Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 011: Spaceship!
I’ll start, as usual, by adding a few comments to Steve’s GM tips, regarding how far one should “dumb down” powerful bad guys. When you combine an enemy, who is a lot higher level and hits a lot harder with the perfect information the GM has access to… yeah, sometimes it can feel a little unfair. And up to a point, that’s part of the challenge – beating those long-ish odds is how you get that sense of accomplishment; that’s where that story you’re still remembering months later comes from. But sometimes, the party just doesn’t have the right mix of skills or something gets missed along the way to that pivotal encounter, and asking players to charge into a slaughter because that’s what’s on the page doesn’t make sense either.
As a player, I guess what I look for is one of two things: either give me an honest chance to win the fight, or offer me an “out” – either find a way to drop a hint before the battle that this is going to go badly, or maybe offer a window during the fight where the bad guy lets up and gives the party a chance to run. If I ignore the hint and get killed… that’s on me for being stupid. But if I walk into a buzzsaw encounter with NO indication and no way to get out of it, that doesn’t just kill the game currently being played, but it can feel arbitrary and sour the player-GM relationship overall.
The fight Steve mentioned in Carrion Crown was a slightly different problem insofar as it reached a boring stalemate. We couldn’t beat the guy because he could phase into the wall and even when he was in the open, we didn’t have enough tools to hit incorporeal creatures consistently (I think we had access to Ghostbane Dirge, but at one round per level, it just wasn’t enough). On the other hand, the bad guy couldn’t finish us because he ultimately couldn’t leave the room he was in, and all we had to do was run back down a hall and rest up. To frame it terms of my model – Steve DID give us the out, but then instead of trying something new, we kept coming back and trying the same basic thing (with a few small variations) a few times in a row. So I actually put that on us as the players, but Chris did not see it that way at the time.
So… spaceship combat.
Maybe I’ve been guilty of overselling it a little, but I have to admit I’ve been looking forward to this because, more than anything, this is what’s new about Starfinder. I mean, yes, some of the various D&D editions have rules sketched out for vehicle combat, but they tended not to get used too often because, for the most part, vehicles tended to be too far outside the fantasy box.
Yet, while it’s new, there’s also something classic about it too. While we were playing this session I had flashbacks to some of the old Avalon Hill wargames my brother and I used to play – Bismarck leaps to mind as one I played a lot – as well as games like Car Wars and Ogre. Similarly, some of the older naval combat games I played on the PC… The Ancient Art of War At Sea, Sid Meyer’s Pirates, and so on. Yeah, it’s space instead of water, and there’s not nearly as much emphasis on setting up a perfect broadside (at least until Steve gives us the keys to Galactica), but it felt familiar in that way.
What didn’t feel familiar? Being excited about going second. It’s a weird sensation. There, I said it.
Since Day One, there was never really any doubt Tuttle was going to be the engineer/science officer, so I studied those rules pretty carefully. “Science Rat” was the character concept; might as well lean into it all the way. My initial read was that the Science Officer is the more useful position early in fights, and Engineer becomes more useful later once you start taking damage. I think that’s still basically accurate, with a few minor revisions, as well as just learning to play it smarter.
I do think Engineer remains mostly a role to shift into once the fight has started to develop. Two of the three skills (Patch and Hold It Together) revolve around mitigating critical damage, which… if you don’t have any damage to fix, you’re standing around with your thumb up your butt. But in fairness, the third skill (Divert) is pretty evergreen – among other things, you can use it to increase speed (engines), regenerate shields (shields… duh) or change 1s to 2s on damage rolls (weapons). And you get to scream CANNA GIVE YE ANYMORE, CAP’N!, which never gets old. Or maybe it will. I plan to find out at some point.
The science skills? Scan is pretty much an opener for a round or two and then you probably never use it again. It’s good to get some initial information about speed, hit points, weapons, etc. but it’s the definition of diminishing returns. If you’re scanning the contents of the cargo hold while people are shooting at you, you’re doing it wrong. (Tuttle had to get four doctorates to get that nugget of knowledge and you’re getting it for free. You’re welcome.) Balance Shields – basically equalizes the remaining shield points between all four quadrants — seems like it could be more useful on a more powerful ship; on the Hippo, where we’re only shuffling 5 points of shields per quadrant around? Not so much.
To satisfy my curiosity (and maybe yours), I took a look ahead at the advanced skills to see how they change the dynamic. Basically, each role gets new unlocks at 6 and 12 ranks in the core skill (Computers and Engineering). But they also cost a Resolve point, which the basic skills don’t.
For science officer: 6 ranks of Computers gets you Lock On, the reward being a blanket +2 to any gunners that turn; 12 gives you Improved Countermeasures, which gives a chance to force the enemy to roll twice and take the lower roll on gunnery checks.
For engineer: 6 gets you Overpower, which is a Divert you can apply to three systems at the same time, and 12 gets you Quick Fix, which removes ALL critical damage to a system for one hour.
Anyway, back to the action. I do think one “mistake” I made was that I should have been using the Science Officer ability Target System a lot more aggressively. Refresher: Target System increases the crit range from natural 20 to 19-20, but (more importantly) lets you choose the critted system, rather than rolling at random. Wasting two crits on the bad guy’s sensors was a tough way to learn the lesson, but I think hitting his engines to slow him down or weakening his weapons would’ve been far more worthwhile than those few rounds Tuttle jumped on a gun in the mid-fight. Especially since it was a front-facing gun, we could only fire if we won initiative.
I also probably should’ve read the rules on gunnery a little closer. I didn’t realize it took RANKS of Piloting, so I didn’t think to take a level of Piloting at Level 2. I have to think about whether that impacts my character build going forward – on one hand, it might be worth pushing more into Piloting to keep up as a gunner; on the other hand, it wouldn’t go up THAT much faster than Base Attack Bonus, so maybe it’s not an urgent need compared to other skills I could be taking.
So anyway… we won, and at a broad-strokes level, I don’t really feel like we were ever really in that much danger in that encounter – I assume that was by design, since this is going to be a lot of players’ first exposure to ship combat, but it felt like a “get your feet wet” encounter where things were meant to be stacked in the party’s favor. Yeah, the other ship was faster than us, and that was a little annoying, but it didn’t hit very hard, and the Hippo’s 360-degree turret kept us in the fight every round. It really felt like he would’ve had to hit a LOT of lucky rolls to put us in any real danger. Still, even lacking much real danger, it was still fun, and I look forward to the next time we get to do it.
Next up: quarantined derelict spaceship where one of the airlocks was open to space. There can’t possibly be anything bad aboard, right? (Let’s be honest… we all grew up with Alien as a formative experience… I’m waiting for the arrival of face-huggers until proven otherwise.)
Anyhow, that was our first taste of space combat. I hope it wasn’t too hard to follow and you guys found it interesting. Feel free to drop us a line with any questions or comments, and we’ll see you next week on board the Nostromo… err… Arceon.