Howdy folks! It's Rosalind.
It’s been a while since the last dev blog update, so I figured now is a good time to sit down and write a new one. Stardust v0.9b is well under development, without all too many major changes, but a wide range of minor alterations, language improvements, balance fixes, and so on. Mostly, though, v0.9b sees the introduction of many new voidcraft we needed to round things out, and we've filled out the numbers of two new factions: unaffiliated mercenaries, and the catch-all pirate faction.
Gameplay and Rules Adjustments
Without boring too much about the specifics of the fairly insignificant wording adjustments, I would like to take this time to state that in a tabletop game, where the written rules are literally the framework the entire game operates within, any crack in that foundation can destabilize the entire experience. An oversight wherein an unwanted player behavior is permitted—or when wording unintentionally enforces a game state that is unenjoyable—can create a wedge whereby one or more players feel cheated by the game itself.
To expand on that thought, there is an age-old saying that goes something like, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” That’s fine and all when you’re the player, but when you are the developer of said game, the buck stops with you when it comes to making your game work well. So playtesting is the most crucial aspect of game development. As someone with an engineering background, I like to view playtesting as a sort of foundation inspection for a bridge or some other civil infrastructure. If there is a flaw within the foundation somewhere, it will require frequent preventative maintenance, or at worst, it can cause a collapse of the entire structure. Playtesting thoroughly inspects each aspect of the foundation of the game so that any problems can be sorted out before people start actually playing it. This way, I don’t have to put out an erratum within a month of the game's release, assuming that its many flaws don’t outright kill the potential of the game to be fun.
With all that said, for this dev blog, there’s little reason to delve into the specifics of each change, just to note that I take review and playtest of the wording of the game very seriously. One area that is worth going into more detail on is weapon balancing. Personally, I feel like the effects and the niche of each weapon type are fairly healthy at present, but weapon damage, crit bonuses, and the actual cost of the weapons themselves I felt could use improvement.
Part of how I evaluate weapon strength is charting each weapon type, and each size of each weapon type, on several key metrics: maximum range, average range modifier, equipment slots required, and point cost. I use these stats to chart each weapon by its damage divided by equipment slots, and damage divided by points. By organizing the final results and weighing them with consideration of the weapon’s effective range, special abilities, and so on, I can organize them in such a way where the stronger a weapon is without considering damage, the less damage/slot or damage/points the weapon should do.
For example, a Casaba Projector can only fire once every other turn. With this in mind, it should do roughly twice as much damage/slot as an equivalent weapon, like a Railgun, would do. A Railgun should do much less damage/slot than an Autocannon does, because a Railgun has twice as much range, and better odds to hit.
Playtesting results also inform the statistics of how these weapons actually perform in a game versus their raw stats on paper. After collecting a lot of playtesting data, I was forced to conclude that some weapons were stronger than expected, while others were weaker than expected. Sniper Lasers, for instance, simultaneously needed a slight damage buff at certain sizes, but were also wildly cheap for their effectiveness either way. Coilguns, Railguns, Plasma Cannons, and Lasers needed damage buffs to make them competitive, but most of them also needed small cost increases commensurately. In the end, almost every weapon had its cost adjusted. ECLG Guns were too cheap, so they experienced an enormous increase in cost.
I’d like Stardust to remain a brutal, fast-paced game, to both allow players to get quick games in when they can, but also to encourage players to feel like they can put a lot of ships on the board without feeling like they’ll be playing that one game all day long. Just recently, we did a playtest where 4 players, controlling 2 ships each, faced off against no less than 7 enemy ships controlled by the experimental Simulated Intelligence (SI) system, designed to allow for co-operative play. All players were brand new to the game, and I was controlling both my 2 ships, as well as the enemy SI units, guided by the system as written. We wrapped up the game in about 2 hours and change, with a break in the middle. I estimate that had all players been experienced, an 8v8 game could be wrapped up in about an hour and a half.
Part of preserving that speed of gameplay means making sure weapons are capable of high damage spikes, while providing statistical odds with armor saves to let lucky ships make a big impact later in battle. I would prefer to make each ship simply pay more for those weapons, rather than decrease weapon damage, unless it is at an unreasonable level. However, given the vast amount of ways to spend a fairly limited amount of equipment points, if a ship invests heavily into weapons, like the K-5A Crossbow we all know and love, then it should be rewarded with a high damage spike. It should just pay heavily elsewhere for that capability.
Right, so, I know what the people want: spaceships! Enough waffling. Let’s get to the stuff people care about. Pretty spaceships!
New Faction: Pirates
I felt like Pirates were an opportunity to really think outside the box. Unorthodox, underhanded thinking is how a criminal underground operates, so I tried my best to immerse myself in the thought process of an opportunistic denizen of The Bary. If the goal is to create combat-capable space-faring vessels that specifically needed to be fighter-sized to exploit the FTL physics of Hyperlanes, how would I approach that situation as a swashbuckling space pirate engineer?
Of course, Pirates would have their fair share of… let's say, borrowed military equipment, usually outdated fighters retrieved through a boneyard through a few greased palms, and returned to functional order. This could range from decommissioned fighters, shuttle craft, re-engineered VTOLs, and so on. However, for your green, prospective, bright-eyed criminal, this may not be an option, and so I explored some more jury-rigged options.
But first, let’s follow what I like to call the "Spectrum of Jank." Here we range from Hella Jank to High-Class Sophistijank. Starting at that highest end of sophistication, we have this:
This Sophistijank was conceived originally as a Sibylean racing craft, one of many that compete in the many racing circuits in and around the “Majestic Twelve” moons orbiting Dowager. This one has had relatively little modification from its original engineering purpose: only a pair of machine guns are bolted above the top air intake, and some careful mass rebalancing to compensate. A dangerously fast and maneuverable ship, it has almost no durability, no combat-capable sensors, no armor, and is extremely expensive. Less of a glass cannon, and more of a glass switchblade. It won’t cause very much damage, nor can it take it in return, but it is dangerously fast.
The design of the miniature itself was, of course, heavily inspired by the current Formula 1 regulations, which started last year in 2022. This is hardly the first time that Formula 1 car design has inspired a miniature design in Stardust, but it was never so literal before.
Moving on, we have a sort of middle of the road ship in the Spectrum of Jank, which is just a decommissioned Novani atmospheric VTOL craft. It has had its seams triple welded shut, its variable geometry thrust nozzles replaced with commercial drone RCS clusters, and a fusion thermal drive stuffed into the cargo bay. A pair of propellant tanks flank a pair of unguided rocket pods under the wings.
Designed as a VTOL intended for air-ground combat, it naturally cuts more of an intimidating figure, coming with a turreted autocannon beneath the nose, and the rocket pods on the wings means it is more than capable as a heavy gunship, provided that the welder who sealed it for voidflight didn’t slack off.
Finally, way down beyond the edge of your garden variety Jank, we have this:
This vessel, unlike the other two, only flies through space via a pure lack of self-preservation instinct and a large degree of moral flexibility. It is simply two shipping containers welded together, with propulsion provided by cargo drone RCS clusters dotting the corners of the rear container, and a fusion thermal drive and heavy reactor shielding stuffed inside the rear container. Two tanks have been rigged to the side, one for reaction mass and the other for propellant. Finally, the front container houses the pilot, life support systems, and what can only be loosely described as an avionics package. A civilian 360 degree camera set is mounted above the container doors, and a pair of machine guns rigged to the sides, each flanked by a quartet of unguided infantry anti-tank rocket launchers. Finally, what passes for landing gear has been haphazardly welded to the underside of the “ship”.
Obviously, this thing is a near-useless death trap that would hardly withstand more than a few rounds of small arms fire. However, provided its pilot is not blinded by ambition, and preys exclusively on smaller, unprotected civilian convoys, it may scrape together just enough coin to move onto bigger and better things.
After all, piracy starts when someone steals a small fishing boat. They use that fishing boat to steal another. They use those to steal a large fishing boat. They use those to steal 2 more. The next thing you know, you have a fleet over a dozen strong, enough to make a run on a corvette, and, if so, you’re now a genuine threat on the black seas with a proper warship.In the world of Stardust, maybe that all starts with a complete death trap of a fighter made from shipping containers.
Either way, I think it’s funny, so we’re including it in the game.
New Faction: Mercenaries
A core aspect of the lore of Stardust is that much of the conflict occurring in and around The Bary is carried out by mercenary organizations conducting deniable operations in service to a major Barystate. While each Barystate operates a distinct and powerful military with unique equipment that is restricted in sale outside of it, mercenary companies and privateers are the ones fighting most battles on the Frontier. Personally, I liken this relationship to be similar to how the United States and the USSR armed and trained their smaller allies for proxy war with near-peer adversaries. Rather than smaller European, South American, African, or Asian countries, PMCs, mercenary commands, and privateer interests take the place of such allies.
The US and USSR were not selling their top-of-the-line equipment to their smaller allies, preferring instead to sell downgraded export variants, or more intermediate weapons. Examples from the West include the F-5A and F-5E, F-104, the Mirage series of fighters, and so on, while the Warsaw Pact had export variants of the MiG-21 and 23, as well as the Su-22 variant of the Su-17. The major allies, on the other hand, could get the best equipment available, such as variants of the F-4, F-14, F-15, F-16, and F-18, and so on.
In The Bary, the situation is really no different. Smaller mercenary companies would only have decommissioned stock or light fighters designed specifically for export made available to them. This might even mean a mercenary group operating a wide range of vehicles, sometimes from multiple different Barystates. This may even be profitable for a mercenary group to purchase foreign hardware explicitly for providing adversary training to another Barystate’s military.
Meanwhile, high-profile mercenaries and privateers might find themselves in enough favor to purchase modern, frontline fighters right off the factory floor. This often comes with the explicit understanding that any information on that hardware is highly classified, and such an organization would be subject to strict intelligence audits, and having all the company’s liquid assets being under government control to prevent defection and intelligence leaks.
When building a mercenary list in Stardust, you’ll generally have two options. The first is to build an otherwise unaffiliated mercenary group. This limits access to the more powerful ships available to The Bary’s main factions, but allows the player to assemble a wider range of voidfighters. Intermediate-grade Geminese exports might be a slouch in a dogfight, but pairing them with fast and agile Novani or Sibylean exports can help shore up those shortcomings. The player will have free access to only the ships on each faction’s “export” list. Ships not on a major faction’s export list cannot be used.
Alternatively, you can build a mercenary group that is explicitly “aligned” with one major Barystate. This gives you access to the full list of voidfighters available to that faction, with one major exception: the only ships you may freely purchase are those on that faction’s export list. All other ships, including ships belonging to that faction which are not on their export list, are treated as having the Experimental ship quirk. That means your list cannot comprise over 25% of that type of ship. However, you may not use any ships that do not belong to your aligned faction, or are not on the export list for any other factions.
A key aspect of this scheme is that each faction not only needs a wide range of exclusive front-line voidcraft, but also a relatively wide range of ships on their export lists, as well. I’m still designing these minis, though I have a few to show off now.
The first to show off is the W-14A3 Hussar, a vacuum-only fighter hailing from the Feronian League.
A dense, well-armored vessel, it trades a general lack of maneuverability for battlefield endurance and an ability to maintain a zone of control at a sizable distance. Mounting an underslung Heavy ECLG Gun and a quartet of twin magazine-fed missile launchers, it can make a powerful punch at a distance, with the missiles providing a strong buffer at medium range. It is noticeably weak in close-range knife fights, however. This, combined with its general lack of sophisticated avionics, and the sizable and flimsy external radiators comprising its bare-bones cooling system, it is affordable in numbers. Groups of Hussars can make for a deadly adversary.
Moving on to the Novani Republic, we have the Kai-9–1 Griffin, a light interceptor with several drawbacks only made up for by one key capability.
The Griffin is the answer to the question: “What if airframe, but voidframe?” In order to cut costs as much as possible, it’s built on an existing airborne platform, barely modified for space. Anything not strictly necessary was omitted: internal thermal management, rudders, redundant maneuvering thrusters, etc., making it extremely ponderous to handle and prone to losing an axis of movement with a thruster failure. The wings of the fighter are re-engineered as radiators, with extensive cooling fences along their length. Naturally, this meant omitting wing tanks, and the deletion of leading edge flaps, necessitating wingtip fuel tanks and an aggressive leading edge root extension to aid in stability at high angles of attack. Roll and pitch in vacuum is aided by a series of small RCS thrusters built into the outboard ailerons which retain their actuation, which uses the heat exchangers in the wings to pre-heat the propellant and expel them through ports in the ailerons. The movement of the ailerons themselves (INNN SPAAAACE!) to direct the RCS thrust where it is needed.
Even the cockpit is a terrible design, being cramped and with poor visibility, the cost of implementing a bubble canopy even proving too much in the face of cost reduction. However, for all these downsides, most are made up for with its potent set of four Medium Railguns giving an extremely powerful punch at all ranges, and making it competitive against heavily armored foes.
Finally, we move to the far more sensible Sibylean Kingdom to show off the K-6A Stiletto.
The Stiletto is another voidbound ship incapable of atmospheric flight. In typical Sibylean fashion, even their most economical voidfighter designs offer more capability and sophistication than their peers; even more than some other Barystates’ frontline fighters.
Relatively fast, decently agile, well protected both physically and electronically, and certainly decently well armed, the Stiletto has few exploitable weak spots. The K-6A Stiletto borrowed some technologies from the K-5 program, and was used as a testbed to further develop some technologies that couldn’t make it to the K-5A Crossbow in time for deployment. For instance, it borrows the K-5s wingtip pods and mounted them away from the body to aid in roll rate, while providing a mounting point for the Stiletto’s three Light Laser turrets, augmented by its primary weapon, a nose-mounted Heavy Laser turret, giving it a potent point defense capability. These weapons are tied together with an automated fire control system capable of firing each weapon group independently of each other without input from the pilot when set into Self-Protect (SP) mode. With a set of Heavy Armor plates, weapons that require no ammunition, and a large quantity of propellant and reaction mass stored in those externalized tanks, the Stiletto has excellent battlefield endurance, at 25% less cost than a K-5A Crossbow.
Developed in the years following the initial deployment of the K-5A Crossbow, it came about as though excellent the Crossbow was, it simply was not economically viable to use it to arm the vast number of Royal Navy and house squadrons responsible for the defense of Sibyl. The Royal Navy needed a more cost-effective fighter that could fulfill much the same role, out in the further reaches of Sibylean space where the atmospheric flight capabilities of the Crossbow would not be appreciated.
The Royal Navy intended to use the Crossbow fleet as the backbone of the Navy fleets, with the Stiletto meant to fill in the gaps and arm the vast majority of the House fleets. As the K-5A replaced the K-3E Lancer II fleet, the Stiletto steadily replaced the Lancer II’s fleet of escort fighters, the K-4C Shortsword. Over time, hyperlanes began to be exploited, the Stiletto, as well as the Lancer IIs and Shortswords they replaced, made for frighteningly effective export voidfighters to aligned mercenary commands.
All of these fighters will, of course, be available to their faction’s own military. Furthermore, in addition to these dedicated fighters on a faction’s export list, many factions will also have their weaker fighters, as well as older, less capable variants of existing fighters placed on their faction’s export lists. Examples include the Hak-99 Dragon, and older variants of the Laz-417 Banshee from the Novani Republic, older variants of the G-34 Scorpion and S-19 Adder from the Feronian League, downgraded variants of the K-3E Lancer II and K-4C Shortsword from the Sibylean Kingdom, variants of the M-65 Lynx and M-67 Harpy from the Geminese Dominion, and a wide variety of ships from the Empyrean Commonwealth, as they provide many downgraded exports to the Feronian League.
Speaking of, some factions are getting brand-new, frontline fighters added to their rostrum. Starting with the Geminese Dominion, they’ll be receiving the M-72 Sparrow.
The Geminese were in desperate need for a dedicated strike craft, and they found one in an unexpected place. The Sparrow began as competition to the M-65 Lynx to fill the same interceptor contract, and failed to win the contract. The Lynx was less maneuverable in atmosphere, but in space it had the better of the Sparrow elsewhere, along with a superior armament of a Medium Coilgun and rack of missiles, to the Sparrow's pedestrian twin Light Railguns and secondary missiles. Additionally, its variable geometry canards in addition to the wings were found to be unnecessary and generally unreliable.
But when the Geminese needed a strike fighter, the Sparrow prototypes suddenly had a new lease on life. Lack of agility in space wasn’t considered a major detractor due to its strike mission, while its massive missile payload and light direct fire weaponry went from a pitfall to a strength. Even the variable geometry canards found a new purpose, as it aided in low-speed agility while in atmosphere without adding much high speed drag, something found to be advantageous for a strike fighter conducting close air support in multiple environments.
The Feronian League is also getting a new voidfighter, the S-19A3 Cavalier.
The Feronian League were also in need of a dedicated strike fighter, and the S-19A3 Cavalier will serve that role for them. Agile for a strike fighter and armed with a Light Rotary Autocannons for self defense, the Cavalier’s large internal missile bay can either house 8 conventional missiles—allowing it to serve as an interceptor in a pinch—or up to 4 anti-ship torpedoes for the pure strike mission.
How to Ship
I get asked a lot what my process is for designing these voidcraft. I don’t really have a formal design process. Early on, back before Sublight Games even existed and the game was called Prograde Burn, I would spend a lot of time drawing concept art in Inkscape, using vector graphics to build top-down schematics. Later on, once I had taught myself how to use Blender, I would try and recreate those designs from the concept art schematics I had drawn. Some worked, and in fact quite a few of those original concept designs and the miniatures built off of them still remain in the game. Examples include the K-4C Shortsword, the S-12 Adder, G-34 Scorpion, M-67 Harpy, ErDa-116 Tempest, Dav-17 Sphinx, and S-20B Strike Basilisk.
However, I frequently encountered problems where a top-down 2D drawing simply couldn’t be made to work in a 3D environment, or the concept designs just weren’t all that great. For every ship design of that era whose first draft made it through every iteration and update of the game, there were two or more that needed to be reworked, or simply just abandoned for low quality. Eventually, when I taught myself how to use Fusion 360, that became my program of choice for miniature design, and I adopted a more improvisational approach to miniature design.
I will still occasionally sketch things down if I need to hammer out an idea before I start working in Fusion 360, but for the most part, a miniature comes into existence when I have a little flash of insight that I think would look good. Sometimes it's as simple as an air intake design I'd like to try, or a wing shape, or some other specific detail I want to make and integrate. I brainstorm for a little bit just to tick off the basics of ship design; like what should the fuselage generally look like, cockpit design and location, engines, wings, weapons, etc. Very little of this is actually sketched down on paper anywhere.
Then I start blocking out the general shape of the fighter. I get the core details in place and once I’m happy with the basic shape and structure, I start adding details: sensor blisters, wing fences and control surfaces, auxiliary air intakes and cooling louvers, panel lines, armor plate, cockpit framing, and so on. Even the basic shape of the ship I might decide to change on the fly just because I have a hunch that something will look cool. Design is iterative. Almost all of the specific details are things that just happen organically while I work.
I would not recommend this approach for almost anyone, but I'm an engineer. I personally just haven’t had much success with a traditional concept art process and a sort of gradual evolution of development. That takes a really, really long amount of time to do, and honestly, I just work better in a 3D CAD environment anyways. Whenever you make something new, you always want to be comfortable with your environment first.
We're working hard behind the scenes on the rulebook and all the ancillary tabletop items you'll want to play Stardust at the table in its ideal state: tokens, cards, etc. Faith has been working on the graphic design for these, as well as putting our crowdfunding pitch together. Sometime in 2024 you'll see the benefits of our labor, and you'll be able to pre-order our Frontier Edition box set through Kickstarter. We're excited about this reveal and there will be more info to come.