space combat

Transmissions From The End #011: Sneak Peak – Putting It All Together

Here’s another excerpt from the Systems Malfunction manuscript, as progress continues slowly and steadily. We really ought to get art briefs written up and out before the end of the month, which means we should be able to preview some art after Origins (which is suddenly very soon!).

As any of you following the Kickstarter closely probably noted, we didn’t make one of the Stretch Goals I was most excited about, which would have allowed us to include capital-scale starship combat rules and actual deck-plans for common capital ships in the Systems Malfunction universe. This is a major bummer, but one bright side is that with how far behind we are on a couple of projects, it would have been a nightmare trying to get those deck plans done in time. I still look forward to publishing a book of SysMal vessels, complete with deck plans, in the future.

In the meantime, here’s the chapter on scaling personal and vehicle combat from the Systems Malfunction manuscript. For those backers/fans/players who don’t have the Singularity Core Rules (and the extensive Strategic Starship Combat rules therein), I tried to provide some guidance on how to incorporate big honking starships into your campaign without having their full stats. The formatting of the table is incredibly janky, but obviously, won’t be in the final product, because it’s not being published through WordPress 😛

Astute readers will note that some of the suggestions for running combats involving both infantry and vehicles have changed from those provided in Singularity Core, in attitude as much as in content.

Bringing It All Together

If personal combatants and vehicles are involved in one fight, the shit has hit the fan and (meta)human beings are going to die historic—and become red mist. Some of those metahumans might be PCs.

If you have a battle mat and miniatures, bust ‘em out. Crude sketches are fine, but if you like some production values on your table, that’s cool too. It is very hard to do a vehicles-on-drones-on-infantry-on-Jackhammers fracas using only “theater of the mind” because vehicles can move much faster than infantry and in more directions. You use a vehicle’s Tactical Speed as its move speed in meters per turn. You ignore the ‘change range maneuver’, and resolving other Tactical Maneuvers (see p. XX) as Minor Actions (see p. XX), with Tactical Actions as Major Actions (see p. XX). This enables vehicles to use a Minor Action to take evasive maneuvers.

Instead of 10 seconds like turns with only personal combat, a turn of “mixed” combat is assumed to last the same duration as a turn of Tactical Vehicular Combat: a number of seconds equal to the highest initiative rolled (again: do not think about this too much!). ReAct (see p. XX) applies the same to metahuman and vehicular combatants, allowing extra partial actions after the “all-skate” phase.

Personal weapon damage and personal armor rating are designed to scale directly into those of tactical combat. If a personal weapon looks like it would not even scratch most vehicles, that’s cause it wouldn’t. If on the other hand, a vehicular weapon looks like it would unfailingly vaporize even the toughest, most heavily armored Replicant (and everyone standing next to him) it totally fucking would.

People trying to fight Jackhammers and drone-tanks and attack helicopters isn’t fair. The only chance of it being a fight at all lies with the odd chance that the people involved remembered to bring heavy anti-vehicular weapons.

There is a silver lining to having brought your frail metahuman body to a Jackhammer fight. Humans are very small targets; sensor assisted targeting can’t be used against them and they get to roll Evasion against all vehicular attacks: although ‘blast’ weapons will probably kill them even if they miss. Missiles cannot attack individual humans at all, nor can other weapons you can’t picture being fired at a man with a gun. For a human attacking a vehicle, the base difficulty stage is Easy. That is the last and only advantage humans get, however.

Capital Ships

Unfortunately, due to budgetary and page count constraints, the full rules for capital-ship combat (“Strategic Starship Combat”) can’t be reprinted in this book, which is a real shame. The rules appear in full on pp. 75-115 of the first (2013) printing of the Singularity System Core Rulebook, if you have access to that text. The silver lining to not being able to reprint those rules here is that they were as discovered in play less than perfect, and are definitely less than perfect for Systems Malfunction.

Generally speaking, it is probably best to treat capital ships as “set pieces” in any given Systems Malfunction campaign. Describe a larger space battle if one is happening, but keep the focus on the PCs and their actions (resolved through the rules for vehicular and personal combat). In other words, a Ferrata-Class Heavy Destroyer or a Narcissus-Class Planet Cracker is a location that exciting things are happening on, such as boarding action and defense, or a tense game of cat and mouse with an unknown alien lifeform. When in the course of space combat, a Destroyer that the PCs are assault boarding (or fighting off boarders from) becomes treated by the game more as something that things are happening to, rather than someplace that things are happening on, the likely “realistic” outcome is that a lot of PCs are going to die, very abruptly and without any chance (any roll to make) to survive.

In other words, if the Ferrata destroyer the PCs are waging an epic sword/gunfight on has its hull ruptured by ASGMs and railguns and explodes, the PCs and their enemies are all, most likely, immediately and anticlimactically dead.

On the other hand, it’s likely that at some point in a good, action-packed science fiction campaign-scape like Systems Malfunction, one or more PCs are going to be in powered armor, Jackhammers, or Starfighters, attempting an assault/boarding on a much larger ship. It’s the kind of iconic scene that good military sci-fi is chock full of. When someone’s closing in for boarding action, characters will unfailingly come under fire from (or be firing themselves) point-defense weapon systems. The least I can do is offer the stats for some common point-defense weapons, and the damage they do to vehicles and unlucky individuals alike (all have Piercing 10).

Starship Turret Weapon Accuracy Damage Starship Turret

Point Defense Weapon

Accuracy Damage
37mm Gatling Autocannon 0 24 Flak Gun -1 10×4
Quad Pulse Laser +1 4×10 20mm CIWS 0 15
Grenade Machinegun -1 32 Point Defense Pulse Laser +1 4×4
Gauss Cannon +1 28 Point Defense Beam +4 10

Note that each turret a capital ship mounts can have up to two turret weapons, up to four point defense weapons, or up to one turret weapon and two point defense weapons (when firing a twinned weapon system, i.e. two or more weapons of the same kind on the same turret, the point defense operator receives +1 to his Gunnery roll). While a small torpedo or missile boat or a Prospector-Class scout or Traveler-Class Light Transport mount only one turret each, a mid-sized capital ship like a Ferrata mounts three turrets (each with two 20mm CIWS), a Great Dragon-class Red Army flagship mounts 12 turrets, and a Vitrix-Class Supercarrier boasts 18 turrets. Only attempt a boarding or bombing run on a serious capital ship if you’re part of a massive wave of smaller craft, or if you’re feeling particularly suicidal.

Note that ground and naval bases often have mounted turrets with similar weaponry, although in that context it’s properly referred to as “anti-air” rather than “point defense”.

Closing & Boarding

It takes at least a full combat turn to close to boarding or vehicle weapons range with a capital ship: how long it takes is ultimately up to the GM, based on how far your point of launch is from the target ship, but one turn is the minimum. A Hard Helmsman, Jackhammer Rig, or Pilot (2) Test is required to bring the vehicle within boarding distance of the target starship. During this time, point defense fire must be weathered.

Jackhammers and characters in Powered Armor get to make Evasion rolls against each instance of incoming point defense fire as normal (and at a cumulative penalty of -1 for every Evasion roll made that turn, as normal). Other vehicles such as fighters and drones, however, do not make Evasion rolls. If the Gunnery roll produces a number of hits equal to the vehicle’s Handling (minimum 1), the point defense attack hits.

Jackhammers and dropships (including the Fulminata) can breach and board enemy ships after closing. Breaching and boarding is a dangerous, time-consuming process, because of the risk of fatally depressurizing both vessels. The process of penetrating a hostile hull to deploy a boarding party takes one full turn. It requires a successful opposed test versus the target ship’s Repairs subsystem rating (range of 2 to 6 depending on the size and sophistication of the enemy vessel). The boarding party either rolls Demolitions (for a combat hardbreach), an Electronics test (to rewire an airlock), or a Computers test (in the case of a software override). If the test fails, the boarding party can try again, but not by the same means, and again combat boarding takes one full turn to attempt.

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.