Navigating the Empire, part 2 ~ Space Combat

This is the second in a new series of posts about the specific mechanics of the Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight Games. For those who prefer to watch or listen to YouTube videos instead of reading, you can find a similar post on my Channel. There is an overview of the mechanics and approaches to space combat, and a short look at what goes into framing the initial engagement. While combat on the ground and in space in the game are not significantly different mechanically, this common element from the films does seem to represent a small area of confusion, challenge, or even contention among those trying the game. To help address these things, this series will move from the Force to violence in the void.

Page references for the most part will provide only Chapter and Header titles rather than listing the locations in each of the three core books. In terms of space combat, Age of Rebellion provides the most material, but only insofar as it offers greater focus on capital ship involvement. Ships of silhouettes smaller than 5 are handled equally in all three books.

 

What needs to be considered to run a Space Combat in the FFG Star Wars Roleplaying Game?

For the Star Wars feel, a certain amount of coincidence and dramatic timing need to be a part of how the game universe runs. While the odds are perhaps against ambushes, encounters going from bad to worse, and giant worms in medium-sized asteroids, we have it on good authority from a renowned freighter captain that being told the odds is not helpful. With that in mind, the potential thrill or drama of a scene will need to be considered as much as its actual tactical components. It may not always make logical sense for a wing of TIE-fighters to swoop in from nowhere to further harry a fleeing ship of characters, but in the films, they typically do. We aren’t playing logic wars, after all. This post will do a quick survey of the elements most important in a combat scene in space. It will not delve into the relative strengths and weakness of different ships and their ability to take or deliver a beating. The elements it will explore are range, ship sensors, speed, silhouette, and terrain. Yes, Virginia, there is terrain in space.

Range

In space, the game’s standard range bands are slightly redefined from Personal Scale to Planetary Scale as Close, Short, Medium, Long, and Extreme. Range is an aspect of the game which stands firmly between the game’s Narrative Gameplay (Chapter 6: page 107, Edge of the Empire / page 209, Age of Rebellion / page 203, Force & Destiny) and its Structured Gameplay. To represent the travelling of distance within a range band, or between range bands, ships will pay a movement cost in Maneuvers. A ship will typically get 1 Maneuver and 1 Action per crew member. A starfighter pilot in an X-Wing, for example, can therefore seek advantageous positioning with its maneuver, and fire its weapons during a turn. With an astromech droid to assist the pilot, the ship will be able to accomplish additional things during the turn. A larger ship will likewise benefit from its complement of crew taking over the need to manage the deflectors, crew the main guns, plot a hyperspace jump, provide snarky commentary, or handle damage control. The exact and specific vastness of the distance between two objects in this way of handling range is downplayed in favor of establishing the relative distance between them, and what the pilots are doing to extend or shorten it.

Range is a factor in the efficacy of sensors and weapons. Sensor range is typically omni-directional, but this broad awareness can be refined to a specific arc and extended. Weapons, on the other hand, are capable of use against a target only within their listed range. The Difficulty to hit and do damage is not determined by range in space combat, which differs somewhat from ground combat, but rather by the relative size of the combatants.

Sensors

Be it pirates, Imperial fighters, bounty hunters, or some other type of rival upset by the characters’ actions, the entry into combat in space is either obvious from the nature of the scene, or affected by the use of sensors. On most listed ships, sensor range is equal to the range of their weapons. Within their range, sensors can be used Actively or Passively. Active searches are specific and directed, using a declared firing arc and returning a lot of information. Passive sensors return less information, but warn of important objects and occurrences taking place within their range, in all directions. A successful use of sensors will allow the operator to increase its range by 1 band at the expense of this All-arc awareness.

When determining whether a crew will be aware of an incoming attack run by another vessel or vessels, the information they have about the situation is relevant as is their use of their ship’s sensors. Fighter wings of TIE/LNs and Interceptors being directed to pursue a fleeing stock light freighter, for example, will be receiving telemetry from their carrier craft, but will not themselves be able to detect their quarry until they are actually in range. While their host Star Destroyer or other capital ship will possess the ability to Actively scan out to Extreme Range, the fighters will have to make use of Close or Short range sensors. This coordination of effort between carrier comms crew and fighter pilots can make for some interesting tension in the early stages of the combat scene.

Ultimately, being aware of the sensor ranges of the ships involved in a potential space combat can help frame how the rest of it will be set up, and provides the GM with the information they need to inform the players of when they detect incoming craft, or how prepared they might be to foil an ambush in space. In many cases, the crew will not be aware of incoming ships until those ships are within Short Range and maneuvering to close for an attack run. From the Star Wars point of view, this means we go directly into the action.

Some groups might prefer to pay careful attention to ranges and maneuvers when beginning an engagement in space. Recognizing the costs the closing starships would have to pay in order to reach a proximity in which they would be detected, and paying close attention to when they would be able to line up a shot and take it can provide much needed room for the scrambling to action of a character crew. One could have TIEs simply appear out of nowhere and take a free round of shots on a fleeing ship. This does not mirror the films all that well, and may annoy players. This is not unlike inflicting a wandering damage upon them, really. Surprise is one thing, the GM shooting you in the back is another.

TIEs pushing at top speed to seek and destroy a fleeing ship from Long or Extreme range, would be able to close the distance to a very disturbing nearness very quickly, but may not be able to take a shot in that same turn, based on how fast they closed the distance and at what cost in maneuvers, actions, and strain they did so. Using a Maneuver to engage a target in a dogfight in space allows this sort of sudden surprise appearance on sensors, followed by a race to take stations, then the first chance for incoming fire.

Speed

Speed affects the combatants’ ability to evade and escape one another. It also plays a significant role in a pilot’s ability to gain a tactical advantage over the target. Ship movement is roughly classed into 4 speed categories. These are immobile, Speed 1, Speed 2-4, and Speed 5-6. Greater speed confers superior ability to change range for a lower cost in Maneuvers. If a slower ship does not handle as well, and/or is in the hands of a less-capable pilot, there will be little that they can do to escape a faster pursuit ship, apart from jumping to hyperspace. The slower vessel is much less likely to be able to obtain and keep a position of advantage. For more specific information on this look at Gain the Advantage in the Maneuvers and Actions section of Chapter 7, under the heading of Space and Vehicle Combat in any of the three core books.

Silhouette

Size and scale is a major design element of the films, and as a result, should be present in our games as well. While Silhouette is as broadly-defined as Range in the game, it confers the type of information the players need to make good choices, and to govern the mechanics of an interaction. In space combat, size matters in a big way. Significant (2 categories) differences in Silhouette will alter the difficulty to hit with ranged attacks. Two increments smaller will lower it to Easy. Two larger will up it to Hard, and each increment larger after that will raise the difficulty by 1. If ships are not in range of their weapons, they may not acquire a target and fire effectively. Within range, the Silhouette determines what targets those weapons are intended to hit, and affects who well they may do so.

The other major factor of Silhouette in a space combat is how it affects the pilot in dangerous situations. That will be looked at under the terrain heading below.

Damage operates with Silhouette also. Vessels of the same classification interact with each other normally. When they two combatants are of very different sizes and types, that difference in scale will contribute to a sliding scale being applied to damage. Larger vessels inflict greater and greater damage to smaller ones, but in typical games, this is unlikely to come up that often. This is presented in Chapter 7 as Starships, Vehicles, and Scale. This is presented as two scales, Personal and Planetary, but can be thought of as three levels of size from the character, ranging upward to the typical vehicles they pilot on the ground and through space, and ultimately to the massive ships they construct for interstellar conflict and control. Item qualities like Breach reflect other elements of scale.

Basically, this is another area where the rules take a convenient midpoint between the hard rules of the system’s Structured Gameplay, and the interpretation of its Narrative Gameplay. Capital ship guns are designed for attacks on other capital ships. Personal hand weapons are likewise intended for attacks on other living creatures like yourself. On those occasions where it matters what happens when a blaster fires on an X-Wing, or when a Star Destroyer’s guns might hit a character somehow, the game offers good guidance. Otherwise, you can just run the game normally.

Terrain

Without terrain, combats in space will be brutal, short, provide less for a dedicated pilot and crew to do, and worse – not resemble what we see so often in the films. In the films, there is a lot of dangerous stuff in space. Our combats in space should provide similar challenges for our characters. The Terrain and Stellar Phenomena section provides the reason and the mechanics for modifying the difficulty of piloting checks and helps establish the underpinnings of how ships truly differ from each other. Speed of travel and the Silhouette of a ship directly contribute to the establishment of Difficulty for a piloting check. Safety will urge pilots to go slower, and to try less dangerous maneuvers in larger ships. Threat from attackers will goad them to go faster, seek escape, and seek cover. This is great in a game, and opens up the world of tactical and descriptive interactions which we expect from Star Wars. This can get very dangerous, very fast, and it can be great when a group takes the challenge and not only overcomes it, but uses it against their enemies.

It is worth noting that a cloud of oncoming Z-95’s is just as much ‘terrain’ as a bunch of space rocks…

Conclusions

I hope this brief look at the game elements which factor into starting a space combat in Star Wars will be useful. Obviously, the next major aspect to consider is how to best use and apply the Actions and Maneuvers to create a tense, descriptive, and enjoyable battle. That is in part a job for the GM, but lies so much more with the players who are running characters. Turning the raw mechanics of Structured Gameplay into thrilling combat fiction happens in the way they choose to internalize the scene and externalize their imagination of it.

The system provided by FFG is fairly fast, provides interesting results, does not cause much need to search the books, and can be as lethal or as survivable as your campaign might need. It is not hard to make it lethal, and clever players should be able to channel the films and their own creativity to find victories, no matter how small. Combat in space is deadly, and always carries the risk of a TPK, but no one said that life in a galaxy far, far away would be easy.

 

 

Enjoy~

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