|AI Art by @nightcafestudio
Pew-pew! I will get some exciting, balanced, hex combat wargame where even starting-level characters have a chance! Every fight will be exciting and a close-fought battle! You know the old saying, "If you don't pander to the player, your game sucks!"
So I played a space combat session with GURPS last night, in a version of TL10 GURPS: Star Frontiers using Interstellar Wars as my ship design and combat rules. Let's go; this is a training mission with an instructor and my 150-point brand-new hotshot space pilot.
I have no sensor operations skills?
What do you mean I have to find the other starfighter first?
Okay, no problem, let's detect each other, fly in, and start blasting!
Even the trained expert pilot in the other starfighter couldn't find my hotshot. Nobody could. I retconned in a nearby moon and space station with a controller who could see and speak to both ships. "No, turn left, you are getting closer, no, farther apart, keep turning. Okay, you are within 10,000 miles of each other. You should be able to... You STILL don't see each other? Are you blind?"
Yes, we are blind; this is space.
Two stealth-enabled fighters trying to find each other in space, even with a pretty good sensor operator, could not find each other. Given how I set the scenario up, it ends there; they have to be within 3-4 hexes or each other to remotely have a chance at an 8-minus roll on a 3d6, which does not happen often. They would have flown off into space forever, looking for each other, slowly drifting apart with their thrusting and maneuvering. This would be like trying to find a marble dropped into the ocean.
Actually, make these two marbles, and compared to space, your chances of those two marbles bumping into each other under the ocean thousands of miles apart is a far better chance than these two starfighters had of finding each other.
Even if one side started firing and getting hits, the other ship would still need to FIND where those lasers are coming from and get a lock on the firing source. Yes, you know the lasers are coming at you from 30,000 miles away, and you may get a bonus and negate passive sensor penalties and stealth, but getting a lock to within a few feet to line up a shot at that distance requires a sensor lock on.
Your ship can be killed by something you never knew was there, never knew who or what it was, and they won't really know if you are destroyed until they see the explosion, so why not keep firing until they see the bright flash of light and your ship exploding into a fireball? One or two more turns of fire to ensure the job is done is nothing to them, and this is not game balance or being friendly to the players by disabling their ship and roleplaying through the story.
This is war.
I haven't been slapped this hard by reality since I played the naval wargame Harpoon in the 1990s.
The combat system, I can see how people hate it. You are adding up skills, numbers, and modifiers to 30, 40, or higher or less on a 3d6 - and this should be guaranteed, right? Then, the negative modifiers hit for range, stealth, ship profile, and passive stealth, and all of a sudden, you are rolling 3 or less on a 3d6, which is a good roll. Five or less on a 3d6 is exciting!
And this is both for sensors or to-hits. My note paper looked like I was playing Pathfinder and writing down long lists of initiative rolls again, which were 3d6 rolls and modifier chains this time.
Your skills need 18 minus or higher to function effectively in this environment.
And you need the tactics skill to even have a chance of moving last to line up a shot.
And I hated it.
Then, I loved it.
This game is not made for a one-on-one starfighter fight. You don't really have 'facing' since you can be going in one direction at a few hundred thousand miles per second, then use your reaction thrusters to point your nose behind you (or to the side) and begin firing at whoever is getting closer or vectored alongside. This is like that old arcade 'space war' game where you could fly sideways at an incredible rate and fire off to the side or behind you, spinning in place as your direction and speed do not change unless thrust is used.
Finally, it is a game that treats space combat realistically. As realistic as a pen-and-paper game can be, this is a cruel, deadly affair of mystery and terror in the stars. Yes, it is mostly math. No, it is not built for fun and tabletop hex combat that entertains players and is made to be artificially fun. This is more like a modern submarine combat game, where information, skill, and knowing more than your enemy allows you to put the screw on them before they even know what is happening.
Your best option is to never be seen, get in and out, and get the job done without anyone knowing you were there.
If you have to fight, make sure your crew is the best of the best. They better have 'break the game' 20-minus skills in gunnery, sensor operations, tactics, and piloting. Those skills will get pared down to 6-minus rolls fast, and you will look for every edge. Skills give you a distance advantage over your enemy, and every hex away means hitting you is more complex; if your crew can fire at that range and the other side can't hit you - you are winning.
Keep firing until you see the explosion or the ship breaking apart.
This is war.