with Fanatic.  Flamer Troopers don't really fit into anything... but they could be Combat Engineers.  Heavy Troopers are clearly Heavy Support Weapons. Recon troopers don't fit in well.  Troops like Commandos might by Anti-C3I Riflemen, but Recon Troopers are mostly just spotters for artillery, and thus part of some hypothetical (SP) Artillery unit.

What else do we  have?  The Empire-Class Dreadnought and the Typhoon-Class Starfighter!  We don't have their explicit Mass Combat values, but we can derive them from Pyramid #3-30: Spaceships.

What additional troop options could we have?  The obvious elements from Star Wars are the Super-Tank (the AT-AT, especially as treated by Empire at War, was definitely a Super-Tank), a Light Tank (the AT-ST) and Sky Troopers or Motorized Recon Troops (covering recon troops on speeder bikes).  From GURPS, the Light Tank also stands out, as does the Flying Tank (aka the Grav Tank), and the Drop Ship (which is probably the Banshee-Class drop ship, in our case).  Simply from our own design, especially our WW2 leanings, the Main Battle Tank, the Infantry Fighting Vehicle (or the Flying IFV), the Close Air Support aircraft, and, of course, Self-Propelled Artillery.

Not all of these things are necessarily useful, but they are, together, interesting to look at for ideas.

Carbine Troopers
F, Rec, Night, Sealed
Kill Squad
F, Rec, Fanatic, Night, Sealed
Flame Trooper
Eng, F, Night, Sealed
F, Night, Sealed
Empire Class Dreadnought
C3I, Space, T6000
C3I, Space
Light Tank
Arm, Cv, F, Rec, Nt, Sld, Hov
Flying Tank
Air, Arm, Cv, F
Arm, Cv, F, Night, Sld
Super Tank
Arm, Art, Cv, C3I, F
Motorized Recon
F, Rec
Sky Troopers
F, Rec
Arm, Cv, F, T1
Flying IFV
Air, Arm, Cv, F, T1
Drop Ship
Air, T5
CAS Aircraft

A note for those of you keeping score at home: the Empire-Class Dreadnought has a b by its Raise and Maintain.  That stands for billions.  It's not a cheap vessel.  It it also has a troop strength in the millions. Furthermore, I've guessed at T values and WT values, but the Pyramid article I cited above suggest just using the weight directly.  About 5 tons will give you one "T", so the Empire Class Dreadnought has a "T" of 6000, and a Typhoon a WT of 2, which matches what we expect out of an Empire-Class Dreadnought: up to 3000 typhoons (in case you need that many). In actual practice, we have more specific values than that.  For example, you can't just stuff 60,000 soldiers into the hangar bay.  You need to feed them, house them, keep them happy, and that means a cabins.

So we have pieces of an army, some of which are useful, others are not.  Some of the values look completely off  (Why are CAS aircraft so powerful, and light tanks so weak?).  But one thing that stands out to me is that a Drop Ship is the one thing that will get most of materiel down from orbit and into combat with the enemy... and it can't carry a lot of this equipment: No MBTs, no artillery, certainly no super-tanks!  Suddenly Ultra-Tech's fascination with a light-tank makes more sense.  Motorized Recon and Sky Troopers are identical when it comes to troop strength and how they're applied to battle.  Their primary difference is in cost and form of mobility.  Are we better off with IFVs or Flying IFVs?  Personally, I think some numbers need to be rebalanced, especially some of the costs, and this sort of rebalancing is one of the reasons I really don't want to do Mass Combat in Psi-Wars.  I don't want to spend another couple of weeks working out a detailed constellation of Mass Combat troop-options for what amounts to a minor subsidiary of the main focus of gameplay,

But, again, even if I decide not to pursue Mass Combat, looking into it can tell us a lot about our setting.  Look at the fact that a drop ship can't carry anything heavier than a light tank.  Look at how much equipment an Empire-Class Dreadnought can transport.  Look at how important a CAS aircraft, and artillery, are.  If you were to design a military force from Mass Combat, what would it look like?  What would its primary focus be?  What is your military doctrine?  If we understand that, we can understand a great deal about how the military context of Psi-Wars.

I offer you three views inspired by the Mass Combat System.  You can decide for yourself what you'd like to see.

Three Imperial Military Doctrines

The Compact Empire

The First Order, what a compact empire might look like
Let's focus on the Empire-Class Dreadnought.  To my eye, it looks like a completely self-sufficient ship.  It has the fire-power to take out any other ship in the Psi-Wars catalog, and a yawning hangar bay sufficient to deploy a small army. As an expression of Imperial might, the Empire-Class Dreadnought need only drop out of hyperspace by a planet to engage in gunboat diplomacy.  By showing the colors and reminding the recalcitrant natives of the fact that the empire can bomb them back to the stone age without leaving orbit, should generally be enough to discourage rebellion.  If rebellion begins, the dreadnought can deploy soldiers to put it down.

But how many?  The Empire-Class Dreadnought has room for a crew of 4600.  Around 1800 are bridge crew, technicians and so on.  That leaves more than 3000 for soldiers (or pilots!).  In practice, I expect the number will be much smaller, as this needs to include support and logistic personnel.  Let's consider the case of 1000 soldiers, or 100 rifleman mass combat units, which is a regiment (if we push to the full 3000, we could claim a brigade).  But a regiment isn't just a thousand soldiers milling about.  They have artillery support, CAS support, recon squads, tanks, etc.  Plus they need transportation down to the planet.  What does all of that look like in practice.  What sort of equipment is an Empire-Class dreadnought carrying?

If we imagine a platoon like so:
  • 3-5 infantry units of 10 soldiers
  • 1-2 heavy support weapons
  • 1-3 vehicles in support
Then when we scale it up to a full 1000 soldiers, we get something like this:
  • 100 infantry squads: 50 tons of cargo (TS 20,000)
  • 50 HSW: 125 tons of cargo (TS 25,000)
  • 10 grav-bike recon squads: 50 tons of cargo (TS 3500)
  • 10 light tanks: 200 tons of cargo (TS 20,000)
  • 10 CAS: 1500 tons of cargo (TS 150,000)
  • 10 Flying IFV (likely filled with kill squads): 1500 tons of cargo-hauling (TS 25,000)

We need 100 banshees to deploy all of this in a single go. That costs us 10,000 tons. That leaves us with about 16,000 tons of space, which gives us 200 typhoon interceptors (TS 1.25 million) and 100 typhoon breakers.  An dreadnought might scale back on the air power to add additional land power, but this is a good order of magnitude.

So an Empire-Class Dreadnought, all on its own, can deploy an entire air-force worth of fighter-craft, a full regiment of soldiers, a couple of tank platoons complete with aerial support and rapid, aerial deployment of soldiers.  This, in short, is a small army, one more than capable of taking a city.

And taking cities is probably what this army does.  A single regiment, no matter how well equipped, would fair poorly against an entire planet.  I expect this force could easily destabalize something on par with most non-super-power nations on Earth (setting aside even technological differences), but it would be very hard pressed to fight the US or even China or Russia.  But a dreadnought doesn't need to fight an entire planet.  It has the fighter/bombers to maintain total orbital dominance, and then blast the planet into submission.  Its military force becomes a surgical scalpel.  The real life-line of a world is its starport, which ties it into intragalactic commerce.  Without that, the world will starve and dwindle.  But blasting the starport strips the dreadnought's commander from any potentially valuable resources the planet might have.  So, instead, it might without total bombardment unless the locals resist with too much ferocity, and send its regiment to pacify just the starport, or just topple a single linchpin official.  The dreadnought applies the deft touch of the conquistador rather than the total dominion of the mongol horde.

This strategy reminds me of how Warhammer 40k Space Marines fight: They too deploy bikes, light tanks, and soldiers in drop pods.  They value mobility and compact forces, and send their land forces as surgical attacks to do what their orbital bombardment couldn't.  It also reminds me of a pirate force: Drop some armored bikes and some light tanks, neither of which are great but are better than what the locals have, speed around, take everyone's stuff, get back to the drop ships, and take off!

I find this an interesting premise, and it more than anything makes me want to try Mass Combat.  Imagine a campaign centered on a single, rogue Dreadnought, run by the players, which roams the galaxy raiding planets for resources, staying one step ahead of the enemy while trying to secure enough intergalactic space credits to keep their army alive until they can... do the thing they really want to do, whatever it is.

But I'm not convinced it's very imperial.  It doesn't match the grand, awe-inspiring power of the Empire that I previously discussed.  We need a different model.

The Towering Empire

The Battle of Hoth, a good example of a
towering empire in action
I stated in the previous discussion of imperial military doctrine that they prefer shock and awe.  I chose this direction for two reasons.  First, it fits with the Empire as depicted in Star Wars: It's massive AT-ATs, its looming Star Destroyers, and its jaw-dropping Death Star. Second, it makes a sort of political and martial sense.  Displaying the massive power of the empire will encourage other nations to submit more quickly to Imperial power, and it also prevents disgruntled nations from rebelling for fear of calling down that might upon themselves, and, most importantly, it puts money in the pockets of friendly industrialists and impresses the courtiers and centers of power back home (one of the reasons you see so much glowing coverage of American military action is that it plays well back home.  Watching Star Destroyers ripping the crap out of "criminals and rebel scum" might play well back in the Empire's core worlds).

This suggests things like the Super-Tank.  Empire at War treated the AT-AT as a super-tank, and just a handful slaughtered the rebel resistance on Hoth. We could build a supremely large tank, an Ogre, that towers over the horizon, raining death down on your opponents.  If we want to deploy it from orbit, we'd need a huge drop ship, and probably sufficient time to unload the thing.  Given its size, how slowly it would deploy, and its enormous cost, why would you even build such a thing?  For that matter, why would you even bother with land warfare at all, especially when the compact option works so well? Well, as was stated before, such a small strike force couldn't defeat a whole world, but a couple of Ogres might.  But anything an Ogre can do, a dreadnought can do better: Your spaceship will be bigger, better armored, carry more firepower, and be much farther away.  If you want to rain destruction, why not do it from a dreadnought?

What if you couldn't? In the Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars introduced the planetary shield.  The idea is a huge generator that does nothing but generate a shield that makes it difficult to attack or even land in the vicinity.  The Empire had to land outside the shield radius and march in, which is why it did it with tanks and once the shields were down, flew in shuttles that landed on the base.  Why not just fly under the shield with your shuttle?  Anti-Aircraft batteries.  A low-flying aircraft is almost always more vulnerable (especially if its designed to carry stuff rather than to fight) because of its necessarily lighter air-frame.  A tank, that can rest on the ground, can afford to be heavier and thus more well armored.

The shield protects the AA guns from orbital bombardment.  The AA protects the base from aerial assault that comes under the planetary shield. Therefore, the answer is to have a heavy land-force that lands someplace relatively safe outside of the planetary shield, walks in, and demolishes the defenses well enough that a full orbital attack can commence.  Just as it worked on Hoth.

How do these shields and AA guns work?  That's a good question, and yet another reason I'm leery of going deeply into mass combat.  Outside of mass combat, planetary shields prevent orbital bombardment and direct landings by shuttle (you can't fly through them).  AA guns are probably just very large blaster turrets aimed skyward with very rapid, light fire, the sort of thing you'd put on a capital ship to shoot down fighters.

The AT-AT had legs so that it looked like a monster.  The idea was to give the impression of dragons that our heroes could slay.  One thing that has always stood out to me, as I watched the clone wars, was how robotic AT-ATs and AT-STs looked.  Ogres are also traditionally associated with AI (so you don't need to waste any room on crew).  Together, I think I'd rather see a super-tank as something associated with our robot armies: these huge and terrifyingly monstrous tanks crawling around on legs and carrying the sinister, calculating intellect of the robotic general.  The Empire could do this too, but let's look at another option.

The Modern Empire

The Clone Wars might show us how
a modern empire might fight
The other aspect of the imperial military doctrine is rapid, forward movement.  Blitzkrieg, in other words.  This isn't a mistake: the Empire is heavily inspired by WW2 Germany.  Why not draw further inspiration from that, but also modern war: a highly mobile, highly modern force that's well coordinated and constantly on the move.

The Empire of Star Wars has earned a measure of respect from its fans that I rarely see given to the villains of other fandoms, and when you watch them in action, I find it easy to see why.  The Empire is effective.  It has a polished, professional and modern force.  You can make sense of how they act, and they often win.  They destroyed Alderaan, captured the Princess, almost defeated the Rebels at Yavin, defeated them at Hoth, captured Han and defeated Luke at Bespin, and sprung an effective trap on the rebels at Endor (their only mistake was to overlook the natives, and honestly, who would expect that sticks and stones could zip through stormtrooper armor?)

Our Empire could be similar.  This would imply artillery, machine guns, main battle tanks and close air support, two of which our previous doctrine already had.  This army would look more like the Towering Empire in that it would settle outside of a planetary shield and raid in, using heavier transports to get its artillery and MBTs down, but once they were there, they'd have total domination over anything less than a Super Tank.  If everything was automated, with IFVs transporting our soldiers, then we have a highly rapid force with considerable fire-power, and we gain our shock-and-awe and our blitzkrieg.

This empire looks more like the modern US or WW2 Germany than it does the Empire of Star Wars, but I think I can live with that.

The Disposable Empire

(E), over on discord, made an interesting point that I want to include here so that if I forget later, I can come back to it and, of course, to inspire you, dear reader.

"Why build heavy lifters?  Why not just parachute everything in, and then leave it?"

The logic goes like this: The empire has access to an entire galaxy's worth of industrial power, and it can afford to focus it onto a single hostile world.  It can afford to throw away its tanks by just hurling them onto a planet and then forgetting about them.  If they lose, then they're just rust on a planet, and if they win, eh, it's the same thing.  Either way, you go and build more tanks.

This explains quite a few features of the empire, like the look-alike, industrial quality of storm troopers, and the extremely cheap and disposable TIE fighter.  A disposable empire would focus on sheer numbers of cheap, low-quality combat vehicles it could afford to overwhelm the enemy with and then just... leave them on on conquered worlds as garrison forces or just abandon them.  The only things you really care about are your delivery systems, like your dreadnoughts, which become the heart of your imperial power (along with your industrial might).

This might seem heartless, but they're just machines.  People can be easily ferried up and down, so after the battle is won, you can go and pick up the survivors, bring them back to the dreadnought and move on.  Of course, this means in the first, harried moments of invasion, it's win or die, because if you lose, there's no handy dropship you can retreat to.  The empire can mitigate this somewhat by blowing the hell out of everything with orbital bombardments, but an invasion is probably occurring under circumstances where orbital bombardment either isn't possible or is undesirable.  Thus, storm troopers really really need to win, which might explain their ferocious fanaticism and their rather low quality.

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