Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Ridiculously Huge Action Vehicular Playtest Part I - Setting Up

It was about three quarters of a year ago that I posted an updated ruleset for GURPS Action chase rules.  The intent was to marry the Dogfighting rules with the Space combat rules to create something that would work for Psi-Wars.  I did a few playtests, but stopped short of a complete one.  I lacked the proper resources at the time (namely, the ships) to run the sort of playtest that I envisioned, which would be the sort of scenario that I would imagine playing out in an actual Psi-Wars game, especially an epic-scale battle, which tend to be fan-favorites and also the most taxing on a system.

However, now that I've completed the vehicles for the Alliance (at least the Maradonian nobles) and the Empire, I have enough material to run the scenario, and thus, we can have the playtest.  For reference, this playtest will use:

(For the Alliance)

(For the Empire)
I had a lot of fun with the playtest, so I hope you don't mind the lurid descriptions (I always thought GURPS and excellent narrative went hand in hand, since GURPS plays a lot like a film, if the film was in slow motion), but this is as large and sprawling as its epic ambitions might suggest.  We'll be at this for a couple of days, and today, we start with the introduction.

Note that the rules I link to above are already outdated as of this playtest, as I did what you should do with a playtest, and made notes and updated them to reflect what "felt right" while I played.  I'll discuss those changes more at the end of the whole playtest series.

“I’ve never seen you this excited before, Tobin. He must have really made an impression on you.” Starlet’s flight boots trod lightly on the silver-black surface of the well-lit hanger. She tucked her stray strands of her dirty-blond hair back into their bun with her free hand while she clasped her flight helmet under her other arm. Tobin turned to look at her and flashed her his patented, roguish smile.

“He and his friends once saved me from the Empire. I owe him my life. Plus he’s really impressive in a fight. You’ll like him.”

They looked out past the electric crackle of the docking bacy force screen that at the glittering points of light in the void beyond, but some of those lights moved: a shuttle. It emerged from the darkness and pushed its way past the force screen, and then landed before the two pilots, steam erupting in jets around its landing gear. A ramp descended and, with it, an armored figure. The hangar lights gleamed off of the armor’s diamondoid plating, but interspersed throughout the armor, gadgets and connectors of base carbide held the aging armor together, giving it a unique, patchwork look. He wore a bucker-cuff on his left arm, and an elegant and positively ancient force sword hilt dangled from his belt. Once he reached the hangar floor, he reached up, broke the seal on his helmet with a hiss, and pulled it free to reveal thick hair and a strong face shaded with stubble.

“Dun Beltain!” Tobin exclaimed and hugged the Space Knight. Starlet smirked at Dun’s expression of surprise.

“You are, by far, the most ramshackle space knight I’ve ever seen.” A voice, dripping with breeding and education, called our from deeper in the hangar bay. The group turned to see a woman separating herself from a group of pilots who had stopped their discussion to watch the entrance of the newcomer. Her tailored battleweave flightsuit hugged her curves. Dun instantly picked out the force sword hilt at her side, dangling from the harness that criss-crossed her waist and hips. Hers had more elegant lines than his, a weapon designed for speed and precision compared to the power contained within his ancient, Alexian blade. She wore her hair, white with an unnatural, plastic iridescence to it, in an unusual cut: short in the back and long in the front, hanging in curtains that framed her slender face perfectly. Her large, electric blue eyes peered at him with a studious intensity She had a sort of magnetic charm, and she could even be beautiful if you liked her sort of look. Dun decided that he did.

“Thank you,” Dun gave her his best, folksy smile. “My pa and I fixed it up as best as we could. I’m Dun Beltaine, nice to meet’cha, hey?” He stuck out a hand. He had learned he couldn’t really hide his dusty, Gristian origins, so he didn’t bother. He wore it like a defiant badge under her speculative gaze.

She did not take his hand.

Lady Shiana Grimshaw.” She responded, with added emphasis on her station. After another moment’s consideration, she seemed to have come to a decision. She cocked her hip and said “They selected you to lead the assault.”

“Aye.” He nodded.

“We shall fly escort, Ramshackle. The Alliance expects much of you.”

“Won’t disappointcha.” He promised.

There was a reason I’ve been working on vehicles: I needed to get sufficient vehicles together to properly playtest my new Action Vehicular Combat rules. We had fighters and a capital ship before, now we have numerous fighters, corvettes and capital ships on both sides. We have more than enough fodder to test everything out and see how it works, and how easily we can use it, which will be especially interesting because I haven’t looked at these rules in months!

We need to test several things at once. Dun Beltaine returns to test boarding rules, critical to our cool swordfights in space, and the non-dogfighting rules in the midst of a dogfight, though we’ll be spare with that. Tobin Starlaw will play our ace. Without diving into his stats again, we’ll assume he has Pilot (Starfighter)-18, Gunner (Beams) and Artillery (Guided Missile) both at 16, and the new “Ace Pilot” Advantage. Starlet has some lame, run of the mill robot with no personality and skill 12. Starlet will be our more modest pilot at skill 15 in all three, but she’s recently discovered that she’s been a Latent Psychic the whole time, and she has developed Combat Sense and has it at skill 10. Tobin has an ally Tech-Bot with skill-18 in anything pertinent (mainly Electronics Operations, Hyperspace navigation and doing quick repairs).

We’re joined by newcomer Shiana Grimshaw. Psi-Wars needs to be able to have characters with multiple focuses, so she’s a Space Knight with a side of Pilot. We’ll assume that she has four points in all pertinent skills and a base DX and IQ of 13. This gives her a pilot and Gunner of 15 and an artillery of 14. For her psychic power, we’ll give her the ability to psychically possess her vehicle and control it directly. She has “Soul of the Machine” +3, giving her a +3 to all of her rolls with her fighter, and she’ll fly a Valkyrie. She has (nor needs) no robot.

“These are really nice. How does the Alliance afford all of this with a war on?” Dun exclaimed as he picked at the plump chair assigned to him in the briefing room. Tobin swatted at his hands and demanded that Dun pay attention. A contragrav, crystal chandelier above dimmed its lights and the holographic display before them brightened. Behind it, the Baroness strode forward. Her long, silken white gown flowed around her legs, and she belted it at her waist with a silver-chased belt; this contrasted with her inky black hair and her large, dark eyes. She reminded Dun of Shiana, and he stole a glance at the aristocratic pilot as he thought of her.

At the Baroness’s side, a veiled woman waited mutely. At the appointed moment, the veiled woman reached out, touched the Baroness’s shoulder, and nodded. This seemed to grand her permission, and the Sabine lady spoke in that fine, flowing Maradonian accent.

“Our scouts reported what we hoped to hear: the last battle left one of the Imperial ships crippled. This,” a dot in the hologram brightened as the display zoomed closer to it “is the Final Judgment, an Executioner-class artillery cruiser. We believe its main cannon to be offline and its hyperdrive is dead.”

The holographic display shifted at the tap of her long finger “Our fleet is here. Our carrier will hang back. We’ll send these five lancers with boarding parties to secure it.”

“What if it’s a trap, hey?” Dun suddenly spoke up, the thought coming unbidden. A silent hush fell over the room, as though the gathered collection of soldiers and pilots had been scandalized at the interruption. Dun, compelled to explain his outburst, added “It’s pretty easy to fake a dead hyperdrive and an offline cannon, and this seems like quite a honeypot to offer the Alliance. Seems too good to be true, all I’m sayin’.”

The Baroness glanced at the veiled woman, who shook her head.

“We are certain,” The baroness responded. “We had the same concerns, and we have checked both the scans and the future. We are certain. We shall also send a squadron of Raptors and two escorting squadrons of Valiants just to be sure, and the carrier will remain out of firing range.”

Then she gestured towards Dun. “Allow me to introduce our latest knight, here at my personal request.” She favored him with a smile, as though emphasizing to the room that Dun’s outburst had been planned all along, rather than an awkward faux pas “He shall lead the assault. We expect great things, Sir Beltain.”

The weight of the title struck Dun a few moments later than it should have, as though only realizing an innuendo a moment too late to act on it. He felt Lady Shiana Grimshaw’s gaze settle on him, speculative once again.

The doors shuffed open as a naval officer interrupted “We have two dreadnought-sized hyperdrive signatures incoming on the Final Judgments position, your ladyship. We have but a few minutes before they arrive.”

With a gesture, the holographic display vanished. “Go,” said the baroness. The lights dimmed to red with a klaxon blazing. Squadron commanders rose shouting “Scramble scramble!” to the gathered pilots and soldiers, who did as commanded in a great tide of excitement and dread.

Sub-Admiral Yamato Sin stood at rest on the bridge of the Valorian Edict, gazing out the viewports at the Final Judgement and his companion dreadnought, the Reign of Fire. Behind his left shoulder stood a woman in a form-fitting, white, glossy dress. A barcode marked her pale cheek and the number “19” stood prominently on her dress. To his right stood Lieutenant Commander Harkin Grave, in his black flight suit and his helmet, emblazoned with a silver skull on the faceplate.

“Scramble repair crews for the Final Judgement.” The Sub-Admiral commanded.

“Sir, scans detecting an Alliance carrier!” called out a female bridge officer. She began to rattle off the coordinates, noting it about 100 miles away.

“To be expected,” Sub-Admiral Sin mused. “We’ll need about an hour to repair the Final Judgment. Lieutenant Commander, scramble your squadron. They’ll be sending fighters soon, if they haven’t already.”

Then, turning to take a seat in his command chair like a king mounting his throne, he issued one last command “Battle stations!”

Sometimes I get asked how I handle big battles in Psi-Wars. Frankly, I don’t think they’re much of an exception! Several playtests feature multiple squadrons and several capital ships. Personally, I think the best way to handle them is to follow RPKs advice: “Just say no to mass combat.”

In Psi-Wars, focus all attention on the actions of the players. They need to perform certain actions for the battle to succeed, and if they do, then the plan succeeds. There’s no need to worry about actions that take place off screen. Perhaps a squadron full of nameless NPCs clashes with another squadron full of nameless NPCs and one of them wins, but it’s so much background setting, a flash of lasers in the darkness of space.

Even so, I think it helps to show what these look like as these tend to be the bread and butter of a game, so I’ve chosen a fairly large-scale battle as the backdrop for this battle. I’ll show some of the suggestions I have for handling numerous fighters at once.

This battle will consists of 5 lancers, a carrier, a squadron of Raptors and two squadrons of Valiants vs two dreadnoughts, their complement of fighters; the Artillery Cruiser is, indeed, “dead in the water.” The Lancers need to get to the Cruiser and secure its bridge, while the fighters need to chase off the two dreadnoughts long enough to get the Cruiser repaired and out of there.

The action will focus on Starlet, Tobin, Dun and Shiana. They are our “player characters.” Harkin Grave, familiar to us by now, will be an NPC with Ace Pilot, Gunner and Missile 18 and Pilot 16, and the new Yamato Sin will have a Leadership 18, Tactics 18, Gunnery 15 and Shiphandling 15.

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