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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Star Wars Playtest: Starship Battles

by Ken Newquist / January 2, 2009
They Were Expendable

Never, ever fly a TIE Fighter.

That's the most important thing we learned during our initial playtest of the Star Wars: Saga Edition combat rules as our squadron of three TIE fighters was torn to pieces by an X-Wing and the Old Republic-era S-250 Chela starfighter. It's as it should be -- Imperial propaganda aside, TIE fighters don't last more than a few seconds in most battles in the Star Wars universe -- but our playtest drove home that point in game.

The playtest also revealed other things about this aspect of the game, and in particular the supplemental rules in Starships of the Galaxy.

Scaling up Combat

At its core, starship combat in Star Wars: Saga Edition is simply character combat scaled up to starship scale. Rather than adopting the abstract starship combat rules from the original d20 iteration of the game, or the clunky vehicle combat rules from the Revised Core Edition, this edition sticks with what players already know.

It's a surprisingly effective approach, because if players understand character-scale combat -- and most do -- then they should intuitively get starship combat. All of the major concepts of character battles -- including movement, ranged combat, hit points, damage thresholds and the condition track, are ported over to starship combat.

There are a few tweaks to how certain numbers are calculated -- a ship's attack roll is based on d20 + character's base attack bonus + ship's Intelligence modifier -- but there are more similarities than differences.

In our initial playtests, and then again during our campaign sessions, we found this approach yielded a simple, easy-to-use, easy-to-run starship combat system that didn't bog down the game. I was concerned that taking time out to run a firefight between freighters, or a dogfight between snub-fighters, would slow things to a crawl, but that never happened.

A big reason for this is that Wizards has gone out of their way, in the core rules and then again in Starships of the Galaxy to give other characters something to do during the fight. Starships of the Galaxy runs down a number of terrestrial feats and talents that can be used in starship combat, and we found our fights to be a diverse mix of tense piloting, diplomatic negotiations, haphazard heavy laser turret blasts, and frantic mechanical jury-rigging.

Everyone ends up with something to do, and that means that the group doesn't need to sit idly by while the pilot (and perhaps one or two gunners) do their thing.

That said, while we've found that starship combat to be useful and fast enough to be an integral part of the campaign, we've learned that it is exceedingly dangerous.

No Shields, All Guts

The single biggest thing our playtest taught us was the value of shields. Starships can do a tremendous amount of damage -- most starfighter and small ship weapons do at least 4d10x2 points of damage. That "x2" isn't a typo; you roll four ten sided dice and multiply the result by two, which means on a critical hit you're going to do a maximum of 160 points of damage from a single shot.

Given that your average X-Wing has a 120 hit points, that kind of hit has the potential to vaporize your ship instantly. It's all very cinematic and true to what we see in the movies ... except you wouldn't want that to happen to your character's ship.

Fortunately starships have three things working in their favor:

  • Shields: Shields are energy barriers that deflect some of the damage a ship might suffer from blaster attacks. Each shield has an Shield Rating indicating how much damage it will absorb; typical values range from SR 10 to SR 30. If an attack successfully overwhelms the shields, their effectiveness is reduced by 5 ... but they aren't permanently disabled unless their rating is reduced to 0.
  • Damage Reduction: Every ship has damage reduction, usually ranging from 10 to 25 points (bigger ships have more DR). This number is subtracted from the amount of damage dealt to the ship.
  • High Damage Thresholds: Even if a ship takes enough damage to reduce it to zero hit points, it's only destroyed if the amount of damage exceeds its Damage Threshold. Starships have damage thresholds, which often equal or exceed their hit points.

As a result, a ship with decent shields and DR can expect to shrug off all but the most devastating hits, at least in the first few rounds of combat. Once the shields go down -- or if the ship didn't have shields in the first place -- then that ship is likely in for a world of hurt. And if the ship suffers a critical hit, then there's an excellent chance it will be disabled, and possibly even obliterated.

Lessons Learned

So aside from never flying a TIE Fighter, what are the big things we learned from the playtest?

Don't put player characters on ships without shields, and if you're a character, don't let your ship get hit in the first place.

The former is handled simply by picking ships with shields from the ship galleries in the various Saga Edition source books. The later can be accomplished through feats, mechanics, and special maneuvers.

The core game offers the "vehicular combat" feat, which lets a character make a Pilot check to avoid getting hit by one attack per turn. It also has the dogfight mechanic that lets starfighters engage one another up close. Similar to a grapple check (but far, far simpler) the dogfight forces the participants to make pilot checks in order to be able to attack one another. More over, ships outside of a dogfight have penalties to shoot into one, providing a measure of protection from other ships.

Space-based terrain also plays a big role in avoiding getting hit. Nebula and asteroids can provide concealment and cover from enemy attackers, and just as in character-scale combat, it's critical to include such terrain in any battles. Straight-up space fights are both boring AND deadly.

Finally, the Starships of the Galaxy source book introduces "starship maneuvers". Similar to the core rules' "Use the Force" mechanic, players to take a special "starhip tactics" feat, which in turn grants access to the maunevers. These can then used to boost a ship's shields, provide extra combat options during a dog fight, attack multiple targets at once, and more.

These maunevers are only really useful in a campaign that features a lot of starship combat -- say at least one starship combat a session, or one every two at the outside. Prior to our playtests, i would never have thought taking such a feat would be worthwhile, as I just couldn't see us doing that much space-borne combat, but I'm happy to say I was wrong.

Starship combat's become an important part of our campaign, and I imagine it will continue to play a major role going forward.


Lots of comments in the "official" forums about starship combat, but I have to agree with you that it "works." It is not a gearheads game, and bits-n-boards gamers may not feel it is realistic but it WORKS for an RPG.

As a GM, I try to kep my players from getting in over their heads. If they really want to hop in that starfighter and join a real furball but have no pilot experience then, well I try to direct them another way. The few battles we have had were local police enforcers (i.e. just good enough to be a bit of a threat) trying to stop the players ship as it leaves. IF the players are reasonably smart, they will do the right thing and get away. IF they don't, they find themselves guests of the local strongman and that usually leads to another adventure ("So, you want to get out of jail. Well, I can help but only if you....").

Yeah, that's exactly right: it just works. Is this a space combat system that you'd want to use to simulate large scale battles or use to drive table-top skirmishes? Probably not; it's definitely a character-driven system, and I think it works best when complementing a regular RPG session.

I haven't read any of the Gleemax threads, but I think I can imagine the compaints some might level against the system, especially if they're looking for really crunchy, vector-based starship comat.

 We, however, are not; we just wanted something that would fit the game and not slow things down, and I think Saga Edition delivers beautifully on that.

I also agree that non-pilots should be steered away from starfighters, and that GMs really need to thnk about the consequences of failure in a starship battle. What you suggest -- having them get captured if they fail to escape the enemy ships -- is a good idea; that way the ship is lost to them, but the PCs haven't been reduces to their component atoms. :)