Ferrymen: Spaceships and Space Conflicts

Last time I talked about my “Ferrymen” campaign, I teased the release of our spaceship combat rules, which I created following our translation from Diaspora to Fate Core.

These rules are designed to encompass the elements of Diaspora that resonated with us and had become the most essential parts of our setting, whilst we also embraced the stripped-out, streamlined ethos of Fate Core. It’s not designed to be a straight port of Diaspora’s space combat chapter to the Fate Core system. Nor is it even intended to be my view of the best way to resolve space combat in Fate Core (for a simpler, pulpier, less violent take on spaceships, I’m quite happy with the rules I put together for my Fate Core hack of Firefly). It’s very much intended to be setting-specific, albeit something that I hope will slot into the settings of other Diaspora players without too much resistance.

Advance warning that today’s post is going to be long…

 

SKILL LIST

The spaceship rules below refer to various skills that do not exist in Fate Core, so it is worth outlining what all the skills in our game are. In Ferrymen, the following skills work exactly as in Fate Core:

Athletics
Contacts
Deceive
Empathy
Fight
Investigate
Notice
Physique
Provoke
Rapport
Resources
Shoot
Stealth
Will

The following skills are simply renamed versions of Fate Core skills to be more setting appropriate:

Education (rename of Lore)
Intrusion (rename of Burglary, also incorporates hacking)
Pilot (rename of Drive)
Technology (rename of Crafts)

And the following skills are unique to our game:

Bureaucracy (special skill incorporating the mental and social challenges of negotiating contracts, legal entanglements and trade)
Seamanship (familiarity with the operation of spaceship systems, knowledge of celestial phenomona, and other aspects of space travel – useful for discovering enemy aspects and creating “Target Lock” advantages in space conflicts)

 

SPACESHIP CREATION

Spaceships

The excellent custom spaceship sheet one of my players put together for our campaign. Click on the picture to download your own copy!

In Ferrymen, the player party begins play with a spaceship. This doesn’t use up refresh or anything, as it is assumed to be a default part of play.

Spaceships have aspects, stunts, two stress tracks (frame and data) and consequences. Instead of skills, they have six skill modifiers – bonuses or penalties they apply to the skills of the characters that utilise the ship’s capabilities.

The six skill modifiers are:

  • Thrust. A measure of speed, acceleration, vector alteration and reaction-mass reserves. Almost always modifies use of the Pilot skill, perhaps most commonly when defending against frame attacks.
  • Hull. A spaceship’s armour, ruggedness and quality of construction. This tends not to be used in skill rolls so much (sometimes Pilot plus Hull is used to bulldoze through obstacles, and Technology plus Hull is used to effect repairs), but it impacts a ship’s frame stress track.
  • Systems. Processing power and quality of computer software and communication hardware. Usually modifies Seamanship. For characters that have a stunt to make data attacks with Intrusion, those attacks are also modified by Systems.
  • Weapons. A ship’s physical armament, modifying the use of Shoot for characters that have a stunt allowing them to make frame attacks.
  • Cooling. How well a ship can handle the build-up of heat, which in hard sci-fi combat can be a serious problem. Usually modifies Technology. Defends against Heat attacks at the end of each turn.
  • Cargo. The capacity of a ship to haul goods and passengers, along with hidden spaces and other special areas. Doesn’t get used in combat, but after a profitable journey it can be used to modify Resources, Bureaucracy, or even Rapport with the right target. If you’re hiding aboard your ship, it would modify a Stealth roll.

Different ships have different weapons – beams, torpedos, or both – but all are represented by the Weapons skill. Beams cannot attack from two zones away, torpedoes cannot attack targets in the same zone, and some stunts work specifically against beams or torpedoes. Otherwise they work in the same way mechanically.

Skill modifiers run from -2 to +2, and a PC’s starting ship will have six skill modifiers that when added together equal zero (-2, -1, 0, 0, +1, +2 or -1, -1, 0, 0, +1, +1 are common configurations). Smaller, sub-streamer (non FTL) NPC craft will have skill modifiers that add up to only -1, whilst really advanced NPC craft (or ships the PCs pick up later) might have skill modifiers that total +1 or even +2.

When a character rolls a skill aboard a ship, and that action involves engaging with the capabilities of the ship itself, they must also increase or reduce their skill as directed by the skill modifier before making the roll. So a character with a Pilot skill of +3 who attempts evasive manoeuvres will roll at +2 if the ship has a Thrust of -1, +4 if the ship has a Thrust of +1, etc.

Ships also have two aspects (a High Concept and Trouble) and two stunts, which are designed in the same way as for characters, and can apply to either the spaceship or characters acting within them. Example aspects and stunts can be seen below.

The two spaceship stress tracks are frame (which measures how close the spaceship is to completely falling apart) and data (which measures how close the spaceship is to completely shutting down). Hull determines the length of the frame track, Systems determines the length of the data track. If the corresponding skill modifier is negative, the track contains a 1-stress box and a 2-stress box; if the skill modifier is 0, add a 3-stress box; if the skill modifier is positive, add a 4-stress box. PC ships have a mild, moderate and severe consequence slot, which can be used to absorb incoming stress as normal.

Example High Concepts:
Bristling Gunboat
Speedy Passenger Liner
Bloated Virus Carrier
Rugged Convoy Freighter
Hunter-Killer Destroyer
Gigantic Pirate Flagship
Military Command Craft
Infamous Scout Ship

Example Troubles:
Skeleton Crew
Explosive Ammunition Stores
Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing
Hybrid Abomination
Burns Bright, Burns Fast
Short Sighted
Classified, Bespoke Engineering
Outdated Operating System

Example Stunts:

Medical Bay: Any ally aboard this ship may use Education to heal physical consequences.

Advanced Computer: When you succeed with style whilst creating an advantage with Seamanship (modified by Systems) to plot enemy movements, place three free invokes on that advantage instead of two.

Master/Slave: When you take out an enemy ship with data stress, you may force it to take an action of your choice immediately. Use the attacking character’s skills but the skill modifier of the ship being taken out.

Just Point and Click: Any ally aboard this ship can make frame attacks with Shoot modified by Weapons, even if they don’t have a stunt that allows them to make frame attacks.

Indestructible: You may use Pilot modified by Hull to defend against beam attacks when you sail directly into incoming damage.  If you do, you always take at least a 1-stress frame hit, unless you defend with style.

Sensor Scramble: +2 to Intrusion when overcoming any situation aspects created by a spaceship’s computer systems.

Flak Defence: You can use Shoot modified by Weapons to defend against torpedo attacks.

EMP Torpedoes: Once per conflict, you may make an attack with Shoot modified by Weapons that inflicts data stress instead of frame stress.

 

CONFLICTS IN SPACE

When spaceships are in conflict with one another, you should resolve that in pretty much the same way as physical or social conflicts. Each character takes their turn completing an action, though the skill modifiers of the ship they’re on might affect their skill roll. If a ship is taken out, all characters on that ship are taken out as well, and play continues until all characters on one side have been taken out, or the sides are no longer in conflict with one another.

Characters in a space conflict act in order of Seamanship. Ties are broken by Pilot, then by Technology.

Characters cannot make frame or data attacks against spaceships unless they have a stunt that allows them to do so, and are on a ship that is capable of making those attacks. Of course, any skill rolls they make to attack are modified by their ship’s skill modifier.

In general, the crew of a spaceship cannot take actions that result in a spaceship using a specific skill modifier more than twice a turn – i.e. you can only use a ship’s Weapons up to twice a turn, its Systems up to twice a turn etc. There are only so many seats for gunners, co-pilots and sysops! Defend actions are the exception to this rule – your pilot and co-pilot can use Thrust to make as many defend actions as they are required to make, and still act as normal in their turn.

Space is very large and spaceships are very fast – they do not make dead-stops in one place before making a sudden dash to another. Consequently, zones in spaceship combat are an abstract measure not only of the distance between spaceships, but the differences in speed and vector. All movement between zones in a space conflict faces active opposition, assuming there is an enemy that wants to oppose you. It should usually be fairly obvious who is providing this opposition – for example, if a ship is moving into the same zone as an enemy ship, that ship is providing opposition (Pilot modified by Thrust) as it attempts to keep distance between you.

Vacuums are very bad places to try and conduct heat away, and in conflicts of high-intensity action, heat aboard spaceships can rise to dangerous levels. At the end of each turn, the crew of each spaceship must try and deal with the spike in temperature. This is represented by an attack against each spaceship, defended against by anyone aboard that spaceship in a position to deal with the rising heat.

The value of the attack is static, and is calculated as follows:

  • Add up the total number of actions the ship’s crew undertook that turn that were modified by Thrust and Weapons (e.g. if a ship’s crew created an advantage with Pilot modified by Thrust, and attacked twice with Shoot modified by Weapons, that would be a total of 3 actions). Defend actions do not count for this total.
  • If the total number of Thrust and Weapons actions is 1 or less, the heat “attacks” at a value of +0.
  • If the total number of Thrust and Weapons actions is more than 1, then the attack value increases by +2 for every additional action after the first. (e.g. in the example above, the heat attack would have a value of +4).
  • The lowest value of a heat attack is +0. A heat attack will never usually be higher than +6, since a ship’s crew can usually only take two Thrust actions and two Weapons actions a turn.

The crew member defending against the heat uses Technology modified by Cooling for the defend action. This is then resolved as a normal attack, with shifts of stress on a failed defence inflicted as frame stress. If the defender succeeds with style, they generate a boost as normal, which will disappear by the end of their next heat defence if they haven’t used it before then.

Once every ship has defended against heat, proceed with the next turn as normal.

 

NPC SPACESHIPS

The spaceship conflict rules are designed to give every player character something to do. That’s great for keeping a party of players engaged, but a hassle for a GM who has to resolve the actions of an enemy spaceship one nameless NPC at a time. And if the GM is controlling more than one NPC ship, it becomes especially unfeasible.

To make things simpler, GMs should design and run NPC spaceships as follows:

  • Give your spaceship(s) two aspects (a high concept and trouble), assign skill modifiers, and maybe give them a stunt or two. Work out the lengths of stress tracks as normal, and decide what consequences they should have (many NPC ships should have just a mild and moderate consequence).
  • Decide if there are any named NPCs aboard your spaceship(s). If so, give them a full statline as you would for supporting or main NPCs. In a conflict, these characters act in the same way as PCs do.
  • For the nameless crew of your spaceship(s), give them an aspect (I usually write this with the spaceship’s aspects, with a mark to indicate it’s specifically for the crew), and a few skills, same as you would for nameless NPCs.
  • Decide how many actions each spaceship’s nameless crew, as a whole, can make a turn. One should probably be the standard, especially if you’re running multiple spaceships. A particularly numerous or well-drilled crew might be able to make two actions a turn. Crew that make three actions a turn should be saved for one-vs-one spaceship boss fights.

When its your NPCs’ turn to act in a fight, they take all the actions in the same initiative slot. If in doubt, have them apply a teamwork bonus to whatever someone important is doing. (This isn’t as ineffective as it sounds, as it won’t contribute to the build up of heat at all). You should also consider this option for NPCs on friendly spaceships – they just provide a teamwork bonus to what a PC is doing, if it’s plausible.

 

NEXT TIME

There’s one component of starship combat I’ve not touched on yet, as it was a recent addition to our game: ship-to-ship interfacer vehicles, and the role they can play in combat. Unlike the above, those rules are completely untested, and won’t be seeing action at our table for a little while. I’ll put a draft together and share it next time.

7 thoughts on “Ferrymen: Spaceships and Space Conflicts

  1. These are excellent rules, I’m putting together some custom rules for a space adventure game of my own, and I’m using some elements from this article. I’d like to know how changing the number of skill modifiers would work, and whether I’d need to change anything. If you see this, any thoughts?

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    • Hey! So what kind of skill modifiers do you have in mind? My first concerns would be making sure there are (roughly) equal opportunities to use them, and are ideally not having too much overlap with each other, or using the same skills too often.

      To be honest, even with the modifiers I have, there are some issues – Cargo doesn’t get used that much, for instance, and Hull isn’t much good beyond +1.

      As a contrasting approach, have you seen the rules I put together for spaceship combat in Firefly? It’s hard sci-fi (kind of) and stripped down the skills I wanted for spaceships to just four (they’re not modifiers either). Let me know what you think!

      https://michaelduxbury.com/2014/11/11/fate-of-the-browncoats-firefly-fate-core-hack/

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  2. Oh my gosh, thank you for replying! I had some trouble submitting this comment that made me think it hadn’t actually been accepted, and, amusingly, I’ve actually moved on from my above design issue and have run into a completely different one – now I’m considering only using five modifiers as opposed to more than six! So, I guess my question is still technically the same, haha.

    I looked at your Firefly hack, and it’s very cool, but it doesn’t meet my needs – your modifier mechanic fits an extremely specific tone that I’m looking for in terms of the relationship that players/crews have with their ships, so thank you for that!

    At the moment, my modifiers are basically:
    -Thrust
    -Cargo (doesn’t get used a ton as you said, but i like it existing as a means of tracking how long a ship can go without resupplying)
    -Crew (modifies Presence and various other skills situationally when the loyalty or training of the crew would be a factor, used to conduct boarding actions)
    -Sensors – modifies Awareness, used to employ the ship’s detection equipment
    -Damage Control – modifies Technology, used to make repairs, primarily used out of combat

    “Weapons” had previously been the sixth modifier, but I ended up making that its own system, because I wanted a level of depth there that made it not worth trying to juggle with the other modifiers, since what it represented was so much more complex. That’s a different thing though, and I’m pretty happy with it right now. My main question now is, if I only wanted to use five modifiers rather than labor over coming up with a new sixth one that doesn’t have much of a conceptual reason to exist, how would that affect things and what would I need to change?

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    • I don’t think having five rather than six would give you any particular trouble, and all of the modifiers you’ve quoted seem distinct and useful in their own right, so I’d say you’re good.

      You’d need to work out how you want to assign ratings to those skills, of course. Assuming you want to average to +0 (which is necessary to keep the default ratings of the skill ladder sufficiently challenging), I’d suggest one modifier each at -2, -1, 0, +1 and +2. Or just let players distribute modifiers however they like, so long as it adds up to 0.

      How are you handling stress? Is there a modifier you plan to use for determining stress track length? Is that Damage Control?

      To give Cargo teeth, consider making an “attack” every time a ship docks in port, with players defending with Resources modified by Cargo. If they succeed, all is well, if they fail, they suffer stress. Since there is no stress track for material expenditure, that means the ship is taken out (i.e. seized and grounded) unless they choose to take consequences to reflect the lack of funds for vital ship maintenance (Low on Fuel, Breathing Cheap Air, Rusting Hull).

      These rules for material stress are something I’m working on right now for the Fate of the Remnants Patreon, an upcoming game I’m working on.

      https://www.patreon.com/obscuretides?ty=h

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      • Stress is … a little complicated, but long story short I’m using the Sails Full of Stars rules, with Conditions for crew damage and Consequences for actual damage to the ship, plus Shields as a stress track with a length that’s independent of these modifiers. (I want ships to be very tough and beefy.)

        The Cargo thing is a good idea! I already have rules for Resources stress on an organizational level, so integrating something like that shouldn’t be a problem if I feel the need for it.

        I’ve run the five modifiers as listed past my players, and they seem happy with it, so I think this is what I’m going with! Thanks a ton for your advice!

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