I was reading a different blog a while back, and it mentioned a problem with sci fi spaceships in RPGs. Generally speaking, they follow the model laid down in Startrek. Each member of the crew has a specialty: one operates weapons, one operates sensors, one is the pilot, etc. The problem for a game that operates on this model is that the vast majority of choices are made by the commanding officer, and everyone else just gets to role. Most players don’t get to make decisions, and this is unsatisfying.
How can decisions plausibly be divided up amongst the players without interfering with the specialized roles on board a ship?
The Solution is Social
Each character’s specialization comes with social roles. A sensors operator is supposed to inform the rest of the crew about what is going on. A weapon operator is supposed to shoot at things, and maybe operate defensive equipment also. The commander is supposed to tell everyone what to do. With that in mind, lets look at social behaviour to find a way around this problem.
With this in mind, each action will involve multiple players. This overcomes the problem of overspecialization removing choice from players not in the command role. The next trick is to allow characters who would normally be suboordinate to declare their actions independently. This is primarily a social problem, and is overcome with roleplaying and the use of improvisational theater concepts. It is also a problem for action economies and time management systems (ie. Initative), but this is much easier to overcome.
Offering, Endowing, and Yielding
I am fond of improvisational theater, and to work our way out of this problem we need some improvsational theater concepts. I have written on them before, and I will cover them briefly here again.
Offering: doing or saying something that invites a reaction from someone else. Often, an offer introduces something new to a scene, but it does not need to.
Endowing: adding characteristics or definition to something already in the scene.
Yielding: responding to an offer.
Often a single act will fit into more than one category. Often the act of endowing actually doubles as an offer, in so far as it invites a response from someone else. Sometimes a yield also invites a response from someone else, thus making it simultaneously a yield and an offer.
Note how the actions taken by each role can be fit into each of these categories. Sensor operators offer by detecting new things in space, and endow by discovering the properties of the things in space. For example, a sensor operator might say something like “Captain, the enemy ship is leaking radiation.” and, in so doing, they are endowing the enemy ship and offering something for the other players to react to. A weapons operator might respond with “Programming missiles to track the radiation. Firing in 3. 2. 1.” In so doing, they are yielding to the sensor operator.
Note how this sounds remarkably like something that happens on the bridge of the enterprise during a battle. These exchanges occur quickly and independently of the captain on the enterprise, who will usually occasionally interrupt the process to assert that they should follow the plan proposed by someone else, or to shout “belay that order!” The commander role is almost unnecessary for these action scenes to play out, however. Most of the time the captain is just a yes man, and the rest of the time the captain’s role is to stop someone from doing something.
Broad Turn and Action Format
Initiative systems remain largely unchanged. The key part is that each player gets one turn per round. However, when it’s a players turn they must always offer or endow. Their offer or endow must line up with their specialized role. Any other player may respond to this, and it doesn’t even need to line up with their specialized role. However, they will tend to be more effective if it does line up with their role just because odds are good those skills are raised.
To keep the flow of the game at a faster pace, I would suggest making it so that the offering or endowing person doesn’t roll at all. However, it might still be desirable to have an effect that increases as the character becomes stronger at their specific role. The specifics of this would depend on the system. Alternity is pretty clear on how this works: at rank 1 it is a step 1 bonus, rank 4 it is a step 2 bonus, 7 it is a step 3 bonus, etc. In GURPS, I would suggest that the bonuses are +1 at level 11, +2 at level 13, +3 at level 16, and +4 at level 21. I came up with these numbers by using the usual values for degrees of success (0, -2, -5, and -10), and assuming a roll of 11 all the time.
The yielding character is the one who gets to roll. They get to decide what they are doing, of course, but it must be a reaction to the offer. Their results are determined normally. If someone totally ignores the offer they automatically fail their attempt. Note that there are ways to act against the spirit of the offer that do not ignore it.
Note that is far easier for some roles to offer than it is to yield, and vice versa. Players should take this into consideration when choosing what they would like to play as.
Since the players will quite plausibly end up taking 3-5 actions, which involve the actions of 6-10 characters, it can be quite cumbersome if the GM acts with a similar attention to detail. It is also potentially problematic in that this system could result in weapons being fired 3-5 time, before the enemy ship even gets to respond.
A nice simple way to handle this eventuality is to count the number of times a player yielded since the enemy ship acted, and give the enemy ship that many actions. If there are 4 players, and the enemy ship goes 2nd, then on the enemy’s first turn it only takes 1 action. On the enemy’s next turn, it takes 4 actions.
We have 3 player characters: Captain Charidee, Noah the Weapons Operator (and Saurian alien), and Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie. They are all aboard the spaceship Marengo, a mighty warship. They are battling an enemy flying saucer.
GM tallies everyone’s initiative. It is as follows:
Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie
Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator
Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie says “Redirecting power to lasers.” Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator responds with “We need time for the lasers to charge. Beginning evasive maneuvers.” Noah makes an appropriate piloting roll, adds the bonus from Fancy-Bowtie’s engineering skill. The result is good, and the ships defenses go up. Note how Noah acknowledged what Fancy-Bowtie said, but chose to do something totally different than what Fancy-Bowtie obviously intended.
Captain Charidee analyzes the enemy. “They’re holding back. They’re prepping something big.” Fancy-Bowtie says “I’ve got a trick up my sleeves: flaring the engines. The radiation will mess up their tracking.” Fancy-Bowtie makes a check related to ECM, with a bonus from captain charidee’s tactics skill.
The flying saucer gets to take two actions, because two players have gone. It attempts to scan the ship to find a weakness in their defenses, and then shoot them with a plasma blaster. Fancy-Bowtie’s ECM causes some severe penalties on the sensor check, and the Flying Saucer fails. The attack roll must be made without the aid of a sensors operator and the players have the benefit of evasive maneuvers. The flying saucer fails its check, and thus does not hit.
Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator says “Lasers fully charged.” Captain Charidee says “Fire!” Oddly, in this situation it will end up being the captain that determines whether the attack hits, and the Weapons Officer skill is only for buffing the attack. They never got a target lock, so they’re lacking the significant aiming bonus. The players are lucky, though, and Captain Charidee rolls a hit with the weapons operation skill.
Hogging the Yields
It is certainly possible that someone will jump in and always take the yields. By virtue of being faster and more assertive than everyone else (and by the vice of not caring enough to share), no one else will ever get to roll. This problem can probably be solved by the GM reminding them to share, but if you prefer a system that uses special game mechanics, I have a suggestion: at end of every round, if no one has yielded twice or more, the captain gets a use of a special ability of some kind. I would suggest borrowing a page from GURPS: Action, and have the captain earn a use of Good Luck. Note how I said it is earned if no one yielded twice or more, and that this is different than if everyone yielded once.