Thursday, August 27, 2015

Velour Thursdays: The Ship Rules, Version 1

Every time I try to design a role-playing game, there's always a section of the rules that gives me agita.  In no particular order:

Fantasy:  Magic
Horror:  Sanity
Modern:  Finances and Income

Velour and Go-Go Boots is unique for games that I have designed in that it comes with two rules sections that stress me out. The first section explains how the captain (and, to a lesser extent, the other command ranks) work aboard ship. That particular section has been rewritten many times and, as of this writing, may be doomed to be rewritten at least once more. I'm sure I'll wind up talking about all that--as well as perhaps sneakily soliciting ideas from the community at large--in a future installment.

The second section, whose identity has likely been spoiled by the title of this post, has to do with ships.

As anyone who has seen any iteration of Star Trek knows, ships are kind of a huge deal.  The ship of any given series (usually, but not always, the Enterprise) is both a setting and character in its own right.  According to my garbled notes, which I will paraphrase here, I knew that I needed to make the players' ship central to the game and also figure out a way to make them feel a certain amount of attachment to it. 

Shining a spotlight on the ship was relatively easy, but making the players feel invested in their particular ship was significantly more difficult.  The rules governing that didn't really come into their own until the second draft of the game.  But that's another story and, as you might guess from seeing the big old "Version 1" up there in title, will be told another time. 

The big reason for the lack of player-ship attachment in the first version of the rules is because, though I started prancing down the Road of Good Design Intentions, I almost immediately tripped and fell face first into the Bog of Unnecessary Mechanics.

I have a modest collection of older role-playing games.  One thing that seems to be fairly common to many of them (and one of the things that has probably been unconsciously drilled into my tiny brain) is that vehicle rules are inordinately complicated.  If an older game has both vehicle rules and unarmed fighting rules, it's kind of a toss-up between which system will be more difficult.

It also didn't help that my train of thought was going a little bit like this:

  • The players' ship will mean more to them if they can customize it.
  • Customization requires a lot of options.
  • A lot of options requires a lot of rules.
  • A lot of options also requires a lot of choices.
  • I played Star Fleet Battles once. Maybe I should do something like that.
Before long, I had a huge pile of tables, numbers, systems, sub-systems, and so on, but not much else to show for it but several very disorganized Word and Excel documents and a throbbing pain between my eyes.

Unsure of what to do with my unruly pile of stuff, I got my friend Bob Dunham on the horn (and by horn, I mean gchat).  I explained the problem to Bob and was about to inflict all of my notes on him when he said the following (All of this is heavily paraphrased.  Don't sue me, Bob):

BOB:  You don't need to waste your time with all those numbers.  On the show, the ship is mostly an abstraction, anyway.  It's a TV set that flies through space.  Pretty much everything about it is handwaved.  How fast does it go?  As fast as the plot needs it to go.  How much damage can the shields take before they go down?  I don't know.  Whatever's most dramatic, I guess.  Just think of it like that.  Don't worry about the numbers.

I liked that advice, in no small part because it seemed like it would be a lot less work.  I started over again, rebuilding the ship rules with Bob's more abstract method in mind.  The new system worked okay, but it had a number of inherent limitations: It didn't account for different types of ships, shields were sort of incorporated into overall ship integrity instead of being a separate system in their own right, and there were a hell of a lot of tables.

That said, I did have a few interesting ideas that I wouldn't mind letting Future Geoff cannibalize for other games.  Here's a quick walkthrough for the rules-inclined among you:

All ships have a Threat Rating.  The default is Threat 0.  Weaker ships (or ships that were already damaged), start with a higher Threat.

An enemy ship fires at you.  Pew pew pew!  If their weapons hit your ship, your ship takes damage based on how high its Threat is.  Ships with low Threat will shake ominously.  Ships with moderate Threat will have people thrown from side to side while instrument panels explode in showers of sparks.  Ships with high Threat will have catastrophic system failure, hull breaches, and similar.  Whenever a ship takes damage, its Threat Rating increases.

It was clunky, but it mimicked the space battles I had seen on various iterations of Star Trek to a reasonable degree.  All ships tended to start out on relatively even footing, taking increasingly (And dramatically) severe damage as the battle wore on.  By the end, all of the ships would be covered with burn marks, limping around in space on their backup engines, and forced to choose between keeping their life support or their weapons systems online.

It helped that every time I ran a combat simulation between two starships, the battles ended pretty much like the description I gave in the preceding paragraph. 

"Your engines are offline!" 

"Yeah, well your weapons systems are offline." 

"No big deal, I'm going to fly up next to you, roll down the transparent aluminum windows, and throw rocks at you!"


The new system (Version 2) manages to keep all of the above while removing the bulky tables and adding in some crucial ship customization rules.  But this post has already gone on quite long enough, so I'll talk more about that some other time.

See you next week, when I talk about Occupations and lead into the discussion of my other favorite rules system.

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