There are a few game systems that do a nice job of handling large scale battles, and the participation of characters in them, but not all RPGs — particularly those that focus more on character and story — deal with the different scales of a Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica-style capital ships, fighters, people running around shooting stuff all at the same time kind of action, especially when you have characters operating at all of these levels.

We’ll use the latest Battlestar Galactica session I ran last week as an example (with some augmentation here and there to illustrate some points…) We have finally reached the events of the miniseries in our campaign, and the characters have replaced those of the show for this iteration of the story (search this site for “after action report” and you should be able to find postings that will explain more on this.) Last night was the breakout from Ragnar Anchorage, which meant going toe-to-toe with the Cylons. As in the series, Galactica — this time with the aid of other surviving military units — have to scatter the Cylons and hold the line over the anchorage while the civilian vessels jump to safety. This means coordinated capital ship action (one of the PC, Commander Pindarus, running that), Viper on Raider action with PCs flying the vipers, and we would have had another character aiding in damage control in the fight, had they attended that evening.

Battles in BSG, Star Wars, and Star Trek often take hours, not minutes, or the seconds of personal combat in many games. To capture the difference in scales, I suggest that at the start of combat, the capital level stuff goes first — battlestar and basestar exchange their initial salvos, and any character involved in gunnery or command of the vessel, or electronic warfare gets to take their actions for the round. Next goes the fighter/vehicle-level action, then the personal-level stuff. Now to show longer time frames of battles for such a fight, I typically allow the personal and vehicle scale players to have another two or three rounds to show the speed with which their combat or actions take before returning to the capital-level attacks. (In the case of the damage control stuff, I would most likely call these extended tests and have them roll at the same time as the capital level actions.)

Here Galactica launched her fighters, set up her flak barrier with the point defense, but before she could start wailing on the nearest basestar, they were hit by a missile salvo from the same. (They lost initiative.) Galactica returned fire relatively ineffectually for the first round. Next, the CAG rolled for the fighter groups. Here I was assuming his pilot and initiative counted for the vipers vs. the Cylons. They won, he rolled brilliantly for the first round of engagement and they splash a bunch of toasters and only lose one guy. The other pilot character got to duke it out one on one with a raider — she’s a pilot, it’s her schtick — always let your players get a chance to strut their character’s stuff, if you can help it.  The viper squadrons rolled again, this time only a few toasters go down and no vipers. A third go-round for pilots and blasting Cylons.

Galactica got initiative on the next round and did well, pasting the basestar hard. However the viper squadronds do almost nothing and the Cylons damage 12 of the vipers in the round. They break through and start a run toward the EW raptors, to try and clear the jamming the Colonials are using to keep the missiles from damaging the battlestar and civilian ships. The next two rounds are viper squadrons and pilot characters dogfighting with raiders.

The next capital round, the Cylons are done playing. Galactica gets a radiological alarm and the Cylons fire a nuke. The EW raptors jam it and keep the ship safe. Finally the civilian ships are all out. The next two rounds are the pilots attempting their combat landings before the ship jumps to safety.

Now originally, I had planned for a Cylon agent to have been activated in Galactica during the breakout and there to have been a fight between a marine PC and the bad guy that would have been resolved like a normal fight at the same time as the viper combat — three rounds of action to every one for Galactica and other capital ships. It would have happened in the CIC and anything that distracted the command staff, or injured them, etc. would have had an effect on the way Galactica was fighting during her rounds.

You can experiment with the time between capital ship rounds, but I find three is enough to allow for fast paced action for the characters in teh thick of things, but not so long that the commander and/or other characters involved in shiphandling get bored.