Not everyone is so lucky as to be an ace pilot the moment that they fall into the cockpit. Some have gotten as far as they have due to a lifetime of training and experience. Yet for all of their grizzled charm and “oh you sweet summer child” attitude, they had to start somewhere. Something had to hone those instincts and prepare them for the battle at hand, and this week, we get to find out what. Strap back in for this supplement of Evil Hat’s starfighter RPG Tachyon Squadron in Tachyon Squadron: Starfighter Academy.
The usage of a military academy in fiction isn’t exactly a new concept, but it’s one that isn’t as common as jumping straight into the action. It still has a place in harder sci-fi, such as Saganami Island in the Honor Harrington novels and Battle School in Ender’s Game, but in this case Starfighter Academy is dealing less with officers who are grand strategists and instead focusing on training people who will be closer to the action: flyboys. In this case, two close examples spring to mind. First, Skyward, by Brandon Sanderson: the pilots are younger and more inexperienced and are preparing to be thrown against an enemy with vastly superior numbers while being whittled down in a training program. Second…is Top Gun, probably the most well known example of the trope, and one of the most successful US Navy recruiting tools in history. These two works absolutely have a kindred spirit in Starfighter Academy.
For a quick recap as to the premise of Tachyon Squadron as a whole, the Draconis system has recently declared its independence and has become the site of a proxy war between the two major powers of the galaxy. While their allies, the Republic, will not commit their forces to the fight, they have no problem handing over some of their last generation starfighters, and helping to form a “foreign legion” by offering instructors and volunteers. It is the “instruction” part that Starfighter Academy focuses on, functioning as a four session arc before beginning the full Tachyon Squadron campaign. In game there are only a limited number of S-46 D Blackfish (the standard fighter in the main game) for the Draconis Volunteer Group to pilot, to the point when scarcity of replacement parts and ships is meant to cause issues with the other squadrons. As such, Starfighter Academy is meant to weed out anyone not up to snuff and leave only the best of the best, earning the most talented few a spot on the roster and a ship, with the most talented member of the class earning a new and highly coveted award, the “Kalkidan Trophy”.
Fitting the “in training” motif, Starfighter Academy is a stripped down version of the main game. Characters start with a Trouble aspect instead of the full Decompression that accompanies full members of the squadron. The skill tree stops at two at +3, with a cap likewise set at that point. Characters have access to zero stunts in the beginning and there are no stunts available. These are earned, reflecting the student’s growth. Instead of stress boxes, players are offered extra minor consequences, which means that any “harm” that comes in immediately fills a box. The “harm” is in quotation marks because, for the most part, there is no physical danger for the players to face. The “harm” is actually the emotional stress from struggling or encountering challenges throughout training. At the end of the campaign, players who successfully survive remake their characters as full pilots, and begin to face a greater level of danger, going up against actual enemy pilots.
The setup for Starfighter Academy is heavily structured, with each session condensing two weeks of training with the campaign designed to be played over four sessions. Each session begins with a “hop” or combat simulation, with the players assigned a different challenge in each session while they compete against their NPC teachers and rival students. Due to the fact that the combat is simulated (though there are rules for a live fire engagement) each “hit” during comment fills in a consequence, starting with a minor consequence and slowly increasing in intensity, or the player is forced to leave the scene. Because minor consequences only take a scene to recover from after a successful roll, these consequences are typically easy to recover from after the combat with multiple structured scenes following the engagement. They do require some sort of resolution, however, and getting too many means that some will follow over to the next session.
After combat, students are returned to the classroom and grilled about their performance. The GM is encouraged to have the head instructor press the students and encourage rivalries between them, trying to get an emotional reaction, but it also helps a benevolent GM to clear up any combat rule discrepancies, and allow players the chance to flesh out who their characters are out of combat. After that, players are given a scene of Free Time to roleplay, check in with NPCs, or even try crazy pranks. There is even included (and encouraged) setup for a beach volleyball game (*cough* Top Gun *cough*), but the book actually justifies it by offering questions that give important context to who the characters are with a bit of “show, don’t tell”. Who is utterly ruthless, even though its a game? Who likes to talk smack, and who takes offence? Who can’t wait to get out of there, because they have something (or someone) important they want to meet up with? How do they react to the “mandatory fun” that, as members of the military have attested, is standard? While it might be an obvious homage, it does not mean that it cannot be useful.
All in all, Starfighter Academy is not a necessary purchase for running a Tachyon Squadron game, but it certainly is a useful option. Speaking from personal experience, it can often take a few sessions before a player finds the voice of a character. The shorter and contained sessions that Starfighter Academy provides build in time for character development, both in the story and mechanics, to take the idea of a build and actually make it a character. If you are in the middle of a TS campaign and are enjoying it, should you feel like you missed out? No. If you have a character fully fleshed in your head and are about to start a campaign, will you miss out? Well…maybe. SA offers the chance to do world building organically instead of what might be stilted for some players, setting up rivalries with other students who go on to other wings, and builds up chemistry between wingmates while letting players dip their toes into the mechanics and offer the chance to tweak their skills. It looks to be a fun pickup, and I personally would use it if I wind up running a campaign.