Wednesday, August 10, 2016

On the Nature of Book 2 Space Combat

This is not covered under Book 2 Rules. You figure it out.
Over the weekend I refereed a Book 2 space combat engagement with my boys. In the course of the battle, I discovered something I'd never noticed before. The boys have a fancy ship, the FNS Audacity, and were chasing down two ships of the rebellion against the Federation (my sons' ATU setting), now illustrated here!

But that's not my discovery.

I realized that Bk2 is not so much a tactical game, as it is a resource management game. It's not so much about maneuvering your ship or using that cool specialty weapon, but in maximizing the efficiency of the resources you bring to the game. 

What do I mean by resource management?

Bk2 ships are resilient; even a small ship can take a half dozen or more hits and live to fly another day. A ship wins in space combat by staying operational longer than their opponent. It is possible to outrun another ship, but it takes a long time, unless a ship gets crippled. There are several ways to cripple a ship, and none of them are done with 'one lucky shot'. Yes, the Traveller Book includes a critical hit table, but I prefer not to use it because of the “oops you're all dead” Explode result.

Whether you use Vector movement or Range Bands, all encounters are either two ships charging towards each other, or one ship running away from the other. Pick your movement system, it all comes down to those two types.

Computers (which we all love to make fun of) have only so many slots for programs. With smaller ships like what the PCs will mostly have, the smaller computers don't have enough slots to run all of the really necessary programs.
Take for an example the Free Trader Beowulf. It's a standard Type A Free Trader, 200 tons, with computer model/1. It has 2 active slots and 4 storage slots. One of those will be taken up with Maneuver (1) leaving room for one more 1-slot program. Will it be Target or will it be Launch? Can't do both. A bigger computer is possible, but it is expensive and cuts into cargo space.

Repairs can be done during the battle, but you get only one repair throw per turn. In a serious scrum, your ship will take multiple hits per turn; which do you fix? If you try to keep the drives operating, you may not have any weapons. If you keep the turrets firing, you may lose maneuver G's and get overhauled or your Jump drive may fail, stranding you in-system. The M-drive depends on the Power Plant to operate, and if the PP takes hits, you will lose G's.

Fuel hits can't be repaired in the battle, so you must monitor them closely. Too many fuel hits will strand you by depriving the thirsty Jump drive.

I've incorporated Structure points from MgT 1st ed. - every ship gets 2 SP per 100 tons. Hull hit results remove SP, which also cannot be repaired during the battle. When they're gone, the ship breaks up. This happened to one of the rebel ships the Audacity was chasing. I had decided at the start of that last combat round that the bogey had taken enough Hull hits to convince its' skipper to 'strike the drive' and surrender. Unfortunately for them, a barrage of 12 missiles launched the last turn caught up with them. POOF.

Computers can be damaged too. The rules say that every turn each ship's player must roll 1+ on 2D for the computer to function. Each computer hit raises that number by 1, so the computer can take a few hits before there's real danger of malfunction (assume redundancies & hardened wiring). If it does go down, the ship is paralyzed and blind. A repair roll can get it started again but for one turn at least the ship is helpless. Backup computers are a good idea, but they take up space. Again, it's a balancing act.

Let's talk weaponry. Specifically, Sandcasters. They're your only active defense against lasers, and if your computer can't run the -Evade programs, you need these. Defense, of course, comes at the expense of offense. In my TU, Sandcasters are called Countermeasures (CM) and come in anti-missile and anti-laser types. How much offense can you sacrifice for defense, since no defense is fool-proof?

When you get a weapon hit, do you scratch the defenses first or the offense? The bogey that bought it against the Audacity had two triple Pulse lasers and two triple Missiles. The laser turrets were both hit, and multiple repair rolls failed to get them back into action. When that missile swarm arrived, the ship had no defense, so it was game-over. If the missiles had gone out instead, the ship would have less offensive punch, but it could still defend against incoming missiles.

Should you carry armed sub-craft? Having a Ship's Boat or Fighter does give you flexibility, and I allow sub-craft to fire as missile defense, but small craft have glass jaws – usually one hit and they're out, possibly destroyed. That's an expensive hit. Also, they take up cargo space, which is the money maker for a merchant ship.

I also use the Armor rules from Freelance Traveller. Armor also takes up space and costs megacredits, but it can really save wear and tear on the ship. Hull hits can also reduce your armor rating.

Crippling a ship is not the same as destroying it. At some point the decision can be made to surrender (if pursued) or break off (if pursuing) in order to save the ship from further degradation. Will the opposing ship respect 'striking the drive' or continue to fire? Will a boarding action follow? The players must weigh the options carefully with a mind to saving their own skins and the multi-mega-credit investment of their ship.

All of these decisions are what keeps Bk2 ship combat a roleplaying game. Yes, the game involves die rolling, but the decisions about what to roll for are based upon the PC's motivations, goals and skills. The hotheaded Captain Kirk may choose to go all-offense in close battle, while the more analytical Captain Picard might favor defense at range, patiently waiting to wear down his opponent with occasional missile hits. A really hot engineer might keep repairing things faster than the enemy can damage them. A savvy Tactical Officer can free up computer space so other programs can run. You can't do everything, so where do you put the resources you've got?

That's the central question.


  1. "All of these decisions are what keeps Bk2 ship combat a roleplaying game. Yes, the game involves die rolling, but the decisions about what to roll for are based upon the PC's motivations, goals and skills."

    Yes! For all the reason you list and more!

    Is the crew carrying a cargo they can't afford to give up? Do the have credits to burn for repairs? Or is one more hit going to leave them dry-docked for months upon months as they try to scrounge up the Credits to get the ship operational again? Are they trying to jump out of system -- or are they traveling in system and can't afford to be followed to the planet?

    All of these situational and in-fiction elements will help determine what decisions the characters will make. As you point out, the purpose of the system isn't to play a tactical game. It is to put pressure on the resources (immediate and long terms) and the goals (immediate and long term) of the PCs (and the Players), forcing decisions with consequences that can be both seen and unseen.

    A terrific post!

    Also... I hadn't noted this before, but the '77 edition doesn't have Critical Hit rules for space combat. An interesting difference -- and one I think that moves the game from its RPG focus toward the growing war-game/board-game influence as the years passed for Classic Traveller.

  2. An old dogfighting aphorism: "Speed is life."

    You kind of touched on it, but management of speed can be tricky in vector-based combats, especially if ranges are relatively close; unless you're in a chase (ie. roughly similar vectors), movement can get very tricky, more so if speeds are also high.