May 28 2021

Writing Game Mechanics For a Plot Device

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Enigma Sector is intended to be “big tent” space opera the way D&D is “big tent” fantasy, so it pulls from a lot of sources, and of course Star Wars is a big one. One of the things I’ve been trying to fit into the game is “ion damage” as it’s presented in Star Wars. We see four clear examples of it:

  • Jawas zap R2-D2, he keels over
  • Controls of Luke’s snowspeeder become ionized and he crashes
  • Hoth ion cannon disables a star destroyer and the transport ships breeze past
  • Y-Wings hit a star destroyer with ion torpedoes and disable it, allowing a hammerhead corvette to play billiards with it

It could be that ion damage is the “stun setting” that knocks out Leia in Ep IV and that she uses on Poe in Ep VII, as well, that’s harder to say. That’s how I’ve been treating it, anyhow.

But the common element of all of these is that ion damage, while not inherently lethal, is presented as a one-punch fight ender*, which can have its place when it’s a plot device, but poison when you want to have a playable game. The biggest question it leads to, however, is “If you have a cannon/torpedo that can one-punch a star destroyer, why wouldn’t you just do that all the time?” Or to put it into game terms, if you give the players in your game an “I win!” button, they’ll just press it over and over. And if you give the enemies the same button, the only real contest becomes the initiative check to see who can hit the “I win!” button first.

(*Sort of. The Hoth ion cannon fires four shots, and we see two connect, while the Y-Wings in Rogue One just pummel the star destroyer with something like six hits, and that’s explicitly after the shields being knocked down “made an opening.” But in both cases, the star destroyer goes from “fine or mostly fine” to “dead in space” in a matter of seconds.)

So this brings us to ion weapons and spaceship combat. My original idea was that a hit from an ion weapon would knock down a ship’s shields, which is kinda-sorta what we see in the case of the star destroyers: the first hit mucks up the shields, and the followup hit(s) muck up the controls. Since all the hits happen in rapid succession, we don’t get to see if the star destroyers could recover from the first one in time. But that led me to imagining my players, in their own little not-quite-the-Millennium Falcon, being swarmed by enemy fighters with ion guns that lead to a super-fast death spiral of the shields going down and staying down. I’ve already established that ion weapons have shorter range and do less damage than blasters, but that add-on effect is still hella powerful.

(In the case of Luke’s snowspeeder, there’s no indication that the walkers are firing ion weapons, so I’m assuming that would come under the heading of system damage: the regular blaster hit incapacitated the ship for a round and, being next to an enormous obstacle (i.e., the planet), the snowspeeder crashed into it. That incapacitation just happened to come in the form of ionized controls.)

So how do I fit ion weapons into that Venn Diagram sweet spot between “doesn’t add math,” “is worth doing sometimes,” and “doesn’t become the only thing worth doing”? I started looking at monster debuffs for inspiration here. 4E was full of “controller” monsters, who all pretty much did the same thing: “Piddly damage, and the target is dazed (save ends).” Dazed in 4E was roughly analogous to 5E’s version of the slow spell: attackers had advantage on you, you could move or attack (but not both), and you couldn’t use bonus actions or reactions. That’s not bad, honestly. (Slow tweaks the numbers and adds some stuff about spell failure that isn’t really relevant here.) 5E’s major monster debuffs come from grapples, poison, or petrification, which all do variations of the same thing. Grapples hold you in place, poison gives you disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks, and petrification starts with being restrained (can’t move and attackers have advantage) and gets worse from there.

So let’s break these down…

  • Grappled (immobilized): Having a movement speed of 0 can range from being immaterial (if your plan was to just buzz around shooting anyway) to being a game-ender (if your plan was to escape to the jump-point). There is a vague vibe of “moving fast = hard to hit, not moving = sitting duck” that isn’t reflected in the rules per se. That leads to…
  • Restrained: Your speed becomes 0, as above, but attackers have advantage against you, and you have disadvantage on Dex saves. This is a heck of a debuff, especially when the enemies pile on, but while you can’t move, you can at least still act. This pretty accurately reflects ion damage as presented, but it’s also dangerously close to the “becomes the only thing worth doing” category.
  • Poisoned: You have disadvantage on attacks and ability checks. Probably the worst thing you can do to a rogue because it tends to kill sneak attack, but is mostly a nuisance for everyone else, and also doesn’t model the desired result.
  • 4E-style Dazed/5E-style Slowed: You have to choose whether to move or attack (choices are interesting!) and have a fairly significant debuff, whether it’s advantage for your enemies, or -2 AC/Dex saves for you.

Of the choices, I think I’m liking the 4E dazed the best. (Hey, 4E wasn’t all bad.) In 4E, “save ends” meant that at the end of your turn, roll 10+ on a d20 and the condition went away (rather than being impacted by your stats like a 5E saving throw). This was a key part of the design: debuffs were meant to sting, but they were also meant to be something you could shake off fairly easily, on the grounds that being hamstrung through the whole fight was anti-fun. And I still want that to be the case here: tying recovery to a Constitution saving throw would make it way too hard for small ships to recover, and way too easy for big ones. So how about something like this…

Ionized (Condition): The vehicle’s controls are locked up by ionization. The vehicle can’t take reactions, and it can’t move unless it uses the Dash action. Attackers have advantage against the vehicle, and it has disadvantage on Dexerity saving throws. At the end of the vehicle’s turn, roll 1d20: the ionization effect ends on a roll of 10 or higher. The vehicle may also end the effect by using its action to spend a hit die as damage control.

This could also work for droids being hit by ion weapons as well. Whattya think?

-TG

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