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 ...