Saturday, May 25, 2013

Fate of the Galaxy: Starship Rules for Fate Core

Running a Fate Core game and watching some Star Trek recently got me thinking about, well, good ways to represent starships in Fate Core.

Being at the beginning of a very earthbound campaign right now, I'm probably not going to get a chance to use these rules any time soon, which means they aren't at all playtested. But I figured they might end up being useful to some people, and, well, messing around with theoretical game design can be fun on its own.

These rules cover starships, but could probably be adapted for any sort of game which is centered around vehicles that the PCs all share. A game about pirate ships or modern naval combat, for example, might be able to use them.

Starships as Lenses

They're Characters, Except When They Aren't

The concept of the Fate Fractal makes the basic framework of starships easy to figure out: like everything else in the game, they can be represented as characters.

But I don't think that starships should really have their own skills. Yes, some ships are faster than others, or stronger than others, and those differences are relevant, but in a large amount of science fiction stories, a starship's fate is actually determined by the expertise and ingenuity of its crew.

So starships, rather than taking their own actions or using their own skills, are basically a "lens" through which the crew focus their efforts. You don't use the starship's Guns skill in a fight. You use the Shoot skill of whatever crewmember is manning the weapons console. And likewise, you use the pilot's Drive skill to maneuver, or the captain's Notice skill to see if, through the atmospheric heat fluctuations and magnetic storms, he can spot the only living man on a dead planet.

The ship does offer something, though: it modifies what your character can do. After all, a normal soldier with a blaster can't take on a warship, but that soldier's Shoot skill, filtered through his starship's guns, can do that. And your average explorer can't just roll Notice to search an entire planet, but if he's at the helm of an orbiting ship with state-of-the-art sensors, it's doable.

But why have it be a full character, then? It doesn't use skills or take action on its own, so can't the ship just be a narrative fact, or maybe an aspect, to justify certain rolls? Well, the ship does have just about everything else that makes a character.

Ships Have Aspects, Stress, Consequences, and Stunts.

Aspects are mostly self-explanatory. They're basically situation aspects; players can invoke them, or they can be compelled against a particular character. The ship doesn't have its own fate points of its own because, again, the crew is what really matters.

But the ship does have stress and consequences. Enemies can attack the ship, and if it's taken out, that means it's inoperable. Life support is probably off, and the ship may, in fact, be in pieces.

Fortunately, the crew can stop that from happening. Whenever the ship is attacked, any member of the crew can choose to defend against the attack, in place of the ship. And if they fail the defense, they have the option of redirecting the attack upon themselves. This represents the ship managing to survive mostly undamaged, but accelerating hard enough to throw crewmembers across the bridge, or having a console explode in someone's face.

More direct attacks on components of the ship, such as striking at its oxygen recyclers or disabling its shields, should probably be handled via Create an Advantage rolls, with active opposition. As with attacks, any one crewmember can choose to defend against an opponent's attempt to create an advantage. Unlike with attacks, the crewmember doesn't have the ability to "absorb" the consequence. Characters on the ship can try to remove the aspect after it's created, though, via overcome actions.

Finally, ships have stunts. Since ships are a lens through which characters take action, so are their stunts. Any character in a ship can use its stunts, provided they're performing an action through the ship. Some example stunts could be:

Point Defense Systems. Your ship is equipped to destroy projectiles before they make impact. When using Shoot to defend the ship against a material object (not an energy weapon), add +2 to the roll.
Analytic Database. Twice per session, your ship may take a boost representing an important revelation made by its computer. This boost may be used by any crewmember.
With skills not being involved, stunts and aspects, pick up most of the slack in defining the difference between ships.


That covers most of how spaceships will probably be used in a game. Pretty much everything can be handled by treating them as a lens through which the characters act.

One situation, though, probably deserves to get a little bit more attention.

Faster-Than-Light Travel

"Without precise calculations, we could fly right through a star"
~Han Solo, Star Wars: A New Hope 
Star Wars is far from the only series to make faster-than-light travel dangerous. While most settings focusing on fast interstellar travel don't make a big deal about routine trips, there are often times when ships have to leave now, and have to take the risk of blindly jumping, or entering hyperspace, or whatever your particular setting calls it. 

There are different ways to handle this, obviously, but the simplest is probably to treat it as a challenge involving at least three Overcome rolls: Crafts to maintain the ship's engine and hull integrity under the sudden stress, Lore to keep navigation accurate during such a spontaneous transition, and Drive to keep the ship from crashing into any surrounding objects when entering or leaving hyperspace (jumping to a location and finding the ship suddenly in the middle of a field of asteroids or debris is surprisingly common in science fiction). Additional rolls might be necessary in extreme situations, but most of the time, extra opposition is already accounted for in those three rolls (Is a solar flare draining your shields? The Crafts roll faces a higher difficulty. Dodging gunfire? The Drive roll is harder).

One thing to keep in mind is the importance of the "Succeed at a cost" option for failed overcome actions. After all, a campaign could end pretty suddenly if your characters actually warped into a star, or had their ship fall apart in transit. But if interpret failure as success with a cost, you can showcase the dangers of space travel without the risk of killing all the PCs with one bad roll.

For example, if you fail your Crafts roll, you might make it into orbit around your destination with the ship intact... but the stress on the engines has drained its power completely, leaving you stranded in orbit with failing life support and no transmitters capable of signalling for help.

The navigation roll is something to pay particular attention to. It seems prone to one potential problems: making failure a nonissue. If a failed navigation roll ends with the crew being sent into some distant, empty part of space, well, that's hardly a failure at all. Now they're alone, and have all the time in the world to calculate their course and correctly travel.

Fortunately, there are all sorts of other ways that failure, or success at a cost, could happen. The ship could end up misnavigating only slightly, ending up at the desired planet, but so close to the surface that it has to dodge buildings (better have succeeded on that Drive roll!). Or, it could end up in another dangerous area. Maybe they left a sun that was about to go nova, but ended up in the middle of a pirate fleet. Or they narrowly escaped a space battle, but find themselves in a radiation storm that threatens to scramble the ship's computers, to say nothing of its crew.

An Alternative Method: We Can Jump Just Fine... in Five Minutes.

This one is inspired by the computer game FTL: Faster than Light. It's not universal, and actually doesn't fit a lot of settings, but it's a great way to ratchet up tension, and doesn't end dangerous situations as abruptly as the above method might.

Essentially, faster-than-light travel requires a single overcome roll, using Drive, against passive opposition. Legendary (+8) may be a good level to rate the difficulty at. If the roll fails, the ship can still leave, but not until a number of exchanges pass. That number is equal to the amount of shifts by which the roll failed.

If the roll tied or succeeded, then the ship is able to leave at the end of the next (not the current) exchange. If the roll succeeded with style, then the ship is able to leave immediately.

The point of this method is to allow players to get put in potentially overwhelming situations, but lower the stakes some. They don't have to completely overcome their opposition; they just have to hold on for dear life until they can manage to leave. In peaceful situations, of course, it isn't even necessary to roll. The players can wait for a few minutes to calibrate, with no problem.

NPC Starships

In a battle between one starship and another, it might be best to stat it up the same way as for the players' ship: as a lens for its crew.

That way, battles will involve more than just shooting each other. Crewmembers from both sides can fly (or teleport) through space to board each other's ships, take them out from the inside, and maybe even hijack them. Honorable (if villainous) opponents can sacrifice themselves to save their ships by absorbing attacks, just as characters can. In a battle with only two ships, that can add a lot of options.

But for less-important ships, especially in a battle containing several, it might be best to treat them as full-on characters. Specifically, they could be nameless or supporting NPCs

In cases like that, ships could probably be easily represented by (for example) a Shoot skill, a Drive skill, and a few aspects.

Other Applications of Lenses

It's definitely an early thing, but the idea of treating certain objects as a "lens" for characters is something I find kind of interesting. Objects which filter and change another character's actions, instead of taking their own, could have a lot of potential for representing large-scale concepts while leaving the characters in focus.

Besides starships, it might be possible to treat kingdoms or armies as lenses, in character-focused games that involve politics or large-scale warfare. Those generally have a lot more people than the crew of a starship, but if nameless NPCs are just "folded into" the lens, being represented by a stunt or aspect, it might work.

4 comments:

  1. I was trying to do this a little while ago, but I was having trouble. You did it better. I'll be using these rules.

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  2. Love the idea of 'starships as characters' (and in my high-space starship rules for SW, I went so far as to say a player can play a sentient starship!)
    At first it is counter-intuitive - a starship is a large, powerful beast, right - but if you break down any good cinematic scene the vessel is just an extension of the characters.
    Am loving FAE at the moment, so let us know if ever you playtest this with FAE?

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  3. I'm looking to run a space opera setting in FATE which is very heavy on ship-oriented actions, so this is exactly what I was looking for! Absolutely love the "lens" concept, and I'm hoping to expand upon it.

    I'm considering complicating the "lens" idea further by saying that a lens provides bonuses and constraints on skills. To calculate final skill for an action, the character takes their skill, adds the bonus (this may be negative) from the lens, and then clamps that value to lie between the minimum and maximum value for that skill, as seen through the lens.

    To belabor my point in a rather literal fashion, we could take computer-assisted binoculars as an example. They have a minimum notice of 2, representing the case in which the device's algorithms manage to detect something that the operator may have missed. They have a maximum notice of 4, because they occlude the subject's peripheral vision. They provide a +1 skill bonus due to their magnification and advanced image processing, as well as the "Infravision" stunt. In this way the piece of equipment helps low/mid-skilled operator, without making a high-notice character unbalanced when using it. Furthermore this serves to cap a high-notice character when they choose to use the device for infravision.

    I realize that this adds a great deal of crunchiness to the concept, however I don't expect it will slow down play very much, and I think it helps prevent situations such as a PC (or NPC) with high piloting skill suddenly outmaneuvering a fighter in a space barge. I also think it will help differentiate between ships, or provide means to support ship system upgrades--each system is its own lens for some action/skill combinations.

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  4. I'm putting together some ideas for a space/spaceship themed Fate game and this helped crystallize some of the ideas that have been bouncing around in my head. I really like your ideas about allowing characters to redirect damage to themselves as a way to offset damage to the ship and represent things like crew members being tossed around the bridge and consoles shorting out. Personally though, I'm still toying with the idea of giving ships skills that represent things like auto-pilot and passive scanners, but I had planned on putting the cap on these skills rather low while allowing players to use their own skills to supercede the ship's "defaults." I also want my ships to have the Physique skill, though I would call it "Hull." This skill would determine if a ship has additional stress and consequence boxes in the same way it does for player characters. Additionally, I intend to use this skill to actively defend against damage to the ship in situations where a character was not actively defending the ship from being hit by using his pilot ability (pilot has been thrown clear of the ships controls, ship's engines are offline, asteroid impacts, etc.).

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