Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Thousand Suns Readalong Chapter 9: Starships and Vehicles

First let me preface my remarks on this chapter by saying that starship combat systems in space role playing games are almost uniformly horrible. The Traveller games were never seriously revised– they just kept making more incompatible spaceship games that were broken in different ways and that continually introduced contradictory information in regards to the implied setting of the rules. The ones in GURPS Traveller are probably a decent set of rules if you can both slog through them and agree with the authors’ take on the Official Traveller Universe, but the playability factor is low to me– the game stats and modifiers are built around a baseline of a dude with a sword, not a gigantic spaceship. In any case, I don’t think people actually play Traveller starship combat games in any form except for some diehard High Guard fans. I’ve heard good things about D6 Star Wars and rave reviews for FASA’s Star Trek Starship Tactical Combat Simulator. For the most part, though, your only hope here seems to be in games that existed well before their role playing rules counterparts. Prime Directive with its backing by Star Fleet Battles and Federation & Empire is about the only space role playing game where the space combat is given anything like first-class treatment.

The only thing Starmada lacks that I can see is a good set of ship designs tailored to a particular set of scenarios and rules options.

If you’ve played a setting’s space combat games a lot, there’s all kinds of minor details that you will know that are difficult to get any other way– players will ask you stuff and you’ll just know how things work. But I still hold out for some kind of good, playable micro-game treatment for this and it doesn’t really exist. If you asked me what I wanted I’d probably say… oh… a design system more or less like Starmada’s… with a sequence of play probably closer to Starfire… and with record sheets and a quick playing feel like The Last Starfighter. From there… it’d need to have several interfaces for the role playing game rules and the character stats, but all of that needs to be optional. The game would have to stand on its own first and foremost. Yeah, I know… it’s not going to happen. But there it is.

This was not a bad game in spite of the guessing stuff. FASA knew how to make things nicely degrade in capabilities until they exploded.

The Starfire rules are very difficult to dig out from the book, but the scenarios are very well designed for helping train you up.

Now the Thousand Suns space combat rules as presented in this second edition PDF… what can I say? I didn’t get very far with this before I started designing my own game, so let me just detail where I went off the rails with it. It’s a shame, as there is some good design decisions; I think there’s potential for a Thousand Suns space combat game to be really good given the overall design philosophy of the game. I just don’t think it exists yet.

  • The linked weapons descriptions in the sample starships… they don’t make any sense to me. The author is clearly doing something different than either CAR WARS style linked weapons or Traveller style batteries, but I couldn’t tell you how some of these ships like the corvette or the cruiser are armed.
  • The section on movement is just one giant steam of confusing text with no illustrations. What kind of map are we expected to play on…? My best guess is… this is played on squares where the diagonals are declared to be the same length as the sides. That’s weird. Well be weird, but at least make it clear what you’re doing. I need pictures for this especially given how weird it is. (Height and depth definitely ignore diagonals as well, though.)
  • The sequence of play is not pulled out into a sidebar. That’s no fun for me.
  • Okay… it sounds like this is a vector movement system but these ships have turn ratings when they don’t have firing arcs. I don’t think you can really have it both ways. And why having only 45 degree turns…? What is going on here? I need more pictures in order to double check that I’m reading you right. (I think you should either go full vector movement and deal with all the boredom that such a move would entail or else go more of a CAR WARS route and go mapless, give the ships an acceleration rating, and add more variety in the maneuver options.)
  • In a scenario where a Corvette and a Cruiser start in the same location… the game hinges entirely on who wins initiative. If the Corvette wins, the Cruiser gets one missile shot at him before he escapes. If the Cruiser wins, then he gets two turns of fusion beam fire and two more turns of missile fire after that. I might have more confidence in such a result if sensor use and electronic warfare had a more explicit role in the sequence of play– especially if such contests could change the initiative order somehow later. As it stands, the movement system is strange and poorly communicated, the sequence of play is too lean, and the initiative system leads to bizarre outcomes.

As to the Vehicles section of the chapter, there is one glaring problem with the rules that just cause me to move on to the next chapter. It seemed kind of cute that the author left the duration of a round as being only vaguely defined…. But if you have characters and vehicles interacting on a miniatures map you really need to know how far the vehicles move in a round. The author gives us the top speeds in kilometers per hour, but we can’t do anything with that fact because the basic unit of combat time is left undefined! This is especially greivous to me, because in my opinion, no role playing game is complete until you can play CAR WARS in it.

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6 responses to “Thousand Suns Readalong Chapter 9: Starships and Vehicles

  1. RogerBW January 24, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    A “proper” starship combat game tends to be written for wargamers; the typical use case there is low double-digit numbers of ships on a side, an expectation that at least some of them will be destroyed during the engagement, and only one person controlling that side.

    On the other hand, the typical use case for starship combat in an RPG is that at least one side has only one ship, and there are multiple people who want to control aspects of that ship’s fighting. (There are occasional exceptions – a Star Wars game where everyone’s a fighter pilot, for example – but they’re very unusual.) On that side at least, there’s an expectation that the ship won’t be completely destroyed.

    For this reason, I’d argue that using a “real” space wargame like Starmada, Full Thrust, SFB or Starfire is exactly what you don’t want to do. I know you’ve run Prime Directive… but do you really haul out the SFB maps and counters when a space combat starts? (I know Prime Directive supports this.) SFB is designed for a single player to be able to run at least three or four ships; surely sharing one ship’s actions between four or five players is going to leave them bored.

    The defining point of the Star Trek Starship Tactical Combat Simulator was that it gave all the bridge crew things to do during a combat – the engineer would allocate power, the sensors guy would try to work out what was happening, the navigator (I think) would point the shields at where the fire was going to be coming from, and so on. This makes it great for an add-on system to an RPG, lousy as a wargame, because the amount of work to be done per ship exceeds SFB levels.

    The best system I’ve seen for doing this since those days is the GURPS Spaceships series, which is also very much character-focused (to the point of defining just what happens to people aboard a ship when it’s hit, rather than the more conventional wargaming approach of losing a certain number of crew points). The captain can give leadership bonuses, system operators can boost the effectiveness of the systems they’re running…

    Anyway, enough of my philosophising. What I’m seeing in this first edition of Thousand Suns looks a lot more like a lightweight space wargame than a system suited for RPGs.

    • jeffro January 24, 2012 at 12:43 pm

      I actually Infocom’ed the space combat last time I ran Prime Directive. I treated it more like a puzzle in an adventure game than as an actual wargame. I was looking for something to capture the players’ attention and get them playing immediately– D6 Battlecruiser off the starboard bow will do that. I was also looking to get someone in a leadership role that wouldn’t be doing that during the main ground-related portion of the game. I wanted to see what the midshipmen would do when the experienced officers were all somewhere else. I also wanted to establish the sense of being on a frontier… and also… establish a couple of dramatic hooks. It was all 15 minutes of gaming to do the three minute Star Trek opening sequence thing. So it was 100% GURPS… mostly pretend… roll the dice and then make up what happens. I don’t think there’s time for “real” space combat in a four hour con game.

    • Me February 23, 2012 at 6:44 pm

      The answer to some of your questions can be found in the rules:
      Linked weapons: Refer to page 159.
      Firing arcs: Refer to page 162.
      Initiative: Keep in mind that all combat is conducted simultaneously, so having the highest initiative is not an automatic advantage while firing.

      • jeffro February 23, 2012 at 9:15 pm

        Simultaneous fire is not the problem. I-go-you-go movement does not go along well with any kind of vector-movement system, but throwing in an initiative system makes it unplayably strange as I demonstrate above above with the example of the Corvette and Cruiser fighting.

  2. Me February 25, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Essentially the one with the higher initiative gets to shape the “battlefield” to his own ends. Keep in mind that initiative is about maneuver and not about who shoots first.

    Respectfully, I have a few problems with your example. Assuming that the two ships “start in the same location” is more of an edge case rather than the norm. Most combat in my experience begins at range. While its possible for the two ships to be within one span of each other at the outset, in-game events will have had a strong bearing upon the character of the combat to follow, making this starting premise problematic. Additionally, its unrealistic to assume that the corvette will simply be able to fire and escape as logically the cruiser will pursue after having had a chance to fire its weapons. I would recommend playing out an engagement if you haven’t already.

  3. John E. Boyle October 29, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    Hmmm. Without any idea of how far someone or a vehicle travels in a round, I’ll probably just to adapt something from the BRP system.

    Regarding space combat, it is either going to be small ship actions (free traders/pirates/etc) one on one, or Space Viking type for big ships. I’ll keep it no more than 4 ships total until/unless the players really hit the big time.

    I do like that the ship modules list gives players a chance to customize their spaceship, a couple of my guys are going to get into that, I can tell.

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