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Piloting/Driving Combat in RPGs is No Fun!

MGibster

Legend
I picked up the new Alien rpg last week and while I haven't run it yet I think it's a pretty good game. I thought it was a bit odd that the author's tacked on a Pilot character class and devoted a few pages to ship-to-ship combat because that's not something we see a lot of in the Alien franchise. For the most part, vehicles are either where the scenario is set (Alien) or a way to get somewhere (Aliens). But it got me thinking: Have I ever played an RPG where piloting/driving vehicles in combat was fun? And I really couldn't think of any.

I should have a lot of fun flying an X-Wing in any version of Star Wars but whether we're talking the original WEG or the more recent FFG I just find it tedious. Ship-to-ship combat in Rogue Trader was dull as dishwater, vehicle combat in Savage Worlds is "stupid" as my players describe it, and I don't even remember it being particularly good in Mechwarrrior (unless we were just supposed to switch to Battletech rules). What gives?

Part of the problem is that not every character is useful when it comes to vehicle combat. In Rogue Trader you could have one personally essentially in control of all the guns, one person piloting, and a few other PCs who could contribute in meaningful ways but typically they were tedious tasks. In Star Wars so few skill points are given to PCs that it's hard to build someone who is competent on the ground and also in an X-Wing (so unlike the movies the game tries to emulate) and even with a pilot build combat isn't particularly fun.

I can't believe I'm going to say this, but Palladium's Robotech might be the only game I've had a lot of fun with so far as vehicles go. But it's kind of a cheat because the rules for piloting a Veritech were pretty much the same rules you'd use for a PC outside their vehicle.

Anyone else have any problems with vehicle combat in RPGs? Or is it just me?
 

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While I've not actually played or run such a combat in any RPG, it is something I've considered. The ideal situation for such a combat would have all the players engaged in one of the following options: piloting (defense), weapons (attack), or engineering (repairing damage). Piloting would really only have 2 players max, and only if there were some rules for working together on a task. Weapons is limited to the number of weapons available. Engineering is unlimited however, and depending on the size of the ship, you can have the damage occur near one of the working players, keeping them all somewhat active.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Piloting suffers the same problems that hacking does in various cyberpunk games - it doesn't involve all the characters. In both cases it also probably takes to long and often lacks drama and tension. In a game where the characters regularly aren't 'on screen' together it's maybe less of a problem, but it's still a problem.

The robotech answer is interesting and that's probably how I'd treat it. If you use the same mechanics, mostly, as any other part of the game, it might bog down less. I can't think of a set of vehicle rules that I really like that I've used extensively.
 

JeffB

Legend
I really enjoyed a session in FFG SW where we had a chase on a speeder bike catching up to an Scout Walker, and the combat going on.

That said, A later game where PC's in their stolen gunship had to hold off some Ties until the cavalry arrived (Xwings) was pretty bland.

Movies are awesome, but in a TTRPG I often find this sort of thing (and chases) works out better utilizing a narrative improvised "skill challenge" type of sequence instead of hard and fast rule systems. Otherwise just pull out Star Fleet Battles.

I've not used them but I will also say I found upon a read, that the way RIFTS works (which should be similar to Robotech) looks good on paper. But I have not used it.
 

Zhaleskra

Adventurer
This especially becomes a problem with systems that are more focused on the math. I'm supposed to work out the equations before the fight even happens? Speed of the ships, speed of the weapons. I mean sure I can do it, if I know in advance that a fight is going to occur in space, but I don't know that yet. I'm sure air vehicle combat has the same problem.

I do think it's slightly easier on the ground where you can have the scale of the weapons and scale of the damage to compare and you don't need to worry what percentage of light speed everything is going.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Part of the problem is that not every character is useful when it comes to vehicle combat.
I personally feel this is the essential problem and a problem that is not limited to vehicle combat, although vehicle combat does showcase the problem.

The problem has two forms:

a) The game has multiple subsystems and in order to succeed in that subsystem, you need to specialize. This isn't limited to just piloting a vehicle, but includes things like being a netrunner in cyberspace, or investigating a murder, or what have you. What you end up with is a team of solo adventurers who each can contribute to the party success, but never at the same time. This is one of the reasons I typically don't run science fiction games. They invariably have longer and longer lists of skills that encourage more and more extreme specialization. It's not possible to be reasonably competent at everything.

b) Tactical man to man combat has a nearly unique property in that it is a cooperative task were everyone can contribute toward success and everyone can regularly make real decisions in the task. There is a myth that games are combat focused because the rules mostly provide for combat. The truth is that most games are combat focused because that's one of the few things a whole party can regularly do together. There are all sorts of other challenges, but the problem with the tends to be that you really only need one person to solve them, or that only one person is actually making the decisions. Cooperating to fly a starship is one good example. You might have rolls that each member of the party can make, and the outcome of those rolls might be important, but really only the one person actually steering the vehicle is making any real decision. Everyone else is just rolling a dice and reporting the outcome, which quickly becomes tedious. Now, if you have only one player, this isn't much of a problem. But it's not a fun group activity.

It is very hard to solve both problems in a pen and paper game, but...

I can't believe I'm going to say this, but Palladium's Robotech might be the only game I've had a lot of fun with so far as vehicles go. But it's kind of a cheat because the rules for piloting a Veritech were pretty much the same rules you'd use for a PC outside their vehicle.
...that is how you do it. Put everyone in a separate vehicle and make sure that the vehicle piloting subsystem leverages skills that are used in other situations. If you do that, then you are just in a straight up combat situation with slightly different rules.

But again, this doesn't apply to vehicle combat. It's a general issue that has to be overcome in any system or for any particular process of play.
 


Zhaleskra

Adventurer
Depending on what kind of spaceships you're using, there's the possibility of weapon batteries, including synched multi-ship weapon batteries.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Depending on what kind of spaceships you're using, there's the possibility of weapon batteries, including synched multi-ship weapon batteries.
That only partially solves the problem. If the 'weapons officer' responsible for controlling the weapon batteries isn't making any real decisions and instead just rolls dice each round to determine damage to the target, then even though the 'weapons officer' is useful, playing the weapons officer is boring.

This is a fairly easy problem to solve in a video game where the weapons officer in charge of the weapons battery can be enjoying a reflex based visceral combat where his mind is fully engaged in the operation of the weapons battery. But it's a very hard problem to solve in a PnP game where none of that visceral experience is present in any form - no sounds, no sights, no pulse pounding action - and control of the battery is usually just in the hands of dice and your sole role is to roll them and report what they did.
 

Zhaleskra

Adventurer
I don't think it would be just one person, even if it is just one ship. There'd probably be a communications/navigation person checking the readings for expected locations of the target, and a gunner, at the very least.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I'd probably use a PbtA style clock. You have a pilot, a gunner, a trouble shooter and everyone else is either cheerleading or helping. Any combination of, say, five successes before 3 failures and the ship gets away (assuming it's a chase). Done that way the input from every participating character is counted equal and overall the thing shouldn't take too long. Plus, no matter what happens (damage, success, failure etc) the narrative moves forward. It could be five great shots from the ships cannon, or two shots, a great pilot move, and a couple of successful repair rolls, or whatever.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I'd probably use a PbtA style clock. You have a pilot, a gunner, a trouble shooter and everyone else is either cheerleading or helping. Any combination of, say, five successes before 3 failures and the ship gets away (assuming it's a chase). Done that way the input from every participating character is counted equal and overall the thing shouldn't take too long. Plus, no matter what happens (damage, success, failure etc) the narrative moves forward. It could be five great shots from the ships cannon, or two shots, a great pilot move, and a couple of successful repair rolls, or whatever.
Which is fine but it mostly has the advantage of having a fast resolution. No choices are actually made in the above scenario. It doesn't really matter if you use 1 dice roll (James Bond style) or 5 (4e D&D style), all the choices here are illusionary and it doesn't matter what you choose the dice are really what's playing the game.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
But it's a very hard problem to solve in a PnP game where none of that visceral experience is present in any form - no sounds, no sights, no pulse pounding action - and control of the battery is usually just in the hands of dice and your sole role is to roll them and report what they did.
I don't see how this is different from the small group tactical wargame combat stuff we use. A fighter doesn't have a the sights, sounds, or the feel of steel hitting steel or the like, but we manage to make it work. The same could be done for ship-combat.

There's a major question, though of whether a designer wants to or should spend the time and effort building out ship combat with anywhere near the depth of personal combat. That question will typically be answered with answering hte question - How much play time do you want/expect to be spent on ship combat?
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
There's a major question, though of whether a designer wants to or should spend the time and effort building out ship combat with anywhere near the depth of personal combat. That question will typically be answered with answering hte question - How much play time do you want/expect to be spent on ship combat?
Seems to me as though this is a question that should more or less answer itself during the design process. Is the vehicle combat the point of the game, is it purely a narrative tool, or is it something in between (or something that might vary table-to-table or session-to-session)? Possibly similar to "is the vehicle the setting?"

I think it can be made to work, but I agree with posts upthread (@Fenris-77 and @Celebrim I think) that it seems to have a lot of the same problems as computer hacking (in games that have that).
 

Celebrim

Legend
I don't see how this is different from the small group tactical wargame combat stuff we use. A fighter doesn't have a the sights, sounds, or the feel of steel hitting steel or the like, but we manage to make it work.
Critically though, only because each player regularly makes some decision - where to move, what to attack, what spell to cast, what combat maneuver to use, what stance to fight in, etc. So even if the visceral action is missing, the player is still mentally engaged in the challenge.

Compare what happens when you have a theater of the mind combat using a system where everyone makes basically the same move each round, say rolling a D20 to determine to hit, and reporting damage. When that happens, no one is really making a decision and combat tends to become really "grindy" and not that enjoyable past age 12 or so (not long after card games like 'war' with its similar lack of decision making have ceased to intrigue).

The same could be done for ship-combat.
It's not at all clear how. A lot of systems have tried, but other than the obvious solution of making vehicular combat work like tactical combat with each player in their own vehicle to control, it's easy to figure out how you'd do that.

There's a major question, though of whether a designer wants to or should spend the time and effort building out ship combat with anywhere near the depth of personal combat. That question will typically be answered with answering hte question - How much play time do you want/expect to be spent on ship combat?
I think that's entirely tangential, and really even misses the point.

The system shouldn't be telling you how much time to spend on ship combat or any other sort of challenge. The process of play adopted by a particular group should decide what aspects of the story are worth focusing on. If the designer decides, "Groups shouldn't focus on ship to ship combat, that's not what my game is about", in a setting where ship to ship combat is a meaningful part of the reality, then the designer is headed for trouble because invariably groups will eventually want to engage with such a scenario or find themselves in such a scenario where they feel it matters and deserves some sort of resolution at some degree of granularity. And if the game's answer is, "That's not the way you should be playing!", it won't be long before the players look for a different game.

It's reasonable to assume that if vehicles exist as part of the fiction, the players will want to engage with them in some fashion. The OP wouldn't be asking the question if he didn't find himself regularly engaging with that part of the fiction and finding the game designers answers to his needs lacking.

Fiction ought to have the priority. That's why we play RPGs. The fiction doesn't exist to support the mechanics. The mechanics exist to support the fiction. If a fictional reality asserts itself, then the mechanics are there to resolve it. If the mechanics come up empty of answers, you've had a catastrophic failure of design.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Which is fine but it mostly has the advantage of having a fast resolution. No choices are actually made in the above scenario. It doesn't really matter if you use 1 dice roll (James Bond style) or 5 (4e D&D style), all the choices here are illusionary and it doesn't matter what you choose the dice are really what's playing the game.
Sure choices are made. Flee or fight to start, plus a bunch of stuff that relies on the rules. Do you man the shield controls or put out the fire in the hallway? Do you keep manning the guns or go to help the other gunner that just took shrapnel through the gut? The resolution matters a lot - the player choices and the resolution from the GM are what combine to make things happen. Mind you, the system either needs to provide those consequences or the GM needs to layer them on. A lot of vehicle system I'm familiar with don't extend to consequences for the crew of the vehicle at every step during the fight or chase, and that often gets boring. If the focus is on crew actions and consequences for the crew, rather than specifically for the vehicle, you stand a better chance of having an interesting scene.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
We had a recent Design Masterclass column about the 007 game. It was luaded for a literally decades for excellent car chase mechanics. Now, the idea may seem obvious or quint today, but that's because it introduced them and others took inspiration.

But one thing I don't see very often is a bidding war for maneuvering, including the fact that your vehicle has a redline and if you bid worse than it and you fail the check, things go way bad. But if you succeed on the check, no harm. Really bringing character skill to the forefront more than gear.

We've gotten so used to tactical combat that I think we overlook vehicle combat is often better left for theater of the mind, where daring maneuvers and such can described based on the results of the characters checks, instead of mathed out. There's definitely a place for that wargame style, but as a subsystem in an RPG it's not the only way.

In RPG systems over the years, I've had the most luck with:
  • Each player having their own vehicle. e.g. mechs or speederbikes.
  • Each player having a distinct role on one or more vehicles. Crew of a starship, multiple cars with drivers and gunners, etc.
  • The vehicle having it's own crew that the players can order around, and can either assist them or use their own abilities, such as how navel combat in D&D is often done.
As others have mentioned, if it's the same pool of character building currency, those who do not chose to specialize in a particular subsystem (vehicles, hacking, social, personal combat, exploration, etc.) will find themselves will less they can contribute. With how much wall time vehicle combat can take, that's not a good thing. If an RPG expects vehicle combat often (such as SF ship combat), it should ensure all characters have an array of useful abilities for that just as they do for other common aspects of the game, like personal combat.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
The system shouldn't be telling you how much time to spend on ship combat or any other sort of challenge.
Of course it should. It is an aspect of genre choice, and much as folks want it to be otherwise, rules help enforce/create genre. Using an extreme case to demonstrate the point - D&D 5e tells me to spend exactly zero time on starship combat... having no starships in the game because they aren't a significant element in Ye Basic Fantasie Genre.
 
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billd91

Hobbit on Quest
b) Tactical man to man combat has a nearly unique property in that it is a cooperative task were everyone can contribute toward success and everyone can regularly make real decisions in the task. There is a myth that games are combat focused because the rules mostly provide for combat. [The truth is that most games are combat focused because that's one of the few things a whole party can regularly do together. There are all sorts of other challenges, but the problem with the tends to be that you really only need one person to solve them, or that only one person is actually making the decisions. Cooperating to fly a starship is one good example. You might have rolls that each member of the party can make, and the outcome of those rolls might be important, but really only the one person actually steering the vehicle is making any real decision. Everyone else is just rolling a dice and reporting the outcome, which quickly becomes tedious. Now, if you have only one player, this isn't much of a problem. But it's not a fun group activity.
I think you've got an interesting way to look at it. I'm not sure I agree 100% with it because I don't think it applies to all RPGs, but it is certain fits well with D&D's development over the years. Maybe even to a T.
 

Totally with you on this. One of the reasons I stopped playing Starfinder was because I found starship combat to be dreadfully dull. And don't get me started on starship combat in Megatraveller. Back in the day we just didn't have starship combat because it was such a boondoggle. In Shadowrun, until they started adding drones, riggers were stuck being near-useless away from their vehicles, and everyone else was stuck being useless when they were.

I definitely think adding subsystem on subsystem for vehicle combat contributes to slowing things down, when it should feel fast and exciting.
 

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