GM > Starship > Designing Encounters
Starship battles, daring piloting stunts, and fast-paced space chases are iconic elements of science fiction. At the gaming table, such encounters can shake things up by adding variety to combats on foot and encouraging players to work together as part of a team. When starship encounters are done well, they can be memorable experiences that players enjoy retelling months or even years later. The following pages provide tools and advice for creating starship encounters that players will remember long after the last enemy ship has surrendered or been destroyed.
Ideally, starship encounters are cinematic and exciting experiences, but a number of potential pitfalls to running starship encounters could undermine this goal. While each starship role is important, some lend themselves better to dramatic description than others. Without your efforts as a GM to keep things engaging, an encounter could easily devolve into a dry, colorless affair of moving ship minis around a hex grid and firing at the enemy until one side is destroyed. When creating starship encounters, consider whether it’s appropriate to add harrowing hazards to shake up the game mechanically, toss in an unexpected noncombat challenge, or add especially detailed descriptions to bring your encounter to life.
Starship encounters are sometimes presented as if they take place in an empty
void, with only a blank hex grid to note the ships’ positions. Of course, this
makes sense in many situations—starship encounters usually take place in space,
not in-atmosphere, and vast portions of space are fairly empty, lacking any
real terrain features.
However, that doesn’t have to be the case. The advantage of traveling through an infinite universe lies in the fact that while a very large portion it might be generally empty, hazards can show up anywhere, at any time. Adding a hazard of some sort— whether it’s an asteroid field to navigate, a field of hull-eating bacteria to avoid, or a black hole that threatens to pull the PCs’ starship into a void—can add flavor to an encounter and give the PCs something to think about besides the enemy ships.
Adding such a hazard can also add tension to your starship encounters, since it might be difficult to detect these hazards in the vastness of space. Likewise, from a combat perspective, adding a terrain-like feature that changes from round to round, such as a solar flare that periodically pulses with radiation, can provide a more dynamic feel and introduce an additional tactical element. (More details about specific challenges to add to a starship battlefield can be found in Space Hazards, beginning on page 134.)
If incorporated holistically into a starship encounter, such features can make for more dynamic and interesting experiences at the table. Below are some specific ways hazards and terrain-like features can enhance your starship combats.
Besides adding a twist to a starship encounter’s mechanical elements, hazards
present an opportunity to reveal something about the corner of space where the
PCs are fighting. When incorporating a hazard, you as GM should keep in mind
why the hazard is there in the game’s world. Adding a hazard that at first glance
seems out of place is a great opportunity to inject extra context, depth, and
verisimilitude into the game. For a careful GM, aligning your game’s narrative
continuity with the hazards that the PCs encounter in starship combat can also
open up more opportunities for your players to explore. A great hazard might
even inspire the PCs to take the game in a delightfully unanticipated new direction,
if you so wish!
For example, perhaps an asteroid recently hit a small moon, destroying it to create an unexpected asteroid belt or debris field the PCs aren’t expecting. Or perhaps a colony ship whose inhabitants were conducting powerful time-bending research imploded, warping the fabric of existence around it. It would certainly catch the PCs off guard to unexpectedly fly into the resulting temporal rift! Figuring out exactly why these hazards came into being can also provide a fun side trek for the players, if you as the GM wish to provide even more hints of adventure seeds here.
Working small setting details into hazards not only provides an explanation for their presence but also makes them more memorable—and it might spur the PCs to investigate further. However, even if the PCs don’t learn the full story of a hazard’s origins, adding a few hints about its backstory can influence the feel of an encounter. If the PCs come across the example temporal rift above, they might occasionally catch glimpses of a ghostly-looking ship that doesn’t show up on their sensors; even if it has no mechanical impact, this can provide a thematic bit of spookiness to the encounter.
Although PCs generally approach a hazard as an obstacle to overcome or avoid,
clever players can sometimes use a hazard to their advantage. Unless there’s
a compelling reason why enemy ships wouldn’t be affected by a particular hazard—
such as a Corpse Fleet ship crewed by undead going through radiation—an area’s
hazard affects the opposition just as much as it does the PCs. By using their
starship’s sensors to perform a special scan action, the PCs may even be able
to learn things about environmental hazards or terrain-like features that are
unknown to the enemy.
Perhaps the PCs are about to fight several other ships, and there’s an asteroid field between them. With a special scan action and a successful Computers check, the PCs might identify abandoned ground defenses built into the surfaces of several asteroids. With additional actions and some clever computing, the science officer could potentially hack into these defenses and turn the weaponry against the enemy starships—all while the rest of the crew buy time while fending off the overwhelming foes! No matter the threat, consider ways that the PCs could interact with (or even counteract) hazards they unexpectedly encounter, and encourage creative problem solving.
PCs aren’t the only ones that can use such creative thinking, however—their enemies might do the same. If a hazard has a potential advantage that the PCs are able to learn about through scans or other actions, you should provide hints that this is possible, whether through narrative description or by granting opportunities for skill checks. If the PCs realize their options but choose not to act on any of them, an interesting twist might involve their enemies beating them to the punch and harnessing the power of a hazard against them!
Though many of the rules around starship encounters focus on combat, not
all starship encounters need to be battles. In open space, the PCs may need
to fly through an area dense with the wreckage of other ships, get close enough
to a dangerous celestial body to scan it, or follow another vessel without being
noticed. In a campaign with a heavy focus on starships, the addition of non-combat
challenges can break up the battles and prevent encounters from feeling repetitive.
When creating a non-combat challenge, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, since these encounters don’t need to follow the same mechanical structure as a starship combat, you should reward player creativity. Secondly, even more so than in a starship combat, it’s important to make sure that each PC can contribute to overcoming the challenge, particularly if it’s one that’s likely to take a while to resolve at the table. It’s fine if a simple non-combat challenge requires only a successful skill check or two, but an extended sequence such as shadowing another ship for several days risks losing players’ attention if their PCs are given nothing to do during this time.
In a starship combat, the PCs have defined tasks they can do in their ship roles, and while some non-combat challenges may have similar tasks to fulfill, not all roles will necessarily be accounted for with existing rules. It’s not necessary to have every PC attempt a check at each stage of the challenge, but all players should feel as though they’re helping resolve the encounter. For example, if a player’s character can’t mechanically contribute to solving a problem, but that player suggests a brilliant idea to a task-performing character through roleplaying, you might consider awarding the latter PC with a minor bonus to any required skill checks to reward the former PC’s smart thinking.
Space contains multitudes of threats that shouldn’t or can’t be fought at
all. Consider the following non-combat obstacles to challenge the PCs.
Navigating Debris: The PCs stumble across a field of debris. While it might seem obvious to require Piloting checks to navigate this hazard, you might also place several obstacles in the area that characters other than those flying the ship can help mitigate. For example, a large asteroid fragment might come into view too quickly for the PCs to avoid, so they must shoot it down instead. The science officer could assist the gunner in finding a weak point with a successful scan. Then, the PCs might come face-to-face with a strange energy field. The pilot must attempt a Piloting check to avoid it, but any PC could attempt a Physical Science check to determine some information that helps the starship avoid the worst of the field’s effect. This scenario provides a variety of different checks that could be attempted, empowering PCs with diverse skill sets.
Scanning a Ship Caught in Orbit: The PCs come across a derelict starship whose onboard computers contain information vital to their mission. However, the ship is caught in the orbit of a neutron star. While you might assume that the players will want to fly straight toward the ship, if they have a highly skilled mechanic, advanced supplies on board, and several PCs with strong Engineering and Computers skills, the players might decide to build a drone ship capable of getting close to the starship to scan it. In this scenario, you should reward this creative strategy, since the PCs are using their resources and the destruction of the derelict ship isn’t imminent. You might allow the players to take a few days cooperating to build their drone with a series of successful skill checks, including Engineering, Computers, Physical Science, and the like, depending on the PCs’ strategies. If you allow the PCs to solve challenges in unexpected ways, the group is likely to feel more invested in the solution.
You as GM can spice up any starship encounter, including one that’s fairly
mechanically straightforward, by narrating and describing things in an exciting
way. A simple mechanical description of an event in combat gets the necessary
information across to the players, but it’s more dramatic to add details that
draw them into the action.
Not every action will necessarily need to be described in this fashion—sometimes an attack is relatively simple, session time is running short, or you’ve already come up with 10 imaginative descriptions for particle beam attacks during that combat—but narrating notable events such as critical hits, near-misses, or the final shots that destroy a ship adds energy and dramatic tension to an encounter. It makes a combat feel more cinematic and helps the players better embody their characters. You can also encourage the players to narrate their own actions and describe what they’re doing rather than simply stating what check they want to roll, and also to engage in combat banter with their crewmates and opponents.
Using more descriptive language to narrate otherwise routine events during
gameplay can help make starship encounters more thrilling. This goes for GMs
narrating gameplay as well as players narrating their character’s actions.
For example, say the PCs are battling another starship and are hit with a light plasma torpedo.
A minimal description from the GM might be, “The torpedo hits you for 15 damage. You have only 3 Shield Points remaining on your starboard side, so you take 12 damage to your Hull Points after that.”
But a more exciting description could be “The torpedo strikes your starboard side. Your ship lurches from the shattering impact and takes 12 Hull Points of damage as the torpedo smashes through your starboard shields and strikes the wall of your medical bay, sending the serums and supplies clattering to the floor in the fray.”
Or, if a player decides their captain wants to taunt the enemy gunner, providing a clever highlight for their character, a minimal description might be, “I roll an Intimidate check to taunt the gunner of the enemy ship.”
But a more dynamic description would be “I turn on the comm system and broadcast, ‘You call that a shot? Our pilot has evaded plasma shots close enough to fry an egg on the hull! If that’s all you’ve got, you might as well go home.”
Another way to liven up a starship encounter is to have the PCs interact
with a memorable NPC on the opposing side. With ship comms, NPCs and PCs can
easily banter back and forth, providing an opportunity for the PCs to get to
know their opponents.
In a noncombat encounter, the PCs likely have more time to talk with some of the NPCs on other ships, whether they’re attempting to navigate the same area, racing them in a competition, or guarding their ship as part of a convoy. These conversations can provide PCs who focus on social skills an outlet for making new friends and learning new things, and it may help draw quieter PCs out of their shells, especially if they meet an NPC with a shared interest.
Even during a battle, when communications are likely more limited, giving personality to the NPCs involved gives the combat more weight than shooting down a starship crewed by faceless grunts with whom the PCs never interact. Perhaps the PCs are dueling a gruff military man with a strict sense of honor who won’t break the rules of a duel, even if it means he loses. Or perhaps they have the opportunity to talk to an unusual Devourer cultist who’s more interested in engineering projects than the Devourer’s cause, who the PCs may be able to encourage to join their side instead. Giving an NPC a more fully fleshed-out personality than “enemy pilot” gives more flavor to the encounter, and depending on how things go, could leave the PCs with a new nemesis or unexpected ally.
When the PCs are faced with a starship encounter that could erupt into combat,
it’s important to point out that not every such encounter must end traditionally.
Even an encounter that starts with combat be resolved in multiple ways, and
some encounters may begin with different parameters altogether. GMs who are
willing to entertain such possibilities should listen carefully to their players
and think creatively about the myriad ways the engagement could end.
In a campaign that’s heavy on starship encounters and combat, it’s particularly important to include many types of interactions to liven things up and make sure that all PCs get a chance to spotlight their abilities. Below are some examples of encounters that could have win conditions other than defeating the enemies in combat.
Avoiding Attack: Sometimes, fighting an enemy is futile; rather than attacking directly, the PCs should evade the enemy so they can live to fight another day. Such encounters can take a variety of forms. Perhaps the PCs are cornered by an overwhelming number of opponents and must cut a path through enemy lines to make their escape. In this scenario, defeating all the opponents isn’t expected or even possible, and the PCs will need to think strategically to determine the best path to get out.
Another example of this type is a stealth mission where the PCs must follow a target starship without being detected, whether to find its destination or to gather information about the ship as a precursor to a more direct assault. This could involve the PCs using special stealth field technology or making use of the environment around them to avoid detection, such as a field of chunky debris that is difficult to scan.
Competition: Even in combat, destruction of the opposing ship doesn’t always need to be the intended outcome. Many types of competitions can also make use of starships. Perhaps the PCs need to win a race, beat their competitors through an obstacle course, or engage in a shooting contest where contestants try to take out other targets rather than each other. Some starship competitions might even involve the competitors remotely piloting drones instead of being on a ship themselves.
A starship duel is another potential nonlethal competition. Although much of a starship duel will be resolved like a typical combat, the participants in a duel generally need to abide by certain rules—such as agreeing on which weapons are permitted or which ship systems are off-limits as targets, like life support—and have a set win condition. These win conditions vary based on the terms of the duel but could include things such as depleting a ship’s shields, reducing a ship to a certain number of Hull Points, or a first strike taking the win.
Like in any context, it’s possible but risky to cheat. Getting caught breaking the rules could result in anything from good-natured dismay to utter disapproval to even lethal retaliation. Even the outwardly lawless Free Captains only abide a certain amount of foul play, whereas breaking a dueling covenant with a proud vesk crew could earn the PCs an enemy for life! This duplicity could spawn an entire new segment of a campaign—one in which the PCs have made serious enemies or must answer for the unintended consequences of their actions.
Protection and Defense: Sometimes the PCs need to focus on defense rather than offense, protecting or attempting to reach a target to prevent it from being harmed. In these cases, there is likely some typical starship combat involved, but destroying the opposition means little if the PCs don’t succeed in their protective duties. These missions could include transporting a wanted target through enemy territory, protecting a more vulnerable ship from raiders, or breaking past an extremely powerful ship in order to defend a vulnerable target elsewhere. The same risky maneuvers that work brilliantly in other starship scenarios might instead prove to be a liability when protecting an objective, so reckless crews might have to change tactics to adapt.
Social Starship Combat: Just as the PCs’ opponents aren’t always going to fight to the death or to the destruction of their ship, the PCs won’t always want to do so, either. In some encounters, the PCs may be able to talk their foes down or trick them into specific actions that will work in their favor. For example, the PCs may wish to challenge an enemy ship to distract its crew from pursuing another goal. Such an encounter might eventually result in combat, but the PCs need to taunt the enemy captain into fighting them. This could include special, encounter-specific actions, such as giving the captain the ability to bait the enemy into taking a particular action (like attacking) with a successful taunt action, or giving the science officer the ability to target the enemy’s systems to prevent them from escaping. When inventing such actions, be flexible with the rules while keeping the PCs’ capabilities in mind.
Another socially-oriented encounter could require the PCs to convince an opposing starship’s crew to surrender without dealing too much damage to the ship—perhaps they need to capture something or someone aboard. This might involve dealing some blows before opening negotiations, or perhaps other encounter-specific actions like a special demand or encourage action by the captain convincing the opponent to surrender.
Strategic Timing: Sometimes, the method PCs use to accomplish a task is less important than the moment at which they do so. The tension of beating the clock, surviving long enough, or timing an attack perfectly can introduce fresh tension into an encounter. Perhaps the PCs face an overwhelming enemy armada—but if they can hold out for a certain number of rounds, reinforcements will arrive to help turn the tide. Conversely, the PCs may need to win an encounter as quickly as possible, with each successive round introducing greater danger via worsening environmental conditions, enemy reinforcements, or a key target escaping. Different still, an encounter might require the PCs to fulfill an objective at a precise moment, like pushing an asteroid into an enemy or firing a missile through a portal before it closes. Despite its dramatic potential, strategic timing is a trope best used sparingly, lest your players become fatigued from the constant pressure.