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The stats for the Imperial class Star Destroyer in West End Games's Star Wars RPG list the skeleton crew for the vessel as 5,000 people. They define the skeleton crew as "the absolute minimum number of crewmembers necessary to fly the ship" (emphasis theirs). This number specifically excludes gunners.

The question is, what do all of those people do, and how many of them are really necessary?

Suppose the players board an empty Star Destroyer with the desire to salvage and capture it. They need to be able to steer it, use minimal sensors, make the jump to light speed, and perhaps activate the shields.

They don't need to perform routine maintenance, cleaning, medical care for the crew, launching of fighters, and so on. They also don't need to fire the weapons (the necessity of crew for weapons is self explanatory).

Would it be reasonable to have a "steering wheel," "throttle," and so on on the bridge? Or would steering and power be somehow more complex on a large vessel?

As usual, in-setting answers are the most useful. Real-world corollaries might also help... Large ocean-going vessels (particularly military ones), for example.

Timeframe this minimal crew is needed for - long enough to steer it away from immediate obstacles, calculate a jump to lightspeed, make the jump, and arrive at their destination. Exactly how long that is is another question, but the most likely answer is "hours, but probably less than a day; most of which is after the jump." Naturally if a particularly short duration makes a difference, I'm interested in hearing it.

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Good question, I think looking at a Star Wars technical manual might be enlightening. See how it describes the Star Destroyer in more detail. It might be that without maintenance it would just stop flying after a while, or that steering would be hard, or perhaps going into hyperspace would be highly dangerous. –  migo May 19 '11 at 22:55
Just running the engines on a (ocean) warship takes many, many engineers. Since (original) Star Wars designs apparently mimicked WWII naval ships and fighters, it might be worth reading up on the readily-available literature on how pre-electronics destroyers and cruisers and suchlike were crewed. –  SevenSidedDie May 20 '11 at 6:24
It's questions like this that fuel truly epic campaigns. Overcoming challenges in a heroic fashion is the premier driving force behind playing RPGs, but those challenges have to base themselves in some kind of rules structure for them to be fulfilling. I still see challenges here, as the most accurate answer seems far too high to be manageable by a party, but this is a wonderful question. –  corsiKa Dec 22 '11 at 7:10
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11 Answers

up vote 87 down vote accepted

Somewhere between 250 and 950 people, assuming that you don't need to run it for more than a couple of watches. Your best option is a crew of droids, as they don't need the downtime a normal crew does. This presumes that normal PC-centric options (social engineering, being Jedi, being Sith) are out of the picture and that the party actually wants to be able to run the ship with their own crew for any length of time.

In the mindset of the 70's, the technology of a capital ship could not be automated to any significant degree. From a military role perspective, ISDs performed cruiser roles:

Capable of laying waste to entire worlds (provided those worlds did not have planetary shields), the Imperial-class became infamous as the prime enforcer of Imperial rule, and even served as a small, peacekeeping battleship.[17][21]


Within sector-level fleets, the ISD served a central battleship role, being the flagship of the unit known as the "Battle Squadron." A Sector Group was responsible for patrolling a given sector and was composed of 24 Star Destroyers.[22] It was also observed to operate more or less independently and often far from support ships and facilities. Through many operations, the ISD functioned as a destroyer, a capital ship fast enough to chase down blockade runners and protect fleets. As an escort, it also supported Imperial Star Cruisers and Star Dreadnoughts in fleet combat.39

A cruiser:

In the later 20th century, the obsolescence of the battleship left the cruiser as the largest and most powerful surface combatant. The role of the cruiser varied according to ship and navy, often including air defence, commerce raiding and shore bombardment. The U.S. Navy in the Cold War period built guided-missile cruisers primarily designed to provide air defence, while the navy of the USSR built cruisers with heavy anti-ship missiles designed to sink NATO carrier task forces.

Thus, we have a vessel capable of patrolling on its own or operating in fleets.

With the analogy established, we can look at what it takes to run a cruiser and extrapolate from there. It's important to note that the Imperium \footnote{served very poorly by the propaganda of the rebel's amateur war films titled "Star wars"} is modeled after the soviet "Evil Empire" mythos. Therefore, an approximate ship is a Kiev Class "Aircraft Cruiser" which was subsequently reclassified as a carrier.

A Kiev has a crew of:

Crew: 1,200-1,600 (including air wing)

First, consider that a warship has to be operational 24/7, this requires at least 3 shifts.

Consider an onboard nuclear reactor, almost certainly to be simpler than the ISD's powerplant:

A nuc requires:

The current Nimitz-class A4W reactors could not handle the electrical loads demanded by EMALS and other new systems without a sharp reduction in core life. The Nimitz reactor is also complicated, with more than 30 different pipe sizes, more than 1,200 valves and 20-plus major pumps, and requires 60 watch stations to be manned when the ship is under way.

The reason it requires that many people is that there is no room for unnecessary redundancy in a warship: wasted mass can be used more profitably in doing something to further the mission. Thus, you need lots of people just to make sure every little bit is working, as there's no room for error and the machine is sufficiently complex that automation is either difficult, impossible, or wasteful (especially with pre-transistor computers).

Now, consider an ISD:

At the very least you need: people on the bridge. People at the reactor. People in environmental And people on the three different propulsion systems:

A star destroyer has three major propulsion systems. One is the hyperdrive, which achieves a crossing of the lightspeed barrier for supralight travel; the other two are concerned with movement through realspace at sublight speeds.

You also need people fiddling with shield systems, simply because space isn't empty that the speeds an ISD is travelling at. You'll want minimal crew on sensors, just to make sure you're not running into anything.

So, with this in mind, it looks like there are 3800 flight personnel listed for an ISD. Looking here, we see the Bluejacket's manual has crewing requirements for the USN. According to here: there are 6 (counting both halves of the dogwatch as 1) distinct watch-times. There's no reason to suppose that an ISD does away with this tradition. To allow for crew rest over a 6 year deployment, 3 watches will be absolutely minimum, with a likely 4 watches to account for necessary downtime. I'll assume 4 watches for this math, as it allows people a day off every so often.

3800/4 = 950 people on watch at any given time for just flight systems. As this is 950 crew running the essential functions of a mile long ship, this is not unreasonable.

There are the following logically derived areas: Bridge & Sensors, Environmental, Reactor, Hyperspace Propulsion, Sublight Propulsion, Shields. Roughly speaking 150 people for an even split, though the bridge and shields will likely take less and the reactor take way more.

The reactor of an ISD, described here has an output equivalent to a "miniature sun." Assuming that 200 people can tend a sun, even with automation, is all kinds of silly. Still, assuming automation, with merely someone running the essential activites as they come up, not counting for any margin in case of unexpected emergencies (space is full of unexpected emergencies...) assume a quarter is necessary to run themselves ragged with no backup. A skeleton crew of 250 or so to run a mile long starship for about 4 hours sounds about right. It means you can have a few people in each critical area making sure that the automation is doing what it should. Trying to run an ISD for any length of time without a normal watch means that stuff will start breaking very very very quickly as tolerances are exceeded. (Remember, military equipment assumes you know what you're doing. It'll allow itself to go out of spec instead of shutting down).

And thus, we get the 250-950 number stated above. 1970's conceptions of technology combined with a mile long ship, the running of a miniature sun to power the damn thing, three different engine systems, environmental control, and making sure the ship knows where it is and where it's going is an incredibly difficult task.

For more accurate guesses, use the spreadsheet found here.

Long deployment ships could not run 12 hour shifts for very long, even assuming hyper-disciplined clone armies. Given that there are explicit "hospitality sections" on an ISD, I can't even imagine gengineered clones being able to sustain that for 6 years. On the other hand, that would make a fascinating plot.

In a ship a mile long for a 6 year deployment, you're going to have more than simple bunks and always-on crew. (In contrast, a US sub that has a steeply limited number of crew can only deploy for a few months at best. You're going to have large food sections, what amount to on-board hotels and people to staff them, and places for clones and non-clone military to enjoy themselves. The other problem is that stormtroopers don't serve as part of flight crew, as they're part of the Imperial Army.

The huge crew is to maintain the machinery and ensure that everything stays within bounds. To be clear, they don't exactly need to be pushing buttons to keep machinery running. They need to be pushing buttons to stop from turning into a rapidly expanding cloud of plasma :) And yes, this is horribly inefficient from modern non-military standards (look at my last link) but reflects the technological biases of the time. -- Judging from some of the technokinetic tricks I know that some jedi/sith can do, the number drops sharply with a force-enabled crew. But that is functionally plot-magic.

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This answer is delightful. –  SevenSidedDie May 20 '11 at 6:30
@Ace, I'd agree with you on today's technology. Military ships tend to still lack serious automation, but a super-tanker can run almost fully automated with a skeleton crew of ~30-100. Compare that to a USN nuke carrier that requires a skeleton crew of about 700 (most of them running the reactors). –  Kevin Peno May 20 '11 at 17:42
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If I recall correctly in the 3rd Bounty Hunter Wars book (Hard Merchandise) Boba Fett single-handedly steals a Star Destroyer from the KDY yards. Granted it's debatable how canon the novel is but he does it nonetheless. So one, very briefly, would be my answer.

After re-reading the end of Hard Merchandise I can add this: it's completely unexplained how Boba Fett pilots the Star Destroyer. It's written such that the perspective cuts away from him right around the time he's told that it's impossible for one man to pilot. The next scene involves two people watching the Star Destroyer slowly maneuver/blast its way free.

It also be conceivable that a single person could pilot a large capitol ship for a brief period of time. While automation might not maintain a system for long there would have to be some self-sustainment less a careless crewman blow up the entire ship, etc because they weren't watching they're button. Naturally adding a handful more people would allow a person to key an eye on critical systems. Time is limited but a dozen people might keep a large ship running for half a day before they get really overwhelmed. Note that situations like combat are completely out of the scope of things as combat is by its nature a out of the norm situation (even for warships).

Though earlier it's pointed out the ships are navigated out of dry-dock via temporarily hard-wired tugs so if set up for that manual control from inside the vessel shouldn't be any different. This follows real world analogies of tugboats (or destroyers pulling aircraft carriers in World War II) and a tug could more easily be seen to be operated by a single person.

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Re: Boba Fett -- There's very little detail on the actual theft, but on page 324 Kuat of Kuat says "One man can't fly a ship this size; it takes a trained crew. The only way it would be possible is with a tug module, and you can't get to that with the atmospheric pressure shroud gone." The theft itself is described externally: the star destroyer moves about and fires its weapons. Whether Boba Fett is piloting it directly, or the tug module is a special magic that allows weapons fire is unclear. –  AceCalhoon May 24 '11 at 13:26
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In reference to the books written about Star Wars, then a minimum crew of 5000 is actually required to run the ship for any length of time beyond a few days. Remember that Booster Terrik tried to run the Errant Venture with only 3000 people, and that ISD was falling apart around his ears. On the question of automation, the ISD already has the maximum safe amount of automation (Post Clone Wars doctrine). Automation hit it big right before the Clone Wars, with the most famous example being the Katana Fleet, a fleet of 200 Dreadnoughts that originally required 16000 crewman to run. With automation and full slave-circuit rigging that number went down to 2000. Note that an ISD is considerably larger than a dreadnought, and has no full slave-circuit rigging (And don't even think about trying to jury rig one. It takes years to retrofit.) due to the fact that those fell out of favor after the entire Katana fleet went missing because of it (Read Dark Force Rising by Timothy Zahn to find out why.). So with a ship that normally requires upwards of 30000 crewmen (ISD II), then 5000 is actually ridiculously small. Remember that the bridge alone takes about 50 people to run, and each of those people are actually over other teams of people.

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I think everyone went overly technical on this one. Instead of stealing an empty star destroyer, steal a fully crewed one (no way a ship like this is empty anyways unless something truly strange happens).

The only thing you need to do is get to and take over the bridge. Once you have done this no one else on the ship need be aware that it is no longer under Imperial control. Merely take control of the bridge, have the already manned stations pilot you where you want to go, after that figuring out how to salvage the ship is the hard part. What I would do is navigate it to a salvage world, tell the crew there is an unrepairable control issue and furlough them at the salvage yard.

Stealing it is the easy part, getting away after is way harder.

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I would think that at least one subordinate officer would notice that their superior's bridge station is now issuing orders in a Wookie accent. –  SevenSidedDie May 31 '11 at 18:43
This was in fact a stunt pulled by Niles Ferrier on a Corellian battleship, as mentioned in Dark Force Rising. –  Jakob Jul 18 '11 at 9:22
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At a skeleton crew, you've got about enough people to have half-staff of essential overrides for two shifts in rotation. It's enough to get a prize home. Figure only main power, sublight drive, Life support, and hyperspace, staffed in two shifts, and everyone pulling double duty already to pull that off, and eating field rations on duty.

you can probably cut that to half skeleton if you're only going to fly 4-6 hours... but that's literally goign to be exhaustion-causing.

What most of them are doing is monitoring 2-3 people's safety boards, and keeping the failsafes from going into shutdown. Literally, watching for the indicator to go into the yellow, and applying the correct override procedures.

Plus, for LS techs, making the needed filter changes and scrubber changes.

Lots of things that could be automated are not, for the sake of both safety and operational utility. Fully automated systems are fine when things are normal; when one thing goes out, tho', they tend to have cascade failures. This is why there's a human required to monitor and make the final (but quick) decisions to run hot, run cold, etc, or shut down instead.

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Well, I have no idea in terms of the game, but I know that the real life-analog of a Star Destroyer would be a cross between a battleship and a an aircraft carrier, since those are the functions simulated.

And while, interestingly enough, the number 5000 is also bandied about for a modern aircraft carrier, much of that is actually at work with the fighter wing and the support for same. This is for the Nimitz class carriers, which will be replaced by the Ford class. 2 source I found stated that the real minimum skeleton crew for said ship would be around 200 to run it and pilot it. Under s 20th of the full listed complement.

Now, Unfortunately, when I poked around for Stats on a Star Destroyer, I came up with more like 37k as a normal crew, since it is so much more massive that what we have terrestrially. 37k is the nominal crew compliment, 5k is the skeleton crew which is supposedly the absolute minimum needed to pilot it.

I know we might be able to assume a certain amount of optimized and at least the availability of droid-run stations as a back up, but I think getting it down below 500 would be dependent on a lot of AI.

What do all those people do? I can imagine that a lot of tasks are actually able to be turned over to AI if need be. Similarly, as long as they are in optimal space, I imagine they can do ok with maybe 20 people who REALLY know what they are doing. But as soon as it getseven slightly complicated, or if they miss one thing, I think that few becomes 'Not enough to save them'.

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If you're playing Star Wars, it takes the PCs.

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See my response to OpaCitiZen (rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/7960/…). When running this sort of adventure I'd like to have more detail than just "congratulations, you win." In order to achieve that, I need to know what the obstacles are. –  AceCalhoon May 21 '11 at 5:30
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If I remember ship creation rules from Saga Edition correctly, the only way to get that a crew that high is to strip out all of the automation, which then also lets it have space for all the guns and fighters we associate with Star Destroyers (don't ask me to justify how this actually works). This means that most of the crew is part of a vast chain which connects people on the bridge to individual, normally automate-able, tasks. To put it another way, if all they are doing is flying it out of the hanger and jumping to a rendezvous point, then your average adventuring party could probably do it. However, if they get into any sort of firefight, then your going to have a series of adventures running down the hall trying to find the duty station which controls guns. If anything breaks or is set up wrong, then they will have to do something similar.

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Well, guns are pretty obvious. You need to have one (or more) people at each gun. What gets tricky is heading, thrust, and shields. Can all of this be managed by a small group of people (say, half a dozen)? I do think that running along the halls to fix things is great, and would love to have an excuse to work that sort of thing in. –  AceCalhoon May 20 '11 at 4:15
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I have no idea about the canon answers, but I guess if the series / rpgame were conceived and designed today (or if I were GMing such a story), the answer would probably be "one" - one highly skilled person who can hack a very complex AI. Of course, getting to the sealed room of this AI would call for a commando too... and/or a single high level Jedi (Remember how Kenobi stole into the heart of the Death Star?) :)

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Yeah, as a practical matter the answer is "however many the GM wants it to today." But knowing a canon-ish answer helps with the verisimilitude :) –  AceCalhoon May 20 '11 at 12:45
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I would think the right answer would be, get to the bridge, and use epic levels of persuade/convince/act/etc to get the standard crew to obey your orders for long enough for you to get the ship to your destination, and then escape in a hurry.

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Certainly, that's a way to do it. But it doesn't work so well if the goal was to use the Destroyer for anything other than a taxi ride :) –  AceCalhoon Dec 13 '11 at 19:20
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There has been a proof of concept in real life (I am not making anything up here), where just a few people, maybe even one could hijack a huge ship. All those people did was manipulating the navigation systems of the ship, so the crew went the wrong direction. It worked like a charm. They were in a little ship nearby emulating gps and giving wrong positions and directions from there.

You could do the same with a star destroyer destined for a maintenance flight. Manipulate its navigations and have them jump right into a trap. Just an idea.

Here is a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctw9ECgJ8L0

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