Friday, September 4, 2009

Role-Playing/Narrating a Hard Sci-fi's Starship's Bridge

Ever wondered how hard is the job of a Sensor Officer aboard a ship? Given the advances in computers at present day, there is that pitfall assumption that the sci-fi profession will just get easier.

Gunnery Officer
Descriptions: There are Gunner roles offensive and defensive. At the offensive role he has to face the opposing force's Gunnery, EW and the Nav Officers or the meager computers substituting them.

The Gunnery officer is not just a click and shoot job. Fire patterns and the target's defensive patterns are calculated, updated, and corrected continuously based on the immediate results at hand, this makes Gunnery a very complicated math intensive job as the officer tries as quickly as possible. The gunner also controls and coordinates the missiles, specifically their EW penetration aids, evasion pattern, navigation, target priorities, and formation. The gunner must be proficient in the use of EW

On the defensive role, the Gunner is also the second line of defense (the first being the Nav Officer with evasion maneuvers). They coordinate point defense fire control solutions for direct energy weapons, and counter missiles. This is made up of very complicated constantly correcting patterns that try to anticipate the enemy's pattern as quickly as possible.

Skills: Artillery Missile, Gunner (Beam Weapon), Electronics Operation (Electronic Warfare)
Typically Mixed Role: Navigation, Tactical, and ECM duties.
Bridge Scenario (System Mechanics):

Electronic Counter Measures Officer.
Description: This job is one that very few GMs are able to imagine and visualize. In fact, it is one mostly forgotten in many games. Generally Electronic Warfare is a very broad description of task and duties referring to sensors and communications manipulation. Specifically, on a Sci-Fi starship bridge it refers to Offensive and Defensive Electronics Warfare. EW generally refers to offensive use of Electronic Warfare which is tackled by the Gunner. Electronic Counter Measures is the term used to describe the Defensive EW role.

Defensively the ECM officer is the ship's life saver, he is the last and final defense (in Hard Sci-fi) of any star ship against enemy attacks. He is a cross between the street hustler and a special effects director. His highly complex and Special FX shell game of signals, patterns, drones and dummies create a veil of uncertainty to conceal the precise location of the ship despite being localized in a "hex".

The ECM officer uses external ECM missiles or drones to bounce all the ship's signals with complex programmed distribution and reflection patters. Patterns can be imagined as a house of mirrors displacing the actual ship coordinates far enough to be believable from their actual location.

The ECM officer usually coordinates with the Navigators, as they base all their calculations of the 3d Maps and coordinate with their evasion patterns.

Typically Mixed Role:
Bridge Scenario (System Mechanics):

Chief Engineer.
Description: Scotty may be the most popular star hip engineer because of pop media but the engineer is far from just go-to guy if the captain has problems with the ship.

Life Support, Jump/Hyper Drives, Maneuver Drives, Operational Electronics and Computers, Power Allocations, Weaponry, and the Ship's Hull and Frame are the domains of the engineer. Although, typically all ship systems are automated to be self regulating and monitoring as to reduce the chances of human error.

The Engineer's first job is to manage the technology of a ship in areas the accumulated knowledge of the makers cannot anticipate. The Engineer's has to be constantly aware and ready with the best precautionary measures they can take with the limitations of what is on hand of the ship in case of failure. He does this with the help of the ship's diagnostics computer the ship's vulnerabilities and analyzing the work life of every part. He then drafts a number of measures and procedures, as well a drilling his underlings and the rest of the crew in how a systematic way of countering these possible failures.

Regularly Ship Systems have updates and sometimes these updates have to be scrutinized by the Engineering Section. In return, the Ship also reports operational insight to the manufacturers. All of these elements have to be presented and clarified to a lot of people.

The second job of the Engineering section is allowing the ship to work past their safe operational parameters in order to get out some necessary performance. The trade of such action is the reduced work life of certain parts (in game terms- self inflicted injury).

Engineers typically have a robot helper (like R2D2) who act like a mobile ship diagnostics computer, tool kit, as well as independent systems interface. Because of the potential repairs ships may need in hazardous and frontier journeys there would be ideally 3 Heavy Spider Exo-Skeletons and roughly 5% to 10% of ship cargo allocated to spare parts costing roughly 1 month's worth of maintenance. Ships like the Serenity will still have such safety-nets available if the crew wants to be able to sleep at night.
Bridge Scenario (System Mechanics): 1 dHP is of a ship represent 1/Total dHP cost of the ship. Every time the ship pushes the envelope, the Engineer rolls -1 per 5% of improved performance to he is trying to get out of the systems, at a maximum of +25%. Failure means nothing happens. Although, any such occassion the ship must roll HT, on a success it only loses 1 dHP per turn and per 5% "pushing the envelope" on a failure double the self inflicted damage.

Sensor Officer.
Description: The sensor officer's job is not supposed to read out loud what the instruments are detecting. First off, sensor data is very course and rough. They are rarely in anyway makes sense to a layman and often in distances of a light micro second there are no visuals (like in submarine combat). It basically almost like watching strings of codes crawling across the screen, except that advances in computer interface will try to make some intuitive sense of these streams of data.
Computers are used to measure, filter and translate the course information presented by the sensors. They posses a huge data library of emissions, signatures, frequencies, signals, and metrics of everything it detectable and provide these suggestions to the Sensor Officer. Another way to imagine a sensor station is to compare it to a Crime Lab forensically drawing a picture of the crime by stringing together subtle and obscure clues.

Another monumental task of the Sensor Officer is to keep track all these detectable objects and hand them over to the Navigations Officer. Typically these objects also shift and change their displaying attributes as the ship's relative motion affects what it can detect from it as well as the effect its surroundings will have on the object.

Active vs Passive Sensors. I mentioned that Visuals are something of a least likely a Sensor Officer can encounter. This is because space with all its sources of light creates an infinitesimal level of gradation that eats up a lot of computing power (and thus energy) and requires time and special equipment.
Skills: Electronic Operations (Sensors), Expertise (Space Faring Vessels),
Bridge Challenge (System Mechanics): The Sensor Officer has to choose the order of objects to process. This is tricky and require a lot of intuition and experience to guess which may be a random cluster of micro meteors or stealthed missile group.

Sensors have bands of effectiveness. The default Sensor Range Band (or SRB) is equal to Ship Size Modifier -6 or Sensor Model-No x 2. SRB in Hexes counts as Close Range for Ship sensors. Everything at this band has gives the sensors a +3 to +7 bonus. Objects at SRB x2 to x3 in hexes have a +2 to -2 from being successfully detected and identified. At SRB x4, objects have a -5 to -10 of being detected and identified. Add the object's Active Signature, Sensor Stance (Active and Broadcasting vs Silent and Passive).

The GM typically describes things in general terms to the Sensor Officer based on the roll. The better the roll the more informative. On a margin of 5 or better it is an identification, on a critical success specific signature details (outside normal working parameters) mark it's finger print. He can use certain detectable traits to describe "Big" or "Small", "Dense" or "Light", Estimates on the Levels of Power coursing through the ship (about 110MW to 1GWs), "Fast moving" or "Evasive", etc. It is the Player who draws up the conclusions

It takes around 1d or 1 to 6 minutes (average of 3) for the Sensor Officer of the scan through an object. Apply Haste Rules, Range Modifier (Scaled in the Hexes Size), and Tool Quality.

Navigation Officer
Description: At first glance, many would assume Navigation Officers are merely tasked in plotting how a ship will get from A to B. It's not that simple.

As in many Sci-fi settings, ships capable of moving in fractions of light speed will have very complicated vectors as they have to account for the perhaps a several to a hundred different gravities factor, avoid obstacles (like belts, rings, clouds, flares, "winds" etc.), follow official lanes and paths, and plot complex intercept courses with other near-light moving detectable bodies.

The Navigator has to also has to filter the data of the Sensor Officer and updating the 3d map for the rest of the Bridge Crew. This also requires the Nav officer to predict potential vectors of other relevant moving objects relative to the ship. He also has to calculate one or two other vector, maneuvers and actions options for the CO to weigh in.

In combat situations the Navigator has to calculate and update evasion pattern solutions as well as coordinate with the ECM, Engineering, and Gunnery Officers.

Computers will be mostly tasked in making all the routine crunchy computations and to organize, format, efficiently present all the data.
Bridge Scenario (System Mechanics):

Communications Officer
Description: The communications officer is not the captain's secretary. The Comm officer is tasked to look at all detectable electronic patterns, monitor all channels of communications and to quickly gather and organize electronic intelligence. The comm officer is also the ship cipher, actively trying to penetrate enemy communications as well as protecting allied channels. Often the Comm Officer handles the ECM role has he uses the drones to bounce off signals to hide the ship's actual position.

Broadcast vs Tight Beam. Tight Beam is secure way to communicate with other ships and objects unfortunately there are severe limits to its range similar to that of lasers: eventually the physical precision of the mechanism cannot accurately target the beam at a certain range.

At certain ranges the tight beam tends to fray, this is intentional as to hit its intended target at its most extreme range. This suffers the same security risk the broadcasting, but requires very very skilled stealth sensor drone control.

Broadcasting is not spherical but a very narrow cone to get more range. It eats up a lot of power, to get at its farthest range, but can reach much farther ranges than tight beam at the cost of security. as well as communicate with more targets. Since anyone or their drone in the region of the broadcast can pick it up, record it, and break it only certain information can be used with broadcasting.

The computers not only aid the Comm Officer in organizing and keep track of a thousand different things, it analyzes broadcasts by looking for key words or codes in a hundred different languages. Comm equipment is suitably equipped at the task of Data Storage and Ciphering.
Bridge Scenario (System Mechanics):

Ship Steward.
Description. Neither is Ship Steward the crew's or the Captain's assistant. The job of the steward is that he or she is the Chief Operating Officer aboard the ship. This is a task that should not be taken lightly, because in every successful operation there is a very capable logistics officer behind it.

As the chief operating officer the Steward is in charge of the books (accounting), which entails keeping track of expenses, projecting future expenses, making sure the crew gets their pay, listening to all the operation concerns of every member of the crew, managing human resources, stretching resources and finding ways to increase profit (by either lowering operating cost OR adding value to the service).
As it goes in ranks aboard a ship, in a civilian ship he is directly below the Ship Master, sometimes even holds greater authority over the commanding officer in matters of the share holders (which is different from stake holders).

Sometimes the Steward also serves the chief Business Intelligence Officer, processing massive amounts of business data collected in the ship's travells to best predict when the next opportunity will open up for the Ship.
Bridge Scenario (System Mechanics): None

Executive and Tactical Officer.
Description: As I've been explaining the tasks of the bridge crew it is quite easy to realize that they are very complicated. This is why the executive officer is needed to help the Commanding Officer organize and processes all this complex data as an added level of safety and certainty when a decision is made.

Time pressure very often in dangerous situations prevent the Commanding Officer from contemplating his decisions and it is the Tac/Exec job to provide him that Point of View that prevents him from being blind sided. This requires the Exec/Tac Officer to be the CO best critic and follower.

Often enough, there number of tasks exceed the grasp of the Commanding officer. This is when the Executive Officer steps up and handles it while the CO keeps all his attention on the more important priories.
Bridge Scenario (System Mechanics):

Commanding Officer.
Description: John G. Hemry description of a Commanding Officer in Lost Fleet suffices for me to describe the virtues of what is desired from a CO. Mr Hemry's description is not alone in the many Ideals expected from a CO, which the GM and the Players must choose depending on their taste and playing style. Most importantly, the CO must be a capable bridge officer and can get inside the heads of his officers to appreciate How they interpreted the data they are giving him as he is the final arbiter of the data's priority, relevance and identity.

The CO's main job is to lead and to analyze the bigger picture of whats going on. While everyone is busy with the detail, the CO points their efforts towards the direction that will let them survive, succeed or get the job done.

Both the CO and the Tac/Exec have their own display console and computer presenting all the information as conveniently, completely and efficiently as possible. They also put their own highly technical input on this console and not just call out the crewmen. In fact all dictation on the bridge come with subtitles to make sure and confirm all expressions are understood with certainty.

Ship Master.
Description: The Ship master is often the ship owner. If he knows better (and he should with such a valuable investment going around very dangerous waters) he leaves the experts to do their job. In the ship commercial hierarchy the corporate representative or head (if the corporation only extends to the ship itself) is next to "God" in command. On warships there is no ship owner and the CO is next to "God" in command.

Often the Commanding Officer (or his exec) or the Ship Steward happens to be the ship owner.

As an Added Bonus:

Sci-Fi Ground Forces:

Field Tactical Officer.
Description: Since I'm on the page of describing the Sensor and Tactical officer on a Starship's Bridge, this leads me to mention that a Sci-Fi Ground Forces Tactical Officer does the same thing.

His primary task is to create an advanced field of detection and process it to useful Intelligence. He also maintains the tight beam communications with each individual of his squad. His tools are his combat computer (see my Load Outs), and reconnaissance robots.

His Combat Role is to upload the updated visual tactical display of every member of the squad. So the guy drawing, coloring, uploading video, text and audio and intelligence on the Squad member's HUD display is the annoying nagging Tac-Of.

The Robots of the Tactical Officer can be called a "Familiar" as the role of the officer is close to the DnD controllers. They shape the battle field with the help of intelligence and coordination. Sometimes these Familiars are armed and the very often the Tac Of has not hands free and relies on his shoulder mounted weapon (typically an 40mm auto-grenade launcher).

Description: They are the eyes and ears of the Tactical officers. In sci-fi with advanced endurance operational technology and incredible weapon lethality (despite advances in defense) Robots take to the battle field not as killers but as valuable companions. (yep just like the DnD Ranger)

Typically these companion AI robots are maintained and controlled by scout-rangers and can be any form that suits the Player's fancy, personally I go a bit soft on these with battle cats, steel wolves, Stealth Falcons, insectile ornithopters etc.

Primarily the Robots are ultra stealthy advanced sensors, who can physically go in a manner and carry more stealth equipment that no human can. Rarely are these delicate and highly specialized tools put in direct combat (because of their huge monetary cost but more for because it is outside their core competence) but what limited disruptive tools (and weapon) these robots can carry allow their "handlers" optimum flanking advantage in a fire fight.

Quoting Myself on this Thread
Crackerjack just gave me an idea for a squad organization. Another advantage of keeping costs down and being able to field more is the more specialized roles that come up. A specialized tactical officer, feeding data to the troops, converting the commanders orders to HUD visuals, maintaining tight beam comm, and coordinating with other forces takes advantage of the quantity vs quality advantage.

A Squad Loaded out with Robot Scouts (like the battle cat in that Mars movie) as a forward sensor edge, moving as a diffuse mass, and with Operational Endurance will make for a pretty effective strike force that can be fielded without PA (just Load Bearing Exo-skeletons). Small fan-hovering robots could be relays to keep transmission secure all via tight beam and even if there is orbital dominance the size and lack of a long logistical trail makes this group way more effective at stealth.

Forward (fast manuvering)
marksman, heavy weapons and anti-armor
tactical officer (controls the robot scouts)
squad commander

at TL10 Man-POrtable Stealth Plateaus at Multi-Spec Cammo and Deceptive ECM. the nice thing about the non-PA is the redundancy non-PA load outs have (see shared load-outs) when the M-spec Cammo suffers battle or environmental damage.

operational endurance factors greatly in stealth because it creates a wider search area while maintaining a low sig. So even if they are looking for them, they have more ground to cover.

Lastly- this set up lets a squad get close enough to peek, mark targets and take anti armor measures while fading back into stealth. (time delayed disposable missile launchers).

PA on the other hand seems to really dominate ship boarding because of DR threshold of a ship's internals

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