There’s always been a bit of mystique and fascination with fighter pilots from the days of the Red Baron, so it should be no surprise that there has been a fascination with those same tight dogfights IN SPAAAAAAAACE!!! Space fighters have been a big part of the Space Opera for decades, popping up in places as varied as the venerable Mobile Suit Gundam and Macross franchises (as forerunners to the famous mecha), to harder sci-fi novels such as the LAC’s in Honor Harrington, but probably the biggest exposure has come through Star Wars, with starfighter v. starfighter combat being staples of the movies, the well loved X-wing and TIE Fighter franchises, and a long stretch of novels in the Expanded Universe that brought fans fleshed out and loved characters in the form of Wedge Antilles and Corran Horn. And so the concept of these awesome space fights has been brought to us in tabletop form by our good friends over at Evil Hat with their new installment, Tachyon Squadron!
Tachyon Squadron is based off of the Fate Core system, casting the players as a volunteer squadron of fighter pilots protecting the Draconis system. The system is caught in the middle of a war between two large space empires, the Republic and the Dominion, and is being used as a proxy war between the two. It has recently broken away from the Dominion and has declared independence, and while the Republic is unable to directly aid them it hasn’t stopped them from sending their old. venerable, and decommissioned Blackbird Starfighters and some volunteers to fight for the cause. The players are charged with holding off the expansive Dominion forces while being constantly in danger, stretched thin, and running on a shoestring budget.
Building characters is mostly along standard Fate lines. You start with assigning a High Concept of what your character is supposed to be such as “Upstart Rookie” or “Legendary Ex-Smuggler”, and assign other Aspects to reflect their relationships with the other crewmembers and other interesting traits about themselves. Then you build a pyramid of skills starting with a single +4 and down to four +1’s, and assign “Stunts” as situational modifiers to augment or substitute a skill. However, there is one new wrinkle, and it’s one I like: the Trouble aspect has been replaced by Decompression, in where the player describes two ways (one healthy, one not so much) in which they stabilize themselves after combat.
Unlike many other versions of Fate, Stress does not vanish automatically at the end of an encounter. Instead, in order to reflect the pressures of combat, players have to roll to remove stress, and if that doesn’t work they need to either spend a Fate Point to remove it, or have their Decompression Aspect invoked against them. The example of this given is a pilot drinking way too much, and coming to the end of a briefing hung over with no idea of what is going on and immediately being thrown into action.
My one concern with character creation is the way stats are broken down into blocks: Spacefaring, Action, and Personal. The core book is quick to remind you that this is a game for fighter pilots. As a result, characters really need to focus on the Spacefaring skills, which leaves a large number of skills (where they are out of the cockpit) being though of as secondary. It’s a balance issue that I worry about, and I think that it requires the GM to be very careful in how they balance between life in and out of the cockpit. I would be very curious, though, about what would happen if someone built a social character first and pilot second.
The part that I think is ingenious is how the game has built space combat. What really got me into roleplaying close to a decade ago was Play by Post, the majority of which were based on the Gundam franchise and featured a heavy amount of space combat. Both organizers and longtime players found it difficult to balance combat between the two sides. Everyone wants to be a badass hero and it can be supremely frustrating to balance an encounter, and to handle the nuances of maneuvering, tactics, unit customization and taking damage. Tachyon Squadron provides answers to all of these things, and handles them in a way that functions well in practice, not just on paper.
Effectively, initiative is determined based on skill rolls, and players are kept on a maneuver tracker based on a score ranging from “Undetected” at the top, and then +9 to -3. Players can choose to attack all out, but naturally keep moving down the initiative score. Clever piloting, smart use of Create Advantage or Overcome rolls (such as suppressive fire, coordinated flying to set up a target, flanking) and teamwork can offset pure skill totals. As for customization, ships have a set amount of slots open and players can choose between different kinds of gear for their engagement, which can depend on what the mission is and what, in general, characters like to do. Gear also adds an interesting little wrinkle as well: scarcity. Tachyon Squadron operates on a shoestring budget, and that scarcity can (if they’re clever or devious enough) to be a tool for GMs to play off. As for damage, rather than the standard consequences track, shifts of damage are assigned to different parts of the ship based on dice rolls, and each area has a number of slots to absorb the damage. Each slot of damage has a specific effect that it takes, usually making that player’s checks more difficult and eventually leading to the ship’s destruction.
In the end, I honestly think that Tachyon Squadron’s two greatest assets are its hackability and that it hits all the right tropes. While I would be hesitant to just hand the players more advanced gear, I could definitely expand on what’s available. There is enough offered for the GM that they could make custom units for players . . . or as enemies. I also fully believe that I could use the framework of the game and re-skin it for use in different settings, transforming the fighters into X-wings from Star Wars, or Mobile Suits from Gundam. I could even see creating two different forms: more modular and adaptable machines on one side, and more potent, but less adaptable on the other (similar to the Rebels and Imperials in Fantasy Flight Game’s X-Wing miniatures game) for some PvP action. There are rules for assaulting larger ships, and how to fight through a screen of enemy fighters, so I can see tons of ways to design encounters.
And, as I said, the game catches that certain tone of the space opera spirit. It nails the comradery and rivalry within the squad, the struggle against overwhelming odds and a vast empire, fighting off enemies they should stand no chance against. There are some almost universal tropes to the genre, and Tachyon Squadron somehow manages to keep them while still letting GMs and players put their own imprint on things. I really want to give it a try, and see what the system can do!
Thanks to Tom Lommel of Evil Hat Productions for sending us a PDF copy of Tachyon to review! You can find Tachyon Squadron at DriveThruRPG for $12.00.
All pilots, to your fighters!
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