Tuesday, November 20, 2018

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.

Passenger Actions

While a starfighter flies under the direct control of a single player character, perhaps with a single co-pilot or tech-bot assistant, the corvette and the dreadnought fly with the assistance of a crew. The corvette does so with a crew that typically numbers less than ten, making it a good ship for a collection of heroic player characters to directly manage, but capital ships are beyond the scope and scale of a few characters.

For both, we need passenger actions. GURPS Action 2 already has a list of passenger actions on page 33, but this is treated as an aside, appropriate for a game that focuses on car chases. Here, our passenger actions become much more central, so we need to get a grasp of everything a crew member who is not directly involved in shooting turrets or piloting the craft might be doing. For inspiration, we can turn to GURPS Spaceships and look at all the options under “Actions during a turn” starting on page 50. While not everything is suitable, it gives us a sense of what crew members might be doing.

When it comes to a passenger action undertaken by a player character, we simply need to know what skill they’ll roll. For a capital ship, this is harder because we have teams of crewman carrying out those tasks. Thus, we’ll need a concept for this:

Crew Skill: On any capital ship, any and all passenger tasks may be undertaken by the “crew,” a large collection of nameless NPCs sufficiently suited their tasks to undertake it professionally. The skill of a crew is stat to a standard value, similar to BAD. By default, this skill level is 12. Particularly novice crews have a skill of 10, while the finest crews might rise to skill 15.

The Passenger Actions are:

Attack: See GURPS Action 2 page 33. Characters onboard sealed vehicles (most space vehicles) generally cannot make attacks with their own weapons against other vehicles, but they may man turrets and attack with them, using all the normal rules for passenger attacks (including the standard -1 penalty for a passenger making an attack).

Board: Boarding a ship is automatic if the character is aboard a vehicle that has embarked via a launch pad. If the vehicle has attached itself to the hull of the target ship or the character has somehow made it through space on his own to land on the vehicle, assume that a handy airlock is somewhere nearby and the character may enter via an Electronics Operations (Security), Forced Entry or Lockpicking roll with a difficulty equal to BAD.

Chart Hyperspace Route: Before making a hyperspace shunt, someone must successfully calcuate a hyperspace route. Calculating a hyperspace route requires 5 minutes (or 5 turns in Action Vehicular Combat), a successful Navigation (Hyperspace) roll and either a computer capable of hyperspatial navigation or a robot with the proper programming. In addition to other navigational penalties, the navigator may accept time spent penalties at -2 per turn reduced (calculating a hyperspace route in one turn/minute imposes a -8 penalty).

Command and Coordinate: A high rank character may attempt to coordinate the efforts of characters making another Passenger Action. He may roll Leadership as a complementary roll or use the lower of his Leadership or the required skill to replace the crew skill of the crew undertaking the task (for example, the crew is trying to perform emergency repairs; normally this requires the Mechanic skill, and they have a standard crew skill of 12, but a PC has Mechanic-18 and Leadership-15, and so may coordinate the repair crews so that they repair with skill 15 rather than 12).

Emergency Repairs: If a vehicle has a disabled system, the crew can attempt to jury-rig repairs in a single turn. This requires a single person on a starfighter, shuttle or corvette, but requires a substantial crew on a capital ship (assume such crew is available unless circumstances dictate otherwise). Attempting to jury-rig repairs requires a roll against an appropriate specialty of the Mechanic skill at a -10 penalty. Characters with Quick Gadgeteer may halve this penalty! A jury-rigged component is not a permanent fix, and must roll HT the first time it is used in a battle (one such roll is sufficient for the entire battle). Complete repairs, or the repair of destroyed systems, are beyond the capabilities of characters currently locked in a cinematic fight.

Operate Electronics: If a character is at a proper control system, he may support the vehicle by operating its electronics. This allows the character to engage in contests with opposing electronics operators: the character may attempt to communicate through a distortion scrambler (Electronics Operations (Comms)) or to detect a target that is actively jamming sensors (Electronics Operations (Sensors)) or to actively a jam both sensors and comms of another vehicle (Electronics Operations (ECM)). For more detail, see electronics and jamming below.

Seize Control: To seize control, the character must be at the controls of the vehicle (see Internal Movement below). See GURPS Action 2 page 33.

Internal Movement

To perform an action, one must be located in the proper location to perform that action (at the controls of a turret to fire it, etc). If the character is not at his location, he needs to spend a number of turns “moving” to reach that location. The number of turns depends on the size of the ship:

  • Starfighters and shuttles: 0 turns (Free movement, assuming movement is possible within the craft)

  • Corvettes: 1 turn

  • Capital ships: 2 turns

For especially large ships, the GM may require three or more turns of movement, but too many turns may slow the game down too much! For additional detail, see GURPS Spaceship page 63 (using 1-minute turns).

These rules assume unimpeded movement, but the GM may create obstacles for characters to bypass. Such obstacles can be handled by a roll against a single skill with a difficulty equal to BAD; success generally means the character can move unimpeded, but failure increases the travel time by a single turn as the character is forced to bypass the obstacle. Examples include locked or damaged doors (Lockpicking, Electronics Operation (Security) or Forced Entry), damaged corridors that require clever movement to bypass (Acrobatics, Climbing, Jumping), or enemy patrols (Stealth or a combat scenario).

If a combat scenario occurs during such movement, the GM may wish to abstract it away with a single roll (Tactics, with bonuses or penalties based on how outnumbered or outgunned one side is), or play it out as a detailed scenario. Technically such a fight can last for up to 60 turns, but consider limiting the fights to know more than ten to twenty turns, so as not to bog down the game with scenarios within scenarios unless the fight is central to the game (such as the climactic duel between Tyrannic Cultist and True Communion templar for the fate of a world).

The Ops Center

An interesting option presented by GURPS Spaceships is the concept of an ops center. The idea behind it can be found on 18 of GURPS Spaceships, in that you have certain habitats you can dedicate to particular functions, such as an office for administration rolls or a laboratory for gene-testing or what have you. These provide all of the basic tools necessary for a job. A 10-room equivalent (an “Ops Center”) applies a +1 to the skill roll and a 100-room equivalent (“a Large Ops Center”) applies +2. This dovetails nicely with the concept of a facility from Pulling Rank and the computer programs that act as superior tools, which I integrated into my base requirements for computers.

What I like about this particular idea is that it emphasizes the importance of a Capital Ship, in that a corvette is unlikely to have an Ops Center, and a ship that is large enough to have a Large Ops Center would be most impressive indeed. Thus I propose we allow them to add specific bonuses to Passenger Actions to emphasize this, whether those are crew skill rolls or NPC rolls:

  • A “War Room” Ops Center improves all Tactics and Strategy rolls

  • A “Star Chart” Ops Center improves all Navigation

  • A “C3I” Ops Center improves all Electronics Operations (Comms, ECM and Sensors) rolls

  • A “Work Center” Ops Center (really a combination of Workshops) improves Mechanic rolls.

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