Saturday, February 23, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Ship Abbreviations

I thought it would be useful to have an abbreviation for each of the different ship types in the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks boardgame rules. Consider the following:
  • VF: Fighter
  • VS: Assault Scout
  • FF: Frigate
  • DD: Destroyer
  • MM: Minelayer
  • CL: Light Cruiser
  • CA: Heavy Cruiser
  • CV: Assault Carrier
  • BB: Battleship
  • SS: Space Station
I didn't make any of these up; they're just taken from U.S. Navy abbreviations circa WWII (from which, of course, our space combat games take many of their thematic sensibilities; and re-purposing the SS designation). See source here.

Edit: The designator for Frigate was changed (from DL to DE) based on discussion in the comments.

Edit (9/18/13): I've changed it again -- Frigates now use the designation FF. While they weren't coded this way by the U.S. Navy in WWII (U.S. frigates then being larger than destroyers, and coded DL "destroyer leader"), the FF for smaller frigates matches: (1) every *other* navy in the world, (2) the U.S. navy post-1975 reclassification (link), (3) the Knight Hawks game itself, and (4) it's obviously easier to remember. Just don't confuse it with FF for forward-firing weapons.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Photo Op Scenario

Here's a second scenario for the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game, which you might alternatively consider as a way to let a brand-new player taste the mechanics for the first time. Thematically it duplicates the first scenario in the published rules -- tiny, nimble UPF Assault Scout and Frigate face off against a huge invading Sathar Destroyer and Heavy Cruiser. However, instead of the added complications of planet, gravity well, space station, orbiting movement, and extra rules for evacuation, I've made the situation much simpler (and probably more balanced). This game will probably be over in a flash, maybe 4 turns at most, and it's possible for either side to win without even firing their weapons.


Still in the early days of the Second Sathar War, a small UPF patrol encounters the first appearance of the new-model Sathar Heavy Cruiser and escort. Vastly outgunned, the UPF ships have specific standing orders: arrange a close fly-by of the enemy vessels and make a video recording via their hull-mounted camera systems. The resulting data could be strategically useful for the rest of the war.

UPF Ships
  1. UPFS Daring (Frigate)
  2. UPFS Starpacer (Assault Scout)

Sathar Ships
  1. SAV Grim Reaper (Heavy Cruiser)
  2. SAV Pernicious (Destroyer)

Setting Up. Each force is set up on opposite short ends of the map, traveling at a speed of 10 or less. Otherwise the map is just empty space. Roll dice to determine which player sets up and moves first.

Victory Conditions. If the UPF player can fly a ship through the same hex as both Sathar vessels, and then safely exit the map, then the UPF player has won (these can be separate ships, but then both must exit the map safely). If the UPF player does this with just one ship, then the game is a draw. If the Sathar vessels can prevent this from happening and exit the map from the opposite edge, then the Sathar player is the victor.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Assessing Assault Scouts

In my house rules for Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks, I increase the hull points for the ubiquitous UPF Assault Scout from 15 (as in the published rules) to 25. To see why this makes sense, consider the following comparison of Hull-Size-versus-Hull-Points for all the different military ships in the game:

Looking at the pro-rated value of how many Hull Points you get per unit of Hull Size, you can see that this number is relatively high for small vessels and diminishes somewhat for larger vessels (trend line in the chart is the best-fit linear regression). I'd say that this broadly makes sense, since larger ships would have more structural stress and likely more failure points.

However, there's really one obvious outlier: Assault Scouts (the second point from the left in the chart, at Hull Size 3) have the lowest such ratio in the game with 5.0, even though all the other comparably-sized ships nearby (Fighters, Frigates, and Destroyers) have high ratios of 8.0 or above. So if we brought Assault Scouts back in line with the rest, then they would reasonably have at least 8×3 = 24 Hull Points (say 25 for a round number and simple one-digit change in the book).

But that's not the only reason to motivate this change. Increasing Assault Scout durability (1) does make the game statistics more generally consistent (as above), but also (2) makes for a better value proposition when purchasing an Assault Scout by rules in the Campaign Book (as we'll see later), and (3) gives some extra survivability to PC's adventuring in an Assault Scout.

This latter point may indeed be the most important. Clearly, Assault Scouts are intended as the canonical ship for PC's to adventure in. Consider their crew size of 4-6 (Campaign Book p. 5), their versatile use as exploring-rescue-combat ships (ibid.), the fact that it is the only ship with complete deck plans given in the rules (map sheet back side), and also their featured use in almost all of the official adventure modules (including the game-box adventure SFKH0, as well as modules SFKH2, 3, and 4 -- the Eleanor Moraes research vessel being "similar to a stubby assault scout", SFKH2 p. 16). So it always struck me as rather odd that in most tactical combat scenarios I play, the Assault Scout is the very first thing to blow up from an opening salvo of laser cannon or rocket-batteries, when presumably that's where the PC's would have been. (Arguably for that reason, Assault Scout hull points could be even higher than I've made them -- but I'll stick with just 25.)

As a separate issue, you might also notice the other abnormalities in that Destroyers and the Battleship class have upticks in their hull-point-to-hull-size ratio, when the rest of the progression is all downward. But these are fairly minimal and don't have the side-effect of deterministically TPK'ing your PCs in the first turn of every spaceship combat. (And there are implications in the rulebooks that the UPF has some secret, special technology for Battleships that the Sathar haven't been able to replicate, so perhaps that's reflected in their unusually high durability rating.)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Sunday Night Book of War

Here's a game played the other weekend at my friend John's house. He lives up near Boston, we don't see each other enough anymore,but I've got him partly hooked on the Book of War game. Since I bussed up there to see him, no miniatures were involved -- I just took my box of BOW gear and the old Battlesystem counters that I have in zippy bag. (Lighting not so great on his kitchen table apologies for that.)

Turn 2 -- This is being played with mostly Basic rules, 300 points per side. At the far end, John has Horse Archers on the far left, Heavy Infantry near the woods, two units of Pikes out in front, and Longbows behind. I have Wolf Riders on the far left, units of Goblin Archers on the hills, a unit of Giants nearby, and a big unit of Orc Infantry (in chain) on the far right. We've each taken two turns at this point; my archers have taken the nearby hills, while his horse archers have done a shoot-and-run-back move which scored 1 hit on my wolf riders.

Turn 3 -- My orcs on the far right are entering the woods, while my other forces are remaining in place, readying bows at the open plains in the middle. John's infantry are making a careful advance towards the middle (half-speed, so longbows can get shots), but his horse archers are being more reckless. On this turn they've sped ahead, scored a few hits on my left-most goblin archers -- and, thanks to my rolling snake-eyes for morale, managed to rout the whole bleeding unit off the hill and out of the game. That's a horrible opening result for me.

Turn 4 -- Now things start to turn around for me. My wolf riders on the left have charged forward and caught a unit of horse archers in range; the resulting attacks have routed that unit. Likewise, my standing archers on the right hill get to roll 20 dice of attacks against the right-most pikemen, devastating and routing that unit.

Turn 6 --  A couple things have happened here. John's first unit of horse archers have routed off the table; the second unit charged into melee with my wolf riders, but they've been reduced to a single figure (counter) at this point. My giants have frustrated him a bit with their ability to take so many hits, while throwing stones for good damage; having taken 4 hits (half their HD), they've turned into the woods for cover. My archers caught his advancing longbows and eliminated them in another terrible rain of arrows. John's remaining pikes have caught my wolf riders, but his heavy infantry are too slow to make contact yet.

Turn 7 -- Here my forces turn and converge on John's remaining two units. His horse archers are gone,  but I don't fire on this turn for fear of hitting my own wolf riders with half the attacks (although other players would not be so scrupulous). On the next turn, John's pikes will successfully rout my goblin cavalry.

Turn 9 -- On turn 8, John's pikes turned around charged my orcs, getting a few hits. Rather than impale themselves on the pikes, the orcs turned and withdrew (as did my giants), opening space for my archers to viciously mow down the pikes. Here, his last unit of heavy infantry are escaping into the woods, while my orcs position themselves to go after them. At this point we call a truce and I concede control of the woods rather than playing out the final end-game.

Commentary -- This was a pretty dominant victory for my side, despite the initial loss of a whole unit of archers from an abysmal morale roll. Probably if the positions had been reversed, I wouldn't have proceeded into the open area so slowly with infantry (even though it maintained the protective formation with the longbows), since it allowed my goblin archers on the hill to mow down the enemy at their leisure. The other thing that clearly threw John a bit was the robust staying power of a gang of giants (the one figure representing 10 hill giants in formation), and I think that served to misdirect some attacks that wound up not doing very much. I have a hunch that the next time I play John, I may be facing nothing but a solid line of Hill Giants.

Monday, February 4, 2013

House Rules for Moldvay Basic

Let's say you started a new D&D game by getting the 1981 Moldvay Basic D&D Rulebook and making that available to all of your players (for example, by way of the new website, at which it's currently the best-selling item and the only core rulebook available, for argument's sake).

Now, if it were me, I wouldn't run those rules precisely as published, but I'd attach a few well-considered house rules. Fortunately, there's not much work to do: my Original Edition Delta house rules, although written with OD&D in mind, are perfectly suitable for the exact same purpose in the case of Moldvay. In fact, in several cases, my house rules are actually more compatible with Moldvay than they are with OD&D Vol-1, because: (a) we both incorporate selected parts of the OD&D Greyhawk supplement, and (b) we both agree on the necessity of certain edits to matters of scale & time. (Remember: you can download the OED house rules for free from the website, as shown in the sidebar here.)

I recently dug out my very beaten-up copy of the Moldvay Basic D&D rules just to check in on where we agree and disagree on the best practices for the game. Here's a "Top 5" list of stuff that we agree on as needing to be changed from OD&D:
  1. Class hit dice are as given in the Greyhawk supplement (Fighters get 1d8 every level, and Magic-Users get 1d4 every level; although I differ in giving Thieves 1d6 per level). 
  2. Variable weapon damage from the Greyhawk supplement is used, but we both strip out the complicating "L-size" category of damage.
  3. Experience awards from monsters are given by a geometric scale, also taken from the Greyhawk supplement (in the past I used the linear system in Vol-1, but I've since been convinced that Greyhawk really is better). 
  4. Miniature combat scale of 1"=5' is seen as necessary (Moldvay p. 61), as opposed to OD&D's 1"=10' or AD&D's often-forgotten 1"=3⅓' scale.
  5. Time scale really should be 1 round = 10 seconds (Moldvay p. 15, 23), as opposed to OD&D or AD&D's nutty assertion that 1 round = 1 minute.
But here's a "Top 5" list of stuff that I do differently from Moldvay:
  1. Class & race will be separate considerations, as in OD&D/AD&D; and clerics will be deleted, as usual for me. This leaves only the class tables for Fighters, Thieves, and Magic-Users. Elves will split their XP between the Fighter and Magic-User classes (and I do this by having them select one of those classes to get the XP before an adventure begins).
  2. I don't give the ±3 modifier at ability scores of 3 or 18, which Moldvay introduced. My feeling is (a) that's frankly too large a bonus for the scale of the system, and (b) it's better to have a pattern that you can continually scale upwards, i.e.: 13-15 is +1, 16-18 is +2, 19-21 is +3, 22-24 is +4, etc.
  3. Money will be according to a silver standard; encumbrance is tracked in stone units; and attack resolution is done by the no-lookups-necessary "Target 20" system (roll d20+level+AC >= 20; see the sidebar).
  4. Spell durations I measure as if 1 turn = 1 minute (same as the original Chainmail turn scale), not by the 1 turn = 10 minutes rule established in OD&D Vol-3 and carried throughout the rest of the Basic and AD&D lines.
  5. Monster hit dice and damage will all be 6-sided (as it was in OD&D pre-Greyhawk; so much simpler for the DM to roll!)
There are other minor alterations, such as: I give Fighters a feat every 4th level (I consider that a generalization of AD&D features like exceptional strength and weapon specialization), I don't allow lamp oil to be lit on fire in a pool (Moldvay actually gives a uniquely generous allowance for that; p. 26), etc. But Moldvay really does a lot of great stuff, and if a bunch of people started playing with his version of the Classic D&D rules, then I think that would be an immensely rewarding vein to be mined.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Resource Links

Before I post any more of my stuff on the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game, I would be remiss if I didn't point out the other excellent sites online that are entirely dedicated to the game.
  1. Since 1993 (20 years now), has been hosting, with permission from TSR/WOTC/Hasbro, downloads of all the official rules, modules, and counters for all of the Star Frontiers games. Access requires registration with an email but is otherwise free. In some sense this is a far more elegant situation than even the Open Gaming License put forward for D&D-type games. If you want to try out the Knight Hawks games I've been blogging about, just go ahead and grab yourself a copy of the official rules and counter sheets (and you'll need a big hex map, too). Highly recommended.

  2. The site has a section called the "Port Lauren Public Library" which has numerous interesting downloads, including text-document archives of all the Star Frontiers articles that appeared in Ares magazine, Dragon #1-100, and separately, Dragon #101-150.

  3. Other Sites: Some other sites with nice indie add-ons to the Star Frontiers game include,,,, and Frequently what I'll grab from these sites are very cool custom maps and deck plans for various Knight Hawks ship types.