Skip navigation

Combat in Vast Worlds is fairly unique for a hardish sci-fi; it was originally designed for a game[1] so does not have the classics of very rapid computer controlled battles with ships millions of kilometres away from each other. Instead combat is close, fast paced but paced for humans, and there is a huge volume of fire flying between ships. In addition to that you have fighters for the sheer coolness factor[2], very close engagement ranges for maximum excitement and relatively low automation to ensure there’s a human factor to all these battle, not just machines duking it out.

Anyway, now I’m going to talk tactics, and maybe a little strategy, and the first thing any commander should know are the guns.

Weapons fall into four main categories: rayy, plasma, ballistic and missile. I’ve already talked about how they operate in the technology section so I’ll gloss over that and skip straight to the application.

Rayys as the long ranged beam weapon of Vast Worlds, they have incredible range, pinpoint accuracy and can do horrific amounts of damage if you give them enough time to burn through the armour. On the other hand, they have a pretty large cooling off period between shots and need to be kept steady on the target to actually be effective so this limits them to a medium to long range weapon, where they can still keep a bead on a ship, but aren’t overwhelmed by shorter ranged ships with a superior rate of fire.

They also suffer from the size of the gun. While they do not require extensive ammo stores or pipe work like other weapons they do have the longest barrel by a good margin and so are hard to turret, unlike more amorphous designs. This leaves Rayys as spinal mount weapons mostly, with other types dealing with the shorter ranges, but this does not mean they are ineffective, but best deployed with some strategic cunning.

Plasma weapons are a bit simpler. They have a very high damage output but due to the fairly unpredictable containment field they are hard to aim and so only really effective up-close and personal. There is also an issue with the shot dissipating due to the strong charge forcing apart the plasma, and the fact all that opposite charge has to go somewhere[3], so it is recommended you earth your ship before refuelling[4].

That said, they can melt through most armour in seconds, though do have a slight problem penetrating while the target’s undergoing decompression, and do cataclysmic damage if the target is not surge protected. Even so, they go through internal walls like tissue paper and it’s a common trick to target magazines for maximum effect. The best defence against plasma is to stay out of range, or simply not get hit by it.

Ballistic weaponry falls into two categories, magnetic or chemical, based on the source of acceleration. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages. Magnetic rounds generally are fired by either a rail or coil gun and consequently have a greater muzzle velocity and ergo damage than their chemical compatriots. In addition they are very stable in storage, but they require a lot of power at the time of launch and a long barrel to be effective.

Chemical rounds are accelerated like traditional bullets[5] down a short barrel. Rifling is moot so the barrel is perfectly smooth and ideally exactly the same diameter as the shot. Generally, chemical rounds tend to travel more slowly than the magnetic, and have a lower mass, but they are significantly cheaper, less likely to fowl and require only a spark to fire. They have a tendency to be used by civilians or militias for this reason.

Kinetic rounds in Vast Worlds are no where near as destructive as classically depicted in sci-fi, mostly because the distance and energy required to accelerate them to explosive velocities is not generally available in battle. Instead they are designed as penetrating weapons, preferably fragmenting within the hull and hitting as many targets as possible. Armour is the best remedy, but as the rounds in both cases are quite slow dodging is also possible. Because kinetic rounds are so versatile they have been used for everything from short to long range weapons, with a variety of bore sizes and some even featured detonating shells.

Finally, missiles are a much underpowered weapon in Vast Worlds for a number of reasons[6]. The first of these is the over effectiveness of point defences, all ships carry p.d. or ‘pop guns’ and these are designed to intercept fast moving debris on an impact course with the ship[7], its not to much of a stretch to start pointing them at missiles too and they achieve disturbingly high kill ratios. Also, missiles are incredibly bright, due to their motor, so are instantly visible on any kind of scanners, so there is no way to sneak past a ship’s p.d. grid short of firing from extremely short range.

In the earlier eras missiles are also underpowered due to the fact a good number of ships can match or equal their acceleration. Humanity runs up against a lower limit to the size they can readily make a fusion rocket, or fusion powered rocket, and this is about the size of a jet engine. This means that all missiles are forced to use chemical propellant, and this simply isn’t powerful enough to catch smaller ships. They do become more powerful later in the setting, but by this point ship technology has passed them by and they resemble torpedoes rather than interception missiles.

Missiles are also highly vulnerable to electronic warfare, especially with battle ships able to deploy faux A.I.s to interfere with the missiles’ far simpler systems. This of course requires some time to operate so is only effective against missiles fired from range, and missiles that are extremely ‘dumb’ can not be confused in this manner, instead jamming systems must be used and even then missiles can be made too simple again.

Anyway, missiles do have their uses, the chemical store allows significantly more destructive power in the shot than can be provided with classical munitions, and they are far more reliable than the more futuristic weapons. They also can be fired without significant amounts of aiming and so can be launched on mass without serious logistical issues, and so they are often used as the second strike wave when the fleets are in brawling range. They have a strong tendency to be used on the smaller vessels as they hit above their weight class, but you can store comparatively few shots so it’s best not to use them on any ship with an appreciable survival time.

Next to address is combat range. Now, as this is space, every weapon has theoretically infinite range[8], but combat will rarely take place at these extremes and instead everyone tries to get within a certain engagement zone which is defined by your own ships capabilities, but also the abilities of the target. Key to remember is your weapons power, speed, accuracy and rate of fire, but you should also bear in mind your ships own power and target profile, not to mention the manoeuvrability and size of your opponent.

These combined give your optimum range of attack, where you inflict the most damage possible, while incurring as little as possible yourself. The only problem is this is actually as dependent on your opponent as your ship, so will be constantly changing during an engagement. Not to mention there is also the little issue of reaching and staying in this range, which is easier said than done, and in a big battle, may well be occupied by an enemy Cruiser.

Let’s take a few examples, and because I’ve been dealing with them recently, we’ll first look at the American Alliance frigate. This is an eighty eight metre frame with four decks, a standing five fighter squadron, six intermediate rayys, one spinal beam, and two hundred short to medium range warheads spread across six launching points. Pretty impressive, as just one of these has more firepower than every ship built in the eighteenth century combined, but how should it be used tactically?

Well, the spinal rayy is the ship’s primary weapon; this is a high accuracy but low tracking weapon, with good damage ratings. Ideally the frigate will engage the target at maximum range and force the target to charge, once they get closer the secondary turrets will fire and the ship will start jinking to avoid the retaliatory fire. This gets the maximum number of guns on target, and hopefully incurs low levels of damage, but it’s hard to maintain as you’ve got your engines pointed away from the target and so you can’t manoeuvre.

Let’s try another class, the Icarus, a popular class in the Corporation Wars. A slightly longer frame of one hundred and three metres, it mounts two short range gauss cannons, fourteen intermediate rail drivers and has mounts for either a lot of missiles or a lot of point defence. Icarus is almost the polar opposite to the Alliance[9], its engagement range is very short due to the relatively inaccurate main guns, and it relies on its secondary rails to do the majority of the damage. For its size it has large engines so charges the opponent, relying of electronic warfare and fore armour to hold of the enemy fire, and vectored thrusting to point its nose exactly where it needs to be to hit with the gauss rounds.

Of course, both of these plans go to pot if the enemy frame is significantly larger. In this case the Alliance would engage at medium turret range and have to keep jinking[10] in order to do enough damage, while the Icarus could engage from a greater distance as its accuracy would improved a lot by the larger target profile[11].

They would also be hampered when dealing with a corvette sized frame[12], the Alliance would be forced to spin rapidly to keep its nose towards its target, and this is something it is not designed to do, and wouldn’t be able to define the engagement range in the slightest due to the corvette’s superior acceleration. While it probably would be able to do some significant damage, it may not necessarily win. The Icarus would also be unable to keep its nose pointed towards the target, but it has twice the number of tracking turrets, so could keep a reasonable number of guns on target[13]. Actually, when this does happen the Captain tend to not manoeuvre to avoid the corvette, as it is fairly futile, but instead concentrates on not getting hit and arranging their next shot on a capital ship.

Tactics

So far we’ve talked mostly about ship verses ship battles, but the tactical ebb and flow of space conflict is just as important. Now, while I’m sure at least a few of my audience are at least familiar with 3D combat I’m going to go through a few basics[14], specifically some of the shifts from 2D warfare.

Now first, there is no line sight. If you have a rough idea where the enemy fleet is then you spot them against the background due to their thermal emissions. There is no stealth[15] and theoretically you can spot a fleet around another star if your scopes are sensitive enough, however there is a serious issue of light lag. Faster than light travel but no faster than light communications mean that information quickly becomes woefully out of date, and a ship you spot orbiting around Jupiter could have jumped and already be blasting a hole in you reactor[16].

Second, battles are fast, most being over within a half hour. Smaller battles, especially in the Independence Wars could be finished in five minutes. This is due to the sheer power of a lot of the weapons and how little armour the smaller ships can carry[17], but seriously impacts the tactical options a commander has. With no cover and little option but an emergency jump for retreat most battles are joined until one side surrenders, with no time for rest, re-arming and repairs in-between.

Thirdly, it is in fact 3D. While there is a slight tendency for most battles to take place on the solar equator[18], this is by no means a hard and fast rule, and an enemy fleet can appear above, bellow, beside, behind and even in-between your ships[19], and because of jump this can occur without warning. This naturally makes defensive formations, or even defences themselves, quite difficult to maintain and it can mean that offence is better than defence even while protecting fixed installations[20].

Finally, and most importantly, there is no resistance. A charge on the enemy lines is all well and good, but at some point you have to turn and burn or your entire fleet will be showing their tails. Likewise if you have to spin your formation to meet an enemy charge then your captains are going to have to be dealing with that momentum for the rest of the battle and it could be critical.

There are a few more general ones. Your weapons, while theoretically having infinite range are less and less likely to hit anything the further they travel so have a finite effective range[21] [22]. Distances look huge on paper, but theoretically your ships could pull twenty to thirty G and still function so you’re always closer than you think, though any gunner will tell you you’re never close enough. Also, formations aren’t just there to make your fleet look fancy, they are key to your survival.

Formations, both defensive and offensive are the greatest strength and weakness of all fleets, they provide summation of weapon arcs and massive boasts of efficiency in kill times. But they also leave your ships wide open to a counter strike, introduce blind spots and in the worst case, can exacerbate the rate of friendly collisions[23]. Generally the shortcoming can be overcome by using the right formation at the right time, but which one is right is a very complex decision, and even the best commanders get it wrong every so often.

The most common formation for an aggressive fleet is the wall, closely followed by the layered wall formation. In this, as you can probably guess, ships are arranged in a rectangle shape with roughly equal spacing in-between them. It is useful as it allows almost all your ships to fire on a target in front of them at the same time with little or no risk of friendly fire, but it only works with ships of similar types as manoeuvrability and effective weapon range tend to be that of the slowest and shortest ranged ship. In addition flankers are deadly as the formation is about as quick on its feet as its namesake.

The layered wall is similar, but ships are grouped into slices based on capability, this reduces the amount of guns of target at any one time, but allows for a great deal more tactical flexibility. For example, an alpha strike of Frigates in one wall can cause pandemonium in the enemy lines, but the following wave of Destroyers does the real damage. Or, a full battery from a leading Cruiser will punch a hole in the enemy formation, and draw fire from the Corvettes behind it to give the Corvettes time to get into striking range.

Also popular is the ever present wedge, which, while possessing a lower ‘guns on target’ quota, is brilliant at breaking through the enemy lines. Just don’t put your command carrier at the point[24]. The inverse of this, known as the claw, is also useful when your enemy is gathered into a tight knot as it allows for rapid outflanking of the enemy. However, do not use these on an aggressive opponent as your kill zones at the edges of the formation become very diluted and flankers will be able to annihilate your outliers before you can respond.

On the defensive side spheres are very popular, especially when the attacker’s vector is unknown, as it allows at least some guns on every angle. Also, smart commanders will make their spheres collapsible, so that when the attacker plays his hand the opposite hemisphere will move to support the attacked front. Generally spheres will be used when protecting a fixed installation[25], or if the location of the enemy is unknown[26], in any other situation it will be best to be on the offensive as spheres have a lesser attacking power than most other formations.

Lastly, we also have the nebulous formation. While not a strict formation per say, and they can look like random arrangements to the untrained eye, one should not doubt their combat effectiveness. Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules of nebulous formations; they are generally formed of a series of smaller wings, each with their own tactical role and arrangement, but beyond this it is very much down to the resources on hand at the time[27] and the commander’s battle plan.

Nebulous formations are however rare, as the only times when enough ships are in one place is when whole empires are warring.

Now, onto defence.

Defence is boring, but we all have to do it at some point. As has been drummed into you it is always preferable to have the initiative, but every so often you will be defending a convoy, star base, or maybe even an asteroid with a good seam and things will go bad. When this happens you must always remember not to panic, panicked commanders make bad decisions.

First, consider if it’s actually worth defending the target. If it’s a transport carrying widows and orphans you should probably stick around. If they’ve got supplies for your forces you should definitely fight unless you have no option. If it’s a hunk of rock and you even suspect you might not win the engagement, you should Jump out and fight on your own terms.

Second, make sure you can’t run anyway. Star bases you’ll need to stick around and make a fight of it. Transports can probably Jump with you though and unless you’re specifically searching for trouble your commanders will thank you for not denting their ships.

Finally, make a confident call as to whether you’ll win, and if you won’t, be damn sure you’ll actually make an impact on the war. Heroic last stands are all well and good, but if you weaken your own side more than your enemies then you’ll be remembered a fool rather than a hero.

When a fight is inevitable you’ll want to put yourself between the target and the enemy. This is generally less effective than most people would imagine as unless you have some very big ships indeed you’re not going to block all the angles of fire onto the target and so if your enemy wants it destroyed it pretty much will be destroyed. What you can do is make them pay for that. While they are firing at an overly distant target your ships will be right up their noses and inflicting maximum damage while they try to kill some civy target. With a bit of luck this can win the battle for you right there, just don’t tell whoever you’re guarding that this is your plan.

A competent commander is going to see that you are the primary target however, while in the area your fleet can and will inflict atrocious damage to his ships and disrupt any operations they can perform. Or at least, this is what you should be doing. When fighting this kind of battle treat it as any other combat exercise, keep your ships tight, guns hot and don’t stop yelling at your captains. With luck you’ll make it through and win the day.

However, the enemies attack vector is rarely known, and worse you can’t tell if they’re planning to attack on an odd vector until they make their Jump[28]. If you don’t know where the attack is coming from, set up a defensive perimeter around the target, but make it so that only enough ships are there to force them to engage. The rest should be kept in reserve to deploy as soon as the enemy plays their hand.

Also, as the defender you can prepare the battle field a little. A load of missiles left in deep space to cool off a little can take the enemy by surprise and win you the initiative, if you place them right. Commending cargo ships is pretty much standard form for defenders[29] and who’s to say that, even if your target starts off unarmed they have to remain that way.

On the offensive speed is absolutely key. You have the advantage of setting the time of battle, ensuring all your personnel are in position and readying your ships for combat. Ideally you can deprive your opponent of all these things and with the initiative you should or you’ll be cut to ribbons by a prepared fleet[30]. Even if the enemy is somehow alerted, you still have an advantage with setting the direction of arrival and a massive force advantage on your attack vector, and technically you should be able to defeat a fleet of roughly similar sizes.

The Jump drive is, of course, your primary source of strategic speed and so you must learn its use well. Any spacer can burn their engines and send their fleet on a straight line to the opposition, but this will negate any advantage you have with attacking as they’ll know your coming and from which direction. A gravity sling round an airless moon, a double Jump[31] or arriving out of attack range and burning towards the target, will all serve you far better than arriving gift wrapped on their doorstep.

Likewise, you can also use the Jump drive to deprive the enemy of information. Leaving reserves to Jump in a few minutes after the battle is engaged can trick your rival into over committing their forces. An evolution of this tactic, nicknamed Blinding Bombard, creates a situation where as your reserves Jump in your mainline Jumps out[32], does a few spot repairs and rearms, then Jumps back in, just as the reserves Jump out. It allows you to limit the amount of damage your ships take, at the cost of halving your firepower at anyone moment. This tactic is not universally useful, but many commanders swear by it for an extended campaign.

Blinding Bombards are also a very good example of fighting a battle on a timetable, which is an incredibly effective tactic when everything goes well, but a scarily bad if anything throws off the plan[33]. Like most timetabled battles they also require quite a lot of information to be effective, and more than a few nasty surprises have been sprung on fresh commanders thinking the opponent’s will behave as fairly as the sims’.

More popular are massed attacks on a flank, particularly when the enemy outnumbers you. This allows a focusing of fire on the weak areas of the formation and the destruction of enemy vessels before they, or their wing mates, can respond effectively. From then, you can either press the attack if they’re reeling, or Jump through their formation[34] to escape the counter attack if they’re responding reasonably competently.

In battle attempt to hit outliers, command vessels and anything that holds still long enough to inflict maximum damage but it is generally not wise to try and micromanage the whole battle[35]. If your captains are competent they will only need targets of opportunity pointed out, so your orders should be limited to ‘attack…’ ‘run away from…’, ‘fly to…’ and maybe ‘Jump!’ if it’s all going badly. Feel free to control your own vessel, but controlling other ships tends to get them in over their heads as you captains generally know the situation around their own vessel best.

Master plans for tactical domination are all well and good, but you’d be surprised how rarely it’s the commander who bites the bullet when if all goes to hell.


[1] Which I’ll keep mentioning because it explains why a lot of the Vast World’s setting does what it does.

[2] Please remember I’ve given them an actual role beyond simply echoing current use before going ‘boo fighters’.

[3] More than a few plasma armed captains have been caught out by getting too close to their opponent and having a blot of lighting go through the hull.

[4] Given that earths tend to be either space elevators, or objects to massive for it to matter, this can actually be problematic on campaign.

[5] Though do bear in mind a regular gun requires oxygen to fire so will not work in space, chemical kinetics carry their own oxygen supply so can operate.

[6] The most significant is how boring a space fight where everyone is killed by missiles from two light seconds away is.

[7] These were absolutely vital around Earth where human debris was a serious navigation hazard, and they still tend to be installed on ships from less polluted worlds as they are a life saver when actually necessary.

[8] Except for plasma weapons, but it’s not really relevant.

[9] And was in no small way designed to fight them as Alliance derivatives were still popular at the time.

[10] Something it would not be all that good at when dealing with an enemy that it packing its spinal gun as turrets.

[11] This does mean that the Icarus would be more effective against the larger ships, but this isn’t much of a surprise, it was designed in an era of ships three times its size, when the Alliance was produced it was the biggest thing around.

[12] The Icarus less so. I really should have picked Frigates from the same era.

[13] It’s a design thing again. Corvettes actually existed when the Icarus was made.

[14] If anyone wishes to add to anything I’ve missed please feel free.

[15] There is still misdirection. A ten second sensor sweep will pinpoint all the major heat sources in an area and any minor power plants, but a load of chilled warheads sitting off your bows won’t be quite so obvious. Likewise, you may initially flag a vessel as a freighter fleeing the battle and, while there is no denying that it was spotted, few expect it to carry quite so many guns.

[16] There is a very good trick here where you enter from jump at an odd vector and so it can appear that you have two fleets, one waiting in reserve. This ruse rarely works for long, but easily long enough.

[17] Fighters particularly have a reputation for going down with just a kick in the shins.

[18] That’s the plane of rotation of the local planets.

[19] Cadets laugh at that last one, but when it does happen you get cut to ribbons.

[20] Beware though, this siege method has been used to draw out headstrong commanders and isolate them from their support bases. In one instance the attacking fleet gave the defenders the slip, beat the local garrison, and were in full control of the planet before the defenders could turn around for a return jump.

[21] Regardless of what a physicist will tell you.

[22] Also do not spray and pray, the transport committee has a field day as all that ordinance can remain in orbit for years.

[23] Some will argue that lack of formation will produce more collisions, but disordered groups of ships tend to have a higher average distance between them so there is a lesser safety margin when the battle is joined.

[24] The tip of the wedge has often been nicknamed ‘the sharp point of hell’ by the crews stationed there.

[25] Technically this is space and so there are no fixed installations, but most commanders work on the principal that if it can’t pull a G then it’s fixed as far as a battle is concerned.

[26] Often overly cautious commanders will place their command vessel in the centre of a sphere to offer it maximum protection. This only works in theory however, as generally the centre ship is one of the first to go down due to it being flagged as a priority target by your very formation. A good commander will use this assumption to their advantage.

[27] Not to mention the resources the enemy has.

[28] Generally, if they’ve been preparing the Jump for more than a week they’re going to do something fancy. Before then a wall between you and the target is more effective than a sphere as, while the sphere prevents you being weak from a vector, it does not create a vector where you are strong like the wall.

[29] Which is why you rarely see a merchant vessel near an active war zone.

[30] If you have the time a nasty physiological war can be waged by having your ships appear to be ready to attack, when actually you’ve still got a few more days to go. Eventually the constant state of alert will wear down on the opponent’s attention and moral and their crews will fight far less effectively than if you just tried an upfront attack.

[31] A Jump to another location in the system, then Jumping to the battle before

[32] This assumes a fairly even split between mainlines and reserves, though you may not have enough ship for this, and it is recommended for when you outnumber the opponent.

[33] Something always throws off the plan.

[34] Do make sure you captains check their vectors are clear before Jumping; otherwise they and your opponent may have a kiloton ding.

[35] Even though you can.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: