I've been reading some "hard" science-fiction novels lately (Antares War, Night's Dawn) and thought about how combats played out in those books. The way rogue trader handles ship-to-ship combat, it assumes that both ships are starting from basically zero speed and both parties *want* to engage in a dogfight.
But what happens, if both combattants have been accelerating for some time towards each other? Their engagement will be over in minutes or even seconds, with no quick way to turn and re-engage, turning the normal, gentlemanly tactical combat into edge-of-the-seat, split-second decisions.
A head-on engagement, or intercept, needs no tactical map and will take less than 5 minutes to play through. As play aids, you might want to use a couple of different tokens for each party: break through, hold fast and engage for phase one, evade and attack for phase two. Use coloured dice, or write the orders on scraps of paper. If you really want to crank up speed and tension of the fight, use a stopwatch, giving the players only ten or twenty seconds to make their decisions. If they break the time limit, in phase one they default to “Hold Fast!” in phase two, they simply do nothing – indecision has literally paralysed their crew.
During an intercept, neither party can take extended or manoeuver actions - both crews are strapped into their acceleration couches and there is simply no time for anything but firing and praying to the god-emperor.
Phase 1 – Determine Speed: while both ships power towards each other, their captains must decide: “Break Through!” (red), “Hold Fast!” (yellow) or “Engage!” (green). Each party covertly selects the token corresponding to their decision. Let your players discuss for a short time without listening in. When they are ready, count to three. On three, you and the party's captain reveal their choice. Proceed to:
Phase 2 – Determine Duration: Depending on your choices, both ships will have the option of firing for a number of rounds. Consult this table for the exact number and fire arcs:
“Break Through!” “Hold Fast!” “Engage!”
“Break Through!” 1 Fore 1 Fore + 1 Side 2 Fore + 1 Side
“Hold Fast!” 1 Fore + 1 Side 2 Fore + 1 Side 3 Fore + 1 Side
“Engage!” 2 Fore + 1 Side 3 Fore + 1 Side 4 Fore + 2 Side
Note: For the purpose of range dependent modifier, the first half (round up) of Fore arc shooting action are considered to happen at 10 VU, the second half at 5 VU and the Side arc shooting happens at 2 VU.
Phase 3 - “Fire!”/”Evasive Manoeuvers!”: With speeds determined, both parties decide if they want to open fire or evade the incoming ordnance. Again, let the party discuss without listening in and make your own choice. Count to three and reveal your decisions.
“Fire!” means the ships fires all weapons in the relevant arc. Due to the extremely high relative speed, add +2 to every weapon’s damage code, as at hypervelocity, even microshrapnel hit with the force of a railgun slug. If both selected “Break Through!”, the hypervelocity bonus increases to +4 weapon damage.
“Evasive Manoeuvers!” also works as advertised – the ship’s pilot takes the Extended Action of the same name.
Note: There is no initiative order during an intercept, all ships act and fire simultaneously (Evasive Action happens first, though – duh.). Yes, that does open up the possibility of mutual destruction. And yes, that is intentional.
In the rare case that both parties chose “Engage!”, don’t apply the hypervelocity damage bonus, instead both ships can take one extended action during either of the side arc firing rounds. Apply common sense at what actions can be taken, for example, there is no time for hit and run or boarding actions, although a callous captain might choose to sacrifice his assault craft for one more chance to damage his enemy, leaving them either dead or marooned, with neither sufficient fuel nor air to return to the mothership.
Repeat Phase 3 until the ships have passed each other or until one (or both) parties are destroyed.
Bombers: You normally can NOT attack with bombers during an intercept, as they lack the necessary delta-V for a return journey. If you choose to use them, they will make their attack run and then they’ll be considered lost with all hands. The captain might need to make a Hard or harder interaction test to convince the crews, as they know it will be a one-way trip.
Torpedoes: There is no way to reload Torpedo Tubes during an intercept – all crew are strapped in, so once all tubes are empty, that’s it. Also, no re-engage action for the torpedo, it doesn’t have sufficient delta-V either.
A blockade run works almost identical to an intercept, except that the defender can choose to set up his ship(s) either head on or with their broadsides towards the runner.
During Phase 1, the blockade automatically chooses “Engage”
During Phase 3, the blockade gets an additional round of shooting after (if) the runner has broken through. This parting shot can only be taken, if the blockade has weapons able to fire in that arc. That means a ship that meets the runner head on needs a keel weapon to take a parting shot. The blockade can choose “Evasive Manoeuvers”, but takes the Pilot Test at one difficulty step harder – their ships are moving at negligible speeds (if at all) and make for easy targets.