About Me

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Seattle, Washington, United States
I'm an old time roleplayer who became a soldier who became a veteran who became a developer who became a dba who became a manager who never gave up his dream of a better world. Even if I have to create it myself.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Stellar Space Fighter Combat, Part 1

One of my big issues with a lot of sci-fi tabletop RPGs is that the space combat seems to be an afterthought. Frequently, the rules either exactly match the ground combat, or they seem to be a minor optional ruleset.

For me, a sci-fi game must include fun space battles.

Once upon a time, this was sci-fi.
photo credit: Chris Devers via photopin cc

So, I'll focus on Space Fighter Combat rules first for Stellar. In this, I won't concern myself at all with how the rules might transpose to either of the two other combat scenarios: Ground Combat, and Capital Ship Combat. That will come later.

Overall Goals

What do I want this system to feel like?

I'll take some of my biggest gripes and turn that frown upside down. Or, in plain english, I'll take the things that annoy me the most about some other systems and assume the opposite of those things is what I want the most.

First, I don't like slow combats. Slow as in real-time. 3e D&D was notorious for hours-long combats that felt like they dragged on forever. I used to have players that timed their downtime between actions. Sometimes it exceeded 30 minutes. OUCH!

Sure, that's partly the players' fault. But not entirely.

Second, I don't like lots of accounting. Tracking lots of numbers is painful. This could happen when lots of modifiers to rolls happen - add +2, subtract -4, add +1, subtract 3, take half damage, wait who am I attacking again? - or when there are hit locations with different HP totals, or even ammo tracking. Ugh.

Third, and space-specific, I don't like it when space combat feels like ground combat. This applies to how the theme has to feed into the mechanics.

So my top goals are:
  • Fast turn rotations
  • Low accounting requirements
  • Must feel like space fighters

Parts of Combat

Fundamentally, any combat system must address these basic aspects:
  • Initiative, or order of play
  • Movement, or how to position on the battlefield
  • Attacks, or how to hurt enemies
  • Defenses, or how not to be hurt
  • Distinctiveness, or how everyone doesn't feel the same


Here's a topic with widely varying opinions. For me, an initiative mechanic must match the desired tone of the game. OD&D used very simple party initiative. Later editions used individual d20 rolls. I've used cards for Phoenix (as have some other games). Some games just dictate, or even go around the table. Monte Cook even recently posted that he did a rule where people sit around the table in their initiative order.

I like individual initiative. It makes combat more dynamic. My problem with most individual-initiative dice systems is not the dice rolling. It's that then everyone has to figure out what that means for actual order: I go first, no wait you rolled higher, no wait I have a better initiative modifier, no wait I didn't see her roll, oh crap we had a tie...

I demand faster.

I demand this even though I want to use dice, and have individual initiative.

In Phoenix, I used cards, because no ties, and I designed them with large print so everyone could see easily. But I want to keep my core mechanic intact for Stellar. That's a d12 dice pool with double digits (10-12) counting as successes.

So, I first make an assumption that characters/pilots will have some sort of skill rating in Space Combat Fighting. This skill will be rated in a "number of dice" used in the dice pool, so a larger number means a higher chance of more successes.

A skilled jet fighter pilot for the US Navy has a better chance of getting initiative than some crappy 3rd world pilot. So the skill roll must be the initiative roll. Also, Top Guns will say that winning initiative in a jet fight is immensely important, so the result can have profound impact and still feel right.

More successes on the pool means winning initiative. But in a given combat with some 2d bad guys and 4d good guys, there's going to be a LOT of ties. 0 and 1 are by far the most common number of successes. There is no tiebreak die mechanic that makes sense here.

So, first I generalize some rules. Party initiative for one or both sides (using that side's best roll) can be called for by the GM, mostly to reduce NPC rolls but also to cover cases where each side is outside gun range and only movement will occur. Doesn't really solve a problem but gives a simplification where initiative is less important. Then I pause for a moment to think about my combat round's structure.

Combat Round Structure

The number of successes on the initiative roll puts characters into "segments". 0 successes segment, 1 success segment, and so on. I make the decision to handle combat in a phased fashion; Initiative, Movement, Weapons. I'll handle ties (pilots on the same segment) within each Phase, the goal being to get out of Initiative Phase ASAP. Honestly, I don't even want to know the results of everyone's initiative roll yet. Another advantage to phased combat is that there is less downtime between each player getting to perform an action.

For the Movement phase, I'll count segments UP as the GM, so I'll say "0 segment move now". Anyone that rolled 0 successes (the losers) moves. Minor characters and goons will always move before BBEGs on the same segment, who will always move before PCs. PCs can go in whatever order they damned well please. After everyone on 0 has gone, then Segment 1 can go.

Moving last in aerospace combat is an advantage. Moving last means a pilot already knows where everyone else has moved to, and they can precisely position themselves in the most optimal fashion for the round.

This has another benefit: noone has to care who got what on the initiative roll. Starting at 0 and heading towards the open-end of "unknown X successes" means that when the last character moves, suddenly everyone knows what the highest number of successes was. So no accounting after the initiative roll, before actions can take place.

On Weapons Phase, initiative works in reverse. Now that everyone knows the highest number of successes, that segment goes first. In Weapons Phase, all actions on the same segment are simultaneous. So it doesn't matter who within the segment fires first. I'll probably just do the NPCs first. Or not. Doesn't matter. At the end of the segment, damage takes effect and any destroyed ships are eliminated. I'll have to deal with how this works (without accounting excessiveness) when I get to that part of the rules.

After Segment 0 is done, the round is over, and everyone rolls initiative again.

Next Steps

Now I've got a tentative model for initiative. Next time, I'll delve into Movement and Attack/Defense, so that I can fill out the other phases of basic space fighter combat.


  1. How does this design methodology contrast with what you used when developing Pheonix?

    1. Interesting question. I sort of address it in http://blog.cobaltkobold.com/2014/02/backstreets-back-in-black.html, like my new motto is "playtest early, playtest often". I've already had several playtest & refinements and my practical design is only about 1 or 2 posts ahead of this one. I'm also just doing a better process, focusing less on early graphic design and more on early content.

      In Phoenix, I realize I was also still stuck somewhat in the mindset of "How can I improve on that other game, XYZ?". This time around, I feel a lot more creative freedom, and confidence, around just making my own game. Subtle yet empowering difference.

      All in all, just know better how to have fun with this process :)


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