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Recently I was on the periphery of a conversation regarding how to make ship to ship combat in an RPG "work." Initially I dismissed this out of hand, I could think of a bare handful of times when I personally experienced such in an RPG from either side of the table. As a GM it's not my bag because generally I'd just as soon skip past it unless there is a PC who is a pilot specifically (and I have been lucky enough to avoid that). As a player I have been through a couple over the many years I have played but I never wanted to play a pilot, and I never thought after any of them "let do that again!"
Of course these things go two ways; one you have a bunch of PCs in fighters in which case really you are running a standard combat but using piloting terms and different stats, and two, when the PCs are the crew of a single ship. I don't think that the former is ever a problem, except perhaps if there are significantly different mechanics and players & GM aren't up to speed on them. The latter on the other hand seems to be a stumbling block.
I think it comes down to the players all wanting to feel included (as is their right) and all of the players wanting to be able to contribute meaningfully (again, a right IMO), and balancing all of that against mechanical balance and the importance of individual roles. You could run the ship as it's own character, but that is going to exclude the players' own characters, and may minimize the value of their investment in skills and abilities associated with their roles. Instead you need to focus on making each role "work" within the encounter as a whole so as to maximize the involvement, importance, and impact of each character and ensure a fun experience for all the players.
As for those roles I can think of five common "primary" roles, those being:
- The Pilot/Helmsman
Let's assume for the sake of the argument and the column that you have a group of five players, each taking one of those archetypal roles. Let's also assume that any players in excess of five can fall into auxiliary positions for the roles of gunner, mechanic, and scanner, and likewise any group short of five players can probably do away with no more than two of those roles without compromising the game intent. Lastly let's go forth with the intent that while we will do our best to give each role something meaningful to do that does not mean that each role will have the ability to impact a combat situation as heavily as the pilot and gunnery roles will (and let's face it, those are the two that will stand out most).
The pilot makes the ship move. This may seem obvious but it bears saying because that is where the focus for this role's role should be during combat. Pilots are going to be using their skill to do thing like dodge attacks (either setting the ship's passive defense, or acting as their active defense, avoiding solid objects, and setting up positioning (especially important if the ship's weapons are arc dependant). The choice of passive defense or active should probably come from the size and type of ship and the intended feel of combat. An armed shuttle/transport is of the size and mass that it can actually avoid incoming fire (active defense), whereas a capital ship is probably going to execute a movement maneuver and hope for the best (passive defense). In general I would look to allow a pilot a single action a turn (aside from basic maintenance actions). Throwing evasive maneuvers, trying to slide between "geography", and setting up a superior position (or even just changing relative position) are going to be the pilot's bread and butter and should generally impact the ship's ability to combat each round.
Gunners shoot weapons, which is to say that they make the attacks. If the pilot is the ship's legs, the gunner is the ship's arms. Gunnery is generally the easiest to create rules for. They shoot, they hit or they miss, and they roll damage as needed. Gunnery is pretty simple and doesn't generally need a lot more to make it feel important because it is self evident why it is.
A ship's mechanic is pretty darn important outside of combat, so much so that all things being equal a player of a mechanic is probably not going to miss it if combat doesn't happen (ships always need repairs and maintenance, even when they don't get shot full of holes). On a small ship the mechanic is going to have their hands full doing the equivalent of triage, bypassing blown circuits, routing energy to the systems that need it most, and performing emergency repairs if need be. On a large ship they will probably be doing these on larger scale, and possibly informing the other roles which systems are working and which are now superheated vapor. Much like a gunner the value of a mechanic is fairly self evident. Unlike a gunner an absent mechanic still means you can fight, it just means you won't be able to last as long.
Generally the co-pilot role is an amalgam of many smaller roles. They are the guy who does all the lesser tasks on the bridge to help the pilot and the other roles. They navigate and spot for the pilot, they man sensors and spot for the gunner, they can act as a lesser version of the mechanic by performing limited amounts of bypassing and re-routing. The co-pilot is the first of the roles that is hard to really make feel important and they are one of the roles that can most easily be cut for a small crew.
So how do you make a support role like this work? Well you have to give them an ability to be meaningfully helpful. If the co-pilot makes an action to aid the pilot by determining the precise distances to a geographic feature (thing mountain or asteroid), or an enemy ship, and their precise relative speed they should be an asset or bonus on the pilot's roll to avoid the obstacle or gain some positioning change relative to the enemy ship. If they are actively manning scanners and relaying targeting data to the gunner they should be able to provide a bonus for the gunner's roll, or negate an enemies superior maneuvering. When acting as an aid to the mechanic they allow for an extra system to be adjusted, bypassed, or re-routed. They could also leave their station and allow for additional actions of emergency repair, or provide aid to the mechanic on a troublesome task.
If the co-pilot is expendable so too is the commander. In the case of small ships this is probably the first role to get cut, or, more likely, subsumed into another role entirely. The commander who is also a pilot is not uncommon, for instance. When that happens the role becomes a mere rank, and often goes to whomever owns or has right to command the ship.
However, what about a crew big enough to actually have a command role? What the heck does he do?
Assuming that you don't want one player telling each other player what they should do (and it's a safe bet that the player's wont either), then you need to make it possible for the commander character to "give orders" in such a way as to benefit the role receiving the orders. Generally this could simply take the form of a bonus of some kind, a plus, an extra die, or what-have-you, that the commander can assign as they see fit during an encounter.
If you are using a system with dice pools maybe the commander can divvy up their command dice pool to the roles they command each turn. That provides a meaningful bonus for the commander and the other player's roles, but it may not be terribly interesting or exciting. Maybe instead of divvying up the raw pool they have to role that pool and they can only divvy up dice that register as successes on the "command roll". This cuts down on the utility of the commander's dice pool, but also ups the ante on the relative/perceived value of each bonus die. A botch or other critical failure might actually result in bad orders and dice penalties being handed out.
Alternately the commander can act as a co-pilot role supporting other roles accordingly. On larger ships the commander may unlock special actions for each of the other roles. Ordering a full broadside might allow the gunner role to fine all of the ships weapons (or all on the appropriate arc(s)) in a singe round instead of just one system. Ordering a specific maneuver (defense pattern Alpha-7) might allow for the pilot to execute a move that encompasses more than one pilot action. Sure, this could result in "FIRE FIRE FIRE" situations where the gunner gets all the attention, but it even a non-tactical combat can be run by the GM to prevent such things.
What happens when you have shields? What about multiple weapon systems? What about things like damaged systems and weapons with arcs of fire (rather than 360 firing)?
Well each of these will need to fall into the GM's hand to determine what roles can deal with what things. If you have multiple weapon systems I'd only allow a gunner to use one per round unless you have the commander option. Adjusting shields can fall into the hands of the mechanics and co-pilots. Keeping track of firing arcs and damaged systems may or may not be your cup of tea, and you need to decide just how complicated you want your combat to be.
With luck there will be some worthwhile advice on how to make things go smoothly and be fun for all the players involved in running a ship through a combat encounter. Each group and GM will need to find their own balance of course, and each system will have its own ways for characters like the co-pilot and commander to impact the actions of the ship as a whole.