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March 26th, 2006

The Space Combat Problem [gaming]

Last night in the Star Wars game, we finished up Scavenger Hunt. It went fairly well, although it suffered a bit from what RPG developers sometimes refer to as the "space combat problem."

That problem, in a nutshell, is that in the classic space RPG model of all the characters on a single ship, when spaceship combat breaks out, anybody who's not the pilot or a gunner has nothing to do except wait for the combat to be over. The Star Wars game addresses that by including "system damage" rules and ways for non-pilot characters to repair damage, boost shields and the like, but unless you have a tech-oriented character, there's not that much you can do.

In the first adventure of the game, I addressed this by giving the group a pair of Y-Wings, so that there were two pilots and two gunners, and everybody had something to do. Scavenger Hunt, on the other hand, is designed around the idea that the characters are all on a single Imperial shuttle trying to infiltrate various locations -- and is heavy on the space combat. It's almost a study in the space combat problem.

Another major flaw in Scavenger Hunt is that as written it's a major railroad [1], to the point of suggesting some of the banter that the players "might come up with".

GrrKack unscrews the top of his armor and extends a gloppy pod toward Spilfer. When it gets within a meter or so of the fuzzy blue alien, it recoils in apparent shock. The psuedopod retreats back into the suit, to be replaced by three snaky tendrils with bulbous eyes on their tips. "I can't believe my eyes," rumbles the blob-like thing in the shell, "I dink dey brought us a sacrifice!"

If no one else says it, have Spilfer exclaim, "I can't believe your eyes either." Or maybe not.

The module has several very contrived moments where no matter what the players do, the GM is expected to "arrange" for particular scenes to take place. (L9-G8 coaching them on how to cook for the Ugors; the players coaching L9-G8 on how to fly the shuttle to escape the pirates; the climactic battle at the end.)

The end of the module is probably the most egregious of these. The characters are more or less forced to take a gravity projector in order to catch the ship their mission is to destroy -- they are then thrown into a battle with six TIE fighters on top of the ship they've been chasing, which is way more than they can expect to take on with their shuttle and hope to win, particularly as "beginning level heroes." This is so they'll be in such dire straights that in desperation they'll come up with the plan of overloading the gravity projector and ditching it, making a temporary black hole that will suck up all the enemy ships while the PCs escape.

Yes, it would be a dramatic and exciting sequence, but writing an adventure where the players have to "guess the right ending" is just plain bad adventure design, IMO. So I cut back the TIE fighters to two, making a fight that was "very tough but survivable." As squirrely as these characters are already, I figured two TIEs was enough to make them flail -- but the end result seemed to be that they were more afraid of the gravity projector than they were of the TIEs. Their strategy, and it was a perfectly viable one, was to concentrate all their efforts on destroying the target ship, and then get the heck outa Dodge. Once the target ship was destroyed, the flew on full defense, making the battle more or less a statlemate (the TIEs could only hit on a 20, the heroes could only hit on a 20) long enough to make the jump to hyperspace. Not the ending the author intended, but a perfectly sensible (and satisfying) one nonetheless.

That made it the characters' story, not the module author's -- which is how it should be.

-The Gneech

[1] From the RPG Lexica: Railroading -- A style of GMing in which the GM has only one specific plot line in mind, and forces the players to follow that plot regardless of whether they want to do so. From an analogy to a railroad, which constrains the train to one specific route. Sometimes referred to as The D&M Railroad (by reference to numerous real-world railroads, but especially the B&O Railroad referenced in the game Monopoly).

Ugh.

Not feeling well; I suspect food poisoning. :P Spent most of the day in front of a computer game 'cause it didn't require movement.

Hopefully I'll be better tomorrow.

-TG

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