Saturday 4 September 2021

Delta Vector Spaceship Musings 2021

My original 2012 homebrew space rules (which inspired my interest in game design) were heavily played and playtested for a few months, but I gradually lost interest despite yearly attempts to revive them.  

The problem - I don't practice what I preach.

The game slowly lost their main design focus as I attempted to do too many things with the rules - they bloated and became generic. In attempting to make the rules work for all and any TV space settings, I lost the focus on the space settings that interested me - Lost Fleet and EvE:Online. I was reminded of this reading Eric's guest game design post last week - he mentioned "make games for yourself."

My most regularly worked-upon rules (psychic dino knights, simplified-Infinity-pulp, mechs, aeronef, tankmunda, demon-possessed cyberpunk, modern jets, dogfighting submarines, and space PT boats) all had a very specific focus and were because I felt I had to make them to fill a gap (i.e. there was - and is - nothing already available that "worked" for what I wanted to play)

So what did I want when I set out to make a space game all those years ago?

To move away from existing rules with hundreds of hitboxes and dice chugging a la Full Thrust or WW2 wet navy clones; to something with minimal record keeping, where initiative and vector maneuver mattered; with lots of decisions, and ship design was simple. Crew skill would matter. No written orders or IGOUGO. Ships could react to each other like modern skirmish games. Games would handle ~6 ships in 45 minutes.  Maximum choice, minimum recording.

The flaw was I wanted to make it "simulate all TV series."  

I noted "a game that allows every space show and element tends to be generic and bland" but a strong "theme" or particularly focussed gameplay element (i.e. the heat management in Battletech, the ARO system in Infinity) tend to be stronger and more interesting. 

...But I drifted off course regardless.

So what was the game I originally wanted to play? What space combat do I enjoy?

Lost Fleet - primarily the vector movement and plotting ahead of time; a kinda predictable maneuver ballet making initiative very important; plus the interplay of missiles/kinetics grapeshot/lasers. There is a hard limit (lightspeed) on combined velocities. There was ammo and shield management but no fighters or stealth of any time. Jumpgates were the primary combat chokepoints.

EvE Online - that every ship had a role. Even small ships are essential for tackling or jamming (debuffing big ships' speed/dps). Small ships were also very survivable due to a small "signatures" making them hard to target and again like Lost Fleet, relative velocity/vector affected how easily they could be hit. Their agility and utility made them able to dictate fights. Again there was no 'fighters', but limited amounts of drones who were leashed to the launching ship; neither was there stealth except one "submarine" style class. Weapons included both rapid fire and long range versions of kinetics and lasers, missiles as well as AoE bomb type weapons. Jumpgates were primary chokepoints but ships could "warp" between objects within a system. Again there was ammo and shield management.  The ship design system of high-medium-low slots allowed customising classes of ships within limits.

So, taking out the key points of Lost Fleet + EvE

+ No stealth rules needed

+ No fighter rules needed (perhaps drones)

+ Simple weapon list (kinetic railgun vs massdriver, laser beam vs pulse, missile/torpedo/AoE bomb)

+ Utility buff/debuff (tackle, EW) modules to make small ships useful/maybe tie to EvE-style module design system

+ Small ships made survivable via "signature"/size/velocity

+ Vector movement is very important

+ Initiative rules are very important

+ Chokepoints (jumpgates/planetary bodies) to attract fights

- Some sort of energy management and/or shield management

- Ammo is tracked

While most of these ideas fit under my original 2012 design brief, I'm a bit concerned about shield/energy management and ammo as they may run counter to "minimal recording" and "extra decision making layers must be simple to execute" design goals.

I think I'm struggling with what will satisfy me as "minimal recording" - I'd like to avoid piles of tokens which seemed to accumulate in many skirmish games I play. If I make a ship data card for each ship about the complexity of a Warmachine card it shouldn't be to onerous if I only use 4-8 ships. Out of all the space games I played, I remember not minding Battlefleet Gothic recording - so I'll aim for that level.

How to Fix Small Ships

I always hate how in 99% of space games, small "escort" class ships like frigates/destroyers are pretty much glass cannons at best, and cannon fodder/ablative armour for big ships at worst. Small ships rarely survive many turns into a game and are just window dressing for the big boys. 

It's probably realistic, but not fun gameplay.

I always enjoyed playing as an tiny, speedy interceptor frigate in EvE; bring difficult to lock/hit due to small signature and performing a vital job to "tackle" and stop huge battleships warping out. Sure, you could only nibble away at battleship defences (unless you were in a wolfpack) and if you flew carelessly in a straight line you could get blown away, but if well-flown you were extremely survivable and could "dictate" the fight.

I've been thinking about how to implement this in a wargame.

1. The obvious, initial answer was to steal the "signature" from EvE and make it the base "to hit" number against say a d10. I.e. a frigate with a sig of 4 would have a 40% chance to be hit, and a battleship with 7 sig would have a 70% chance to be hit by the same weapon. 

2. In addition, there will be velocity modifiers - i.e. the combined velocity of firer and target will impact this - a frigate whizzing past head-on and angled will be harder to hit then one who is slowly closing in from the stern. A higher thrust ship can obviously manage its velocity/position better.

3. But I want initiative to matter too. Small ships should dictate the fights against larger clumsier brethren. Another thought is to make the signature also the "reaction radius" - the radius at which enemies react. So the sig 4 frigate would only trigger reaction fire from enemies within 4" - but the battleship would trigger reactions within 7".  Basically, this means a frigate 4-7" from a battleship could choose to continue a fight or fly away; and also "dodge" between other ships without triggering reactions. A big sig (aka reaction radius) is bad for initiative/reactions.  ^I quite like this idea but have yet to test it in practice.

4. Finally, I'd like speed (thrust) to matter.  Perhaps the difference in thrust could be a modifier to the faster ship in reaction rolls (i.e. a thrust 5 frigate gets a +2 to any opposed rolls with a thrust 3 battleship).  Thrust could also be used as a modifier to "dodge" enemy fire at longer ranges. 

To stop small ships being too attractive, this would be balanced by vastly better armour/strength of larger ships; i.e. a small escort will struggle to do meaningful damage (or even drop the shields) of a battleship - but dps is not its role - instead the escort will screen against enemy escorts, and "tackle" big ships and stop them warping off, or debuff them in various ways such as EW/jamming - or even launch AoE-ish torpedo attacks which are only dangerous in numbers or if the target is crippled already.

Anyway, enough rambling - off to the shed to dig out some spaceships...


  1. I really like #3. That sounds like something that could play nicely. I always have a space rule set I'm working on and the signature/reaction range coupling never crossed my mind. Cool stuff.

    1. If you have any good ideas regarding shields let me know. I'm OK with energy management (a token you push into shields/engines/guns or remove once drained) but how to treat shields... as an extra "free" hit; as a saving throw, or just as a damage roll modifier... al have pros and cons

  2. For shields I always imagine they are energy based and therefore would impact the amount of energy available to movement changes and energy weapons. For example, if shields are down you can accelerate at full speed or fire all energy weapons. But if shields are maintained at say level three, there is three less energy for acceleration and weapons.

  3. Perhaps a “passive” star for all elements with a single energy token you could move each turn from one of the stats to provide a boost, with the boost being related to the size of the ship?

    1. I.e. a ship could have shields, ecm, engines, weapons. Base is x, but at some point in the turn could put the token in one of the stats. The frigate 4 would add 4 to the stats, while battleship 7 adds 7. Ecm could expand engagement range, engines the velocity, shield absorb hits, weapons expand hits. Make sense?

    2. I have currently got a "capactitor" token which I move between front shields, rear shields, thrust and weapons.

      The capacitor risks being drained when used in reactions.(to add some decisions and prevent overusing reactions which can bog a game down)

      (ECM doesn't play a role unless the ship is fitted out for it as per my "small ships serve a role")

      I'm in a weird position where I have most of the kinda chrome round the sides but lacking core mechanics like damage roll methods....(well I keep changing them)

    3. Unfortunately, I work as a teacher/coach. Nothing is ever "good enough" or "finished" - everything is "WIP."

      Math class beats other classes by 50% margin?
      "We dropped % with some silly errors"

      Win the regional soccer tournament?
      "We struggled to keep possession and relied on our defence too much"

      Not a perfectionist (at all!) but in my job I never view anything as "done" which sadly carries over into hobbies...

      Just changed the d10 Infinity ARO to a stat+d10 in the car last night... ...but may change it back! :-/