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Chapter 2: Starship Combat

Additional Starship Options

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 48
Starship encounters can take many forms, and telling stories with starships can lead to exciting situations that transform or even transcend combat. The following section presents optional systems, equipment, and advice for enhancing your starship adventures. Track your crew’s locations in case of unexpected danger like a mutiny or ambush, descend upon planets in daring dives, or even amplify the dangers of starship combat by expanding on the perils inflicted by critical damage.

Crew Locations

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 48
While the exact location of each of a starship’s crew members typically has little bearing on starship combat, you still might want to know where on your ship various characters are in case of an on-board threat like a mutiny or when using other subsystems presented in this book, such as boarding (page 40) or hull ruptures (page 50).
A starship’s bridge is the most common location for the officers on a ship. With small crews, the officers often switch positions, trading off as needed. This practice is called flexing, and it allows a small crew to double up on positions when they need to do so before returning to their original roles. In addition to the combat stations on the bridge, there are also stations scattered throughout the ship, sometimes even within crew quarters. Proximity alarms usually offer sufficient warning for officers to make it to a combat station, no matter where they are on a ship.
Common locations during starship combat are described below, organized by officer role.
Captain: Captains generally monitor combat from the ship’s bridge, where they can taunt the enemy or coordinate actions with allied starships via the ship’s communications, listen to updates, and decide where their help is most needed. Good captains often take the time to know their ships inside and out, so outside of combat, they may help secure items in the hold, perform safety inspections of major equipment, or just get to know their ship and crew.
Chief Mate: Chief mates travel all over the ship, hauling heavy loads, ripping open access panels to recalibrate machinery, and assisting other crew in getting the job done. If someone has to get to a specific location on the ship fast, it’s usually the chief mate who rushes to do what needs doing. They might not know all the science behind what they’re doing, but they know the equipment and how to operate it. They are equally at home in the engine room or the bowels of a ship’s maintenance tunnels, as well as on the bridge.
Engineer: Engineers work with the power core, the Drift engines, tech labs, gunnery stations, robotic maintenance bays, and more. Like the chief mate, they might travel anywhere and everywhere on the ship. Although it’s common for them to monitor the ship’s status from an engineering room, they are also frequently on the bridge. During ship combats, they track multiple ship systems for signs of damage. Depending on what needs attention and how badly, the engineer may send automated repair bots or physically travel to a site for delicate repair work on a touchy mechanism.
Gunner: Gunners are usually found on the bridge, where they can most easily coordinate with other crew members or ask the pilot to arrange prime facing for a tricky shot. Gunnery can be done from any station on the ship, however, even within a holographic amusement chamber or the privacy of crew quarters. Most stations can provide access to all of the ship’s weapons, no matter the facing, so gunners can switch weapons easily without running from station to station.
Magic Officer: If an arcane laboratory is available, a magic officer usually operates from there, as the mystical boost provided by the laboratory greatly facilitates the officer’s work. On ships without a dedicated arcane laboratory, a magic officer likely joins the rest of the crew on the bridge. If space is limited and resources are tight, the magic officer makes do; they may use a cargo bay or even the galley, ship’s mess, or crew quarters.
Pilot: Pilots usually work from the ship’s bridge. Although it’s technically possible to pilot from any station on the ship, pilots feel most comfortable with the full set of controls and expansive view screens offered by the bridge. When off-duty, they may use simulators in a holographic amusement chamber.
Science Officer: Although science officers primarily serve on the bridge, where they can offer a stream of data and assistance to other crew members, many science officers are also backup engineers, flexing between the roles as needed. As such, they can also be found anywhere an engineer can. Out of combat, they may also be found working with dedicated systems such as science labs, mobile information networks, surveying sensors, or high-capacity comm arrays.

Orbital Drops

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 48
An orbital drop is a method of sending troops or equipment to a planet’s surface from low orbit without piloting them in a shuttle or flight vehicle. There are a number of advantages to this method: speed, relative stealth, and mitigation of the risk of enemy fire taking out significant personnel or equipment with a single lucky shot.
You can use a drop pod (page 25) to land a whole squad with equipment or vehicles and provide a structure at the landing site. You can also use smaller drop pods that are just for equipment or a single occupant. Single-occupant pods are much less expensive and don’t require dedicated expansion bays. Specially trained forces can also drop without a pod, relying on fire- and crash-resistant gear to survive their journey to the surface.

Single-Occupant Drop Pods

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 49
Although drop pods (page 25) allow a squad to arrive on the surface together, single-occupant drop pods have their own advantages. The first is cost. Since they aren’t designed to survive impact, they are fairly inexpensive. They also deal less damage to the surface when they fall, and so are most appropriate for use in areas where military forces wish to secure valuable facilities without risking their destruction. Because they are also smaller, dropping many troops at once in single-occupant drop pods helps ensure that at least some of the invading force will evade surface-based weapon fire, since they’re smaller, more dispersed targets. The most common single-occupant drop pods are armor upgrades.

Personal Drop Pods

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 49
These are single-use armor upgrades that provide protection for one orbital drop. When activated, the pod forms a transparent cocoon that provides full protection from the fire damage caused by atmospheric reentry and from the bludgeoning damage of the final impact. The pods also come with thrusters that allow their users to make small maneuvers toward a chosen landing site. This allows those dropping to avoid trees or other ground-based hazards. After the drop, the burnt-out pod automatically detaches, leaving the armor upgrade slot free once more. Stealth drop pods allow users to use their Stealth skill to oppose the Perception checks of ground-based observers and sensors. Invisibility drop pods use advanced light-refraction and heat-dissipation technology to provide full invisibility during the drop.

Orbital Drops without a Pod

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 49
The dangers of an orbital drop include fire damage caused by atmospheric reentry and 20d6 bludgeoning damage from the impact at the end of the drop. This bludgeoning damage is halved in low gravity, doubled in high gravity, and tripled in extreme gravity.

Table 2–4: Atmospheric Reentry Damage

Environmental Conditions Fire Damage pre Round
Thick atmosphere 3d6
Normal atmosphere 2d6
Thin atmosphere 1d6
No atmosphere
High momentum +2d6
Average momentum +1d6
Slow momentum –1d6


Table 2–5: Personal Armor Upgrades

Upgrade Level Price Slots Armor Type Bulk
Basic drop pod 2 200 1 Any 1
Stealth drop pod 5 500 2 Any 1
Invisibility drop pod 10 3,000 2 Any 1

Starship Damage and Repair

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 50
The following are optional rules you can use to make starship combat more exciting and emphasize the role of engineers. Not every combat needs to employ power core breaches or explosive decompression, but including them occasionally in a tough fight can keep starship combat engaging and fresh for your players.

Hull Ruptures

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 50
Hull ruptures occur when enemy fire or breaching weapons break through a section of hull, exposing the interior of a ship to the void of space. In game terms, this could occur anytime a starship takes critical damage to its life support system. A hull could also rupture as a result of an environmental hazard (page 134) that damages the ship enough to trigger a critical threshold.
To determine where the hull breach occurs, roll randomly among the rooms that border the side of the ship that was hit. The hull is breached in that room, with its space-facing side exposed to a vacuum. If characters are in the room, they suffer the effect of atmospheric decompression (see below). If no characters are in the room, roll randomly for potential loss of cargo or anything that isn’t bolted down.

Atmospheric Decompression

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 50
The first effects of a ruptured hull are dropping room pressure and massive winds that buffet the characters. All characters in a room with a ruptured hull, regardless of whether they have personal environmental protections, immediately take 3d6 bludgeoning damage as the air in the room pours into the void of space. Next, each creature must prevent itself from being swept out into space. They must attempt a DC 15 Reflex save to either engage the magnetic locks on their armor’s boots or grab on to a bolted piece of furniture. Jump jets, jet packs, flight, or anything else that enables characters to maneuver in zero gravity provide a +1 circumstance bonus to this save.
The dropping room pressure causes immediate exposure to the environmental hazards of being in a vacuum (Starfinder Core Rulebook 394). Characters with armor, void adaptation, or any other ability that enables them to survive in a vacuum are unaffected. Instances of crew being trapped unarmored during a hull breach are relatively rare. Proximity alarms warn of incoming ships, asteroids, and other environmental hazards, so most crew get the opportunity to engage armor seals long before hull ruptures happen.
A bigger problem for some characters is dealing with their ship’s safety protocols that trap them in harm’s way. Automated systems on many starships immediately seal off rooms that have a hull breach in order to protect the environment of the rest of the ship. Seals can usually be overridden with a successful DC 10 Computers or Engineering check at the doors or from the bridge, but this often requires first sealing off rooms deeper within the ship to create a makeshift airlock into which the trapped crew members can escape.

Repairing Hull Ruptures

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 50
Some ships have automated repair drones that can repair bulkheads or other systems. Repairing or reallocating shields in a quadrant that has suffered a hull breach stops the loss of cabin pressure and exposure to vacuum long enough for repair drones to provide a temporary fix.

Loss of Cargo

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 50
Most ship crews stow the majority of their items and cargo securely, and furnishings tend to be bolted or built into the ship. Still, anything that causes a hull rupture can also cause those precautions to be undone. To see if cargo or items are lost, roll on the following table. If items are lost to decompression, a starship’s crew can perform a normal scan to find them again so long as the ship stays near where the breach occurred. The DC for such a check is 15, though it may be higher or lower at the GM’s discretion to account for mitigating factors or complications. If the ship moved after the breach, scans to find lost items take a –5 penalty; if the pilot performed stunts like a barrel roll or a flip and burn, the penalty increases to –10. Most recovered cargo is still safe in its container. GMs can rule that certain types of cargo (fragile items, live plants, and the like) are irreparably damaged.

Table 2–6: Cargo Loss Table

D% Extent of Cargo Loss
1–25 No effect
26–50 1d4 items of an item level lower than 5 are broken.
51–75 One item of item level 5 or higher is broken.
76–100 Complete loss of one container of cargo.

Power Core Breaches

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 51
Power core breaches occur when a catastrophic failure of one key system causes numerous cascading failures elsewhere. The exact nature of the failure can vary, depending on the power core. Reactors can overheat, antimatter can leak, and mystical elements can escape containment and start wreaking havoc elsewhere in the ship. The cascading reactions caused by the key system failure can range from deadly levels of radiation being released into the ship to an explosion of energy that might utterly destroy the vessel.
Because of the safety features built into most ships, breached power cores are rare. Simply reaching the wrecked condition in starship combat does not generally cause a power core to be breached. The most common cause for core breaches is sabotage. Saboteurs might infiltrate a spaceport crew and undermine a ship undergoing repairs or upgrades. Spies might stow away on a large ship, destabilize the core, and flee in one of the ship’s shuttles. Or sometimes, a ship runs afoul of gremlins or other malefactors intent on destruction. The second-most common cause for breach stems from self-destruct systems (Core Rulebook 300), some of which trigger catastrophic reactions in a ship’s power core in order to completely destroy the vessel.
It is also possible that the crew of a ship without a self-destruct system might attempt to destroy their own vessel in order to eradicate a monster or contagion that has invaded their ship. Such actions usually require an entire bridge crew to simultaneously and successfully perform intricate procedures in order to disable safety features and destroy their own vessel.

Aborting the Sequence

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 51
Fixing a power core breach in progress and interrupting cascading failures is never an easy task, and it’s not a situation that can be fixed with a single skill check. But once the power breach is detected, the bridge crew can work together to prevent a complete meltdown of their core.
Minor Meltdowns: For a minor meltdown, where the core breach is a side note to a larger story, the efforts to contain the breach should take 3 rounds, starting when the breach is first detected by the crew. Emphasize that the clock is ticking and that PCs can each attempt only three skill checks to save the system. If they are successful, the crew prevents the core breach from going critical and has time to fully repair it. If they fail, the crew has just enough time to eject the power core and save the ship. The crew is then stuck in that location on minimal life support until rescued.
The DC of each skill check is equal to 15 + 1-1/12 × the ship’s tier. Set the number of successes that the party needs to stop the meltdown at 2 × the number of party members. Relevant skills can include any or all of the following, as well as related Profession skills.
  • A character using Computers or Mysticism can scan for failing systems.
  • A character using Engineering can fix failing systems or prevent a system failure in one location from cascading into the next.
  • A character using Athletics or Acrobatics can reach systems by exceptional means, such as those outlined in the chief mate role (Character Operations Manual 146).
Crew members can aid each other or roll their own checks, and the Captain can encourage as normal with Diplomacy or Intimidate. Class abilities like quick patch can allow a character to achieve two successes with a single check. In addition, any character who casts a spell of 1st level or higher that repairs tech, such as make whole, automatically earns one success.
Major Meltdowns: In cases where the core breach is the main plot point, you might require a more involved team effort to save the ship. One way to do this is to add enemies (such as enemy boarders) who are trying to prevent the party from succeeding in saving their ship. For a group that loves combat, you can have the party fight off waves of enemies between each successive skill check, building the tension as the clock ticks down. You might instead require one or two additional successful skill checks to represent the increased danger.

Starship Combat Scale

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 51
Starships range from tiny single-pilot fighters to colossal vessels employing hundreds of crew. A Small ship can easily fit within the hangar bay of a Gargantuan or larger vessel. How, then, do you adjust for different ship sizes within a starship combat?
One of the best ways to set the scale of your combat is to determine what sort of terrain you want on the map. In fights with no appreciable terrain, the scaling hardly matters. There’s enough space in a starship hex for each ship (even ultranoughts). However, when there is an object of known size desired as terrain, you may wish to scale accordingly. For example, in a dogfight between fighters over an ultranought, the Supercolossal ship becomes terrain instead of a separate vessel.
Close Combat—1,000 Feet per Hex: This scale is most appropriate for Medium and smaller ships. When using this scale, the action is focused on these ships’ maneuvers around larger obstacles. This scaling allows the GM to position asteroids, space stations, and derelict bits of space debris as terrain to add interest and challenge to a ship combat. At this scale, a Large ship would just barely fit in a single hex, while bigger vessels might fill a significant portion of the map and become abstract terrain or an environmental hazard of their own.
Standard Scale—10 Miles per Hex: This is a default scaling used in most combats. It allows even Gargantuan ships to fit within a single hex. Absalom Station or the Idari would fill a single hex, but there could be larger stations that encompass multiple hexes. At this scale, most planets would completely fill the map and could be depicted only if placed at an edge.
Fleet Actions—100 Miles per Hex: This scaling allows for massive multi-ship battles on a truly epic scale, with enough space for a small planet like Aballon or Apostae to fit on the map. A planet the size of Castrovel would fill most of the map but still leave room for some starship action from an invading force around the edges.
Feel free to adapt your own scaling to fit the requirements of your game, but note that weapon ranges, starship speeds, and other hex-based statistics shouldn’t change with the scale, in order to maintain the balance of the starship combat system.