Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Spaceships of the System

     Inspired by friend-of-the-blog Archon's excellent work on Orbiters Local 519 (print copy here), and recently reminded of this project by Skerples' sci-fi thoughts, I've been reworking a very old setting of mine. It's a sci-fi sword-and-planet sort of thing, leaning towards the oiled-up-barbarian side of the He-ManBlindsight axis and standing with Kirk in the middle of the John CarterTNG axis.

    Hey! Author here: I was so amused by the idea of the chart I described in the paragraph above that I spent two hours assembling it and arguing about it on Discord. Here it is. If you disagree, leave an angry comment and I might update the chart/insult you.

I don't like the terms "hard sci-fi" and "soft sci-fi", I find them imprecise and obfuscating, for reasons I shan't repeat in this caption but will gladly elucidate if you buy me a beer.

    But how do you go about explaining a setting? Off the top of my head, I can't think of any tabletop "setting guide" I really enjoyed or found interesting, especially not before playing the damn game. Information I must choke down is never satisfying. So instead of a big timeline and a long list of events, I'll be cutting the "guide" into some big chunks of (maybe) useful player information.

    The System is, obviously, a solar system. It's made up of dozens of life-bearing planets, with almost as many intelligent species, orbiting a subgiant star named, unimaginatively, "the Sun". The System's civilizations have been spacefaring for a few centuries, but tech level is still well below that of Star Wars — it's a bit like the Honor Harrington books, if you've read those. No glowing energy shields, no talkative robots, no demigod AI, no traveling to other solar systems, combat largely centered on torpedo salvos (love a salvo) and railgun broadsides (love a broadside) and boarding actions (love a good boarding action). If you want to matter in the System, you've got to get a ship.


  1. Spaceship Boats. Spaceships aren't fragile collections of exchangeable modules (like modern spacecraft and the ISS), they are big boats. They're built once as a big solid hull with a front end and a back end, and then they're basically the same thing forever. A spaceship might pass between many captains over decades and decades of service, until it meets with catastrophe or the maintenance costs grow too high, and then it's scrapped. You know, like a boat.
  2. Space Submarines. Spaceships are specifically like the kinds of boats that go around under the sea, sometimes called unterseeboots. Most of them are cramped, overbuilt pressure chambers where the expected fail-state is "irretrievably lost with all hands".
  3. Cassette Futurism. Spaceships are driven around by pilots with minimal artificial assistance, mostly from analog instruments. Space stations are run by people, not AI. Most problems can be solved with a wrench and a slide rule. There are no touchscreens.
  4. Artificial Gravity. It exists in a lot of sci-fi, but I feel like pointing it out.
  5. Fuel is Valuable. Most spaceships run on chemical rockets, which need fuel to operate. Control of that fuel is control of space. 
  6. Interplanetary Travel is Slow. Transit times are long. Even with spaceships several times faster than our earth-rockets, traveling to a different world will take you weeks or months. 
  7. Interplanetary Space is Big. This is a corollary to the last point. The harder it is to move around, the harder it is to find someone or chase down a lead or explore an unsettled world, and the easier it is to hide yourself or get lost forever.

    While I've got you, I should mention that a "ship" has the fuel and life support capacity to travel between planets, while a "boat" does not. Carry on.


     Any numbers given for crew-count assume a military vessel. The complement on civilian ships is typically less than a quarter of that of military ship of comparable size, because they don't expect major repairs, long duties at battle-stations, boarding actions or the need for replacements. Pirate ships are usually stuffed to the gills (often twice the complement or more) for all the opposite reasons.
  1. Destroyer 
    A destroyer is any warship (i.e. a ship for fighting ships) which is shorter than 100m. Usually crewed by fewer than 300, without a complement of boarders. Doesn't carry its own depot (material for maintaining the ship and crew) so needs a tender. Any pirate would be proud to fly a real destroyer as his flagship, while planetary governments have dozens of them and the Lithians have so many they use them for policing.
  2. Cruiser
    100m to 300m, 300 to 800 enlisted. Ships of this size usually have a complement of borders, and this is the the sweet spot for a large ship to carry its own depot. Most ships large enough to have a shuttle bay will, but cruisers are large enough to carry (that is, maintain and support) at least one or two fighters, and some are purpose-built to carry dozens. These are the largest ships built in most navies.
  3. Battleship
    It's absurd to build a ship larger than a cruiser (300 meters is more than big enough), or have a larger crew complement (often into the mid to high 1000s). It's impractical to carry multiple battalions of boarders, and squads of engineers, and dozens of fighter craft, and multiple batteries of guns each of which could pound a destroyer into scrapmetal. Nobody actually needs a battleship, but golly, they're fun to have. 
  4. Tender
    A fat little ship not built for combat, usually between a destroyer and a cruiser in size, with plenty of depot and probably a few bays for smaller craft. Every fleet has a few of these tagging along. They're comparable to civilian cargo ships, except typically slightly smaller, and fast enough to keep up with the ships they tend to.
  5. Corvette
    Forget what else you might have heard: in the System, a "corvette" is a small ship, typically around 30m with fewer than 30 crew, with interplanetary capability. It's so tiny that it can probably haul its own depot around behind it in a cargo crate. Were a corvette to have comparable weapons to a destroyer it would be a destroyer (albeit a small one) by definition; and therefore, also by definition, corvettes are underequipped for real naval action.
  6. Gunboat
    A "gunboat" is a small ship, typically around 30m with fewer than 30 enlisted, with the armament of a destroyer and without interplanetary capabilities. They are by far the most common combat ship in the System, since it's much easier to put a gun or a rack of torpedoes on a boat than to equip it for months-long journeys between planets.
  7. Fighter
    A fighter is a very small ship, typically around 10m with fewer than 10 enlisted, and sometimes only crewed by a lone pilot. The line between a large fighter and a small gunboat is thin, but gunboats typically have more volume dedicated to fuel reserves and so have deployment times measured in days, while fighters (being smaller, and mostly guns by weight) have deployment times measured in hours. The line between a fighter and a shuttle is clear: a fighter can blow you up tae fuck.
  8. Shuttle
    You know what a shuttle is, darn it. It can't travel between planets (if it could it would be a small corvette), but it can probably travel between lunar and terrestrial orbits.
  9. Capital
    A name sometimes given to the most titanic of battleships, with nations of crew, armies of boarders, facilities for refitting destroyers, independently a threat to stations and major planetary installations. Only a few ships in the System have been called a "capital", all of them built for the Lithian navy.

Not all planets (in fact, not even every major polity) is marked on this map. There are dozens more, and dozens of dozens of more moons and dwarf planets and asteroid belts and so forth.

Frequently Asked Questions:

So how does this artificial gravity you mentioned work?

    Artificial gravity comes from an advanced application of a field of science called Phantom Acceleration. To simplify things down to powerpoint levels: your ship has a very large electromechanical flywheel made out of very dense material. It hovers in the air in a room of your ship, a little ways off from the main body, on a cushion of magnetism. When the ship needs to turn in place without using maneuvering thrusters it clamps onto the flywheel ("clamping" with magnets; physically touching the flywheel would have explosive results) and spins gyroscopically. When the ship needs to apply artificial gravity to its passengers, it bleeds angular momentum off of the flywheel (this is the "phantom acceleration") and applies a downwards force to the contents of the hull and an equal upwards force to itself.

Isn't that impossible?

    Yes. I am describing something like a Gyroscopic Inertial Thruster, which is a type of reactionless drive that has never had any measurable function in laboratory environments.

Isn't that incoherent?

    You're incoherent.

No I mean, all that technobabble sounds like a bunch of vague science words from someone who got an F in Physics 1

    I got a D in Physics 1, thanks.

Does this mean I can fly around using only artificial gravity i.e. is this a reactionless drive?

    Yes, that's what I literally just said.

Does this mean I can fly around forever i.e. is this a perpetual motion device?

    No, moron, didn't you read the description? The artificial gravity comes from the momentum of the flywheel. Applying artificial gravity slows the flywheel down. Eventually it needs to be spun up again; around these parts they use big frightening super-electro-magnets to do this, and it's a pretty common thing to get your phantom accelerator topped up while you're refueling at a port and doing other maintenance things.

Does this mean I can deflect bullets and lasers i.e. is this a forcefield?

    Kind of, since you can create a "field" where "force" is applied. You can use phantom acceleration to push back against impactors or reduce/nullify the effects of a collision on your crew. This makes explosive shells preferable to cannonballs, typically, and makes ramming with a reinforced prow not a completely insane thing to do with your spaceship.
    Phantom acceleration operates on electromagnetism, so you can't apply it to things outside the conductive hull of your ship — unless you're a Phoban and do that anyway because you are terrifying and your understanding of the technology is decades ahead of anyone else.

You got any other bullshit you made up?

    Lots. Try this on for size: Very Low Density Nacreous-Boron Ceramic. Low Density Nacreous-Boron Ceramic. Nacreous-Boron Ceramic. High Density Nacreous-Boron Ceramic. Very High Density Nacreous-Boron Ceramic. You like that? I can go on forever. Ultra High Density Nacreous-Boron Ceramic. Extremely High Density Nacreous-Boron Ceramic.

So what happens if Devious Creepers hack your ship? Can they turn the gravity off? Flip it upside down? Flatten everyone? That sounds like a security vulnerability

    Yeah, they can do all of those. If they're in control of your ship they can also flush reactor coolant out the air ducts, or set the engines to fly you into the sun or out of the system, or blow up your torpedoes in your battery. Don't get pwned by people who mean to kill you.

Weird Types of Ship:

  1. Steelnosed Lifepods
    Standard lifepods are a coffin with a radio and an air filter. Some, less ethical or more devoted, navies have been known to equip theirs better, with things like fighter thrusters, torpedo tubes or small beam arrays. In extreme circumstances you can always weld some scrap onto the end and use them as improvised missiles, guided or unguided — hence the name.
  2. Shrike
    A Shrike is a model of narrow bullet-shaped destroyer with one major spine-mounted cannon., built for long service in far orbits, not for comfort or for evasive maneuvers. They can clamp magnetically onto other Shrikes to allow crew to circulate and assist in the operation of other ships. These tangled nests of cannons and desperate pirates were iconic images of the second Battery War, and the vast majority of Shrikes produced are officially unaccounted for.
  3. "The Koss Transport"
    The Koss make and fly in other kinds of ships, of course, but when you mention "the Koss transport" people know you're talking about their armored VIP shuttles, with hull thickness measured in meters and antigravity systems to reduce the effect of impacts on passengers to nil. They were originally built for combat around the cloud-cities of Eos, which is why they have no exterior armament or propulsion of any kind. Have you ever accidentally ignited an atmosphere made up of 3% metallic hydrogen by volume?  
  4. Biological Space Laboratory
    The System is full of planets, and those planets are full of creatures, some friendly, some unfriendly, some sapient — it's not always easy to tell which. A BSL is historically the third thing the Lithians send to explore a new planet, the first being a destroyer and the second being a destroyer tender. Each is slightly different, but they generally follow the same pattern of smaller hulls containing various artifical biomes orbiting a battleship-scale central hull for the biologists and their equipment.
  5. Face of Darkness
    The name is a single word in the agglutinative language of the Phobans who build these enormous battleships. They look like concentric, hypnotic rings-within-rings, as large as a station, and usually as heavily populated. They dart at impossible g with no reaction mass; the Phobans are masters of phantom-acceleration. Gravitic shielding tosses debris or kinetic projectiles out of the path of the ship, and technically makes it invisible from one direction, though if you know what you're looking for the whopping great cone-shaped void is obvious from a long ways off.

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