Friday, November 30, 2018

Let's talk Ranges: Remote Combat and the Casaba Howitzer

Something hitting from Remote range strikes me as best used as a plot device. - Brett Tamahori
First, let me apologize for my lack of posts lately.  My wife's having a rough pregnancy which means I sometimes need to step in, and this is happening more and more lately, so I get in posts when I can.  I'm almost finished with the rules, and I have one last "playtest" I'd like to post and then I'll move onto something much more fun, I promise. In the very least, I've been looking forward to it.  In the meantime, I wanted to take a moment to post something I've really wanted to since I saw a discussion on my discord channel, so if you'll humor me, I'd like to jump in and tackle it.

I feel like the ranges offered in GURPS Action and GURPS Dogfighting and my own system are pretty abstract.  What is Remote range anyway? For that matter, what is "Extreme" when it comes to space combat?  And what sort of ranges should you allow in your games?  As a bonus, I wanted to talk briefly about the "Casaba Howitzer" that one poster brought up, and whether it "breaks" Psi-Wars.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Psionic Powers in Dogfighting Action!

"The Force guides my controls!"

―Delta-7 pilot

Star Wars often discusses the fact that Jedi made amazing pilots, and during the Clone Wars, they even employed different starfighters than the rest, precisely because of the advantages their force sensitivity gave them. In principle, Psi-Wars should be the same, and we expect Templars and Space Knights to be exceptional pilots. However, while Star Wars offers nebulous reasons for Jedi excellence as pilots (“The force guides them,”) in an RPG, we need more concrete reasons for that excellence. Hence, we need to discuss how psychic powers and offer advantages to a pilot.

I wanted to move away from GURPS Spaceships Combat for a few reasons, but the big one is that it involved “incomprehensible distances.” That is, I certainly didn’t understand how to handle the scale of distances involved, and I notice that when I start talking about remote ranges, people get uncomfortable and talk about it causing problems even though it’s the shortest range of GURPS Space Combat, which highlights the problem. Worse, GURPS doesn’t really operate that well on those ranges. It can, of course, but most material out there assumes more terrestrial, rather than celestial, distances, because that’s the distances in which the average human character operates in.

This definitely applies to psionic powers. This was a topic I intended to visit at some point, and when I finally did, I immediately noticed that the change from Spaceship combat to GURPS Action chase rules immediately made a lot of psychic powers more relevant “for free” precisely because we reduced ranges to something that GURPS Psychic Powers could handle “out of the box.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Why Capital Ships: Space Artillery and Tactical Command (Part 2 of 2)

Yesterday I dove into the basic theory of capital ships in my GURPS Action chase update. Today, I round it out with a look at truly long range combat, and gaining a tactical advantage on your opponent.

Remote Combat

Lando Calrissian: Yes, I said *closer*! Move as close as you can, and engage those Star Destroyers at point blank range!

Admiral Ackbar: At that close range we won't last long against those Star Destroyers!

Lando Calrissian: We'll last longer than we will against that Death Star! And we might just take a few of them with us!

--Return of the Jedi

GURPS Action’s Chase rules do not extend beyond “Extreme,” because we begin to struggle with horizons and ground clutter at some point. However, Dogfighting Action! includes two new ranges: Distant and Beyond Visual, which represent ranges made possibly by the extreme distances of air combat. I want to add two more: Remote and Beyond Remote.

Once we get into space combat, ranges begin to widen to an impossible degree. Orbital bombardment takes place from distances up to 100 miles away! In principle, one should be able to blast another target in space from such a distance. Of course, this is “point-blank” in GURPS Spaceships, and too extreme a distance begins to diminish the “in your face” visuals of Star Wars and Psi-Wars, but nonetheless, I think there is room for powerful artillery ships blasting one another from a phenomenal distance, or at least a seemingly phenomenal distance.

Every range band in the Action system is roughly five times as far as the previous band. Extreme is up to a mile, while Distant is up to 5 miles, and Beyond Visual is “beyond that.” If we follow the progression, Beyond Visual would end at up to 25 miles, and “Remote” would end at up to ~125 miles or -27 to -31.

We need to answer a few questions before we can introduce a new range band, as there are always degrees of distance between ourselves and every object in existence, but most such distances are not tactically relevant. We need to know if Remote is tactically relevant: can a ship at that distance coordinate others, can it attack, can it be attacked, and can people reach it on the time-scales of GURPS Action Chase sequences?

For coordination and attack, the answer is an easy yes. We can easily have communications and sensors devices with ranges at about 100 miles, which is roughly the range of Remote. We can also easily attack out to that distance with pretty much any blaster weapon of any reasonable size. In fact, it’s so easy to attack from 100 miles away that I’ve reduced the ranges of blasters. I’ve included the details in the new version of my Vehicles conversion. Suffice it to say, only Super-Heavy capital turrets and most super-weapons have this sort of range now, as opposed to even fighter-level cannons.

A greater problem with an attack are the accuracy penalties. For a capital ship firing an aimed blaster cannon at another capital ship from 100 miles away, we’re looking at an average crew skill of 12 + an SM of 13 + 5 from sensor lock and targeting computer and +9 from accuracy – 30 from range penalties, or 9, which is less than a 50% chance of hitting. We’ll need some ways to improve this, as well as some reasonable ways to defend from such a long-range attack.

The trickier question is if it can be attacked or if a ship can reach it on the GURPS Action time-scales. In principle, we can say a ship is unreachable (say, 10,000 miles away) but is freely able to shoot you. This does not create fun gameplay, naturally, as combat occurs on vast, strategic distances and over exceedingly short time-scales, similar to how an ICBM-based nuclear war would go. This is not what we want. So, can we reach a ship that’s about 100 miles away in a minute? Or, more accurately, can we go from between 125 and 26 miles away to between 25 and 5 miles away from a target within a minute at our chosen speeds?

Our target speeds are about 1000 mph for a fighter, 600 miles per hour for corvettes, and between 300 and 100 miles per hour for a capital ship, and an action turn takes one minute. In a single minute, a fighter can cover 15 miles, a corvette can cover 10 miles, and a capital ship can cover between 5 and one-and-a-half miles. Frankly, this already begins to cause problems at dogfighter distances because going from beyond visual (minimum of 5 miles away) to distant (minimum of 1 mile away) is beyond the possibility of slow capital ship. In the best case scenario, a fighter reach a target at 26 miles away in two minutes; 125 miles takes closer to 10 minutes. A corvette can reach a target 26 miles away in up to 3 minutes, while 125 miles away takes nearly 15 minutes. At 300 miles per hour, a capital ship will reach a target 26 miles away in ~5 minutes and 125 miles in nearly half an hour. It is not possible in any account to really interact with a remote target in exactly one minute, though it’s not so far away that it’s really beyond the chase rules: in most cases, you could hand wave things away and suggest that the target is reachable on a 5-minute scale rather than a 1-minute scale, or that you can reach the target, but you’ll suffer several attack attempts.

If we take all of this together, it suggests we should treat remote carefully if we’re going to use it at all. To be useful in combat, we might add an “aiming” action which represents something similar to using the Dead

All of this together suggests we should treat remote carefully, if we’re going to handle it at all. First, remote requires some sort of time-consuming “precision aiming” action where you carefully line up your shots, the same idea as Precision Aiming from GURPS High-Tech; we can grant a +4 to hit, but also a +2 to dodge, representing the fact that at such distances, even a slight evasive action can offer considerable defensive benefits, and also mimics the Telegraphic attack rules. This gives a capital ship a roll of 13 or less to hit a target, but improves another capital ship’s dodge from an average of a pointless 2 to a possible 4, while corvettes and fighters are effectively impossible at that range. Second, I would require a minimum of 100 mile range on weapons, comms and sensors to effectively operate at that range. Third, I would argue that a Remote vehicle cannot gain advantage on another target (you’re too far away to meaningfully outmaneuver your target at any speed). This helps reduce the lethality of the remote ship: you’re firing with a more limited number of your guns, your target is hard to hit, and your opponent can adjust his force screens so they face your direction. A generic battleship is only going to hit with two or three of this super-heavy cannons, and against a target with 10k force screens, he’ll fail to penetrate DR at all. You really need a super-weapon to operate at such a range, or you need to target a less well-defended vehicle. Fourth, when it comes to movement, we can treat moving from Remote to Beyond Visual as a two-shift move. This is a little cinematic, as it means that a fighter can move from remote to beyond visual in a single minute with a good roll, while corvettes will typically require two minutes, and capital ships will require a lot of rolling to successfully chase down their target, unless their target is static (which is possible). Finally, I would make this an optional rule: it’s an interesting scenario when dealing with orbital bombardment or when tackling a super weapon, and it’s a good place to park your carrier if you want it help coordinate your battle, but it’s probably more detail than necessary in any other cases.

Formation and Tactics

One important element of GURPS Spaceships is the ability of the commanding officer to exert his tactical acumen to grant his vessel a benefit over his opponent. The Officer template excels at Tactics, and thus we would expect them to be able to bring their excellence to bear against opponents here too.

The first and most obvious way in which an Officer can gain the strategic upperhand against his opponent is with the already existent foresight rules. I’ll talk more about Lucky Breaks later, but suffice it to say, Foresight can translate directly into a Lucky Break, in the same way that Serendipity can.

However, I’d like to make tactics more directly useful, moment by moment. I can simply borrow the tactics rules from GURPS Spaceships, but I want to revisit them and see if we can return to base principles and see whether or not they still fit. After all, the Chase rules don’t use tactics, nor does the Dogfighting rules. Why should we? What sort of benefits would they provide?

In reality, I do think you see tactics in chase scenes! Random mooks who simply point their vehicles at the enemy and drive as fast as they can tend to be less effective than, say, law enforcement officers who coordinate their various vehicles, from helicopters to a fleet of squad cars, to catch their opponent, or back them into a blockade. This feels like a form of tactics that might offer some sort of complimentary bonus to chase rolls.

When it comes to dogfights, we definitely see the use of tactics as well. A good example of this was the “Thatch Weave:” if a less agile fighter had a zero on its tail, it would “weave” with its wingman to bring the zero into the sights of its wingman. Larger capital ships would also maneuver with one another to maximize their firing arcs while minimizing their opponent’s firing arcs.

All of these examples of coordination have something in common: they involve coordination between multiple craft. GURPS Spaceships doesn’t require this, but it assumes teams of characters on one ship, while we’re going to see teams of characters on multiple ships, and thus requiring formations might be an interesting idea.

Formations are a concept also from GURPS Spaceships, but is semi-visible in the GURPS Chase rules in the concept of “chase groups” with leaders. We can call these formations. We can do a few more things with formations: consider that the job of many smaller capital ships are as “escorts,” we can allow a ship in formation to “block” another ship in formation. We can also allow an area jammer to protect everything within that formation. Finally, formations of two or more ships can engage in tactics.

GURPS Spaceships gives tactics the ability to apply a +1 or -1 to dodge, but this is often not useful to the very ships that will want to use tactics the most: Capital Ships, as they often have an abominable dodge. Instead, I suggest the following: in a formation of two more ships, a character within the formation may make a Tactical Coordination action against a single target (either a single vessel, or a single formation); if the target is a formation, that target may roll Tactics to resist in a Quick Contest. If successful, the formation may gain one of the following benefits

  • Defensive Tactics: Opponent either has -2 to hit the vessels of the formation, or the vessels of the formation gain +1 Dodge.

  • Defensive Tactics: Opponent either has -1 to dodge the attacks of the vessels of the formation, or the vessels of the formation gain+2 to hit the target vessel or formation.

  • Pursuit Tactics: +2 to chase rolls against the target for this turn

In practice, this allows capital ships to reduce their opponents’ barrages by a hit or two, which might mean the difference between life and death.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Action Vehicular Rules 1.1

Currently on my Patreon, if you're a Patron, you get a one week preview of the Action Vehicular Rules, the Space Opera update for the Action Chase rules into a full dog-fighting and space combat system.

If you're a patron, you can check it out here.  If you're not, come back next week, and it'll be available to you!  As always, I want to make a shout out to my patrons, and give them a big thank you.  I know it's been a quiet few months.

Why Capital Ships? New Rules for Dreadnoughts in GURPS Action Chase rules (Part 1 of 2)

My apologies for my absence.  Between illness and family, I've been busy, but also, the topic I had selected to tackle turned out to be exceptionally large, so large that I've had to break it down into several smaller posts.

The core issue I want to tackle are Capital Ships and how they fit into our new combat paradigm.  I had intended for this to be a single post, but it turned out to be nearly 4500 words, so I'm going to break it down into a two parter.  Today, we start with some theory, and then dive into a greatly expanded set of rules on Passenger Actions.

Why Capital Ships?

Most space-based combat games find that they naturally center around a “sweet spot” of design. For games like Wing Commander, this is the fighter; for settings like Star Trek, this is the capital ship. For settings like Star Wars (and thus Psi-Wars) we need to justify multiple sweet spots to make our visions of our desired form of space combat come to life.

Psi-Wars focuses mostly on the model of “one character, one ship,” and this works best with starfighters, and thus starfighters are probably the prime form for participating in space combat. Thus the other models, the corvette and capital ship, need their justification. I’ll put off justifying the corvette, except to note that it offers an opportunity for multiple characters to lend their skill on a ship that is competitive with starfighters.

The Dreadnought offers a far greater concern when it comes to justification. They represent enormous resource investments that lack the speed and agility of a fighter, and sport similar firepower, and are vulnerable to starfighters. Why, then, would someone field capital ships at all, instead of fielding fleets and fleets of starfighters? Moreover, how does the capital ship fit into the model of “one character, one ship?” How can our GURPS Action Vehicular Combat model all of this, making the dreadnought useful while still keeping it focused on a single character? To make dreadnoughts function, we need to answer these questions.

The justification of the dreadnought is perhaps the easiest question to answer. The word “capital ship” arose to describe the sort of “dreadnought ironclads” that arose during the heady naval years before WW1 (and thus, in a sense, “Dreadnought” and “Capital Ship” are synonymous, at least if we use the former term to describe a class of ships). I don’t know the logic of justification behind the term “Capital Ship,” but capital is a term used to describe the great industrial machines in which a nation would invest, suggesting that a capital ship is a great industrial machine of war, a giant mobile fortress from which the rest of your operation can be staged.

This is certainly an apt description for a carrier. A starfighter lacks long-term accommodations and the capacity of long hyperspace journeys, and people and tanks certainly lack the ability to travel through space. The carrier offers room, accommodations and transport capacity for starfighters and soldiers, ferrying them across the galaxy. In a game, they often serve as a “mobile base.” In Tinker Titan Rebel Spy, a playtest I ran to test whether a dreadnought was “too much ship for players to handle,” I found they mostly used their dreadnought this way: they slept in its cabins, flirted in its cantina, planned in its briefing room, and launched their starfighters from its hangars.

We should also consider the capital role of flagship. The great size of a capital ship allows it to carry far more electronics and expert crew members than the average starfighter or corvette. With access to megacomputers, FTL communication and huge sensor arrays, the capital ship has unparalleled ability to see and command a battlefield. They can coordinate fighter squadrons or ground troops, and they can put expert strategists and spies to answering any questions the members of the arrayed force might have.

Finally, the capital role of the battleship remains valid because a blaster shot is much cheaper than an expensive isomeric nuclear torpedo! While a starfighter can defeat a capital ship, so can another capital ship, and it can do so over and over again without needing to refuel or reload, and can do so from a fairly extreme distance. This is less important for swift “first strikes” against other capital ships, but it’s vital to be able to pour on firepower against hardened ground targets, ideally from orbit where you are far away from anti-air defenses.

What the Fighter Ace is to the starfighter, the Officer is to the Dreadnought. Naturally, a fighter ace can directly control his vehicle, while the officer must command his crew to carry out his orders and must coordinate that crew effectively and efficiently. But where a corvette, with a crew numbering typically no more than ten, can afford to allow a handful of heroic characters to shine (one top notch pilot with a couple of highly skilled gunners and a single, desperate scavenger trying to keep the ship flying), a capital ship can have crews in the literally thousands, making it nearly impossible for the singular actions of a character to make a difference. Thus, we must treat out crew as natural organic extensions of heroic characters.

The rest of this post naturally arises from my attempt to adjust the action chase rules to fit these changes. GURPS Action assumes small vehicles with a single driver and a passenger or three: a car chase with perhaps motorcycles and a helicopter or a tank; they do not envision “chase scenes” with battleships and carriers. We need them because they impact battle, but they should do so on a larger, more strategic scale.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Solo: The Best New Star Wars Film You Haven't Seen

So, Solo: A Star Wars story is finally out for rent, and I finally took the time to sit down and watch it.  I didn't have the chance to do so when it came out in movie theaters (more on why, and what it means, later) but I wanted to see it, and having seen it, I want to give my thoughts on it and, I hope, clear up some of the air around it, in case you haven't seen it, heard it was bad, and were avoiding it for some reason.

The TL; DR is that it's good, definitely worth your money to rent, but it isn't flawless, and I suspect you already know what the flaws are and, if you haven't seen it, it's because of those flaws.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Generic Fleet Followup: The Battleship Slugfest (and more!)

After yesterday's post, Discord has been buzzing with questions.  I wanted to answer a few as best as I could, especially since it lets me dive a little into how I came to yesterday's conclusions.

  • How do various ships match-up against one another?
  • Destroyer vs Corvettes, which is better?
  • My assumptions

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Generic Fleet: A Psi-Wars Tactical Context

It's easier to know what you're doing when you can see what's going on.  One of the reasons I recommend the iterative approach to design is that once you've constructed one piece of your puzzle, or given yourself an overview of what your final product will look like, putting the rest of the pieces in gets that much easier, and flaws jump out at you.

A lack of this overview has proved a problem for my spaceship designs in Psi-Wars.  In iteration 3, it didn't matter because I just borrowed existing ships and used the assumptions there.  Why is an Empire-Class dreadnought SM +14? It doesn't matter, it just is. But if I'm going to rebuild it, I need to know why it's that size, and what it's facing, so I can know how much firepower is enough, how much DR is too much, etc.  More than that, if I'm going to run playtests, I often need more pieces than just "Dreadnough, Typhoon, Starhawk."  How does a battleship fare against a dreadnought? To know that, I need a battleship!

Thus I realized I needed a "generic fleet," worked exemplars of of typical space warship designs.  By seeing how those ships worked and how they interacted with one another, I could see both whether my new rules worked, and what sort of ship designs I should built.  It also offered a shortcut for my work: if I have to "run Psi-Wars now" I can use the ships in the generic fleet.  They're not great, but they're enough.

These designs are not meant to be  the perfect design, nor are they particularly customized.  The final versions of various navies will include much more particular ships: an Imperial Dreadnought, for example, might combine the designs of the battleship and the carrier below, while a pirate fleet might have several variations of corvettes.  I also didn't dive deeply on details that didn't matter for the purposes of this test.  So I didn't put much thought into crew complements or diplomatic accommodations, etc.  These are basic designs meant to be sufficient to provide examples and to get a good overview on how the tactics of Psi-Wars work.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Dreadnoughts don't Dogfight: Thoughts on Spaceship Accuracy in GURPS Action

The playtest between the Typhoon and the Starhawk raised some oddities regarding accuracy that I want to revisit, but far more importantly, the addition of Dreadnoughts into the game are really going to play havoc with some assumptions of the Action chase system in that we’re adding a vehicle that really operates by very different assumptions than a fighter does. This motivated me to stop and rethink how we should handle accuracy so we don’t get surprised by some emergent gameplay at the table.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Eggshells with Hammers in Psi-Wars: Contemplating Capital-Scale Damage

"I'm interested in seeing how you handle the eggshells with hammers problem" - Patron Jose
"That's not how I would see dreadnoughts fighting one another." - Patron Brett Tamahori

So, the drop of the dreadnought and my Eggshells with Hammers article sparked quite some discussion with made me stop and think and revisit a lot of ideas I had, which proved fruitful. It also proved time-consuming, and I’m still walking through the results. Balancing damage in Psi-Wars has proved difficult for precisely the reasons I outlined in my article, and it’s a problem a lot of people face. Thus, I thought by posting these musings, proposed rule changes and synthesis of various house-rules might serve as a useful worked example for others.

This is going to be a long walk through some GURPS "insider baseball."  The idea is to highlight the problems with how GURPS handles damage at large scales for the specific problem of dealing with fighters vs dreadnoughts as we tend to see in Star Wars and other forms of space opera, so read a long if that interests you!  This will be the first of, ah, a few posts.

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