Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Flavor of Space Battles

I am currently planning a space opera campaign, to be set in a distant future. Unlike the previous game that was set in the Star Trek universe, this one is set in a universe of my own creation.

I want the characters to be space travellers. I want them to have their own ships. I don't want them to be able to get on the phone with headquarters to request more stuff, so perhaps they'll be merchants, or pirates. Either way, it's obvious that there will have to be space battles.

Oddly enough, while I dislike combat in a sword & sorcery RPG being handled as a miniatures tactical board game, that's exactly what I want in space combat. Maybe it's because that zero-drag Newtonian motion is so unlike anything that we have on earth that it becomes interesting.

Anyway, the main question that I'm battling (heh heh) with right now is the flavor of those battles.

In the space opera genre, there seems to be three main flavors of space battles. Not coincidentally, each corresponds to a war movie:

  1. Midway (or maybe, Baa Baa Black Sheep if you remember that TV series): This flavor of campaign is marked mainly by carriers and fighters. In this type of campaign, player characters would probably be fighter pilots--each one launching his own fighter from a huge carrier to break through the lines of enemy fighters, and attack the main enemy fleet. This is the style of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. The benefit of this style of play is that space combat becomes just an extension of personal combat--each PC has their fighter, and each makes their own offense and defense rolls, and each takes their own damage. It's very easy to write the rules.
  2. PT-109: This is the type of campaign in which ships--be they destroyers or battleships, or even armed merchant vessels--fight each other directly. While fleet actions are certainly possible, in the campaign most combat would be the PC's single ship against one or two enemy vessels. In this flavor, PCs are usually all crew members of the same ship, filling different roles such as the Captain, Pilot, Gunner, and Engineer, each somehow contributing to the combat effectiveness of the vessel. This is the style of most episodes of Star Trek. The challenge with writing these rules is that you need each PC to have a meaningful role in the combat, otherwise the other players mentally check out while the captain and GM play a board game.
  3. Hunt for Red October: In space terms, this is a situation where ships are hard to detect. Kind of like if the cloaked Romulans went to war against the cloaked Klingons. Instead of worrying about the accuracy of the gunners to hit the enemy ship, the focus shifts toward a big game of cat-and-mouse where you attempt to detect the enemy ship without giving away your own location. You see this in the old submarine movies where they "run silent, run deep", and they debate whether or not to use a sonar "ping". Instead of action scene, you have a lot of tension scenes. PC roles are the same as the Pirates, but the Gunner becomes a sensor operator (the sonar man in the old sub movies). This shares the same disadvantages ad #2.

Number one was ruled out by one of my players. That leaves two or three. Currently I'm leaning towards the second flavor.

Edit: Original post had formatting errors due to copy/paste retaining HTML. Tidied it up but didn't change content.


  1. I like the second flavor, myself, if you can pull it off. As you say, each player will need a role, and one that will hopefully give them something to do each round. Very cool post.

    1. Thanks for the comment. We eventually did settle on #2, and that, of course, dictated much of the flavor of the campaign. The PC roles are Pilot/skipper, gunner, engineer, and medic.

      Once all this was laid down, it became obvious to me that there was no longer any need to to write my my own ruleset, as the old-school (1977/1980) Traveller rules would work perfectly. Plus I always loved Traveller's character generation rules.

      Thanks for reading!