Monday, February 25, 2019

Rolling Dice is NOT Playing the Game

I'm going through a review of a sci-fi RPG and the reviewer alluded to something I see a LOT in Space Opera RPGs. (I'm not going to mention the name of the game here because first, the way the reviewer mentioned this implies but does not state outright that this game is guilty of this sin; and second, I don't know this reviewer so I'm not sure how much I can trust there statements yet.)

The problem is starship combat. Designers want everyone to have something to do during the starship fight, so they try fall back on Star Trek bridge stations and try to come up with something everyone can do every round. What usually results is something extremely uneven.

If you're using minis and some sort of hex grid or the like, usually the most avid wargamers will pick the ship's course and speed. Then everyone rolls dice to see if their character's station succeeded that round.

If there's no grid and you're playing theater-of-the-mind, the course of action is usually pretty obvious: flee, chase, whatever. The group might decide together at the beginning of the encounter what they want to do, and they might revisit that choice as the situation changes, but generally that's the last important decision made. After that, everyone rolls dice to see if their station performs a function that contributes to the goal.


I suppose rolling a die to see if you can squeeze extra speed out of the engines or get a better targeting lock or put a torpedo up someone's tailpipe is better than nothing, but lets not fool ourselves into thinking that this is fun. If the player isn't making an interesting choice, they're not engaged with the game. If the choice of group goal dictates their action for every round until the goal is achieved or changed, all the player does is roll the dice and note the (usually marginal) adjustment this causes to the situation. You don't even get much of a gambling thrill since the stakes are watered down by being spread across four to six stations.

I realize that the starship duel presents a serious challenge to RPG designers. You want this to be an epic moment, you want everyone involved and sitting on the edge of their seats. But you've got to actively engage the players if you want that to be the case. You have to stop falling back on Star Trek as your model. If the gunner's only interesting choice is between "shoot" and "don't shoot," what the hell kind of choice is that? Make it interesting, or it's dictated by circumstances. Give your GMs help crafting interesting starship duels that require players to do something more interesting than just roll dice, that allow the players to be clever, that invite them to use their skills and tools in creative ways.

And don't give me another cockamamy attempt to make the communication station important and "exciting" in combat.


Talysman said...

Haven't really investigated all the options, but my gut feeling is that, instead of the Star Trek option, space RPG designers should go with... the Star Trek option. As in: despite the fact that Star Trek used ship stations, battles on the TV series were not about the stations or even about defeating the enemy, but were instead about responding to events that happen on the ship.

Auxiliary control is on fire! Can you rescue the crew there and repair the damage without injuring yourself or dying?

A crazy commodore took over the ship while the captain was away! Do you obey orders, or mutiny? If you mutiny, how do you do it?

A diplomatic delegate turns out to be a spy and sabateur! Fight him before he rigs the ship to explode!

The computer has taken over the ship and is attacking Starfleet! How do we disable it?

Star Trek had very few starship battles, at least in TOS and TNG. And the battles were mostly boring. It was the other stuff happening during the battle that provided the interest.

Unknown said...

What is the phrase that CC uses - tangible, interactive objects. These things work in dungeon exploration as well as social interaction. It *is* actually the game. So, how can we bring tangible onyeractive objects into the space ship battle?. Traveller uses a space combat turn of 1000 seconds, like 16 combat rounds or somerhing.

I like the suggestion a that Tallysman started with in his response. Stuff literally to do on the ship. And each space combat round gives you a countdown in regular rounds as to when things could get worse

Tangible Interactive objects that have real impact:
-Fire on the ship: (bridge, engineering, etc.) Like Tallysman suggested. Putting it out does not give an incremental boost, it saves everyone's lives.
-Ships sensors: Blocking your ship from being hacked/jammed or hacking/jamming the other ships' sensors. This will stop a ship from being able to fire.

I don't know maybe I'm still on the wrong path because those things still involve rolling dice.

JB said...

@ Trollsmyth:

I feel you, pal.

trollsmyth said...

Talysman & Unknown: I think you're both on the right path here. It's not that dice need to be utterly avoided; the players must just have some interesting choice to make in addition to rolling dice. This could be deciding which problem to tackle first, or how much of a resource to expend, etc.

What I'd love to see is something like a d100 table of OSR-Style challenges that beset the crew because of the damage the ship is taking. Things like prisoners escaping from the brig or the turbo lift has been blown out into space or the soup has escaped the kitchen and is now careening through the ship as 2d20 independent blobs of stuff that will blind crew or cause mechanical issues when it collides with someone/thing.

Do note that I'm especially difficult to please here. Games like Numenera actually have interesting choices built into their core dice-rolling mechanics, but as they tend to involve resources/choices that would be nonsensical to the PCs (burning stat points, for instance), I dislike them. ;p

Yora said...

It's the same situation with wilderness exploration. Having one player roll to not get lost, one player roll to not get ambushed, and one player roll to track the food supply is not a way to make it feel like you are braving the dangers of the wild.
Crossing rivers, bridging chasms, and dealing with lava fields or poisonous weeds is much more actual play.

Kevin said...

I agree that starship combat usually falls flat. IMO, the problem is that game designers want to have it both ways. They want the dynamic, tactical, prioritization, problem solving of fantasy dungeon encounters; but they don't want to go into the gory details of starship trivia.

Dungeon encounters can be so fascinating and challenging because us players understand how the relevant hardware interacts --- doors, locks, light, fire, standing water, sound, etc. GM's can create exciting scenes by mixing these elements and giving players competing priorities.

E.g. the evil wizard escapes out the door and slams it behind him, leaving two orcs as guards. The rules say the rogue has a good chance of picking the lock but is vulnerable to the orcs. The fighter can handle the orcs but has worse odds of breaking down the door. Very quickly we have a dilemma and meaningful choices to make.

To make starship battles fun in the same way, we might as well go all the way and teach players how the tech interacts, and write that into the rules. What shields can deflect, how plasma conduits work and break, the trade-offs of re-routing power from one place to another, what happens when the hull breaches, etc. Yes it's extremely geeky, but I think anyone who's game to play a starship battle RPG is down for it.

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