Words from the Wise (Guys)

Copyright Nicholas HM Caldwell © 2007

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion


To the 102nd issue of The Guild Companion.

Have Spaceship, Will Travel?

One of the issues spotted during the (ongoing) public playtesting of HARP SF was that the existing vehicles presented in the beta manuscript were far too lenient in terms of what size of vehicular weapons system could be fitted in relatively small vehicles. As an earlier revision arising from the beta testing was the introduction of support weapons such as machine guns and laser/blaster equivalents (think of the weapons that the stormtroopers bring against the Millennium Falcon on Hoth) which straddle the damage capabilities of two-handed portable weapons and the smallest cannon, there was an obvious opportunity for a serious retooling of the existing vehicles. Particularly as one of the topics that is a must-have for SysOp's Guide is a vehicle creation system. Having the vehicles in the core rulebook be consistent with the vehicle creation system (rather than an approximation) would be valuable, so the retooling has expanded into creating the vehicle creation rules. Which is why it is taking so long to complete, even though I'm only worrying about Tintamar tech in this pass.

One of the parts of HARP SF that I personally find fun is the rules support for uploading personalities into electronic format and then downloading them into robotic bodies. The rules also allow for artificial intelligences and virtual persons to be downloaded into vehicles using the generic Download Form talent. This costs the same regardless of whether the target vehicle is a groundcar or a scoutship. No harm to KITT but HAL 9000 of the Discovery or Orac on Blake's 7's Liberator would have required greater abilities to perform their jobs. The vehicle creation system will bring the rule mechanics for robotic bodies and vehicles into closer harmony by giving vehicles physical stats and charging Development Points for AIs and virtual characters who wish to control vehicle subsystems such as life support.

You might legitimately wonder how physical stats might work in vehicle terms. The easy ones are obviously Quickness and Agility where stat bonuses (or penalties) modify speed and maneuverability. Constitution can represent the resilience of a superstructure to damage through design rather than simply better materials. Strength is most difficult for standard vehicles (as opposed to mecha) but it can be used to represent extra cargo capacity (through improved buttressing) and bonuses to ramming damage inflicted on other vehicles or even people - the PCs in my HARP SF campaign recently used a gravcar to ram their way into a hotel room on an inhabited corporate asteroid in order to rescue their comrades from a squad of megacorp mercenaries, so Strength isn't quite as redundant as you might believe.

Any vehicle creation system for HARP SF has to be relatively easy to use compared to the alternatives. That does not mean that it has to be trivially easy to use, but that it should not require complex formulae to calculate power requirements or available volumes, and that it should not involve cycles of decisions. A process that generated power requirements (and hence mass/volume needs) for a bare hull, but then required further energy requirements for vehicle subsystems, and forced vehicle designers to then rethink their subsystem allocations because the extra power required reactor volume that had already been allocated to another subsystem, is fun only up to a point. It becomes irritating when you need to build a vehicle in a hurry or you have a lot of vehicles to stat up. It also has to be sufficiently comprehensive to cover vehicles from gravitic bikes to interstellar superdreadnoughts, but not necessarily exhaustive of all vehicles - horse-drawn carts and sailing ships, for example, don't fit the specific detail of these proposed rules. The focus is squarely on powered vehicles.

The current shape of the vehicle creation process is as follows:

  1. Choose your intended vehicle, be it a conventional groundcar, a heavily armored gravtank or a sleek astronaval corvette. There will be a table of possible vehicles and suggested mass ranges.
  2. Next decide on the hull material and hull mass of the vehicle. The hull mass is chassis and superstructure - it's not the same as the total mass of the vehicle.
  3. Determine the physical stats for the vehicle - these may be randomly generated or allocated according to a points system. Even if the vehicle won't have a controlling AI, having the stats will still help to personalise vehicles.
  4. Decide how much "cargo" mass the vehicle will have. "Cargo" mass isn't just cargo - it's infrastructure, engines, weapons, living quarters, etc.
  5. Decide if the vehicle is to be physically armored and add this mass to the cumulative total mass. Different armoring technologies will provide differing levels of protection at various tradeoffs of extra mass, cost and maneuverability penalties.
  6. Choose the locomotion method of the vehicle (wheeled, magneto-gravitic, etc.) and its maximum speed/acceleration. This costs cargo mass and cash
  7. Knowing the vehicle's total mass, component masses (hull, cargo and armor) and locomotion parameters, it is possible to calculate its entire energy requirements (by using estimates for subsystems that may or may not be bought). This estimation process is sufficient because most of the energy required is for getting the vehicle from A to B
  8. Then because it is all too easy to forget the human crew in the excitement of configuring bigger and better guns, more "cargo" mass/volume is used up in providing control stations and living quarters for the vehicle's crew and passenger complement.
  9. The penultimate step is to spend the rest of the cargo mass/volume on such things as shields, weapons, communications array, sickbays, fighter hangars, and maybe even some genuine cargo space. There will be a checklist to ensure that budding vehicle designers don't forget vital subsystems and constraints on subsystems so that the larger vehicle weapons can only be fitted to suitably large hulls.
  10. The final step is to generate all the derived stats such as vehicle structural hits, maneuverability bonuses, etc.

I'm currently in the detail creation phase of Step 9, trying to decide on suitable cash costs and physical constraints. Once all ten steps exist, the alpha playtesters will be given an opportunity to break the numbers by trying to construct a conventional groundcar (will it cost too much?), existing spacecraft (are they very different from the existing stats), and their personal favourite - most abusive vehicle. I'll let you know how we get on.


The Recombination convention (10th-12th August) draws ever nearer. Preparations have now moved into high gear with a complete programme, a nearly complete programme book and the detail work of ensuring that seventy-plus residential members have the right rooms. (There are 180+ members in total). You can find full details of the convention on its own website (www.recombination.org.uk) - it looks like I'll be on between three and five panels of the fifty-plus panels and happenings. I hope to have a convention report in the September issue.

Farewell for now ...

Off to run a convention and write more rules so I'll let you get on with enjoying the rest of the issue. We'll be back with Issue 103 in September, but until then …

Keep gaming and have fun,
Nicholas HM Caldwell
General Editor for The Guild Companion