Piloting/Driving Combat in RPGs is No Fun!


as an aside, the Aliens Colonial Marine Technical Manual (a non-RPG book) from the 90's had a whole chapter on space combat - particularly utilizing the Conestoga class (USS Sulaco) and a lot of the information of that sourcebook was obviously used for building the game (I love that tech manual).

As for space combat, about the best system I've seen in the old FASA Star Trek RPG, where every player would have a station where they could contribute something during the combat. Most other systems have been hit or miss and really only shine if all the involved players have some vehicle related skill, whether operating a turret, flying the ship, operating shields, reassigning power distributions, determining enemy shield flicker ratios/scanning for weak points or flat-up have their own vehicle. Mostly, its about having something to do for everyone and having everyone interested in being involved in doing something.

As above, If only one or two players have vehicle-related skills, it's either better to quickly skim over the encounter (not the best option, as it can trivialize the PCs who spent character options on that part of the game), or find ways to keeps the other players involved. One of the go-to I've tried to use is what you see in the Star Wars series - while one group is engaged in ship combat, another is engaged in their mission against the enemy on the ground, while the third group is practicing "aggressive diplomacy" against the third leadership group.

aramis erak

Anyone else have any problems with vehicle combat in RPGs? Or is it just me?
While it's not just you, it isn't me in general, but in Alien's case....

Alien's ship combat boils down to the best 2-4 PCs do all 4 needed roles & rolls for ship combat each turn.
The overlap of the skills... means that many characters are reduced to providing a help die only, as they are best leaving rolls on the skill to the guy with the best pool, at least until his stress exceeds 3 (5 if the Nerves of Steel talent is possessed) AND your own stress.

Ground vehicle combat? Not so bad. My current saturday game is Marine focused. Mostly because if you're using vehicles, each of the combat vehicles has two positions, and Pilots are potentially better shots than Marines, so two pilots in the APC and/or two in the Dropship. Rest on the ground upon arrival, psyching each other up by suitable manipulation/command roles, and /or second seating in the APC to assist the driver and/or gunner...

I've had only one player doing the "I've nothing to do"... and the others are all doing small things that add up, right up until the roll out the door...


Staff member
My personal experience with this issue falls into 3 categories:

1) as mentioned several times, don’t use the RPG’s combat rules, use a dedicated wargames of some kind, with the players controlling units on all sides of the combat.

2) find a way to entertain myself while the piloting/hacking/diplomacy sub-game is being played (assuming I’m not involve, of course). Usually, that means I’m either plotting future character actions, contemplating build options, or just a simple game of Mason.*

3) if my character can participate in but isn’t particularly good at the subgame, lean into it. Do what you can. In one carrier ship-based Mecha-centric campaign, I played a PC who was an engineer. We were an “expeditionary”/special forces group, but I missed the memo that everyone’s PC had to pilot a mech. My PC barely qualified on her carrier landings. In her primary role, she was part Gilligan’s Island’s Professor, one part MacGyver, one part Star Trek’s Scotty. On a mission, she kept everything running with coconuts and spit.

But in the combats? Comic relief.

* a simple dice game: roll 6d6, count number of rolls of 4+. Any die rolling under a 4 is set aside. The remaining higher rolling dice are rolled again, and tallied the same way. Repeat until all die have been set aside. Total the number of all rolls of 4+. My personal record is 21, FWIW.

aramis erak

Have you ever played a pilot-character?

Not every character is useful at picking locks, either. It's bad enough that some games -require- all characters to have personal combat skills, but are you suggesting that all characters should have vehicle combat skills as well?

Regarding Robotech, I wouldn't call using general rules a "cheat." I'd call it elegant design 🤓
Not a cheat, but not exactly elegant, either.

In Robotech, it makes sense for the Protoculture mechs... at least if you accept the novelization's details, but it's simple-but-unrealistic for non-protoculture vehicles.

The multiple attacks per melee is also, if the rules are slavishly followed, it gets to be 4 cycles or more through the initiative sequence per melee, typically 2-4 rolls per action, and damage isn't usually telling until the second or third hit; more if using the random hit locations in Bk2...

It's not the worst, but it's not really elegant. The hand to hand rules? Reasonable in Palladium Fantasy... but the extra 2-4 attacks in mechs really make things go slow, especially since so few are telling. Despite the low to strike, against similar level opponents, the parry replaces the AR, so... with the typical parry on par, 50% of shots don't hit. And if the damage is (in the GM's call) impactful, a number of those not dodged/parried will be rolled with for half damage. The Zentraedi in a battle pod ... 50 MDC for the pod main-body, 25 for the body armor, and 1000 to 2200 HP (which takes 10-22 more MDC)... and the two main weapons of the VF-1 series do 6d6 MD, for about 15 to 27 MD, typically... That's 4 solid hits to take out the Z. Battle Pod... but that's often 5 to 10 attacks, thanks to the generous dodge rules and the often generous roll-with-impact rules... plus the often low-level foes for even mid-level PCs, but in ever larger numbers... it can snowball horribly.

That isn't elegance. It's a load of whiffyness. Long slogs. It is, however, simple to explain... simple isn't elegant when the knock-on effects are problematic. And by mid levels (4-6 in Robotech), PCs are still whiffy, but have a third HTH attack... and thus 5 in mecha.

It's one of several reasons why I've only run Palladium Robotech as a handful of oneshots, and one badly handled campaign. And dropped out of the "all palladium mashup" I was playing in. (The others included the lack of social skills, the pretty much useless attributes, and the excessive skills list.) Yet, I kept buying ... because the world development is the one area Mr. Siembieda is really good at. But I've yet to find a system I can do justice to the setting, and its fast, low-whiff combats.

I'll admit, I'm sore tempted to grab the Savage Worlds Macross book.


Game Masticator
Picking locks doesn't typically take a significant amount of time while the other PCs just kind of stand around. But to answer your question, maybe? I'm currently in a Star Wars campaign where we're all pilots/commandos. As a general rule though I'd probably say no.
Star Wars: three types of vehicle scenes come to mind. 1) Several individual pilots fly around in X-wings. 2) Han pilots the Falcon while Chewie mans (well, you know) a gun-pod somewhere. 3) Han pilots the Falcon while several other characters cram into the cockpit, being backseat drivers. Situation 1 is still, basically, individual ("fun") combat, but with vehicles instead of people. 2 represents each PC having something interesting to do on one vehicle. Is it fun? The jury is out. 3 seems like where the complaints are coming from, but oddly, those are the best vehicle scenes in the movies!

Another problem - long combats. I've never been a fan of these, and if your character can't contribute meaningfully to one, yeah: horribly not-fun. The lockpicking scene is bearable by the non-lockpickers because it's short. What if piloting/driving combat was short too? Say, less than 10 minutes? Would other players hold their breath during that combat, especially if they knew that they were entitled to solo scenes (no pun intended) later in the game? Heck, start a timer. Ten minutes. Everyone knows that the combat will end in ten minutes. The one PC who actually took some piloting skill (bless her heart) has to resolve the scene favorably in those ten minutes, or something bad happens. That way, you have a built-in excitement feature that can be appreciated by those who aren't participating.

That isn't elegance. It's a load of whiffyness. Long slogs. It is, however, simple to explain... simple isn't elegant when the knock-on effects are problematic. And by mid levels (4-6 in Robotech), PCs are still whiffy, but have a third HTH attack... and thus 5 in mecha.
Fair. But from what I hear, a load of whiffyness that doesn't have another load stacked on top.
I'm considering two ways to do naval combat in D&D 5E.

Option One - Set the Parameters of the Battle
Three steps, all abstracted.

First, the game master determines if there's any chance to avoid a combat. If so, the commander of each side makes an opposed check, each using whatever ability score they want. The game master might impose disadvantage if one side is slower or in a bad position, or grant advantage if they have a clever idea. The winner decides if there's a combat.

Second, if there's a combat, the commanders again make opposed checks, but can use different ability scores. The winner decides how the ships are arranged. Are they side by side for a boarding action? Separated by a small gap? Are two ships pincering another, or did perhaps one ship manage to split the enemies so it's only facing one while the other slowly approaches.

Third, each ship gets one attack (with some really scary ships getting two). If there are multiple ships on a side, you choose where you damage goes. Damage doesn't mean Hit Points, though. If you hit, you inflict some condition on the enemy ship: a fire that is rapidly spreading, a teetering mast, a strike below the water line that causes the ship to list, or damage to some special component like a wizard's study or something.

Then the boarding action happens. Each side gets special benefits based on the ability score or scores their commander used for their checks. The main benefit is to place terrain, which can be on either ship, or even in the water.

Str - Place 12 squares of hazardous terrain - like shattered beams or fires that can cause damage if you move through the area, or firedust that can explode if damaged

Dex - After seeing where the enemies are but before rolling initiative, three characters on your side can use their full movement, perhaps leaping between ships or moving to cover.

Con - Place 12 squares that can provide cover, like fallen debris or stacks of crates.

Int - Place 12 squares that provide concealment, like drifting smoke or loose sails.

Wis - Place 12 squares of difficult terrain, like cracked deck planks or mats of seaweed that washed ashore.

Cha - After seeing where the enemies are but before rolling initiative, three characters on the other side are immobilized on the first turn of combat, perhaps from suppressing fire pinning them down or a confusion about whether they're supposed to attack.

Pros of this idea? Really fast to resolve, lets the players naturalistically collaborate to tweak the battlefield.

Cons of this idea? Player choices don't influence the 'ship to ship' part of the battle that much. It's detached from existing game mechanics.

Option Two - Ships as Monsters
Ships use a statblock basically just like a monster. They have HP, attacks, movement, saves. The only real difference is that the scale is one square per 100 feet, and each round is one minute. Medium ships are 1 square (100 feet). Large ships are 2 squares, and Huge ships 3, Gargantuan 4. Your average ship has speed 400 to 600.

The PCs pick a captain who 'controls' the ship and plays it like a monster. They pick an ability score to represent their style of command. Also, their stat bonus determines how many 'officer actions' the ship can benefit from each turn. (So a stoic dwarf captain might pick Constitution. If his Con score is 18, the ship can benefit from 4 actions per turn.)

Str provides a bonus to combat maneuvers and to ship attacks at point blank range.
Dex provides a bonus to ship AC and to checks to avoid difficult terrain.
Con grants the ship temporary HP each turn.
Int makes it easier to score critical hits on opposing ships.
Wis provides a bonus to initiative.
Cha grants a bonus to the ship's saving throws.

Then each PC (up to the limit based on the captain's stat) can take one action per naval round to help the ship. You could make a Vehicle skill check to basically do combat maneuvers (you can drive an enemy ship into bad terrain, or ram to capsize, or grapple for a boarding action). Concealment might be hard to get, but you can try to Hide. You could also Dash or Dodge, or Disengage to avoid the opportunity attacks of a kraken. Maybe there'd be a check to try to repair a damaged component (but repairing damage should be harder than inflicting it).

The ship gets its own attacks automatically, but you might make use your action and make an attack roll to try to score a critical hit to mess with a ship component, or even to hit a specific creature on the other ship.

Pros of this idea? It plays out naval combat with rules very similar to existing D&D.

Cons of this idea? One captain gets to have most of the fun. There might not be enough meaningful options for the players to choose from.


Any thoughts?

aramis erak

Fair. But from what I hear, a load of whiffyness that doesn't have another load stacked on top.
The HP have a PE (=D&D Con) kicker, the personal SDC adds 0 to 40, depending upon skill choices, and worn SDC can be up to several hundred. And that's ignoring the mega-damage settings.

Palladium combat can be a blast, but there's a serious need for descriptiveness RAW. There is implied movement importance (due to fairly concrete ranges given for weapons), but many flavors don't specify movement distances per melee round. (For Example, in the 1985 The Mechanoids, the only concrete movement speeds for players are travel overland per day... 60 km unencumbered to LBA; EBA and heavier 40 km; reduced if fatigued). I think Mr. Siembieda expects people to know D&D used 30 feet per round and use 10m per round.
I think the key is to keep the focus on the characters, rather than on the vehicles. With things like Starships and sail boats, lots of things can be happening during combat that aren't just piloting and shooting. Even to bring back the Start Wars example from upstream, there were times when the non-flyers had to fix stuff, put out fires, etc. Even a completely unrelated or semi related task would do, like, for example, decipher the coded message so we know where to hyperjump to, or whatever. Damage to the vehicle or extreme piloting could cause all sorts of problems the other characters might have to deal with. The more vehicle focused things are the more, IME, things tend to feel more abstracted and often less tense, and the easier it is for the non flyers to get bored. You can't give every character something to do every time, but you don't have to, it's really only important in longer combats.


Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
I liked Star Wars Saga Edition's approach for vehicle combat. Every ship has up to, IIRC , four potential stations: the pilot, the gunnger, the engineer, and the commander. Starfighters like an X-Wing had three: pilot, gunner, and engineer; and the pilot and gunner were the same character and the engineer was usually a droid. Ships like the Millenium Falcon had at least one of each, and big capital ships like a Star Destroyer had dozens of each, except the commander.

Combat was abstract enough that once in a dogfight it was contained to a single square and the pilot's job was to keep the ship from being blown up, the engineer's job was to fix the ship, and the gunner's job was to kill the other guy. The commander was mostly a thing on capital ships that couldn't dogfight, so they tended to produce results that either helped the other stations, or mimicked some of the things dogfights produced. Either way every player could do something, and had to decide what to do on a round by round basis.

The nice thing with starship vs ground combat was mostly scale. A group could in theory fight a TIE fighter, but couldn't hope to take a Star Destroyer out with blaster rifles.

Add to that the skill system was setup that dedicated skill users had more functions, not necessarily higher numbers to use the skills, it meant everybody had a fair shot at most skill tasks, even if the dedicated user had more things they could do.
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To each their own, but I really enjoy the vehicle combat system in WEG Star Wars. I used the same set of rules for everything from PCs shooting blasters all the way up to a Death Star shooting its main laser at a capital ship AND its use of scaling dice meant that while the players can blast away at an escaping Tie Fighter with their blaster rifles, the chance that it would result in any significant damage was pretty rare.

There was also a lot of support for customizing and fixing up both ground based and fighter scale star ships.

I was so proud the day my character took their super modified heavy fighter (even more capital ship capable than a B-Wing but otherwise a lumbering beast) and managed to take out an escort star destroyer in a big battle.

I also really enjoyed the fact that there was a standalone fighter combat boardgame (Star Warriors) that used the same system as the RPG so you could port your characters into the more tactical boardgame style game if you wanted. In my opinion Star Warriors is SOOOO much better than X-wing (the current minis game) at reflecting the feel of the different classic on-screen fighter types.

I also put in an honorable mention for Torg (also originally a WEG game) for having a vehicle combat system that meshes well with the RPG as a whole. While the system isn't all that tactical...it does allow you to run a vehicle combat without learning anything new over the base rules.