Editor’s note: The initial Fifth Imperium column was published on the RPG.Net website in July 2009, and appeared in Freelance Traveller’s initial issue in November 2009. This column originally appeared on the RPG.Net website in July 2010, and in Freelance Traveller Issue #008 in August 2010.
The Traveller Core Rulebook has an entirely passable space combat system, which can be found on pages 146-151. It offers up a simulation of combat that is fairly simple, but offers up enough details to make space combat interesting.
It also briefly touches upon the biggest problem in starship combat: how you can keep all of the players involved. This is partially solved by a set of “crew positions” which are listed on page 146. You can have your players assign their PCs to positions for command, gunnery, and engineering.
However, I thought it had a few issues, namely:
- It wasn’t very cleanly laid out and thus didn’t make it abundantly obvious what each position does.
- It didn’t have enough positions for my own gaming group, which at its height was regularly hitting 8 players (or at least it didn’t on a small ship with only a couple of weapons).
- It had some “useless” positions like “marine” and “passenger” who couldn't do anything fun during combat.
- It had some actions like “sensor lock” and “electronic warfare” without associated positions.
- It didn’t clearly lay out tactical decisions which each position could make.
To solve these problems I wrote up my own system, which to be clear is just an expansion of the excellent groundwork that Mongoose already laid out. I’ve included it here. I list it as version 1.0 because I’ve only used it once, and I think it could still be polished up to make an even better standalone “mini-game”.
Expanded Ship Combat: New Rules
Though these rules largely cleave to Mongoose's, there are a few variations:
Order of Initiative: Rather than maintaining one initiative per ship, each player gets to take their action at a specified time. Here's the general order:
During the Captain Initiative, the Captain of each ship takes actions that will affect the whole ship. Then, the Pilot does the same. These can be done in initiative order among the Captains, then among the Pilots.
You may want to shortcut major elements of this system for NPC/Enemy ships, since the main point is to get all the players involved. Some notes on that follow at the end. Otherwise, their initiatives should be interspersed among the players, but the players shouldn’t get to hear the specifics of Captain and Pilot actions, just see the effects of the various actions on themselves.
Multiple Roles: This system is intended to let each character take one and exactly one role. There are two situations when a player can take on multiple computer-facing roles (e.g., not medic or engineer), and perform an action for each of them:
With a Penalty. A player takes a -1 DM to all actions for each additional role he takes on.
In a Small Ship. Smaller ships may be designed to let characters take on multiple roles. Specify this in your ship specs, to account for the number of crew that can be on a ship.
Moving Among Locations: In a typical ship, Captain, Co-Pilot, Pilot, and Sensors are all on the Bridge. Moving among those locations can be done without penalty.
Every other location—any turrets, bays, and the M-Drive—is more distant. A character moving from one to another or to the bridge must spend an entire combat turn doing so.
Crew Hits: This system increases damage done to characters, to both increase the danger level and give the medic something to do.
Whenever a location is hit, apply 2d6 damage to the characters in that location. Most crew members take damage in the bridge, gunners take damage if their turret or bay is hit, and the engineer takes damage if the M-drive or Power Plant is hit if he’s working on the M-drive—else he takes damage wherever he is.
This should supersede damage to a “random” crewmember but is superseded by damage to “all crew”, on the p.151 Crew Damage chart.
Expanded Ship Combat: The Roles
Here’s all the possible roles, along with their potential actions. Each one is intended to have one or more tactical decisions (though for gunners, that’s presumed to be “what to shoot”).
Captain: The Captain can roll Tactics (EDU) to provide an EFFECT bonus to the Initiative of his crew or he can roll Leadership (SOC) to give a Task Chain DM to a character of his choice (see p.51).
Co-Pilot: The co-pilot may Dodge an incoming attack with a Pilot (DEX) roll to give the attacker -2 DM. Each Dodge costs 1 Thrust which must have been allocated by the Pilot.
Engineer: An engineer may repair a system that he is at with a Mechanic (EDU) roll. This roll is unmodified for a first hit on the system and Difficult (-2) for a second hit on the system. Repairs cannot be accomplished on systems with three or more hits. An engineer also cannot repair hull, structure, or armor damage.
A success repairs a system by one level. It should be considered a very temporary fix; more work will be needed when the battle is done.
Alternatively, an engineer that is at the M-drive can “give ’er all ’e’s got”, goosing the engine to increase Thrust. A Difficult (-2) Engineer (EDU) roll gives +effect in Thrust, to a maximum addition of the ship's normal M-rating. However, the engineer must also make a Difficult (-2) Engineer (EDU) roll to avoid damaging the engine. A failure gives the engine a 1/2 hit that may not be repaired during combat. These half hits stack.
Engineers often have to move around a lot, as per the rules above.
Gunners: There must be one gunner per turret or bay weapon. They roll Gunner (DEX). Specialties like Turret, Screens, or Capital Weapons might apply.
Instead of attacking, a Gunner on a turret laser may play Point Defence (see p.149) while a Gunner on a sandcaster will always be ready to Fire Sand (see p.149).
Medic: Medics also tend to move around a lot. They can First Aid (INT) one character each combat round (see p.75).
Pilot: The main role of the pilot is to determine how to allocate the Thrust of the ship, as detailed on pages 147 & 149 of the Traveller Core Rulebook. Essentially he calculates the total Thrust (which may have been increased by an engineer) and splits it up among four uses:
- Closing. Thrust spent to adjust engagement range (see p.146).
- Docking. Pilot (DEX). 1 thrust, only once per turn.
- Lining Up Shot. Pilot (DEX). 1 thrust, only once per gun. Gives a Task Chain DM (see p.51).
- Dodging. Thrust points given to co-pilot.
Sensors: Each round a sensor specialist may either attempt a Sensor Lock by rolling Sensors (INT) or attempt Electronic Warfare by making a Sensors (EDU) roll.
A Sensor Lock works exactly as stated in the rules (p.150), but must be rerolled every round.
An Electronic Warfare roll may be used to jam smart missiles (p. 150) or it may be used to give a specific ship a -1 DM for all attacks. Like a Sensors Lock, this must be rerolled each turn.
Modeling the Enemy
You probably don't want to expend all this effort on the enemy, as the goal here is to make sure the players get fun screen time.
To keep your enemy ships balanced:
- Assign a two-part DM to each ship, to account for gun bonuses and other bonuses, like this +2/+1. These points should represent average for Captain assists, Pilot assists, and Sensors assists. At the start of each round, divide the first number among guns and the second number among guns, initiative, and engineering. If you prefer, assign these bonuses once at the start of a battle and keep them there, for more simplicity.
- Optionally assign a Engineer DM of +0 or better to each ship. Every other round, try to repair a system on the ship if there is system damage.
- Have each gun fire individually, with all guns on the same ship firing at the same initiative number. Use the best gunner's DEX for the initiative at the start of the fight.
That’s how I’m currently running space combat, with a little something for everyone to do. I welcome any comments, and if I make any notable changes, I’ll repost them here sometime as a v2.0.
Now, having talked about the crunch I've added to my game, next time I'll talk about some of the fluffier ideas I've borrowed to improve character and plot interaction.