By Matt Day
The Helm officer runs their fingers in rapid motions across their console, ducking and weaving at the command of their Captain. The Tactical officer reports on the status of the shields while unleashing another round of phaser fire, and the ship’s Doctor…. Yawns(?) “So who’s console is exploding this time?”
Tropes exist for a reason, but sometimes there needs to be something more to keep all of your players interested. In this article I’m going to discuss a few relatively simple pieces of advice that will hopefully improve your starship combat scenes, especially when coupled with my previous article on Extended Tasks, and the Continuing Conversations videos on crew roles.
As a note, I’ll be trying to avoid repeating too much of that previous article, in favour of new content. I also won’t be discussing the system maths or how to balance an encounter, because I don’t personally believe that such crunch is always needed when playing a narrative system. Others may disagree, and that’s fine, but you shouldn’t expect to find any of that here.
0 – Combat is a tool, not the outcome
It can be commonplace in TTRPG’s for a combat sequence to be employed as a stand alone moment of drama. The assumption being that your NPC enemies will provide all the drama needed in the scene. This rarely works however – in fact, stop doing that!
I started writing a long set of points to support this statement, but it would just be echoing the first piece of advice I gave in my “Getting the most out of Extended Tasks” article, which makes sense when you consider that combat is just another form of Extended Task. So go read that for additional context, and some free extra advice that you could apply here.
What I will say however is that you should watch “Sacrifice of Angels” (DS9 S6:E6), and pay particular attention to how the fleet battle in that episode – often lauded as one of the best in all Star Trek TV – actually plays out. If you really look at it, very little screen time is given to that battle. All the context, drama and tension is provided by the events happening on the station. This is a fantastic example of a GM (in this case writers) using conflict as a narrative tool, rather than relying on it to provide all the drama.
Split the focus, provide an engaging setting and don’t expect the mechanics to do the work for you.
1- Motivation, Motivation, Motivation
Starfleet doesn’t build warships, at least not openly or often. The set of values that dictate this design philosophy also inform some of the action styles we tend to see on the screen, and by extension should have an effect on our games as well.
It’s rare that we see hero crews going into battle just for the sake of having a fight. In almost every conflict situation there is a greater reason for them to fight and that motivation is something we need to provide for our players. Not only is this motivation important for the players at your table, but it’s important that we ensure that our adversaries have some kind of motivation as well.
Even Khan, with his desire to hurt and kill Kirk manifesting as a willingness to fight to the death, had a deeper motivation of revenge to fall back upon. In this case, that motivation gave him reason to fight to the death, but many others don’t share that conviction and will often reach a point where retreat or surrender is preferable.
At the end of the day, two ships duking it out and fighting to the death is a relatively boring set up, and doesn’t really fit with the tone of Star Trek. What do they want? How much are they willing to risk? What is the consequence of them failing? These are all questions you should consider for both sides when planning your session.
2 – The mechanics are a guide, not a brig cell.
Rules as written STA gives us a fair amount of predefined mechanical options for Starship combat, with each station being given their own sets of Minor Actions and Tasks which they can do on their turn. It can be a lot to get your head around, but it’s worth spending a little bit of time on.
There are reference cards that can help with this, but when the shields are raised, one potentially more helpful thing to remember is that these actions are all just suggestions. You aren’t tied to doing just these few things and you should embrace the creativity of yourself and your players.
That leads us on nicely to…
3 – You want to do what?
I feel like I should write an entire article about the use of traits and how they let you cover almost any mechanical eventuality, but that’s for another time. Nevertheless, the ability to create an advantage or complication can broadly speaking be looked at as the foundation for any action you take.
(For reference, the Create Advantage task is listed on CRB Pg 173, and defaults to difficulty 2)
Let’s take “Scan for Weaknesses” as an example. Normally this is a difficulty 1 task when done at close range, but we could look at it as us creating an advantage instead. The task is made possible by the ship’s sensors (trait), made easier by us using a science console (trait), and then is made more difficult by each range band further away the target is (each band a level of a trait). On a success, you are applying an advantage to your ship for the next attack made against that target.
Another example could be Firing Phasers at the Enemy – Normally difficulty 2. In a certain light, that could be you creating a complication, which reduces the target’s shields and/or inflicts the effects of a breach.
Of course, both of these examples have a streamlined task resolution (it works all the traits out for you) and trades off for a more mechanically complex outcome than you would likely put in a trait. But knowing that tasks can be built like this opens up a range of possibilities.
As an example from one of the films – The Enterprise swoops into action, covering the Defiant against an attack from the Borg Cube. That could be easily mimicked by creating an advantage for the Defiant, possibly with a Daring + Conn Task, with the advantage providing an amount of cover.
This might all seem like a whole lot of mental gymnastics, but it removes the need for a coded mechanic for every possible manoeuvre that your players might come up with.
4- Who needs rules, anyway?
This one might seem a little counter intuitive, or wholly unhelpful in some situations, but in others it can be worth not using the mechanics of combat at all. In some ways this comes back to the advice given right at the start of most rules sections – Don’t call for a roll if you don’t need to.
If the ship isn’t in any real danger, or able to pose any real threat, then it might suit your needs better to have a scene play out in more narrative terms. This can of course include the ship shaking or even include some task rolls, but there isn’t always a need to slow a session down with a relatively inconsequential combat sequence.
There are numerous examples of this throughout the shows, but the most pointed example for me actually comes from one of my own games when I was running the living campaign. My crew needed to rescue a freighter from an enemy raider while it was hanging in the gravity well of a planet. That could have been a full combat, but instead my players came up with a plan that felt far more suited to a cinematic sequence, so long as they succeeded at their individual rolls.
The USS Gallant swooped in under the glare of a sun, disabled the raider’s engines, grabbed the freighter with a tractor beam and beamed the hostile boarding party onto their own (well guarded) transporter pad. The whole sequence took a matter of minutes to play out, avoided a slow combat scene, and left the players feeling like the best that Starfleet had to offer.
TLDR; If you don’t need to use the mechanics, then don’t.
5 – Khaaaan!
Sometimes it’s pretty easy to overlook when putting together a combat sequence, but try and apply some of the given advice to your NPC enemies as well.
A fight will become infinitely more dynamic if your enemies have a motivation beyond just “Kill or be killed”, and allowing them to create their own advantages and complications will greatly broaden their options for approach.
Does an enemy ship get the drop on some unsuspecting players? Then let them achieve some part of their goals before the players have a chance to react. Is it more cinematic (and a better pace of gameplay) to allow a hostile ship to both move and fire on the same turn? Then let them do that too. Maybe the location of the fight was even chosen by the NPC because they know of environmental effects or obstacles which can be used to their advantage.
So long as you don’t make the players feel cheated or mechanically disadvantaged (narrative disadvantage is very valid), and ultimately don’t ruin anyone’s fun then making the NPC’s feel like a more dynamic obstacle can only improve the scene you are trying to craft.
I could ramble on with more specific advice, or breaking down sequences from the shows/films (which would be fun – come find me on Reddit/Facebook/Discord if you want to discuss that) but I think the above is the most concise and easily applicable that I have right now.
I’ll try and get the next article out a little quicker than this one. Not sure what the topic will be yet, but I’m interested to find out.
In the meantime – LLAP
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