Thursday, April 19, 2012

Star Trek Starship Tactical Combat Simulator, the Falklands, BBQ

Howdy! It’s been a busy week for me, as I’m churning away at a couple of projects with the goal of trying to write 3,000 words a day between the two of them. Unfortunately, that’s a tough goal to meet day in and day out, at least for me; I know some writers who routinely bang out 5,000 or more words a day, and I have to tell you, I wonder how they pull it off.

Anyway, things on my mind this week (other than, Good God, can the Phillies please find some *hitters*???) are: The best ship combat game ever; the “Maldives” (by which President Obama means, the Malvinas, or the Falkland Islands); and barbeque.

Gaming: One of my favorite games ever was FASA’s Star Trek Starship Tactical Combat Simulator. This was a boxed set supplement for the Star Trek roleplaying game, published all the way back in the mid-80s. FASA produced several additional sourcebooks called Ship Recognition Manuals tied to the starship combat system, so if you had the box and the sourcebooks you had stats for a couple hundred Federation, Klingon, Romulan, Gorn, and Orion starships. Based on the name alone (a candidate for Worst Game Name Ever) you might expect that this game was as exciting as watching paint dry, but you would be wrong: This game was great. It was the best tabletop capital ship combat system ever put together for any genre, and I spent whole semesters of my college career playing the STSTCS instead of going to class.

So what made this game so good? I think it comes down to three key decisions: Faithfulness to the source material, good complexity level, and the exact right amount of hard decisions.

Faithfulness: Many gamers regard Star Fleet Battles as the final word in Star Trek ship battles, but Star Fleet Battles introduces many things you never see in the TV show or movies—whole new races, tactics such as drones and missiles, etc., etc. FASA did a much better job of working within the Star Trek universe. The only lateral content (stuff FASA made up) for their ship combat game was a pile of starship designs. But the new ones they made up *fit* in the universe very nicely. A lot of the credit for this goes to Dana Knutson, the artist who created the line drawings for all the new starships in the Ship Recognition guides. They were fantastic.

Correct Complexity: The game offered a very nice balance between simulating what you saw in Star Trek ship battles, and remaining playable and fast-moving (another place where Star Fleet Battles fell down, in my opinion). Attacks were resolved with an attack roll and a hit location roll. Effects were generally clean and easy to implement. Movement was phased, but it was broken into three steps so that it wasn’t any real burden. You used face-down “Fire” and “No Fire” chits to declare when you wanted to shoot.

Hard Decisions: Finally, the thing that FASA’s Starship Tactical Combat Simulator did exactly right was to give you an excellent set of hard decisions each turn. Bruce Nesmith, my onetime colleague at TSR, told me that “every game needs hard decisions.” It was great advice that has helped me throughout my career as a game designer. The FASA game offered two excellent decision points. First, you allocated power each turn between shields, movement, and weapons. Naturally, you didn’t have enough power to maximize all three; each turn you needed to decide which element to short. Second, movement was divided into three phases, and after each movement phase you made a Fire/No Fire decision. If you shot up an enemy at the end of the first phase, that damage would hose him for the second and third phase… so each turn you had to ask yourself if you wanted to get a little closer and do more damage, or fire early before you got torn up yourself. It was a ton of fun!

We never bothered to play with the RPG rules, which forced us to houserule a couple of effects in the game. For example, in the ship combat system, a Bridge hit was important because you’d check to see how the characters on the bridge were affected, and that would in turn affect what the ship could do next. If you’re not playing with specific characters on the bridge, you need Bridge hits to do something else. (We said that your ship took -2 to attacks and enemy ships got +2 to hit until the end of the next turn.) There were one or two other houserules we had for applying damage.

Anyway, this was one of my favorite games ever. And over the years I’ve gone back to the mechanics and concepts in the Starship Tactical Combat Simulator several times, thinking about the lessons they held for whatever game system I was working on at the time. If you can find one of these old games around, pick it up and try it out—it is simply one of the best.

Politics/Current Events: Most people probably don’t realize that we are now observing the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War. The war began on 2 April 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. It took the United Kingdom 74 days to force the Argentine garrison to surrender and liberate the islands. It was the largest naval war since World War II, resulting in the loss of several British ships to Exocets and old-fashioned dumb bombs, plus the controversial sinking of the cruiser Belgrano (to this day, the only warship sunk by a nuclear submarine).

The question of who actually has the best claim to the Falklands (or the Malvinas, as the Argentines call the islands) is a long-standing dispute. Britain never relinquished its claim, but there was a period of time in the early 19th century when no people were living there, which is when the Argentines established a small colony of their own, later seized by the British when they returned to establish a permanent post in 1833.  I think the British claim is pretty conclusive at this point: The 3,000 or so people living there are descended from British settlers, regard themselves as British subjects, and overwhelmingly want to remain British. Besides, Britain paid in blood and treasure to repel an unprovoked Argentine attack. You lose claim points for attacking and losing.

So why is this important now? In the first place, the Argentine government is once again asserting its claim to the islands, which is something they do every now and then when they want to distract the folks at home from the way they’re running the show. Second, recent oil exploration in the area has turned up reserves that might be as large as 8 billion barrels; by comparison, the UK’s current proven reserves are about 3 billion barrels. Argentina is making a lot of threatening noise about Britain taking “their” oil. Finally, it is far from clear that the UK could launch another expedition to retake the islands like it did in 1982; the Brits just don’t have the fleet or resources anymore. They have to defend the islands with the garrison now in place.

Unfortunately, our current administration has gone out of its way to assure Argentina that we don’t take sides in this dispute. That may be the exact wrong message to send. It would seem much wiser to me to spell out our unqualified support for our closest ally, or failing that, the right of self-determination for the Falklanders. That would be a good way to discourage a new round of Argentine adventurism. Instead the Obama administration seems anxious to curry favor with Argentina’s feckless Kirschner government (one of the Latin American wave of “Third Way” populist governments currently in power these days). There’s a theory floating around the Obama hates Britain because anticolonialism is the foundation of his political philosophy. I couldn’t say if that’s true, but boy, he doesn’t ever seem to pass up a chance to slap Britain in the face.

The Finer Things: Dickie’s Barbeque. The chain finally began opening stores here in Washington state. The pulled pork is OK, but the chopped brisket is great, and the barbeque sauce is awesome. They use a vinegar-based sauce, which as all right-thinking people know the best and most appropriate dressing for BBQ. We used to call it Uncle Joe’s sauce in my family; I haven’t had the real stuff in years, but now I’ve got a place 10 minutes away that sells something pretty close.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Champions D&D, the Sad Tale of the LCS

Welcome back, everybody! Thanks for checking in. It’s a beautiful spring day in Western Washington, which is something you don’t get to say very often. I actually was driving around today with the top down on my convertible, which is one of the real pleasures in life. Baseball season is underway, and so far I like what I’m seeing out of a much improved Mariners lineup. On the other hand, the Phillies are off to a poor start, and have no real prospects of improving any time soon. Right now I’d trade the Phils starting lineup for the Mariners lineup, and that is ridiculous, since the Mariners last year had one of the worst offenses in history, and the Phils scored the most runs in the National League in the second half. Amazing how fast things turn around, good and bad.

(Important safety tip for you GMs out there: Do NOT give 5-year 125-million dollar contract extensions to dudes over 30 whose numbers are already beginning to decline.)
Anyway, on to the more substantial matters…

Gaming: One of the RPG genres I just don’t get to play enough is superheroes. With the Avengers movie drawing near, I find myself really stoked about the idea of running or playing through a short superhero campaign. After all, the Avengers are *made* for a RPG—it’s an ensemble cast, and while they’re each awesome all by themselves, they get to team up and do really spectacular things. But here’s the thing with superhero RPGs: The biggest fun is making up your own superhero character. I’ve just never been satisfied with playing someone else’s character, even if it’s a superhero I love watching movies and reading comic books about. To put it another way: I’ve always found my biggest reward in coming up with the original, interesting mutant who *could* have fit right in with the X-Men if only they’d ever asked me to contribute a character. I suspect a lot of players have that same desire.
Thinking about a superhero game of course brings up the question: What’s the right game system? I played the heck out of Champions and the old TSR Marvel system, I played a little Mutants and Masterminds, and I have a passing familiarity with a couple of other systems. The one that I would like to run the most is Champions, simply because the character creation is awesomely flexible… if you know what you’re doing.

The problem is, while I love the way a Champions character comes together, I hate the Champions combat system. Spreading actions spread over a twelve-phase action turn is just a beating. So I asked myself, What would happen if you just ran Champions with one action per round? Or, more properly, something like the D&D 4e action economy?
First, your Speed stat in Champions would be bogus. That’s okay; I think we could use that number to replace initiative. Since Speed begins at DEX/10, heck, just have people act in Dex order. Done.

Endurance usage and Recovery get thrown out of whack. I think you can fix that, though. Most Champions fights seem to go not much more than one or two action turns, which translates to maybe eight to twelve distinct character actions separated by one or two recoveries. That probably remains true when you call each action its own round rather than part of the big phased turn. Instead of giving heroes a “free” recovery at the end of each action turn, just let characters use a Second Wind once per battle, maybe as a minor action. Done.
Finally, speedster characters would seem to get nerfed by not getting more actions than other characters. Again, I think that’s not a big problem. Just buy the Autofire advantage on your punches or maybe Area Effect-line to simulate making multiple punches in the time it takes anyone else to make one punch. Speedsters have a high movement rate anyway, so they should still be pretty speedsterish.

I might also be tempted to replace the 3d6 attack roll in Champions with a d20 attack roll, but keep the same target number calculation of OCV and DCV. The Champions bell curve gets vicious when you’re looking for 15’s or 16’s to hit; the d20 would let folks at different combat values interact a lot better.
I have notebooks full of Champions characters, many designed for truly obnoxious game breakage. But there are some dudes I’m pretty happy with, too. I’d love to be able to play that game without being forced to drop into bullet time by the combat system. Now I just have to find some folks to play with!

Politics/Current Events: I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading about current naval affairs in the last couple of months (research for a little secret project of mine), and one of the things I ran into the other day was the US Navy’s LCS program. I’ve been hearing about it for years, but I took a good long look this week. It’s hard for me to say this, but someone needs to: This program is a disaster. I am a former naval officer and I *want* to be an advocate for important new naval building programs. I want to see our sailors go into harm’s way in the toughest, most capable platforms we can give them. I want to know that ton for ton our warships are the finest in the world. But with the LCS, we’re spending billions and billions to build a fleet of ships that can’t fight.
Here’s the whole sorry tale, as explained by

Now, most normal people have no idea what a LCS is. So here’s the story: LCS stands for Littoral Combat Ship, a new type of warship that was supposed to replace the Perry-class frigates. (Interesting aside: I did my midshipman first class cruise many years ago aboard the Robert G. Bradley, a Perry class ship.) At the same time, the Navy became really interested in improving its “brown-water” combat capabilities and coming up with more efficient ways to deal with asymmetric coastal threats—for example, mines, or dudes in speedboats with RPGs. Sending a real heavy hitter like an Arleigh Burke class destroyer into that sort of environment is not a good idea: it’s overkill, you’re asking the Arleigh Burke to fight in the worst possible environment for it, and finally, if the bad guys get lucky, you’ve lost an important asset. Anyway, the Navy decided to kill two birds with one stone and replace its frigates with new, small, cheap combatants optimized for inshore warfare. Sounds smart, right?
Well, to make a very long story short, the job was botched. A whole slew of bureaucrats distracted by the global war on terror and the idea of transforming the force structure (thanks, Rumsfeld) committed buzzword-manslaughter on the concept. Here are just a few of the critical failures of the design:

-        The armament consists of a 57mm gun and a single RAM (rolling airframe missile) launcher, on a 3000-ton hull. The LCS has nothing that can touch a target only 5 miles away. It’s badly outgunned by China’s Houbei-class missile boat, which weighs in at 200 tons and costs a tenth as much. I mean, one Houbei could expect to kill three or four LCS without getting scratched.

-        The ship is designed for a crew of only 40. Excellent, reduced headcount is efficient, right? Well, the Navy is discovering that they need senior NCOs and officers washing dishes and handling lines just to operate the ship. Underway sailors average less than 4 hours of sleep a night.

-        The ship was designed with mission modules to optimize it for anti-surface, anti-sub, or anti-mine warfare. At this time, the anti-surface module has been canceled, the anti-sub module is being completely redesigned, and the anti-mine module is a bust.

The only thing the LCS can do is fight targets that can’t fight back, and carry a small amount of troops. Oh, it can also go like the blazes—the design requires the insane speed of 40+ knots, as if you could outrun cruise missiles. We would have been better off just buying more of the Coast Guard’s excellent new National Security Cutters. They’re not too cheap, either, but at least they have enough crewmen to run the ship.
Someone needs to push the STOP button and actually design a robust little warship for the Navy. I’m usually all about giving the Department of Defense what it says it needs, but nobody needs the LCS.

The Finer Things: Nothing leaps to mind this week, sorry. Have you seen the trailer for The Hobbit? You should; it will make you happy.