Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Retrospective: Knight Hawks

I've made no secret of my love for Traveller. It was my go-to SF RPG when I was a kid and I retain a special place in my heart for it. Despite this -- or, perhaps, because of it -- I was always keenly aware of its shortcomings as a game and one was in the area of starship combat. Don't misunderstand me: Traveller's starship combat works just fine, but it's not particularly fun or exciting. Like many aspects of Traveller, it feels a bit like an exercise in double-column bookkeeping and it's decidedly lacking in the Big Explosions® department. That's probably due to the game's literary inspirations, none of which, to my recollection, has particularly memorable space battles in it.

Consequently, I very rarely ran space battle when I refereed Traveller, an omission that tended to limit the game's appeal among my friends, most of whom not unreasonably expected that there'd be lots of them in a science fiction RPG campaign. Enter Knight Hawks, the 1983 boxed expansion to TSR's Star Frontiers. Written and designed by Douglas Niles, Knight Hawks was produced to patch a glaring hole in the original Star Frontiers boxed set: no starship rules of any kind. This was a source of much annoyance among purchasers of the game, who'd mistakenly believed that any SF RPG would necessarily include starship rules in its initial release. Whatever virtues Star Frontiers had as a game were lost in the fact that it wasn't complete. Even my friends, who generally preferred the more wild and woolly approach of Star Frontiers to Traveller, were sufficiently displeased with its lack of starship rules that they never pressured me to run it very often.

All that changed with the release of Knight Hawks. It might be an exaggeration to say that this boxed set "saved" Star Frontiers in any absolute sense, but it certainly did amongst my friends and I. Consisting of a single 64-page campaign book, a 16-page rulebook, a 16-page adventure module, a double-sided map, a sheet of cardboard counters, and some percentile dice, Knight Hawks was a terrifically complete package. Better still, it was extremely well designed. Its starship rules, which were divided into basic and advanced versions, didn't even take up all 16 pages of the rulebook, some of which was filled with examples and short scenarios. What's more, the rules were scalable, allowing the referee to use them to handle anything from one-on-one dogfights to huge fleet engagements with a dozen or more ships per side.

This scalability was what really won me over to Knight Hawks. Traveller's starship rules weren't particularly complex, but they were just complex enough that I'd never have considered using them to run a battle involving more than a handful of ships at a time. Knight Hawks, on the other hand, seemed to revel in its ability to handle such large battles, with three different "levels" of action, corresponding to amount of rules detail employed. For large battles, only the basic rules were used. For smaller engagements, the advanced rules were suggested. And for small fights in which the PCs could reasonably play a significant part, the "extra-advanced" rules, where individual character skills come into play, were suggested. But of course all three levels were, by most standards, simple enough that an experienced referee could mix and match as he felt appropriate, such as the way I used to run big battles using only the basic rules but would "zoom in" when the ship on which the PCs served became involved in combat. It was a very clever design, all the more remarkable because it took up very few pages to present.

I absolutely adored Knight Hawks. I think only the starship combat rules from FASA's Star Trek come close to eclipsing it in my affections and the FASA rules suffer from being a bit slow at times, whereas Knights Hawks was always fast and furious. Now, I don't think this style of combat is appropriate for every SF campaign. Knight Hawks, like Star Frontiers itself, has a decidedly "bubblegum space opera" feel to it rather than something more "serious." That's not a criticism, merely an observation, lest anyone get the false impression that its design is universally applicable to any science fiction game or setting.

That said, contemporary game designers would be well advised to take to heart its emphasis on simple, scalable rules presented succinctly. Knight Hawks is clear, concise, and easy-to-use, yet very flexible, making good use of a few tables and without resorting either to abstraction or a one-size-fits-all universal mechanic. Knight Hawks was very accessible and had a low buy-in, two factors that I'd love to see employed more widely in 21st century game design. This is a forgotten classic and one from which I personally derived a great deal of pleasure over the years. Maybe I need to give it a whirl again sometime ...

31 comments:

  1. Funny. I just picked this up on Amazon. I was looking over my shelves and thought I'd add this back to the collection (as my old copy was lost ages ago).

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  2. As an RPG'er and miniatures guy, I've been tempted many times to find a way to mix a miniatures starship game with an RPG. There are plenty of them that are simple enough to be manageable -- Full Thrust and Starmada come to mind -- and some even include how "legendary crew members" could impact play. There's even one -- Battlestations -- that's specifically built around the characters and their efforts during the combat.

    Anyone tried this? Success? Failure?

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  3. OK, I'm inspired to get a copy. I will say that, although I hated Traveller's ship combat, I loved its actual ships and ship design rules, which were thoroughly pre-Star Wars and suggested a certain proper scale to space living and fighting. How did the Star Frontiers ships compare for flavour?

    Sorry to lazyweb bleg on your turf, but does anyone know of a really good, fun, simple set of rules for sea ship combat - age of sail or age of artillery? I'm planning to work on a ruleset in about a year, so I'd love to gather research material right now.

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  4. Nice retrospective James, I've not had a chance to play KH before. On a side note, I wonder how this compares to the WEG Star Wars fighter combat or the newer War Rocket game?

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  6. Definitely big thumbs up on Doug Niles' Knight Hawks. I can still remember the excitement of opening page 1 and immediately having a light bulb go off.

    Was so successful it was even referenced in the Marvel Super Heroes rules as the thing to use if you had deep-space action going.

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  7. Thinking I should pick up a copy myself.

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  8. Okay, so you have me wanting to take a second look at this.

    I must say, however, that I found these rules a bit off-putting at first, what with the kuh-RAY-zee requirements for taking a starship piloting skill. Kinda hard to sit down and start playing Han Solo right away unless you nail that rule down some, no?

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  9. While I enjoy Knight Hawks as a stand-alone board game of space battles, we very seldom ever used it with Star Frontiers. I prefer my sci-fi games to be boots-on-the-ground explorations of alien worlds. I thus confess that the original Star Frontiers boxed set feels complete to me.

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  10. I really hate reading this blog sometimes because I end up buying crap I totally forgot about...

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  11. How did the Star Frontiers ships compare for flavour?

    As a game, SF was all over the map in terms of its feel and starships are no different. The small ships tended to have a more "Star Wars-y" feel to them, but the big ships were of a classic sci-fi sort -- kilometers-long, with crews in the hundreds. Overall, I think SF was a more "cinematic" game than Traveller, but it wasn't wholly without connection to earlier, literary science fiction.

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  12. On a side note, I wonder how this compares to the WEG Star Wars fighter combat or the newer War Rocket game?

    I couldn't say, as I've played neither, but I have friends who speak very highly of Star Warriors (assuming that's the SW game you mean).

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  13. Richard: Star Frontiers has a more Heinlein/Foster feel than a Trek or Star Wars feel. The ships are built with the assumption that constant acceleration will supply gravity rather than magical inertial dampners and the like.

    That said, other than a handful of nods towards science, the focus is clearly more on swashbuckling fleet maneuver than calculating delta-v and projecting sling-shot orbits.

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  14. I must say, however, that I found these rules a bit off-putting at first, what with the kuh-RAY-zee requirements for taking a starship piloting skill. Kinda hard to sit down and start playing Han Solo right away unless you nail that rule down some, no?

    Piloting, as I recall, had skill prerequisites, as did all the starship-based skills, so it was impossible for starting characters to be able to pilot a ship or act as an engineer. I never had an issue with that myself. Is that what you mean?

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  15. "Sorry to lazyweb bleg on your turf, but does anyone know of a really good, fun, simple set of rules for sea ship combat - age of sail or age of artillery?"

    I've had fun with "Fire as She Bears" at a couple of cons.

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  16. Does Knight Hawks use vector movement for space flight, or did they toss that concept out in favor of simplicity? (Its been so long since I've looked at those rules.)

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  17. I LOVED Knight Hawks and still own my set. We ended up house ruling the requirements to get the space ship skills, lowering their minimum skill requirements to something we thought was a bit more reasonable. We had many a battle using these rules and did tie them in with our games, and it worked quite well.

    Star Frontiers still has a healthy following. I'm a fan of this site:
    http://www.starfrontiersman.com/

    You can even get .pdfs of the rule books, and their .pdf magazine is fun to read. And free.

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  18. Because Knight Hawks was sold as the "advanced" Star Frontiers game, the basic rules required any character to have maxed the related non-spaceship skill before they could get a spaceship skill. For example, you had to max your laser rifle skill before you could learn to fire a ship-based laser. Or you had to max your vehicle piloting skill before you could learn to pilot a space ship. I always just ignored that rule entirely when I played, saying that anybody could learn spaceship skills. I have no idea what game balance impact that had, but it worked for me just fine.

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  19. Battlestations is a lot of fun. There are campaign and advancement rules that work nicely, and it is a hybrid of war/rpg design, but I don't think I'd want to use it for a regular role playing game.

    The game balances individual actions and starship combat better than any I've ever played. All players, regardless of their job, are almost always engaged and making a difference. I highly recommend it.

    You have to love a game where an excellent way to board an enemy vessel is to climb into a missile and shoot yourself at the enemy's hull.

    Battlestations isn't really good for fleet actions. It's best with a handful of ships at most. There's a version that is made for fleet actions, but I haven't tried it out yet. I've watched it played at conventions and felt that the fleet game lost a lot of the charm that I love about the regular game.

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  20. My brother & I loved KH much more than basic SF. We played a lot of it for at least one summer, including the whole 2nd Sathar War campaign. There is a too-simplified version of vector movement in it, and the construction rules are suitably complete.

    Right now, I am contemplating introducing my son and his pals to a mash-up game: Star Frontiers setting and KH ships, but Traveller characters and rules. We've played a few ship-only fights as a warm-up.

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  21. I never had Knight Hawks as a kid, and we played a LOT of Star Frontiers. As an adult, I had the opportunity to read it (as a download), but as with SF itself, I found I'd grown beyond the game's shortcomings. Doesn't mean it might not deserve a 2nd re-read for pillaging purposes, though!

    I found both WEG ("D6") Star Wars and WotC "Saga Edition" Star Wars to be clever and cinematic in their method of handling ship-to-ship combat, and really appreciated the former's approach to scaling. Strangely, though MOST of the starship battles I "fought" as a kid WAS using the (1st edition) Traveller rules!
    ; )

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  22. I LOVED Knight Hawks, so thanks for bringing this up in a retrospective. A friend and I played a lot of spaceship battles when we couldn't get enough people together for an RPG session.

    I recently found my old Spelljammer boxed set. All that silliness aside, I recall it as having space combat rules to Knight Hawks. Am I just making that up?

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  23. Duglas said: "Does Knight Hawks use vector movement for space flight...?"

    I think your answer is "no". You track speed and heading, but always travel in whatever direction the ship is currently pointing at.

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  24. Star Frontiers was my very first RPG. We got a lot of mileage out of it! And we used KH some, though in general we preferred the more personal to the starship level of fight.

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  25. I killed many enjoyable hours with Star Frontiers in my youth. I remember it being way more accessible than Traveller, though Traveller was my first sci-fi game.

    For those of you who want PDF copies just to check Star Frontiers out there's this site:

    http://www.starfrontiersman.com/downloads/remastered

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  26. JIM -

    Yessir, that's what I meant. I wonder why you couldn't just start off being a pilot like Han Solo or Jason of Star Command or who-have-you.

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  27. I wonder why you couldn't just start off being a pilot like Han Solo or Jason of Star Command or who-have-you.

    Probably because, as others have said, KH was kind of an "advanced" set for SF, so the assumption was that only experienced PCs would take up crewing a starship. It might have even been a deliberate design choice to keep the game simple for neophyte players, with starship operation and combat off the table till everyone had a good handle on the core game, I don't know.

    As I said, it never bugged me, but it's easily remedied by simply dropping the prerequisites if you want to let lowbies become space pilots.

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  28. We were arrogant little Traveller playing pr@#ks that mocked the hell out of the "morons" that played SF. For us, it was like choosing Battlestar Galactica over Star Wars. Like I said, we were pr@#ks.

    Don't feel bad about it; you weren't the only gamers back then who looked askance at "lesser" RPGs. Not that I know from experience or anything ... :)

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  29. All that silliness aside, I recall it as having space combat rules to Knight Hawks. Am I just making that up?

    I couldn't say. I no longer have access to any Spelljammer materials and I don't recall ever hearing this, but that doesn't mean it's not true.

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  30. I found both WEG ("D6") Star Wars and WotC "Saga Edition" Star Wars to be clever and cinematic in their method of handling ship-to-ship combat, and really appreciated the former's approach to scaling.

    The WEG game was great, no question, but I wasn't too impressed with WotC's Saga Edition, though, to be fair, I only ever read it and never played it. I played a lot of WEG SW RPG once upon a time and had a blast with it. It's a classic.

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  31. Does Knight Hawks use vector movement for space flight, or did they toss that concept out in favor of simplicity? (Its been so long since I've looked at those rules.)

    Movement is simple and in two dimensions to boot -- which strikes me as just about right for a game of this sort.

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