#TravellerRPG Tuesday – Algorithmic warfare in High Guard (GDW, 1979) #ttrpg #wargame

I have always loved starships. Of course, starships are a major element of the Traveller roleplaying game and a part of the game I instantly fell in love with. I especially liked how using Book 2 you could design our own ships. Back in my early days of playing Traveller, I didn’t not really understand that Book 2 is designed for smaller Adventure-class ships, but when Book 5 High Guard came out I instantly realized that this was the book for big battlewagons. This was the book that would allow me to create a Battlestar Galactica or an Imperial Star Destroyer in my Traveller adventures. It’s no wonder that my copy of Book 5 is probably the most beaten up of any book in my collection; I loved it and played it that much.

“…construction of very large vessels…”

While High Guard gave me rules for creating naval characters, let’s not kid ourselves; the primary draw of the book always has been the ship design rules for very large ships. High Guard talks about ships up to one million tons (p. 20). The design sequence itself is very simple. Even today, I am impressed at just how simple the sequence is to follow. Best of all, one could do it on a worksheet (provided in the book) or a 5″x8″ notecard (I found a 3″x5″ a bit too crowded). While a calculator is certainly handy, a piece of scrap paper for solving a few equations was really all that is needed.

When I was playing Traveller in the early 1980’s, the two main sci-fi pop culture influences I had were Star Wars (the real Stars Wars, not that Episode 4 crap…Han shot first!) and Star Trek. Actually, my Star Trek influence was through Star Fleet Battles, a licensed derivative wargame based on the Franz Josef technical manual for Star Trek. In practice, this meant in those early days the main influence on my Traveller gaming was that starship were either Star Wars or Star Trek-derived.

Which was actually a bit boring.

It took me a few years, but after a while I really came to understand—and respect—how High Guard shows technological progression and differences in design. The Star Wars universe is actually very simple; hyperdrive, turbolasers, and torpedoes. Star Fleet Battles was a bit more creative with Warp Drive and Phasers or Disruptors and Photon or Plasma Torpedoes. Traveller, and especially the High Guard book, had a much wider variety of weapons. At first everything I designed was Tech Level-15 but after a while I started paying attention to the technology level limits. I started to see the real difference between a TL-15 starship and a TL-8 system boat. This also made me start thinking about different fleet doctrines and how that influences ship design.

“I’ve outrun Imperial starships. Not the local bulk cruisers mind you, I’m talking about the big Corellian ships now.”

Han Solo, Captain, Millennium Falcon

High Guard gave me a simple model that I could use to see how different technology levels lead to different design choices which in turn feed into development of doctrine. Such an evolution is almost totally absent in Star Wars—all the tech is similar and fleet doctrine, what little we actually see in the movies, is driven by cinematic needs and not based on any sort of rational choice. In Star Fleet Battles there was a bit more, and at least the different weapons made for some tactical choices that should of led to fleet doctrines. However, even in the early days of Star Fleet Battles ships were “different” between empires but were “balanced” for the game. While the later Adventure 5 Trillion Credit Squadron would introduce a “balance”—the same budget—High Guard kept the focus on technology levels. In many ways the lessons I was learning in Traveller High Guard were applicable to other wargames like Harpoon (ATG) or MBT (GMT Games)—as well as real life (like why is the US M1A1 Abrams tank so superior to a Soviet T-64?)

Take for example two different planets in my B’rron Subsector. World DA-4 in the Dr’ke Arm has UWP A373CCA-9 . This means it can build starships up to Tech Level 9. In what may be the most under-appreciated rule in all of High Guard, the Computer Models table gives us a ship building size limit. This table tells us that in order to build a ship 10,000 tons or larger, you need a Model/4 computer—which is Tech Level A (10). At TL9 that Model/3 computer can build ships up to size “J” at 9,000 tons (technically up to 9,999 tons). Compare this to the capital of the Bradii Reach which is UWP A72AA98-F. At TL-F (15) they have computers that allows then to build ships larger than 1,000,000 tons!

So what does TL-9 allow you to do?

  • Size: >10,000 tons
  • Jump-1
  • Manuever-6
  • Power Plant is 3% Ship’s Tonnage per number
  • Hull Armor is most expensive where space is computed at 4+4a (where a is desired armor factor)
  • Computer Model/3
  • Major Weapons: B-Factor Particle accelerator (at 5,000 tons)
  • Bays: 100 ton Particle Accelerator or Missile
  • Turret Weapons: Missile, Beam Laser, Pulse Laser, Sandcaster
  • No Screens available.

Here’s a quick TL9-limited design I threw together using the Orbital Yards app:

Dr’ke Arm “Battleship”

Algorithmic Warfare

The starship combat section of High Guard has always interested me. Some people absolutely hate it because, they say, it is too abstract a model. I’ll admit I struggle with it at times, but back in the day this simple combat model allowed us to play out gigantic battles on the lunch room table with nothing but our ships on 3×5 notecards and some dice.

I am fully aware of the controversial Eurisko that uses the High Guard ship construction rules along with the adventure Trillion Credit Squadron. I’ll save my commentary on that for later. For now, I will only say that back in the early 1980’s as a middle and high-schooler those controversies were way above my level—we were game players not computer programmers…and we couldn’t go to a national tournament anyway!

While some other critics of the High Guard starship combat model complain it is not “cinematic,” I contend what High Guard always has done well is highlight the design differences between ships. In other words, the High Guard starship combat system compliments the starship design system. The starship design system asks architects to make design decisions, but the impact of those decisions are not seen until the ships get tested in combat.

In High Guard, no matter what weapon is fired the “relative computer size” is very important. This makes designing a ship more than simply finding the right computer to fit the Jump Drive. The emphasis on computers in High Guard actually helped me understand the Book 2 ships computer rules better. By the mid-1980s the microcomputer revolution was well underway, and many people focused on how “ridiculous” the space needed for ship’s computers in Book 2 (and later Book 5 High Guard) was. High Guard helped me to understand those “CPU” rules in Book 2 and how a better computer gave ships the capability to not only run more programs, but better ones. The computer rules in High Guard and the relative computer rating in combat were abstractions of Book 2, but that abstraction gave me a better understanding of the more finite model. It goes a long way towards explaining why the canonical System Defense Boat (SDB) found in Supplement 7 Traders and Gunboats has a Model/5fib computer. That computer often means the SDB has a significant to-hit advantage over most commercial—and pirate—vessels and often can stand toe-to-toe with larger warships.

In many ways the different tech levels in High Guard presaged the different “generations” of weapons we have today. The difference between a 5th Generation fighter like the F-35 and a Cold War MiG-23 is night and day, like the difference between a TL11 ship and one of equal tonnage built at TL15 in High Guard.

Agile Thinking

The High Guard space combat system makes extensive use of the Agility rating of ship. The concept of Agility in High Guard has always been one of the hardest concepts to grasp about the entire game. I mean, we all know that tiny snub fighters can run circles around giant Star Destroyers, eh? In High Guard the explanation of Agility is buried in the ship design section under Energy Points:

Agility: Energy points remaining after weapons, screens, and computers have been installed may be applied toward the ship’s agility rating. Divide the remaining energy points by .01M; the result is the number of agility points a ship has. Drop all fractional points. Agility is the ability of a ship to make violent maneuvers and take evasive action while engaging hostile targets. A ship’s agility rating may never exceed it maneuver rating. For each power plant hit received in combat (cumulative) the ship’s agility rating is reduced by one.

High Guard, p. 28

This definition has always been confusing to me. In Traveller, a ship moves (non-FTL) using a maneuver drive. So how can a Maneuver-1 ship have higher “agility” than a Maneuver-6 ship, especially when agility is tied to violent and evasive maneuvers?

Regardless of what Agility is, a target’s Agility rating is a negative DM on the to-hit roll. The more you can “jink” the better chance you have of not getting hit. It is also important to note that the Pilot skill also adds to Agility in the same way Ship’s Tactics add to computer size.

Size (and Shape) Matter

Two other design choices in High Guard have importance; size and configuration. Smaller ships are harder to hit, and different configurations matter when it comes to the biggest and baddest of the major weapons, Meson Guns. I welcomed those who wanted to build a huge Imperial Star Destroyer; that USP Code 1 Needle/Wedge was a better target for Meson Guns, unlike the ungainly USP Code 7 Dispersed Structure that was the hardest to score damage against.

Attack – Defend

Every weapon in High Guard has advantages and disadvantages. While to-hit is affected by range, computer size, agility, and target size, once a hit is achieved the defenses must be penetrated. The penetration tables also show which defenses are relevant. Every weapon in High Guard has a corresponding defense:

  • Attacking Missiles are defended against by Sandcasters or Beams as well as Repulsors and Nuclear Dampers
  • Attacking Beam weapons are defended against by Sandcasters
  • Meson Guns must defeat Meson Screens and deal with different configurations
  • Particle Accelerators must deal with armor.

Armor is perhaps the most interesting defense because it actually affects most weapons, but it not factored into combat until damage determination. Damage comes in three forms; Surface Explosion, Radiation, and Interior Explosion. Different weapons roll on different tables:

  • Energy Weapons, Lasers, and non-Nuclear Missiles roll Surface Explosion only
  • Nuclear Missiles roll Surface Explosion and Radiation
  • Particle Weapons roll Surface Explosion and Radiation
  • Meson Guns toll Radiation and Internal Explosion.

Armor is a positive DM (better for defender) on the Surface Explosion and Radiation tables (except for Meson Guns). A nuclear missile gets a -6 DM on the Surface Explosion table. Pulse Lasers also get a -2 DM on that same table.

There are two rules in High Guard that go a long way towards making this combat system more “friendly” for large ships. Any ship firing with a “battery” factor of 9 or less gains a +6 DM on the damage tables—in practice this means smaller ships tend to “chip away” at their opponents and don’t get critical hits. Conversely, the heaviest combatants with major spinal mount weapons gain extra damage rolls with bigger guns. The canonical Plankwell-class dreadnought in Supplement 9 Fighting Ships mounting a factor-T Meson Gun will get 17 damage rolls on BOTH the Radiation and Interior Explosion damage tables if it hits and penetrates!

Reading Justice

Look again at the Arm of Justice I designed above. What can we expect about the ship in combat?

  • Computer: A Model/3fib is the best computer available at TL-9…but is disadvantaged against a higher tech opponent sporting a better computer
  • Agility: Agility 0 confers no advantage in Initiative or combat
  • Size: Size J is right in the sweet spot of combat with no modifiers
  • Particle Accelerator: The PA Bays are not affected by range, but they are less than factor-9 and must deal with armor on the Surface Explosion and Radiation tables (two damage rolls per hit) which leads to many “chipping” hits
  • Laser Turrets: The small factor makes these offensively all but ineffective against anything but undefended targets; best to save these for use as defense
  • Sandcaster Turrets: Not much defense but at least a little to make it harder for lower-tech opponents to penetrate
  • Armor: An armor factor of 9 makes this one a tough nut to crack and offsets the nuclear missile DM-6 on the Surface Explosion damage table.

Feature image “Donnager under attack” by Ryan Denning via artstation

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