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 wired.com:

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.


  1. That LCS project is a shame. I hope they cancel the thing and start over.

  2. Actually, I've long thought the various design-studies for enlarged developments of the Swedish Visby (640 metric tons, 72.7m OAL, 40-man crew) would have made GREAT LCS's.

    Mind you, I'm a fan of crew reduction through automation, but that automation has to be sensible. Come on, how hard would it be to add ONE cook's assistant to run the dishwasher?

  3. I was a enlisted (OSCS) of Task Force Excel. One thing we cautioned about was the radical demanning of ships. I've stood 8 on and 4 off before and the results were not positive. You need a clear head to make good decisions. I'm glad I'm retired!