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I am in the midst of creating a sci-fi space pirate campaign in D&D 5e, and spaceship/spacecraft combat will be inevitable.

I found this MSRD for spaceship combat but it's extremely complicated, and my party consists of first-time players that would get overwhelmed by this system of combat. Are there any statblocks or homebrew mechanics for 5th edition that could be useful in my situation?

TLDR: Is there a way to make spaceship combat for D&D 5e feasible? If not, what could be done to make the closest equivalent from pre-existing D&D mechanics?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Gentle reminder that solutions to the problem (such as other systems to adopt/adapt) should be made in answers, with the full support needed for such. If there are details or goals needed to know whether a solution will be applicable, do request those. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Jun 10, 2022 at 17:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ It may interest you that 5e's official "space" (kind of) supplement is coming out in August. I don't know if it will have the rules you want, but here is a decent summary of what to expect about the "ships". \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    Jun 10, 2022 at 19:45

7 Answers 7

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I cannot recommend this course of action.

There are myriad games out there already that are purpose-built for handling space combat, with varying degrees of speed, realism, and cinematic style.

D&D is not one of these games. While it may be possible to hack D&D into doing what you want, why bother? What benefit do you gain from what is essentially tearing the system down to its foundations and trying to build something on top of it that doesn't quite fit?

The only real reason to try is if your players are deeply invested in the D&D system and don't want to learn a new one. But if your player-base is already going to be learning a new system, there's no benefit served by trying to cram a D&D-shaped peg into a Star Trek-shaped hole.

Now, there is a new 5e Spelljammer supplement coming out which will inevitably have space combat rules; I have no idea how good they'll be for what you want to do. Spelljammer is traditionally about, essentially, naval vessels in space -- ranging from actual ships-with-sails in a bubble of air to space-faring nautiloids driven by mind flayers. And of course it comes along with, by necessity, using the D&D fantasy-medieval classes like Wizard and Barbarian, the implicit existence of gods, magic, spellcasting, and so on. If you don't want all that stuff -- if you don't want to actually play Spelljammer -- I really can't recommend picking up Spelljammer.

What to use instead

If you decide to give up on D&D, I suggest posting on a forum to ask for system recommendations. You'll want to describe what elements are required and which are desirable but not required. One of the main questions that's going to come up is what you mean by "spaceship combat" -- do you mean Star Wars/Battlestar Galactica style "WWII Dogfight In Space" stuff, or do you mean more in the Star Trek "Battleship Artillery In Space" vein, or something else entirely?

If you want something similar to Star Wars (fast, cinematic, somewhat technical but not overly tied up in the details of scifi gadgetry), then I can immediately mention the Fantasy Flight product GENESYS ("Generic System"), which has a sci-fi setting that's largely based on their previous line of Star Wars products (that being Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion, and Force & Destiny) with some mechanical refinements and the serial numbers filed off (much of the Force stuff was turned into Psionics, of course). The only issue with the system is they use specialized dice with symbols to generate results instead of standard numeric dice, and the dice symbology changed between their Star Wars products and Genesys, so getting the right dice might be a minor chore. (There are online dice rollers available, most of which use the Star Wars symbol set.) Genesys and its Star Wars forebears are actually my go-to game systems outside of D&D; I'm a fan. (Just to explain a little, the intent of the weird dice is that you rarely just fully succeed or fully fail on a given roll. The way the system shakes out, you're most likely to get a success with some kind of cost/setback or a failure with some kind of benefit/advantage, and those advantages or costs become narrative beats in the scene, like shooting out the lights when you miss an attack or performing an awesome piloting stunt that blows out the power coupling from the strain.)

If you want something closer to D&D, there is also an older d20-based Star Wars: Saga Edition game published by WotC between 2007 and 2010. It borrows mechanics heavily from D&D 3.5, though with a somewhat less strict class system, so that can be both blessing and curse if you're used to some of 5e's refinements and the "bounded accuracy" concept that limits the bonuses to your rolls. Still, it's a solid system even if you don't want to play in the Star Wars universe as such; it should be pretty easy to just scratch out the "Use the Force" skill and ignore the Force-related character options (or reskin them as psionic powers). That said, the books have been out of print for over a decade at this point, so you'll have to look around online or visit your local used book stores with hope in your heart.

For something more like Star Trek or Firefly, there are a few options including the (in?)famous Traveler; I've heard good things about the current edition but haven't played it myself. And there are of course several actual licensed product RPGs based on Trek or other scifi properties, but I haven't played them so I can't really speak to them.

Still, I think all of these are better options than trying to homebrew a D&D scifi mashup. They've been playtested, for one thing.

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Don't use rules to resolve ship-to-ship combat

Instead of running ship-to-ship combat by using rules to directly resolve the outcomes, run it as a narrative event. Have players completing tasks on ship: rallying crew, running repairs, casting illusions, repelling borders, etc. This approach makes it much easier to keep all characters involved¹ and means that you are running actions that more directly engage with the general mechanics of D&D. It's not that ship-to-ship combat can't be mechanically compelling, but you need complex rule systems that are woven into character abilities for them to work (see Traveller for example), whereas - unless you're willing to undergo a massive amount of work - any ship-to-ship combat system bolted onto 5e will feel just that: bolted on.


¹ One of the significant problems with ship-to-ship combat is that there is usually only one ship taking actions since all players are on the same ship, and thus involving all players roughly equally becomes very difficult.

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The naval combat from Ghosts of Saltmarsh can be adapted to space ships.

I've had similar aspirations as you - D&D in space sounds like fun. Having enjoyed the ship-to-ship combat featured in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, I've tried adapting it to spaceship combat, and it sort of works. The combat is very slow, definitely more similar to Star Trek's pace than the quick maneuvering seen in Star Wars. With some reflavoring work, you can just drop the ship statblocks and combat rules right into you space game.

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Use 5e Vehicle Rules

DMG page 119 has a Vehicles table with example vehicles, their speeds, AC, HP, Damage Threshold, and capacity (Crew, Passengers, Cargo). While these are not spaceship stats, they provide the necessary framework to create your own spaceships for your campaign.

Combine those rules with the example Siege Weapons, DMG page 255, and you've got guidelines for vehicle combat stats (Attack, AC, Damage, HP, and Threshold). You can even blend in the Chase rules, DMG pages 252-255, for a fluid combat across interesting terrain.

This will require a lot of adjudication, as the DMG does not have rules for turning radii, different accelerations, and the (many) outlandish maneuvers that players will want to attempt. But covering those holes is half the fun when I run homebrew space combat. (I have not done so with 5e.)

If you have access to it, the naval combat in Ghosts of Saltmarsh could be adapted to three dimensional movement. Probably with relative ease.

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SW5e has some ship combat stuff. It's a Star Wars RPG system based on 5e SRD material. So if you want your ship combat to be anything like how space ships work in Star Wars, this might be the system for you.

Dimension 20 used it for their Starstruck Odyssey actual-play season, adapting it to a non-Star Wars setting (some force powers became psionic abilities). So it has some ship combat / travel rules.

The first episode is free on youtube, and includes a ship combat in space starting fairly early, so check it out if you want to see one example of that playing out, with some movement, using Talespire to move things around. Ships have shields and hull HP, and 10 "normal" damage (like with hand-held weapons) is 1 ship-scale damage.

The classes are all different from 5e, but built out of similar pieces. e.g. one has a damage-resistance ability like rage, another (the Operative) smells like a rogue (sneak attack and cunning action, but also many different abilities). The skills (like Investigation) and ability scores are still the same, and combat with AC and +attack modifiers are still the same. So is advantage/disadvantage, so the bones of 5e are still there.

If you don't want tech/force "powers" that work like 5e spellcasting, this may not be the system for you, though. The system is presumably balanced around those existing, although maybe you can run a game with only mundane characters and still have it work well, IDK.

Most 5e spells exist in SW5e, just flavoured differently, and maybe with minor variations in area. e.g. Color Spray (15ft cone) becomes Flash (20ft radius at 90ft range), but still blinding 6d10 HP of creatures, starting with the lowest HP. Color Spray is kind of under-powered anyway, and moreso in a world where many people have blaster pistols instead of swords and clubs. Many other spells just go re-flavoured and renamed, as either tech or force powers. (https://sw5e.com/characters/techPowers / https://sw5e.com/characters/forcePowers)

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Part of the reason the MSRD you found looks complex is because it doesn't look like it's designed for 5e - all the modifiers and mention of "flat-footed" make it sound like it's designed for 3.5e or similar.

My personal recommendation is for Dark Matter from Mage Hand Press. It's not free, but it has very comprehensive space combat rules, and the basics are pretty simple - everything is at "mega" scale, so all distances, hit points, and damage are multiplied by 100. It means you can't practically damage a space ship with normal weapons or spells. There are roles to suit a party of four - captain, pilot, gunner, engineer - and unlike Spelljammer, you don't need to be a spellcaster just to pilot a ship.

I don't know if it qualifies as "easy" enough for beginners, though. Anything ship-based is going to be more complex than personal combat, although if you give them a ship to start with (so they don't get overwhelmed with options when they're beginning) and give them reference cards for the ship positions so they know which actions they can take, it should be fairly easy to run, since the basic mechanics are the same as 5e.

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I would not recommend this as a beginning game. You now have two sets of new rules to learn. Double the work, maybe not double the fun. That said I combined D&D with the Traveler game system (several decades ago). Damage to the character is based on hit points. So a fireball does 1d6/level to D&D and Traveler characters alike. D&D characters may have more hit points, but there are disadvantages too. My awesome D&D fighter swings his mighty 2-handed sword and finds the spaceship quarters are cramped, or the mage finds that his fireball fills 90% of the ship killing most of the crew, and knocking out the air handling system. Much of the initial play could center about the D&D characters learning how to deal with the different scales in technology. The assassin shoots the characters at 2 miles distant. The player responds with a lightning bolt that does not even cover half that distance. Another wrinkle is whether magic and science are compatible. If science suppress magic then the players might be mostly defenseless onboard a starship. On the planet surface of low-tech worlds they regain their power, but laser pistols then don't work as well. Finally, if I am only hit by +2 weapon or better, can a light saber damage me? Part of what makes all of this work is just be consistent in how you apply or change the rules. Even simple things may become quite difficult. Does Aldebaran III have a creature that will work as "eye of newt" in the spell components? How will characters train for levels? If they make their own spells will they have a consistent supply of the exotic ingredients? Mixing game systems can be fun, if a little chaotic.

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