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I'm trying to find an RPG that appropriately reflects the feel of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers and could use a system commendation. (The novel, not the movies. They're very different in many ways; all of them relevant to this question.)

Background: I've got a lot of experience with D&D 4e and small experience with GURPS 4e and no actual play experience with Cyberpunk 2020 (but I really dig the style and the combat system).

Out of Scope: I've already discounted the actual Starship Troopers RPG because it seems to draw primarily from the profligate movies, animated movies, and animated series that basically miss the focus on small infantry tactics and political discussion that the books feature. Warhammer 40k is also out of scope since I feel its overly simplistic and juvenile in its world building.

In Scope: I have no specific system reservations, but there are features I'm looking for.

Preference for grid-based combat w/miniatures. The system should feel tactical without being weighted down by too many dice rolls or too many subsystems. My goal is to emulate the feel of small superior and armed force fighting a numerically superior enemy (Battle of Mogadishu and Battle of Rorke's Drift for historical examples) while utilizing...

  • The specific sci-fi elements of Heinlein's setting: power armor with jump jets, various weapon options and configurations for power armor suits, as well as orbital drops (ship to ship combat is fine, but should not be the focus) such as those in Starship Troopers.
  • A framework or guidelines for interactions outside of combat. RP rules covering interactions between PCs and NPCs outside of missions would be "nice-to-have," but are not a requirement. Rules that would cover maintenance tasks (skill checks) that could help or hinder players later when the mission occurs are also in the same boat.
  • I would prefer a class/role based systems for PCs, or if it's a skill-based system, that there is room for divergent character roles in combat (i.e. there are enough incentives for players not to all take only "kill everything" skills/powers/feats). PCs have to have different roles in the squad based on equipment and class/skills.

This is my first system recommendation question on RPG.SE so please let me know in the comments if you want more requirements/clarification.

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11 Answers 11

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I normally avoid recommending generic, "universal" systems for questions like this. It's too easy to think of one's own favourite generic system and think that it can do whatever is being asked about. I hesitate, but not all generic systems are made equal – each has different fiddly bits that it brings to the experience of play, and in this case, Savage Worlds has a few core features that line up very nicely with your requirements.

Savage Worlds is not everyone's cup of tea though – people seem to either love it or hate it, usually based on whether the other bits of the system line up with one's own taste or not. I can't guess whether you'll like it or not, so I can only recommend that you try it – and fortunately, there is a free "Test Drive" version of the SW rules which, paired with a fan conversion of Starship Troopers gear, troopers, and bugs, provides you with enough to give it a spin some evening to see if it lights your fire or if it rubs you the wrong way. Free is pretty good for an evening or more's entertainment, and the rules themselves are an affordable $10 (in print or PDF) for when you find that the Test Drive doesn't give you the guidance or options you want.

But let me tell you about these not-so-generic parts of the system that are suited to what you like in Starship Troopers.

Skirmish combat

SW evolved out of skirmish-level miniature rules for an entirely different RPG, eventually becoming its own roleplaying game with a tactical skirmish combat engine at its core. Though it's built around individual characters, the details of the combat system were all chosen to make handling large numbers of allies and enemies very quick, so that turns go around the table at a brisk pace and the action keeps flowing.

Now, the exact details of how it does this is also exactly where a lot of people either love or hate the system. I can only say, "try it," and then you'll see if you like it or not.

Specifically, the details of the combat system relevant to your first requirements bullet:

  • It uses miniatures and measures distance/movement by inches, so you can use a grid or you can use a tape measure. On the plus side, the combat system isn't tightly reliant on miniatures in the way that (for example) D&D 4e is, so you can just as easily run combats narratively. Using miniatures just adds precision to the positional tactics of the game, rather than being required to play tactically.

  • Combat rolls are fairly quick. There is more than one roll, but it trades a couple more rolls for eliminating the usual bookkeeping involved in combats. There are no hit-points to track, only one status (and it doesn't cause modifiers), and it expects most opponents to be Extras, using the "mook" rules so that they're either up, down, or out of play. Important individuals have multiple wounds (always exactly 3). If you've played very many miniature skirmish games, this should look familiar – regular soldiers are either alive or not, while important figures can take a few hits before going down.

  • You can have lots of figures in play at once and the combat system slows down logarithmically (i.e., the rate at which the game slows down is slight as you add more combatants) instead of exponentially like in most systems. Part of this is the mook rules, but part of this is also that you can only do so much in one turn. Multiple combatants is handled well, and ganging up on an single opponent gives significant advantages. Being surrounded by bugs is not a good idea, and some of the tactical considerations are going to be at the level of battlefield control, to avoid having the better-armed troopers getting separated, surrounded, and physically dragged down.

  • The system is tactical both in terms of positioning, but also in terms of how you use your actions. Rather than getting a complete "what are you doing" each round, to be effective you have to chain together rounds for what you're trying to accomplish. You can just stand toe-to-toe and fight, but this is the way to lose a fight in SW; a tactical fighter will set up their position, split up their enemy with suppressing fire, charge into melee, duck inside their reach, and then fire into the bug's soft underbelly and take it out in one go. Similarly, a big bug might charge while roaring (which can unnerve the troopers), slam the ground to knock them down, and sweep to attack the softened troopers; there are many possible tactics.

    There are built-in ways to gather together a number of bonuses (yourself and from allies) that you can then use all at once for a single devastating attack, and this is the expected way to use the combat system. A naïve player might try to toe-to-toe and just attack every round hoping for a lucky hit, but this is putting oneself at the mercy of enemies who fight smarter. Since there are no hit points to whittle away, it's all about teamwork and smart manœuvering so that you can hit with a lot of bonuses all at once and take them out with a single attack roll. You can also do multiple things in one round at the expense of penalties the more you try to do, and this is sometimes a great idea if you've previously set yourself up with a lot of bonuses to offset them. There are a lot of natural trade-offs that you can make during combat, and how effective a trade-off decision will be is entirely situational; this gives you a lot of possible action-tactics from a relatively small number of interacting options, and the difference between good tactics and poor tactics is a matter of properly reading the situation (just like real combat) rather than finding a "kill combo" that you can use in every fight.

Setting

The specific sci-fi elements of Heinlein's Starship Troopers are not readily available. (Well, except they are, because someone has already done a bug and gear conversion for the movie and you can use many of those stats unaltered.) But, the system is extremely quick to stat up gear and opposition, which means that you can have a working conversion of the setting to SW terms in less than an hour's work (maybe much less), given familiarity with the system. Opposition is very easy to stat up – fast enough that you can do it on-the-fly while improvising an encounter. A Savage Worlds GM with only a little experience can stat up even an unusual creature in about two minutes, which is little enough that you can do it in between narrations or while the players discuss their plan of attack.

Gear is simple and has few moving parts. Again, if you're familiar with sci-fi wargames, you'll find Savage Worlds gear to be familiar. There are few stats and their effects are sufficiently large-grained that you can eyeball changes easily. Special effects are as easy as saying "it does this" or "it gives you this Edge / the equivalent of this Power". Being a toolkit system with effect-based abilities, you can as easily use the (e.g.) Bolt Power's rules to stat up a magic missile spell or a plasma carbine's primary firing mode, and you can do it on the order of a minute. A multitude of weapons is easy to create and the system is made for just eyeballing the numbers to fit the setting you're using; just think of the effect you want it to have, and give it those abilities and stats to support the concept. You can use the Powers and Edges in the book to model weapon functions, or you can just define them ad hoc by your own judgement. It's rather hard to break the system even when modifying its rules, let alone when just statting up new stuff.

Another feature/flaw of Savage Worlds that works to your advantage here is that the genre and tone of the game are not dictated by the system, and is entirely on your shoulders to convey. It means that it won't give you any help creating the feel of Starship Troopers, but it also won't get in the way of you just running it according to how you know Starship Troopers feels. This is another reason why the fan conversion for the movie is useful to you at all: the feel and tone isn't built into the gear and enemy stats, so the feel of the movie isn't glued to the fan conversion. (The jump jets are missing though: just say that the battle dress also gives you the Fly Power with a fixed duration of 1 or 2 rounds and a fixed movement limit per jump and you're good to go!)

Non-combat

There are social skills and a social "combat" mechanic that you can use if you like. There's enough bits in the system that you can use it outside of combat for things like facing the wrath of your commanding officer while you disagree with them, mechanically handling the arguments and evidence during a court martial, or debating politics and trying to convert the people overhearing you to your point of view. And yup, there's a Repair skill.

Niche "protection"

The game is not class based, yet it still offers significant niche-adoption. I won't say niche protection because nothing is stopping the, say, medic from putting in the time and effort to become a good sniper, but that choice means they're making a trade-off: they're not focusing on doing their medicking better. The rules support niche-adoption because becoming good at something requires investing in that something with supporting Edges; it's not enough to up your stats or skills (actually, it's often worse to up a skill or stat when you could instead get a +2 from an Edge), so once a character has created a niche, it behooves them to continue to strengthen their abilities in that niche and to choose complementary support Edges and skill improvements. Often you can move laterally – a good sniper can also branch out to become an infiltrator, for example, because not being seen is an overlapping competency of those niches – but it's very hard to satisfyingly move to a completely different niche that has no overlapping competencies. You just end up having a bunch of skills and Edges that you can't really use in your new niche, so why do that?

Besides, it's much more fun to simply run multiple characters. NPCs under a PC's command are traditionally controlled by that PC's player, so if a player with a sniper PC wants to roleplay some medic situations, then it's much better to give them a medic NPC to command (maybe as part of a squad of infiltrators) than to twist their perfectly-good sniper PC into an ineffective sniper-medic.

Miscellaneous features

Other selling points of Savage Worlds that aren't specific to your requirements, but are helpful for what you're aiming to do:

  • Characters are quick to make. They will be a bit slow at first because an unfamiliar system always slows down character creation, but it will still be fairly fast. A group with two or three characters under their belts can create a party of characters in under an hour at worst, and closer to 20 minutes or less. The Starship Troopers fan conversion gives you a template of a mobile infantry member and a few customisation steps, so that should give you a party of distinct characters in much less time even with no experience with the system.

  • The power "curve" of the system is very flat. There is a difference between Novice and Legendary characters, but it's not exponential like in some systems. Development tends to broaden characters a lot, while raising their skills only a bit. A character with a lot of experience tends to be more reliable at doing the same things they always could instead of being orders of magnitude more powerful in those abilities. This means that the very same bugs that were a threat when they were green troops will still be an interesting threat when they are elites, and the nastiest bugs are possible to face (carefully) right from the get-go given good planning, support, and cooperative tactics.

  • The system is very easy to tweak, and robust in the face of house rules. Changing one or many parts of how it works doesn't cause a domino effect of unexpected breakage in other parts of the system. You can tune the various subsystems pretty much independently from each other, and they'll keep on humming along.

  • It's almost impossible to game the system to create "broken" characters. I know, that's hard to believe. But people have tried, and what happens every time is that what they end up with is a character that only seems broken because they don't understand SW well, but are actually broken in the "does not function well" sense. Part of this is because the game has no "dump stats" when it comes to combat – dumping Smarts or Spirit (the only "social" stats the game has) in order to pump Agility (for hitting ability), Strength (for damage output), or Vigor (for damage resistance) results in characters that are easy to fatally trick during combat, or who crumble and maybe rout as soon as the enemy gets a hit on them. Trying to game the system to make a "broken" character either makes a very fragile, unreliable combatant; or actually makes a solid, non-broken character.

  • Extras aren't boring. They have all the tactical options and abilities of regular characters, and they can have good stats, loads of Edges, and high-quality gear as much as any Legendary PC – they just don't have more than one wound or get the roll-smoothing benefit of the "Wild Die". Don't be afraid to make even your really nasty bugs Extras – they'll be a terror on the battlefield, and your players will cheer when they go down. Customarily only named characters aren't Extras, so even though your PCs' sergeant will be a regular, named character (the game calls them "Wild Cards", but eh), a different random sergeant with the same stats can be an Extra on the battlefield, to make your bookkeeping easier and combat go faster. Ditto your bugs – if there is a legendary bug that has never been killed, but everyone tells stories of it and it can be recognised by its scars, that bug is special, and gets the "Wild Die" and 3 wounds. Meanwhile, an identical bug of the same type can be an Extra just fine. They're still nasty and have the same stats, but facing a nameless one is just not the same degree of epic as facing Old Half-Jaw.

TL;DR

Savage Worlds is already a hybrid miniatures skirmish game / RPG. It has everything you'd expect from a skirmish-level wargame, but it's seamlessly integrated with roleplaying-game elements and gives you the system-level flexibility to create units and characters at any degree of detail you need. It's very fast to create material for, leaving you more brain left over for designing scenarios, crafting NPC personalities, devising interesting battle plans, and running political undercurrents.

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I fully agree with the recommendation. The moment I picked up the new "Sci Fi Companion" for Savage Worlds, a Space Marine/Starship Troopers type game was the first thing on my mind. –  Xphile Apr 23 at 18:01
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I recommend Heavy Gear first (or its later generalized version, the Silhouette Core RPG Rules) from Dream Pod 9. It is a nice and smooth system, good for both role-playing and small-scale skirmish. It is not class-based though, but has many character templates, with many support and non-combat roles.

A close second is Cyberpunk 2020, with the Maximum Metal accessory for PA combat.

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+1 for Maximum Metal; had some great fun with that system and making some bugs in CP2020 wouldn't be hard –  Rob Apr 4 '13 at 16:27
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Traveller

Without a doubt, Traveller has to be my first recommend for this subgenre...

Why?

  • Battle Dress is stolen liberally from Starship Troopers.
  • The character generation model for CT, MT, T4, MGT, and T5 all show a serious limit upon player control over skills received, but at the same time, involve serious player choices.
  • All the mentioned editions are available in PDF

Only 1 real change is needed: replace Social Standing with Charisma. Do this both for on the character sheet, and for what's required for various careers.

Narrowing it down further

First Choice: MegaTraveller.
MegaTraveller has grid based, highly tactical combat, skills matter a lot, and character generation provides a good bit more choice than CT does. Further, there are multiple types of battle dress in various MT sources (tho' some are hard to find now - The Traveller's Digest article on Battle Dress Armor is not in PDF.) Plus, the weapons shown are a good mix with the SST universe of the novel. The ship design system can easily do the Roger Young. Basic and Advanced characters can be mixed in the same party with no major discrepancies.

Classic Traveller: Use Striker and AHL.
Classic Traveller with the Striker and Azhanti High Lightning (AHL) rules bolted on (there are notes for such in both) gives you a fast playing, highly lethal, combat system which can be used gridded (AHL) or in minis mode (Striker), detailed PCs, using either Bk 1 Basic Generation or Bk 4 Advanced Generation. Unlike MegaTraveller, you do not really want to mix Basic and Advanced Generation characters - Advanced have about 50-75% more skills on average.

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I can't think of a game that really gets the feel of Heinlein's novels. As you don't like 40k then the Genestealers angle is out. I don't think Star Frontiers is tactical/sophisticated enough for you but the Zebulon's Guide expansion does have very nice powered armor so looking at that may not be a bad idea.

If you don't mind some extra work I will suggest Mechwarrior. It is not "space marine" out of the box but could be altered with minimal effort. Also, it ties in with BattleTech, a game build on tabletop tactics for small to medium sized forces. In your case all you would need to do is design a few "mechs" to simulate the space marine armor and you're off. A bit of wand waving would be involved as space marine armor is far smaller than the smallest battle mech but I don't think the differences would be huge. If you just look at the standard mechs and change their scale, say 1/10th for height and 1 ton to 5 kilograms, you go from 80 foot tall, 75 ton giants to 8 foot tall, 375 kg suit of powered armor.

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The current iteration of Mechwarrior is called A Time of War, and is tightly connected to the tabletop war game. The rules include jump infantry, battle armor, and alien critters. –  Runeslinger Apr 5 '13 at 3:16
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If you can find either, Living Steel (with or without Heavy Metal) by Leading Edge Games are two hyper-realistic games focused around Power Armor conflict. A simplified version of the system was also utilized in the Aliens licensed RPG, so you get your bugs too!

Again, note that I said hyper-realistic. It was designed by rocket scientists, and shows it. It is not game system for the faint at heart, and it has a steep learning curve. But it does what it does well, especially as you get more facility with the system. And the armors and weapons are just plain cool!

The only part of your In Scope that it doesn't satisfy is the low number of tables/dice rolls. But adapting the lesser Aliens rules to the armor is not an insurmountable task, and that gets closer to your goal.

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If language is not a problem I would recommend Cacería de Bichos (Bug Hunting in English). It's an Spanish game, an adaptation of the FUDGE system and it's intended to get the feeling of movies like Starship Troopers, Alien, Predator, Pitch Black and so.

As far as I know it's only in Spanish, so I understand it may not be a choice. If you're fluent with the language it's a perfect fit!

http://www.demoniosonriente.com/caceria-de-bichos-cdb/

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I once ran a Starship Troopers scenario at a convention and used a minimally-converted Chill (PACE) as systems engine. It worked OK, but the scenario centred around a small team, deployed in scout and command suits, with a minimum of combat. What combat there was was quickly resolved, without the use of miniatures (we did, at one point, use a whiteboard for some quick sketches to make the tactical situation completely clear, though).

If you're happy to do a conversion of a system you are familiar with, that may be an OK route, it worked for me.

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I have 2 recommendations for you, one based on your criteria, one based on the feelings you want to evoke.

Savage Worlds

Savage Worlds is an adaptable system with lots of support that can handle good-sized combats in a timely fashion. It's light and fast and can still handle the level of detail you seem to want. Its got a minis background, so you can get your tactical needs satisfied.

3:16

3:16 is a game designed to evoke a feeling about halfway between Starship Troopers and Warhammer 40K. It's a story game and you might find its dynamic interesting.

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3:16 is the opposite of tactical combat. It's designed so that the combat details are almost entirely unimportant. And SW is a great generic system, but will not answer this question in terms of detail and feel without the OP writing the equivalent of an $30 setting book. –  SevenSidedDie Apr 6 '13 at 19:11
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I run the Starship Troopers rpg and I use only the novel for inspiration. So far, we've had a great time with it. I am a Savage Worlds fan big time, but the conversion of a d20 type game into Savage Worlds is too time consuming and because of the skills list and feats, duplication won't be a hundred percent so you may as well play the actual rpg. A big plus over standard d20 rules is the Starship Troopers rpg plays very fast (simplified combat rules are deliberate) and combat is also deadly. Plus, the Starship Troopers rpg has the best, clear as plain English can get, Grappling rules. VERY easy to follow. Last night had four players each running a PC and an NPC M.I. and combat went fast with no fuss or hassle.

I HIGHLY recommend using the drop procedure from the ST board game. This forces players to think tactically and teaches them that command is not all it's cracked up to be. The thing to remember is that the rules don't make the game; the players and the GM do.

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The Bughunters setting in d20 Modern may do the trick, if you can find a copy of the book. The setting is explicitly modeled after Starship Troopers, and the system is class-based. I've game mastered d20 Modern in a mix-and-match fashion for a couple of one-offs, taking elements from Bughunters and a couple of the other settings, and it worked well for fast-moving small-unit combat.

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From my experience and recollection, still not really the Books - it doesn't have the armor and such from the books, being very similar to the movie in that regard, which is what he didn't want. It does have certain political leanings in the discussion of clones vs natural humans, and does have the tactical part that he wanted. But it's very much more an Aliens feel than a Heinlein Starship Troopers feel. –  wraith808 Apr 4 '13 at 16:17
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I do second the already mentioned Silhouette (as a system), but with the caveat that the published universes tend to go for a mecha angle. I.e. the "armors" are considerably larger than a man (which is not the case in RAH's book).

It is great for the small scale combat part though (and this works seamlessly with the rpg part), so if you grab Silhouette Core rules you can probably put together something by yourself.

Alternatively, have a look at Traveller, possibly the most recent version (Mongoose) - Battledress in Traveller is closer to the Starship Trooper concept, and you can get a supplement (Mercenary) specifically geared towards ground combat.

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