I don’t think Free League should have included ship design rules in the Alien Core book. We didn’t really need them, and I don’t think they create ships that are useful mechanisms for play in the Alien universe.
Now, admittedly, I am basing this on my frustration with trying to build a UPP battleship with the tools provided, and on Dave’s attempts to do the same for the Three World Empire in the last show. It could reasonably be argued that neither are the sort of ships we should be building for an Alien adventure, and neither are they the sort of ships players would want to build. But even though I am using these tools to do a job they were not designed for, I will argue that my frustrations point to a flaw in the philosophy of ship design in Alien that, by putting the rules in the core book, Free League have now stuck in our (the fans’) mindsets and which will be difficult to change.
But first of all, let me tell you about my response to the the challenge. I had been warned by Dave’s failure to make HMS Yamato anything but an aircraft carrier – the rules as they stand push you towards that solution because there is precious little else to fill your larger spaceships with. So for a while I thought about not making Potemkin a battleship at all. I flirted with the idea of making it like one of those little vessels that haunted British seas in the eighties, passing themselves off as fishing boats while actually packed with all the latest Russian surveillance gear. (When I say the eighties, its only because we heard a lot about them at the time. We hear less now, but perhaps we should assume they haunt our waters still.) But its the Potemkin, the ship which started the Russian Revolution of 1905, and the subject of a film which started a revolution in film production (called “editing”). It deserves to be better than a spy-ship dressed up as a fishing boat.
So, I turned to the core book with a determination to make a battleship, not another aircraft carrier. And the first problem I discovered is – how big should it be? Of course all this is abstracted, But the book lists four classes: C, G, M and R, and suggest m class vessels are what PCs should aspire too. So if an M class vessel is Nostromo, and G – Class vessel is Serenity (errr… I mean “The Betty”) what class, in size terms, would a warship be? They give us a warship, the frigate Conestoga. Its about the size of a R class but has many fewer modules – a R class can have 21 or various sizes.The Conestoga has … 9. Oh – hold on it has 20 EEVs – so its has … er 28… hmmm. An R class has capacity for six weapon systems. The Consetoga has … 8. So it doesn’t follow the Rules as Written – OK, author prerogative. Thats OK (he fumes). (And he notes that in the listing on page 180, each vessel has its class listed – except the Conestoga, which has a class of … Conestoga.)
The Potemkin is a Battleship though, so has to be bigger than this vessel. Should I invent a class? My notes say S?, T? V?
V… in my head-canon the Potemkin is a V class or Volga class ship. Mmmmm yessssss. But still, what size should it be? I try instead to build it from the inside out. What are the components I want? I will build it and size it around those. Redundancy is a theme I want to include on this UPP ship. Two of everything! Even two AIs! I have a lovely idea about ship AI conflicts, mirroring counter-revolutionary vitriol in communist politics. I even think of calling them LEN.N and Tr.T.S.K.Y. for a while, before deciding that is too heavy handed. And I am looking through the list of modules with a sinking heart, realising that there simply are not enough components of a suitable size to even double up in a warship, when my eyes alight on the hanger. A size five hanger can accommodate a Class M ship.
And suddenly my vision is transformed. Potemkin will be a ship of two parts – the hanger does not contain a class M but rather is a complex set of systems that allows the class M vessel to be connected with the… errr… the other part (class R?) to make an even bigger vessel. YES! And the class M vessel of course has the Planetfall Capacity upgrade (don’t get me started on upgrades) so its like a big landing craft, while the other section becomes an orbital bombardment platform! Yes! This is starting be be a thing.
So, I start with what I am now calling the Atmospheric Interface Komponent. Two sets of size three scrubbers (redundancy you see?) then one size four cargo hold (this ship has to feed its orbital mother) and a size four vehicle bay packing ten APCs (for the marines, it has marines now) plus a size three bay for a tractor, and two size two bays (for Gyrocars – who else thinks about Edward Olmos’s car in Bladerunner when they read that word? Just me?). So now we have marines we’ll need a size four cryo unit and a size four galley too for when they wake up. Not duplicating those at all, they have their own redundancy. But there are four class D lifeboats, three medlabs, and two docking umbilicals. An M class is not a weapons platform and I consider the Added Hardpoints upgrade but in the end decide against it. So just one heavy and two medium rail-gun turrets. Oh! And even though the glorious UPP does not have decadent things like corporate suites it does have a Diplomatic suite which is where you will usually find the Commissar.
One more thing to note. This component has no AI or displacement drive. Those are both on the CosmoKomponent as the weapons platform is called. And of course so are their redundant systems. Most the core components are duplicated of the CosmoKomponent – two bridges, two sensor arrays, comms arrays, reactors, and drives. That will fill up a lot of space. Plus two more sets of scrubbers (size four) and two class D lifeboats. Another, smaller galley and cyro deck, another couple of med-labs. Maybe just one science lab. I am not sure I am using up all the modules this way but I have stopped counting.
Instead I am giving it all the weapons on the Conestoga, but two of each. Because I can … because this is a class V and there are no rules for a class V… yet. And because now, I am having fun.
But that brings us to the nub of my argument. Free League have given us a simple, fun system not massively different from that found in Coriolis. No its doesn’t really work for building battle ships, but that can be solved with a later supplement, if that’s what the audience wants.
But I argue that ships in Alien shouldn’t be fun. It can be fun in other space games to spend some big haul you earned (or stole) on an upgrade for your ship, just like to might upgrade your armour or your gun or some other tool. But the ships in the Alien verse are not tools, they are settings. They are not meant to be fun, and definitely not meant to be upgraded. They should be imposed on players – PCs should feel weighed down by their responsibility to their ships, not liberated by them. They should find them confusing and get lost in them, not know it with a designers eye. If they had not included ship design in the core book, this philosophy would be inherent in the system, even if later on some supplement gave players the opportunity to design or … ugh upgrade, their vessel.
But now Free League have handed over the keys to the car, they can’t ever take it back…