Thursday, April 21, 2016

Psi Wars: Smugglers and Stealth in Space

We've tackled scavengers.  What about smugglers?  To understand smugglers, we need to understand stealth in space.

Pyramid #3-71
Pyramid #3-71 page 13 has a fine article called “Smugglers' Blues” that discusses the ins and outs of smuggling. While its technological advice isn't so useful to us, it's a gold-mine for understanding how a smuggler could or would play, and has some implications for how we run, and design, ships.
To sum up the article in brief, a smuggler needs at least one of four tactics:
  • Superior speed, to maneuver blockades and escape the authorities if discovered.
  • Superior stealth, to avoid detection in the first place, when slipping past patrols or through customs.
  • Detailed area knowledge, to know approaches that will avoid detection
  • Social engineering skills, to know who to bribe, or to talk your way out of a sticky situation.
The first two matter for ship design and ship rules. The latter two are more a concern for how we might build a smuggler template. The first is already covered well-enough by the spaceships system and the chase rules in action: Just treat the acceleration bonus as the speed bonus from the chase rules, and have fun! Typical smuggling ships, like the Dark Horse, are already significantly faster than most other ships larger than fighters.

Stealth, on the other hand, requires some attention. Spaceships already includes a stealth/detection system for ships, but we should revisit it and simplify it for our purposes.

The problem with stealth in space is that it's impossible.  Space is an infinite plane that is very dark and very cold, while you're bright and hot with nowhere to hide.  We can literally detect planets that are light-years away and unpowered asteroids thousands of miles away, all with meager, TL 8 technology.  What are the chances that we'll miss the roaring engines of a starship mere hundreds of miles away with tech-level 11 sensors?  Not very likely, I think.

But the would-be stealth ships of Psi Wars have a few advantages.  First of all, the space of Psi Wars isn't really space: it's a vast and cinematic ocean made of black waters and dotted with stars.  Specifically, it brims with cinematic nebulas and debris fields!  Secondly, it has hyperspace, and things in hyperspace cannot be detected outside of hyperspace, and vice versa.

The problems with stealth in space is that you have nothing to hide behind, and even if you "go dark" after firing up your engines to go in a particular direction, people will be able to keep their eyes on you and track your dark form, since your motions are completely predictable.  The cinematic nature of the Psi Wars universe defies this.  Space is sprinkled with hiding places in the form of these cinematic nebulas and debris fields.  Hyperspace means that you cannot know the velocity of a ship coming out of hyperspace, and it also means that a ship that has just jumped in from hyperspace has no knowledge of drifting ships.  If you fired your thrusters to bring you into a debris field, and another ship jumps in later, it has no idea that a ship maneuvered there a day ago.  It just sees a debris field.  Suddenly, stealth becomes possible.

Moreover, stealth is expected.  Not completely, of course: An Empire-Class dreadnought should be a giant beacon of fire and death that blocks out the light of worlds.  But a smuggler's Dark Horse might be expected to slip across a border, and pirates should be able to lie in wait in an asteroid field for a passing freighter full of goodies and passengers they can turn into slaves.

Spaceships already provides us with the rules to do all of this, we just need to adjust them and simplify them for Psi Wars, and make sure they fill all our needs.


The Desired Result

First, let's see how we more or less expect the game to play out  To be clear, the following rules are not how the game actually works but the sorts of modifiers and such I'd expect to see.  First, I expect that most ships in open space will be casually and effortlessly detected by other ships.  You can't sneak up on another ship in space without some kind of help.  I also expect that Han's deception, or just drifiting, powered-down, in a debris field, should work.  The major factors I expect to have in play are open space vs debris fields, stealth hulls vs normal hulls, powered up ships vs powered-down ships, range, and size. The only ranges I care about are combat ranges (Point-Blank, Close, Short) and "farther out" all condenses into a single category.

So what should we expect to see?

A ship flying around in space should be completely obvious at all pertinent ranges.  One shouldn't need to roll, except possibly at the most distant reaches of one's sensory range.

But what if we power down in space and just float there?  We should still be fairly visible.  I'd argue that even in the most distant ranges, a fighter should still be fairly visible.  Perhaps you might not pick out a fighter if you're just taking a hurried glance, but anyone who spends time should definitely see it (Note: Point Blank/Close/Short/"Farther out" ranges). 
  • Fighter with no power in open space: +20/+16/+12/+8 
A Stealth hull would be harder to detect.  At the most distant reaches, I´d say it'd be a straight Electronics Operations (Sensors) roll.  If we extrapolate back from that we get
  • Stealth Hull in open space with no power on: +12/+8/+4/+0
I also don't want the Stealth Hull to necessarily become a dominant aspect of the game. A stealth hull That means you need to make some roll to detect it, but by the time you get close enough to bump into it, you can't miss it. What about detecting a fighter in an asteroid belt if it's powered down? That would strike me as probably a bit harder. You could actually miss that the ship was there even if you floated right past it, though you probably wouldn't.
  • Fighter in debris field with no power-on: +8/+4/+0/-4
A fighter with no power on and a stealth hull and in a debris field is virtually identical to the asteroids. You'd need to be top-notch to pick it out, and even at point-blank range it might be hard to pick out. I expect it would look something like this:
  • Fighter in debris field with no power on and a stealth hull: +0/-4/-8/-12

The Real Deal

So how do these scenarios actually play out in the rules?  A few caveats: I don't like that larger ships have better sensors.  I understand that a bigger telescope is better at picking out distant details, but I also know that it's not necessarily better at picking out finer details from closer up.  The problem with space is that it's so vast that having a giant telescope is always better than having a smaller telescope.  But for psi-wars, I'd rather larger ships had longer detection rangers.  Anyone can detect another ship "at combat range," but a larger ship can detect you much farther away.  If you need an absolute limit, I'd use the Active Sensors/Comm ranges from SS 45 as a guide.  But the actual ability to detect a ship should be static except if you have an enhanced sensor array (that's the point of an enhanced sensor array!).  They typically offer a +2, so we'll do the same. An enhanced Sensor array grants a +2.

With that in mind, let's look at the actual values for the above scenarios.  "Silhouetted against deep space" is +24.  We'll treat it as standard (you'll rarely not be silhouetted by deep space, and I don't like the idea of suddenly becoming way harder to detect because a planet is behind you).  Combined with the various ranges, then Point Blank/Close/Short and Long become -6, -10, -14 and -18.  We have +10 if you're using a Fusion Reactor or Super Fusion Torch Engines (no rules on Reactionless that I could find.  Let's treat them as Super Fusion Torches) and they're cumulative. We have no rules on hyperspace entrance or exit, so I say +10.  You're at +4 if you're using a fuel cell, or +3 if you're on auxiliary.  A stealth hull gives you a -10, being out in the open gives you a +10, and if we assume an SM 8 ship as our gold standard for detection technology, we get a +8 from sensors.

Then we have:
  • +32/+30/+26/+22 to detect a fusion powered ship with a facing drive in space,
  • +22/+20/+16/+12 to detect a fusion powered ship with a facing drive in a debris field,
  • +16/+14/+10/+8 to detect a fuel-cell powered ship with a facing drive in a debris field,
  • +14/+12/+8/+6 to detect a fuel-cell powered ship with a hidden drive in a debris field,
  • +6/+4/-0/-2 to detect a fuel-cell powered ship with no drive in a debris field,
  • +14/+12/+8/+6 to detect a fuel-cell powered ship with no drive in space,
  • -6/-8/-12/-14 to detect a stealth-hulled, fuel-cell powered ship with no drive in a debris field,
  • +4/+2/-2/-4 to detect a stealth-hulled, fuel-cell powered ship with no drive in space, 
The numbers are actually pretty close to our desired numbers.  If anything, reality is harsher than my desired results.  A ship under full power is always obvious.  A quiet ship in a debris field is rather difficult to detect, even at combat ranges.  A stealth hulled ship that's running silent is quite difficult to detect under any circumstances and virtually impossible in a debris field.

We can tone down some of these results and that'll give us the following rules:

Simplified Detection Rules:

  • Enhanced Array: +2
  • Debris Field (or other thing that can hide you, like a nebula) -10
  • SM (+3 per size category) for the target ship only.  The detecting ship gets no bonus for its own size.
  • Stealth Hull -8
  • Auxiliary Power or Fuel Cells: +0
  • Powered with a fusion reactor: +6
  • Powered drive: +8 (for simplicity)
  • Range: +16 for point blank, +12 for close, +8 for short, +4 for farther.
We just treat the fuel cell and auxiliary power as the same thing, and we bundle everything down into a basic set of modifiers.  The drives are +8 rather than +10 because if you're at -2 to detect them if they face away from you.  I'm giving the stealthier ship the benefit of the doubt.  Finally, I've reduced the effectiveness of the stealth hull, because I find that my desired results tend to give me a -8.

The Mark 1 Eyeball

In Star Wars, characters often physically see starships, and seem to hunt around for them with their eyes.  We can apply similar treatment above: A character, rather than roll Electronics Operations (Sensors) may attempt to spot another ship with a Perception (Visual) roll.  Use the same modifiers as above, but ignore the fusion reactor (unless they have IR vision) and the Stealth Hull (unless they have IR vision, and then it just cancels out the Fusion reactor), and apply a -8 if the ship has Dynamic Chameleon set to hide the ship.  Characters cannot spot a ship farther than Short range ("Visual Range").  Thus, most characters are at a +11 to spot powered down fighter in open space at Short range, but it gets more complicated when the ship is in an asteroid field, or it has dynamic chameleon.

Listed again for clarity
  • Any Vision modifiers the character has
  • Debris Field (or other thing that can hide you, like a nebula) -10
  • SM (+3 per size category) for the target ship only.  The detecting ship gets no bonus for its own size.
  • Dynamic Chameleon -8
  • Powered drive: +8
  • Range: +16 for point blank, +12 for close, +8 for short, +4 for farther.


For smugglers, stealth means more than just slipping past patrols undetected.  Often, they expect to encounter patrols, but hope to get by without close inspection.  How do we prevent someone who scans your ship from realizing that you're carrying contraband weapons?

Analysis rules are detailed on page SS 52-53. The pertinent questions I have here are:
  • How does Shielded Cargo interact with scanning?
  • How does a Stealth Hull interact with scanning?
  • Can you use scans to tell that I'm carrying contraband cargo?
The answer to the last, in my opinion is “yes, of course.” A scanner can pick up things like weapons or chemicals or even forbidden life-signatures (as in, a forbidden species, not a specific passenger). A multi-purpose array and a science array provide a +3 to this roll. Assume, for simplicity (outside of combat), a 1-minute scan (+0 by default, +3 with a science/multi- scanner).

A shielded cargo space is probably both physically hidden and covered with a distortion field (UT 99) which applies a -8 to attempts to detect something. In essence, a shielded cargo bay has a stealth hull around it. That fits nicely.

But shouldn't a Stealth Hull itself interfere with analysis? Well, naturally, it applies a -8 to detecting a ship, so why not apply the same to scan attempts as well?

The potential problem is that you quickly get to a -16 to inspect cargo... but is that so bad? That's when you might pull someone over and demand to see what they have inside their ship, and then you get actual scanners and snoop around the ship and then, you've bypassed the stealth hull, but you still need to penetrate the shielded cargo.

Deceptive ECM

If you scan a shielded ship and you discover nothing, that's fishy. What an ideal smuggler wants is to fool the scanner. He wants to convince them that he's carrying medical supplies rather than weapons. A distortion jammer can do that too: If you fail by more than half the penalty, you detect “something else.”

I'd rather that was skill-based, that you can use Electronics Operations (EW) to spoof signals and convince people that your ship is there not here, or that its smaller or larger than they expect, or that it's carrying something completely different. We want the ability to lie to people.

But you can't simply just do that if you don't have proper technology. While the shielded cargo or the stealth hull would seem to be enough, those feel passive to me. They defeat sensors, but they don't actively jam or spoof them. A character needs to employ a system that does that. Why not defensive ECM? Couldn't that be such a system?

Well, Defensive ECM is just that: Defensive. We've designed it like flares or EMP pulses or other tricks in fighter games to defeat missile locks and laser blasts, and it's quite effective at that. Adding another bonus atop of it might be overkill, and really, a deception jammer does something different
than flares. It fools a signal with a skill roll, but doesn't really do anything by default.

I propose a second ECM system: the Deceptive ECM system. It applies a penalty equal to the number of such systems installed to any scan attempts, and you may use an Electronics Operation (ECM) roll, adding a bonus equal to the number of systems in place, to spoof the enemy ship in a quick contest (adding the bonus of the number of Deceptive ECM systems in your ship). They apply their normal modifiers. If you win, you may lie to the other character, fooling him in regards to the contents of your ship, your exact location, or your size.

A Deceptive ECM costs the same as a Defensive ECM, but provides none of its benefits. A multi-purpose ECM (a Distortion ECM) can provide both benefits, but at twice the cost.

Character Concerns

Electronics Operation (EW): For spoofing sensors
Electronics Operations (Sensors): Helps detect someone
Tactics: Assists in Ambushes

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