Uniquifying the Factions, Part 1

(First off: “uniquifying” is a real word! It doesn’t quite fit how I’m using it here, perhaps – more strictly, it’s about removing duplicates – but it’s close enough.)

With that important note out of the way: some factions in the game have a stronger identity than others. If you’ve played the game at least a bit, you have a pretty fair idea of what to expect of a Hegemony fleet, for example – large chunks of metal with a lot of firepower. In contrast, something like the Luddic Church is more muzzy. It’s got the same kinds of ships as the Hegemony, more or less, but they also tend to mount converted hangars with Perdition-class bomber wings, and some numbers – officer quality, ship quality, the exact mix of ship types – are adjusted. The two factions are different, but it’s not the kind of different that easily sticks in your mind – without checking, I couldn’t tell you exactly how those numbers differ, for example.

So, some factions are more unique than others; this isn’t necessarily a problem – in fact, it’ll be the case no matter what, to some degree – but it would still be very nice if each faction was memorable.

The reason for the current situation is that ships are generally divided into three “tech levels” (low tech, midline, and high tech), none strictly better than the others, and each with their own look and overall tactical approach. The intent is to have the factions use a mix of these – ships from different tech levels can support each other well, and each tech level doesn’t necessarily include the full breadth of ship types. On the flipside, it makes sense for certain factions to – not too rigidly – constrain themselves to a specific tech level or type of ship, for doctrinal reasons. These are the factions that currently have the strongest identity.

Thus, tech levels are demonstrably a good way to accomplish this, a good tool in our arsenal – but it can’t be the only one – there are many more factions than there are tech levels!

I’m mostly talking about faction identity as expressed by their fleets, by the way – what they look like at a glance in the campaign, and what they feel like to to fight against. There is another aspect here – what it feels like to visit a given faction’s space, and whether there’s a reason for you to want to do that – and I’ll touch on that a bit later, too.

So, what we’re looking for is ways to make fighting a faction (or fighting alongside them!) more memorable. One key way to do that is adding new capital ships – even if a faction has a less distinct mix of smaller ships, the capital ship(s) will be easy to remember and will personify the faction.

Another option is giving a faction access to a unique set of weapons – even if you’re fighting the same ships, if what they’re firing at you has a particular feel to it, that’s likely something that you’ll remember, too. We’re going to use all three approaches – tech levels, new capital ships, and weapons – to make all of the factions more memorable.

(And since weapons are part of this picture, we can also making certain factions’ worlds a reliable place to get specific weapons. This makes improvements on two separate fronts a once – if you know that Hegemony space is where you can get elite ballistic weapons, then you both 1) want to go there when you need those, which contributes to faction identity, and 2) actually have a reliable place to get these, without having to tour the whole Sector, hoping for the RNG to come up your way.)

The Hegemony

“The Hegemony is a martial successor state to the Domain formed by a “lost legion” trapped in a backwater system by the collapse of the Domain gate network. Built upon a creative interpretation of protocols which indefinitely extends Domain-style martial law, the founders of the Hegemony believed that the overriding cause of restoring the Domain and therefore stability, peace, and prosperity to the Sector and indeed the entire galaxy must come before certain niceties of human rights.”

The Hegemony is a good example of a faction that was in good shape to start with, as far as having an identity goes – a focus on low-tech ships, some special ship skins with its colors, an exclusive battleship (the Onslaught). We can still make some improvements, though. In particular:

  • Exclusive (at least among the major factions) access to the Legion-class battlecarrier, in addition to the Onslaught
  • A focus on elite ballistic weapons – needlers, railguns, gauss cannons, and so on
  • Customized ship loadouts built to take better advantage of the available hardware
  • Some standardization of officer skills – namely, all Hegemony officers get Ballistic Mastery and Ordnance Expertise as their first two skills

There’s also a bit of a wrinkle here where the Hegemony’s frigate-sized ships are more rag-tag, including some militarized auxiliaries (and the Condor-class converted carrier), but for the larger ship classes, everything is more streamlined.

Fighting a Hegemony fleet – especially a larger one – feels more distinct, in particular due to the better weapons and the range bonus from the Ballistic Mastery skill, which lets the ships support each other more easily. It’s a little like taking on a coordinated phalanx, with individual members dropping back for a breather as needed, and the overall high quality of the weapons Hegemony ships contributes to how it feels to fight against them.

Luddic Church (of Galactic Redemption, and so on)

“Inspired by the martyrdom of a figure known as ‘Ludd’ during the fall of the Domain, the Church of Galactic Redemption is a hierarchical church with highly syncretic dogma formed from a core of Abrahamic texts and apocrypha along with Domain-era reaction against perceived corruption, depravity, hedonism, and transhuman abomination. The Church offers a vision of life lived more simply, of agrarian virtue and humanistic values and prayer against the violence and technological alienation that’s torn the Sector apart in the years since the Fall.”

As before, and like the Hegemony, the Church is going to be using mostly low-tech ships – but a number of things will be different to make sure it stands out.

First of all, the weapons the Church has access to are low-grade (but also cheap in terms of ordnance points, not necessarily just “worse”). So the best they have access to are things like the Arbalest Autocannon, the Hellbore, the Mark IX – in contrast with the also-mostly-low-tech Hegemony, which has access to elite ballistics. The Church also places a heavy emphasis on the improvised Hammer-class torpedo – both on its ships, and through its use of the Perdition Torpedo Bombers, which it still often mounts in Converted Hangars on non-carrier vessels. And, they get a large version of the budget Pilum LRM – the “Pilum Catapult” – a large missile slot option that’s in keeping with the low-grade weapon theme.

In addition, the set of ships the Church uses is – while still being low-tech – is largely different from the Hegemony. This is most pronounced on the high end, with it getting two new capital ships.

Invictus-class Dreadnought
We already have a low-tech battleship – the Onslaught – so this has to be substantially different. And, although ostensibly the Church has access to this ship just because it’s somehow managed to secure access to its blueprint (tithed by an idiosyncratic antique collector, perhaps?), thematically we’d like for it to be a good fit, keeping in mind their relatively anti-technological stance.

So: it’ll be low-tech’s low tech, a design old enough to be considered antiquated, with features that hint at the beginnings of what’s considered standard in the more “modern” ships, and weaknesses that explain why the design is now antiquated. The design is inspired by real-world dreadnoughts – it’s fun to operate within design constraints like “all large guns”, and there’s a nice parallel here with those also becoming obsolete in real life.

Where to start, with this one! I think it’ll be easiest to just walk through the process, instead of just going to where it ended up, since the design came together along the way rather than being clear from the beginning.

Core Design
So: the starting point was, “what if a really large battleship with no shields and all large ballistic mounts?” A ship like that is going to have trouble trading fire and will get its weapons disabled, though, so – it needs a built-in hullmod to make the weapons more resilient; “Distributed Fire Control”.

Unless this ship has a mobility system (which the Onslaught already has, so I wanted to stay away from that), it needs to have very long weapon range – it’s slow and it has no shields, so it’d be a sitting duck to anything that outranges it. Just giving high base bonuses to weapon range, though… I suppose it could work! There are potential problems with it being able to, say, kite stations (or slower battleships), but mainly I wanted the ship to feel outdated, and “its targeting systems are so good they’re better than the more modern stuff” doesn’t fit.

I also wanted to have a nod to the fire control/rangefinding capabilities real-life dreadnoughts generally had, which inspired the ship system, “Lidar Array”, and that’s where the Invictus would get its range bonuses.

I knew I wanted a specific visual for when the Lidar Array is active – using a bunch of targeting lasers that blink on and off before the ship unleashes a torrent of fire.

That just sounds cool, right? But the details get really thorny here. Where do the beams come from? What are they aimed at? If the beams come from existing weapons, and those weapons are turning – long range beams that sweep around too quickly look… not great. And it’s also not a coherent indicator of just where the dreadnought is about to make a really, really, really bad idea to be. And if you fire the beams at a “target” then the dreadnought could just decide to fire elsewhere. You can’t have the range bonus just be vs a specific target, either; there’s no concept of that in-game – either a weapon has longer range, no matter at what it aims, or it doesn’t.

This was a problem for turreted weapons, but hardpoints don’t have the same problem – they’ll stay pointed in the same direction as the ship, so we can have the targeting lasers be a clear visual signal that there’s a lot of fire coming in that direction – and only in that direction – soon. So: the dreadnought gets a “main battery” of four large hardpoints… and that only seems appropriate, really.

What to do about the turrets, though? One possibility would be to not boost their range. I prefer shutting them down entirely while the system is active, though (wouldn’t do to have the vibrations from their fire throwing off the targeting calculations, etc), because it makes the system feel less refined. Yes, the ship can fire at a very long range sometimes – but it’s a rough-around-the-edges technology, and that has a cost.

The actual bonuses of Lidar Array are:

  • +100% weapon range when active
  • +200% rate of fire (so, triple), and reduced recoil (in-fiction, it’s not the lidar array providing these bonuses, but rather the ship being set up to periodically boost the performance of its main battery, to take best advantage of the attack window offered by the array)
  • +50% projectile speed
  • +25% weapon range when passive

In addition, the ship can’t install the standard Dedicated Targeting Core or Integrated Targeting Unit (both hullmods that provide a passive weapon range boost, and are used by most ships) – they’re incompatible with its built-in Distributed Fire Control – so the Lidar Array range bonus is all it gets.

One nice effect of this is that while the system is active, the ship is really dangerous – but its enemies also get a breather while the system is on cooldown, so e.g. you couldn’t just wear down a heavily shielded battleship while keeping out of its range – its shields would have a chance to recover in between your barrages.

Just for fun, the targeting lasers are fired from a bunch of lidar dishes that spin around while the system is passive but rotate to point forward when it’s activated. Incidentally, the targeting lasers deal damage! “Light them up so hard it’ll peel the paint on their hull” is more than an expression around here.

That takes care of the core concept, but the design wasn’t quite done. The lidar array was interesting, but the ship felt one-dimensional both to pilot and to design a loadout for – just, put on the main guns of your choice, and… that’s about it, really.

To spice things up, I added a pair of side-facing large missile slots. (Maybe taking a few liberties with the all-big-guns concept, but at least these are still large slots.) That felt a lot better – just having to decide which missiles to equip in support of the main battery, and when to fire them, makes it a lot more engaging.

Taking it one step further, though – Converted Hangar would be fun here, but a single wing of fighters just wouldn’t be meaningful for a ship this powerful. Thus: the ship also gets a “Vast Hangar” built-in hullmod. A dreadnought surely needs one, after all, for all the small craft required to support its logistics profile. The in-game effect of the hullmod is to make Converted Hangar provide two fighter bays instead of one, and to also eliminate all of the fighter penalties it normally gives, including increasing their cost.

With this, there are some interesting choices when it comes to outfitting the ship. Do you go for top-tier guns, and the flux stats to fire them? What tier of missiles, if any, do you want? How about a pair of bomber wings?

We have lots of good options competing for the same ordnance points – but with so many large ballistic slots (10 if them, in fact), the ship needs so many ordnance points that neither the missiles nor the fighters are all *that* expensive in comparison. To make the choice more pronounced, the ship gets another built-in hullmod, one already present on other ships – Heavy Ballistic Integration. It reduces the ordnance point cost of large ballistic weapons, allowing us to reduce the total OP the ship has, and making the choice of what to go for much more of a tradeoff.

The defenses of the Invictus also needed some special treatment, though it  wasn’t quite as involved.

Giving it Canister Flak as a right-click system – instead of shields – was an easy decision. It gives it just that much more survivability against torpedoes and such, and makes putting something other than point-defense weapons into its turrets a little more viable.

It’d be tempting to just give it an absurd amount of armor. That’s just so thematic for a dreadnought, right? … and that’s just what I did – a whopping 10,000 points of it. For comparison, the most heavily armored ship in the game up to this point had less than 2,000.

However! Fighting a ship with that much armor is a slog, because so few weapons have the per-shot damage to do more than the minimum. Thus: the ship gets an Ablative Armor hullmod, which reduces its armor strength by 90%, just for the purposes of the armor-damage-reduction calculation. This means that a wide array of weapons are able to deal reasonable damage to it, but the armor still provides a respectable amount of directional protection.

What makes the Invictus antiquated, oddly enough, is much the same thing that did it to real-life dreadnoughts – for all the flak it can bring to bear, it’s still vulnerable to fighters and especially to bombs and torpedoes. Its logistics profile is also impressive – it requires a minimum 4000 crew, and when that’s coupled with how vulnerable it can be…

Still, it’s something that makes sense for the Church to field – with relatively relaxed training standards, they have easier access to sufficient personnel than something like the Hegemony would, and the ship is a highly capable fleet anchor and a lot of its weaknesses can be mitigated with the right support around it.

AI Considerations
Because of the lidar array being so central to how it works, the ship plays differently enough that a few AI tweaks were required to help it along.

The ship system AI is separate from the main ship control AI and largely operates independently from it, communicating with it through a system of “flags” when need be. This is very useful – it lets us have separate AI modules for each ship-system, instead of having to somehow integrate them directly into the main AI (which would be messy, before you even consider that mods can add new ship systems and write custom AI for them – which makes it outright unworkable). A loose connection between these AI modules (via the “flags”) seems like the best approach.

However, it also means that the different modules might make conflicting decisions sometimes. For example, the lidar array AI might decide to activate it, while the “main” AI decides that it’s a good time to turn the ship away its current target and attack a different ship. Since there’s such a clear visual signal when the array is activated, having the ship just swing away looks wrong.

The solution was to add a flag that forces the ship to (mostly) stick with its current target while the system is active. This might not work well for a smaller ship – restricting the main AI’s ability to maneuver could lead to trouble – but the Invictus is slow enough that this isn’t really a problem, and when you’re watching it in action, it feels “right” for it to stay on target – it makes sense that it’s something it’d do, even if maybe tactically it might’ve been slightly better to disengage a little earlier.

The other problem is the AI being initially unaware of the range-boosting nature of the system. That being the case, it would try to close into its unboosted weapon range and get into more trouble than it needed to. The solution here was another flag, this one telling the main AI to treat the ship as having longer weapon range.  Basically, it’s not even going to try to slug it out at close range – it’s slow enough that it likely couldn’t get there, and most of its firepower comes when lidar array is turned on, anyway.

It’s worth nothing that adding flags like this is not a good general-purpose solution for a lot of cases! As you can probably tell from the above, they are very binary and without a lot of nuance in their application. “Stick to the target” and “always assume the range is X units higher” – not the most tactically flexible sets of instructions, and in many cases, it could lead to worse ship performance. In the case of the Invictus, however, everything lines up to make these work out.

Retribution-class Battlecruiser
With the Invictus, the Church now has a battleship. I suppose we could leave it there – along with the other changes, it’d be more than enough to make it feel unique. But battlecruisers are so much fun – they make for excellent player flagships, as ships that combine good firepower and good mobility (and poor defenses) tend to – and we don’t have a low-tech one. An opportunity!

(A “battlecruiser” is basically a battleship with stripped down defenses. It keeps as much of a battleship’s firepower as possible, while trading off its defenses for increased mobility. It can’t slug it out with a proper battleship, but what it can do is much more easily bring that firepower to bear where it makes the most impact.)

One reason that there isn’t already a low-tech battlecruiser is that it’s not immediately obvious how to design one. The “feel” of a lot of low-tech ships is “relatively slow, and heavily armored” – and if we take that as the defining feature of the tech level, then how do we make a battlecruiser with those qualities? We really just don’t.

Stepping back, though, I think we can look at it in another (and more correct!) way – and that is, how would the designers of the low tech ships, given what they had to work with, come up with a design that fit the mission profile of a battlecruiser? Low-tech ships clearly can be fast – just look at the Hound. And an engine that can move something the size of the Invictus could surely make something less massive move at a reasonable pace.

The overall design process wasn’t as tricky as it was for the Invictus, so I’ll just jump straight to how the ship turned out.

First off, lots of firepower! Mostly ballistic, with some missile support. That’s a given. Second, pretty fast just on its own, and with a mobility ship system (also almost a given for a battlecruiser; more on the actual system in a bit).

Defenses-wise, light armor – it’s basically just a bunch of guns and engines strapped together, none of that bulky plating to slow it down! And a very shield – inefficient, with a very narrow arc. Still better than nothing, though, and at least it’s omni-directional.

I wanted the ship to be cheap to deploy and operate, so it needs to have some kind of downside – otherwise, it can use its mobility to too-easily negate its defensive deficiencies – and I also wanted it to keep its firepower.

Thus: it has the same “Distributed Fire Control” built-in hullmod as the Invictus. This serves two purposes: it keeps the range of its weapons relatively short, so it has to close in to do its work, and it also increases its effective firepower – despite the ship’s light defenses, its weapons are hard to knock offline. You could imagine isolated weapon citadels, operating on local control and emergency power, while the ship gets beaten to scrap around them!

It serves another purpose, as well – it traces the ship’s lineage to the Invictus, and signals that it is also an old and perhaps antiquated design. Not as old – it does have shields after all, if poor ones – but even so.

Orion Device
(If you haven’t read about real-life Project Orion, I highly recommend it. I’ll wait. … super cool, right?)

I’ll just paste the in-game description of the ship system here, since it covers the basics nicely:

Deploys a shaped antimatter charge behind the ship. The explosion applies force to a massive push-plate, which absorbs the shock and spreads the resulting acceleration over a timeframe where it can be handled by the ship’s inertial compensators. The ship is briefly propelled forward at a rate very few more “advanced” technologies can hope to match.

There is an actual little bomb that comes out, and the push plate is animated, of course! And, just for fun, the explosion does a number on any enemy fighters unfortunate enough to be nearby. (Well, it’s not fun for them.)

Functionally, this is actually very similar to the high-tech “Plasma Burn” system – just a better version of it, really. (Although, the direction you go in is affected by your location relative to the bomb, and how the ship turns will influence the impulse it gets, but it’s not the biggest deal.)

Still, sometimes an idea is just so neat that it’s worth it to put in some unique visuals and mechanics, even if something similar could be accomplished much more easily. A low-tech version of plasma burn – but better! – would just feel a little weird, right? But blowing up a bomb behind the ship to get it moving? Now, that is the low-tech way.

Fighting the Luddic Church
With all these changes and additions, how does it actually feel to fight the Luddic Church? That’s what actually matters here, and that’s the point of the changes – so, I spent a fair amount of time playtesting this, for every faction.

For the Church, the best way I can describe it is “a ball of stuff anchored around an Invictus,  that launches Hammer torpedoes at you – both from Perditions and otherwise – with alarming frequency”. I think it works! It feels quite different from the Hegemony (which feels like you’re fighting against something “cleaner” and more organized). And the dreadnought (or two) is definitely a centerpiece that you work around and slowly isolate.

In part two, I’ll cover the other factions; the Persean League is probably the one getting the most changes, though the Diktat has a few things coming, too, and I’ll touch on some changes to the other factions as well – stay tuned!

In case you’re not coming to the blog from twitter, by the way, here’s what Orion Device looks like when it’s activated:


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