My PCs are on board a ship/craft in a game of Rogue Trader I am GMing, and soon will need to defend an area ("You shall not pass" style) against other ship/craft.

I have recently read the The Angry DM series about combat.
But so far I don't find air/sea/space battles fun, and don't see how to apply that advice in my case...

The turn decisions are quite low, and player actions every turn boil down to:

  1. Pilot/sail the ship/craft
  2. Support the ship/craft
  3. Shoot

It feels repetitive and more like throwing dice than really fighting after some turn.

How can I improve it to make it fun and compeling?

The other parameters are:

  • It is only battleship against battleship, spacecraft against spacecraft,...
  • The map is usually quite empty with sometimes area of low visibility (obstacles and cover not often)
  • PCs are leading officers on the same ship/craft
  • I am not yet good about describing actions/interaction between crafts/ships, especially after 10 turns
  • English is not my native language; please excuse typing errors

Related: How can I efficiently manage Ship to Ship Tactical Combat and Boarding?

(Answers are expected to be primarily based on real experience, what you did in this situation and how it worked for you - demonstrate how your recommended technique or course of action is effective for the problem.)

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ related: Keeping Mass Battles interesting for players \$\endgroup\$
    – eimyr
    Nov 29, 2016 at 10:12
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Can you limit your question to rogue trader or a more specific aspect? Compared to other games, Rogue Trader specifically deals with ship-to-ship combat and it seems to be redundant to post all the good advice Rogue Trader already has compared to other games. What exactly makes you think it would be boring? (lets say compared to another systems combat?) \$\endgroup\$
    – nvoigt
    Nov 29, 2016 at 12:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately I didn't have the opportunity to try other system. And even if my case is Rogue trader tips from other system are welcome but with rogue-trader it is more difficult to obtain. And combat are boring because it's too long and repetitive( as far as I could see during my game). \$\endgroup\$
    – user30476
    Dec 1, 2016 at 23:58

5 Answers 5


Take an leaf from (historical) fiction

Das Boat's convoy attack is a good example of a submarine fight. The book is very good too. You could easily adapt this to a space opera setting. The Master and Commander film (and book) are another good example where ship-to-ship combat. Finally, Midway is a great film focusing on both the air and naval sides of the battle. Space opera generally tend to see space as either submarine warfare (The Expanse) or glorified air plane combat (Cowboy Bebop, Star Wars). Of course, all of them take their inspiration for real life™. You could do that too: Raid on the Medway for example.

So, do what these guys do: use limited information to build tension, raise the stakes, and then explode in a fast ball of fire! Repeat.

Why the battle matters?

The game should be about the player characters, so that is where your focus should go. Ships blowing up are good special effects that can be seen but rarely interacted with.

Why are the players there?

What are they trying to achieve?

Once you have an answer to that, you can make combat more interesting by focusing on what the players do, not the ships. It is the hundred of small decisions in the middle of the battle that matters: Do we support ship X or attack ship Z? Do we keep firing on ship A to sink it, or do we allow it to flee? Do we move to intercept T or just fire some torpedoes? Do we try to disengage or keep close to their capital ship? How are we dealing with damage to the ship?

Finally, combat takes a long time (hours/days), which is generally not modelled well by RPG systems: so use more descriptions rather than tactical info dumps. You can, of course, focus the action from time to time where critical events happen.


As a Rogue Trader RPG veteran, I understand your problem. RT is trying to combine two distinct gaming experiences; RPG’s and wargaming.

In wargaming, the pleasure is derived from fighting the battles according to the rules with the players commanding either units or parts of the battlefield. In RPG’s, the players play their characters.

It’s the combination that fails IMO.

Our solution was to throw away the minutiae of ship fighting and make it a more of a RPG session. So instead of mapping out the manoeuvres, broadsides etc., change it into a story in which the players have certain parts to play. And use the crew’s rating, not the players for the ship’s rolls. Players can give a bonus but it makes no sense that for example a single player’s gunnery rating works for a ship of 100,000 crew….

So describe noticing the enemy ship on the scanners (perhaps insert a scene where the scanners go on the fritz and the tech-priest has to fix it), manoeuvring the ship into an advantageous combat position (insert scene where a rudder fails, the engines go off-line, zombies come crawling out of the ventilation ducts, the crew needs a hearty speech etc.), then describe the first salvoes and roll for damage. Describe the effect of damage on your ship and then let the players effect repairs or work around the issues.

In short, eliminate tactical rounds, just play the enemy ship intelligently, and throw in scenes/challenges for the players aboard their own ship. Space combat takes forever so there is enough time to solve (small) issues before the next broadside arrives. The entire encounter should be tense and nerve-wracking and things are always breaking down at the worst moment. The players should be running around fixing things or getting the crew to work at maximum efficiency. That also offers them the chance to use their skills instead of just moving the ship and firing every round.


What I found in sea or space battles is that players have no clue what ships look like. No matter how popular you think the ships are, some of your players will not be able to visualize them in the detail you expect.

Take for example a three master. If the DM says something like "after the smoke of your broadside clears, you see the enemy ship has sustained heavy damage, it's foremast broken and hanging over the side", expect players to not be able to accurately describe the scene, no matter how many popular movies you have seen and you think they have seen. And it gets even worse with space battles, with all kind of popular fiction depicting ships differently.

Make sure you have pictures or props of the ships or ideally, both. Being able to picture the scene, even if the pictures are given, is a huge boost in playability. Prepare in advance as a DM, so you have pictures of possible encounters, possible damage and other outcomes (beaches, asteroids, whatever).

Rogue Trader and 40K for example has a very distinct style and that style is a big part of how it feels. Fighting an Ork dreadnought or a sleek Eldar frigate feels completely different even if you are rolling the same dice. There's pictures of both all over the net. And if you want to have a great evening, maybe you can find some Battlefleet Gothic miniatures to put in the middle of the table.

Now if you and your players are unhappy with the system I guess you need to find a better system. Personally, I was happy with Rogue Trader, but if you are not, maybe it's just not the right system for you.


My answer is for my experience with space battles not sea.

Space battles in most games I have run tend to have terrible rules that bear little relation to how things move in space or the vast distances and ridiculous speeds.

Space battles seem to me to be games of chess, with ships dancing around each other trying to get a line of fire on the enemy while avoiding having the same occur to them. As the point that a large lance weapon or broadside can be brought to bear the game is often over.

Boarding in space is more fun as you have to match velocity to dock/storm the vessel or have some kind of teleporter or boarding shuttles.

To keep this fluid I tend to bin most movement rules(most of the rules) in the system. And take speed as the change in velocity a ship can affect. Also rotating on the spot in space takes virtually no effort, but changing direction should be difficult.

I take acceleration/speed to be in mm so a speed of 6 is 6mm/turn/turn on the table, as after a few turns of combat you can be covering large distances. So if travelling in a straight line you cover 6mm in first turn 12mm in second, 18 in third etc. So you can go very "fast" but stopping or turning becomes more difficult the faster you go.

I clear as large a table as possible. Battle start far apart, space is big and I like this to be represented. I also give players 60 seconds to plan their next move; so if flows quickly. If they don't give me written instructions at the 60s mark then they continue to do what they did last turn. Think of it like a bridge on a ship where the command staff discuss tactics and plan and then pass notes to the helmsman and gunnery staff. I also have to have written down what I am going to do with the NPC ships before I look at their notes.

Often for enemy ships I have a plan and contingencies and follow them so I as GM can't be accused of cheating.

I find the dancing is the fun, there are very few dice roles unless you want to overdirve the engines or jury rig your ship in some silly way. The game flows as the ships close or circle each other. The roles are only needed for targeting, firing and damage.

I don't know if this is what you were looking for but my players really enjoyed their space battles when run this way. Try it, see what works and what doesn't for you and tweak as needed.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Does that mean that your space ship battles are two dimensional?… \$\endgroup\$ Nov 29, 2016 at 15:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, mostly. Sometimes I have done 3D, but the added complexity can reduce the speed and flow. As soon as you add the third dimension the dice rolling you have removed is replaced with people doing Pythagoras in 3 dimensions, which can adds to the reality but slows the pace down. If going to 3D I usually extend the amount of time for them to confer. Also 1 on 1 or 2 on 1 3D is usually too much. But if you have many craft attacking a single craft the 3rd dimension can make an encounter survivable, that would not be in 2D. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mr_road
    Nov 29, 2016 at 16:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good idea to add advance inertia rule \$\endgroup\$
    – user30476
    Nov 30, 2016 at 2:41

A quick solution can be to force a choice from the players. Basically it means that on the standard turn they won't be able to perfectly fill all the roles so they will have to choose which ones are filled and which ones are not.

For example in your ship you can have the following roles: commander (who give bonuses to morale tests), seeker (who make the ship able to react in case of imminent danger), gunner (who attack the enemy), pilot (who makes the ship dodge), shipwright (who repairs the damages)...

You can imagine the unfilled roles as under the responsibility of a random NPC who will do the job but without giving bonuses. Each turn, make your player decide which roles they want to do. The role can be more or less useful depending on the situation (in close-quarter combat the seeker becomes less useful for example), and PCs will be more or less good at each role. For some roles you may discourage, or even forbid, that two PCs fill it (by making the bonuses from the second PC less important for example).

Add to that some events that will accentuate the need for all the roles, and your players will really have to choose. For example:

  • the rudder is damaged by a previous salve, piloting becomes very difficult (malus), but a quick repair would fix that.

  • fog raises, and without a seeker it becomes very difficult to aim these fires.

  • some members of the crew fell from the ship, without a rescuer they are in big trouble

  • there is a weird sound coming from the south, what is it ? Maybe it would worth that someone prepares for a counter-measure. Maybe not.

  • the enemy have started firing gold coins. Your pirate crew is trying to gather them and don't answer your orders anymore, unless a talented commander give them an earbashing.

This solution is inspired by a homemade space-op system I played with (not as the GM).


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