Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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Designer Spotlight: A Conversation with Ken Burnside about Squadron Strike! Traveller

Jeffro: I admit, I’ve had a hard time up until now choosing between your products. Given that I’m a Car Wars fan, you’d think I’d be all over Squadron Strike due to its having the most flexible design system of any space game on the market. But that by itself wasn’t enough to make me pull the trigger. And I know one of the things that kept me from Attack Vector was that I just wasn’t in the mood for wrapping my head around another space game setting.

As soon as I heard you were adapting Squadron Strike to the official Traveller universe, then I knew. I could finally have one of your 3D space combat games… but with the Squadron Strike design system and the tabletop space game setting that I’ve already been playing in for more than a decade.

You really brought me down off the fence with that move!

Ken Burnside: I’m in total agreement: Setting buy-in is critical. It helps if you’ve got a setting people have heard of, because working from tropes everyone knows means the potential customer has fewer barriers before they care. This project has been germinating for long enough that we managed to build a number of Traveller-esque options deep into the foundations. It’s also been something of a “cursed project.” If it hadn’t been for an unexpected backup, it might have died to a Taliban rocket attack in Afghanistan. And that says nothing about the parade of people who’ve worked on it who suffered strokes, heart attacks and bypass surgeries….

Jeffro: From what I’ve seen you’re bringing us the iconic Azhanti High Lightening right out of the box. In addition a range of Imperial ships, you’ve got a healthy selection of Zhodani ships and a smattering of Aslan. It looks like you’ve chosen to emphasize the Spinward Marches region right around the time of the 5th Frontier War. That is seriously classic– and easily the most played milieu of the franchise.

Ken Burnside: All of our scenarios for this product are from the opening of the Fifth Frontier War. We’re supporting the two Traveller fleet boxes we put out years ago. We’ve also added more ships to fill out the product. There are 15 ships in the product, each with a 2D version and a fully statted out variant, so effectively 30 ships total. Our first few scenarios are a combined mini campaign/tutorial to teach you Squadron Strike’s rules in bite sized chunks – while having a fun time going through them.

Jeffro: I have to say… the most distinctive feature of the Traveller space combat games is the lack of a sense of maneuver. In Mayday, there is no facing for instance. And once you’ve committed to a particular vector, changing it seems to take more time than the game can take– if anybody is in range for a shot, anyway. And in situations where there are just two ships… you don’t really need the map at all. In fact, Starter Traveller used range bands for space combat for maybe just that reason! High Guard also eliminated the map in favor of just two ranges– short and long.

So you’re adapting these games that essentially have no maneuver in them… into your system which is basically all about maneuver, position, and facing. How does that even work…?

Ken Burnside: It works pretty well, all told. Traveller inherits a lot from late ’70s vintage surface naval combat (with a bit borrowed from the sensor cat-and-mouse game of submarine combat.) In current epoch surface naval combat, the role of maneuver is largely non-existent when you’re in weapons range or aircraft engagement range.

We reduced the rates of fire, and used the inherent Squadron Strike default game scale of 1,265 km hexes, and the “Ad Astra G” of 9.765625 m/sec/sec, while keeping the range of thrusts available in Traveller with mode 2 movement. Weapons have two range bands for the most part, though there is some subtle variation between powers in Squadron Strike Traveller. Not quite as extreme as the differences in Star Fleet Battles, but you’ll be able to tell an Aslan energy beam from a Zhodani one, and a Zhodani Particle Beam is different from an Imperial one.

Maneuver and facing matter in Squadron Strike Traveller more than they have in any prior Traveller space combat game; Brilliant Lances was a heartbreaker of a game – so many cool ideas that never got explained properly, but it had the germinating idea of facing being important. Traveller spinal mounts require a fair bit of skill and planning to line up on the target – especially in a couple of iconic ships, like the Azhanti High Lighning, which has a horrible High Guard “Agility” rating and a low thrust rate, making it somewhat immobile. Even other weapons have restricted arcs, and, of course, there are six facings for defense. Sometimes, you’ll have hard choices to make: Keeping the spinal mount on a target may mean opening up your softer Aft or Bottom armor to another ship.

In playtests, it’s proven to be fun on the table, and that’s my ultimate goal: Traveller needs a space combat game that people will take out and play regularly, rather than put on the shelf to gather dust.

Jeffro: How did you pin down your selection of ship designs? For the Aslan and the Zhodani, I’m not even sure where you could get the canon for their ships that are outside the scope of the usual “Book 2” size range….

Ken Burnside: First, we wanted to match minis we already had in production, so the Azhanti High Lightning had to go in. There weren’t a lot of Zhodani designs, but we started with the ones we had. There was surprisingly little defined about the Aslan designs, so in some ways, once we got a look that Marc Miller liked, we started designing ships and iterating through them.

Our second priority was to provide a variety of ship types and respect the different doctrines used by the Imperium and the Zhodani and make a doctrine for the Aslan – all while keeping the game fun. The Aslan are very good at “close and fight” and are typically more heavily armored than their rating would suggest, with a lot of close-in firepower. The Zhodani particle beam is arguably better than the Imperial one by a smidge, and the Zhodani love carriers like nobody’s business.

We’ve even got rules for Zhodani psi in the set – SS’s turn structure makes some of the Psi rules really fun to do – for example, making a Crew Rate check to plot your movement after you see everyone else’s, due to precogs on the command staff.

Here’s the list of ships in the product:

Atlantic CA
Fer de Lance DE
PF Sloan FE
Gionetti CL
Skimkish CVL
Plankwell BB

Kefchenzh CA
Zhdiak DE
Zhdavldlits CL
Vlezhdatl CS
Driafria CVS
Viepchakl BB

Elsyel DL
Hroilri’ea CA
Afteasea CS

Some of these will require new minis, all have water-tight meshes to make those minis from.

Jeffro: Now I have to tell you, Ken, no set of games has driven me crazy quite like the Traveller games. I love Traveller; really I do. But I have agonized over the difference between pulse lasers and regular lasers. (Was there a rule missing in Book 2 maybe?) I have fretted over the limitation of the number of turrets. I have tried to figure out exactly what sandcasters do and why they work. I have tried to wrap my head around the turret rules in High Guard and wondered why the triple turret with laser, missile, and sandcaster would be a standard option in the Third Imperium. The differences fuel tank requirements across editions just plain blow my mind. But most of all, I have been disappointed by the picture of naval combat that seems to devolve into gigantic battleships lining up and then slowly grinding each other down with Brillo pads over the course of days of game time. Given the way that Traveller fans over the past decades have shown themselves to be unyieldingly passionate about their “official” universe, I’m amazed that you would be willing to take a stab at something that has been the subject of countless flame wars. I want to believe you, but I’ve been burned so many times now. Do you really think that you have plumbed the depths of this mess and pulled a real game out of it?

Ken Burnside: We looked hard at canon – actually, at about 6 different versions of canon. We standardized terminology – the plasma gun/energy gun/fusion beam/fusion cannon now has one name.

We made sandcasters work right in the context of Squadron Strike, because ultimately, this is Squadron Strike. The same thing with Black Globes and other decisions. What this isn’t is a “OK, here’s how you design the ship in {Insert one of seven design systems} and make an SS ship automagically.” This is “We’ve rebuilt the Traveller weapons in SS, and re-scaled Traveller defenses to SS values.” It’s not a port, it’s a reinterpretation…because all a port would have done is recreate the “yeah, immobile fleets grind each other down with Brillo pads” dynamic that’s already there. And if that’s what you want, your perfect game already exists. It’s called High Guard.

One of the projects we’re working on in a slow development process is getting a parallel product going for Adventurer Class ships. Right now, ships like the Fer de Lance are just barely playable in Squadron Strike Traveller. It’s geared towards things like cruiser duels or battleship-led fleets. On that scale, a Beowulf or an S-class scout-courier is a round-off error. So we’ll be doing a setup where a 15,000 dton ship is a HUGE ship (stat-wise) and a 200-ton Beowulf is a fragile little mayfly that really hopes that the pursor’s Bluff check worked. For that project, I want to hear from Traveller players about what they actually want in a spaceship game for tying to an RPG.

Jeffro: Okay… one last question here. You mentioned that the scenarios double up as sort of a tutorial. My biggest problem with games like Striker and Brilliant Lances is that the games simply did not come ready to play. While Brilliant Lances came with some decent scenarios and even a selection of starship designs, you had to fill out record sheets before you could start. The game was confusing enough and the details were scattered to enough places that I just couldn’t figure it out. Striker didn’t really even come with any tank designs or scenarios– you really had to come up with everything yourself. And in both games… all I wanted to do was set up two units on a map and have them shoot each other. But with the rules and charts broken up like they were and with errata never quite getting folded in over the course of several editions, I could never quite get to the place where I was confident that I could really run the game.

So… realistically speaking and for someone with average intelligence: how long does it take from the point of opening the box to get to the point where something gets blown up?

Ken Burnside: Let’s see.

Open the box, and go “Oooooh!” at the new game smell: 1-3 minutes.

Pull out the plastic bits and play with the tilt blocks and stacking tiles: 1-3 minutes (everybody does this; they’re very tactile and fun)

Punch out countersheets and glue together box miniatures for the P.F. Sloan and the Zhdiak: 10-15 minutes depending on how good you are with a glue stick. Can go faster if you find that kind of thing easy.

Photocopy the two SSDs for 2D play: 1 minute.

Set up maps, set up box minis, read and play through the first four programmed turns: About 30 minutes, tops – with lots of kaboomage starting on turn 2. The two ships are an even match and you can continue past turn 4 to see who wins from an interesting position at the end of the first scenario.

All of the ships in the set come in 3D and 2D versions; there’s also a “common variant” in 3D for each class. All the SSDs have the weapon tables on them.

At no point do you have to rummage through the book to fill out a blank sheet to stat up your ship.

Jeffro: Well, Ken… thanks for taking the time to fill me in on this new game. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on this one. Good luck! Hopefully there’ll be no more strokes or rocket attacks as you head into the home stretch here!

Ken Burnside: I hope so as well. We’re on the final stretch – one of the three books is laid out, the other is getting edited before layout, and I’m doing counter-sheet futzing after that. Always a pleasure talking to you, Jeff.

Ken is the designer of Attack Vector: Tactical and Squadron Strike. He runs Ad Astra Games and has been nominated for a Hugo Award in the Best Related Work category for his non-fiction article “The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF.” He and Jeffro are both columnists at Castalia House.

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7 responses to “Designer Spotlight: A Conversation with Ken Burnside about Squadron Strike! Traveller

  1. dgarsys April 15, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Nice.

    While I plan on getting SS:Traveller anyway, from an RPG standpoint, it doesn’t matter to me much if SS has its own ship system or converts from one of the T systems such as CT or HG. Do we have jump drives, time to jump activation and calculation, reactionless thrusters, massive fuel tankage, missiles, lasers, and spinal mounts? Shuttles and fighters? Freighters knocking around the periphery? Prospectors? Can I create a sufficiently detailed ship to make up deck plans that would otherwise slot into a traveller RPG as a replacement for the ship combat section ?

    Then I’m sold.

  2. Ken Burnside April 15, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    Jump drive: Yes
    Time to Jump calc: Yes
    Reactionless thrusters: Yes
    Massive Fuel Tankage: Yes
    Missiles, Lasers, Spinal Mounts: Yes
    Shuttles and Fighters: yes
    Freighters: You can build targets, sure. :)
    Prospectors: Not sure what you’d do with this other than shuttles…
    Detailed ship? Yes. Something you can convert to deckplans? I don’t know.

    Not asked: Boarding party combat: Yes.

    • dgarsys April 15, 2015 at 12:58 pm

      Well – if there’s a way to get cubage or mass of components out of the rules, I’ll happily use the old traveller cubage/tonnage rules of thumb.

      And as to freighters, well – maybe I’m protecting some against shipping strikes, or anti piracy in less patrolled systems way from the main lanes. Or maybe I’ve got a 200-ton (equiv) free trader. This is more for “SS as a plug-in for character ship adventuring” than “SS:T as a traveller-based ship war-game”

      And thanks…..

      One implicit assumption in orig traveller

  3. Ken Burnside April 15, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    SS uses hull spaces – you have a budget of hull spaces, and you fill them out – there’s a lot of terrifying math going on under the hood there. Which is why we don’t give a “mass breakdown” on the SSD or the ship writeup. Some of those mathbits are nonlinear.

    However, I’m still trying to figure out what the “game play dialog” looks like. If you make a transcript of your ideal game of a 200 ton Beowulf trying to get past two Fiery-class escorts, how would it read?

    How do you intend to keep every player engaged?

    • dgarsys April 15, 2015 at 7:26 pm

      a) Hmmmm… so hull spaces are non-linear. How are ship sizes determined to begin with?

      b) That will require some thought – as it’s an issue with almost every co-op game I’ve seen to one degree or another (Son accurately referred to Pandemic as “whack-a-mole” and the game can be just as easily played solitaire…)

      It’s a cop-out to say “but the GM must balance the narrative”

      In a real DC situation, or Gen Quarters, everyone has a station and is doing something. That said, the CO/OOD/Conn has the final say on many things.

      So – for brainstorming: What roles would PC’s have?

      Pilot –
      Gunner –
      Engineer –
      Scans/InfoTech –
      Stewards/Security
      General damage control –

      Describing what their roles are in english isn’t terribly hard. Writing them in a story would not be terribly difficult either.

      Balancing them in an RPG/adventure without falling prey to the dreaded “co-operativitis”, and having their skills (based on CT and possibly other Trav systems) actually have an impact, and more importantly, in game mechanics, making sure THEY choose, and the choice matters at least a little bit….

      My first suggestion is to go abstract. Forget actual orbital positions beyond setting the stage and knowing “how long to jump limit” etc. (Yes, I like being able to tactically play the small scale engagements, but that’s a different purpose than an RPG campaign)….

      Then, what skills are relevant, and what impact would they reasonably have? Can’t wait to look at the SS PDF’s to get a better idea of how the system works to see if there’s a way to plug that in, or if we have to borrow more from CT and map SS-designed ships into it the other way

      • dgarsys April 15, 2015 at 11:14 pm

        Followup – relevant CT skills –

        gunnery
        ship tactics
        engineering
        Navigation
        pilot
        ships boat
        steward

        now to spend some time mulling over what skills are needed for what roles, and what impact they would have

  4. dgarsys April 19, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    OK

    Group of 5 characters, one an ex-scout, sprint up to their type-S, clamber into the rear hatch as the pilot (call him Wash) is spinning up the drive systems. THey take off just ahead of some local mafia syndicate that, sadly, has LE connections, so a 400-ton patrol cruiser is called in.

    We have again:
    “Wash” – (piloting) (ship tactics)
    “Kaylee” is handling engineering
    “Jayne”, instead of holding on to Vera, is manning fire control. (gunnery)
    “Mal” is trying to figure out the jump (navigation)

    Ships Boat is likely n/a (unless that’s what’s being flown)
    Steward is likely n/a as well – no passengers to calm down.

    At this point, the scout is totally outclassed for 1-1 combat for stand and fight to the finish, but the GM can look at the situation and decide that the scout and cruiser will be in range of each other for three combat rounds (in CT terms, three 1000-second rounds) before hitting the jump limit. Two until they’re far enough away to risk a misjump. The first one at long range, the second one closer, and the third close enough that there are no range-related negative modifiers for aiming lag for lasers.

    Looking back over the CT rules – we need some severe modification of computer sizes for TL. The programs described in there, vs. the computer capacity needed, would easily run on the laptop I’m typing this out on.

    Maybe the equivalent of a couple desktop workstations to add in cooling , and redundancy.

    Leaving that aside, I think the structure of the existing CT rules in the traveller book are actually pretty solid, if you take out the 2D vector plotting. Only the lowest TL computers are going to have to worry about whether they’re running targeting or counterfire. I’d assume piloting is always a + modifier to dodge (+1 on top of that) for evasion sequences. Higher-G thrust ships can apply a higher modifier (especially at longer ranges where there’s more feedback lag) – but I’d have to figure out how much. I’d assume gunnery always helps on + rolls to hit. And if damage is taken, kaylee can try to fix it using engineering or electronics/etc.. Missiles take 1 turn per range band if used.

    SO – not much interaction, but we know how things will shake out, people can get out of their couches to help make repairs if needed, and the pilot or nav can decide if they’re going to jump early (and use his Nav skill to cut down on jump calculation time or chances of a misjump from jumping too close)

    But also not a lot of time spent on things that can’t change much….

    You can also decide to dump cargo to spoof damage or act as impromptu sandcasters, abandon ship, have whoever’s in the lead bluff or negotiate with the patrol ship, have whoever’s on sensors try to report weapons or readiness status in greater or lesser detail, etc. etc. etc… Anything the players can think of that wouldn’t be covered at a more abstract, multi-ship level of play like Squadron strike. Maybe stay on the deck instead of in orbit and go underwater adn hide out a couple days? Run fo the mountains adn try to lose them in radar clutter, hide out?

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