Thursday, September 27, 2018

Sensors, Planetary Power and Comments on Smuggling: A Psi-Wars Electronics Ammendum

While not strictly necessary for the running of a good Psi-Wars game, I personally enjoy thinking through the consequences of my choices, and I find that many of my readers enjoy that as well.  Of course, a good space opera game doesn't really care much about the details, and cares more about the "Wow!" factor.  For example, a lot of Star Wars die-hards like to complain about a particular scene in the Last Jedi, while a lot of people counter "It's just a movie, it's cool, stop thinking about it so much," and that's fair!  If you stopped and overthought most of your space opera, you could probably poke a million holes in it, and the Rule of Cool matters more.  But that said, I find that having a bit of verisimilitude can help, especially if it doesn't hurt.  I've tried to arrange Psi-Wars so that it makes sense where possible.  I don't demand that you use it this way, but I try to bake it in without really getting in your way, so that if a weird question comes up, it can be easily and logically answered.

What follows here is my musings over the consequences of the scanner rules I have created, paired with some thoughts on hyperspace, war, smuggling and pirates and the roles fighters might play in such a situation.  It's really not necessary to understand, but like my discussions on Patreon about imperial "tactics," or my discussions on this blog about Insurgent Tactics, I find some people enjoy this sort of musing, so if you do, well, see you after the jump!

Sensors and Space War

Counter-intuitively, Psi-Wars doesn’t see much in the way of space combat, at least not in the sense of “deep space.” It, like Star Wars, focuses more on orbital combat. From the battle of Naboo to the battle of Coruscant, to the battle of Scarif to the battle of Yavin IV, to the battle of Hoth and to the Battle of Endor, all Star Wars battles take place in orbit around a planet, or near enough to a planet that this does not matter. This makes sense: Hyperspace jumps let you “skip” all the intervening space, and all the interesting stuff in Psi-Wars takes place on a planet. I expect Psi-Wars to be similar, and I have, thus, based on my sensory range numbers on orbital numbers.

Defensive Considerations

It should be noted, however, that Psi-Wars ships don’t actually orbit their worlds. Contragravity and Hyperdynamic technologies allow the ships to float essentially “for free,” so they only need to get as high as they wish, presumably to get a better vantage without losing the ability to easily access the location they are guarding. Thus most ships will have a “parking orbit” above their chosen location despite behind much lower than a geocentric orbit: they’re not actually orbiting (that is, falling towards the planet sidewise so fast that they keep missing), they’re just “floating” very high up.

No orbit grants a ship a complete view of the entire planet or all ships that may want to land on a planet. If you are the Empire, or any authority, you’ll want to monitor the comings and goings of traders to prevent contraband (this is not necessarily sinister: you’d probably want to prevent slave trade, drug trade or lightning-quick pirate raids on any world you govern). Assuming your 10,000 mile radar, you can effectively set up a “cone” of observation over, at most, one half of the planet. You would need a minimum of 2 ships to watch the entire planet at the same time, and such ships would be unable to communicate with one another and there may be blind spots. 6 ships, forming a “cube” around the planet would likely prove more effective. If my math is correct, this would require them to be about 400 miles above the planet, and put them about 5500 miles apart, if they wanted maintain “sight-lines” with one another.

If a ship wanted to sneak through their perimeter, it would want to do it at a “join” of the cones, equidistant from any two or three of the ships. This would be around 2500 miles away from any specific ship (if we account for all three ships and do some clever trigonometry), which gives us the actual range we need for orbital detection ranges (3000 miles or so). By comparison, the distance from NYC to London is about 3500 miles.

If a corvette traveling at 600 miles per hour (about as fast as a freighter can possibly go), and assuming a detection range of 3000 miles, if your corvette was pointed at that ideal point between all ships, and it was detected 3000 miles away from any given ship (It can be detected farther away, but at this range it becomes a near certainty), then it would be roughly 3300 miles from the surface, and would take ~5 hours to reach the planet. Assuming a dreadnought can travel at ~200 miles per hour, it would take it about 12 hours to reach that “center point,” which means it would almost certainly arrive too late to meaningfully interfere with the arrival of the corvette. It could signal the planet about its arrival, but that still gives the ship plenty of time to land, disembark some passengers (say, a raiding party, or some smugglers who vanish into the underbrush) and even take off and leave orbit and shunt to hyperspace before the dreadnought arrived.

The solution is to launch interceptors. Assuming that an interceptor can travel at 600 miles per hour, it will arrive at the location ~4 hours later, and could reasonably catch up to the freighter, certainly by the time the freighter wanted to launch, or to attack freighter as its landing. An interceptor that travels at 1000 miles per hour (slightly faster than most supersonic jet fighters), it would arrive in 2 and a half hours, or roughly at the middle point of the freighter’s landing arc. In fact, if all three dreadnoughts launched when they detected the freighter, it would receive three times as many fighters as is if it charged directly at a dreadnought.

This highlights a core mission of fighters: they represent rapid-response projections of power. In Star Wars, they typically fight near capital ships, but in Psi-Wars, they are more likely to attack enemies far away from the carrier, which is true of real-world fighters and carriers since the dawn of carriers: the reason the carrier eclipsed the battleship as the primary source of firepower was its ability to project firepower over the horizon, and while we don’t have “over the horizon” needs here, a shot fired 2500 miles away might be pushing things (though we should do some math on that!). Fighters will often be far away from their carriers, which means they need fuel to match. Space fighter combat looks more like Wing Commander than Star Wars (which makes sense, actually).

This likely says some things about the sorts of fighters we might expect to see. Some of my readers have commented on the role of an “interceptor,” a craft focused on speed and endurance, to act as a “first response” for a distant and/or fast-moving target. I had mentally dismissed the need for such a role (despite calling certain fighters “interceptors” we don’t really see fighters that support this in Star Wars), but upon looking at this, its clear that we may well see such vehicles. The classic star wars fighter is more of an “air superiority” fighter, something that clears local orbit of fighters, be it in the defense of its carrier, or in preparing a space for incoming bombers. Our “bombers” are likely not dropping “dumb” ordinance like WW2 bombers or the bombers of the Last Jedi, but instead, more like “strike craft” which carry missiles and torpedos and move quickly: the Y-Wing is a better example. For ground-attack, for the classic role of “utterly destroying ground targets,” the orbital bombardment of a capital ship is likely sufficient, but we may see close-air support (the equivalent of what a gunship offers) for precision attacks at the direction of local infantry.

Offensive Considerations

Those seeking to punch through the defenses of a planet, be it for attack, for a lightning raid, or for smuggling, will need their own sets of tactics. They must either defeat a dreadnought and then make their way through before it receives reinforcements, or they must bypass those defenses altogether, ideally before the defenders can react.

The best tool for this is, by far, hyperspace. If a supremely skilled smuggler could have superliminal reactions and shunt into real-space from hyperspace in atmosphere, then that would be the ideal tactic, but I think reasonably one should expect to shunt out of hyperspace “thousands” of miles from surface of a planet, not a handful of miles. Thus, one will shunt outside of the defensive perimeter, not inside of it (The exact distance is worth considering, as it impacts the above calculations! If it’s 1000 miles above the surface, then a fast-traveling freighter can be down in less time than the fighters can arrive!)

So, one must choose is point of entry. He might directly attack the dreadnought, which puts him about 5000 miles from every other dreadnought; at ~200 miles per hour, this gives them a day or so to respond, at which point the battle will be long over one way or the other; to send interceptors traveling at 1000 miles per hour would take them 5 hours to intercept; depending on how far away the ship entered real-space, that might be enough. If the ship entered into real-space 3000 miles above the surface, at 200 miles per hour it would take 13 hours to arrive, at which point all of the other fighters would certainly have arrived, and corvettes moving at 600 miles per hour would also arrive.

This does raise an interesting assault tactic, however: jump in a big, well-armored dreadnought and point it straight at a single defensive ship and bear relentlessly down for it. Allow the other dreadnoughts to respond, sending reinforcements and moving closer to the beleaguered defender. Then jump in the second, a larger half of the fleet at the vulnerable points opened up by the shifting defensive lines and make your rapid planetary assault; this tactic lends itself better to lightning raids than total planetary domination, and might be the sort of thing you see pirates do to crack open well-defended worlds.

The other point of entry is that “middle point” between the overlapping zones of the defenders. This would be a preferred tactic for smugglers or raiders who want to land, and then dart into some place where they can hide and lay low for awhile, and perhaps make the rest of their trip on foot, beyond the prying sky-eyes of the orbital defenders. You either need to hit that “join” at very high speeds, faster than they can scramble interceptors, which requires something like a plasma drive or a cranked-up ion drive at the very least. A well-armed craft might pull it off. Alternatively, they can count on stealth and jamming to delay the reactions of the defenders long enough that they can swiftly insert before the interceptors can respond to them.

Hyperspace Revisited

All of this requires some design decisions, which have forced me to think about Hyperspace. The questions are these:

  • How close can you emerge from hyperspace when you approach a planet

    • For that matter, how far from a planet do you have to be to get the “frame dragging” effect?

  • What sort of bonus do people get to detect someone emerging from hyperspace?

    • Can you tell where they came from, and or where they are going when they shunt?

    • If you can, is your course automatically “set” when you’re in hyperspace or can you maneuver to “throw them off your trail?”

  • Can you just drop out of hyperspace wherever you like?

For proximity, after much thought, I’ve settled on one planetary radius, which for most worlds will be 4000 miles. This allows us our conceit of gravity’s interference with Hyperspace travel. The same limit applies to frame dragging. You can drop out of hyperspace closer by accepting a penalty to your navigation roll: -1 for every 10% closer, to a maximum of -9 for 400 miles from the planet. On average, this gives a “slow” impulse drive ship (100 mph) a 40 hour journey to the planet (2 days), a fast impulse drive ship (300 miles per hour) a 12 hour trip, a fast grav-drive ship (600 miles per hour) a 6 hour trip, and a screaming interceptor (1000 miles per hour) a 4 hour trip to the planet.

Detecting someone emerging from hyperspace in your sensory range is at a bonus equal to the emerging ships’ SM+4. You get advance warning equal to 1 minute times your margin of success. You may do an analysis roll (also Electronics Operations (Sensors) roll) to get a sense of the rough direction they came from. If someone jumps in from beyond your sensor range, you may roll to detect with a bonus equal to half their SM (in addition to the standard penalties for detecting beyond your range). When a ship shunts into hyperspace, you can make an Electronics Operation (Sensors) roll with a bonus equal to their SM to get a rough idea of what direction they’re going in. In all cases, the ship leaving can accept a -1 to his Navigation roll (and add +5% to his travel time, if it matters) per -4 he wishes to apply to rolls trying to figure out where he’s going in hyperspace; this won’t prevent people from detecting his departure or arrival, but they will prevent people from figuring out where he’s going. This represents charting a more circuitous route through hyperspace. Once you know the direction someone came from, or where they’re going, you can roll Navigation (Hyperspace), Area Knowledge (Constellation) or Intelligence Analysis to use your knowledge of range, direction and likely systems to guess from/to which specific system the ship went/came.

Travel in hyperspace is analogous to physical travel. Ships coming from the same system and going to the same system will emerge from hyperspace in approximately the same area. For a flat -2 to your navigation roll, you can arrive in some unexpected area. You cannot, however, “pass through” the planet to arrive on the far side of it, but you may, for example, overshoot the planet on the far side to come at it from a reverse angle.

The Shape of Power in Space.

For the most part, I don’t think the average player will care about any of this. Star Wars certainly doesn’t. In Star Wars, you “jump in” and the enemy fleet is already there. There’s never a case where you have to jump in and then maneuver around for awhile (except for the Empire Strikes Back, the script of which implies some maneuvering, and the unusual space-chase of the Last Jedi). But this sort of information can inform some of our abstracted choices and tell us something about how planets tend to array themselves when it comes to dealing with space traffic.

Most worlds will have a “high” and “low” orbit, though it should be noted that “orbit” is a misnomer here, as most ships will float, rather than orbit. High orbit is at the hyperspatial terminus, one planetary radius from the planet. At the point of greatest traffic, where most ships will arrive, the planet will have a nearby space dock for things like freighters to come by and drop off their goods and pick up new goods, and they can rely on swifter, grav-drive shuttles to take them down to the planet in hours rather than days.

“Low Orbit” is about 100-500 miles up, and it’s the point where defenders and patrol vessels will monitor traffic. Most defenders will space themselves apart to 4-6 points. If they can afford six points, they will achieve total planetary coverage, but if they can only afford 4 points, then they’ll skip the polar regions, as little tends to happen there; this means that most smuggler dens will be in polar areas.

Most worlds will concern themselves with a relatively small area of real-estate, about the size of a modern nation-state. This allows them to patrol a limited area for potential smugglers and to condense their defenses. This leaves wide, open areas of relatively “wild” landscape, where most of your mining occurs, and a fair amount of lawlessness, perhaps with a few spare settlers.

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