Set phasers to boring: Starship combat and RPGs

During the most recent edition of the newsletter I ruminated on the issue of starship combat and why most systems fail. I’m currently preparing for a mini-campaign using the Tachyon Squadron system, one of the few which I think works but for this post, I want to take a deeper look at the most common approach to starship combat, which I’m going to call bridge combat.

The best example of bridge combat is on Star Trek. Each character has a specific and narrow role to play – Worf at tactical, Sulu at the helm or Janeway in the Captain’s chair. With the exception of those episodes when a character is forced to work at a different station for the sake of the narrative (such as Picard taking the helm), they have a single, clearly defined role.

In a TV show this makes sense but in a tabletop game it leads to boring combats. Why? Because each character is static.

Let’s take a hypothetical scene from TNG and break it down into the standard turns of an RPG. Worf, standing at tactical because Starfleet doesn’t believe in providing seatbelts, fires the phasers. Next turn he… fires the phasers. There may be some minor variation to the roll when he switches to photon torpedoes but ultimately his choice of actions are limited. This plays out for each and every character – they make the same type of roll turn after turn. In some situations they may not even be able to make a roll, for example if there isn’t a ship for Worf to shoot at.

And that’s boring.

Worf did not sign up for boring

It works for a TV show for a few reasons. The tension and dynamic nature of a scene is built into it as a whole and that’s where the audience’s attention is. It’s rarely focused solely on an individual character and all the time they spend standing around waiting.

The second reason is that it plays out in real-time – we don’t have to wait for Worf to remember which button to press or to pause as we calculate the damage. We can even have overlapping actions, with Worf taking his shot at the same time that Picard is giving orders or Geordi is falling in love with a hologram. That adds to the drama and the tension.

And all of that is absent from bridge combat in an RPG.

In a game, we focus on one character at a time and a second long action may take a number of minutes to resolve. The passage of time drags out so by the time it gets around to a player’s turn they want to be able to contribute and to have a choice in how they contribute.

To use a personal example a number of years ago I played in a high-level campaign of the Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader RPG from FFG. We had a group of six players and each of us had a specific role during bridge combat. As the Missionary, mine was to minimise the crew losses when the ship took damage. One action, rolling the same skill every turn of the combat… except on turns where we hadn’t taken damage and I did nothing. Because of how the system was designed that was almost the only way I could contribute to the combat. Many of the fights took multiple hours and I’d often leave a session having rolled only two or three times. Not the best of ways to maintain player engagement.

Yet mediocre (at best) bridge combat seems to be the default for sci-fi games and I don’t know why we’ve come to accept it as the norm. Tachyon Squadron gets around the issue by shifting the focus to starfighters and I’m going to do a deep dive of it once the upcoming campaign is underway.

But how to improve bridge combat?

Personally, I think the solution is to shift the focus back a little, away from individuals and onto the ship as a whole. A player should be able to take any action, regardless of which character it is technically associated with. Get round to the person playing the medic when the ship is on the tail of their target? Well, they might end up as the one to take the shot.

The trick though will be to design the system in a way that they are balancing resources/harm. Sure they could take the shot but should they be trying to repair the shields or perform first aid on the crew instead? They might be better at the first aid roll but is the shot a more urgent action? Are the shields at 20%, 10% or out entirely? It requires the sort of balancing act more often seen in board games than RPGs but I think it would make for more dynamic bridge combats that would keep players engaged. It’s certainly one I’ll be looking to explore when I get around to introducing bridge combat to the Dyson Eclipse.

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