1879: Vehicular Combat Preview

The system is nowhere near done, we’re still revising and playtesting, but let’s have a look at what we’re doing for bringing the old ED 1E riverboat and airship combat rules up to date with the current CoreStep mechanics and the game world of 1879.

Vehicle Ratings

First off, we introduce Physical and Mystic Defenses for vehicles. The stat block used in the 1879 GM’s Guide left these out, which in retrospect was a terrible oversight on our part. You really do need to know how hard it is to hit the vehicle with a gun or a spell. The vehicle’s Physical Defense is its Maneuverability +5, as a base, reflecting (perhaps very loosely) the way a character’s Physical Defense is derived from their Dexterity. The base Mystic Defense of a vehicle is 12. Being purpose-built, with considerable intent, vehicles have an innate resistance to being altered or damaged by magic. The base Mystic Defense of 12 may be augmented for specific vehicles, by the presence of a dedicated crew, or protective enchantments, or a reputation for surviving battle. For example, HMS Alexandra, flagship of Admiral Hornby, has carried the colours in multiple engagements, with only a grounding in transit to mar her record, and holds a Mystic Defense of 19.

We also add a Captain Rating, which is the minimum Crew Vehicle/Ship/Airship Skill rank required to serve as a captain or officer on that type of vehicle without suffering a Harried modifier. During vehicle combat turns, the acting captain may use or order one Officer Maneuver (special actions can be activated in times of hazard or combat, explained later in this chapter) for every 4 ranks of their Crew Skill, with some situations allowing the activation of an Officer Maneuver for free. Similarly, the Crew Rating is the minimum Crew Vehicle/Ship/Airship Skill Rank required to be an “able crew member” on that ship. Crew members below this rating count as half an “able crew member” and receive a half share of pay (and/or loot).

Crew count determines whether the vehicle is Derelict, under a Skeleton Crew, manned by a Competent Crew, a Crack Crew, or a Legendary Crew, with various penalties and bonuses gained according to whether or not the vehicle has sufficient people to handle it.

Crew Positions

We cover the various crew positions, from Captain down to Deck Crew, in terms of the requirements, abilities, and actions possible for each. Here’s one for example.

Captain’s Mates

The First Mate, just below the Captain in the command structure, takes over if the Captain can no longer perform their duties, and on smaller vessels doubles as the Quartermaster, Navigator, Gunner, or other positions. The First Mate leads the primary watch on larger ships, or the alternate watch on smaller ones. The Second Mate leads the alternate shift on larger ships, and may serve as the Navigator, Master-at-Arms, Carpenter, Bosun, or other positions as needed. Second Mates are also in charge of training the crew on safety procedures, maintaining safety equipment, and lead Damage Control Teams. The largest vessels, such as ocean-going passenger liners or battleships, will have a Third Mate, so that the Deck Crew can be divided into three watches and always have one watch on deck, one off shift but standing ready, and one resting.

Airships often have too small a crew to have Captain’s Mates, but will have a designated chain of command that runs down through the crew. For example, on a Scout Giffard, the Pilot takes over from the Captain, the Engineer from the Pilot, and the Gunner from the Engineer, although if the crew is down to the Gunner and whatever non-crew may be aboard, the situation has grown dire indeed. Likewise, kettles also do not have Mates, with authority passing from the commander to the driver, and from there to other crew as necessary. Trains similarly do not have Mates. The conductor or senior guard inherits authority from the driver, with the mechanic (if any) and other crew following.

Scale of Play

Any reference to “individual combat” or “rounds” refers to the default scale of 6-second combat rounds. In order to represent the action at vehicle scales, the “turn” is defined as an abstract length of time in which the characters’ party, the vehicle on which they are travelling, and each group of Gamemaster characters or Gamemaster-controlled vehicle may take a coordinated action. The exact length of each turn will vary according to the current action of the game. The player group may move and take one major coordinated action each turn, similar to the combat round, except that movement generally occurs throughout the turn. This allows for the vehicles and the characters aboard them, which move at different rates, to coordinate their activity for dramatic purposes.

At the beginning of each turn, the Gamemaster summarizes the current situation. The players briefly discuss their intentions for the turn, decide on their group and vehicle’s movement or action, and inform the Gamemaster. The Gamemaster then decides on any Gamemaster character group or vehicle movements or actions and narrates the scene, calling for Tests, or asking for individual player actions. When resolving vehicle combat turns, the Gamemaster should ask individual players’ intentions after the scene has been set and the player group’s action has been chosen. Individual players may always declare a Decisive Moment to directly respond to the action (see next section).

Providing a few examples of turn lengths might be useful in showing how the length is determined by the dramatic situation. Short range chases, called engagements, and ship-to-ship combat (including boarding actions and fleet battles) occur in 1-minute turns. Exploration of adventure sites is done in 10-minute turns. Long-distance pursuit or outdoor exploration passes in 1-hour turns. Travel through possibly hostile territory happens in 4-hour turns (called a “watch” when aboard ship). Extended travel, such as a train ride through relatively safe territory, may occur in turns lasting a day or a week, as the needs of the campaign require. The idea is to scale the passage of time to the events, so that playing through the situation doesn’t take the entire gaming session.

Because the length of a turn may change during a conflict, and the conflict may exit dramatically-based turns for 6-second combat rounds, the Gamemaster must clearly communicate these shifts in scale to the players. For example:

  • “Last turn the boarding maneuver was successful, placing your team along with a platoon of marines aboard the enemy vessel. You’ve got two marines down with injuries and one dead, while the enemy has three casualties and two deaths among their ranks. Your foe succeeds on their Morale Test and refuses to back down. We’re zooming in to combat rounds. Roll Initiative!”
  • “After another hour of trailing the pirate airship through hazardous fog, you succeed in closing to firing range. A chase begins as they try to evade you or at least get out of range of your bow chasers. Turns are now 1-minute long. Roll to engage the enemy!”

Decisive Moments

Players will often want to respond to the current situation directly when the scale of play is larger than the 6-second combat round, leaping into action during times of hazard. Their feats may be of such daring and perfect timing that they alter events that would otherwise be catastrophic. For example, a Sailor might save a comrade from serious injury or death at the last moment, pulling them from collapsing rigging. Other characters could put out fires before they spread, clear tangled lines and tackle before they wreak havoc on the deck, notice dangerous terrain features, or respond to other hazards.

Characters may invoke a Decisive Moment once per turn, to take two combat rounds’ worth of actions responding to the hazard. Players taking Decisive Moments at the same time may work together. For hazards other than combat, each acting character takes a Hazard Damage Test, using the current Hazard Step, to represent the risk and consequences of leaping into a dangerous situation. When player characters take a Decisive Moment in vehicular combat, allow any Gamemaster characters that are nearby 2 combat rounds’ worth of actions to respond. Use the Initiative step of all characters as their Initiative result unless a Skill requiring an Initiative Test is used (e.g., Tiger Spring). Gamemasters should only allow one Decisive Moment per turn for GMCs. Only the most important GMCs will take Decisive Moments, to keep the spotlight firmly on the player characters.

If the players become seriously invested in the situation, shift the scale to 6-second combat rounds and play out the scene in normal combat mode. The Gamemaster can then use the vehicular combat rules to track events outside the party’s direct influence.

Distance, Range, and Movement

Movement and range tracking is based on a hexagonal map with the hex equal to 20 yards from side to side. Turning one face of the hex left or right costs ½ hex (or 10 yards) of movement. Vehicles may occupy or travel through the same hex at the same time, unless noted by the Gamemaster, who may call for Hazard Tests to avoid collision in some situations (for example, at sea when warships are involved, or during a Fog of Battle). Movement occurs during the Declare and Maneuver phases for all vehicles involved.

The distance between vehicles can be tracked abstractly, but some detail is given for groups who would like to use map-based play. During combat, vehicles are considered to be one of four ranges apart from one another: Adjacent, Near, Intermediate, and Far. Vehicle Maneuvers can increase or decrease range during combat, as explained further along.

The Vehicular Combat Turn

Vehicular combat is handled slightly differently than individual combat due to the combat turns being 1 minute long, equivalent to ten combat rounds. Each turn, the vehicles involved use their movement, and attempt Maneuvers or Officer Maneuvers. As previously noted, the acting captain may use or order one Officer Maneuver for every 4 Ranks of their Crew Skill, with some situations allowing the activation of an Officer Maneuver for free.

Vehicular combat follows a three-step turn procedure:
1. Make Maneuver Tests
2. Declare Maneuvers
3. Resolve Maneuvers

1. Make Maneuver Tests
Each acting captain makes a Maneuver Test using their vehicle’s Maneuverability Step plus their Rating Step. This functions as each vehicle’s Initiative.
2. Declare Maneuvers
In ascending order of the Maneuver Test results, the captains declare the specific Vehicle Maneuver their vehicles will attempt, if any, and set their current Speed, up to a maximum of their current Speed Step, including the results of any previous Push Speed Maneuvers. After declaring Maneuvers, all ships travelling at Speed Step 3 or above must use part of their movement as described above. They may also reallocate crew, use certain Officer Maneuvers, or attempt Regroup Tests (see Morale and Surrender).
3. Resolve Maneuvers
In descending order of the Maneuver Test results, each captain resolves their chosen Vehicle Maneuver and any Officer Maneuvers. For each Vehicle and Officer Maneuver attempted, a separate Maneuver Test is made as specified in the Maneuver description. Besides the effects specified in each Vehicle Maneuver, the following applies to all Vehicle Maneuver Test results:

  • Rule of One: The acting vehicle’s captain has made a critical error, allowing the targeted vehicle’s captain one free Vehicle Maneuver, which must be declared and resolved immediately.
  • Failure: The targeted ship’s captain may spend movement points to change the range between the ships during or after the failed maneuver. The target may activate one free Officer Maneuver as a reaction, but must count all other Officer Maneuvers against their limit.
  • Success: The acting ship’s captain may use their movement to change the range between the ships during or after the maneuver. The target may activate one Officer Maneuver as a reaction, but must count it against their limit.
  • 2+ Successes: The acting ship’s captain may use their movement points to change the range between the ships during or after the Resolve Maneuver phase. The target must count all activated Officer Maneuvers against their per-turn limit.

After the Vehicle Maneuver and any Officer Maneuvers are resolved, Casualties or Hazards are checked for all vehicles involved. Those vehicles that have not used their mandatory movement points do so at this point. Finally, if any Officer Maneuvers remain at the end of the turn, all captains may activate available Officer Maneuvers in descending order of the Maneuver Test results.

Unit and Weapon Battery Attacks

Resolve vehicle weapon or weapon battery actions as follows.
1. Single Character, Team, or Commander Actions
2. Determine Unit Attack Rating and Number of Successes
3. Make Damage Tests and Check for Critical Hits / Wounds

1. Single Character/Team/Commander Actions
Single-character units, teams, vehicle officers, and battery commanders take one combat round of actions. No initiative Test is made, as these actions are assumed to be part of the larger action of the weapon battery. These characters make Tests as normal, take whatever actions they have available, and may spend any Karma they are allowed to. They may add their Professional Rating to one Action Test and one Damage or Effect Test, representing effort spent over multiple combat rounds, preparation, and being in the right place at the right time. Magicians may trade in their Professional Rating bonus for enough time to make one additional Spellcasting Test. Weapon battery commanders must use the Gunnery Skill to coordinate fire onto their battery’s target.

Player characters or important Gamemaster characters may call for a Decisive Moment alongside their mass-combat action. This allows two more combat rounds of action, but carries the risk of a direct counterattack during those combat rounds, as opposing forces may be required to activate an Officer Maneuver (see Decisive Moments).

2. Determine Unit Attack Rating and Number of Successes
Weapon batteries determine their Attack Rating by adding their commander’s Captain Rating or Professional Rank to the battery’s Gunnery Step. Add any appropriate bonuses from the Maneuver result or the commander’s actions. Commanders may spend one karma point per turn on their battery’s Attack Rating, adding their Karma Step to the Attack Rating, or on one of the unit’s Damage Tests, adding the Karma die to the Test.

Make an Attack Rating Test against the target’s Physical Defense, adjusting for cover or other appropriate modifiers. Most vehicles grant at least partial cover to their crew (+2 to crew defense ratings) due to the design of the vehicle’s hull and armour. A hit is scored for each success. The commander makes a Damage Test for a weapon in the battery for each hit scored. Each success over the number of weapons in the battery are spent to give a +2 bonus to one of these Damage Tests. All weapons the battery have been fired for ammunition tracking purposes, regardless of the number of hits scored.

Called Shot
The captain, Gunner, or weapon battery commander must announce the Called Shot during the Declare Maneuvers phase of the turn. Called shots against another vehicle, its crew, or a large creature or group of small creatures, take a penalty equal to the target vehicle’s Maneuverability Step, the highest Dexterity Step among the crew or creatures, or the Step of one active defense, if the target has any. Active defenses are Skills such as Acrobatic Defense, Anticipate Blow, Avoid Blow, Maneuver, and Riposte, all representing battlefield awareness.
Called Shots may be made against the following vehicle Attributes: Crew (which includes officers and passengers, if any, for the purpose of the Called Shot), Cargo (including mounts or other livestock onboard), Armament, Armor, Speed, or Maneuverability. Called Shots are made at a -3 Step penalty. Each successful hit reduces the targeted Attribute, by a Damage Test for Crew or Cargo as above, or by -1 per hit to other Attributes.

3. Make Damage Tests and Check for Critical Hits / Wounds
Each hit scored by a vehicle weapon or weapon battery allows a Damage Test using the battery’s Damage Step plus any current modifiers. Battery commanders who have not already spent their Karma point for the turn now may add their Karma die to one of these Damage Tests.
Subtract the target’s Physical Armor Rating from each Damage result, and add the Damage result to the ship’s current Damage rating. If the damage from an attack equals or exceeds a target vehicle’s Critical Hit Threshold, it takes a Critical Hit. See Damage in Chapter 11, Steam Powered, p.266, of the 1879 Gamemaster’s Guide for the effects of damage and Critical Hits on a vehicle.

If the target is a large creature, a unit of characters, or a group of small creatures, subtract their Armor and compare the adjusted Damage result to the Wound Threshold of the creature or average Wound Threshold of the group. The target takes one Wound for each full Wound Threshold multiple reached. (Single targets may take multiple Wounds from a single attack because the attack is considered to happen across a vehicular combat turn.) Damage exceeding the Death Rating of an individual member of the group kills that member, with any remaining damage applied to the next member. Wounds are applied one at a time to each member of the group, distributing the Wounds evenly in sequence. Record Damage and Wounds to individuals in the group as normal.

We haven’t gotten into Vehicle Maneuvers, such as Board or Ram, or Officer Maneuvers, such as Push Speed/Maneuverability or Superior Positioning, and there’s still Hazards, Morale and Surrender, Repair and Maintenance, and Pursuit and Engagement to cover. But this is already a pretty long excerpt from a work in progress, and we’re not ready to publish the whole thing yet. Pop over to our Discord or Forum if you’d like to express opinions on where this is going.

Tally Ho!