RPG Naval Combat, Part I

Combat naval de Iquique del 21 mai 1879 - oil ...

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Naval combat is full of details.

Environmental shifts may upset everything. For an age-of-sail vessel a change in the wind, or patch of fog, can change an entire battle. Even with later designs, storms, floating debris, rocks and reefs, powerful currents, and – at the most extreme – tidal waves, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions can easily damage or overwhelm any ocean vessel. Space is usually calmer, but even there you can have solar flares, meteorites of various sizes, radiation storms, and whatever demented disasters the physics of the setting will support.

When it comes to the ship itself…

  1. Cargo may be damaged or destroyed – including fuel, water, food, and other vital supplies.
  2. Drive and power systems may be damaged or destroyed. A mast may need splicing, a sail may be carried away or burned, the boiler may be threatening to explode, or the engine may lose power.
  3. Fire (or radiation leaks, or magical flare-ups, or whatever) may break out – which is especially bad if it’s near a magazine, or fuel stores, or a stock of canvas or tar, or anything else which burns or otherwise reacts really well – or explosively. It’s not like you can walk home.
  4. Instruments – whether for navigation, communication, or observation – may be damaged or destroyed. And yes, even rather primitive ships will have flags, lights, gadgets for navigation, and other instruments.
  5. Officers, crewmen, and passengers may be injured or killed.
  6. Steering systems – rudder, screws, altitude thrusters, diving systems, or what-have-you – may be damaged.
  7. Structural damage is often the least of it. Barring a major explosion or a collision with a much larger and tougher ship, a ship can survive enormous numbers of holes before it starts coming apart. That’s why so many wrecks are more-or-less intact; they failed to keep out the water (or whatever), they didn’t fall to bits.
  8. Water – or whatever hostile environment your craft may travel in or on – may be coming in, meaning that leaks need to be plugged, hatches that must be sealed, passages that need to be negotiated may be filled with something nasty (or vacuum), or support gear (pumps, atmosphere recyclers, etc) may need to be repaired or manually operated.
  9. Weapons may be damaged or destroyed – or simply run low on ammo, especially if a magazine is hit.
  10. Wreckage may be dangling over the side and acting as a sea anchor, or blocking access to vital areas, and will need to be broken through or cut away.

The trick here is that the character’s usually don’t care about the details.

Unless a character is dealing with it directly, that sort of stuff is simply background scenery – and even if they are, the details generally boil down to one of “You can fix it given a bit of time”, “You can try to fix it”, “trying to fix it will be dangerous” (perhaps you have to risk blasts of flame and steam to work on the boiler of a steam system), and “you can’t fix it at the moment”. Subcategories here would be “you can live with it”, “slow disaster”, and “fast disaster” – but most RPG combat systems call for ablative damage (since it gives the characters a chance to realize that they’re outmatched and pull out before they’re killed, making for longer games), hence things will always start with slow problems and build from there.

Seas – whether or water or space – aren’t like ordinary terrain. They don’t offer much cover save for the occasional patch of obscuring material or massive chunk of rock, they don’t provide meaningful height advantages, and they don’t allow characters to do a lot of independent maneuvering. Most characters are effectively going to be riding on a platform that moves around a bit with respect to some other platforms – and, once again, the details won’t matter.

Ships are complex and fascinating things, but for game purposes, ship-to-ship combat since the cannon came along mostly consists of (1) trying to maneuver so that you have more weapons bearing than your opponent does, (2) firing as many of the weapons you can bring to bear as quickly as quickly you can, and (3) handling damage control. Once in awhile you have (4) trying to get your opponent to run into a hazard (running aground, lured into a minefield, or asteroid field or some such), but most of the time such hazards are fairly obvious, and are easily avoided.

Yes, you can ram – but that often leads to the destruction of both ships if they’re of similar size, and is usually only a useful tactic if you can’t use guns for some reason or if the enemy ship is a LOT smaller and more fragile than your own.

You can end a naval battle by…

  • Winning.
  • Losing.
  • By one side or the other escaping.
  • By enacting a truce (whether by surrender of one side or the other, by mutual exhaustion and drifting apart, or by some diplomatic feat)
  • Or by boarding the enemy ship and ending the naval battle in favor of personal combat.

In reality, boarding actions are pretty rare. Most of the time, if you’ve beaten an enemy down to the point where this becomes practical, you might as well just demand their surrender. It’s going to be a more viable option in this system though, because it’s exciting and players like it.

So to command a ship in naval combat, you’re going to need to:

  • Know exactly what your ship (and hopefully those of your opponents) can – and, more importantly, CANNOT – do
  • Have enough tactical skill to pick out a good course of option within those limits
  • Have enough skill as a pilot (if you’re doing you own piloting) and leader (if acting as both ship captain and commander) to actually make your ship and crew do it.

Yes that’s right; the commanders are going to be spending their time watching the situation and issuing orders, relying on a set of skills that most player characters – who are used to operating in small, independent, units – are often not going to want to invest in.

Many other skills are useful before and after a fight. Navigation, Weather Prediction, Diplomacy, Geography (or perhaps Galaxography), Deception, and Intimidation may all help you locate the fight, avoid storms along the way, negotiate for passage and supplies, figure out where your enemies are going, bluff your way past an enemy fortress, or get an enemy to surrender – but none of them are much help during the actual fighting.

Of course, once you’re in position to injure your enemies, you need to actually do it.

Ship-mounted weapons are usually large and powerful, and they’re often numerous – but they’re also notably inaccurate. Like it or not, “precise fire” is more or less a myth in naval combat. This is another major reason why real-world naval engagements not too uncommonly result in victories for inferior ships; it only takes one or two really lucky shots to really ruin your day.

Why is it a myth?

Instrumental systems – at least as yet – only target ships as a whole. Just as importantly, at least for game purposes, they don’t allow a lot of human input; exchanging missiles or remotely-directed gunfire with a distant ship basically amounts to “push the button and hope” – especially if you’re firing missiles at a target that’s on or over the horizon. That’s really rather boring, and so doesn’t belong in a game.

Human-directed weapons are firing from an unstable, moving, platform, at an equally unstable, moving target, are normally too big to readily direct by hand (adding in lag time), their operators often have limited visibility (which gets worse when smoke is involved), they’re run by crews rather than by individuals, and they’re usually being directed to targets by someone who’s up on the bridge who is aware of the tactical situation, but only has a limited knowledge of what’s going on with the guns. There may (will later on) be mechanical assistance with reloading, but one or two shots per minute under actual battle conditions is pretty standard for main guns. That’s why there’s usually a fair amount of time to maneuver in between shots – and why a quick turn to allow you to fire your OTHER broadside was such a good maneuver in the days before turrets.

For simplicities sake – and playability – I’ll presume that naval-scale energy weapons, missile launchers, and similar weaponry have similar cycling times. Given that we don’t even know what laws of physics will be involved in this sort of thing in any given setting, that seems like a reasonable compromise. Secondarily, the officers, crew, and player characters are going to be presumed to be busy with orders, dodging fire, and other minor activities – so their personal actions are going to be reduced to the ship combat timescale as well.

Thus a good gunnery officer – one who can tell from the bridge whether or not the guns currently have a worthwhile chance of hitting and can come reasonably close to the optimal moment for firing – is worth his or her weight in gold.

So that’s what our rules will need to cover – hopefully in a simple, quick, and easy system that won’t get in the way of the game.

That’s next.


The Storm Diaries of David Mayseren, Fit the Second

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With the prologues out of the way, events in the setting began moving into high gear. In the first day of chaos there were actually several sessions…

Back in the city, a short bluish alien crash landed in the Professors back yard. The Professor used the cellular phones and beepers he’d passed around to call everyone in. The ranger had been staying there anyway while they talked – and the darkforce guy just teleported in – but David had to ride his bicycle… Between the neighbors, the fire department, and the police, things got busy, even before David got there, and healed the alien enough to wake him up… He turned out to be a powerful telepath. Out in space, his ship had been boarded by the “Zarkonians” – and he’d ejected to escape… They might already be on this world as well. They were shapechangers.

Finding out that half the “people” around him were shapechangers, that telepathy wasn’t normal, just how primitive this planet was, that he’d probably have to hide because there was no procedure for aliens – and that all of his stuff had apparently burned up in the atmosphere – was quite a series of shocks.

The group had to catch him.

Wow! An Alien! A whole civilized galaxy out there! A galactic war! (Oh bugger)

Errr… I gotta admit it… We have wars with each other.

Wait-a-minute here… An alien. A whole world to land in and it lands in the Professor’s back yard. With news of a possible alien invasion. Just after we all got powers.

Somebody or Something is setting us up.

At about that point there was a feeling of presence behind David. He turned to find that the guy in black and white was back. He pronounced “It has begun” – and vanished again. Once again, nobody else noticed him…


The alien jerked. Minds without bodies? How can that be? Is that normal for around here?

Well, while you’re here, you’ve gotta eat. Lets see what we can find… At least if it turns out to poison you, I should be able to counteract it. You used to be a spacefighter pilot? Cool!

Michael showed up about then. It seemed his younger brother, Douglas, had disappeared – and David (and his “companions”) were the only superheroes he knew… HE had decided that this sounded a lot like Champions… The coincidence level – and starting off with a bank being robbed – sounded just like it.

Well – maybe what people believe affects it somehow (“Have you ANY idea just how silly that could be?”) (A bit like this situation maybe?) (“Well… Maybe”).

OK… So you’ve gotta get a look at your orbit slot and see if the Zarkonians managed to take control? No, we really can’t get you there… We’re using chemical rockets, remember? How about a telescope? Sears ought to have some… You can telepathically disguise yourself? Cool.

They took a bus.

David, Michael, and the Alien went shopping… It was not a good time, as some scaly green reptile-man began tearing up downtown. The Professor put out an emergency call. Evidently, he thought that “THIS WAS A JOB FOR C.H.A.O.S! (Certain Heroes Acting On Standby… or Crackpot Heroes Awaiting Opposing Supervillians or any of several other versions the others had proposed…).

At Sears, David was a bit puzzled… Taking the bus didn’t seem like a viable option. Hey – maybe he could turn himself into a dragon and carry everybody! Well – evidently not. Drat… That would’ve been so cool. Oh well, time for the fly spells again. An invisibility charm too perhaps.

Damn. He really would’ve liked being a dragon for a while.

Downtown, Shadowmaster/Nightman/Ebonfire/Nightmare/Darkstar/Batman/Whatever (He hadn’t quite decided yet) had arrived… Mr Green-and-Scaly was busy punching big holes in walls, terrorizing the populace, and making a big mess. There were casualties already, and trying to blast him unconscious simply made him get bigger… He threw things – including a four-year-old child.

Whatever-his-name was tried to cushion the impact – but the kid simply got swallowed up into the darkness. How to get him back?

Master Dao and Mr Ranger / “The Changeling” were up next… They eventually managed to dump him way out in the bay – although it seemed almost impossible to hurt him.

Unfortunately, he was swimming back.

Back downtown, David and company had arrived..

Good Lord… There’s nothing I can do for him… His brains are (ulp…) smeared across the sidewalk… At least I can heal most of them… He went that way? Good. We’ve gotta stop him somehow.

Back at the shore, Mr Multiname had managed to pull the kid back out… The boy was throughly dead – and he felt… stronger? He took the idea that he might have just – consumed – a dying child – and pushed it firmly away.

Jeez… I don’t think there’s anything I can do to actually hurt him – and I don’t know if I’m up to transforming the thing – maybe a confusion spell?

It had some effect – at least it gave Mr Darkness a chance to… swallow him up?! What was that about? Was it… David got a look at the child’s body… Oh.

Back downtown, “Master Dao and The Changeling” were going down the hole. They wanted to know where “The Lizard” had come from. It turned out to be a heavily- guarded secret, underground, laboratory/base…

So you’ve… eaten him. Now what? Find out where he came from? Sounds like a decent idea to me…

Like, this place is for real? I’ve gotta start paying attention to those conspiracy theorists. At least the guards are easy enough to knock out…

Hey! An arsenal! And some prototype suits of power armor… Somehow, looking at those, picking up a suit of kevlar armor and a few handguns isn’t really all that comforting… Still, it’ll be handy for Michael.

The first set of guys in power armor were in a room full of electronic gear. Mr Darkness turned The Lizard loose on them. They died. David was a bit sick… It wasn’t easy to catch The Lizard again either.

They went on to confront the head of security, and got his boss on the phone. Master Dao looked through the files; they had four real nasties – and a bunch of failures. David was outraged.

I might’ve known… The place belongs to “Dr Genos” – a brilliant geneticist. Of course. Well, if any of his little experiments are sensible, I’m going to make damn sure he lets them go! At least we’ve got most of the layout – and I’ve taken a peek at the nasty cases in the files.

Oh great. There are another twenty or thirty guards out there – and we’ve just set off all the alarms. Their going to be waiting in ambush for us. Maybe if I whip up an illusion of the Lizard getting loose again.

They all “chased The (Illusory) Lizard” into the main security room… This didn’t entirely go over – but they wound up calling a truce until they could put Mr Lizard back into a reinforced cell… David (AKA; “The Warlock”), insisted on using his mirror magic to talk to the four “successful” experiments in their cells…

The plant master got to talk to more plants. The shapeshifter/were got a mental vacation – if he wanted it – and the Acidic blob didn’t communicate well.

Master Dao decided that he might have to “reign in” David’s idealism a bit. Sixteen-year-olds were like that.

Jeez… All these guys got a good look at us – and got a bunch of film records as well. Not good. Maybe I can use a little darkness magic to blur things a bit. Cool. It actually worked.

NOW what? Oh great… The armies coming down… At least the security guys seem confident that they won’t find anything. (Fool “Ebonflame”. Where else would it be but down the tunnel?).

So how can we hurry up that stupid cell ? Hold the pieces in place? Fine…

It’s still bulging? Good lord! Let’s get the hell out of here.

Whaddya mean we have to swim? You don’t know where the reasonable exits are ? What a stupid design for a secret base…

Jeez, I’d’ve thought that you’d kindof have to tell the security guys where the doors are… How can they do their job without knowing?

You’ve gotta watch it Michael! Think about how hard you’d have splattered if you hadn’t been over water when the flying spell ran out!

Look, kids – we’re superheroes, OK?

Back downtown, the military had been called out and the situation was turning into a riot. Master Dao and “Ebonflame” tried to calm everyone. Demonic clouds of darkness and weird Chinese guys with bizarre powers do not make for calm – especially with their tactics. At least “Ebonflame” avoided getting caught, while Master Dao escaped with his usual aplomb – and then confused a cat. Meanwhile, David and the alien went shopping.

So the military is out dealing with the riot. Good. Dao and Ebonflame simply seem to be making it worse. Weird guys doing bizarre things after they had a fight with a monster-lizard-thinge in the street just do not induce calm.

Never mind. I don’t think I’ve got the power left to deal with a riot (Maybe it’s an endurance battery?) and I’ve got to get our resident alien a telescope. A good thing that it’s easy to prompt a telepath about things.

At least they let the professor go… I’m not sure “Crackpot” is the best reputation for a superhero, but I guess it’ll have to do.

Back at home, the Professor had to explain the hole in his yard to the guys from the gas company.

Darn it… Looks like I do have to worry about just how much power I’ve got left, and I still have to look for Douglas.

Maybe I can manage a simple scrying spell?

<Michael? Could you Fax me a picture of Douglas? In a minute? You’ve got a hot date?> (Odd – Michael never has a date. He couldn’t get a date to save his life… He’s a total geek. Hey! Maybe I can do something about that. Never mind. I’ll try the picture under a mirror or something. That ought to be a good focus…

He’s chained up? In an underground chamber? Ohshit. This is serious! Now who? Huh. “The Crimson Earring” I guess… Great. Grabbed by a loon… OHSHIT! He sees something? HE”S BLOCKING ME? ANOTHER MAGE?!? Probably higher level too. The odds on spotting someone using a scrying spell aren’t so hot. Great… I’ll need the others.

Come to think of it, I’ll also need some clues.

“The Crimson Earring”… Probably The Yellow Claws brother-in-law.


OK… For the moment we’re gonna be “The Guardians”

Michael’s not in but is answering the phone? How is he…? Ah. Extension cords. Now how did Douglas… He was snatched from in front of the school!? A bunch of other kids saw it!? Along with a teacher’s aide? The police are already involved then.

So what are you up to? Seeing if you’re an “super- inventor”? You guess not? (I’ve just gotta find some way to divert this boy…)

OK – so how can we get a copy of the police report? Your mothers got one? Well, Mr. Ebonflame ought to be able to swipe it easily enough…

Three nearby witnesses… All about nine. Azrael? You think you can get more out of their heads then the police did? Probably?

Right. That’s the kid’s house. Are we close enough?

Well – how was I supposed to know that you normally read the thoughts of opposing spacefighter pilots?

Well, the car’s plate number is helpful. Now if we only knew somebody who could run it for us… You can get it? Now THAT’s handy. Maybe you’re a super-hacker Michael…

From a mansion in a ritzy, private, neighborhood you say? Well, that fits – in a sick kind of way… Where else would THE CRIMSON EARRING (In a deep ominous tone here guys) alias JACOB EMERSON (Hell. Even the earring bit sounds better then that) hang out?

You’re coming Michael? I suppose I’d insist if it was my little brother… Bring your pistol and kevlar vest then.

So; There’s a storm coming, my ring’s emitting lots of bright green flames – and the spectacle has already caused a five-car pileup. MR. Ebonflame has gone into balrog mode and is pulling people out… Could we get any more conspicious guys? Hire a band maybe? (I guess it’s mostly my fault – unless it’s “my” ring’s fault – but still).

Well – we could always just ask “Mr Emerson” to let us use his phone to dial 911. Let’s just head in fast guys…

The butler doesn’t find anyone (except Michael) too abnormal.

This must be the place.

So where are the frightened minds Azrael?

The ensuing high-speed “tour” of the house required very little time. They just went through things… The servants got out of the way or got stunned, and the kids and other prisoners got turned over to the cops out near the accident scene. Confronted with this bunch of unknown factors, THE CRIMSON EARRING decided to bug out. Michael rescued Douglas – and a news helicopter got some fine footage of our heroes battling disappearing thugs and rescuing kids from the altars on the roof.

Miserable bastard… No, I don’t think shooting him is actually going to do any good Michael. Go ahead and try it if you want. The bastards been kidnapping, and evidently sacrificing, little kids… At least we got Douglas out of that ritual room. (Hush kids… You’re safe now).

What the hell are all these specks-of-blue-light-in -a-cloud up here?

Oh great… The professors trying to explain things to the police again. What do you want to bet that they soon dedicate an entire wing at the Los Angeles Mental Hospital to him? Let’s get out the back guys…

No, I don’t think I can handle too many more spells at the moment… Let’s just wait until they’re looking the other way, OK?

A good thing I disguised the car – but I don’t know how to drive the thing – and the professors got the keys anyway.

Now that’s a handy talent to have Michael… Where did you learn to hotwire and drive a – never mind, I’m not sure I want to know. At least you’re still invisible…

Come to think of it. that may attract attention all by itself. Oh well – I’ll just shut off their engines.

Now let me get this straight… OK; Morning. I get up. Things go to hell.

Maybe I should try to put the pieces together a bit better then that. Morning. One week since (I think) I got my powers… I visit home, talk to Dad and Joseph, and go out back to practice a bit. An alien crashlands in the professors backyard with news of a potential space invasion. Michael’s little brother disappears. We go out to get a telescope and a lizard-monster escapes from Dr. Genos’s secret laboratory and goes on the rampage. We defeat the lizard, haul him back down to Dr. Genos, talk to some of his other experiments, take a minisub- marine out, catch Michael when he comes falling out of the sky, get named by some kids, get tangled up with a riot and the military – and then get back to looking for Douglas (Michael’s kid brother), who turns out to have been kidnapped by the “Crimson Earring”. We trace him, convince Michael that he’s not a superhero, run off to the rescue, cause an automobile accident, and battle the minions of the Crimson Earring (who escapes).

Then we drive off with an invisible chauffeur – and have to evade the police. Meanwhile, I missed another writing class.

This job better have a damn good vacation plan.

I need some cash. Come to think of it, I also need some gold. Magic rings and such always seem to be made of gold… Maybe just because it’s easy to work and it doesn’t tarnish or anything – but I’m not gonna fly in the face of tradition on three days experience.

OK. I’ll go prospecting in the morning. Of course, with my current luck, I’ll probably find a secret army missile base or the ring of the Nibelungs or something like that… At least a basic kit is cheap enough. I can get one in the morning.