Epic Battles In Spaaaaaaaaace

Epic Space Battles is a free rules add-on we’re releasing for The Singularity System designed to make space battles more epic. I mean this more literally than facetiously. The base Singularity System starship combat rules are SO DETAILED and SO INTRICATE that with more than 2-4 starships, things bog down and the lag becomes so great that the game is effectively unplayable. A six starship on six starship combat would take an unfeasibly long time to resolve, like maybe eight hours or more depending on the GM’s personal style and processing speed. This is…less than good. I’ve always pitched the Singularity System as having really fast playing and scalable starship combat, so I wanted to go back and make those things actually true, and release the patch for free.

From a game design standpoint, here’s some of what I did to convert the Singularity Core Starship Combat (SCSC) rules to the majorly simplified rules sytem I’m calling Epic Space Battles:

  • In the base rules, every starship gets at least four or five and as many as ten or more actions per turn at a minimum. One action for the helmsman, the engineering chief, and the infowar chief, plus one action for each bay weapon and each turret. But then each of these roles or stations gets additional actions later in the turn based on its ReAct value, which is based on character attributes (for manned stations) or ship system ratings (for autopiloted stations). This can quickly get a little crazy, with 20 or more actions per ship per turn being not all that anomalous. In the Epic Space Battles rules, this was the first thing to be drastically simplified: one action per ship per turn. (There are now several phases to each turn, however, so for PC crewed ships, each role still gets to do their thing.)
  • In the base rules, every starship role–or at least most starship roles–can use their actions to aid their ship in various ways. The Engineer, for instance, can boost the shields to help the ship’s defenses or boost the engines to help the helmsman perform maneuvers, the Helmsman can perform Evasive maneuvers or change range and facing relative to target ships to line up a shot, the Infowar station chief can give the Weapons bay chief more dice with a target lock or perform active jamming to keep their own ship from getting locked on to, etcetera. We wanted to retain that dynamic and that sense of teamwork and synergy but without all of the extra actions. So what I did is I added an ‘allocation’ phase where each role can allocate dice to one of four dice pools–Attack, Defense, Maneuver, and Initiative–depending on the role’s individual actions. Instead of “rolling to lock on” or “rolling to jam incoming target locks”, the Infowar Chief can now just choose to allocate their dice into Attack or Defense. Because allocating dice into dice pools individually would take too long for NPC ships, you can also just pick a preset ‘Stance’ for your ship which allocates your available roles’ dice automatically into different dice pools to focus on Attack, Defense, Maneuverability and so on. This makes things a lot faster while retaining a lot of tactical depth.
  • This already shaves a lot of time off, but I wanted it even faster, for truly epic space battles. In the base rules, a starship couldn’t be killed or crippled until you’d shot through its shields, then shot through its hull, then destroyed either its bridge or its reactor. Again, I simplified: “Shields” were abstracted into a Defense Pool bonus, and ships were simplified down to just having one pool of ‘Hit Points’, called ‘Hull’, rather than Hull Points and then Hit Points for each individual component of the ship. Some weapons had the partial ability to penerate Shields, so this was converted into an abstract Attack Pool bonus.
  • Finally, individually processes like Point Defense (shooting down incoming projectiles) and launching swarms of fighters for attack runs on enemy ships (to be intercepted by screens of enemy fighters) were heavily abstracted, moving in the latter case from handling individual vessels to handling ‘swarms’ of small craft.

So with the new rules in place, I wanted to do some playtests. I knew it was faster but I didn’t know if it was fast enough. I decided that I’d try for four playtests, doubling the number of ships each time: 4 vs 4 ships, 8 vs 8 ships, 16 vs 16 ships, and finally a clash of vast armadas, 32 ships vs 32 ships. Of course most of the conflicts would include carrier class ships carrying swarms of fighters, to make things hairier and really test the system under strain.

To make things more fun, I decided to make the playtests a game. Mikaela and I each picked a faction from the Systems Malfunction universe and spent an appropriate budget of credits to assemble and arm our fleets before pitting them against each other.

As arbitrary benchmarks, I set a target time I wanted to be able to complete each combat in. For 4 vs. 4 I decided that should easily resolve in under an hour. For 8 vs. 8, I decided 90 minutes. I thought 16 vs. 16 ships should be doable in 2.5 hours and 32 vs. 32 ships should be resolved within 3 hours, which would allow a truly epic space battle with extra time left over for an average RPG session. Like I said, these targets were selected in a pretty arbitrary fashion. One constant was that I set up the names and hull points of each ship in a notepad for tracking, and we had wet erase markets on hand for tracking relative ship positions, but I did NOT preroll the first initiative.

So how’d we do?

  1. The first playtest was easily completed within an hour, with 15 or 20 minutes to spare. I shudder to think how long a simple four starship versus four starship skirmish would take in the SCSC rules.
  2. If I recall correctly, 8 vs. 8 ships took a lot more than 90 minutes but a little less than two hours. I know that we missed the target but not by a huge margin.
  3. The 16 vs. 16 fight I was expecting to run longer than the target time based on how the 8 vs. 8 fight had gone. I wasn’t wrong. This fight was still going solidly after the 3 hour mark, though. Based on this, I decided to reduced the final trial to “only” 24 vs. 24 ships.
  4. The 32 vs. 32 24 vs. 24 fight was the finale. For this one, we decided to pit an armada from the Sol Invictus setting versus an armada from the world of Systems Malfunction. This epic battle took far longer than three hours, and I think we were somewhere between four and five hours of playtime before we thought a winner had emerged. The first initiative took a half hour to roll and set up.  One thing I noticed with this playthrough was that after the three hour mark, things felt more grueling than fun, but that probably has more to do with us not starting the playtest until 10PM than anything about the system itself. I think by that point we were just worn down physically.
  5. Our goal was to determine how long each combat would take, not which side would win or what the casualties would be. With that said, a miscellaneous observation we couldn’t help but making was that the loss of life (and ships) on both sides was, in all battles, catastrophic, a total massacre. Most fights involved so much senseless destruction on both sides of the battle that there was no clear winner. When a winner did arise, it was only the most stringently pyrrhic victory. I think this owed more to the fact that fleets built on the same amount of credits tend to be rather evenly matched, as much as the fact that the ESB system is (for the reasons discussed above) rather lethal. Mikaeala thought this was pretty sad, but I thought it was pretty neat.
  6. Due to the Advent rules, the side with the PC ship on it always fared better than the other side, and the PC ship always survived, a definitely desirable feature for obvious reasons.

Conclusions: The Epic Space Battles rules were hugely faster than the rules they’re designed to (optionally, for larger scale battles) replace, but not quite as fast as I wanted. While I found a few things I could twist and turn to speed them up by a few percent (the first rules for resolving initiative ties that I’d put were just terrible, for instance), in the end I think the times I wound up with can be deemed acceptable. 24 vs. 24 battles in most RPG systems can take quite a bit of time, and when dozens of massive starships are maneuvering in three dimensional space and allocating systems dice to different pools to fire dozens of lasers and missiles at each other, while launching dozens of fighters on attack runs to be intercepted by other fighters and…yeah. I think that the concept of “Epic Space Battles” has a pretty darn high inherent complexity as far as things to faithfully simulate in a game go, so I’m happy to have gotten the running time and complexity for huge fleet-on-fleet space combat actions down from “GM’s head literally explodes” to ” a couple hours”.

If you’re curious about the final product, it will be up on the usual suspects for free once it’s laid out, arted, and published.

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